Christopher Sly awakes to find himself in a lovely bedchamber in a strange house (the Lord's) with attendants ready to wait on him. Bewildered, Sly calls for a drink. As Sly attempts to figure out what has happened, the serving men reassure him that the entire household is overjoyed to learn their master has made a miraculous recovery after having been ill the past fifteen years. In getting Sly ready to meet the others in the house, the serving men regale him with fanciful stories of all the harsh dreams of poverty brought about by his madness. Sly is drawn into the tale the servants weave, and, by the time his supposed "wife" enters, he is completely convinced he is, in fact, lord of the estate. He beckons his wife to come to bed with him, but Bartholomew handily escapes by noting the doctor has not recommended such activity in case of a relapse. To pass the time, however, the players agree to entertain the group with a story. Sly, Bartholomew, and the others settle in for the performance.
When Sly awakes, the Lord's plan goes into full swing. The servingmen dote on the beggar, insisting he is, in fact, lord of all he surveys. Sly's immediate response is, of course, disbelief. Our first glimpse of Sly revealed a man who uttered four lines and passed out. Not surprisingly, his first action in this scene is to call for "a pot of small ale" (1). In addition to revealing his predilection for liquor, Sly's request reveals his social status. Accustomed to having very little money, he calls for a cheap drink. When the serving men encourage "[his] lordship" to drink "sack" and taste of the "conserves" (2-3), we begin to see just how much out of his element Sly is — and he knows it.
With an obvious lack of decorum Sly informs the serving men he is neither "[his] honor" nor "lordship" (5-6). He continues, disparaging sack and conserves, two of the pleasures of the upper class, and then very wittily confesses there is no need to ask what he wants to wear because he has only one set of clothes, so there is little choice to be made. Clearly at this point, Sly is in control of his identity. He knows who he is and remembers his accustomed lifestyle. In fact, in many ways, Sly deserves respect because he is initially skeptical about the situation in which he finds himself. However, it doesn't take long before the rhetoric of the Lord and his servants begins to take ahold of Sly (but who could blame him? In many ways, for a poor man to wake up rich is a dream come true).
When the Lord enters (13), the duping really picks up steam. Blaming Sly's seemingly mad behavior on a foul spirit (14-16), the Lord begins to talk Sly into believing he really is of the gentry rather than, as Sly himself confesses, "by birth a peddler, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker" (18-20). Sly humorously exposes his true self in an attempt to clarify the situation by suggesting the Lord call upon Marian Hacket who definitely will confirm he's in debt.
In response to Sly's objections, the Lord and his men continue to sway Sly with their rhetoric. Lunacy, they allege, is the reason Sly mistakenly believes he is a beggar. The whole house, they claim, rejoices in his recovery but is saddened by the mad illusion Sly has awakened with. The servingmen continue to ply Sly with suggestions for entertainments and luxuries he might enjoy. When they suggest to Sly he has a wife "more beautiful/ Than any woman in this waning age" (62-63), he begins to show signs of believing them. Sly's confusion is revealed in his remark "Am I a lord? And have I such a lady? / Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?" (68-69). Just as the Lord intends, Sly is being taken in by the illusion in which he finds himself.
Despite Sly's growing suspicion that he may, in fact, be a lord after all, we are in on the joke and see over and over how, although Sly may dress the part, there is no real risk of him being able successfully to pass himself off as gentry. In addition to the incredulous story of fifteen years' illness (which the gullible Sly swallows hook, line, and sinker), Sly's language and behavior suggest that there is more to being a gentleman than having fine clothes and being able to order servants around. When Bartholomew the page enters, feigning concern for Sly as his wife, Sly first wonders why his wife calls him "noble lord" rather than "husband" since he is her "goodman"(101-102). His terminology sets up interesting and telling distinctions.
In the class from which Sly originally comes, "Lord" is a term used by men for men. "Lord" is also a term a woman of the upper class would apply to her spouse more readily than a woman of the lower class, who would likely call her husband "goodman." Next, Sly questions what to call his wife. What he's seeking is, quite simply, her name. Because he was raised in a lesser social class, Sly must be informed by the real Lord that his "wife" is to be addressed as "Madam, and nothing else. So lords call ladies" (108).
Sly then continues to show his natural biases and base nature by demanding his "wife" undress and come to bed (112). While on one hand this demand is outrageously funny (because we know the page is really playing Sly's supposed wife), it is also quite revealing. We get a good sense of what Sly's about — and more importantly, how he perceives marriage roles, something that will be picked up in more detail in the play. Sly's initial instinct to control and command his wife, however, yields him nothing. Bartholomew is quick to say "your physicians have expressly charged, / In peril to incur your former malady, / That I should yet absent me from your bed" (118-120). Sly, clearly believing himself to be the lord of the manor, doesn't wish to risk a relapse, and so he releases his wife from her "duties."
At this point the players enter again, bringing us toward the beginning of the actual play. With only one small reference at the end of Act I, Scene 1, the story of Sly is left behind, leaving us to wonder what became of him.
small ale (1) weak (and therefore cheap) ale.
sack (2) any of various dry white wines from Spain or the Canary Islands, popular in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
conserves (3) a kind of jam made of two or more fruits, often with nuts or raisins added.
cardmaker (19) maker of cards, or combs, used to prepare wool for spinning.
"on the score" (23) "in debt."
bestraught (24) distracted.
Semiramis (39) a queen of Assyria noted for her beauty, wisdom, and sexual exploits: reputed founder of Babylon: based on a historical queen of the ninth century B.C.
welkin (45) the vault of heaven, the sky, or the upper air.
course (47) hunt the hare.
Adonis (50) in Greek myth, a handsome young man loved by Aphrodite: he is killed by a wild boar.
Cytherea (51) Aphrodite.
sedges (51) any of the plants of the sedge family often found on wet ground or in water, having usually triangular, solid stems, three rows of narrow, pointed leaves, and minute flowers borne in spikelets.
Io (54) a maiden loved by Zeus and changed into a heifer by jealous Hera or, in some tales, by Zeus to protect her: she is watched by Argus and is driven to Egypt, where she regains human form.
Daphne (57) a nymph who is changed into a laurel tree to escape Apollo's advances.
Apollo (59) the god of music, poetry, prophecy, and medicine, represented as exemplifying manly youth and beauty: later identified with Helios.
"present her at the leet" (87) "bring accusation against [the Hostess] at the manorial court."
Amends (97) recovery.