In scene 1 of act 1 we meet Orlando, who gives a foreword to present situation. His father, Sir Rowland de Boys, died and his big brother, Oliver, inherited everything. Before dying, father made Oliver promise that his little brother will not be left alone and penniless but would be able to live as a son of a nobleman should.
Due to laws of genre, Oliver broke the promise as soon as he could, so Oliver dines with farm workers, has no money and no prospects.
While he complains about it to old family servant, Adam, he tells that he had enough of this.
Enters Oliver, brothers fight. After being nearly strangled, Oliver agrees to give his little brother some money (1000 crowns), so he can go away and do whatever he wants.
Orlando and Adam exit.
Charles, the court wrestler, arrives and shares some gossips from the court. He tells one more fore-story: Duke Frederick had banished his brother, Duke Senior. Now he and a crew of young gentleman are at the Forest of Arden. At this, Duke Senior’s daughter, sweet Rosalind, stays with her cousin, Duke Frederick’s daughter, Celia – these girls are inseparable.
And now to present state of affairs: tomorrow Charles is going to participate in big wrestling match and Orlando is more than willing to fight him. At this Orlando is “young and tender”, so Oliver should probably forbid his brother to fight.
Oliver persuades Charles that Orlando is adamant in his desire, moreover, he is a traitor. These words sweep away all Charles’s thoughts about safety of a young one, so now he is ready to kill young de Boys while wrestling.
Scene 2 takes place at Duke Frederick’s court and introduces Celia and Rosalind. The latter is upset about her father’s fate and Celia tries to persuade her cousin to calm down, embrace her fate and call her uncle “daddy”. Moreover, girls are together, so nothing else matters.
They chat a little about Fortune and nature, when Touchstone, the court fool, enters and interrupts them. After exchanging several jokes, Touchstone mentions Duke Senior and spoils all the fun.
Le Beau, a courtier, arrives to tell that famous Charles fought three mighty brothers, won, and now, right here will fight young Orlando, so ladies may watch this.
Enters Duke Frederick. He wants the girls to tell Orlando not to fight, because wrestlers are not equal at all. Young ladies make such attempt but Orlando, a true romantic hero, gives a speech that he has got nothing to lose, so wish me good luck, darlings, I am off to fight.
The luck is on his side: Orlando wins the fight (easily), Rosalind’s heart (and necklace as a knight’s trophy) and Celia’s affection. Duke Frederick is impressed too but soon finds out that the winner is a young de Boys, a son of Duke Senior’s friend – the enemy.
Keen Le Beau advice young Orlando to leave as soon as possible. Orlando, who is already falling in love, asks him about Rosalind and learns that she is Duke Senior’s daughter. Le Beau also informs him that Rosalind’s virtues cause Duke Frederick’s weariness, so he may soon get rid of her. Orlando is upset about this.
In scene 3 girls are chatting again: Celia teases Rosalind about her quick falling to Orlando. Rosalind points out that their fathers were friends, so her affection to Orlando is quite natural. Celia continues the logic chain: if it is so, she should hate Orlando. Rosalind begs her to keep a good attitude to the lad, for her sake.
Meanwhile, Duke Frederick had it enough: he storms into the room and orders Rosalind to leave or she will be killed. Brave Rosalind asks about the reasons of this order. Soon everyone understands that this is a plain old jealousy: Duke reveals that Celia would look more attractive as soon as her too beautiful cousin is gone. After he leaves, girls quickly develop a plan to elope to the Forest of Arden.
Clever Rosalind reminds about dangers that await them. Celia offers a solution: disguise them both as peasants. Rosalind suggests that she should be dressed like a boy (she is taller of them two) and takes the name of “Ganymede” (this name sounds ok for contemporary reader but made Shakespearian target audience roar with laugher: this was a synonym for a young homosexual male, often with a much older patron, thanks to Ancient Greece mythology).
Celia changes her name too – now she is “Aliena” (i.e., alienated one).
They also decide to take Touchstone with them.
Scene 1 of Act 2 is set in the forest, where Duke Senior and his comrades seem to have a relatively good time. Duke muses about his love to forest for sincerity and liberty. He even pities a deer he should kill to have a dinner.
Jaques, one of his lords-companions gives a prolonged monologue about forest belonging to animals, smoothly turning this into allegory of Duke’s exile.
Scene 2 takes the reader back to court where Duke Frederick tries to find out what happened to Celia, Rosalind and Touchstone. One of maids suggests that they all teamed up with Orlando, so Duke Frederick demands him to be found. In case of failure, the duty of finding Orlando should be performed by his elder brother, Oliver.
Scene 3 depicts the meeting of Orlando who heads to his brother’s home, and Adam, an old servant. Oliver is furious and Orlando should not show up, Adam says. Orlando is desperate – he even considers the career of a highway robber. Good old Adam offers his help and life savings, a considerable sum of money – 500 crowns. They may leave together and live a simple life.
In Scene 4, a brave trio – Rosalind / Ganymede, Celia / Aliena and Touchstone – is wandering in the Forest of Arden and all are exhausted. Rosalind tries to be strong and cheery.
They eventually overhear the dialogue of two shepherds, Corin and Silvius. These two discuss the matters of love. Silvius is desperate, because his love interest, Phoebe, is out of his reach.
After Silvius wanders away, Touchstone takes a walk down the memory lane, telling a tale about his bellowed Jane Smile, a milkmaid. He obviously has much to say but Celia is too hungry to listen to this. Old Corin offers his help. He also mentions that there is a nice piece of property that Silvius was supposed to buy, but Phoebe overtook his brain. Rosalind / Ganymede offers to buy it, Celia / Aliena promises to increase Corin’s salary. Looks like a nice prospect.
Scene 5 shows Amiens (one of Duke Senior’s companion) singing about the joy of singing and exchanging remarks with ever-melancholic Jaques.
In Scene 6, Adam is preparing to die. Orlando orders him not to die, until he finds something to eat.
Scene 7 shows Duke Senior and his companions: they are going to feast on a deer. Jaques arrives, in unusually good mood, and tell about a “motley fool” he met in the forest. They chattered and exchanged thoughts on passage of time and women’s nature. Jaques even envies this “licensed fool”, for is he could be one, he would cure the whole world. Duke Senior doubts it but has no chance to develop this theme further because Orlando breaks in. After some fuss, the situation becomes clear, so everyone promises not to eat until Orlando will fetch Adam. Duke and Jacques continue philosophizing. Eventually, Orlando returns with Adam and Duke does not bother them with questions: both men are starved. During the feast, Amiens sing a song about human relations that may be even worse than a harsh winter. Orlando quietly tells Dick Senior about his father; Duke sees family resemblance and is really glad to see the lad, welcomes him and Adam to his cave and wants to hear their whole story.
Scene 1 of Act 3 takes place in the court. Oliver is in trouble: Duke Frederick is still angry, requires to bring Orlando and had already seized all Oliver’s land – until the fulfillment of his order.
In Scene 2 we are in the Arden again. Orlando is completely head-over-hills in love with beautiful Rosalind, so he carves poems on the trees – all dedicated to her, of course.
Enter Corin and Touchstone, exchanging witty remarks. Rosalind / Ganymede interrupts them and reads some of Orlando’s cheesy poetry. Touchstone mocks simplistic verses, makes some of his own in the same style, teasing Rosalind instead of complimenting. Enters Celia, reading more poems. They all are awful, even Rosalind agrees with it.
Clever Celia sends Touchstone and Corin away and the girls chat. Rosalind never thought that Orlando is the author of these crude verses, so Celia points it out. Rosalind is overjoyed and wishes to know what happened to Orlando and can he possibly know that she is here, disguised as Ganymede.
While girls are chatting, Orlando and Jaques enter. Girls have just enough time to stand aside, unnoticed. Orlando and Jaques exchange some rather sharp remarks; Jaques goes away.
Rosalind/Ganymede sees a chance to speak to her beloved in much more free way than ever, so she engages him into conversation. She throws jokes and aphorisms, even makes disguised compliments about his well-groomed appearance. Finally, she offers him a rather complicated cure of lovesickness, a specific therapy, including a boy pretending to be a girl. A lovesick in question was communicating with him as he would with his mistress. The pretender abused him much like a whimsical woman would. The poor patient, she says, was completely cured and ended taking monastic vows.
Orlando says that this will not work with him, so they decide to give it a try.
Scene 3 shows a hard personal life of Touchstone. He is in love once again, courting Audrey, a simple (literally) and not too much attractive shepherd girl. No matter that she is unable to grasp his poetry – he wants to marry her right now. He has it all arranged: enters local vicar who is ready to marry them, if someone would give away the bride. Jaques, who happened to be there, agrees to fulfil this honorable duty but points out on one more obstacle: as Touchstone is a man of the court, he should be married properly – in the church. The wedding is postponed.
In Scene 4, Rosalind is upset: Orlando did not show up. Could it be the end of his love to her (real her, remember)? Celia points out that love is an unstable thing. She also tells Rosalind that there are rumors about Orlando staying in the forest in company of Duke Senior, Rosalind’s father. Rosalind mentions that she met her father just yesterday, not for a long time, and never revealed her true identity. And why should they discuss her father who is alive and kicking, when there is Orlando to discuss?
Corin enters and asks two girls if they want to see a funny scene of scorning and destroying of a faithful lover. Rosalind gladly agrees.
Scene 5 depicts a fight between Silvius and Phoebe. Both show the rough side of their tongues. Phoebe does not like Silvius at all and all she wants is to be left alone. Silvius whines.
Rosalind / Ganymede interrupts them and tells Phoebe that she should not treat Silvius this way; Phoebe is not too beautiful, so she should be grateful that someone has fallen in love with her at all. Silvius also receives his portion of scorning: he should not let Phoebe to treat him like this.
After Phoebe hears that she should sell when she can, because she is not for all markets (i.e., she should marry Silvius because no one else wants her), she falls in love with this young smart boy – Rosalind / Ganymede. The “boy” in question quickly retreats, hinting that “he” is not what “he” appears to be.
Phoebe promptly tells Silvius that his chances increased, gives a speech to persuade everyone that she does not love Ganymede (sounds doubtful) and for his scorning she intends to write a mean letter. Silvius should deliver it.
Scene 1 of Act 4 consists of philosophizing (Rosalind / Ganymede vs. Jacques), witty conversation (Rosalind / Ganymede / Rosalind again vs. Orlando) and fake wedding between latter two, with Celia as a priest. Rosalind’s point is that a man quickly loses interest in a woman after marrying her. Orlando begs to differ but right now he has to attend Duke Senior for a dinner and will be back in two hours, not a minute later.
Rosalind is happy. Celia is sceptic.
Scene 2 is more like interlude, with songs and jokes about men’s antlers (popular cuckolding reference).
Orlando is late after dinner, Rosalind / Ganymede and Celia are pondering over it.
Silvius deliver a letter from Phoebe. Rosalind is shocked: it is a love letter. Moreover, poor Silvius is intended to deliver the answer. Angered, Rosalind / Ganymede gives verbal instructions about what Phoebe should do: Ganymede orders her to love Silvius, or he would not take her. Silvius departs.
By a contrived coincidence, Oliver, the mean big brother, shows up with a fascinating story and a bloody handkerchief. According to his words, Orlando saved him from a lioness but was wounded himself. This heroic deed had swept away all hate Oliver felt to his brother. Thus, everything is fine now, except for the fact that Orland fainted from wounds.
Rosalind faints herself, nearly losing her boyish disguise. Oliver teases her for acting like a woman, but she laughs it all away. Celia tries to get her home.
Scene 1 of act 5 offers yet another drama: Audrey tells Touchstone that another man is in love with her. This new candidate, William, enters the scene. Touchstone is not too pleased about it and kicks him out (verbally).
Corin arrives and tells Touchstone that Ganymede and Aliena want to see him immediately.
In Scene 2, two former enemies – Orlando and Oliver – are chatting. Oliver declares that he has fallen in love with Aliena, mutually. Being lovestruck, he decides to give his father’s estate to Orlando and live a happy shepherd’s life with his beloved.
Orlando suggests that they can get married as soon as tomorrow.
Rosalind / Ganymede shows up and talks to Orlando about this fast engagement. Orlando is glad that his brother is happy but is sad that his beloved Rosalind is somewhere far away, so tomorrow he would feel even more lonely. Moreover, their game of pretending with Rosalind / Ganymede / Rosalind is over. Rosalind / Ganymede promises that tomorrow Orlando may marry his Rosalind, if he wants to.
Enter Silvius and Phoebe. The latter is upset about revealing her letter.
Now it is time to sort everything out: Silvius loves Phoebe, Phoebe loves Ganymede and Rosalind / Ganymede loves “no woman”. Everyone should meet here tomorrow, and if Ganymede ever marries a woman, it would be Phoebe; tomorrow they all would be married.
Scene 3 reveals that Audrey and Touchstone are going to be married tomorrow, too.
Scene 4 begins with dialogue of Orlando and Duke Senior, musing about the possibility that Ganymede will keep all his promises.
The person in question shows up and sorts everything out once again: Orlando is forced to swear that he will marry Rosalind if Ganymede will bring her here; Phoebe should marry Silvius if she would refuse Ganymede; Silvius should marry Phoebe is she agrees to be with him.
When disguised girls leave, Orlando and Duke finally notice a miraculous resemblance between Ganymede and Rosalind.
Touchstone and Audrey arrive – luckily, there are no problems and recognition here.
A little bit later, Hymen, a goddess of marriage, enters with Rosalind and Celia without any disguise. Father finally recognizes his daughter, Orlando recognizes his beloved one, Phoebe agrees to marry Silvius.
Hymen states that four couples will be married.
Another contrived coincidence happens in form of arrival of the third de Boys brother. He tells that Duke Frederick announced mobilization and intended to wipe Duke Senior and his company away. But on his way to the Forest of Arden, he met an old religious man and soon was convinced that murdering the brother is a bad thing to do. Instead he should leave the court and give up all his worldly possessions.
The last sorting out: Duke Senior gets his throne back (Orlando will inherit it), Oliver gets back his father’s land and title, everybody is happy now, the dancing begins.
In the end, all characters leave the scene except for Rosalind, who gives a rather confused epilogue that becomes clearer, if a reader/viewer will remember one more important thing: in the times of Shakespeare, all female characters were played by male actors.