Spring and Winter: A Surprise Ending

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Owl and cuckoo
The owl and the cuckoo, mediated by Cupid.
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"The scene begins to cloud"

It is an extraordinary coup de théâtre as Marcade enters, clad in black, to deliver the unwelcome news that the Princess' father is dead. I have elsewhere discussed what I call the "comic pact" between the author and the audience; Marcade's news violates the pact brutally. Only one easily forgotten line (1.1.137--did you notice it?) prepares us for his announcement; the whole mood of the play has been so light-hearted that any audience would be forgiven for expecting that the four ladies would pair off with the four lords, and that the dance would be complete with a festive multiple marriage to follow, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It. Instead, Shakespeare has sliced through the fabric of courtship, festivity, and conventional language to introduce us abruptly to suffering, pain, and death.

The King (like the audience, perhaps) fails to realize that the sport is finished. He speaks in the accustomed way of the lords as courtiers; in the same way that they could find justification in love for the breaking of their vows, he seems to think it reasonable to find an excuse for pressing his love at an astonishingly inappropriate moment (741-752). No wonder the Princess fails to understand. Berowne, with his newly-acquired sense of the importance of simplicity, is able to express the lords' feelings more effectively: "Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief." And suddenly the gap between the lords and the ladies is for the first time wholly apparent. The lords believed that they were sincere in pursuing their love; the ladies assumed that it was all sport, "pleasant jest," "courtesy," and "bombast" (781-782).

Still striving for a comic ending, the King pleads, "Now at the latest minute of the hour / Grant us your loves" (5.2.788-789).

How would you respond to a rewriting of the play (as Nahum Tate rewrote the end of King Lear to give it a happy ending) that allowed the ladies to accept the lords' love as the King asks?

Instead, the four lords are required to prove themselves by waiting a year, and to some extent living up to their original vows, before they are to be considered suitable partners. Here is the second occasion in the play where we can see evidence of Shakespeare the craftsman rewriting and reworking the play. The first version of Rosalind's penance for Berowne apparently consisted of five short lines (819-824); the revised version is far more specific (838-870). Berowne is to use his wit in a wholly non-comic setting, with the "speechless sick," "groaning wretches," and "the pained impotent" (852-855). As you saw in the baiting of the Worthies, Berowne is still guilty of the faults ascribed to shallow wits by Ascham; he is yet to learn that "A jest's prosperity lies in the ear / Of him that hears it, never in the tongue / Of him that makes it" (862-4).

Perhaps in a year's time the comic ending will be achieved; in the meantime, as Berowne ruefully remarks, "Jack hath not Jill." Compare this line to the moment when the convenient love-juice in A Midsummer Night's Dream is administered by Puck to Demetrius, who would otherwise no doubt have remained discordantly pursuing Hermia: Puck and the juice arrange that the comic pact in that play is maintained:

Jack shall have Jill,
Nought shall go ill,
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
    (III. ii. 461-463.)

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Spring and Winter

The uncomedy of Love's Labour's Lost is not allowed to finish in a totally unfestive fashion, however, for there is still the final surprise, a song prepared by the pedants, but astonishingly simple in its language and imagery. The final song of Love's Labour's Lost has been praised by just about any critic who has written on the play, even those who have disliked the rest of it.

Why a song of the seasons?

Think back to the comments Berowne makes about the unseasonable pursuit of study for the young, at the beginning of the play, and remember that even for wit there is a season, a time when it is appropriate, a time when it is not: a time for every purpose under heaven. But in the lyric of the seasons there are more surprises. Spring is the season of love, winter of death--at least they are so by convention. The images of the song are seductive: spring is the season of flowers, of lady-smocks, of love, of ladies' smocks, of bird song, of turtle doves mating (treading), and of the cuckoo . . . which is suddenly a reminder of cuckoldry, jealousy, betrayal, anger. The effect is at once seductive and ironical, almost bitter.

But if the spring is surprising in its anticipation of words "unpleasing" to the ear, the winter is surprising in the warmth it conjures from the freezing weather: "blood is nipped," everybody has colds and red noses, but you can blow on your hands to keep them warm, roasted crab apples provide hot food, and "greasy Joan" has to cool the pot and the broth it promises. Most surprising of all is the hoot of the owl, traditionally melancholy or frightening, but here, by contrast perhaps with the brooding silence of a winter's night, a "merry note."

All things have their season, spring and winter, youth and age, wit and simplicity, books and love; but the pattern of the seasons is itself less obvious than we might think. Winter may be warmer, happier than spring (remember Peter Bembo's older courtier). It is a teasing thought, yet appropriate; perhaps the ending of Love's Labour's Lost is the more genuinely warm because it is more wintry, more real than the easier resolution that a fuller comic pact would have allowed.

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best, mbest1@uvic.ca.
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