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Plot Summary

The play is set in "the province of Andalusia in Spain". The opening scene introduces Duke Angelo and his elder son and heir, Roderick. Roderick is the dutiful and virtuous son; the Duke also has a younger son, Henriquez, a scapegrace and prodigal who is absent from the ducal court, pursuing his own interests. Henriquez has just written his father a letter, requesting gold to buy a horse; Henriquez will send his friend Julio to court to receive payment. The Duke and Roderick decide to use Julio for their own purposes: they will detain him at court "some few days...and assay to mould him / An honest spy" upon Henriquez's "riots."

Julio's father Camillo is not happy about his son's mission to court. Julio wants to arrange a marriage with Leonora; his intended bride is agreeable, but cool, and the call to court delays Julio's plan to obtain the consent of both their fathers. Julio leaves Henriquez behind him to further his suit with Leonora — a foolish trust. Henriquez has developed an infatuation with Violante, a beautiful and virtuous local girl of humble birth; she rejects his inappropriate solicitations. Henriquez forces himself upon her. Afterward, confronting his guilty conscience over his "brutal violence," Henriquez tries to convince himself that his act wasn't a rape, with the feeble rationalization that Violante did not cry out, however much she struggled physically.

His pangs of guilt do not prevent Henriquez from pursuing another scheme: in Julio's absence he is courting Leonora. (Henriquez admits in a soliloquy that he sent Julio away with this in mind. His pursuit of both Violante and Leonora is the "double falsehood" of the title.) The young woman is appalled and repelled by this, but her father Don Bernardo wants the family connection with the nobility that their marriage will produce. Leonora sends a letter to Julio, and he returns in time to frustrate the wedding. Julio challenges Henriquez with his sword but is overwhelmed and ejected by Bernardo's servants; Leonora faints and is carried out. Bernardo discovers a dagger and a suicide note on his daughter's person, revealing her final determination to resist the forced marriage.

Julio and the two young women, each in a distraught state of mind, depart mysteriously; the fathers Camillo and Bernardo are left to confront their own distress. Roderick arrives, and comforts the two old men. Their unhappiness works something of a reversal in each man's character: the formerly mild Camillo hardens his nature, while the formerly harsh Bernardo dissolves in tears.

In Act IV the scene shifts from court and town to the wilds where the shepherds keep their flocks (the same shift to the pastoral mode that Shakespeare employs in Act IV of The Winter's Tale). Violante has disguised herself as a boy, and has become a servant to a master shepherd. Julio is also in the neighborhood, wandering distractedly, fighting with shepherds and stealing their food. The Master shepherd is a rare character in traditional English drama, who can actually recognize a woman when she's disguised as a boy. He makes a crude and unwelcome sexual advance toward Violante, which is interrupted by the arrival of Roderick. Henriquez has learned that Leonora has taken refuge in a nearby nunnery, and has gained his brother's help in a plan to retrieve her. Roderick has agreed, in part, to keep an eye on his younger brother; he insists that Leonora be treated honorably, and given her choice whether to return with them.

Roderick is also clever enough to piece together the larger situation; he manages to bring Julio, Leonora, Violante, and Henriquez back home altogether. He engineers a grand confrontation and reconciliation scene at the play's end: Julio and Leonora are happily re-united, and a now-repentant Henriquez wants to marry Violante to make up for his crime. The three fathers acquiesce to this arrangement.

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