The play opens with the recruiter, Captain Plume's Sergeant Kite, recruiting in the town of Shrewsbury. Plume arrives, in love with Sylvia, closely followed by Worthy, a local gentleman who is in love with Sylvia's cousin Melinda. Worthy asked Melinda to become his mistress a year previously, as he believed her to be of inadequate fortune to marry. But he changes his mind after she comes into an inheritance of £20,000. Melinda accepts an invitation from Captain Brazen, another recruiter, to annoy Worthy, as she was offended by Worthy's previous offer. However, her maid Lucy meets Brazen, pretending to be Melinda, hoping to marry him herself. Melinda and Sylvia argue after Melinda says that the money she has inherited makes her more desirable. Silvia, who is more down to earth, is infuriated by Melinda's newly haughty behaviour.
Sylvia leaves her father's house to mourn her brother Owen's death. She tells her father Balance that she is going to the Welsh countryside but in fact goes into Shrewsbury dressed as a man, under the name 'Jack Wilful'. There Brazen and Plume compete to recruit 'Wilful', unaware of 'his' real identity. Kite abducts 'him' for Plume while Plume duels with Brazen. Still disguised as Wilful, Sylvia goes on to spend the night in bed with Rose, a local wench previously courted by Plume to get Rose's brother Bullock to join up. An action is brought against 'Wilful' for sexually assaulting Rose and 'he' finds 'himself' on trial before Sylvia's father Balance and his two fellow magistrates Scruple and Scale. The three magistrates also look into Kite's dubious recruiting practices but finally acquit him and force Wilful to swear to the Articles of War.
Meanwhile Melinda continues to discourage Worthy, until going to a fortune teller (in fact Kite in disguise), where she is convinced to relent and accept his courtship. She is also tricked by being given a sample of her handwriting by the 'fortune teller', who takes it from a 'devil' he has conjured up under the table (in fact Plume). Kite is then visited by Brazen, who gives him a love letter from, as he thinks, Melinda. However, by comparing the handwriting sample, Worthy discovers that the letter is in fact from Melinda's maid Lucy, who hopes to ensnare Brazen as a husband.
Worthy then goes to visit Melinda but, on going to tell Plume the good news, finds out that Melinda seems to be eloping with Brazen after all. Worthy intercepts Brazen and a disguised woman he takes this to be Melinda, and challenges Brazen to a duel. The duel is prevented when the woman drops her disguise and reveals herself to be Lucy. Sylvia also drops her disguise. Plume agrees to leave the army and marry her, Melinda relents towards Worthy and agrees to marry him, and Plume transfers his twenty recruits to Brazen to compensate him for the loss of a rich marriage with Melinda.
The Recruiting Officer opened at Drury Lane in 1706. It was an immediate hit and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century. The part of the foppish Brazen proved a notable role for the renowned actor-manager Colley Cibber. The Recruiting Officer was the first play to be staged in New York City on 6 December 1732.