Courtly Language


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Theme and variations in language

Does the language of the ladies differ at all from the language of the lords when we first see them?

Look at the Princess' response to the courtly compliment of old Boyet (2.1.13-16)--and compare Sonnet 21. The Princess has heard of the King's vow:

Does she expect him to keep it?

As you re-read the comments of Maria, Katharine and Rosaline about Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne, notice how much the lords' wit is stressed, and remember the passage from Ascham's Toxophilus.

What do you find in the generally sympathetic comments of the women that suggests that they are, like Ascham, wary of those with a too-ready wit?

There is an interesting problem about the original text in this scene. In the version of the play as it was first published, the interchange in lines 77-127 is recorded as being between Katharine and Berowne, not Rosaline and Berowne. The later battle of wits (179-93) is between Berowne and Rosaline, as in the present text, but Boyet reverses the names of Katharine and Rosaline in lines 195 and 210.

Is it possible that the original version is right?

Remember that the ladies are masked, and that Boyet loves to confuse things as much as possible for the young men.

"Flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth"

The inevitable moment comes when the young lords admit that they have forgotten the solemn vow and have fallen in love. The scene is both intricate and ingenious in its manipulation of situation: one by one the men enter, confess their love, and hide as the next enters; then in reverse order they step forward to unmask the others, each for the moment claiming moral superiority until he too is unmasked--Berowne, the only one not overheard, is betrayed by his misdirected sonnet.

As well as the comedy of situation, there is of course much humor derived from language. Re-read the poems written by the King, Longaville and Dumaine.

Do you think that they are intended by Shakespeare to be taken seriously as love lyrics, or are they to be seen as parodies?

Are some of the Lords' poems better than the others?

Look especially at the King's sonnet, which after all sets the tone for the whole scene. Compare it to some of the other Shakespearean sonnets you have read:

What is the effect of the extended play on the tears that the King as lover is supposed to be weeping (27-35)?

How would you expect an actor to read the lines--with deep feeling, or posturing and speaking sentimentally?

Remember that Berowne's sonnet has already been read ineptly by Nathaniel.

The lords (with the exception of Dumaine, who is accused first) each in turn pretend to be shocked by the others; each is thus guilty not only of breaking the original vow, but of hypocrisy as well. Berowne is especially eloquent, and apparently is cheerfully willing to ignore his own biblical admonition to the others (158-9). It is surely appropriate that the clownish Costard should be the only one who can truthfully take a position of moral superiority: "walk aside the true folk, and let the traitors stay" (212).

Look back at Berowne's opening soliloquy, where he chastizes himself for loving (1-20).

What is his attitude to love?

Is it love which "defiles" (3), or is it the breaking of his vow?

Is he disgusted with himself for loving, quite apart from the vow (which he made fun of earlier, anyway)?

Look at the last few lines of the scene, where Berowne seems to associate love with the sowing of weeds, and suggests that the ladies may be "light," or wanton (382-5).

Does Don Armado's parody of courtly love provide a comment?

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Shakespeare at work

In this scene there is one further moment of particular interest both to the play itself and to our understanding of Shakespeare's art in general. Read the part of Berowne's witty justification of the breaking of their vows (256-64), paying particular attention to the differences between the passage printed in square brackets (295-316) and the passage which follows, lines 317-54; you will notice that much of the second passage repeats and expands the first. The most likely explanation for this repetitiveness is that the passage in brackets is a first draft, later revised and expanded by Shakespeare. It seems that the compositor--the typesetter--failed to notice that the first version had been deleted, and so he set both passages for printing; and indeed the same thing happens in the last scene of the play, where lines 818-24 are expanded and elaborated upon in lines 838-72. Lovers
Berowne woos Rosalind

If this hypothesis is correct--and it seems to me very likely--then we have a fascinating glimpse of Shakespeare at work, revising and improving what he has written. Compare the two passages carefully, looking particularly at the major changes.

Notice first the way the rather pedestrian line [Women's eyes are the ground] "From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire" (303) acquires far more active imagery: "They [women's eyes] sparkle still the right Promethan fire" (my emphasis). You may also have realized that the first passage focuses on the negative effects of study ("universal plodding"), whereas the revised lines explain in Berowne's characteristically ingenious way the positive, heightening effects of love. Love intensifies the apprehension of the senses: "eye," "ear," "feeling," "tongue," and hearing (in the "harmony" of the loved one's voice--see lines 332-344). As well, love inspires valor (339) and, in a passage that is reminiscent of Theseus' great speech on the imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream (V. i. 2-22), love is said to inspire the poet's romantic creativity.

The whole passage is a rhetorical tour de force, as Berowne uses his wit to do exactly as the King asks him: to "prove / [Their] loving lawful and [their] faith not torn" (284).

But is it truly possible simply to argue away the vow, by claiming that the ladies' eyes are really books, and that the young lords are therefore still studying?

The final scene of the play is better understood if we remember the solemn nature of the original vow, and recall too, perhaps, the admonition of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, quoted earlier.

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best, mbest1@uvic.ca.
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.