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Love's Labour's Lost: When Powerful Women Don't Work for Shakespeare

Love’s Labour’s Lost should be a popular play. It includes disguises, tricks, mixed up letters, a relatively simple plot rife with comedic opportunities, hiding, eavesdropping, beautiful language, and even commedia dell’arte stock characters and a small play within a play. Despite all this it has not captivated audiences the way other Shakespearean comedies have, largely due to its unconventional ending. The surprising ending and positions of power women maintain throughout the play alienate audiences by challenging traditional structures.

From before the Princess and her ladies Catherine, Rosaline, and Maria arrive they have an effect on King Ferdinand, Longueville, Dumaine, and Biron. The men having just sworn oaths “not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep” (1.1.48) for three years (1.1.35) must immediately amend their vow to accommodate the arrival of the Princess

(1.1.131-138). Her presence demands breaking part of the oath “on mere necessity” (1.1.146). This means the Princess “may not come […] within [the King’s] gates,/But […] without […] shall be so received”” (2.1.170-171). She and her ladies must inhospitably reside in the King’s park while in Navarre, and although the Princess accepts this adherence to the oath with diplomatic grace due her position when matters deem it necessary (2.1 176), it is clear that the women have advantage in courtesies. The Princess confronts the King with his foolishness that he “hath sworn out housekeeping./’Tis deadly sin to keep that oath, my lord,/And sin to break it” (2.1.103-105) and urges that he “suddenly resolve [her] in [her] suit” (2.1.109) so “the sooner [she] were away,/For [he’ll] prove perjured if [he] make [her] stay” (2.1.111-112). She has no desire to stay where she is unwelcome and greeted “like one that comes […] to besiege [the King’s] court” (2.1.86), nor where she can be blamed for causing the men to break their oaths. Faced with this situation she works to resolve business quickly. The welcome she and her ladies receive automatically shifts social power to them for the duration of their stay. This has the benefit of manifesting both literally and metaphorically, as the King and his men must not only work to ingratiate themselves to the women’s good graces while the women remain, but also must make the literal effort to visit them outside the gates.

The Princess and her ladies also demonstrate power with words. It is through them that audiences first learn about the personalities of the King’s men. In a scene echoing others in Shakespeare of ladies and discussing men, the Princess, Maria, Catherine, and Rosaline discuss the King’s fellow votaries (2.1.37), praising each and criticizing each in turn. Longueville, though he is “well fitted in arts, glorious in arms” is “a sharp wit matched with too blunt a will,/Whose edge hath power to cut, whose will still sills/It should none spare that come within his power” (2.1.45, 49-51). Dumaine, on the other hand, is a “well-accomplished youth” with “most power to do most harm, least knowing ill,/For he hath wit to make an ill shape good,/And shape to win grace, though he had no wit” (2.1.56, 58-60). Biron they list as never “a merrier man,/Within the limits of becoming mirth” whose “eye begets occasion for his wit,/For every object that the one doth catch/The other turns to a mirth-moving jest,/Which his fair tongue […]Delivers in such apt and gracious words/That agèd ears play truant at his tales,/And younger hearings are quite ravishèd” (2.1.66-67, 69-75). These descriptions provide the context used to understand each of the men as they interact with each other and the ladies. The men appear before the women in the play, but it is through the women that the audience comes to know anything about them. This ability catapults women to the forefront, their views imposing the rest of the play.

Their power of words manifests in wit as well. The princess and her ladies engage in repartee with each other and with the men in a way that maintains their footing (and recalls Benedick and Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing). Wit is no mere façade, for the ladies jest with each other (2.1.216-258) but agree that “this civil war of wits were much better used/on Navarre and his bookmen, for here ‘tis abused” (2.1.225-226). In much the same way the Princess, Maria, Catherine, and Rosaline describe and criticize each man, they describe and comment on the gifts each man bestows them (5.2.1-78). The Princess’ light tone at the reception of her gift accompanied by “as much love in rhyme/As would be crammed up in a sheet of paper/Writ o’ both sides the leaf, margin and all,/That [the King] was fain to seal on Cupid’s name” (5.2.6-9)

invites Catherine and Rosaline to once more exchange witticisms until the Princess

gently stops them with the praise of, “Well bandied, both; a set of wit well played” (5.2.29) and shifts focus to Rosaline’s gift. Her gentle interjection illustrates such exchanges are common amongst the party. Playfulness continues as she calls attention to the verses accompanying her gift and that they have “number true […] were the numb’ring, too/[She] were the fairest goddess on the ground” (5.2.35-36), and that the included picture of her is like her “much in the letters, nothing in the praise” (5.2.40). Again, Catherine chimes in and the ladies jest until the Princess shifts focus to Catherine’s gift of a glove (5.2.48). This, too, arrived with verses Catherine criticizes as, “a huge translation of hypocrisy,/Vilely compiled, profound simplicity” (5.2.51-52), just as Maria received pearls accompanied by a “letter too long by half a mile” (5.2.54). The ladies’ dismissive attitudes toward the gifts and verses demonstrates their disbelief at the sincerity with which they were sent. Such seemingly cavalier offerings question rather than affirm the motives of their sending. Schooled in this, the women protect themselves with their wit and believe themselves “wise to mock [their] lovers so” (5.2.58) since “none are so surely caught when they are catched/As wit turned fool. Folly in wisdom hatched/Hath wisdom’s warrant, and the help of school,/And wit’s own grace, to grace a learnèd fool” (5.2.69-72). The favors bestowed appear to be nothing more than signs of “folly in fools [that] bears not so strong a note/As fool’ry in the wise when wit doth dote” (5.2.75-76) that confirm “the blood of youth burns not with such excess/As gravity’s revolt to wantonness” (5.2.73-74). Though at the end of the play Biron clarifies it is for the women the men “played foul play with [their] oaths” because the ladies’ beauty “hath much deformed [the men], fashioning [their] humours/Even to the opposèd end of [their] intents […] As love is full of unbefitting strains” (5.2.738-742), the Princess falters not. She frankly tells the suitors that she and her ladies rated the letters full of love and favors ambassadors of love “at courtship, pleasant jest, and courtesy,/As bombast and as lining to the time./But more devout than this in [the ladies’] respects/Have we not been, and therefore met your loves/In their own fashion, like a merriment” (5.2.759-766). The ladies’ wit empowers them to question intentions while protecting themselves and demonstrating intellect. This honest portrayal creates friction with existing understanding of acceptable behaviors of women socially and romantically. It also insures that the play will not end with the customary wedding of multiple couples that the men and the audience expect. The women instead invoke their power with words once more to impose new actions—and not mere oaths—on the men as signs of their devotion and to prove their loyalty. Each woman calls upon the faults previously revealed amongst themselves for what they require of their suitor, urging the suitors to “swear not, lest [they] be forsworn again” (5.2.809). Having proven the trustworthiness of their word, the ladies assure the men that “At the twelvemonth’s end/[they’ll] change [their] black gown for a faithful friend” (5.2.810-811). Wit gives way to simple honesty when falsities are removed.

The Princess, Maria, Catherine, and Rosaline’s superior position makes it possible for them to undermine the “mocking intended game” (5.2.155) the King and his men approach with when they disguise themselves “like Muscovites, or Russians […] to parley, to court and dance,/And every one his love-suit will advance/Unto his several mistress, which they’ll know/By favours several which they did bestow” (5.2.122-126).

The women take advantage of their warning to use the ruse for their own purpose, deciding that “the gallants shall be tasked,/ For [each lady will] be masked,/And not a man of them shall have the grace,/Despite of suit, to see a lady’s face” (5.2.127-129). What’s more, the ladies “change favours […] So [their] loves/Woo contrary, deceived by these removes” (5.2.133-134). Though the men hope to catch the ladies off guard in “mockery-merriment” (5.2.138), the Princess uses the opportunity to cross their intent and repay mock with mock (5.2.137-139) so that the men’s “several counsels they unbosom shall/To loves mistook, and so be mocked withal/Upon the next occasion that [they] meet/With visages displayed to talk and greet” (5.2.140-143). The situational irony strengthens the women’s position so they can chasten the men. The ladies’ claim ownership of the trick “To make theirs ours, and ours none but our own” so the men “well mocked depart away with shame” (5.2.153-155). The women’s own game allows them to test the genuineness of the men’s affections in a low-stakes setting. The ladies therefore receive the disguised men with a cold measure of their wit, leaving the men “all dry-beaten with pure scoff” (5.2.263). Once gone, the Princess, Maria, Catherine, and Rosaline laugh at how each man predictably promised himself to his mistaken love. They unexpectedly gain a second pass at their game when the men return, collectively deciding to “mock [the men] still, as well known as disguised […] complain to them what fools were here,/Disguised like Muscovites in shapeless gear,/And wonder what they were and to what end/Their shallow shows, and prologue vilely penned,/And their rough carriage so ridiculous,/Should be presented at [the] tent” (5.2.301-307). The women prepare for the men’s prideful return and again arm themselves with their wit, having switched back their favors to their original owners (5.2.292). The King and his men try and fail to keep up with the women, attempting to turn their game to jest to save face and confessing when they realize they are uncovered (5.2.389-390), but give up when even Biron’s wit fails him (5.2.430). Instead they rely on the words of the women to “teach […] for [the] rude transgression/Some fair excuse” (5.2.431-432). For the first time the Princess is able to speak plainly and pointedly to the King, and having earned this victory she demonstrates how she and her ladies proved the men fools. The ladies’ manipulation of the men’s intended purposes highlights their ability to enforce and maintain power in a manner typically not attributed to women. The women control the entire jest from beginning to end.

One of the most important yet underappreciated weapons of power women hold in the play comes in the power of holding to their convictions. When the King tries to give his oath after his failed game, the Princess tells him, “Peace, peace, forbear./Your oath once broke, you force not to forswear” and that he should keep the oath for himself (5.2.439-442), for he and his men are “perjured much,/Full of dear guiltiness” and their oaths cannot be trusted (5.2.772-773, 776). The Princess likewise prioritizes her duty, whether to the state (2.1.108-112, 152-160), her family, or both. She seeks to accomplish state business swiftly (2.1.109), but takes up the full weight of its mantle just as swiftly and dutifully when her father dies, ordering that she will leave Navarre (5.2.709) and refusing the King’s request she stay (5.2.710) in order to undertake her new responsibilities as queen. Her farewell is studiously diplomatic, thanking the “gracious lords,/For all [their] fair endeavours” (5.2.711-712) and asking that they “in [their] rich wisdom […] excuse or hide/The liberal opposition of our spirits./If overboldly we have borne ourselves/In the converse of breath” (5.2.7714-717). The Princess will follow appropriate protocol and “shut/[her] woeful self up in a mourning house,/Raining tears of lamentation/For the remembrance of [her] father’s death” (5.2.789-792) for a year (5.2.779-780). Catherine, Maria, and Rosaline pledge to follow their lady in this (5.2.804-807,810-811). They likewise remain unapologetic for their lighthearted response to the men’s letters and favors (5.2.159-166). Learning there is true intent behind them changes how the ladies view the men, but not so much that “at the latest minute of the hour” they “grant [the men their] loves” (5.2.768-769). The women take time to consider that that time is “too short/To make a world-without-end bargain” (5.2.770-771); however, they propose that if “the twelvemonth celestial signs […] change not [the] offer[s] made in heat of blood […] at the expiration of the year/Come challenge [them] […] and [..] [they] will be thine” (5.2.779, 782, 785-789). Each woman imposes her own requirement on her suitor to prove his love, but all declare that “at the twelvemonth’s end/[they’ll] change [their] black gown for a faithful friend” (5.2.810-811). Adhering to their word gives women power in the play. Since the Princess and her ladies do not break any oaths and instead prove their word they are truly trustworthy. Their ability to do something the male characters cannot alters the end of the play so it does not end as expected. The ladies refuse to compromise and allow their courtesies to make the men’s sport a comedy (5.2.852-853).

The power of presence, word, wit, situation, and conviction the Princess, Maria, Catherine, and Rosaline exhibit throughout Love’s Labour’s Lost challenge conventional thoughts about women’s behaviors. These bold behaviors lead to surprising interactions that alienate audiences with their truth. While audiences grow accustomed to seeing some of these, they seldom see them together in a more realistic expression of complex female characters. That the Princess and her ladies maintain and demonstrate power throughout the play upsets the status quo and proves they can chart their own course. It is no wonder, then, that Love’s Labour’s Lost is generally less beloved than other Shakespearean comedies. Even in today’s world its strong women are too much for audiences.

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