Love’s Labour’s Lost
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare attacks a liberal icon – Academia. As the play opens, the King of Navarre and three young lords have taken an oath:
You three, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville,Part of the oath includes a vow “not to see a woman in that term,” and “one day in a week to touch no food,” and “to sleep but three hours in the night.” All three lords sign the King’s contract, although Berowne signs it with the belief that “Necessity will make us all forsworn.”
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me
My fellow-scholars, and to keep those statutes
That are recorded in this schedule here:
Your oaths are pass’d; and now subscribe your names,
That his own hand may strike his honour down
That violates the smallest branch herein:
If you are arm’d to do as sworn to do,
Subscribe to your deep oaths, and keep it too.
It is not my intent to give a step by step exegesis of what ensues after the young men take their oaths. Let it suffice to say that all three men break their oaths, and the cause of the breaking of the oaths is, of course, four young women.
Berowne eloquently defends the breaking of the oaths:
Never durst poet touch a pen to writeHaving broken their oaths, the young men become ardent lovers and attempt to woo the objects of their hearts’ desire. But things do not work out the way they do in the usual comedy; there is no marriage feast at the end of the play. As Berowne comments:
Until his ink were tempr’d with Love's sighs;
O, then his lines would ravish savage ears
And plant in tyrants mild humility.
From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world;
Else none at all in aught proves excellent.
Then fools you were these women to forswear,
Or, keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.
For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women,
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfils the law,
And who can sever love from charity?
Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Why is there no marriage at the end of the play? Because the women, seeing how easily the men have broken their first vow, do not take the men’s new vow of love seriously. They think the gentlemen are merely playing with them, and they respond accordingly. It is only when the death of one of the women’s fathers makes it imperative for all four women to leave Navarre that the four suitors manage to convince the young women that they are in earnest. The women, however, do not accept the men’s offers of marriage without conditions. Each man is assigned, by his respective beloved, a penance. They each must renounce the world for one year and do such works of charity and penance as to “visit the speechless sick,” and “…go with speed, To some forlorn and naked hermitage…”
“Ah,” the reader says, “it serves them right; they are being punished for breaking their vow to study for three years.” No, they are being punished for making satanic vows by being forced to take Christian vows. What was satanic about the first vow? They desired knowledge for self-aggrandizement. For them, knowledge meant power and fame. “Navarre shall be the wonder of the world; Our court shall be a little Academe…” A Christian renounces the world for the sake of the world; an academic is abstracted from the world for the sake of himself. It is quite fitting that the men, to atone for a satanic renunciation, must show they are capable of a Christian renunciation.
The women in the play are not Lady Macbeths; they are good Christian women who, like Mary, inspire by fidelity and not by attempting to become men. Such women are “the books, the arts, the academes, That show, contain and nourish all the world.”
There is a wonderful symmetry in the male-female relationship when it is working properly. Men need the inspiration that comes from a woman who, in imitation of Mary, is planted firmly at the foot of the Cross. And a woman needs a man to take that inspiration, give it flesh, and reinspire her. A Christian academic, or a Christian monk might renounce the company of women, but he would not do it because he was abstracted from humanity but because he had been inspired by the God-Man to give himself spiritually to all women and to all men.
I am sure the four men of Navarre kept their second vow. How do I know this? The wisdom of the West supports me. The Florence Nightingales of the world always inspire men more completely than the proud abstracted goddesses of wisdom. (1) Because like Mary, their fidelity at the foot of the Cross shows us the pure image of Christ.+
(1) It is a hideous perversion of Christianity to make the mother of God a goddess of wisdom.