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The plot of the play develops in traditional fashion. The first scene introduces the major male characters, the King of Navarre, Biron, Longaville, and Dumain. It also shows them to have a false sense of self-importance, as they make a pact among themselves to become famous through learning and academia. It also shows them to be unrealistic and naïve as they also pledge to be ascetic and celibate for the next three years in order to improve their studies.
This idealistic and noble pact, presented in the first scene of the play, is the impetus for all the rising action that will follow. In fact, the sustaining dramatic thread becomes the question of how long these characters can go before breaking their vow and accepting their humanity. The plot really develops in a fairly linear pattern. The female counterparts to the men arrive at court and quickly prove that they are much more practical and wise. They immediately understand that the men will be unable to keep their vow and begin to plan how they will teach them a lesson. Although nothing in the play comes as a real surprise, for the audience understands from the beginning that the experiment is doomed to failure, the unraveling of the vows is a delightful rendering of romantic comedy.
In order to entertain their ladies, the men plan a masque in which they will dress as Russians in order to woo their loves in public. The females discover the men's plans and decide to disguise themselves and make fools of the King and lords in order to teach them a final lesson. The masque and anti-masque add a touch of finely wrought drama to the rising action of an otherwise simple and straightforward comedy of self-realization. By Act Five, the rising tempo of comedy reaches its full climax, as the disguised men are tricked, reappear as themselves, and openly confess their love, thereby admitting that their experiment has failed. As correctly predicted by the women, the men's hearts have mastered their heads.
The falling action is brought on by the news that the princess' father has passed away. She and her ladies must immediately leave for France. In order to permanently win the love of the ladies, the men must prove themselves worthy for the next twelve months. Rather than a totally happy ending, the play ends with the possibility of happiness after a period of abstinence. Although love's labors are temporarily lost, there is hope for the future.