Act One: Forced by his elder brother, Oliver, to do menial work, Orlando complains of him to Adam, the family’s aged servant. Though Orlando’s late father, Sir Rowland de Boys, gave an inheritance to all three of his sons, Oliver, the eldest, refuses to let Orlando, the youngest, have his share. Orlando will no longer endure this unfair treatment.
Oliver enters, scorning Orlando when he demands his inheritance. The brothers fight, and Orlando has Oliver in a headlock, not letting him go until he says he’ll give Orlando the inheritance. Let go, Oliver speaks abusively to Adam, who protests the abuse. Oliver leaves angrily.
Elsewhere, Oliver meets with Charles, a big, strong wrestler who’s killed men in wrestling matches. Charles mentions the usurped Duke Senior and his men, who are living like Robin Hood in the forest of Arden. Charles also says that Orlando wishes to fight him in a wrestling match, and warns Oliver that Orlando will most likely be killed in the fight. Oliver, though saying he will try to dissuade Orlando from wrestling Charles, secretly would like his brother to die in the match, of course.
In the next scene, Rosalind complains to her cousin and good friend Celia of how sad she is that her father, Duke Senior, has been usurped and banished by Duke Frederick, her uncle and Celia’s father. Celia tries to cheer her up by speaking with her about love. Touchstone the jester enters and makes some witty remarks. Then Le Beau, a courtier, arrives, and tells them all about the wrestling match between Charles and Orlando. They all go over to watch it.
The girls meet Orlando and try to dissuade him from fighting the much bigger and stronger Charles. Orlando says he doesn’t care if he dies, for he has no friends, nor anything to live for, and his absence will give more room to the rest of the people of the world. He and Rosalind are already beginning to have feelings for each other. Charles arrives, as does Duke Frederick. The match begins.
At first, Charles is clearly winning, though Orlando won’t give up. Celia wishes she could be invisible and trip Charles. Orlando, however, gets lucky and wins the match, injuring Charles badly enough that other men must life the heavy wrestler and carry him off.
Duke Frederick congratulates Orlando and asks him his name. When Orlando says he’s the son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, a friend of Duke Senior, Frederick leaves angrily.
The girls go to speak with Orlando, congratulating him. Rosalind gives him a necklace to remember her by, and they’re already in love, though they haven’t said so. The girls leave him.
Alone with Celia, Rosalind tells her of her love for Orlando, and that, since her father and his were friends, that makes her love of Orlando all the luckier. Celia says that her father disliked Sir Rowland de Boys, but that she likes Orlando no less for that.
Duke Frederick enters and tells Rosalind she’s banished from the dukedom. When she asks why, he says it’s because she’s Duke Senior’s daughter. Though he tolerated her before, for Celia’s sake, he now feels his power is threatened by the likes of her. When Celia tries to defend her, he calls Celia a fool for not worrying about Rosalind as a threat to her future power. He leaves.
Celia comforts Rosalind, insisting that her father has banished her, too, for she has no life without Rosalind’s company. The girls plan to dress as poor people to avoid being enticing targets for highway bandits. And since Rosalind is the taller of the two, she’ll disguise herself as a boy, and call herself ‘Ganymede’. Celia will pretend to be ‘his’ sister, and call herself ‘Aliena’ (foreigner). They’ll have Touchstone accompany them for protection, go into Arden, and look for Duke Senior.
Act Two: In Arden, Duke Senior speaks with his men of how much better life in the forest is, compared with the phoney court. With the harshness of nature, one has honesty instead of flattery, and nature can impart much wisdom to us. (See quote 1 from my ‘Analysis of As You Like It‘.)
He asks of the melancholy Jacques (pronounced ‘JAY-queez’), and is told that Jacques is weeping over the killing of a deer.
Back in the dukedom, Adam warns Orlando of Oliver’s plot to burn down Orlando’s home while he’s sleeping. Orlando plans to flee into Arden; Adam wants to go with him, and offers him all the money he’s saved from his employment with the de Boys family. Orlando is touched by the generosity of the older generation, a virtue he feels is lacking among the young. They prepare to leave for Arden.
‘Ganymede’, ‘Aliena’, and Touchstone have been walking long to get to Arden, and are all exhausted. They see two shepherds, older Corin and younger Silvius. Silvius is complaining of his unrequited love for the shepherdess Phoebe, saying that Corin, in his age, has forgotten of the young’s pain from lovesickness. Silvius leaves.
‘Ganymede’, affecting a boy’s voice and manner, asks Corin where ‘he’ and ‘his’ friends can find accommodation. Corin tells them of the house of a churlish old shepherd who wants to sell it, and he takes the three tired travellers there.
After Amiens, a singer in Duke Senior’s company, and his backing musicians perform a song, Jacques adds a verse with the word ‘Ducdame’, explaining to them that it’s ‘a Greek invocation, to draw fools into a circle.’ Amiens sings the new verse.
Orlando and Adam are entering the forest in the evening. Adam is deathly tired, and desperately needs rest and food, which Orlando searches for.
Duke Senior and his men arrive at the camp with the food from their hunt. Jacques enters, laughing and saying he’s seen a jester in motley clothes going about in the woods. He chatted with the jester, and Jacques laughed at the fool’s witty remarks. Now Jacques wishes he were a fool: ‘Motley’s the only wear.’
Orlando, brandishing a sword, surprises them, demanding they give him their food. Duke Senior gently says he is free to eat with them if he wishes. Disarmed by their unexpected gentleness, Orlando blushingly sheathes his sword and apologizes for his roughness, saying he assumed rudeness was a universal trait in the forest. He mentions Adam’s age and weakness, and his desperate need for food and rest. Duke Senior promises he and his men won’t touch any of the food till Orlando returns with the old man. Orlando hurries off to get Adam.
Duke Senior speaks of how we all suffer in the ‘wide and universal theatre’ of the world. Jacques speaks of how we all are actors, playing the roles of seven ages throughout our lives. (See the second quote from my ‘Analysis of AYLI‘.)
Orlando returns with Adam, and everyone eats that night while Amiens sings a sad song.
Act Three: Back in the dukedom, Duke Frederick is paranoid about everyone leaving the court to go to Arden; he forces Oliver to find and kill Orlando. Oliver rushes off, glad to do the job.
The next day, Orlando, ecstatic with love for Rosalind, starts carving her name in tree bark and writing love poems, sticking the paper on which they’re written on tree branches. He does this all over the forest.
Corin asks Touchstone how he likes the rustic life; the jester answers this question with his usual wit, comparing life in Arden with life in the court. Celia finds one of the poems and reads it to Rosalind. Touchstone hears, and begins improvising witty parodies of the poem, annoying Rosalind. Celia realizes Orlando is the poet (third quote), and tells Rosalind, who is upset, since she’s still dressed as Ganymede.
Jacques meets Orlando, and they make a witty exchange, saying how displeased they are to have met; Jacques asks Orlando not to mar the trees with any more of his bad verses. ‘Ganymede’ finds Orlando, and Jacques leaves.
‘Ganymede’ asks Orlando if he knows what the time is; when Orlando says he couldn’t possibly know in a forest, ‘he’ says that he couldn’t possibly be in love then, for lovesick people can know the exact time anywhere from counting every sad second of the day. Also, a man in love would be ill-groomed.
Not knowing he’s speaking to Rosalind, Orlando insists that he loves her. ‘Ganymede’ claims ‘he’ can cure Orlando of his lovesickness by ‘pretending to be Rosalind’ while he pretends to love ‘Ganymede as Rosalind’.
In another part of the forest, Touchstone hopes to marry the country girl Audrey, and he even gets a priest, Sir Oliver Martext, to marry them; but Jacques intervenes, advising Touchstone not to use Sir Oliver’s dubious services, and to find a church instead. Touchstone thus dismisses Sir Oliver.
Back to where ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ are, Rosalind complains of how Orlando hasn’t returned to meet her at the promised time. Corin comes over and tells ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ about a true ‘pageant’ of love. He leads them to see Silvius complaining of his love to disdainful Phoebe. ‘Ganymede’ scolds her for not realizing how lucky she is to have Silvius’ love, since she’s ‘not for all markets’. Though Phoebe doesn’t like the rudeness of ‘Ganymede’, she sure fancies ‘him’, thus shocking Rosalind, who tries to discourage Phoebe’s advances. After ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ leave, Phoebe tells Silvius to help her write an angry letter complaining to ‘him’ of ‘his’ rudeness to her.
Act Four: ‘Ganymede’ and Jacques speak of the latter’s melancholy, whose uniqueness Jacques describes as having many diverse ingredients. Orlando appears, and Jacques leaves.
‘Ganymede’ chides Orlando for being late. (As the discussion continues, quote four appears.) With ‘Aliena’ playing the role of priest, ‘Ganymede’ and Orlando have a mock wedding. He says he’ll love Rosalind ‘For ever and a day’. (Next comes quote five.) Orlando then leaves, having promised not to be late for their next meeting. Rosalind then tells Celia of ‘how many fathom deep’ she is in love, ‘But it cannot be sounded’.
Elsewhere in the forest, Jacques complains to the lords of their killing of another deer. He demands they sing a song for the deer.
Back with ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’, Silvius gives ‘him’ a letter written by Phoebe, complaining of ‘his’ disdainfulness to her. Oliver then appears; looking on ‘Aliena’, he’s quite taken by her beauty. He explains to her and ‘Ganymede’ that Orlando can’t be there at the promised time, since he’s been injured by a lioness, having defended then-sleeping Oliver from the beast (and a snake). Seeing Orlando’s bloody handkerchief as proof, ‘Ganymede’ faints. Oliver tells ‘him’ to be more of a man.
Act Five: Touchstone learns of a country fellow named William who fancies Audrey. Jealous Touchstone has a witty conversation with William (see quote six), then scares him off.
Now reconciled to Orlando, Oliver tells him of his love for ‘Aliena’, and of their plan to be married. Though happy for his brother, Orlando is sad from lacking Rosalind. He tells ‘Ganymede’ he can no longer pretend; ‘Ganymede’, claiming ‘he’ knows magic, claims ‘he’ can make Rosalind appear.
Silvius and Phoebe go over to ‘Ganymede’ and Orlando. Phoebe tells Silvius to explain to ‘Ganymede’ what love is; Silvius speaks of the pain and devotion one feels, and that he feels that way for Phoebe, who says she feels that way for ‘Ganymede’. Orlando in turn says he feels that way for Rosalind, while ‘Ganymede’ says ‘he’ feels that way ‘for no woman’. ‘Ganymede’ can endure no more of this: ‘he’ promises to fix everything for all of them, saying that if Phoebe can’t love ‘Ganymede’, she must then love Silvius. Phoebe agrees to this. They will all meet again the next day.
Elsewhere in the forest, Touchstone and Audrey are visited by two singing boys. Touchstone doesn’t like their performance.
The next day, everyone comes together where Rosalind will appear. Duke Senior notes how ‘Ganymede’ looks rather like his daughter Rosalind. Orlando agrees. ‘Ganymede’ and ‘Aliena’ go into some bushes. When Touchstone appears with Audrey, Duke Senior and Jacques talk with the jester, who has many witty things to say. Jacques mentions again what ‘a rare fellow’ he is, ‘and yet a fool’.
Rosalind and Celia appear, in beautiful dresses, accompanied by Hymen, the god of marriage. Everyone, especially Orlando, Oliver, Duke Senior, and Phoebe, stare at the three in amazement. Hymen marries Orlando to Rosalind, Oliver to Celia, Silvius to Phoebe (who clearly has no intention of having a woman for her lord), and Touchstone to Audrey, a comically awkward match.
Celebrations are in order, with Amiens singing and everyone dancing. Jacques, brother of Orlando and Oliver, appears and tells everyone of Duke Frederick coming into Arden with an army and planning to do war with them all. Racing through the forest, however, the usurping duke met a religious man who dissuaded him from going ahead with his attack. Instead, Frederick has given up his power and decided to be a religious man himself. Duke Senior has his dukedom back.
Melancholy Jacques asks Jacques de Boys of the religious man, and would rather find him and receive his spiritual enlightenment than join the–to Jacques–empty-headed celebrations. Duke Senior asks him to stay, but he won’t. He leaves immediately. The celebrations continue.
Epilogue: Rosalind ends the play with a few words to the men and women in the audience, entreating them, who love each other, to enjoy the play as much as it should please them. During the speech, indirect acknowledgement is made to the fact that a boy actor is playing ‘her’. ‘She’ asks the audience to bid ‘her’ farewell.