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Before the play begins, Duke Senior, one of the protagonists of the play, has had his dukedom usurped by his younger brother, Duke Frederick. In a similar manner, Orlando, another protagonist of the play, has had his inheritance taken away by his elder brother, Oliver. The play opens in the orchard of Oliver, where Orlando and an old servant are talking. Oliver arrives, and a bitter quarrel ensues between the brothers. Adam, the old servant, brings about a temporary reconciliation between the two, and Oliver promises to pay Orlando his share of the inheritance, which will make his a gentleman.
The next day, a wrestling match is held, in which Orlando is to compete against Charles, the professional fighter of Duke Frederick. Rosalind comes to watch the match with Celia, Frederick's daughter. Orlando is delighted that he beats Charles, for he wants to make a good impression on Rosalind, whom he loves. Duke Frederick is impressed by Orlando's skill; however, when he learns that he is the son of Sir Rowland de Boys, a close friend of Duke Senior, he is angered. As punishment, the Duke banishes Rosalind, Orlando's true love. In the disguise of Ganymede, she departs for the Forest of Arden, accompanied by Touchstone (the court fool) and Celia, who is disguised as Aliena.
Duke Senior, banished by his brother Duke Frederick, leads a life of exile in the Forest of Arden, where "many young gentlemen flock to him every day." Duke Frederick, who is bent on finding Celia, heads to the forest to search for her. At the same time Orlando has decided to go to the forest, for he has learned that his brother, Oliver, intends to have him killed; he departs with his old servant, Adam.
When Rosalind, Celia, and Touchstone arrive in the Forest of Arden, they purchase a shepherd's cottage with the jewels and money that they have brought with them. They settle down to a comfortable and leisure life among the olive trees and sheep. Only Touchstone misses the comforts of city life and complains, "When I was at home, I was in a better place."
Duke Senior has been looking through the forest all day for his courtier, Jaques, whose company he enjoys. Jaques is a melancholy realist who believes that everything is wrong with the society in the forest. The courtier has happened to meet Touchstone, the court fool, whom he likes. He enjoys spending time with Touchstone, because Jaques believes that fools are wise, while wise men are foolish to enjoy living in such a crazy world. He compares the whole world to a theater, and all the men and women as players on the stage of life.
When Duke Senior finally finds Jaques, they dine in the forest as the duke listens to the courtier's melancholy view of life. Suddenly Orlando rushes in with his sword drawn. Since his old servant, Adam, is dying of starvation, Orlando is ready to fight to get him some food. Orlando is pleased to learn that Duke Senior is a friend of his dead father and is willing to share his food. Orlando leaves to bring Adam, who he carries back to the duke. They are greeted with music and song and accepted as members of the forest society.