The Last Scene of Act Four and the First Scene of Act Five: Four Woodcocks in a Dish

At the beginning of Act Four, Scene Three of Love’s Labor’s Lost, we find the lovelorn Berowne, paper in hand, ready to write again, but able only to bemoan his fate.  He hates love (which makes him “toil… in pitch — pitch that defiles” [IV.iii.2-3]), but he loves Rosaline.  When he spies one of his comrades coming, he stands asides and watches.  The King enters, sighing; Berowne, in an aside to us, states his joy: “Shot, by heaven!” (IV.iii.20).  He’s not the only one feeling Cupid’s shaft, as the King proceeds to read his poem… it’s a sonnet, but a sixteen-line sonnet.  Before Berowne can comment, “one more fool appear(s)” (IV.iii.42), and the King stands back to watch.  This time it’s Longaville, and like his King, he’s full of sighs.

What follows is a comic scene as the King watches and comments upon Longaville’s fate and poem; Berowne comments upon not only Longaville, but on the King’s commentary as well.  As Berowne says, “Like a demigod here sit I in the sky, // And wretched fools’ secrets heedfully o’ereye” (IV.iii.75-76).

As you expect, Dumaine is the last to enter, as Longaville steps back to watch, and we get our increasingly layered commentary: Longaville on Dumaine; the King on Longaville and Dumaine; Berowne on all three–“O heavens, I have my wish! … four woodcocks in a dish!” (IV.iii.78).

While the stage directions have Dumaine reading “his sonnet” (IV.ii.96 stage direction), what follows is not a sonnet, but 20 lines of pretty ridiculous (in the truest sense of the word) doggerel.  And one by one, the eavesdroppers advance (in reverse order, Longaville, the King, Berowne), to berate–hypocritically–the previous speaker for breaking his vow.  And when Berowne lays it on, he lays it on thick:

But are you not ashamed? nay, are you not,
All three of you, to be thus much o'ershot?
...
O, what a scene of foolery have I seen,
Of sighs, of groans, of sorrow and of teen!
...
To see a king transformed to a gnat!
... but I betray'd by you:
I, that am honest; I, that hold it sin
To break the vow I am engaged in;
I am betray'd, by keeping company
With men like men of inconstancy.

— 155-157, 159-160, 162, 172-176

It’s wonderful hypocrisy, delicious really, and it’s only made better when he cuts himself off and begins to run away; the King asks, “Soft! Whither away so fast?” [IV.iii.182]).  Whither, indeed?  Because Berowne sees the one person who can expose his hypocrisy: Costard… and Jaquenetta… with letter in hand.  Costard announces that “treason” (IV.iii.186) is in the letter; the King has Berowne read the letter.  After reading it, he tears it claiming it’s “a toy.  (The King) needs not fear it” (IV.iii.197).

Longaville is suspicious because Berowne tore it; Dumaine picks up the pieces and sees that it’s in Berowne’s handwriting, and signed by him.

The jig is up.  Berowne is forced to confess his guilt, and professes his love for Rosaline openly.  What follows is of note: the others don’t attack Berowne for his hypocrisy so much as for Rosaline’s appearance: “By heaven, thy love is black as ebony” (IV.iii.243).

[In a time when the Elizabethan standard of beauty was white, pale white, white to the point of translucency, is anyone of any other complexion considered black?  Or is Rosaline really black?]

The King calls on Berowne to present to them an argument that their “loving (is) lawful and … (their) faith not torn” (IV.iii.281).  And we hear the prowess Rosaline discussed back in Act Two.  He gives a logical argument that’s the St. Crispin’s Day speech for the lovelorn, concluding:

For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women,
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.

— IV.iii.331-336

It’s a rousing speech, and has the appropriate response: “Saint Cupid then!  And, soldiers, to the field!” (IV.iii.340).  They decide to forego their oaths, woo and win the ladies, and “devise // Some entertainment for them in their tents” (IV.iii.346-347).  And they exit, ready for love.

In Act Five, Scene One, we are back in the company of Holofernes and Nathaniel and their overdone English/Latin wordplay, during which they discuss at some length the ridiculousness of Armado’s language.

Mr. Kettle… I have a Mr. Pot on line two…

Within moments, Armado and Moth enter with a request for the learned men: the King has called for an entertainment for the afternoon (“the posteriors of the day” [V.i.82]), and Armado needs their help in creating one.  The pedant and the pastor agree, and we are off and running, save for one joke at scene’s end: Holofernes says to Dull, “Thou hast spoken no word all this while.”  To which he responds, “Not understood none neither, sir” (V.i.139-140, 141).

Yes, we are off and running toward the final scene… the longest scene in all of Shakespeare: 914 lines, about the length of the average comedy’s third and fourth act COMBINED… but that will have to wait another day.

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