The setting is the position occupied by Carbon de Castel-Jaloux’s company at the siege of arras. It is nearly dawn. Sentinels patrol and the men sit, huddled. Le Bret and Carbon discuss how there is no food. A bit of gunfire sounds and Cyrano appears on the embankment. Surprised, Le Bret asks where he was and if he is okay. Cyrano says he sneaks through the Spanish lines every day to send letters to Roxane for Christian. He also says he heard the Spanish say they would be attacking. Disgruntled, Le Bret wonders why he takes the risk.
Cadets complain bitterly about the want of food.
The cadets see Cyrano and continue to complain about having no food. Cyrano tells an old man to play his fife, and opines how it sounds like “the valleys, the heaths and forests of home” (132). Carbon tells Cyrano to stop making the men homesick.
A drumroll is heard and the homesickness vanishes. Monsieur de Guiche appears. The cadets grumble about his starched lace collar and pretentiousness. One admits he is a Gascon though. Cyrano warns them not to let him see them suffer, and pulls out a book of Descartes to read.
De Guiche greets everyone and tells the cadets he knows what they have been saying about him, but that such jokes are futile since his courage is well known. Cyrano asks him about his white sash. Proudly, De Guiche explains he was about to charge with his troops and would have been shot at if he had not removed the sash. Cyrano mocks him and says it is a source of pride to be a target and that he would have picked it up and wrapped it around him. He then pulls it from his pocket and asks De Guiche if this is it.
Silence reigns. The cadets try not to laugh. De Guiche thanks him and takes it. He waves it at a man, an action that worries the cadets; but he says it is a double agent that he uses to control the enemy’s decisions. He also tells the men that there will be an attack today. Carbon tells them to prepare to fight.
De Guiche informs the men they must be prepared to die, and Cyrano asks him if this is revenge. De Guiche says it is not, but he would not be sad to rid of Cyrano.
Christian tells Cyrano he is worried about what Roxane will do if something happens to him, and Cyrano says he wrote up a letter knowing this moment may occur. Christian asks about a tearstain on it, which Cyrano blames on the general sadness of the sentiments.
Suddenly a carriage is heard, and the men think it is the King. To their surprise, Roxane descends.
Roxane says she has had enough of writing. De Guiche is angry and tells her she cannot be there. She recounts how she made it through Spanish lines by flirting and appealing to the Spaniards’ love of romance. De Guiche, Cyrano, and Christian tell her she must go, but she insists that she will die beside Christian. All of the men vow to defend her.
Cyrano also tries to persuade Roxane to leave but she firmly resists. Carbon introduces her to all of the cadets. He asks her for her handkerchief to make a standard for the company.
The men complain of hunger again, and Roxane surprises them all when she brings out a great deal of food that she had hidden in her carriage. Ragueneau appears with the food.
While she orders to food taken out and distributed, Christian tries to pull her aside to talk to her. Cyrano goes to Christian and tells him he must talk to him first.
Before this can happen De Guiche is spotted walking back, and Cyrano tells the men to hide the food from him. De Guche strides in and sniffs the air.
De Guiche says something smells good and wonders why some of the men are acting drunk. He says he is not going to leave anymore and will fight with them. Cyrano remarks that is courageous, and one cadet says he is a Gascon too and deserves food. Before he partakes, he asks Roxane if she wants to review the troops with him. She agrees. Cyrano pulls Christian aside and tells him Roxane may mention more letters than he thought he wrote -in fact, Cyrano wrote every single day. They stop talking when Roxane returns.
Roxane and Christian are alone. Christian asks her why she risked her life to come and she says it was because of the letters -”reading your perfect letters I’ve felt your love around me every day” (153). She says she read them over and over again. She realized she used to love him only for his beauty but now loves him for his soul, and she cares nothing for the way he looks. Christian is shocked and dismayed and says he does not want that kind of love. She exclaims that it is real love. Christian, in despair, excuses himself.
Cyrano asks Christian why he is so pale and upset, and Christian confesses that Roxane does not love him, but loves Cyrano. Cyrano disputes this and tries to comfort him. Christian plans to tell her the truth and perhaps the marriage could be annulled -she must love him for himself. He also realizes that Cyrano loves her, and encourages him to tell her. Christian calls out to Roxane that Cyrano has something to tell her, and leaves.
Roxane wonders what is wrong with Christian, if maybe he did not believe her. Cyrano asks her if she would love Christian if Christian were ugly, hideous, disfigured; she says that she would. Cyrano wonders if this is his chance, but suddenly Le Bret rushes in and whispers something in Cyrano’s ear.
Gunfire sounds and cadets come in carrying something. Roxane asks Cyrano what he was going to say, and all he responds, in a solemn tone, is that Christian was a noble genius. Roxane hears the past tense and sees what the men brought in -Christian’s body. She leans down to wash his wounds.
The other cadets engage in gunfire. Cyrano whispers to the dying Christian that Roxane loves him and he did not tell the secret. Roxane finds a letter in Christian’s doublet. She proclaims how wonderful Christian was, which gives Cyrano some bittersweet thoughts, as he knows she actually loved him. Christian dies, and Roxane faints.
De Guiche yells out that the French are on the way with provisions. Cyrano orders De Guiche to take Roxane away, telling him he has earned all of their respect and he will hold the line. The Spanish yell for them to surrender and Cyrano prepares to charge.
Carbon staggers in, wounded and covered in blood. Cyrano claims he will make them pay, both for Christian's life and his hopes of happiness. He plants Roxane’s handkerchief-standard and regroups the cadets behind the carriage. The enemy force appears, artillery crashes, cadets fall to the ground, and Cyrano leads the men in the Gascony song as bullets rain around them.
This is the longest and arguably most eventful act: Roxane arrives at the siege, Christian confesses he no longer wants the ruse to continue, Cyrano wonders if his moment has come to be honest, tensions with De Guiche fluctuate, Christian dies, Cyrano is thwarted in his quest to reveal his love, the cadets are attacked, and Cyrano is valiantly wounded. There are a few allusions to clarify before moving into the content of the act. The comment “the Graves eminence” in Scene III refers to Cardinal Richelieu’s powerful right-hand man, a monk named Joseph who wore his grey habit instead of red robes; the phrase “l’Eminence grise” is now used to refer to a shady, backroom but puissant figure. In Scene IV Cyrano mocks De Guiche for taking off his white plume and displaying his cowardice by commenting, “I hardly think King Henry would have doffed his white panache in any danger” (135). This references the King’s own war-cry of calling his men to rally around his white plume, and the word panache, which Cyrano famously uses at the end of the play, most likely came from his words.
The real Cyrano was a member of Castel-Jaloux’s company, which he joined along with his friend Le Bret. It was in the company that his reputation as a swordsman grew. In her article on the comparisons between the real and fictional Cyranos, Mildred Allen Butler explains that a sword at Arras wounded Cyrano in the throat, and “though he recovered, he was denied the pleasure of being on the scene when the siege was raised. This disgusted him with military life, and shortly after his recovery he turned in his commission and persuaded his friend Le Bret to do likewise.”
Rostand does a fair job of depicting the difficulties of war in the play, ably moving between the men’s laments of hunger and their good hearted jesting and mocking of each other and their superiors. Cyrano reveals himself a keen judge of character here, trying to get the men to focus on music and song rather than their hunger. He exhorts them to be brave and do honor to themselves and their company; one example of this is when he tells them not to let De Guiche see them suffer but instead start up a game (134). And, as usual, he holds his own in a battle of wits with De Guiche.
Cyrano is not always a paragon of pride, confidence, and bravery; his sentimental side is also revealed when it comes to Roxane. Christian (and the audience) learns that Cyrano has been writing Roxane letters every day. The last one he wrote is, by his own account, “a sad letter, and it made me cry” (139). This letter will attain greater significance in Act V, as it is what Christian carries on his person when he dies, what Roxane takes away and cherishes, and what eventually reveals Cyrano as the true lover of Roxane.
Much of this act is incredibly bittersweet, as the characters of Roxane, Cyrano, and Christian all experience great loss. Roxane proves herself courageous, loving, and generous in her behavior toward Christian and the troops (in terms of coming to die by Christian’s side if necessary, and bringing provisions for the cadets to ameliorate their hunger and fear), but is also remarkably shortsighted in her inability to discern the true identity of her lover. Even though it is an admirable sentiment that she loves Christian for his words, not his looks, this makes Christian despair, as she does not truly love him. As for Cyano, he has a few brief minutes of hope and happiness when he thinks that he may be able to tell Roxane the truth, but they are snatched from him when Christian is mortally wounded. Christian, then, pays a high price for love (his death can arguably be traced to De Guiche’s jealousy over Roxane), Cyrano realizes it is nobler to let him die with Roxane’s love intact and thus relinquishes his own claims on her affection, and Roxane believes she has lost everything. Rostand clearly relishes the drama, bringing it to parodic but still moving heights of emotion.