“Our wooings doth not end like an old play;/Jack hath not Jill.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Act V, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


To continue my love letter to this play, I wanted to briefly discuss Holofernes and his sidekick Nathaniel, who, it seems to me, provide an extreme example of what it’s like to have TOO much language.  As I’m sure you noticed, their speech is replete with obscure literary allusions and classical tags, and mere conversation seems to be nothing but an excuse for games of rhetorical one-upmanship.  The Princess’s killing of a deer hunting in Act Four (a scene I found difficult in the extreme), provides the schoolmaster with an opportunity to put his linguistic virtuosity to the test.  Promising to ‘something affect the letter” (use alliteration in the manner of old-fashioned verse), he then launches into an ‘extemporal epitaph’ to celebrate the occasion:

The preyful Princess pierced and pricked a pretty pleasing pricket.

Some say a sore, but not a sore till now made sore with shooting.

The dogs did yell; put ‘l’ to ‘sore,’ then ‘sorel’ jumps from thicket –

If sore be sore, then “I” to ‘sore’ makes fifty sore – O sore “I’!

Of one sore I am hundred make by adding one more ‘I.”

It’s tempting from our vantage point to think that this speech has lot something in historical translation.  But in fact, it seems likely that Elizabethan audiences would probably have been just as puzzled by it as we are – probably more in fact, since they’d be just hearing it in the theater, without the luxury of being able to read it once or twice.  This monstrous exercise, rather like Holofernes himself, is amusing but socially dysfunctional:  it fails to make language useful.  Congratulated by Nathaniel on his ‘rare talent,’ Holofernes, flattered, replies:  ‘This is a gift that I have, simple, simple – a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions…’  The more he cycles through synonyms, the less he actually means.

But whereas Holofernes and Nathaniel are content to impress each other, Don Armado has grander ambitions – to cement a friendship with the people he tries to regard as his equals, King Ferdinand and his intimates.  The problem is that Don Armado’s addiction to what he calls the ‘sweet smoke of rhetoric’ illustrates some of the social dangers of saying the wrong things.  Armado is blissfully unaware that even his page, the remarkable Mote, sneers at him:  addressing the King somewhat implausibly as “Great deputy, the welkin’s viceregent and sole dominator of Navarre, my soul’s earth’s god, and body’s fostering patron,’ he continues in an awkwardly grandiose style:

So it is, besieged with sable-coloured melancholy, I did commend the black-oppressing humour to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving air, and, as I am a gentleman, betook myself to walk.  The time when?  About the sixth hour, when beasts most graze, birds best peck, and men sit down to that nourishment which is called supper.  So much for the time when.  Now for the ground which – which, I mean, I walked upon.  It is yclpet thy park.  Then for the place where – where, I mean, I did encounter that obscene and most preposterous event that draweth from my snow-white pen the ebon-coloured ink which here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest…


Though searching desperately for a courtly tone, Armado get it all wrong.  Like his performance as Hector in the pageant of the Nine Worthies in Act  V – which ends in even greater fiasco than the artisans’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Armado’s incapacity to judge how he appears, and how he speaks, renders him an irresistible figure of fun.  A similar fate meets poor Holofernes, whose own impersonation of Judas Maccabeus is destroyed by heckling, and who wretchedly exclaims that his treatment is ‘not generous, nor gentle, nor humble.’  In moments like these, it is possible to see Shakespeare hinting at what will become increasingly apparent in his later comedies:  words really can hurt.


A few points from Garber, starting with the play within the play:

“As with the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an onstage audience of aristocratic lovers watches a mythological version of their own story, and fails to see the similarity so glaringly evident to the audience in the theater.  Costard plays Pompey, whom he calls ‘the Big,’ only to be corrected by his noble audience.  His acknowledgment, ‘I made a little fault in ‘great,’ is ready-made to be turned back on the ambitions of the King and court.  When the hapless country curate, Nathaniel, entrusted with the role of Alexander the Great, stumbles on his lines (deliberately written in old-fashioned twelve-syllable verse, not in ‘modern’ iambic pentameter), he is dismissed, in a classic putdown, as ‘a marvelous good neighbour, faith, and a very good bowler, but for Alisander – alas, you see ho ‘tis – a little o’erparted’.  By structuring his play with ‘high’ and ‘low’ plots that mirror each other, Shakespeare is able to poke fun at the pretenses of the characters in the former and to cede the moral high ground to those in the latter…

The discomfiture of Nathaniel, and the derisive laughter of most of the onstage audience, cannot quite conceal that these noble ‘worthies,’ too, are ‘a little o’erparted,’ not up to the heroic ‘conquering’ tasks outlines in their collective quest for fame and the defeat of death.  Indeed, death itself will intervene by the end of the play, with the arrival of a messenger who reveals that the King of France, the Princess’s father, has died – an announcement that interrupts the pageant and points towards the close of LLL.  The announcement itself is brilliantly presented, in this play of words and wordiness, as a necessary failure of language:


I am sorry, madam for the news I bring

Is heavy on my tongue.  The King your father –


Dead, for my life.


Even so.  My tale is told.

Reminders of death, in fact, come thick and fast at the end of LLL.  In what would seem to be an otherwise lighthearted moment we hear that the lady Catherine had a sister who died of love.  This history is not stressed, as the ladies turn their attention immediately to the pleasures of the present moment, but the shadow of death is there.  In the pageant of the ‘Nine Worthies’ poor Holofernes the pedant is called a memento mori, ‘a death’s face in a ring.’

The play is thus framed by intimations of mortality.  The offstage of the King of France (a personage already described in the first scene of the play as ‘decrepit, sick, and bedrid’ is a hallmark of Shakespearean comedy, for these comedies are consistently bounded by tragedy and loss, just beyond the horizon of the play.  Likewise, it is a fact of life – and a law of genre – in Shakespeare’s comedies that no character we actually meet in a play will die, though many are threatened.  Deaths do occur, but they occur offstage….


From Tanner, a discussion of the “love” the King and his cohorts have for the Princess and hers:

“But, is this love?  One cannot help but feel that these young men most enjoy talking about it; trying to find clever ways of expressing how they feel, competing in hyperbolic praises of their adored ones.  They seem to be caught up in – enjoyable – post-Petrarchan posturings.  That the mere sight of the ladies has put paid to their absurd monkish resolves, is certain enough.  They have been ‘struck’ – or indeed, ‘infected.’  But they don’t seem to have moved beyond that to any consideration of the ladies as other individuals, nor given much thought to love as a relationship between two people (and none at all to the prospect of sexual consummation – possibly a chivalric touch).  Barber rightly pointed out that Berowne’s speeches on love tend to become ‘autonomous rhapsodies’ that ‘almost forget the beloved.’  When they discover that the ladies deceived them by wearing masks and changing favours – while they thought they were ‘disguised’ as Muscovites! – Berowne is the first to see the trick:

The ladies did change favors, and then we,

Following the signs, wooed but the sign of she.

He speaks more truly than he knows; for they have, indeed, been wooing ‘the sign of she’ – -i.e., not individuals, but the conventionalized, generic idea of the female.  They never, we might say in today’s parlance, moved beyond the sign to what, truly, it signified.  Even when Berowne thinks he is trying to break out of artificiality, he shows himself to be still inextricably involved in it:


My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.


Sans ‘sans,’ I pray you.

Sincerity is an elusive thing – hard to detect in others, hard to be sure of even in oneself.  Berowne, certainly, has not yet got the knack of it.  Rosaline’s wry response is definitive, and says it all.

None of what I have said about the young lords as would-be ‘lovers’ extends to the ladies.  They are much more associated with ‘grace’; not so much Christian redemptive grace, as the grace of genuinely good, humane, manners.  To some extent, they have joined in the game – and with some pleasure, for they are, themselves, attracted to the men.  But always in a controlled, realistic, non-deceptive (and non-deceiving) way.  The Princess sums up how they took the lords’ ‘love-making’:

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.

And, we feel, they did absolutely right.  How right has just been graphically demonstrated at the play, or entertainment (or show, or pageant, or antic, or…) put on for the court by the non-aristocratic locals.  At the start, when the ladies were discussing the lords, they singled out a characteristic or attribute they all shared – a dangerously compulsive wit which could be ‘ravishing,’ but also sharp to the point of cruelty – they are ‘merry mocking’ lords.  Longaville’s ‘soil’ is:

…a sharp wit matched with too blunt a will,

Whose edge hath power to cut, whose will still wills

It should none spare that come within his power.

Dumaine ‘hath wit to make an ill shape good’ and Berowne turns everything ‘to a mirth-moving jest’.  When the locals put on their performance of the Nine Worthies – a performance as endearing as it is amusing – the King is worried that ‘they will shame us.’  In the event, the shame is all the lords’.  The Princess is gracious, and as we have seen in the hunting scene, compassionate:  ‘Great thanks, great Pompey’ – Alas!  poor Maccabaeus, how he hath been baited!’  (In rehearsal, Moth had spoken of ‘the way to make an offense gracious, though few have the grace to do it,’ The Princess has that ‘grace’; the lords emphatically lack it.)  The players are patient, well-mannered, deferential:  ‘Sweet Lord Longaville, rein thy tongue.’  But the lords display the higher yobbery throughout, boorishly baiting and mocking the poor players without pause.  There really is nothing like the bad manners of good society!  We may learn from the Arden editor that it was customary for the courtiers to engage in what he rightly calls ‘brutal’ mockery at such entertainments.  But, here again, I invoke my conviction that if we react to something as cruel, so did Shakespeare.  As the crude, rude, mockery continues, we feel that if this is so-called wit then it is wit at its most despicable, turned to bad ends.  When poor, gentle Holofernes is catcalled completely ‘out of countenance’ and is jeered off the stage by Berowne as a Jude-ass, he is moved to make the reproach which should shame them all – ‘This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.’  This, too, is definitive.  Berowne claimed that ‘love’ would teach them all they needed to know.  These clever, selfish, self-regarding young aristocrats have learned nothing.  The ladies are something more than justifi8ed in refusing to commit themselves to them in their unreconstructed state.

So – no weddings.  As Berowne ruefully points out:

Our wooings doth not end like an old play;

Jack hath not Jill.  These ladies’ courtesy

Might well have made our sport a comedy.

This is the whole point.  It is a ‘sport’ and not a ‘comedy.’  If it had been a comedy, Jack would have had Jill; if it had been a history, Jack would have been crowned; if it had been a tragedy, Jack and Jill would probably have both been dead.  Here, Jack and Jill just go their separate ways.  A play, in the sense of a drama was, as Shakespeare constructed it, a representation, in some mode and form, of an arc of a significantly completed action – inasmuch as life knows of any completions.  It might end, for example, in a marriage, a coronation, a funeral.  If we are to regard LLL as a drama, then we should see it as dramatizing how a ‘sport’ fails to become a ‘comedy.’  It is ‘interrupted,’ or ‘dashed’ as real life will always interrupt mere ‘pastime’; just as ‘holiday’ cannot go on forever, yet does not have any significant completion.  It simply has to, at some time or another, give way to the exigencies of ‘workday.’  The ‘interruption’ has been adumbrated and prepared for.  When the lords come dressed as Russians, Rosaline is about to start the dance, then stops it.

Play, music, then.  Nay, you must do it soon.

Not yet!  No dance!  Thus change I like the moon.

The episode ends with the ‘frozen Muscovites’ quite routed, and hopelessly ‘out of count’nance’.  Berowne can see what has happened:

I see the trick on’t.  Here was a consent,

Knowing aforehand of our merriment,

To dash it like a Christmas comedy.

He is alluding to that custom of disrupting with mockery a seasonal entertainment put on by the local other-classes, which I mentioned.  And, of course, the lords proceed to do exactly the same thing (only more cruelly) to the performance offered by the poor Worthies, ‘dashing’ it indeed, and putting the inexperienced players, exactly, quite ‘out of countenance.’  (These men, it should be noted, are all like Nathaniel, who is a ‘marvellous good neighbor’ but, in Costard’s memorable formulation, ‘a little o’er-parted,’.  The lords trying to play at lovers are ‘a little o’erparted,’ too.)

It is worth examining the point at which Shakespeare ‘dashes’ his own ‘merriment.’  The entertainment of the Worthies has collapsed, and threatens to end in a fight between Costard and Armado over Jaquenetta.  They are supposed to strip to their shirts for combat, but Armado refuses:

The naked truth of it is, I have no shirt.

A man without a shirt is a speech without a metaphor.  Immediately, the messenger Marcade enters with the naked, unadorned news of the death of the Princess’s father.  The ‘merriment’ is not only ‘interrupted’ – it is definitively dashed.  The Princess and her ladies retire to a ‘mourning house.’  The King is dispatched to ‘some forlorn and naked hermitage’ (796 – my italics).  Berowne is sent to a hospital to try to ‘move wild laughter in the throat of death,’ in the hope that that will ‘choke a gibing spirit.’  Jaquenetta is two months’ pregnant, and Armado promises to give up laying and take up ‘ploughing’ for her sake.  The ‘sport’ is over, and it is back to the naked, unadorned realities of birth, work, sickness, and death.  After Carnival, Lent.  The play ends with a pageant seasonal songs for Spring followed by Winter.  The festive interlude is over, and for the moment, it is more a matter of endings than renewals.  The songs sing for the year-round, seasonal pleasures and labours of simple, communal rural life.  The last line leaves us with the most homely and humble of pictures – ‘While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.’  Suddenly, we are a long way from princesses and court games.  The very last sentence of the play is in larger type in the Quatro and may represent a non-Shakespearean addition.  But it may be still Shakespeare – and the somewhat cryptic, enigmatic words are both ominous and fitting.  The line is given to Armado; but ideally, I think, it should seem to come from nowhere, or some mysterious source, like the pronouncement of an oracle.

The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.

‘Marcade,’ messenger of death, is a form of ‘Mercury,’ messenger of the gods.  Berowne invoked ‘bright Apollo’s lute,’ and tried to emulate his music.  But Death always has the last word.

Thus Shakespeare soberly and somberly ends his lightest, most ‘play-full’ play.  It is a bracing conclusion to a sufficiency of ‘sport.’  But I think we must remember the mounting pleasure which preceded it.  I am reminded of a statement by Emerson concerning what it is we go to great artists for.  ‘We came this time for condiments, not for corn.  We want the great genius only for joy…’  Perhaps not only for joy, but I feel that the emphasis is right – that art should be, not primarily utilitarian and service able, but an addition, an excess, something over and above; not our daily bread, but an added spice, zest, relish.  And this, surely, is true of LLL.  It gives great joy.  I could say, simply, that it makes me laugh a lot.  But on this occasion, I prefer to put it that the heaving of my lungs provokes me to ridiculous smiling.  It rejoiceth my intellect.

Come for the condiments.”


And finally, again from Garber, another look at the play’s final line:

“The final stage moment, perhaps fittingly, is given to Don Armado, the King’s master of ceremonies and producer of pageants.  Pronouncing his benediction after the songs of Spring and Winter, Armado for once abjures a moral:  ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.  You that way, we this way.’  Scholars have puzzled over the meaning of this stage direction, which occurs only in the First Folio edition of the play.  Does it mean to separate the ladies from the men, or the audience from the actors, or Armado and his ‘wench’ Jacquenetta from the other onstage pairs of lovers?  All of these are possible and plausible.  What is worth our noting is that the last figure onstage is a stage manager and director, and that in seeming to choose over language, he in fact does the reverse.

One of the most remarkable pleasures of Shakespearean comedy, as of Shakespeare’s plays in general, is the way each play can be situated simultaneously in the past and in the present, in the time of Shakespeare the Elizabethan playwright and the time of Shakespeare the uncanny commentator on modern life.  ‘You that way, we this way’ could be understood as pointing toward the past and the always changing future, regardless of what the playwright – or his fellow actors – may have intended by those enigmatic final words.”


My next post:  Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 73 – Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.


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13 Responses to “Our wooings doth not end like an old play;/Jack hath not Jill.”

  1. The ending of LLL turned my opinion of the play right around. I was so tired of those full-of-themselves showoffs! I should have know Shakespeare had something up his dramatic sleeve.

    An aside: The Propeller (UK) production of Henry V I saw here in Wellington recently was superb, played with the cast in army fatigues. Pan Pan’s (Ireland) The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane was a flawed play, aspects of which were great – such as hearing some of Hamlet’s soliloquy’s performed three times by different actors within a few minutes, and a wonderful performance of the gravediggers’ scene by local schoolboys in school uniform. And another treat in store: Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus film is showing here soon. My reading friend and I are having a wonderiful Shakespeare-year.

    • Patricia!

      Good to see you! Glad you enjoyed LLL in the end, and at the risk of sounding like bardolator Harold Bloom, I have to say: trust Shakespeare. He usually knows what he’s up to. (Or to put it another way, as one of the critics I quoted said, if you don’t like a character, chances are, in his opinion, that Shakespeare didn’t either.)


  2. Chris says:

    I’m running behind – as usual – and can’t wait to see how it ends! This play is so much fun for a language and word games freak like me (and probably like the rest of you.)

  3. Mahood says:

    Act V.1 also contains my new favourite word: ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’. (line 39-40)

    It took me about 5 minutes to get my mouth around this word. It means the state of being able to achieve honours, apparently.

    Shakespeare wasn’t the first (or last) to use it: Dante and Rabelais referred to it in their writings, while Joyce managed to slip it into his novel, Ulysses.

  4. Ridg Gilmer says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed LLL as a feast of exhuberant language. The characters occupied the stage upon which Shakespeare weaved delicious exchanges to keep us either wondering what’s next or bursting out laughing at the outrageous comments.

    Thanks, Ridg

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