The King of Navarre and his followers, Biron, Longaville, and Dumain, vow to devote themselves to the celibate life of scholarship for three years. Their counterparts, the Princess of France and her attendant ladies, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine, are refused entry to the city when they arrive, and therefore they decide to force the men to break their vows. Each of the men in his turn falls prey to the charms of the ladies and rationalizes his change of heart in the cleverest academic rhetoric he can write into a sonnet.
The ladies do not allow themselves to be taken so easily, however. When the gentlemen disguise themselves and pursue them as Russians in an elaborate courtly masque, the ladies confuse them by donning disguises also. The entire company engages in an extended exchange of witticisms while they prepare to watch a show prepared by the subplot characters, all of whom echo the concerns of the main characters in various ways. The entertainments are cut short by the announcement of the Princess's father's death, and a period of one year's abstinence is imposed on the men before they will be allowed to consummate their loves.
The comic subplot concerns the "fantastical" Spaniard Don Armado in pursuit of the country girl Jaquenetta. His rival in love is the "clown" Costard, and together with a pedantical schoolmaster, Holofernes, and his associate, Nathaniel, they all present a garbled burlesque of classical material at the end of the play.