The opening of Love’s Labor’s Lost is a quiet beginning, one of exposition (as opposed to a BANG or processional). The King of Navarre, a landlocked region in the north of Spain, bordered by other Spanish states in all directions, save the north-northeast, where Navarre shares a border with France, enters with his three… let’s call them attendants, for now: Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine.
now according to the character list and the stage direction, the King’s name is Ferdinand, but that name is never used in dialog… so we’ll just call him “the King” from here on out for the rest of the month… oh, yeah… and I’m going with Love’s Labor’s Lost instead of Love’s Labour’s Lost… ‘cuz we’re here in America, ya hear? anyway…
The King is waxing pretty poetical about the fame they are about to achieve:
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,
The endeavor of this present breath may buy
That honor which shall bate his scythe's keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.
This life (“present breath”) and what these four are going to do in it is going to bring them fame that will be written on their brass (“brazen”) tombs for all eternity. It must be important what these men are endeavoring. As he continues, he uses a warrior’s imagery (“conquerors… war… huge army… stand in force” [I.i.8, 9, 10, and 11]), we begin to think: A war, perhaps? A rescue? A mission of state? But then our eyes drift back to that huge army… it’s an army “of the world’s desires” (I.i.10)… and then ahead:
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little Academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
What? Fame is going to come to these four because they’re going to be a little school and study? Right. Idealistic… to the point of delusional. The King goes on to state that the three have “sworn for three years’ term” (I.i.16) to live with him and study as his “fellow scholars” (I.i.17). He has accepted their promises, but now has brought out the contract to seal the deal.
OK, three years of study… many of us have made such deals. That’s how I have a university degree… but it doesn’t make me famous. Both Longaville and Dumaine readily agree, citing their disdain for “Fat paunches…dainty bits” and “the grosser manner of these world’s delights” (26 and 29), respectively. The third of the attendants, Berowne, however, seems to have reservations about the written agreement. He has “already sworn” (I.i.34) to study, but he’s concerned about some of the other “strict observances” (I.i.36) written into the contract:
- “not to see woman in that term” (I.i.37)
- “one day a week to touch no food, // And but one meal on every day beside” (I.i.39-40)
- “sleep but three hours in the night” (I.i.42)
Berowne pragmatically states, “O, These are barren tasks, too hard to keep” (I.i.47).
The King reminds him of his oath, but Berowne says that he only signed up for the “study” (I.i.51) portion of the course. If Berowne agreed to anything else, he says, “then (he) swore in jest” (I.i.54). The King and Berowne argue this point back and forth, with Berowne giving a fairly impassioned speech (including a sonnet embedded in it) about how there is more to life than knowledge and study.
Longaville and Dumaine now join the King in trying to convince Berowne of the errors in his philosophy.
it’s quite the poetic battle, and one we’ll discuss fully later in the month… this short, short, 28-day month… sigh
And in the midst of his defense, Berowne makes a very interesting observation:
But like of each thing that in season grows.
So you, to study now it is too late,
Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate.
so how old ARE these guys? gotta be alert to more clues as to age…
There’s a season for everything, Berowne says, and the time for these four (or at least the King) to study is long past (“too late”), and to do otherwise is to act perversely (“climb o’er the house to unlock the little gate”).
The King offers Berowne his freedom, but Berowne refuses, keeping his oath. Reading over the contract, however, he does find a problem:
'Item, If any man be seen to talk with a woman within the term of three years, he shall endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise.'
This article, my liege, yourself must break;
For well you know here comes in embassy
The French king's daughter with yourself to speak--
A maid of grace and complete majesty--
Berowne sees that the King will have to break his own newly minted law because of an embassy of the French princess. Notice, too, how Berowne presents this in a more complete ABAB rhyme scheme.
The King admits they will have to “dispense with this decree” (I.i.144), and with at least this one rhetorical victory under his belt, Berowne signs the contract and queries the King on what kind of non-feminine entertainment he has in store for his study-buddies. The King then goes on to describe one Armado, a Spaniard, whose use and abuse of language, that “mint of phrases in his brain” (I.i.162), will be their entertainment. Longaville adds that the shepherd Costard “shall be (their) sport” (I.i.176), as well.
So, just as we’ve learned that there are two locals who will be the source of entertainment for the next three female-less years, the constable Antony Dull enters with a letter and the aforementioned Costard. And who’s the letter from? Why, Armado, of course.
The language shifts to prose, and the rest of the scene is a low-brow comic deelite. It begins with some mangling of language as the King and Berowne try to learn from Dull what the matter is. According to Costard, the matter is him and a girl by the name of Jaquenetta: “I was seen with her in the manor house, sitting with her upon the form, and taken following her into the park” (I.i.201-203). But the letter goes further, calling what Armado witnessed “that obscene and most preposterous event” (I.i.234-235), a “sort(ing) and consort(ing), contrary to thy established and proclaimed edict” (I.i.248-249).
wait a minute, is the King making his entire country a no-hetero-fraternization zone?
The letter concludes that Armado has kept Jaquenetta in custody, just in case the King wants to “bring her to trial” (I.i.262), and that the real culprit Costard is being delivered to the King for punishment.
The punishment shall be a week of bred and water (though Costard would prefer “a month with mutton and porridge” [I.i.286-287]), and worse yet (for Costard) “Don Armado shall be (his) keeper” (I.i.288).
And on that note the first scene ends.