Love's Labour's Lost | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Love's Labour's Lost | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The King of Navarre meets with three of his lords, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, on his grounds. The four of them have sworn to live at court and study with the scholarly king for three years. During that time they will see no women, fast from one meal a day to one whole day per week, and sleep only three hours per night. They have all given their oaths aloud, but the king wants them to sign a document cementing their vows. Longaville signs first, noting that fasting is good for the mind and wit. Dumaine also signs, eager to show that he is above the "gross world." But Berowne objects, saying that the "strict observances" are tasks "too hard to keep." He also says that he didn't really take seriously the part about swearing off women, sleep, and food when they discussed this before. "I swore in jest," he claims.

Berowne reads aloud from the document, which includes some rules that must be obeyed by all who are at court—not just these four. For example, women may not come within a mile of court, and men are not allowed to speak to women. There are harsh punishments for anyone who breaks the rules. Berowne points out that the Princess of France is scheduled to be the king's guest very soon, which means that the king will very shortly break his own rule unless he rudely refuses to receive her. The king admits that she will have to stay at court by necessity, to which Berowne replies "Necessity will make us all forsworn/Three thousand times within this three years' space." Reluctantly Berowne signs his name. The king tells them that an entertaining Spaniard named Don Armado will soon come to visit, and the lords are glad that some sort of amusement will keep boredom away. Berowne comments that Armado is a "man of fire-new words, fashion's own knight."

The constable, Dull, arrives with a letter for the king. He is accompanied by Costard, an unsophisticated "swain," or countryman. It is from the aforementioned Armado, describing how he happened upon Costard with a female—Jaquenetta, a dairy maid—"contrary to thy established proclaimed edict." Costard confesses he was with Jaquenetta, but he tries to get out of the punishment. The king says he must fast one week as his punishment, eating nothing but bran and water. Berowne is left to convey Costard to Armado.

Analysis

This opening scene introduces many of the play's characters as well as its main storyline. The king and his three lords have just taken an oath to stay away from women for three years, yet the arrival of the Princess of France is imminent. No doubt she will bring her attendant ladies. The king's oath is barely a few minutes old and already breaking it seems inevitable. The audience knows that the men will fail to abstain from women; beginning a story with a solemn oath or strict rule virtually always suggests that it will be broken. The only questions are: How long will it take before one of them falls? and Who will be first? The tension between an idealized "little academe,/Still and contemplative in living art," as the king imagines Navarre, and the demands of courtesy and diplomacy also echoes a classic subject of Renaissance debate: the life of action, or the life of contemplation.

The way the men speak of the oath before signing the document differentiates them from one another. The king is a scholar, but an ambitious one, believing that the three years' fast will help to make Navarre "the wonder of the world." He is not the most practical man, however, having failed to consider how his plan will affect diplomacy. Berowne is argumentative, clever, and pleased with his own cleverness. He argues at length, and though there is some substance to his argument (the arrival of the Princess of France is a problem, and the likelihood of breaking their oaths many times over is high), much it is rhetorical cleverness—all style and little substance. He uses the language of reason and argument to justify his own contradictory statements. The king notes wryly of Berowne "How well he's read to reason against reading." Longaville seems sincere in his desire to improve his intellect by fasting from bodily desires, while Dumaine's reason for signing just shows he likes the idea of living with his friends "in philosophy."

For all their differences, the lightheartedness of the scene suggests these four men are good friends and value the humor of their interactions with one another. Their obvious enjoyment of the wordplay and bantering casts them more as young men eager to one-up one another than as serious scholars. When Berowne signs his name, saying enigmatically "I am the last that will last keep his oath," he acknowledges that the oath is little more than opportunity for a wager among friends. The sense that these four jovial gentlemen do not take much seriously is strong, suggesting that part of their character arcs will be moving from immature youth to adulthood or greater maturity.

Once the four young scholars have signed their names, the scene shifts to introduce another set of characters who will form the subplot of the play. The lords introduce Don Armado by talking about him, though Armado does not appear on stage until the next scene. Then Costard, Dull, and Jaquenetta arrive. Armado, Costard, and Jaquenetta will form a strange love triangle, and the three of them provide some low comedy to balance out the rhyming wordplay of the nobles. For example, Costard's attempt to reason his way out of punishment is a crude echo of Berowne's use of rhetoric to reason his way out of the stipulations of the oath.

Important themes are introduced in this opening scene. The theme of reputation is introduced by the king's desire to make Navarre famous through the oath-taking scheme and by the fact that Armado's reputation is so widely known it goes before him—since the audience learns about him before they see him.

The wordplay of this scene, and Berowne's long-winded argumentative style, help to introduce the theme of language—contrasting verbosity and clarity—that weaves throughout every aspect of the play. When Berowne replies to Dumaine's "in reason nothing" by saying, "Something then in rhyme," he calls attention to the excess of rhyme in the lords' preceding banter (proceeding/weeding/breeding). He also plays on the word reason and its use in the idiom "no rhyme or reason." This play on words admits that even when their words have no "reason" they at least have rhyme.

If Berowne is a frequent style-over-substance offender, Armado is a pea in the same pod. Armado's letter is full of long, flowery, wordy sentences that frequently obscure their own meaning. And Berowne's comment that Armado is a "man of fire-new words, fashion's own knight" suggests that Armado enjoys making up new words—something Shakespeare himself is famous for doing. So while Shakespeare seems to call out the excess of both Berowne's and Armado's liberties with language, he does so affectionately, knowing he himself is the same.

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