By Elaine P. Pearce
Throughout Love’s Labour’s Lost, the King of Navarre and his lords seem more like boys at play than men of action, their self-deceptions and posturings the result of a charming naivete. At the beginning of the play, the king has a seemingly worthy plan that is wonderfully idealistic and totally unrealistic. For three years, his court will forswear the company of women, fast one day a week, eat “but one meal on every other day,” and “sleep but three hours in the night, / And not be seen to wink of all the day” (1.1.40, 42–43; all references to line numbers are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]). Their time will be spent in study. “Navarre shall be the wonder of the world; / Our court shall be a little Academe, / Still and contemplative in living art” (1.1.12–14).
Longaville and Dumain easily pledge to live by these conditions, but Berowne, who is more practical, has reservations: “Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep . . . are barren tasks, too hard to keep” (1.1.46–47) and argues for study with some moderation and common sense. The king’s reason for study seems to lack that common sense. It has the enthusiasm of youth but little substance. He does not seek knowledge for its own sake, for a lofty purpose, great advancement, or even for the power knowledge creates. His enticement is to achieve fame during their lives and after their deaths.
Their means of attaining knowledge seem questionable, their protection against distraction unnecessarily harsh, and the practicality of their resolve fleeting. They have no plan of study, no specified field of interest to accompany their deprivations, but they do intend to amuse themselves by making fun of Don Armado, a fantastical Spaniard, and Costard, a natural fool. Any woman who comes within a mile of their court will lose her tongue. But if any man shall talk to a woman (presumably before her tongue is cut out), “he shall endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possible devise” (1.1.130–32). A less than equal punishment! Even though they all sign an oath to follow this mighty plan, the king is still a king with the responsibilities of a king, a fact that he has “quite forgot” (1.1.141) in his enthusiasm for fame. Berowne reminds them all that the French king’s daughter comes in embassy to discuss possession of Aquitaine. Clearly, their “little Academe” and oaths lack mature reasoning.
It is no surprise that Ferdinand must lessen the severity of his edict. He concludes the princess “must lie here on mere necessity” (1.1.148 ), but she will be housed in the fields, not the court, rather “than seek a dispensation for his oath” (2.1.87). Nor is it surprising that he immediately falls in love with the princess and that each of his lords falls for one of her ladies even before the Academe has begun. Perhaps Ferdinand, Longaville, and Dumain took their oaths of abstinence too hastily because they had limited experience of women. Berowne’s initial resistance suggested greater knowledge, but even he, who has “been Love’s whip” and critic (3.1.174), is now “a corporal of . . . [Cupid’s] field, / And wear[s] his colours like a tumbler’s hoop!” (3.1.187–88).
It is impossible for these young men to resist the power of love despite their oaths. Just as Berowne had predicted, “Necessity will make us all forsworn” (1.1.149). Once so quickly overthrown by love, they cannot freely admit their folly to each other, cannot bear to be perjured and endure the court’s public shame. Instead, each secretly but predictably plays the part of the completely conventional lover, writing the prescribed love poem to his beloved. The poems they write expose them to their friends and to the very ridicule they sought to avoid. Once they have reasoned themselves out of their oaths (“Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, / Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths” [4.3.358–59]), they are positively gleeful in their preparations to woo the young ladies, tumbling on the ground with “zealous laughter” (5.2.116) at the end of the rehearsal of their grand entrance.
But their plans continue to go awry. The young men send favors to the ladies, but they “did change favours: and then we, / Following the signs, woo'd but the sign of she. / Now, to our perjury to add more terror, / We are again forsworn, in will and error" (5.2.468-71). Their Muscovite disguises hinder rather than aid their wooing. The entertainment Ferdinand devises for the princess and her ladies also backfires. The young men are so determined to have their deception look less ridiculous that they make themselves look more so. To display their wit, they mock the Nine Worthies in a manner unworthy of gentlemen. Rather than allow the performance to proceed without interruptions, they take every opportunity to rattle the actors, going beyond acceptable criticism. Holofernes steps out of character to tell them, “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble” (5.2.629), and retires from the action. Their behavior does not increase their credibility with the ladies.
In short, they demonstrate an inefficiency in love, not because they lack sincerity, but because they lack experience and maturity. Their other downfall is not knowing the ladies they are wooing but assuming that their conventional set forms of romance will be universally successful with all women. Despite the fact that the ladies have repeatedly bested them, the young men have underestimated them. The princess explains:
We have received your letters full of love;
Your favours, the ambassadors of love;
And, in our maiden council, rated them
At courtship, pleasant jest and courtesy,
As bombast and as lining to the time:
But more devout than this in our respects
Have we not been; and therefore met your loves
In their own fashion, like a merriment (5.2.777–84).
Even though the young men’s affection is genuine, their boyish wit and the method of their courtship with its reliance on the set forms of wooing has made them seem insincere. The ease with which they abandon their oaths of deprivation to swear new oaths of love cause the ladies to question their commitment. King Ferdinand may have signed an oath to live an austere life, but he has not done so. The princess challenges him to spend the next year at a forlorn hermitage, suffering “frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds” (5.2.801) to see if his love for her survives. Rosalind challenges Berowne to exercise his wit visiting the “speechless sick . . . to enforce the pained impotent to smile . . . [and] move wild laughter in the throat of death” (5.2.851, 854–55). Dumain must acquire honesty and a beard, for Katherine will “mark no words that smooth-fac’d wooers say” (5.2.828). Longaville must merely wait. Unlike all of Shakespeare’s other comedies that end with a clutter of couples ready to wed, Love’s Labour’s Lost defers the wedding vows until the prospective grooms can become fully functioning adults and win their ladies’ love and respect.