“Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,/Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Act Four

By Dennis Abrams


Act Four:  Finding the ladies out hunting, Costard produces Don Armado’s letter by mistake.  Without realizing his error, Costard goes on to deliver the other letter to Jaquenetta (anyone surprised?), and they ask the incredibly pompous and pretentious schoolmaster Holofernes to read it aloud.  Meanwhile, Berowne has overheard the King composing love poems in private, and they both hear Longueville doing the same.  Dumaine then walks by, trying out HIS own poetry, at which point Longueville emerges from hiding and accuses him of breaking their agreement.  The King follows, accusing them both,  but Berowne holds back, and appears accusing all three of hypocrisy.  Unluckily for him, though, Jaquenetta  and Costard arrive, brandishing his own letter to Rosaline which, despite his best efforts, is revealed to the others.  The four men agree to abandon their pact and set about wooing the ladies in earnest.


How good was that?  I have to admit that I had difficulties with the scene with the ladies hunting (I’m not sure whether it was because that was the point I had just picked up the play and it took a couple of minutes to get back into the verse and rhythms, or whether it was the scene itself), but scene two, with the ridiculous Holofernes, and the way scene three built, with each of the four revealing themselves, was, well, pretty near perfect.

And again…the eyes…the eyes…I’d never noticed how important the word “eyes” and the concept of love through the eyes was…


From Bloom, beginning with a reference to Boyet’s speech in Act two, scene one:

“’All senses to that sense did make them repair,’ is a pithy summary of the erotic despotism of the male eye.  Berowne, in his misdirected sonnet to Rosaline, says that her eye ‘Jove’s lightning bears,’ a rueful and masochistic recognition that the lovelorn wit adumbrates in a prose reverie:

‘The king he is hunting the deer; I am coursing myself:  they have pitched a toil, I am toiling in a pitch, — pitch that defiles:  defile! a fould word.  Well, set thee down, sorrow! for so they say the fool said, and so say I, and I the fool:  well proved, wit!  By the Lord, this love is as mad as Ajax:  it kills sheep, it kills me, I a sheep:  well proved again o’ my side!  I will not love; if I do, hang me; I’faith, I will not.  O! but her eye, — by this light, but for her eye, I would not love her; yes, for her two eyes.  Well, I do nothing in the world but lie, and lie in my throat.  By heaven, I do love, and it hath taught me to rhyme, and to be melancholy; and here is part of my rhyme, and here my melancholy.  Well, she hath one o’ my sonnets already; the clown bore it, the fool sent I t, and the lady hath it:  sweet clown, sweeter fool, sweetest lady!  By the world, I would not care a pin if the other three were in.  Here comes one with a paper:  God give him grace to groan!

The other three grace to groan lyrically; the King first in a sonnet on the Princess of France’s eye beams, followed by Longaville in a sonnet celebrating the heavenly rhetoric of his love’s eye, and Dumaine in an ode a little lacking in the ocular obsession.  With all four scholars of the Navarese Academe revealed as traitors to their ascetic ideal, Berowne sums up their joint conversion to Eros in what most scholars have agreed is the central speech of the play:

Learning is but an adjunct to ourself,

And where we are our learning likewise is:

Then when ourselves we see in ladies’ eyes,

Do we not likewise see our learning there?

O! we have made a vow to study, lords,

And in that vow we have forsworn our books:

For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,

In leaden contemplation have found out

Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes

Of beauty’s tutors have enrich’d you with?

Other slow arts entirely keep the brain,

And therefore, finding barren practisers,

Scarce show a harvest of their heavy toil;

But love, first learned in a lady’s eyes,

Lives not alone immured in the brain,

But, with the motion of all elements,

Courses as swift as thought in every power,

And gives to every power a double power,

Above their functions and their offices.

It adds a precious seeing to the eye;

A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind;

A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound,

When the suspicious head of theft is stopp’d:

Love’s feeling is  more soft and sensible

Than are the tender horns of cockled snails:

Love’s tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste.

For valour, is not Love a Hercules,

Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?

Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical

As bright Apollo’s lute, strung with his hair;

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods

Make heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Never durst poet touch a pen to write

Until his ink were temper’d with Love’s sighs;

O! then his lines would ravish savage ears,

And plant in tyrants mild humility.

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;

They are the books, the arts, the academes,

That show, contain, and nourish all the world;

Else none at all in aught proves excellent.

Then fools you were these women to forswear,

Or, keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.

For wisdom’s sake, a word that all men love,

Or for love’s sake, a word that loves all men,

Or for men’s sake, the authors of these women,

Or women’s sake, by whom we men are men,

Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,

Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.

It is religion to be thus forsworn;

For charity itself fulfills the law;

And who can sever love from charity?


This is Berowne’s rhetorical triumph, and a wonderful parody of all male erotic triumphalism, then, now, and in time to be.  It needs no feminist critique to uncover the outrageous narcissism that Berowne gorgeously celebrates:

Then when ourselves we see in ladies’ eyes,

Do we not likewise see our learning there?

Their study is of themselves, and what they study to love is also themselves.  Somehow Berowne has seen his own reflection; more truly than ever before, in Rosaline’s pitch-black eyes, and so has fallen more deeply in love with himself.  Freud’s version of this Shakespearean wisdom was the grim observation that object-libido began as ego-libido and always could be converted back to ego-libido again.  Berowne, as much in language as he is with himself, exalts the pragmatic augmentation of sensuous power that accompanies the Herculean and Promethean fall into love.  His rhapsody is superbly free of any concern for Rosaline, ostensible object of his passion:  the ‘double power’ that love confers comes with the theft of ‘the right Promethean fire’ from women’s eyes, a theft that parodies Romans 13:8, ‘For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.’  Berowne’s spirited blasphemy (‘It is religion to be thus forsworn;/For charity itself fulfills the law,/And who can sever love from charity?’), which concludes Act IV, ends the Navarrese Academy, and takes us to the play’s comic crisis, where love’s labor will be lost.  But there is more to the play than the campaign of Berowne and his fellows to win the ladies of France, and so I double back to the fantastic comedians of Shakespeare’s joyous invention:  Don Adriano de Armado and his witty page, Moth, Holofernes the pedant and Sir Nathaniel the curate, Costard the Clown and Constable Dull…

The flamboyant Armado (whose name jovially alludes to the defeated Spanish Armada) and the incisive Moth are a grand comic duo, and their bantering is a foreshadowing of Falstaff and Hal’s exchanges.  A very different order of comedy enters with the obsessed Holofernes (names for Gargantua’s Latin tutor in Rabelais), who touches an apotheosis in boasting of his own rhetorical talents:


This is a gift I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions:  these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of ‘pia mater,’ and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion.  But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.

The pia mater, the fine membrane that encloses the brain, is more than anatomical entity here.  The descendants of Holofernes, endearingly absurd, were once to be found profusely on academic faculties, and I have a certain nostalgia for them, as they did no harm.”


Tony Tanner also examines Berowne’s speech:

“To read Berowne’s seventy-five line paean in Act IV is to realize just what amazing elaborations ‘love’ can inspire, or permit.  The occasion is the climax of the scene of multiple eavesdropping, when Berowne steps forward to ‘whip hypocrisy,’ in the shape of the King, Longaville, and Dumaine, who have, in turn, caught and denounced each other for having love-letters and sonnets for the visiting ladies.  Berowne triumphs in his ‘over-view’ – ‘O, what a scene of fool’ry I have seen’ (IV, iii, 162) – and enjoys scorning ‘men like you, men of inconstancy’ (IV, iii, 179).  At the peak of his derision, Jaquenetta comes in, bringing what turns out to be Berowne’s love-letter to Rosaline to be read.  Berowne collapses and confesses – ‘you three fools lacked me fool to make up the mess’ (IV, iii, 206).  (‘Mess’ is one of those interesting words which seems to look both ways.  Coming from a serving of food, or mixed food for an animal, it came to refer to any confused or shapeless mass – as now.  But, in the Elizabethan period, it was also used to mean a small group or party of precisely four people – for meals, dances, games, whatever.  Confusion and order; shapeless and exact.  Strange.)  Now that they are all discovered to have broken their vows, and fallen for women, they need to find ‘some flattery for this evil…Some tricks, some quillets [subtleties], how to cheat the devil’ (IV, iii, 285-7) – in other words, some casuistry to somehow justify their perjury.  Berowne is just the man for the task.  Their real ‘folly,’ he declares, is not their present state of being ‘forsworn,’ but their original belief that they could and should ‘forswear’ women.  Using a religious argument with which we are now familiar in the comedies, he argues:

Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,

Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.

There is a lot of sophistry, or ‘glozing’ (superficial word-play use to ‘gloss,’ palliate, extenuate, etc.) in his speech; but, as Holofernes would say, ‘the Gentles are at their game.’  Berowne finally demonstrates to their group satisfaction that ‘It is religion to be thus forsworn), and, happily bundling up his Christianity with his paganism, the relieved King cries out ‘Saint Cupid then!  And soldiers to the field! (IV, iii, 365 – an invocation, incidentally, which echoes one by Armado at the end of Act I.  In the matter of susceptibility to a woman, there is not much to tell between them.)

Berowne is the most surprised at his susceptibility, as the long soliloquy starting – ‘O, and I, forsooth, in love!’ – which ends Act III, reveals (III, I, 175-207).  He, too, reluctantly acknowledges the power of ‘This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,’ but, initially at least, he has small thanks for ‘this senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid”.  This love, or sudden infatuation, he feels is:

a plague

That Cupid will impose for my neglect

Of his almighty dreadful little might.

That ‘plague’ metaphor is by no means at all a joke.  He returns to it at the end to describe the condition of his companions:

Write ‘Lord have mercy on us’ on those three.

They are infected, in their hearts it lies;

They have the plague, and have caught it of your eyes.

These lords are visited…

(V, ii, 420-23)

A sign reading ‘Lord have mercy on us’ was hung on the door of a house which had been infected by the plague, which was also known as a ‘visitation.’  The play was written very close to, if not in, the year of 1592-3, which was one of the worst ‘visitations.’  This probably tells us something about how tough-minded the Elizabethans could be in their humour; but it reminds us that they also thought that love could be a sort of sickness, sometimes mortal.  In a sudden dark moment (which anticipates the ending), while the ladies are joking about cupid, there is this exchange:


Ay, and a shrowd unhappy gallows too.


You’ll ne’er be friends with him:  a’ killed your sister.


He made her melancholy, sad, and heavy;

And so she died.  Had she been light, like you,

Of such a merry, nimble, stirring spirit,

She might ha’been a grandma ere she died.

And so may you, for a light heart lives long.

(Vi, ii, 12-18)

‘Gallows’ here means someone fit for the gallows (in Much Ado Cupid is called a ‘hangman,’).  This play is almost exclusively for, by, and about, ‘merry, nimble, stirring spirits’ playing with, and at, love.  But here is a sudden chill reminder.  Like the plague, Cupid can kill.

But in his long paean, it is the positive aspects of love which Berowne wants (has) to emphasize.  He evokes its Orphic power – ‘as sweet and musical/As bright Apollo’s lute’ (IV, iii, 341-2), and stresses its superior educative potency.  His argument — or nimble sophistry, if you will – is, roughly, that we will learn much more from looking at our women, than from hanging over the books in our rotten old academy.

For where is any author in the world

Teaches such beauty as a woman’s eye?

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive.

They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;

They are the books, the arts, the academes,

That show, contain, and nourish all the world.


And finally, from Garber:

“As it turns out, the high-spirited young aristocrats show very little propensity for study.  In addition to the schoolmaster Holofernes and his assistant, the curate Nathaniel, they have brought along with them, for amusement rather than edification, a fantastical Spaniard, Don Adriano de Armado (whose last name suggests the English sea victory over Spain in 1588); Armado’s cheeky page, the boy Moth (pronounced ‘Mote,’ an allusion to his small size); and a down-to-earth clown, or rustic, Costard (the name is that of a species of apple, thus he is ‘Mr. Apple-Head”).  Costard is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s wonderfully pragmatic ‘wise fools,’ like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  His earthiness stands in implicit contrast to the lofty theoretical sentiments of the King and his friends.  While the noblemen pretend, at least, to be able to ignore the prompting of desire, Costard, caught by the constable Dull in conversation with the comely dairymaid Jacquenetta in violation of the King’s edcit, explains:  ‘Such is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh’ and ‘Sir, I confess the wench.”

Costard’s simplicity and directness, and his emphasis on the body and the laws of nature, are explicitly contrasted with the ornate style of Jacquenetta’s other suitor, Don Armado.  Given Armado’s literary propensities, it is perhaps inevitable that he expresses his love not only in a long and ludicrous love letter, written in the exaggerated ‘euphusitic’ style,’ but also in a verbal exhortation:

Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet.

Devise wit, write pen, for I am for whole volumes, in folio.

A folio was a large-format book, used for serious works like sermons and histories.  When Shakespeare’s rival Ben Jonson published his own plays in folio form in 1616, he was roundly criticized for doing so, since plays were regarded as inconsequential and trivial, unsuited for the dignity of a folio.  Although Shakespeare’s plays were ultimately published in folio form, after his death, the idea of love poetry belong in a folio is a literary joke here.  But far more important to LLL is Armado’s rhetorical determination to ‘turn sonnet,’ to become the author of, and indeed, the walking, talking embodiment of, the standard form of Elizabethan love-longing.  For to turn sonnet is the fat not only of the low, or comic lovers in this play, but also of their supposed betters, the King and his friends.  Armado’s bombastic request for divine assistance, comic in its overwrought vehemence, also points toward a key theme in LLL, the coming to life of written literary forms upon the stage.

This is a play about young lovers caught with their sonnets down – revealing, both shamefacedly and joyously, that far from obeying the King’s stern and life-denying edict, they have already fallen in love, and have the poems to prove it.  Don Armado and Costard thus represent the warring sides of the King and his men; preciosity and straightforwardness, decorum and crudeness, literature and life.  One by one the shamefaced courtiers come forward, announce the dilemma of being in love against the vows they have sworn, and declaim sonnets they have written to their ladies.  The scene unfolds brilliantly, almost itself like a sophisticated verse form, abcd dcba.  First Berowne appears, soliloquizes about his plight, notes that he has written a sonnet to Rosaline and sent it to her, wishes the others were similarly afflicted, and then moves aside, out of sight, to be followed immediately by the King, Longueville, and Dumaine, each of them with a sonnet in hand.  They read their sonnets, then hide, but overhear the next-comer.  Once the last sonnet has been read, the accusations begin in reverse order, Dumaine accused by Loungueville, Longueville’s love unmasked by the King, and finally Berowne, who is able to accuse them of ‘hypocrisy’ only for so long as it takes Jaquenetta and Costard to arrive.

For, in a mistake that is a prime engine of the plot, Berowne has given his sonnet to Costard to deliver to Rosaline, and Armado has given his letter to Costard to deliver to Jaquenetta, and Costard, of course, has mixed them up and misdelivered them.  The ‘misdirected letter’ is a staple of much stage comedy from classical times, and it will reappear in other plays of Shakespeare, from comedies to tragedies.  But the point here, nicely made by the error of the ‘natural man’ Costard, is that the two kinds of love, Berowne’s and Armado’s, are really the same – just as the two beloveds, the dairymaid and the highborn lady, are more same than different.  In other words, Costard’s mistake is not really a mistake.  This is a point for the audience, not the chracters to appreciate.  Berowne’s outrage at this error is one of the many elements of discrepant awareness – characters failing to see what the audience sees – that is the functional viewpoint of Shakespearean comedy.  Like Berowne, the audience of comedy fancies itself seated above and out of sight as the follies of others play themselves out for its amusement.  Again and again throughout his comedies, it will become clear that Shakespeare permits us this quasi-Olympian detachment only to precipitate us into a consciousness of our own implication in folly.”


Garber, looking at Berowne’s major speech in Act Four, adds this:

Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,

Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.

“This terse and elegant injunction summarizes the action in a single sentence.  Marked by the rhetorical figure of chiasmus (‘oaths’/’selves’/’selves’/’oaths’/), Berowne’s lines chart both the emotional experience of the characters and the ins and outs of the plot.  In all of Shakespearean comedy there is no clearer statement of the function and purpose of a comic plot, and of its transformative effects.  The familiar theme of losing oneself to find oneself resonates throughout LLL as it has in The Comedy of Errors.  It is the story of Shakespearean comedy writ little, and we will encounter it again and again, in plays from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Merchant of Venice and beyond.”



Our next reading:  Love’s Labour’s Lost:  Act Five

Act Five is also long with much wordplay, so I’m going to give you the week to read it.  (And a question for the group:  is that too much time?  too little?  just right?  What do you think of the pace?)

So my next posts:

I’ll post again with supplemental information on Tuesday night/Wednesday

And I’ll post Thursday night/Friday with the summation of the play.


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4 Responses to “Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,/Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.”

  1. Catherine says:

    Not sure you should give much weight to my speed since I’m already ahead of the group, and when we were doing Proust I dragged behind. I have slowed down though since I commented last. I finished Richard III and then read Henry IV, Part 1 thinking that was next, then realized I had skipped King John and Merchant of Venice. Now not sure if I should continue with Henry IV, Part 2 or go back and read the other two first. That’s what I get for not staying with the group.

    • Actually, Romeo and Juliet is next, followed by Midsummer and Richard II, so…you’re far enough ahead that it will be easy for you to come join us behind. Or something like that.

  2. I agree with the scene where the women are hunting… found my mind wandering off and in the end just skipped it.

    But the rest I enjoy. If I were noting down quotes from this to tack to my wall for later inspiration, I fear by LLL would by now be heavy with added ink. I’m a sucker for a clever turn of phrase, and at times this is almost too much.

    Great, great play. Can’t wait to finish. Am also glad to see that Romeo and Juliet is next, my favorite Shakespeare and one of my favorite “books” of all time (along with 1984 and Flowers for Algernon).

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