Love’s Labor’s Lost : An Analysis Love’s Labor’s Lost may not be Shakespeare’s most renowned work, but its surprising ending places the work in a unique company outside of the traditional comedic form and throws into question the use of words to convey oaths. In order to answer the question of what the ending of Love’s Labor’s Lost teaches us about its beginning, we need to first quickly summarize both the beginning and ending scenes. Act 1 Scene 1 opens with the King of Navarre reading aloud an oath that is to be followed by him and the three lords in attendance. However, the oath is outright outrageous and unobtainable, with requirements such as to see no women, to only eat once a day, and to only sleep a few hours per night for three years.
Flashing forward to the last scene, Act 5 Scene 2, we see the Queen of France (formerly the Princess of France) wanting to return to France to mourn the death of her father with her three friends, yet the King and the lords attempt to persuade them to stay in Navarre. The power dynamic is very much in the women’s favor and the ending remains unresolved, with the women leaving and floating the idea of possibly returning to marry in twelve months. The ending of Love’s Labor’s Lost shows us that the King has not learned about oaths or keeping promises since the beginning of the play, while the men as a whole continue to not understand themselves and continue to see words only as words.
The King’s Oaths
Act 5 of Love’s Labor’s Lost showcases the fact that the King of Navarre has failed to create and uphold sound oaths over the course of the play. Before looking at these promises, let’s define what an oath entails. According to Giorgio Agamben in The Sacrament of Language, “the oath seems to be a linguistic act intended to confirm a meaningful proposition (a dictum), whose truth or effectiveness it guarantees”. Oaths are serious promises to be upheld in the face of severe consequences and are essential for religious and political communities.
The King’s flaws in understanding oaths can best be seen compared to a lasting religious oath, such as the creation of the Israelites’ oath to God in the Hebrew Bible. The King of Navarre proclaiming an oath to be kept by the other men functions as the “religion” that sets the standards for actions to be judged against. This parallels how Moses in the book of Exodus came down from Mt. Sinai to proclaim the Israelites’ oath to God and their actions to be judged against the Ten Commandments. The King of Navarre’s first lines of the play set this religious-like structure and tone:
“Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, / Live registered upon our brazen tombs, / And then grace us in the disgrace of death, / When, spite of cormorant devouring time, / Th’ endeavor of this present breath may buy / That honor which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge / And make us heirs of all eternity.”
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Although both scenarios use their oaths as a means to an end, one drastic difference is that the King of Navarre creates the oath from a position of excess and is focused on becoming famous and immortal, while the fulfillment of the Israelites’ oath is from a position of everlasting indebtedness to God to reach the promised land and be free of persecution and sin. The King makes the same error in the last scene with his proposed offer to the Queen, demonstrating that the King’s flawed oath in the first scene was not a one-time mistake. He truly does not comprehend the value of creating oaths from a position of obligation to instill a sense of importance and urgency to uphold it.
Perhaps the King cannot be fully blamed for this misunderstanding. Thomas Hobbes in On the Citizen writes that humans cannot be expected to keep promises, since most men are naturally bent on securing their own self-interests open to greed. Self-interest and giving into greed are seen as both the King and the Israelites break parts of their respective oaths, yet the two have different results in learning from these violations. The Israelites break their oath with God by creating a golden calf to worship in Exodus and Moses failing to trust God while striking a rock in Numbers, preventing the Israelites from reaching the promised land. Here, God acts as an outside entity that later reasserts the oath and steers the oath-breakers back on course. In Love’s Labor’s Lost, it becomes clear that the King does not have this luxury, as there is no outside entity that corrects him when the beginning oath is clearly too drastic to be kept and later when it is broken.
Words and Understanding
Expanding beyond the King of Navarre, the ending scene of Love’s Labor’s Lost confirms the idea that the other men similarly do not appear to understand themselves. In Act 5, Don Armado, Costard, Nathaniel, and Mote showcase themselves as famous leaders to portray the characteristics they think the women are most looking for in husbands. Nathaniel as Alexander the Great proclaims that “when in the world I lived, I was the world’s commander–.” Echoing back to the beginning of the play where the King and the lords stated the desire to become famous through their oath, actively trying to pursue fame is counterproductive, as dressing up as famous leaders only serves to reinforce the legacies of those men. Don Armado, Costard, the rest of the male supporting cast, in addition to the King and the lords, would all be more serving in their causes by improving themselves as much as possible and afterward letting their eventual high-profile marriages be the source of their fame.
Throughout Love’s Labor’s Lost, there is a disconnect between the men and women regarding the use and interpretation of words. As the King is trying to convince the queen to remain at Navarre, his words are constantly putting himself at a disadvantage and leaving the queen confused. The King argues that “yet since love’s argument was first on foot, / Let not the cloud of sorrow jostle it.” The queen responds with simply, “I understand you not. My griefs are double.” When Berowne intervenes on the King’s behalf as the mature voice of reason, Berowne demonstrates that he actually knows the King better than the King knows himself, admitting that they “played foul play with our oaths…Our love being yours, the error that love makes / is likewise yours.”
Fueling this disconnect is the notion that the men uniformly treat words only as words, while the women attempt to attach emotions and experiences to the words. In Act 5 Scene 2, when the women are wearing masks and the men are dressed up as Russians, the men use words to flirt with other women that they mistakenly think are their own crushes. Joseph Chaney in Promises, Love’s Labor’s Lost… describes this scene as “the distinction between being in love and merely acting and talking love is clarified in Love’s Labor’s Lost.” The men acting and talking love is seen right through by the women, who are attempting to attach the possibility of marriage to the interactions and determining if the men are actually in love.
Acknowledging that words are slippery and take on a sense of formlessness in Love’s Labor’s Lost, how is it possible to convey the notion of being in love only through words? In this sense, words are only as valid as the actions that back them up. Since the King and the lords fail to back up their oath-bound words with action, the words in the beginning oath are rendered useless only after the supporting actions never arrive in the later scenes.
Clearly, the ending of Love’s Labor’s Lost shows us that the King has not learned about oaths or keeping promises since the beginning of the play, while the men as a whole continue to not understand themselves and continue to see words only as words. The king’s flawed understanding of oaths is seen as he uses them as a means for fame and excess in the beginning, a mistake he also makes in the last scene while trying to create an oath to the Queen to remain in Navarre.
Compared to a valid oath, such as that of the Israelites to God, the positioning of being in debt instead of in excess serves to implement a sense of urgency and importance to uphold the oath with supporting actions, which the King never learns. As words are formless and difficult to anticipate the exact interpretations, it’s this lack of understanding words in the last scene that proves the King had no idea of the severity of the words in the beginning oath.