The King of Navarre and three of his lords form a little 'academe' in which they vow to study for three years, renouncing the company of women. But the Princess of France and three of her ladies arrive on a diplomatic mission, throwing the plan into chaos as soon as the vows are made. The men from Navarre trump each other in a scene in which they are overheard reading aloud their bad love poems. The ladies then comprehensively outwit the men in a scene involving Russian disguise. A comic sub-plot concerns an extravagantly spoken Spaniard, his clever page, a country clown and a pregnant dairymaid, with contributions from a curate and a pedantic schoolmaster, culminating in a pageant of classical and biblical heroes, 'The Nine Worthies'. Halfway through this show, Marcade arrives with news of the death of the princess' father. The mood turns somber and the ladies give the men the task of performing a year's ascetic penance or community service before they will marry them.
The play reveals an understanding of mannerisms, manners and courtly culture. De Vere visited Navarre in 1576.
In 1561, Queen Elizabeth visited Ipswich, where she was shocked at indiscreet behaviour among ministers and readers at the colleges. In response, she wanted to issue an edict prohibiting the clergy from marriage. She later watered down the edict to the prohibition of women from lodging at universities. In 1564, de Vere and other prominent men of court were to receive Masters of Arts degrees from Cambridge University. Elizabeth was to present the degrees. Elizabeth lodged at Cambridge University for five nights, despite her decree from three years before. In the play, sequestered scholars have pledged not to fraternize with women. However, the Princess of France (Queen Elizabeth) pays a visit. The Princess's attendant Boyet (Cecil) announces the Princess's arrival, but is sent back to inform the Princess that girls are not allowed and that the scholars intend to "ledge you in the field". The play includes a conversation that might have occurred between Elizabeth and Cambridge University, if the latter had enforced her edict:
KING: Fair Princess, welcome to the court of Navarre.
PRINCESS: Fair I give you back again; and welcome I have not yet: the
Roof of the court is too high to be yours, and welcome to the wide
Fields to base to be mine.
KING: You shall be welcome, madam, to my court
PRINCESS: I will be welcome, then: conduct me thither.
KING: Hear me, dear lady: I have sworn an oath.
In the play, Vavasour turns up as Rosaline, who matches wits with Berowne.
BEROWNE: My gentle sweet,
Your sit makes wise things foolish
A rich things but poor.
ROSALINE: This proves you wise and rich, for in my eye-
BEROWNE: I am a fool, and full of poverty.
ROSALINE: But that you take what doth to you belong,
It were a fault to snatch words from my tongue.
When de Vere was twelve, his father discussed a marriage arrangement with one of the Hastings sisters. If culminated, the arrangement may have led to de Vere's offspring sitting on the throne of England. Shortly afterward, de Vere's father died, ending the arrangement.
In later life, de Vere looked on her as the one that got away. In the play, Maria's (Mary Hastings) eyes were described as uttering "heavenly rhetoric" and she is described as the "empress of love".
Mary Hastings caused a scene at court when she publicly refused to marry an envoy of the czar of Muscovy. The play spoofs this event. The wooing lords - Ferdinand, Longaville, Berowne, Dumaine -, disguised as ambassador from Muscovy, try to win over Maria and her friends. Like Mary Hastings, Maria publicly refuses the Russians.
Growing up in the Cecil household, de Vere became acquainted with John Gerard, the noted horticulturist and the designer and manager of Cecil's numerous gardens. Gerard wrote Herbal: Or General History of Plants. The play uses floral imagery for Gerard's pamphlet in talking about the seasonal emergence of the cuckoo bird by associating the late spring cuckoo with the blooming of silver-white lady-smocks.
The play includes a sub-plot involving the swashbuckling Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado (De Vere, perhaps in reference to rumours at the time of writing (1592-1594) that de Vere had aligned himself with Spain), Moth (De Vere's young friend Thomas Nashe), and Costard (Will Shakspere from Stratford). In the play, Armado decides to give the Costard liberty on condition that he deliver love letters to their common woman. Perhaps this refers to the expropriation of de Vere's plays (love letters) by Shakspere. Armado and Costard have a difference which is about to lead to a scrap. Moth warns his master Armado that if he scraps with Costard, he will lose his reputation. Costard is presented as a competent actor capable of commanding a situation.