Love’s Labour’s Lost
Act Five, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Loved it. LOVED it. I can, I think, understand why Bloom holds the play in such high esteem – it is the first play we’ve read so far of Shakespeare’s, I think, that we can feel him pushing himself linguistically…we can feel him, I think, having fun. And because of that, we (or at least I) had fun.
Since this is Bloom’s pet play, I thought I’d start our two-part look at Act Five of the play with the bardolator himself:
“Act V, Scene II, of Love’s Labour’s Lost is Shakespeare’s earliest triumph at closure, the first of those elaborate set pieces that surprise us by their fine excess. In length, this single scene constitutes almost a third of the play’s text, and it affords Shakespeare astonishing scope for his gifts, while as action little more comes about than the announcement of the king of France’s death and the subsequent loss of their love’s labor of wooing by Berowne, Navarre, and their friends. The sustained eloquence and verve of this final scene rivals all the Shakespearean brilliances to come, at the closes of As You Like It, Measure for Measure, and the late romances.
The construction of Act V, Scene ii, of LLL is adroitly worked through. It starts with the four women coolly analyzing their would-be lovers’ tactics, after which their elderly counselor, Boyet, advises them to prepare for a visitation by their admirers disguised as Muscovites. The Muscovite invasion is beaten off with defensive wit and evasion, and is followed by the Masque of the Nine Worthies, as performed by the commoners, an entertainment disrupted by the rudeness of the frustrated noblemen, who thus forget the courtesy they owe to their inferiors in rank and status. A fine theatrical coup then intervenes, as a messenger announces the death of the French king. The ceremonial farewell to their defeated suitors which are answered by severe conditions of a year’s service and penance for each courtier, after which presumably their entreaties may find some acceptance. Berowne’s skepticism as to the realism of such expectations precludes a final entertainment, in which the owl of winter and the cuckoo of spring debate rival versions of the way things are. That gives us an elaborate fivefold sequence, more a pageant than it is the completion of a plot, and it raises the erotic war between men and women to new levels of sophistication and ruefulness. The play ceases to be Berowne’s and threatens ever more intensely his sense of identity, since he becomes another fool of love, Rosaline’s victim.
No other comedy by Shakespeare ends with such erotic defeat, since we can doubt, with Berowne, whether these particular Jacks and Jills ever will come together. This realization gives the festive rituals of the final scene a hollow undersong, one that emerges with fierce resonance in the final contest between the cuckoo and the owl. We hear throughout a countercelebration, since more than male vanity is vanquished. In the war of wits, women’s sophistication exposes 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. Shakespeare’s florabundance of language modulates to plain (but utterly witty) talk between the ladies as Act V, scene ii, begins:
We are wise girls to mock our lovers so.
They are worse fools to purchase mocking so.
That same Berowne I’ll torture ere I go.
O! that I knew he were but in by the week.
How I would make him fawn, and beg, and seek,
And wait the season, and observe the times,
And spend his prodigal wits in bootless rimes,
And shape his service wholly to my hests
And make him proud to make me proud that jests!
If that is the Dark Lady of the Sonnets speaking, then Shakespeare suffered perhaps even more than he intimates. The relationship of Berowne and Rosaline has sadomasochistic overtones that make us doubt the woman ever would yield the greater pleasures of her ambivalence to the simpler ones of acceptance. Disguised, the women discover that they are interchangeable to the men (MY NOTE: THIS SEEMS TO BE A COMMON THEME – WE’LL SEE IT AGAIN IN MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM); Berowne woos the Princess, and Navarre courts Rosaline, to the chorus of Boyet’s monitory guide for all perplexed males:
The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen
As is the razor’s edge invisible,
Cutting a smaller hair than may be seen;
Above the sense of sense; so sensible
Seemeth their conference, their conceits have wings
Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thought, swifter things.
Boyet is the play’s prophet, himself past love, he sounds forth the theme of a female anti-wit itself so fiercely witty as to destroy any possibility of erotic fulfillment. There is wonderful humor and charm, but also an authentic pathos when Berowne surrenders in the war of wit, only to find that Rosaline takes no prisoners:
Thus pour the stars down plagues for perjury.
Can any face of brass hold longer out?
Here stand I, lady; dart thy skill at me;
Bruise me with scorn, confound me with a flout;
Thrust thy sharp wit quite through my ignorance;
Cut me to pieces with thy keen conceit;
And I will wish thee never more to dance,
Nor never more in Russian habit wait.
O! never will I trust to speeches penn’d
Nor to the motion of a school-boy’s tongue,
Nor never come in visor to my friend,
Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper’s song.
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-pil’d hyperboles, spruce affection,
Figures pedantical, these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation:
I do forswear them, and I here protest,
By this white glove (how white the hand, God knows),
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express’d
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes.
Trading ‘taffeta phrases’ for ‘russet yeas and honest kersey noes’ allies Berowne with homespun English cloth, an alliance that inspires Berowne to a semi-reformed declaration that is instantly squelched by the remorseless Rosaline:
And, to begin: Wench, — so God help me, law!—
My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.
Sans ‘sans,’ I pray you.
Still irrepressible, Berowne erupts into the dangerous wit of comparing his friends’ passion for Rosaline’s companions to the plague in Shakespeare’s London. This metaphor or conceit is so extreme that one wonders if Shakespeare’s bitterness toward his own Dark Lady is not contaminating the exuberant Berwone:
Soft! let us see:
Write ‘Lord have mercy on us’ on those three,
They are infected, in their hearts it lies;
They have the plague, and caught it of your eyes:
These lords are visited; you are not free,
For the Lord’s tokens on you do I see.
The Princess and Rosaline deny these ‘tokens’ or plague symptoms and proceed to demonstrate the Muscovites’ inabilities to distinguish one beloved from another. Discomfited, Berowne and his fellow proceed to disgrace themselves by converting their frustration into a rather nasty scorn of the Masque of the Nine Worthies, as acted by ‘the pedant, the braggart, the hedge-priest, the fool, and the boy.’ But is the lords who behave like petulant, scorned boys, ragging their social inferiors with viciously false wit. In response, the pedantic Holofernes reproves them with an authentic dignity: ‘This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.’ Poor Armado, even more savagely derided, charmingly defends the Trojan hero Hector, whom he impersonates:
The sweet war-man is dead and rotten; sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried; when he breathed, he was a man.
Shakespeare enhances the amiable pathos of Armado when the eloquent Spaniard reveals his shirtless poverty, thus provoking Boyet to a peculiarly low nastiness. A marvelous theatrical coup intervenes with Marcade, a messenger from the court of France, announcing to the Princess the sudden death of the King, her father. Since Berowne and his friends, and Boyet, are about to forfeit all of our humorous sympathy, Shakespeare could not have delayed the coup longer without marring LLL. Death is also in Navarre, as it is in Arcady, and the war of wit is over none too soon, with the defeat of the suitors threatening to turn into a witless rout. In a wonderful recovery, Shakespeare salvages the dignity of all on stage, though at the expense of what Berowne and his fellows persist in calling ‘love.’
The Princess begins the final movement with a gracious apology that comes a little short of accounting for Rosaline’s bitterness:
Prepare, I say. I thank you, gracious lords,
For all your fair endeavours; and entreat,
Out of a new-sad soul, that you vouchsafe
In your rich wisdom to excuse or hide
The liberal opposition of our spirits,
If over-boldly we have borne ourselves
In the converse of breath, your gentleness
Was guilty of it. Farewell, worthy lord!
A heavy heart bears not a humble tongue
Excuse me so, coming too short of thanks
For my great suit so easily obtain’d.
Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief;
And by these badges understand the king.
For your fair sakes we have neglected time,
Play’d foul play with our oaths. Your beauty, ladies,
Hath much deform’d us, fashioning our humours
Even to the opposed end of our intents;
And what in us hath seem’d ridiculous, —
As love is full of unbefitting strains;
All wanton as a child, skipping and vain;
Form’d by the eye, and therefore, like the eye,
Full of straying shapes, of habits, and of forms,
Varying in subjects, as the eye doth roll
To every varies object in his glance:
Which party-coated presence of loose love
Put on by us, if, in your heavenly eyes,
Have misbecom’d our oaths and gravities,
Those heavenly eyes, that look into these faults,
Suggested us to make. Therefore, ladies,
Our love being yours, the error that love makes
Is likewise yours: we to ourselves prove false,
By being once false for ever to be true
To those that make us both, — fair ladies, you:
And even that falsehood, in itself a sin,
Thus purifies itself and turns to grace.
‘Honest plain words’ rapidly elaborate here into Berowne’s baroque style, which is the man. Rather splendidly, he has learned nothing (or very little), as befits a hero of extravagant comedy. We are back in his exalted rhapsody on ‘the right Promethean fire,’ to be stolen by men from their own images reflected in women’s eyes. The faith of Eros is carried over here into a parody of Christian grace in the final lines of his speech. But Berowne’s hymn, though it may alarm the audience, is turned aside by the Princess, who deftly denies the analogue of devoutness:
We have receiv’d 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.
There is a note of fine desperation in Navarre’s response:
Now, at the latest minute of the hour,
Grant us your loves.
The reply of the Princess is one of those Shakespearean apothegms perpetually invaluable to women resisting any premature ensnarement:
A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
Of Shakespeare’s own marriage, we have just enough information to infer that it may have been about as amicable as that of Socrates. As I have noted, in the cosmos of the plays, the happiest marriages doubtless are those of the Macbeths, before their crimes, and of Claudius and Gertrude before Hamlet’s interventions. As I read Shakespeare, before-and-after is a legitimate inference, a vital aspect of the supreme dramatist’s art. The martial futures of Helena and Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, and of the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure, give cause for grimaces, nor does one contemplate cheerfully years of Beatrice and Benedick battling it out, in what follows the end of Much Ado About Nothing. All Shakespearean marriages, comic and otherwise, are zany or grotesque, since essentially the women must marry down, particularly the peerless Rosalind in As You Like It. Shakespeare, and his public, can take a curious delight in LLL, where no one gets married, and where we are more than free to doubt that a year’s service or penance by the men (unlikely to be performed) will bring about any unions. The Princess sends Navarre off to a year in a hermitage, while Rosaline, with diabolic glee, assigns Berowne a year as comic comforter in a hospital: ‘To enforce the pained impotent to smile.’ We need not, however, contemplate married life between Berowne and Rosaline, as a final exchange between Navarre and Berowne makes clear:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ‘twill end.
That’s too long for a play.
Berowne ruefully destroys two illusions: erotic and representational. The play indeed is over, except for the songs of the cuckoo and the owl. Standing on stage, but outside the artifice of the player, Berowne more than ever speaks for Shakespeare himself, who revised LLL in 1597 after having achieved Falstaff, and so after fully achieving himself. There are two voices in Berowne, as I hear him, one pre-Falstaffian, and the other in Sir John’s spirit, destroying illusions. That is also, to my understanding, the spirit of the final twenty-eight Sonnets, starting with 127: ‘In the old age black was not counted fair,’ which returns to Rosaline’s mysterious rancor, and to Berowne’s apparently unfounded fear that she will cuckold him. One of the charming oddities of LLL is the mock dispute as to Rosaline’s beauty in Act IV, Scene III, lines 228-73, argued between Berowne and his friends, where Berowne is rather clearly the author of Sonnet 127, which he either echoes or prefigures. I tend to agree with Stephen Booth that we learn nothing more certain about Shakespeare from the Sonnets than we do from the plays. I do not know whether Shakespeare was heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual (presumably the last), nor do I know the identity of the Dark Lady or of the Young Man (though she seems to me to be much more than a fiction, and most likely he is the Earl of Southampton). Yet I hear the reluctant passion of Berowne when I read Sonnet 127.
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face,
Sweat beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
Bit is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem;
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
Berowne never touches the agonies of later Dark Sonnets, such as the ‘desire is death’ of 147, but his equivocal variations upon Rosaline’s black eyes are incessant through the play. Rosaline seems sometimes to be in the wrong play, since her stance toward Berowne is so severe and vindictive, unlike anything in the Princess’s attitude toward Navarre, or of the other women toward their lovers. When Rosaline orders Berowne to hospital service, so as ‘to enforce the pained impotent to smile,’ the wit replies with what could be Shakespeare’s own realization of the limits of comedy:
To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.
Impressive as these lines are, they in no way move the implacable Rosaline, whose sole concern is ‘to choke a gibing spirit.’ As the play’s audience, we have no desire to see Berowne’s wit choked, and we therefore take some relief from his last words in LLL: ‘That’s too long for a play.’ It has been Berowne’s play, but Shakespeare chooses to end with two contending songs, Spring against Winter, in which Berowne departs, and we are clearly in the world of Shakespeare’s own country youth. The land of Navarre has vanished as we listen to the cuckoo and the owl sing, and hear about ‘Dick the shepherd’ and ‘greasy Joan.’ Barber finely remarked that, in the absence of marriages, the songs provide ‘an expression of the going-on power of life’; I would add to that our satisfaction at being returned to the common life after our sojourn with the courtly wits of Navarre. And this is an appropriate point to say that Shakespeare, who wrote the best blank verse and prose in the language, is also the most eminent of its song writers:
When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight.
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
And merry larks are ploughman’s clocks,
Where turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo; O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d, and ways be foul,
Then mighty sings the staring owl,
To-who, a merry note
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then mighty sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
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. Married or unmarried, we are alarmed by the return of nature’s force, and we are receptive to the song’s mockery of the immemorial male anxiety of being cuckolded. Lovely as the first song is, the Winter’s lyric is grander, with its celebration of a communal life conducted around a fire and a stirred pot. The owl’s note is merry only because it is heard from snugly within, by men and women held together by needs, by realities, and by the shared values represented by the parson’s saw, drowned out by country coughs. Shakespeare’s most elaborately artificial comedy, his great feat of language, antithetically subsides in natural simplicities and in country phases.”
So what do you think of Bloom’s take? Convincing? In my next post Sunday night/Monday morning, I’ll have some alternative views.
Enjoy your weekend.