The play begins with Orlando complaining to Adam that his brother, Oliver, has unjustly withheld his inheritance from him. Oliver enters, and Orlando expresses his discontentment. Before telling Orlando to leave, Oliver hastily assures Orlando that he will receive some of his will. With Orlando gone, Oliver receives Charles, the duke’s wrestler, who informs him that the new duke, Duke Frederick, has banished his older brother, Duke Senior. He reports furthermore that Rosalind, the banished duke’s daughter, has remained in court with Celia, and that the old duke has retreated to the Forest of Arden. The wrestler also tells Oliver that he is scheduled for a match with Orlando the next day; he advises Oliver to stop Orlando from fighting in order to protect his life. Oliver deceitfully tells Charles that he has already tried to dissuade Orlando and that Orlando is, in any case, a “villainous contriver,” leaving Charles determined to win the match the following day. Oliver remains alone and articulates, in a passionate soliloquy, his irrational hatred for his brother.
Celia tries to console Rosalind about the banishment of her father, and to convince her to think of her father, Duke Frederick, as Rosalind’s own. They are interrupted by Touchstone, the court fool. Monsieur Le Beau enters and informs Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone that there will soon be a wrestling match, between a young man and an undefeated wrestler who has recently won matches against a set of three brothers. Rosalind and Celia beg the young opponent, Orlando, to withdraw from the fight, but to no avail. Orlando wins, to the astonishment of all spectators.
Celia and Rosalind are discussing Rosalind’s newfound adoration for Orlando when Duke Frederick interrupts and orders Rosalind to leave the court, at threat of death. Upon Frederick’s exit, Celia promises that she will leave with Rosalind; they plot to go, with Touchstone and in disguise, Rosalind dressed as a man and Celia as a shepherdess, to find Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden.
Meanwhile in the forest, Duke Senior is optimistically relishing in his natural surroundings, and planning to hunt some venison. Back at the court, Duke Frederick discovers that Celia has gone missing with Rosalind, and orders his lords to go retrieve Oliver, who might know where Orlando (who’s suspected to be with the girls) is. At Orlando’s own residence, Adam warns Orlando that Oliver is inside and intends to burn down the house; he convinces Orlando to seek exile, and offers him his own money and company.
On their way into the forest, Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone meet Silvius and Corin, a young man and an old man engaged in a dispute about love. When Rosalind and Celia discover that Corin has no food to give them, they decide, on a whim, to buy the cottage, pasture, and flock that he mentions are for sale.
Jaques returns after a long absence to Duke Senior and describes a fool he met in the forest. Orlando rudely interrupts their conversation and, requiring food and thinking that he must act savagely in the savage forest, demands that they give it to him. He is met with a warm invitation by Duke Senior to join their meal, and briefly departs to retrieve Adam, who is weak and hungry, so that he, too, may join.
At the court, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to bring Orlando to court within the year. In the forest, Orlando begins posting love poems to Rosalind on trees. Privately, Celia reveals to Rosalind that she knows Orlando to be the infatuated poet. Soon after, Orlando enters and Rosalind (in disguise as a man named Ganymede) mentions the tree poems to him. When he admits to being their author, she offers to cure him of his love: she will pretend to be Rosalind and act as a despicable version of her.
Touchstone and Audrey, Touchstone’s fiancée, are conversing about Audrey’s non-poetical nature when Sir Oliver Martext arrives to perform their wedding service. At Jaques’s suggestion, however, Touchstone decides to have a proper marriage in a church, and so dismisses Martext.
Corin invites Rosalind and Celia to come witness an exchange between Silvius and his lover, Phebe, in which Silvius pleads with Phebe not to scorn him and calls her cold. When Rosalind, dressed as Ganymede, intervenes and attacks Phebe with a slew of insults, Phebe falls immediately in love with “him.”
Orlando comes late to meet Rosalind (as Ganymede), and she scolds him for his tardiness. After Rosalind (as Ganymede) gives Orlando a lesson in love, he departs. Soon after, Silvius arrives with a love letter that Phebe has written for Ganymede. Oliver enters shortly after and gives Rosalind a bloody napkin, sent to her from Orlando, who recently fought off a lioness in order to save Oliver’s life. Rosalind faints.
Oliver reveals to Orlando that he has fallen in love at first sight with Celia (who he thinks is the shepherdess, as that is her disguise). Rosalind enters and tells Orlando that she is skilled in the art of magic and can promise him that, if he truly loves Rosalind, he will be married to her the next day. She articulates all of the unions that will happen the next day: Orlando, Silvius, and herself will all be married; Orlando will marry Rosalind, Ganymede will marry Phebe if he ever marries a woman, and if he doesn't then Phebe will marry Silvius.
The next day, Touchstone recounts to Duke Senior a humorous report of a quarrel he has just had with a courtier. Then Hymen, the god of marriage, enters singing, and escorts Rosalind to Orlando and her father. Rosalind's disguise as Ganymede is revealed, and she marries Orlando, while Phebe agrees to marry Silvius. Just then, Jaques de Boys (Orlando and Oliver's third brother) enters to inform everyone that Duke Frederick, while on his way to attack Duke Senior in the forest, came across a religious man and was converted to a life of peace. Duke Frederick has also decided to return his crown to his banished brother and restore all of his lands. Duke Senior welcomes Jaques de Boys, and praises the fortune of the occasion; he suggests that they continue on in their revelry and marriages. Jaques, meanwhile, announces that he will go join Duke Frederick in his new monastic lifestyle.
The play finishes with an epilogue, spoken uncharacteristically by a woman, in which Rosalind expresses her aim to “conjure” the audience.