The princess, Katherine, Rosaline, and Maria all examine the gifts they have received from their respective admirers. From Ferdinand, the princess has received a jewel along with “as much love in rhyme / as would be cramm’d up in a sheet of paper.” Rosaline mentions how Katherine’s sister became melancholy from love and died because of it.
The ladies examine the gifts and writings they have received from their lovers. The brief mention of Katherine’s sister gives an example of the darker side of love, which can cause great pain as well as mirth and pleasure.
After a playfully witty exchange between Rosaline and Katherine, conversation turns again to the group’s love gifts. Rosaline has received a love letter along with a drawing of her from Berowne. Katherine has been given gloves from Dumaine, and Longaville has given Maria pearls and a love letter. The women laugh at their suitors and the princess comments, “We are wise girls to mock our lovers so.”
The women talk of how foolish their lovers are, and Boyet enters, “stabb’d with laughter.” He tells the princess and her ladies that Ferdinand and his men are planning to visit them disguised as Russian ambassadors. The princess decides that she and her ladies will put on masks and exchange their gifts, so that Ferdinand and his men will mistake their identities. She assumes that Ferdinand’s men are courting them “in mocking merriment,” and intends to give them “mock for mock.”
The men’s love is driving them to act foolishly, to the delight of the clever French women and Boyet. The princess’s visit now has more to do with games, performances, and disguises than any diplomatic issues. She assumes the men are not seriously in love, and so plans to match their mockery with mockery of her own.
Mote, Ferdinand, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine arrive in Russian dress. The princess and her ladies put on their masks. Mote reads out a praise of the ladies’ beauty that Berowne has composed, but they turn their backs to the men. Mote leaves, and Rosaline has Boyet ask Berowne what the men’s intentions are. Berowne says that he and his companions have “measured many a mile / To tread a measure with you on this grass.” Toying with Berwone, Rosaline asks exactly how far they have traveled.
With the men in disguise and the women in masks, this scene can be seen as a kind of staged performance within the play, with all the characters participating for their own enjoyment. Rosaline cleverly teases the men, who aren’t aware that their disguises have been seen through.
Berowne evades the question and trades some witty quips back and forth with Rosaline. Ferdinand and his men play some music and ask the ladies to dance, but they decline. Ferdinand tries unsuccessfully to persuade them to dance. Each of the men talks separately to whom he believes is her beloved. Ferdinand talks with Rosaline, believing her to be the princess. Berowne talks to the princess, thinking she is Rosaline. Dumaine and Longaville talk to Maria and Katherine, respectively, thinking each to be the other.
The men try to flirt, but the women tease them and turn their own words against them wittily. Boyet comments, “the tongues of mocking wenches are as keen / As is the razor’s edge invisible.” The men leave, disappointed, and the princess and her ladies laughs at these supposedly witty men, who have just sworn their love to the wrong women.
In the beginning of the play, the men excluded women from their academy of learning, but now the women appear to be even smarter than the men, with their sharp wit and quick words. The ladies get much comic delight from tricking the men.
The princess wonders what they should do if Ferdinand and his men return undisguised. Rosaline suggests that they tease them by talking about a group of foolish Russians who were just with them. Boyet sees Ferdinand and his lords approaching, and tells the ladies to leave. The men arrive and Ferdinand asks where the princess is. Boyet goes to get her. Berowne says that Boyet is clever and “wit’s peddler.” Boyet returns with the princess, Rosaline, Katherine, and Maria.
The ladies continue to have fun at the expense of the men, concerned more with pleasure and joking around than any work or serious business. Berowne admires the clever wit of Boyet. Nearly all the play’s characters display intelligent wit at some point in the play.
Ferdinand greets the princess and tells her that she is welcome now in his court. The princess declines, saying that she would hate to be the reason for his breaking his oath. She says that she and her ladies have had a “pleasant game” staying in the field, as they were just visited by “a mess of Russians.” Ferdinand tries to act surprised, and Rosaline describes the Russians as fools.
Rosaline and the princess tease Ferdinand and his men, continuing their “pleasant game.” Ferdinand assumes that the princess will come into his court when she is allowed to, not thinking of her own wishes about the matter.
Berowne says that Rosaline sees wise things as foolish, and she replies that this means he must be very wise, for he appears to be a fool to her. Rosaline hints that they know the Russians were actually Ferdinand and his lords in disguise. The king grows pale and Rosaline jokes that he must be sea-sick, “coming from Muscovy.”
Rosaline quickly turns Berowne’s words around to tease him, and pokes fun at Ferdinand when he realizes his disguise may have been revealed. She is perhaps the most clever of the French women, a good match for Berowne.
Berowne admits to the Russian disguise and promises to use no more deception, avowing his sincere love for Rosaline. Ferdinand asks the princess how he can make up for his “rude transgression,” and she tells him to confess. He does, and the princess asks him to say out loud what he whispered in his beloved’s ear. He does, and Rosaline says that this is what her lover said to her. Ferdinand is shocked and the princess reveals her trick of switching around the gifts. Berowne criticizes Boyet for helping the ladies deceive their men in this way.
Costard arrives, asking whether it is time for the performance of the Nine Worthies. He, however, calls it the “three Worthies,” to the confusion of Berowne. Costard explains that there are going to be three actors, who each play three characters. Berowne says he understands, as three times three is nine, but Costard corrects him and says that he thinks three times three is not nine. Berowne sends him off to prepare for the show.
After the surplus of wit with Ferdinand and his men, and the princess and her attendants, Costard’s foolishness offers some comedy. The merriment continues, as the king’s entertainment is now ready for the princess.
Ferdinand worries that the performance will be so bad it will embarrass him, but the princess says that she wants to see the show. Armado enters and delivers a piece of paper to Ferdinand, then leaves. Ferdinand reads it out: it announces the cast of the show. Costard enters first, as Pompey the Great. Boyet, Berowne, and Dumaine heckle him. Costard mistakenly calls himself Pompey the Big instead of Pompey the Great.
Costard is a pathetic version of the heroic Pompey, and he even goofs up Pompey’s famous epithet. The rowdy, heckling audience turns the pageant into a comedic performance not so different from Shakespeare’s own.
Nathaniel enters as Alexander the Great. Berowne and Boyet again heckle the performer. Nathaniel leaves and Holofernes enters as Judas Maccabaeus along with Mote as the young Hercules. Holofernes announces Mote’s character, and then Mote leaves. He says, “Judas I am,” and Dumaine interrupts him, thinking he means Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus in the New Testament. Holofernes tries to clarify that he is Judas Maccabaeus, a character from the Old Testament, but Boyet, Berowne, and Dumaine continue to berate him as the traitor Judas.
The male characters continue to fall short of the heroically masculine heroes they are supposed to portray. They cannot even find someone to play Hercules, so Mote has to pretend to be Hercules as a young boy. Either Dumaine mixes up the two Judases, or (more likely) interrupts Holofernes to play a witty joke on him, pretending to confuse the two characters with the same first name.
Boyet, Dumaine, and Berowne continue to wittily tease Holofernes, until he leaves. Armado now enters, as the Greek hero Hector. The audience teases and interrupts him as he tries to make his speech. Costard suddenly goes out of character and tells Armado that Jacquenetta is pregnant with Armado’s child. Dumaine, Boyet, and Berowne all laugh at this development and joke that there will be a fight between Hector and Pompey. Armado prepares to duel Costard.
Far from devoting themselves to serious studies (as the men vowed to at the beginning of the play), or pursuing diplomatic business (as the princess was sent to do), all the characters are now totally concerned with enjoying themselves and laughing at both the performance and the fight between Costard and Armado.
Just as Costard and Armado are preparing to fight, though, a messenger from France named Marcade arrives and tells the princess that he has unfortunate news: her father has died. Berowne tells all the actors of the Nine Worthies to leave, and says that “the scene begins to cloud.” Armado and Costard leave. The princess announces that she will leave to return to France immediately, though Ferdinand begs her to stay. She apologizes if her teasing behavior has been a bit too harsh.
The pure merriment and comedy of the play is now brought to an end by the intrusion of serious news. The tone of the scene suddenly changes, and the princess apologizes for teasing the men so much. Most of the play has delighted in frivolity and comedy, but now Shakespeare shows that such enjoyment cannot last forever.
Ferdinand begs the princess not to let “the cloud of sorrow” disrupt “love’s argument.” Berowne tells the ladies, “for your fair sakes have we neglected time, / Play’d foul play with our oaths.” He says that they have been false to their oath in order to be true to their loves, and asks for the ladies’ love.
The serious news of the French king’s death cannot disrupt the men’s love, though, which they still feel strongly—and in fact is the continuation of their love that proves its seriousness and authenticity to the women. Berowne continues to use clever wordplay to present his suit to the ladies.
The princess says that she and her ladies assumed the men’s avowals of love were all “pleasant jest and courtesy.” Dumaine insists that their affections “show’d much more than jest.” Ferdinand again asks the princess, “grant us your loves.” The princess, though, thinks that it is too soon for love after her father’s death. She tells Ferdinand to spend a year at “some forlorn and naked hermitage,” before seeking her out again. She will need a year to spend in mourning her father. Ferdinand agrees to the deal.
The women had assumed that the men were only joking around with their talk of love. The men’s words and letters did not adequately communicate their sincere feelings. The princess attempts to strike a balance between pleasure and more serious matters, and decides to take a year to mourn her father before seeking any kind of love.
Dumaine asks Katherine for her love, and she gives him a similar response: she will wait for a year not giving in to any suitors, and then she will be available for his courtship. Maria similarly tells Longaville to wait a year. Berowne asks Rosaline what her response to his suit is, and she gives a slightly longer answer.
The princess’s ladies follow her example in trying to moderate the love of their suitors. The men have gone from completely abstaining from love to completely devoting themselves to it, and now they must try to find more of a middle ground.
Rosaline tells Berowne that she has heard of his reputation for wit. She tells him that “to weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain / And therewithal to win me,” he must spend a year conversing with “the speechless sick” at a hospital, attempting to make them laugh. Berowne says that this is impossible, as “mirth cannot move a soul in agony.” Rosaline responds that this is the point, and that once this experience has robbed Berowne of his overly witty, snarky character, he can woo her.
Berowne comments that the men’s “wooing doth not end like an old play.” As they have not ended up with their beloveds, they have not attained the happy ending necessary for a comedy. Armado now enters and announces that he has vowed himself in love to Jacquenetta. He says that there was supposed to be a song at the end of the performance of the Nine Worthies, and Ferdinand tells him to perform the song now.
Shakespeare uses Berowne’s line to point out his own experimentation here, as he has written a comedy without a happy resolution. Nonetheless, Armado’s love has proved successful. Before the princess must return to France and attend to serious matters, the characters indulge in one last pleasurable performance.
Holofernes, Nathaniel, Mote, and Costard return to the stage. Everyone divides into two groups, one representing spring and one representing winter. The spring group sings a short song about spring and the cuckoo bird (a bird traditionally associated with cuckolds, men whose wives cheat on them). Then, the winter group sings a short song about winter. Armado announces that the performance is finished, and the play ends.
The play ends with a final gesture of fun, with these two short songs. It has offered a finite amount of time for the characters (and the audience) to indulge in simple comedy and light matters, but now this hiatus from more serious business and darker concerns is over.