When Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing learns that his best friend is in love, one of his complaints is that Claudio “was wont to speak plain and to the purpose (like an honest man and a soldier), and now is he turn’d ortography--his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes” (2.3.18 21; all references to line numbers are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]). Although Benedick disapproves of and (later) valiantly resists this behavior, it is a common affliction among lovers, so we should not be surprised when we find it in a play titled Love’s Labour’s Lost. However, in this play the malady becomes a veritable epidemic, with no less than five enamoured gentlemen overcome by the impulse to pen dozens of variations on that simple phrase, “I love you.” And ultimately, love’s labour is lost in the “Words, words, words” (Hamlet, 2.2.194).
Ironically, four of these five gentles seem immune to love and its inane symptoms, and they swear an oath to study together for three years, “Not to see a woman in that term, / . . . And one day in a week to touch no food, / And but one meal on every day beside, / . . . And then to sleep but three hours in the night, / And not be seen to wink of all the day” (1.1.37, 39 40, 42 43). And even though Berowne protests the terms, the king and his three attendant lords are determined to lead lives of scholarly asceticism in the pursuit of enlightenment.
However, vows of this sort are always dangerous in a Shakespeare play, and the postulants invariably end up taking different vows--marriage vows. Almost immediately after they sign the articles of their oath, the princess of France arrives to negotiate the “surrender up of Aquitaine / To her decrepit, sick, and bedred father” (1.1.137 38), and the gentlemen are forced to break (or at least modify) their oaths.
No sooner do they speak with the princess and her three attendant ladies than they show the first warning signs of love. Boyet reports his observations of the king to the princess: “Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye, / As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy, / Who tend’ring their own worth from where they were glass’d, / Did point you to buy them, along as you pass’d” (2.1.242 45). And as we expect, the king is not the only stricken man. Dumaine, Longaville, and Berowne all sneak back later to ask Boyet the names of Katherine, Maria, and Rosaline respectively.
The nobles’ first response, after their bosoms are pierced by “the dribbling dart of love” (Measure for Measure, 1.3.2),is to write a sonnet. When Armado, the other lover in the play, falls in love with Jaquenetta, he invokes the assistance of “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” (1.2.183 85). After sending a sonnet to Rosaline, Berowne laments that he, who was once “love’s whip, / A very beadle to a humorous sigh” and even “a critic” of Cupid (3.1.174 76), must now “love, write, sigh, pray, sue, groan” (3.1.204). And later, in what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most elaborate eavesdropping scene, we see Berowne, then the king, followed by Longaville and then Dumaine, all struggling with their love and with the poetry to express it. Love, as Berowne says, has taught them “to rhyme and to be mallicholy” (4.3.12 13).
The desired result of their verbal toils, we may logically assume, is the reciprocation of their love. But the princess and her ladies are far from cooperative; in fact, they receive the messages of love as affronts rather than compliments.
What is wrong with these sentiments? The words, though many, seem relatively harmless, so why do they upset the princess and her attendants? Are the ladies simply being contrary, or do they have a legitimate grievance?
We do not need to look far for the answers. The princess herself explains to Boyet at 2.1.13 19): “My beauty, though but mean, / Needs not the painted flourish of your praise: / Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye, / Not utt’red by base sale of chapmen’s tongues. / I am less proud to hear you tell my worth / Than you much willing to be counted wise / In spending your wit in the praise of mine.”
The princess does not need the compliments, and Boyet’s courtly flattery does not prove her beauty so much as it expresses his desire for the world’s esteem. She takes this philosophy even further when she rewards the forester for not telling her she is fair, with the clarification, “Where fair is not, praise cannot mend the brow” (3.1.17).
But this is precisely what the king, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine mean to do. Berowne initially tries to reason himself out of love, reminding himself that Rosaline does not conform to the golden standard of Elizabethan beauty: “And among three to love the worst of all, / A whitely wanton with a velvet brow, / With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes” (3.1.195 97). This is a far cry from the epithets in his first sonnet, which ends: “Celestial as thou art, O, pardon love this wrong, / That sings heaven’s praise with such an earthly tongue” (4.2.117 18).
Likewise, the king writes to the princess: “So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not / To those fresh morning drops upon the rose, / As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote / The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows” (4.3.25 8); Longaville calls Maria “a goddess,” “a heavenly love,” and “a paradise” (4.3.63, 64, 71); and, if Dumaine is to be believed, “Jove would swear / Juno but an Ethiop were,” and become mortal for Katherine’s love (4.3.115 18).
These lovers’ praise, like Boyet’s, lacks honesty and perhaps even sincerity, and it is the very antithesis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun”). Only Armado reveals the truth of his thoughts. In his letter to Jaquenetta, he begins graciously (and wordily) enough, thrice proclaiming her beauty: “By heaven, that thou art fair, is most infallible; true, that thou are beauteous; truth itself that thou art lovely” (4.1.60 62). But he promptly abandons this tack with an unflattering comparison, in which Jaquenetta plays “the pernicious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon” to his “magnanimous and most illustrate King Cophetua” (64-66). And just in case his meaning is obscure, he concludes his letter, “I profane my lips on thy foot, my eyes on thy picture, and my heart on thy every part” (84 86).
But when the masters of “taffata phrases” receive only scorn in return for their “silken terms precise,” they are forced to question their methods. Berowne is the first to have the epiphany: “O, never will I trust to speeches penn’d, / Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue, / . . . Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper’s song! / . . . Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express’d / In russet yeas and honest kersey noes. / And to begin, wench, so God help me law! / My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw” (5.2.402 405, 412 15).
Like Shakespeare, they all eventually realize that “I grant I never saw a goddess go, / My mistress when she walks treads on the ground. / And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare” (Sonnet 130). And when we see them dealing with each other as quirky individuals, we are more willing to believe in their happy future.
But Shakespeare uncovers the reality beneath the comedy’s usual fifth act bliss, tainting the merriment with the death of the princess’ father. And with this conclusion, the lovers’ happy ending is more plausible, more realistic because of the death and the postponement of the marriage vows.
The princess, Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine are no more like goddesses than Costard, Sir Nathaniel, Holofernes, and Moth are like the Worthies. Nor is their future a paradise where kings and princesses live happily ever after. They are not cardboard cutouts, but individuals with flaws to balance their virtues, and griefs to temper their triumphs. We leave the theatre sure that Shakespeare’s characters will get to the truth of life--all of it, not merely the pleasantries--just as the lovers see past the “gaudy blossoms of . . . love” (5.2.802) to the fruit which has both a sweet and bitter tang.