Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

Love’s Labour’s Lost is not the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, but it is one of the most perfect.”[1] As one would expect of a poet, W.H. Auden is great with a pithy line on almost every Shakespeare play–even if I don’t always agree with him. But here I think I do. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a sumptuous work, and, to be frank, tickles a lot of my personal fancies.

By way of synopsis: Ferdinand, King of Navarre, along with the three lords Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, devote themselves to three years of study and fasting, swearing his entire court off the company of women. Don Armado, a visiting Spaniard, tells the King of an affair between Costard, a country bumpkin, and Jacquenetta, a lady of ill repute. Costard is arrested, with Don Armado then confessing his own love for Jacquenetta and asking Costard to take her a love letter.

The Princess of France arrives at the court with three ladies, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine. Predictably, the King and his lords fall for the lot of them. Berowne gives Costard a letter for Rosaline, but Costard swaps it with Armado’s letter for Jacquenetta. With the help of Sir Nathanael and Holofernes, two scholars, Jacquenetta susses this out and is told to inform the King of Berowne’s vow breaking.

The King and his lords all discover one another writing and reciting love poetry for their respective ladies, with Jacquenetta also arriving and exposing Berowne in particular. Deciding that the study of love is ultimate, the men renounce their vow and plan to woo the women. The men disguise themselves as Muscovites, but the women learn of this plan and themselves take up disguises as one another. They expose the men and taunt them about their scheme.

All is reconciled, and the lords and ladies watch a performance of “The Nine Worthies” by the other characters, involving great characters from classical literature. During the performance, Costard reveals that Jacquenetta is pregnant by Armado. The performance is interrupted by a sudden message that the Princess’ father has died, and she must return home to mourn. The women declare that the men must wait a year and a day to prove their love, and Armado makes a similar vow to Jacquenetta, before closing with a song.

There is so much going on here that interests me. Love’s Labour’s Lost is dense with Platonic themes and allusions: the importance of eros and its relation to philosophy, the shape of education, the place of writing, literature, and myth, and much more. Had I the time, I would love to dig into that at great length. I’ve considered similar themes in The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

However, being a bit pressed for time between illnesses and taking some holiday this past week, I will limit myself to noting the recurrence of a theme I considered briefly in The Comedy of Errors: the breaking of vows in the context of the Reformation.

From Monastic to Marital Vows

The obstacle at the heart of the plot is the vow made by the King and his lords. The play opens with the King throwing down the gauntlet to his fellow would-be philosophers.

Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, 
Live registered upon our brazen tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death,
When, spite of cormorant devouring time,
Th’ endeavor of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.
Therefore, brave conquerors, for so you are
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires,
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force.
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
You three, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me,
My fellow scholars, and to keep those statutes
That are recorded in this schedule here.
Your oaths are passed, and now subscribe your names,
That his own hand may strike his honor down

Dumaine and Longaville sign with great enthusiasm, but Berowne is more reluctant:

O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep, 
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.

There is such a perfect inevitability about this vow being broken. Four noblemen make a vow to swear off women, and then four noblewomen promptly rock up in Navarre–what could go wrong?

Although the lords are obviously something of a send-up of humanistic Renaissance learning, I think they also unavoidably evoke monastic celibacy. Although most of those who first saw Shakespeare’s play would have had no living memory of monasteries in England (their dissolution by Henry VIII was complete by 1541, more than 50 years prior to the play’s first performance under Elizabeth I), the ongoing reality of such vows among Roman clergy in Europe would have been well known. Article 32 of the 39 Articles was (and still is) even devoted to the question of the marriage of priests:

Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.

It seems fair, then, to read something of this into the lords of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

What is interesting, though, is that no sooner are the lords released from their vow than they are placed under another: to wait a year and a day for their respective loves. The specifics of each man’s vow vary: Catherine tells Dumaine he must mature in that time, wishing him “A beard, fair health, and honesty” since she’ll “mark no words that smooth-faced wooers say”; Maria seemingly gives Longaville no specific criteria; Rosaline charges Berowne to tame his caustic wit and “jibing spirit” by spending time among “the speechless sick” and “groaning wretches”.

The King’s vow is the most interesting for our purposes, and may perhaps be taken as something of a paradigm for all the lords. The Princess charges him to spend the next year in a hermitage:

KING Now, at the latest minute of the hour, 
Grant us your loves.

PRINCESS A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no, my lord, your Grace is perjured much,
Full of dear guiltiness, and therefore this:
If for my love—as there is no such cause—
You will do aught, this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust, but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world.
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning.
If this austere insociable life
Change not your offer made in heat of blood;
If frosts and fasts, hard lodging, and thin weeds
Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,
But that it bear this trial, and last love;
Then, at the expiration of the year,
Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts,
⌜She takes his hand.⌝
And by this virgin palm now kissing thine,
I will be thine. And till that ⟨instant⟩ shut
My woeful self up in a mourning house,
Raining the tears of lamentation
For the remembrance of my father’s death.
If this thou do deny, let our hands part,
Neither entitled in the other’s heart.

KING If this, or more than this, I would deny,
To flatter up these powers of mine with rest,
The sudden hand of death close up mine eye!
Hence hermit, then. My heart is in thy breast.

The Princess charges the King to go to a hermitage, a retreat from the pleasures of the world for those who have taken religious vows.

Now, if Shakespeare, to whatever extent, is doing a send-up of monastic and clerical vows, it is curious that his play would end with the King committing himself to life in a hermitage.

Consider though: whilst Reformation era monks and nuns were released from the manmade vows of monastic celibacy, this liberated them to take up the much more venerable, God-ordained vow of marriage. They were free from a vow, yet also now free for a vow. One of the crowning achievements of the Reformation is its reclamation of the glory of the estate of marriage and family from its medieval denigration, insisting that it is just as laudable and holy a vocation as ordained ministry.

In one of my favourite ever Ad Fontes essays, Josh Patch gives a thrilling interpretation of how Edmund Spenser explores this same idea in The Faerie Queene. Josh notes a curious scene in which the poem’s hero, the Redcrosse Knight, is nursed back to health in “the House of Holiness,” the home of a noble family. His recovery involves various references to what, by then, would have been regarded as distinctly Roman practices: rosary beads, physical punishment, mandatory good works, and more. Why is all this present in a highly Protestant work? Josh concludes that Spenser is carrying out a subversive exercise in which the spiritual functions previously carried out by monastic communities were, in the Reformation era, relocated to the family home:

What is most interesting about these details is their context. The House of Holiness is not a monastery, but a private home. Caelia oversees it with the aid of her three daughters, Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa–the theological virtues. Fidelia and Speranza are virgins, though betrothed, but Charissa, the emblem of Christian love, is married with many children (I x 4). We also know that their house employs a porter (5), a groom (17), and an in-house doctor (23). The site of Redcrosse’s spiritual healing is not a monastery or church, but the estate of an aristocratic family. It seems that Spenser inserts conventional ecclesiastical imagery into the scene in order to highlight its distinctly non-ecclesial setting. The sanctifying role formerly assigned to religious orders is taken up by pious laypeople, whose homes become spiritual hospitals.

I think a similar “relocation” is going on in the King’s vow at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Whereas in the Roman Catholic mind, the highest and most sanctifying vow a man can make is that of holy orders, in the Protestant mind this spot is occupied by the marital vow. By framing the King’s vow to romantic love as time spent in a hermitage, Shakespeare frames marriage as a divine vocation on a par with the vows of the monastics.

True, the vows taken at the play’s end are not properly marriage vows, but they are in effect–they’re essentially engagements. We all know that, if the message about the King of France’s death had not come, that all the play would have concluded with all the lovers marrying off. And this is perhaps part of the reason why Love’s Labour’s Lost ends as curiously as it does, with such an uncomedic ending. It forces us to focus not on love and marriage in themselves, but specifically on the vows which they involve. This is also reinforced by the fact that the play both begins and ends with vow-making. We are forced to compare the two and to follow the King and his lords in their shifting understanding of vows, philosophy, and love.

  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 33.


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