The play opens with Orlando lamenting his sorry fate to Adam, his servant: Orlando’s father, upon his death, granted most of his estate to his other son, Oliver, and instructed him to raise his brothers, Orlando and Jaques, well. While treating Jaques fairly, however, Oliver has routinely denied Orlando all of the money, education, and basic respect that he deserves. Orlando concludes his lament by declaring that he will no longer tolerate Oliver’s tyranny, though at the same time acknowledging the impossibility of resisting it.
This scene sets the stage for the rest of the play. It introduces the acrimonious sibling relationship between Orlando and Oliver, and establishes Oliver as the crueler and more powerful of the two, and Orlando as the victim of his brother’s cruelty. Note also how Orlando has not been allowed an education—meaning that while he is from the court, he has something natural about him in contrast to Oliver’s more sophisticated scheming.
Oliver approaches and Adam slips away to observe the brothers’ exchange. Oliver orders Orlando to quit his idleness and Orlando replies by complaining of his forced poverty. He proceeds to argue that, although Oliver’s age renders him legally superior, Orlando is still their father’s son and should be treated more like an equal. Oliver strikes him and calls him a villain.
Orlando expresses the same discontent that he expressed to Adam, but here to the very source of his woes. The verbal combat between Orlando and Oliver further illustrates the antagonistic nature of their relationship.
Orlando expresses offense at the mere possibility that their father, Sir Rowland de Boys, could be said to have had villains for sons. He swears that he would kill Oliver if they weren’t brothers. Adam tries to intervene but Orlando continues to demand that Oliver grant Orlando either the bearings of a civil existence or the money that was left for him in his father’s will. Oliver orders that Orlando leave, hastily promising to Orlando that he “shall have some part of” his will. Orlando exits.
Orlando becomes more forceful in his dealings with Oliver, and Oliver appears to concede to his demands. Given what we know about his cruel history, however, it’s hard to believe that Oliver means what he says. Again, Oliver’s likely lack of honesty makes him more of a figure, or product, of the political court.
Oliver orders his servant Dennis to call in Charles, the duke’s wrestler, who has been waiting to see him. Charles informs Oliver that Duke Frederick has usurped and banished his older brother, Duke Senior, whom several lords have since willingly joined in exile. He adds that Rosalind, the banished duke’s daughter, has remained in court with her beloved cousin Celia (Duke Frederick's daughter), and that the old duke has retreated to the Forest of Arden, where he and his men live like Robin Hood.
In his update on the state of the world, Charles introduces a new set of settings (the court and the Forest of Arden) and relationships into the action of the play. The tense relationship between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior mirrors that of Oliver and Orlando, while the loving relationship between Rosalind and Celia provides a contrast with the competitive brothers.
Charles informs Oliver that he is scheduled to wrestle the next day with Orlando, who plans to fight in disguise. Because he must win every match in order to preserve his reputation, Charles advises Oliver to prevent Orlando from fighting if he cares for his brother’s well being.
Charles assumes that Oliver cares for Orlando as a normal, loving brother would. His assumption highlights how unusual Oliver’s fraternal antipathy is.
Oliver feigns gratitude and falsely claims that he has already tried to dissuade Orlando from fighting. He goes on to describe his brother as “the stubbornest young fellow of France” and “a secret and villainous contriver.” Charles leaves newly resolved to beat Orlando and, if he does not win, to never wrestle for money again.
Oliver’s lies to Charles reveal the extent of his cruelty and his desire to do great harm to Orlando. The play here sets up a lot of anticipation around the wrestling, as Charles is so confident of his victory over Orlando.
The scene ends with Oliver acknowledging in a soliloquy his irrationally extreme hatred for his brother: “my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he.”
Here Oliver addresses a question that has been lurking and remains unanswered throughout the play: Why does Oliver hate Orlando so much? Oliver reveals that even he doesn’t know the answer, that his hatred is irrational, that he simply hates his brother because he does.