Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act II
‘We could do with a shot on goal, John. The game’s mostly being played in the middle of the pitch’ …
Our Princess arrives, and immediately impresses. In fact, she reminds me of my girlfriend: scarily competent, impervious to flattery (no, really), and icily, frustratingly logical at times.
A serious lass, on a serious mission. She calls it ‘serious business’, in fact. I admire the way she bats away Boyet’s florid compliment:
‘Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise.’ (II.i.13-14)
And she follows up by promptly finding him a task which incidentally removes him from her presence. Incidentally, she flatters him in doing so:
‘Bold of your worthiness, we single you
As our best-moving solicitor.’ (II.i.28-29)
Her father, the King of France has clearly chosen wisely in making her his ambassador, although there might be some sly background motive, which Boyet alludes to in his pointed reference to a Queen’s ‘dowry’. An alliance between France and Aquitaine would undoubtedly be politically advantageous, but you sense that our nameless Princess (and that is a bit of a mote to trouble the mind’s eye – any name would have done) needs winning and wouldn’t allow herself to be traded like a property in an Early Modern version of Monopoly. Perhaps, to be fair, her father recognises this, and is giving his daughter the opportunity to size the king up, as much as the other way round?
So, to her entourage.
Each, as the Princess remarks, appears to have chosen her champion ahead of actually meeting these blades:
‘God bless my ladies! Are they all in love,
That every one her own hath garnished
With such bedecking ornaments of praise?’ (II.i.77-79)
Of course, it’s fortunate that they’ve each chosen different men – where multiple suitors for a woman usually creates absurdity, chaos and laughter, King Lear shows us the trouble caused when two women set their sights on the same man. Another point of interest here is that the focus is mostly on the men’s wit and facility with words.
It’s significant that Boyet returns with a martially-termed message from the king:
‘He rather means to lodge you in the field,
Like one that comes here to besiege his court.’ (II.i.86)
with my emphasis on ‘besieged’. Women appear, as the play unfolds, to be another opponent, or even enemy, to be withstood and/or conquered. Besieging suggests that the men believe themselves to be passive and reactive, holding out until the threat posed by the women is over. Does this link to the ‘endurance’ element of their oath, I wonder?
When the two parties confront each other, what’s remarkable is the antagonism displayed. It’s not just that the Princess has her shields up against the King, again deflecting flattery and taking quick control of the dialogue, but her ladies have all, it seems, set their phasers to stun. They’re not indifferent, they’re confrontational. This isn’t the usual pretending-not-to-like-someone-when-you-secretly-fancy-them trope. Like Henry V‘s future French Princess, Katharine, their view is:
KATHERINE: O bon Dieu! les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies.
HENRY V: What says she, fair one? that the tongues of men are full of deceits? (Henry V: Act V, scene ii)
Rosaline, who earlier described Berowne in these terms:
‘but a merrier man,
Within the limit of becoming mirth,
I never spent an hour’s talk withal.’ (II.i.66-68)
deals with the real, not reputed, Berowne almost with contempt:
BEROWNE: And send you many lovers.
ROSALINE: Amen, so you be none. (II.i.125-6)
And Katherine deals equally peremptorily with Boyet once the parties have adjourned. There’s an unexpected edge here which reminds me of the history of Benedick and Beatrice:
‘You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.’ MUCH ADO: I,i
But there appears to be no history between the lads of Navarre and the ladies from France.
It might be easy, with 21st-century goggles on, to dismiss these women as rabid feminists or misandrists, but I think we need to dig a little further. The Princess and her ladies have a LOT to lose by unwise dalliance – far more so than might be at stake now, if we consider their future marriageability. Additionally, look at the men: as well as the oleaginous Boyet, who we might infer spends his entire time being sleazy to these women, there’s the small matter of the oaths made by the King and his friends. The oath has become famous, or perhaps infamous, and the ladies know of it before the meeting. It’s callow and ill-thought-through. And if they have subscribed to not seeing a woman for three years, as seems from earlier Berowne’s demurral, then the men are already foresworn when the two parties meet each other. If their attention to such a solemn and well-publicised pact is so fickle, how else should the ladies approach anything these men swear to them in any love-making? I don’t think ‘this time I REALLY mean it’ is going to cut any ice.
‘Tromperies’ indeed …
I noticed, as did Boyet, the King’s partiality for the Princess, which makes it highly convenient that proof or otherwise of France’s claim against Navarre is going to take a day or two to sort out.
‘Dear Princess, were not his requests so far
From reason’s yielding, your fair self should make
A yielding ‘gainst some reason in my breast
And go well satisfied to France again.’ (II.i.149-152)
If it’s not rocket science to me, you can be sure the Princess will have quietly taken in that ‘reason in my breast’, and probably, unlike me, have ignored any suggestion of double entendre in the king’s wish to see her ‘well-satisfied’. Whatever my students might think, it’s not just me. HR Woudhuysen comments:
Characters regularly play with the ambiguity of language on their own or together and behind the most innocuous remark a sexual or scatalogical innuendo can lie
I just see them. More or less everywhere.
Anyway. Where does that leave us, at the end of Act II?
Smart but perhaps unfriendly, unapproachable (even if understandably so) women. Hapless men who will have to work a LOT harder. Skill in wordplay more than comedy, perhaps.
If this was a football game, we’d be approaching half time and ‘need a goal’ …
HR Woudhuysen (ed.), Love’s Labour’s Lost (Arden Third Edition), (Methuen Drama: London, 1998)
Lines from other plays sourced at: www.opensourceshakespeare.org