A schoolmaster named Holofernes, a curate named Nathaniel, and Dull discuss the princess’ recent hunt. Nathaniel and Holofernes intersperse Latin phrases in their conversation. Nathaniel says that the deer the princess killed was a buck, and Holofernes says, “haud credo,” Latin for “I don’t believe so.” Dull misunderstands and says that the deer wasn’t a haud credo, but rather a pricket (a kind of buck).
Nathaniel and Holofernes exemplify traditional, scholarly learning. Their language is very different from that of the lowly constable Dull, who comically misunderstands their Latin.
Holofernes tries to explain that haud credo is not a kind of deer, but continues to use Latin phrases, confusing Dull. Nathaniel says that Dull has not been educated, comparing learning to eating and consuming knowledge. He says that Dull’s “intellect is not replenished.”
Holofernes, however, is also a ridiculous character, unable to communicate simply. His attempts to clarify his Latin with more Latin only confuse Dull more. Nathaniel pokes fun at the dim-witted (and aptly named) Dull.
Dull tests the intelligence of his two companions, asking them a riddle: “What was a month old at Cain’s birth that’s not five weeks old as yet?” The answer is the moon, and Holofernes gives the answer “Dictynna,” an obscure name for the Roman goddess of the moon. Dull continues to misunderstand the Latinate, learned speech of Holofernes and Nathaniel.
Dull tries to match wits with Nathaniel and Holofernes by way of a riddle, but Holofernes knows the answer (which he gives by way of an obscure mythological reference).Dull continues to misunderstand the other two characters’ educated, Latinate speech.
Holofernes shares with Nathaniel a short poem he composed about the princess’ hunt. Nathaniel compliments it, and Holofernes says that his wit and way with words is “a gift that I have.” Nathaniel praises Holofernes again, saying he is glad everyone’s children are tutored by him.
Nathaniel and Holofernes are very self-satisfied about their wit and intelligence. However, their traditional learning is only one kind of intelligence in the play, and they will later find themselves outwitted.
Jacquenetta and Costard enter. She gives Nathaniel a letter that Costard gave her, that is supposedly from Armado, and asks Nathaniel to read it. Quoting lines of Latin, Holofernes looks at the letter and exclaims that it contains verses of poetry. Nathaniel reads the letter, which is a poem praising someone’s beauty. It is the letter from Berowne to Rosaline.
Costard has foolishly delivered Berowne’s love letter to Jacquenetta rather than Rosaline. In the letter, Berowne tries to woo Rosaline with his clever, skillful writing. However, like much of the language in the play, his words have not reached their intended audience in the way he wished.
In the poem, Berowne says that though he will break his oath to Ferdinand, he will be faithful to Rosaline. He says that if the point of the oath is knowledge, he will gain enough knowledge by knowing Rosaline, and says, “well-learned is that tongue that well can thee commend.” The poem concludes by apologizing to Rosaline for describing her “celestial” beauty with “an earthly tongue.”
Berowne’s poem cleverly reasons his way out of Ferdinand’s oath and compliments Rosaline through some wordplay. Love has inspired his writing and also his wit.
Holofernes says that Nathaniel read the poem’s meter wrong, and examines it. He reads the top of the letter and sees that it is addressed to Rosaline, from Berowne. He tells Jacquenetta to bring the letter to Ferdinand, and she and Costard exit to do this.
Holofernes is overly pedantic, and wants to examine the poem’s meter. He sends the letter on its way to the king, where Berowne’s own language will come back to haunt him.
Holofernes asks Nathaniel what he thought of the poem. He says it had good handwriting. He invites Nathaniel to a dinner, where he will “prove those verses to be very unlearned, neither savoring of poetry, wit, not invention.” He invites Dull, as well.
Holofernes wittily jokes that the best thing he can say about the poem is it was written with good handwriting. He wishes to continue to show off his intelligence at a dinner with Nathaniel and Dull.