Love’s Labor’s Lost
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST
Armado seeks Holofernes’ recommendation for a show or pageant they can present before the Princess and the rest, since Holofernes is so good at “eruptions” (V.i.114). Holofernes suggests The Nine Worthies (nine celebrated mythohistorical heroes, usually three Pagans, three Jews, and three Christians) — he’ll take three of the parts and Dull, Costard, Moth, and Armado can take the rest.
The Latin “Satis quod sufficit” — referring to nothing in particular in the scene — is exactly what Horsey reports the Russian envoy saying when he saw Lady Mary Hastings (Greenhill 19). Holofernes dissection of Armado as a “racker of orthography” (V.i.19) connects Armado with Ivan the Terrible, another kind of racker, with the Russian word for no (“ne”) and mention of debt (to the Muscovy Company for English goods) (Greenhill 24).
Samuel Johnson called “honorificabilitudinitatibus” (the state of being loaded with honors) the longest word known, used here by Costard. “It is Latin, of course, and is the ablative plural of a word meaning ‘honorableness'” (Asimov 439).
This is the longest scene not only in the play but in all of Shakespeare (Asimov 440)! Early on (V.ii.38f) we get some Oxfordian “O” punning (Ogburn and Ogburn 394-395), perhaps including the o’s or pits (V.ii.24) left from smallpox (Ogburn and Ogburn 204), and a reference to a “visor” (V.ii.374f) (Ogburn and Ogburn 202). The Princess and ladies discuss the textual excesses of their would-be lovers. They wish for some jest to play on the men, and Rosaline seems especially vicious about her desire to “torture” Berowne (V.ii.60). Candor or slander? Which is more artificial: the men’s poetry or the women’s determination to play the “cruel fair”? Perhaps schoolboy behavior merits a schoolgirl response, but the lack of gentleness continues — there’s no warmth in the mockery. The utterance “Saint Denis to Saint Cupid!” (V.ii.87) refers to the patron saint of France being “opposed to the assaults of love” (Asimov 440).
Boyet brings news that the men are on their way, disguised as Russians for a courtly masque. The women decide to confuse the men by switching identities behind masks of their own. The men arrive and are treated with some disdain by the Princess. Each thinks he knows who he is wooing, or bantering with, but none do — sort of a bad sign in relationships. “Again the question is one of failed language, the dangers of indirection, and the perils of communication” (Garber 181). “In the war of wits, women’s sophistication exoses and overcomes the universal inability of young men fully to differentiate the objects of their desire, a trait that marks the haplessness of their lust” (Bloom 137). When the men leave, the plan is to mess with them further. Another identification of Boyet as Sidney (V.ii.316f) occurs (Ogburn and Ogburn 184).
The four return undisguised and their follies are exposed. Berowne, in elaborate rhetoric, swears off elaborate rhetoric (V.ii.394-415). Rosaline notes “that Berowne uses the very kind of artifice he purports to forswear by ending his impassioned plea in affected French” (Garber 182). But immediately he announces that he’ll “leave it by degrees” (V.ii.418) because he’s got another fancy bit that just occurred to him. “Russet and kersey are the color and material of homemade peasant clothing and Shakespeare thus expresses (as he usually does in his plays) his opinion of the superiority of plain Englishness over foreign ways and customs” (Asimov 441).
Mary Hastings famously “dressed down the real-life Russians” (Anderson 16) during the period of the Muscovy marriage proposal. Berowne’s suggestion that the “descried” men “confess, and turn it to a jest” (V.ii.389-390) is exactly what Castiglione in The Courtier advises (Miller 144).
The Pageant of the Nine Worthies has Armado as Hector of Troy, Costard as Pompey the Great, Nathaniel as Alexander the Great, Moth as Hercules, and Holofernes as Judas Maccabbaeus. Costard may partly be Thomas Churchyard at one stage of the play’s evolution, since he introduced the Pageant of the Nine Worthies in 1578 (Ogburn and Ogburn 198). “The King is reluctant to allow this performance to go on, for fear of embarrassment, though Berowne notes feelingly that it will be good to have ‘one show worse than the King’s and company'” (V.ii.510) (Garber 183). “Discomfited, Berowne and his fellows proceed to disgrace themselves by converting their frustration into a rather nasty scorn of the Masque of the Nine Worthies … behav[ing] like petulant, scorned boys, ragging their social inferiors with vivaciously false wit” (Bloom 140). The entertainment is stilted and goofy, but unlike in the fifth act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the heckling here is nasty and ruthless. “The trite Latin rhyme of canus (dog) and manus (hand) reduces pedantry to its most foolish” (Asimov 441). Berowne, who despises Boyet otherwise, respects him for his insults against the production. The hurt reaction from a couple of the players brings about interesting dynamics: “Holofernes becomes simple and dignified, Costard and Armado obliquely and surpisingly profound” (French 93). “Costard’s comments direct our attention also to the human feelings of those who are mocked” (Wells 62). Anderson finds compelling Costard’s statement about “degree” in the pageant, detecting again a depiction of William Shakspere (Anderson 263). Part of the exchange may connect with further Russian topicalities, including Costard as Ivan the Terrible’s son, killed by Ivan, “a northern man,” with his staff or “pole” (V.ii.690-691). Like Armado, Ivan himself after his son’s death, wore woollen garments next to his skin as an act of penance (Greenhill 26).
The frustration of the lords is invested in petulant scorn against the pageant. A “viciously false wit” takes over (Bloom 140). The Princess is kind to the pageant and Armado. But the men’s baiting is worse than anything women did to them. The sport of the duel comes close to Sir Toby’s arranged fight between Sir Andrew and Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night. Wit can harmlessly entertain or cause disruption and hurt. The entire play contains multiple mockeries, but some are private and more constructive. Low Costard has accepted punishment and has charity now in his apology for Sir Nathaniel after the latter’s break-down in the face of mockery — this turns the tables nicely.
Costard accuses Armado (as Hector) that he has impregnated Jaquenetta and the pageant almost becomes a brawl but sombre news arrives of the Princess’ father’s death. “Henry III was stabbed on August 1, 1589, and died the next day. This may have nothing to do with the play at all, for there is a good chance it was written before then” (Asimov 442). But Oxfordians do think the assassination is relevant to the reported death in the play (Ogburn and Ogburn 194). The Princess will go into a period of mourning, and her ladies similarly will withdraw from interaction with the men for a year. The men make an awkward attempt to resume wooing, but there’s a new seriousness here, and now is not the time (Wells 62). The women make the men undergo a year of penance, and Berowne must additionally use his wit to cheer up the sick. “Our wooing doth not end like an old play: / Jack hath not Jill,” he remarks (V.ii.874-875). With the assertion “That’s too long for a play” (V.ii.869), “Berowne ruefully destroys two illusions: erotic and representational” (Bloom 143). “The unsuccessful outcome of the wooing is presented in a moment of alienation that states one of the play’s main claims to originality” (Wells 63). That one passage repeats (V.ii.858-864 = 812-817) suggests unpolished revision (Ogburn and Ogburn 183). So love’s labors are not lost but arbitrarily ended. “Seldom has a seemingly romantic and artificial play has a more realistic and unartificial conclusion…. Shakespeare leaves to our imaginations the sixth act of this play. But somehow we have faith in Biron” (Goddard, I 53-54).
Shakespeare explores how not to eliminate discord but contain it without disrupting the whole. Music serves as symbol of this theme here and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Nathaniel knows that society is the happiness of life so dull Dull is not excluded from the feast” (French 94). The play ends with the sober and seemingly “unintegrated” and arbitrary songs of Spring and Winter; “The songs provide the play’s third formal entertainment, and the only one that is not interrupted by its stage audience. The aristocrats have learned at least a temporary courtesy” (Wells 63). We face the homely facts of life in the final songs. The cuckoo begins because it paints an enameled portrait of spring as a sophisticated lyricist. “Berowne’s vivid but oddly misplaced fear of being cuckolded by his Dark Lady, as Shakespeare is in the Sonnets, finds superb transmutation in the song of the Spring” (Bloom 146). “In Spring life is easy, but the Cuckoo is the bird of infidelity; in Winter it is hard, but the Owl is the bird of wisdom” (Goddard, I 54). And we have a nice sense of communal life in Winter’s lyric. The owl’s song is not entirely dreary but a celebration of domesticity, so say rather apologetic critics. We also have a respectful audience now; there will be no interruptions. Floral imagery with the association of the cuckoo with the blooming of the silver-white lady-smocks comes from a pamphlet by John Gerard, horticulturalist for Cecil’s estate (Miller 155; Anderson 20). “Berowne’s vivid but oddly misplaced fear of being cuckolded by his Dark Lady, as Shakespeare is in the Sonnets, finds superb transmutation in the song of the Spring” (Bloom 146).
What a warning to scholars and commentators Love’s Labour’s Lost is! If the truth that it teaches is applicable to its author’s own works (including this one), their secret will never be revealed to mere erudition or learning on the one hand nor mere romantic glorification on the other. (Goddard, I 54)
“The action of the play is structured to form an examination of the tension in these people’s lives between reason and instinct, art and nature, wit (in its largest sense) and folly” (Wells 59). “Wit, the intellect, is masculine and by itself is barren. And the same is true of learning” (Goddard, I 53). The end of study is not escapist love in the sense of romance sheltered from life’s suffering and realities nor escapist philosophy in the sense of cloistered cultivation of intellect and truth for its own sake. It’s not erudition and affectation like Holofernes thinks, nor servitude to fashion as Don Adriano de Armado seems to think. All these approaches divorce hearts from heads. Indeed, “Whether Berowne has any interests that transcend his language is disputable, since his passion for Rosaline may be no more than a play upon words” — “probably the only form of love he can ever know [is] lust of the eye fused with self-delighting wit” (Bloom 134-135).
The end almost breaks the mood: marriage is postponed, but the testing of love is a romantic notion too, just in a different tone. Still, there’s more wormwood in Rosaline’s gibes than in Berowne’s brain. She enjoys her power over him and her stance is more severe than the Princess to Navarre or the other women towards their lovers. “[W]e have no desire to see Berowne’s wit choked” like this (Bloom 145). “Again and again throughout his comedies, it will become clear that Shakespeare permits us this quasi-Olympian detachment only to precipitate us int a consciousness of our own implication in folly” (Garber 180). “Whether Berowne has any interests that transcend his language is disputable, since his passion for Rosaline may be no more than a play upon words, despite his own later convictions” (Bloom 134). As for Berowne, “probably the only form of love he ever can know: lust of the eye fused with self-delighting wit” (Bloom 134-135).
The conclusion is oddly unartificial. It’s a curious delight that no one gets married and we’re free to doubt that the year of service, unlikely to be performed, will work to bring about any unions. Besides, it makes the most sense now that the women test the men’s ability to stick to a vow — they haven’t done so far, no matter how stupid the vow — and it’s best to find this out before marriage!
Love’s Labour’s Lost is not only a witty play about sophisticated and highly articulate people; it is also a play that is profoundly concerned with the social function of wit, with that can harmlessly entertain but that can also be deployed mockingly in a manner likely to disrupt the smooth functioning of society by causing hurt to its victims; in this play, just as pedantry represents the inhumane superfluity of learning, so mockery is seen as a sterile outgrowth of wit. (Wells 61)
Of course, this is a concern if the play and Shakespeare’s other plays contain caricatures of living individuals.