In the early seventeenth century, Leander and Crispin, two "freeborn subjects of the Kingdom of Roguery," arrive at an inn. They are equipped with only Crispin's shrewd wit, Leander's imposing appearance, and some fine clothes as their hope of fortune, for they are penniless fugitives from justice. Crispin is confident that effrontery and their talents will prevail, however, and directs that Leander pose as a distinguished personage (saying as little as possible) while he plays the part of his servant and builds about his companion an aura of wealth and greatness.
Crispin's plan works flawlessly at the start: his arrogant demands for the best for his master (who presumably is on a secret mission of state) provide sumptuous lodging and credit--provisions extended as well, at his order, to two other penniless adventurers, a soldier called the Captain and a poet, Harlequin. Crispin demands cash credit for them also, and wins from them the allegiance of arms and poesy for his project.
"In the same boat" of poverty and pretense is the faded beauty, Doña Sirena. At her imposing home, her adopted niece, Columbine, tells her that the tailor has refused further credit, and the musicians and servants, unpaid, refuse to appear for an elaborate party she has planned for that night. The party is a most important one to Doña Sirena: she hopes to make a match for Silvia, daughter of the rich merchant Polichinelle, and to fatten her own purse, for she has contracted with several nobles to win Sylvia for them--one is sure to be the lucky husband. Her only other hope of recouping her fortunes is Columbine, but the latter is in love with the penniless Harlequin.
But Crispin, learning from Harlequin of Doña Sirena's plight, appears with flattery and a profitable proposal: his distinguished master will provide everything--servants, musicians, soldiers and fireworks, plus a hundred thousand crowns for Doña Sirena--if she will invite him and arrange his wedding to Silvia, the heiress. Leander appears with the retinue he has promised, and is so fulsomely praised as a nobleman of exceeding estate by Crispin, Harlequin and the Captain, that Doña Sirena capitulates.
She arranges the first dance for Leander and Silvia, and Crispin hastens to bolster the campaign by a talk with Polichinelle in which he reminds the merchant of his days in the prisoners' galleys--days shared by Crispin--and of the mysterious fate of his first wife in Bologna, his first master in Naples and a usurious Jew in Venice. Offered money for his silence, the crafty Crispin suggests that, instead, the merchant quickly separate Silvia and his "hated" master Leander--because Leander, too, is an insinuating scoundrel and will surely bewitch her.
Crispin plots that parental objection shall only increase Silvia's infatuation for Leander; indeed, this is the case when old Polichinelle rudely dismisses him. Leander is made sad, however, for he has come to love Silvia in a hopeless fashion. But she again seeks him out and they embrace in the garden. Here Crispin accomplishes another coup: he has engaged some ruffians to feign an attack upon Leander, promptly placing the blame upon Polichinelle. Then he stirs Harlequin to write verses that will inflame the citizens against the merchant.
Columbine comes with the news that Silvia has fled to the home of Doña Sirena; she will not return to her father's house except as the bride of Leander. The success of Crispin's plot is now threatened by the conscience of Leander, who declares his love will not permit him to deceive her. Crispin points out that the situation has become desperate, with the dupes beginning to demand something more than talk to repay their outlay: Signor Pantaloon, who has been moved by the innkeeper's credit to finance their house; Doña Sirena and a horde of tradesmen are beginning to clamor. But he vows that he and Leander will be saved. Says he: "It will be enough to accept what others offer. We have intertwined outselves with the interests of many, and the bonds of interest will prove our salvation."
Doña Sirena now appears with Silvia, proposing an immediate marriage to hasten her fee. She also tells them that Polichinelle has betrayed them to the law; a writ has arrived from Bologna, and a lawyer who had been prosecuting them at the time when they decided to flee has arrived. Silvia enters, and, disregarding Crispin's entreaties, Leander confesses his deception. His confession only strengthen's Silvia's infatuation. She hides in a rear room as Polichinelle, officers and tradesmen, clamoring for their money, burst in.
Crispin soon impresses them all with the fact that if the match of Leander and Silvia is prevented, their money will be lost. He declares that Polichinelle cannot oppose the union because Silvia already has run off with Leander, a rapscallion, and Polichinelle certainly will not want to publicize the fact. The others greedily see Crispin's logic, but Polichinelle believes him to be lying; Crispin promptly suggests an "inventory." He throws back a curtain to reveal Silvia and Leander, Doña Sirena and Columbine.
All now agree (Polichinelle unwillingly) that love must prevail, and that scandal must be avoided. Leander refuses to accept Silvia's fortune to pay his debts, and Crispin prevails upon the others, while promising that they shall have their money, to cancel his debts as a formal gesture to permit him to wed. Polichinelle imposes only one condition: that Crispin must leave Leander's service. Despite the latter's grief, Crispin announces that he is going to leave it anyhow.
He assures Leander that his sorrow will not last long, and adds: "I can be of no further use to you. With me, you will be able to lay aside your lion's skin and your old man's wisdom. What did I tell you, sir? Between them all, we were sure to be saved. And believe me now, when you are getting on in the world, the ties of love are nothing to the bonds of interest."
Leander protests: "You are wrong. For without the love of Silvia I should never have been saved."
Crispin retorts: "And is love a slight interest? I have always given due credit to the ideal and I count upon it always. With this the farce ends."
Silvia answers, to the audience: "You have seen in it how these puppets have been moved by plain and obvious strings, like men and women in the farces of our lives--strings which were their interests, their passions and all the illusions and petty miseries of their states.... But into the hearts of all their descends sometimes from Heaven ... the invisible thread of love, which makes these men and women ... almost divine ... and whispers to us still that this farce is not all a farce, that there is something noble, something divine in our lives which is true and which is eternal, and which shall not close when the farce of life shall close."