Words and Women
by Coppélia Kahn
Love’s Labor’s Lost begins by dividing men from women: four lords vow to renounce the opposite sex in order to pursue an ascetic regimen of study that, they think, will bring them everlasting renown. No sooner does an embassy of four ladies arrive on matters of state than the lords fall in love, go back on their word, and turn to words of love. Then, exposed, berated, and ridiculed by the ladies both for their inconstancy and for the stilted language of their courtship, the lords proclaim their initial vows “flat treason ‘gainst the kingly state of youth.” The women they shunned they now embrace as “the books, the arts, the academes”—the supreme source of knowledge. Renouncing “taffeta phrases,” they pledge to speak in “honest plain words.”
Love’s Labor’s Lost stands out from Shakespeare’s other romantic comedies in its intense focus on language as an indispensable but perfidious medium of communication, especially in relations between the sexes. Not only the octet of aristocrats but also the humbler characters who populate the King of Navarre’s court are drunk with rhetoric, the patterned arrangement of words to persuade, woo, command, and impress anyone who will listen to them. They all inhale “the sweet smoke of rhetoric,” as the braggart Don Adriano de Armado calls it: a desire to dress up the plainest urges and feelings in the fanciest language. Don Adriano no sooner admits in humble terms, “Boy, I do love that country girl,” than he proclaims “I am sure I shall turn sonnet.” Just like his superiors, he proceeds to falsify his desires by piling up hyperboles, synonyms, Latinate diction, and arcane references that are lost upon the simple country wench, Jaquenetta.
Though Shakespeare is surely having fun with the linguistic fads of his day (he wrote the play during the “sonnet craze” of the 1590s), characteristically, he also has a serious point to make. Words are an infinitely fascinating medium, but they can alienate us from reality, and betray us. Instead of expressing our feelings, they can falsify them. Seduced by the charm of a play on words, we can forget that it’s a real person we would charm.
Love Labor’s Lost is a play of letters—letters sent, and mis-sent, by these lovers to their ladies. First off, the country bumpkin Costard mixes up the two love letters with which he is entrusted: to Rosaline, the lady whom Berowne would court, he carries the letter Don Adriano addressed to Jaquenetta--and takes Berowne’s letter to the illiterate Jaquenetta. Don Adriano’s casts its writer as Julius Caesar by using the conqueror’s famous veni, vidi, vici to display his erudition as he insinuates his intentions toward the country maid. Berowne artfully sends a sonnet to excuse his turnabout from repudiating to embracing romantic love. In the play’s best-known scene, Berowne overhears his three companions, each unaware of the other, successively bemoaning their loves in poems intended for their respective ladies. He, of course, has already done the same in his poem to Rosaline, but doesn’t hesitate to mock his fellow sufferers for their clichéd poetic sighs and groans. In the scene’s comic climax, the mocker is unmasked when his own letter is produced, and he admits himself a fool like the others. As a group, not only have they capitulated to Cupid, the boy-god whom they sought to resist, they’ve also expressed their love in hackneyed conceits.
These verbal follies are owned by the male characters exclusively. Though the ladies readily admit their attraction to the lords, they ruthlessly skewer every verbal sally—with their own verbal stilettos. Eschewing ponderous rhetorical constructions and tired diction, they speak in short put-downs tailored directly to the lords’ pretensions. Even more, they trick the lords into re-enacting the follies already exposed. Up-ending a courtly entertainment that the lords devise for them, each lady wears the favor that another lady’s lover gave her, thus deceiving the men as to her identity, forcing their lovers to “Woo contrary, deceived by these removes.” Indeed, that’s what the men have done all along, wooing at the remove afforded by affected language, caught up in their own wit rather than seeking to know the women for who they are.
As usual, Berowne speaks for his comrades: “We, following the signs, wooed but the sign of she.” Words are signs: the lords pursued words, in their bewitching permutations, as signs appealing to a generic “she.” Of course, his admission is itself an artful rhetorical construction, repeating the same word in different senses, using a pronoun in an unusual way. Old habits are not easily relinquished, nor does Shakespeare want to banish the artful use of language altogether: after all, he’s a poet, and words—to adopt a homely metaphor—are his bread and butter. Rather, he wants us to see through the “sweet smoke” of words to the substance of their meaning.
The play ends with the intrusion of a reality that no words can change: death. A messenger brings news that the Princess’s father has died, and the repartée abruptly ends. In defiance of the conventional comic conclusion, “Jack hath not Jill.” The women depart for a year of mourning, imposing on the men arduous tasks—real work, not words—to prove their love.