As the play opens, Orlando, a young squire, is quarreling with his older brother, Oliver, over the younger’s inheritance. Oliver inexplicably hates his younger brother and has deprived him of his inheritance and of his chances for an education suiting a well-born young man. As Orlando demands his inheritance and leaves, Oliver and the court wrestler, Charles, plot his death in a contrived wrestling match to be conducted the next day. Oliver and Charles also discuss how the good Duke Senior has been deprived of his dominions by his younger brother, Frederick, and has taken to the idyllic Forest of Arden with a few faithful courtiers. This merry band of outlaws, including the melancholy Jaques, lives there simply, happily, and in freedom, although sometimes hungry and chilled by the harshness of wind and weather.
The next day, Rosalind, who is Duke Senior’s daughter, and her best friend Celia, who is Duke Frederick’s daughter, watch Orlando surprisingly win the mismatched wrestling competition, and Orlando and Rosalind fall in love at first sight. However, the next day Duke Frederick, in a fit of spite, banishes Rosalind from the court. Drawn by friendship and love, Celia goes with her and also takes Touchstone, the court jester. Disguised (Rosalind as a boy, Ganymede, and Celia as a girl, Aliena), the two women, along with Touchstone, flee to the Forest of Arden where they buy a small cottage and search for Rosalind’s father, the good Duke Senior. To their surprise and Rosalind’s joy, the three learn that Orlando (along with his servant Adam) has also fled the court, in his case to avoid another plot against his life by his evil brother, Oliver. Back at court, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to search for Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia.
Orlando, who has joined with Duke Senior and his band, now decks the forest trees with love poems to his secret love, Rosalind—much to Celia’s amusement and to Rosalind’s liking. However, when he accidentally meets her in the forest, he is fooled by her disguise and believes her indeed to be a boy. She, on the other hand, knows who he is and offers to “cure” him of his lovesickness by “pretending” to be Rosalind and allowing him to “court” her.
Meanwhile Touchstone, who wants to marry an ugly woman so she will always be faithful to him, courts the country maid, Audrey; Oliver, who was saved by Orlando from a lion, reforms and falls instantly in love with Celia; Silvius, a young shepherd, desperately pursues Phebe; and Phebe falls head over heels in love with–who else?–Rosalind disguised as Ganymede. The various exiles and lovers begin to gather in the forest; however, Rosalind leaves them, promising she will return tomorrow and satisfy everyone, including the deluded Orlando and Phebe.
True to her promise, Rosalind returns and eventually reveals her true identity to Orlando (and a surprised Phebe); and, by the play’s end, all the love affairs are happily resolved. The multiple weddings of Orlando/Rosalind, Oliver/Celia, Touchstone/Audrey, and Silvius/Phebe are presided over by Hymen, god of marriage; and, finally, in the midst of the celebrations, the newlyweds learn that Duke Frederick has repented and has restored all possessions and estates to their rightful owners.