I shouldn’t be surprised given the recurrent death images in Love’s Labor’s Lost, that the play ends without a classically comedic conclusion.
The imagery begins early, in the play’s opening sentence:
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.
In this opening line, the King sets forth the proposition that what he and his fellows are going to attempt will outface death, and give them eternal fame. As we latter learn, their goal is less than earth-shattering, and the concept of defeating death by studying for three years is laughable.
So why is it here? You would think that a play about learning (ostensibly) or love (more clearly) would fill its opening speech with imagery more befitting those subjects. But no. Why?
When Dumaine declares his support for the period of study and abstinence, he uses some interesting words: “My loving lord, Dumaine is mortified. … To love, to wealth, to pomp, I pine and die, // With all these living in philosophy” (I.i.28, 31-32). Again, we have language that sets a sepulchral tone.
Another instance of interestingly deadly diction comes in Act Two, Scene One, when the Princess discusses the King’s proclaimed oath with the monarch:
'Tis deadly sin to keep that oath, my lord,
And sin to break it.
She states that it would be a deadly sin to keep the oath, but only a sin to break it. In the Catholic Church, a mortal sin is one that will send the sinner to hell (if not confessed and absolved); it also must conform to three conditions:
- A grave/serious matter
- Committed with full knowledge
- Committed with complete consent
To keep the oath, he would be doing it with full knowledge and consent. But serious matter? Is this because to keep the oath, to forswear women, would be to work against religious procreation. Is this what she’s talking about? But why?
Is there a clue subtly tossed out in Act Two, Scene One, when the King responds to the communiqué that the Princess delivers from her father, the King of France:
Madam, your father here doth intimate
The payment of a hundred thousand crowns;
Being but the one half of an entire sum
Disbursed by my father in his wars.
But say that he or we, as neither have,
Received that sum, yet there remains unpaid
A hundred thousand more; in surety of the which,
One part of Aquitaine is bound to us,
Although not valued to the money's worth.
The central concept of the diplomatic mission is a repayment of funds that the King’s “father” had disbursed in her father’s recent wars. But neither “he” the father nor the current King received such funds. We have a King (and save for a few stage directions, and unnamed one at that). This king mentions a father; presumably, given the lineage of kings, that father would have been king at the time. So that king is dead (after all, you can’t have two kings). Is the three-year period of study really a self-imposed period of mourning? The idea is intriguing… especially when the period of ascetic abstinence is one that is proclaimed throughout the land (a state-wide period of mourning?).
In Act Four, Scene Two’s post-hunt scene, we get our next death reference, this time related to the type of animal killed by the Princess in the hunt. We learn the categorization of deer to be hunted (pricket, sore, sorel, buck), and though there is some confusion, Dull reiterates that the Princess killed a pricket, or a two year-old buck.
In Act Four, Scene Three, Dumaine’s doggerel discussed “the lover, sick to death” (IV.iii.103), and Berowne in his admission of guilt to his fellows, says that they are “pickpurses in love, and … deserve to die” (IV.iii.205). Love, for these melodramatists, brings death.
Not surprisingly, all is is prelude to the torrent of death references in the final scene of the play…
- For the women, too, Love brings Death. Cupid had “killed (Katherine’s) sister… (who) might ha’ been a grandam ere she died” (V.ii.13,17), if she had been of a “merry… spirit” (IV.ii.16). In their world, love is melancholy.
- The women, if asked to dance, “will not move a foot” “to the death” (V.ii both 146), even if it “kills the (man)’s heart” (V.ii.149).
- Katherine advises Longaville to “die a calf” (V.ii.254) before he can become a man (and thus a cuckold), to which Longaville can only wish for some “word in private… ere (he) die(s)” (V.ii.255). (remember the alternate meaning of “die”… sexual orgasm)
- During the mocking of the now undisguised men, Rosaline recounts the Russian who told her that he would “wed (her) or else die (her) lover” (V.ii.448); again Love brings Death.
- When discussing the upcoming show of the Worthies, the Princess says,
That sport best pleases that doth least know how,
Where zeal strives to content, and the contents
Dies in the zeal of that which it presents.
Here, zeal (or “ardent feeling or fervor (taking the form of love, wrath, ‘jealousy’, or righteous indignation” [Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0)] kills the substance of the lover’s sport or “Amorous dalliance or intercourse”)… love kills itself.
- When Mercade arrives from France, he brings news, news which the Princess can predict: the King of France is “Dead, for (her) life!” (V.ii.711)
- The Princess announces that for one year, she will “shut // (Her) woeful self up … For the remembrance of (her) father’s death” (V.ii.797-798, 800).
- The King realizes that he cannot deny the Princess’ year of mourning, or “the sudden hand of death (will) close up (his) eye!” (V.ii.805).
- Berowne declares that “To move wild laughter in the throat of death… is impossible” (V.ii.839-840).
So what to make of all this death in a comedy?
Three years study and abstinence.
The killing of a two year-old male deer.
One year of mourning.
The time periods stated all move closer to zero. What is the zero point of time, of life? Birth?
What if the “labor” of the title is not work and toil, but rather “the pains and efforts of childbirth” (OED)? Is the lost labor a still-birth, a death before there is life? In a sense, the play is still-born. Is this why this comedy ends not like a comedy at all?