Social Structure

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The Courtly/courting Dance

In many ways the structure of Love's Labour's Lost resembles that of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Both are comedies which seem not to have specific sources, and which are thus perhaps structured most fully by Shakespeare himself; both involve different levels of action, different social strata interacting, and a play-within-the-play by those of the lower group, mocked by the socially superior characters. [Note 1] And both were written at about the same time in Shakespeare's career.

The plot of Love's Labour's Lost is, however, far less intricate than the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the already complex interaction of the lovers is further complicated by Puck and the love-juice. In the main plot of Love's Labour's Lost four ladies and four lords perform a courtly dance; they bow to their partners, dance a little, retreat, change partners (in the masque of the Muscovites, the ladies deliberately, the men unwittingly, change); they retreat again, return to their original partners, bow, and go their separate ways. There are further complications, of course, particularly in the fact that the lords had taken a vow not to dance at all, and the ending (more of that later) is very much a surprise.

There are several other social layers in the play, each with its own line of action (some are scarcely plots). Don Armado, Costard, and Jaquenetta form a fairly conventional triangle, though it does involve Don Armado in crossing from one level of society to another. And there are the pedants, Nathaniel and Holofernes, determined to display their learning, however inappropriate.

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The Pedants

As you turn again to look at the scenes involving Holofernes and Nathaniel, you will realize how much Shakespeare is enjoying the debate about "ink-horn" terms, along the lines of the discussion by Sir John Cheke and Sir Thomas Elyot included in the readings.

In the original text of Love's Labour's Lost, a number of the speech headings appear in different forms as the play progresses. [Note 2] "King," for example becomes "Navarre" (the king was often called by his country), or "Ferdinand." Even more interesting than these variations are the ways in which the minor characters' names are sometimes changed to a general term for the character type: thus Don Armado is called "Braggart," Holofernes "Pedant," Nathaniel "Curate" (an assistant to the parish priest), Moth "Boy," Dull "Constable," and Costard "Clown." The clear implication is that Shakespeare, as he was writing the parts, was willing to think of them as general types as well as individuals. The Pedants
Holofernes and Nathaniel

Which characters do you think the type-names most suit?

Can it be said that any of them are in fact stereotypes?

Love's Labour's Lost has been the target of much scholarship looking for topical references in the characters and situations portrayed. [Note 3]

Do you feel that the satire or pedantry in the characters of Nathaniel and Holofernes depends on possible topical references to specific Elizabethan scholars?

Don Adriano de Armado

In Endimion, Sir Tophas parodied both the action (the sleeping lover) and the language of the main plot. Find examples of the ways that Don Armado parodies the young lords in Romeo and Juliet. Look particularly at the relationship between Don Armado and Jaquenetta.

How do you respond to Don Armado's comment that he has "seen the day of wrong through the little hole of discretion" (5.2.884-5)?

Don Armado's is the only love that is consummated in the play; does he remain a figure of fun in the end, or does he in some measure rehabilitate himself? Your response will depend rather on your estimation of Jaquenetta as well (we see little of her, unfortunately).

Are she and Don Armado suited to one another?

In Endimion Sir Tophas ended up with the ugly Bagoa.

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The "Academe"

Whatever entertainment we gather from the parodic spoutings of the pedants and the bragging of Don Armado, the main interest of the play is centred upon the four young lords and ladies. Look again at the opening scene. The plan of the king seems in many ways both idealistic and admirable. Like the eloquent and moving Shakespeare of the sonnets, Ferdinand wishes to etch a more permanent place in history than is normally allowed by "cormorant devouring Time" (1.1.4). [Note 4] Yet, now that you have read the play, you will be aware of the way these ideals quickly crumble.

What signs do you find in this opening scene which suggest the impermanence of the lords' vows?

The King wishes his Court to become a model, much as the ideal Urbino portrayed by Castiglione; how does the court of Navarre differ from the court you see in The Courtier?

You will probably have been particularly attracted to the character of Berowne in your first reading of the play. His is the one seemingly realistic voice raised against the plan for the academy in this opening scene, and he has some of the most entertaining lines spoken in the play. In lines 65-66 ("having sworn too hard-a-keeping oath, / Study to break it and not break my troth") he anticipates what later becomes the major intellectual preoccupation of the members of the academy. Look in some detail at his next speech (72-93).

Berowne's rhetoric is at times in its way as artificial and involved as Lyly's, which you have sampled in the elaborate speeches of the characters in Endimion. Look particularly at the fun Berowne has with the words "light" (especially line 77, which takes a few moments to untangle) and "eye."

What is the central argument Berowne is stating?

All pleasures are vain, but the pleasure of study is especially absurd because the study of books leads to blindness, both literal and metaphorical--a blindness to the beauty of the world, especially the beauty of the eyes of a fair lady. The only use of books is "base authority," the pedantic citing of earlier writers; and the stars are as beautiful to those who cannot give them their specific names as they are to those who study them. (You may have come across this argument in later writers--Keats comes to mind immediately.)

The King's response is surely appropriate, however; Berowne is caught in a paradox, for the very ingenuity of his argument indicates that he has been well trained in rhetoric already. He has one further argument to propose before he gives in:

(Was his resistance ever really convincing?)

He picks up the King's image of frost in spring to suggest that there is something actually unnatural, unseasonable, in young people dedicating themselves wholly to study. Even Peter Bembo in The Courtier felt that a love of the senses was to be expected of the young.

Whatever the sincerity of Berowne's arguments, some of them, particularly the last, carry conviction. I wonder whether he had recently been reading the Book of Ecclesiastes, where several well-known phrases have a particular relevance to Berowne's comments: "Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity" (12: 8); "of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (12: 13); "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven" (3: 1). And there are some passages which become even more appropriate at the end of the play: "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (3: 7); "The words of wise men are heard in quiet, more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools" (9: 17); and, most tellingly perhaps, "Better is it that thou shoulds't not vow than that thou shoulds't vow and not pay" (5: 5). [Note 5] If all this is not enough to suggest that the high ideals of the academy are inappropriate for the young lords, the passage which immediately follows shows graphically how much they have to learn about life itself, as distinct from books: surely Berowne is right in protesting that the punishment to be accorded any woman who ventures within a mile of the court is "a dangerous law against gentility" (127; see lines 121-2).

Why the tongue, incidentally?

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  1. There is a good article by Stanley Wells on this subject: "Shakespeare Without Sources," in Shakespearian Comedy, ed. David Palmer and Malcolm Bradbury (London: Arnold, 1972, Stratford on Avon Studies, XIV). Wells discusses similarities between three plays: Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest. [Back]
  2. The changing speech prefixes of the characters is probably a sign that the "copy" for the compositors setting the type for the printer were using a manuscript that preserved an early version of the play, close to Shakespeare's original. [Back]
  3. The most detailed discussion is Muriel Bradbrook, The School of Night (Cambridge University Press, 1936); the "Introduction" to Richard David's Arden edition of Love's Labour's Lost (London: Methuen, 1951) has a more recent summary of the various speculations. [Back]
  4. The interconnection between Love's Labour's Lost and the Sonnets is also apparent in the echo between the opening lines of the play and those of Sonnet 55. [Back]
  5. I am quoting from a 1637 edition of The Authorized Version. [Back]

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
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