Love’s Labour’s Lost
There is something truly curious about this play that I’m having a difficult time putting a finger on. I believe Shakespeare is sharing more about knowledge and wisdom than at first glance and it is making my brain itch in trying to pin point a conclusion about it.
Beyond the amazing word play that paints too perfectly how knowledge, especially only found in books, is not the concrete end goal to happiness or even wisdom there are so many more parts which contribute to a philosophy about learning that I must focus on one. Shakespeare gives us a key to true wisdom in Act III, Scene 1 through a moral and l’envoi or postscript/explanation. Armado says, “The fox, the ape, and the humble-bee/Were still at odds, being but three” (46). Mote adds the explanation to it, “Until the goose came out of door,/And stayed the odds by adding four” (46). Some scholars explain this away as a topical joke about certain officials in governing positions at the time, but an easier explanation can be found when applying these creatures to characters in the play as well as influences governing decisions inside of us.
The fox is known for its wit and problem solving especially when seeking a way out of circumstances that don’t agree with its natural way of living. A perfect fit for this quick animal is Berowne as he has wit to spare and is very good at finding pathways out of the secluded study quest that the King proposes at the beginning of the play. Another suitable way to see Berowne as the fox figure is through his sonnet.
“If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?
Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed!
Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove;
Those thoughts to me were oaks, to thee like osiers bowed (IV.2.52)
The first four lines eloquently restate the logical flips Berowne is so adept at to achieve his goals. He is a problem solver that will sprout up as many thoughts as possible to find a way to get out of the latest foxhole. And thinking is the point for this influence. Berowne represents the part of us capable of connecting and twisting what we see into something according with our desires. We can’t expect to get far without first knowing what we want and having the capability to manipulate knowledge towards getting it.
Then there is the ape. An animal long connected with the concept of imitating or copying, but more specifically reflection. In this mirror we see everything about us, good and evil. Again Shakespeare makes plain the King’s role in his sonnet.
Nor shines the silver moon one-half so bright
Through the transparent bosom of the deep
As doth thy face, through tears of mine, give light;
Thou shin’st in every tear that I do weep (IV.3.53)
The King shows his love to the Princess with words that emphasize reflection like a mirror. He believes her face better reflects light than the water does the moon and tells of how every tear of his will also reflect her face. Together they can be each other’s mirrors and help each other see the good with the intent of emphasizing it and the bad that they can hopefully stifle or obscure.
Shakespeare doesn’t follow the simple route in applying the last two beasts to the other men in the quartet, rather the two leading ladies symbolize the humble-bee and the goose. Rosaline best plays out the role of the humble-bee: a bug that diligently out works any other in the insect world for the good of the whole. Although she limits her speech, insight towards this outlook can be found in her appeal to Berowne or rather her appeal to put his great wit to a more diligent and humbling form of work.
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 rhymes,
And shape his service wholly to my hests,
And make him proud to make me proud that jests! (V.2.61)
Rosaline is going to make Berowne into a working man that will conform to not only nature, time, but of course her own behests. Along with making him use his great wits and jests, she will teach him how to use them for the services of others and be proud/humble that it is for someone else’s benefit and not his own. Rosaline doesn’t just say this, she demands to see him put his wits to humble work of making the “speechless sick” (V.2.73) smile for a year before she will even consider him for marriage. A humble-bee indeed.
The Princess, lastly, is the goose. From her introduction outside the gates of Navarre’s court, to the end of the play when she learns of her father’s death the Princess is the epitome of perseverance in the face of everything, especially nature. She is also the one that gets the boys to literally come out of doors to pursue the women. Her speech is filled with nature references and her will cannot be stopped even by the sudden news of her dead dad. She sets on her way to fill her mourning duties and gives the King a way to show he still has a chance if he preservers with his original oath “Remote from all the pleasures of the world;” (V.2.73), in other words a more natural and isolated setting. And just to make it more clear, she tells him
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…
I will be thine; (V.2.73)
If nature doesn’t cool his love for her, she will know that he is worthy of it.
So is this the philosophy of wisdom Shakespeare so cunningly hid in his play for other curious young men and women to follow when that onset of adulthood approaches? Wisdom is yours if you can set the different pushing and pulling thoughts inside of you into a triad of problem solving, reflection, and diligence; then set that triangular perspective on the world outside of you with a perseverance that won’t be stopped by the spring, winter, birth, and death. Speaking of spring and winter, Shakespeare gives us plenty to fear and look forward to when they come around as sung in the closing of the play.
But whether my interpretation stands the test of time or not I also imagine there is a lot to be read into the gifts or love tokens the men gave to the women. Perhaps there is something more about knowledge and how we view the world upon closer inspection of the suitors’ four attempts at making a match. As always, Shakespeare has more on his plate to offer than I can digest. Hopefully with the second complete Shakespeare read-through I’ll be ready for more.