Valentine is the eldest son of Sir Sampson Legend, and he is currently in disgrace at the opening of Love for Love. He is deeply in debt and hounded by his creditors, so has locked himself up in his chamber to escape them. His servant Jeremy is still attending to him and blames Valentine’s extravagant spending for his current troubles. Valentine, however, insists that his spending was only an attempt to win over Angelica, a wealthy young woman. While Jeremy and Valentine’s friend Scandal believe that Valentine’s pursuit is hopeless, Valentine maintains that he will win Angelica’s love, even in his poverty.
Sir Sampson proposes a way out for Valentine: He will pay off Valentine’s debts with a lump sum of 4,000 pounds if Valentine will agree to sign over his inheritance to his younger brother, Ben. Valentine’s conflict with his father, and his attempts to avoid signing over his inheritance, will form the central conflict of the play.
The play's large cast also includes Foresight, Angelica’s superstitious uncle; his innocent daughter Miss Prue; Mrs. Foresight and her single sister, Mrs. Frail; Valentine’s worldly friends Scandal and Tattle; his domineering father Sir Sampson; and his sea-loving brother, Ben.
Several of these characters pursue various ends, which form sub-plots in the play. Valentine’s cynical friends, Scandal and Tattle, wish to play games of seduction, as Scandal pursues Mrs. Foresight, and Tattle tries to win over first Miss Prue, and then Angelica. Mrs. Frail is hoping to make an advantageous match to secure her own social and financial standing, and she hopes to marry Ben if he gains the inheritance. Miss Prue is eager to experience love, and she rejects the intended match with the homely Ben in favor of pursuing Tattle. Angelica wishes to test Valentine’s love for her and remains emotionally reserved and calculating, trying to determine whether or not he is a true match for her.
Sir Sampson spends much of his time in the play trying to get Valentine to sign the paper renouncing his inheritance, which forms the core of the play’s action. Valentine attempts to evade signing by feigning madness, delivering impassioned critiques of social and political corruption while personifying “Truth.” Valentine also hopes that his feigned madness will persuade Angelica into declaring her love for him. Angelica, however, continues to evade him until shortly before the play’s end.
Matters are brought to a climax when Angelica tricks Sir Sampson into thinking she wishes to marry him—disheartened by the news, and believing Angelica has rejected him once and for all, Valentine confesses his ruse of madness to his father and agrees to sign the paper. Angelica, moved by Valentine’s sacrifice, tears up the bond and declares her love for him, and the play ends with them finally coming together as a true “love for love” match.
By the play’s end, several characters find themselves in surprising new positions: Tattle and Mrs. Frail are tricked by Jeremy into marrying one another; Miss Prue is rejected by Tattle and wishes to marry one of Foresight’s servants; Ben has learned to defy his father; Scandal is so impressed by Angelica’s conduct that he declares himself a believer in the possibility of a woman’s virtue.