Orlando is the youngest of three brothers, badly treated by the oldest, Oliver; Duke Senior, meanwhile, has been banished and the court usurped by his younger brother, Frederick. Orlando fights with Charles, the court wrestler, and he and Rosalind, daughter of the exiled duke, fall in love. Rosalind and her cousin Celia, daughter of usurping Duke Frederick, leave the court for the Forest of Arden, taking the fool Touchstone with them; Rosalind disguises herself as a boy ('Ganymede'), while Celia calls herself 'Aliena'. On being told by the old family servant Adam that Oliver is plotting to kill him, Orlando also flees to the forest. In Arden, Rosalind and Celia buy a farm in order to help the old shepherd Corin; Orlando meets up with the banished duke and his courtiers. 'Ganymede' offers to assist Orlando in his wooing by pretending to be Rosalind, so that he can rehearse his love-lines. The shepherd Silvius is in love with shepherdess Phoebe, but she falls for 'Ganymede'. Touchstone, after initially scorning rural life, decides to marry Audrey the goatherd, displacing country bumpkin William. Oliver comes to the forest and his life is saved by Orlando; he repents of his wicked ways and falls in love with Celia. Wicked Duke Frederick becomes a hermit and Rosalind, restored to her female self, arranges multiple marriages, presided over by the god Hymen. All ends happily, save that the melancholy traveller Jaques wants no part in the festivities.
The play is about the legally entangled fortunes of the three sons of the duke of Norfolk, who was executed. De Vere was haunted by his inability to save his cousin from the gallows. The play follows the troubles of Norfolk's surviving sons in marriage, inheritance, and courtly life. The eldest and youngest married into the same family - the main plot in the play. In 1577, de Vere had attended the wedding of Norfolk's youngest son William to Lady Elizabeth Dacre. By 1599, William Howard was nearing an agreement to purchase the rights to his wife's inheritance. The play was intended as a present to celebrate a small victory.
In 1575, de Vere visited the cathedral in Siena. In the cathedral was a mosaic representing the seven ages of man. In the play, Jaques is a world traveler who "sold his lands to see other men's". Jaques describes the seven ages of man in a speech that begin's "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". The speech goes on the say:
... At first the infant
Mewling pewking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school … Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
In Act 5, Scene I, the rapid fire comic Touchstone confronts a simple country lad named William. Both Touchstone and William want to marry Audrey. The setting is the forest of Arden, near de Vere's former property of Bilton, near his extended family's property of Billesley, and near Stratford on Avon. Touchstone and Audrey hire a priest - Sir Oliver Martext - to carry out the ceremony.
Audrey, there is a youth here in the forest lays claim to you.
Comes the man you mean.
TOUCHSTONE: It is meat and drink to me to see a clown. By my troth, we that have good wits have much to answer for; we shall be flouting. We cannot hold.
WILLIAM: Good ev'n, Audrey.
AUDREY: God ye good ev'n, William.
WILLIAM: Good ev'n to you, sir.
TOUCHSTONE: Good ev'n, gentle (= next highest caste above yeoman) friend. Cover thy head, cover the head; nay, prithee be cover'd. How old are you, friend?
WILLIAM: Five and twenty, sir.
TOUCHSTONE: A ripe age. Is thy name William?
WILLIAM: William, sir.
TOUCHSTONE: A fair name. Wast born I' the forest here?
WILLIAM: Ay sir, I thank God.
TOUCHSTONE: "Thank God"- a good answer. Art rich?
WILLIAM: Faith, sir, so so.
TOUCHSTONE: "So so" is good, very good, very excellent good; and yet is is no, it but so so. Art thou wise?
WIILIAM: Ay, sir, I have a pretty wit.
TOUCHSTONE: Why, thou say'st well. I do now remember a saying, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."
TOUCHSTONE: ... Do you love this maid?
WILLIAM: I do, sir.
TOUCHSTONE: Give me your hand. Art thou learned?
WILLIAM: No, sir.
TOUCHSTONE: Then learn this of me. To have is to have (=in Italian, Avere è Avere translates "A vere is a vere") . For it is a figure of rhetoric that drink, being pour'd out of cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other. For all your writers do consent that ipse is he. Now, you are not ipse (= he himself i.e. Shake-speare) - for I am he.
WILLIAM: Which he, sir?
TOUCHSTONE: He, sir, that must marry this woman (=my muse). Therefore, you clown, abandon - which is in the vulgar, "leave" - the society - which in the boorish is "company" - of this female - which in the common is "woman." Which, together is, "Abandon the society of this female" - or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest. Or, to wit, I will kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage. I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado, or in steel; I will bandy with thee in fration. I will o'errun thee with policy. I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways. Therefore, tremble and depart!
AUDREY: Do, good, William.
WILLIAM: God rest you, merry sir.
De Vere was annoyed that a young, upstart commoner called William Shakspeare from Stratford on Avon, with a background in acting and commerce, was claiming credit for the works that were written by William Shake-speare - a pseudonym that he had begun using in 1593 in a dedication to the Earl of Southampton in registering and publishing Venus and Adonis and which came into regular use for plays after 1598. The pseudonym was necessary to allay speculation about the authorship of a number of plays that had been appearing anonymously. Because of his nobleman status and position at court, as well as the fact that many of the plays dealt with personalities of the day, including the Queen, it would have been inappropriate for de Vere to use his own name. The bitter tone in Touchstone's voice illustrates that anger de Vere felt that someone else - particularly some of lower status - was claiming authorship, based on a similarity of names.
The play toys with the idea of "atomies" as nature's unit of irreducible smallness. De Vere's only known secretary in his later years was Nicholas Hill. Hill was ridiculed around London as the leading advocate of Democritus's atomic philosophy.