Rods and Mockers

For those who’ve been keeping up, you know how I feel about the ending of Love’s Labor’s Lost.

But in the last week, I’ve kept thinking to myself,

“That last scene… maybe it’s not as cruel as I read it the first time.  Maybe I was just grumpy that day.  Maybe I’m missing something.”  

As I re-read the scene, I noticed that “mock” (in one form or another) appears a whopping 17 times in that last scene.  So I checked out my old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]… and sure, enough, I WAS missing something:  “mock” has multiple meanings.  The usual, modern, expected meaning is there: “To hold up to ridicule; to deride; to assail with scornful words or gestures.”  But there’s another meaning as well: “To jest, trifle; to make sport.”

So I dove back into the scene again, to see if the use of mock could conform to that second meaning, and if this then could color the women’s actions and words into something softer, more fun, less hurtful.

uh, not so much.

After the Princess talks to her ladies about the favors they’ve received from the men, laughing at the poems, she says, “We are wise girls to mock our lovers so” (V.ii.58).  Here, the “jest”-ing definition might be at play, especially if we take “wise” to mean NOT the usual “exercising sound judgment” (OED), but rather the additional meaning “clever” (OED).  Of course, in the next line, Rosaline answers (in rhyme) the Princess’ statement with “They are worse fools to purchase mocking so” (V.ii.59), and this negates any connotation of jest: the mirror of “worse” to the Princess’ “wise” is bad enough; the mirror of “fools” to “girls” is worse; and to say the men have “purchase(d)” the mocking, makes it pretty clear that we’re not talking jokes here, but ridicule.

When the word is used again, it is by the Princess just before the entrance of the Muscovites.  She states,

The effect of my intent is to cross theirs.
They do it but in mocking merriment;
And mock for mock is only my intent.
Their several counsels they unbosom shall
To loves mistook, and so be mocked withal
Upon the next occasion that we meet,
With visages displayed, to talk and greet.

— V.ii.138-144

She states that — for lack of a better term — she wants to mess with the men, toy with and defeat their intentions.  She claims that the men are doing all this “in mocking merriment” (V.ii.139); and here, again, she is using the more “jest”-ing meaning.  She intends to match them “mock for mock” (V.ii.140), jest for jest.  She uses the term again when she declares what she intends to do upon their undisguised return: “mocked withal” (V.ii.142).  Here, however, it seems that the meaning is turning from joking to ridicule again.

A few lines later, she states that the women will refuse to dance and turn their backs on the men when they speak.  Boyet notes that this “kill the speaker’s heart” (V.ii.149) and make him forget what he was going to say.  She responds,

Therefore I do it; and I make no doubt
The rest will ne'er come in, if he be out.
There's no such sport as sport by sport o'erthrown,
To make theirs ours and ours none but our own.
So shall we stay, mocking intended game,
And they, well mocked, depart away with shame.

— V.ii.151-156

She states that “kill(ing)” the men’s hearts is exactly the goal she is trying to achieve.  It certainly feels now that we have moved from “jest” and “sport” to pure “ridicule.”  It’s interesting that she even uses “sport” in this speech:  “There’s no such sport as sport by sport o’erthrown.”

And just what does “sport” mean?

  • Pleasant pasttime, entertainment or amusement
  • Pastime afforded by the endeavor to take or kill wild animals, game, or fish
  • Amorous dalliance or intercourse.
  • A matter affording entertainment, diversion, or mirth; a jest or joke.
  • An object or subject of amusement, diversion, jesting, mirth, etc.; a laughing-stock, plaything, toy.
  • A theatrical performance or show; a play.

So in a sense, she is saying there is no more “pleasant pasttime” than an “amorous dalliance” that is overthrown by “the endeavor to take or kill wild animals, game.”  She’s going to have a great time, toying with the men’s loving attempts by “killing” the their hearts.  If it is interesting that she uses “sport” in the speech, then it’s doubly interesting that she also uses both “kill” and “game” in the speech, as well.  She will “mock.. (the) intended game,” the men, and then they–having been “well mocked”–will have to leave in shame.  We are certainly out of the more jovial meaning of “mock” now.

As we noted in our earlier discussion of the final scene, it seems that all of this mean-spiritedness has an effect on Boyet, who no longer enjoys the women’s words and actions, discounting their worth (“no richer than rich taffeta” [V.ii.159]) and forcing them to do their own linguistic dirty work (“She hears herself” [V.ii.196]).  If the mocking was merely jokes, there would be no need to call attention to it; however, both Longaville and Boyet make specific mention of the women’s words–“these sharp mocks” (V.ii.252) and “The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen // As is the razor’s edge” (V.ii.257-258).  (I find fascinating that this last speech of Boyet also includes mention of weapons–arrows and bullets–because that’s what the women’s mocking has become)

Once the Muscovites have left, the women refuse Boyet’s suggestion of now using words like “sweet roses in the summer air” (V.ii.294), in favor of Rosaline’s plan to “mock them still” (V.ii.302).  While I would like to see a less cruel avenue for performance, I’m sad to say that if we do not cut the text extensively (as Branagh did in his film adaptation, gutting much of the planned cruelty, and instead having the scene played through the women’s giggling), then there is no avoiding the female cruelty.

(NOTE: this is not to say that the men are blameless: as I re-read the scene, I find the mocking of the show of the Worthies almost exclusively done by the men, and it is also filled with ridicule, rather than just jest.  But one has to ask the question: is their cruelty their own, or does it stem from their frustration over their treatment by the ladies? in that case, aren’t the women being just as cruel to the performance as the men?)

Just before the show of the Worthies, however, there are two moments — poetically speaking — that give hopes for an end to this mot-so-merry war.  There are two sonnets (the form of a classic love poem) embedded in the dialogue.  The first is shared between the King and the Princess:

We came to visit you, and purpose now
To lead you to our court; vouchsafe it then.

This field shall hold me; and so hold your vow:
Nor God, nor I, delights in perjured men.

Rebuke me not for that which you provoke:
The virtue of your eye must break my oath.

You nickname virtue; vice you should have spoke;
For virtue's office never breaks men's troth.
Now by my maiden honor, yet as pure
As the unsullied lily, I protest,
A world of torments though I should endure,
I would not yield to be your house's guest;
So much I hate a breaking cause to be
Of heavenly oaths, vow'd with integrity.

— V.ii.344-357

Despite the King’s desire to welcome the women to his court, and his flattering assertion that it was the virtue of the Princess’ eye that provoked him to break his earlier vow, the Princess in relentless in her attack:

  • Neither God, nor she, “delights in perjured men” such as the King
  • The King is not a man of virtue but of vice
  • In comparison to the King, she has an honor “as pure // As the unsullied lily,” a flower symbolic of purity itself

I find it interesting this use of lily: it is also the “heraldic fleur-de-lis, esp. with reference to the arms of the old French monarchy” (OED)… she is the Princess of FRANCE.  We have seen in earlier (history) plays Shakespeare’s anti-French stance… is this a subtle clue to tell us that maybe we shouldn’t like these women?

Later, when Berowne is stating his case of love for Rosaline, he says,

O, never will I trust to speeches penned,
Nor to the motion of a schoolboy's tongue,
Nor never come in vizard to my friend,
Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper's song!
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical--these summer-flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation:
I do forswear them; and I here protest,
By this white glove (how white the hand, God knows!)
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes:
And, to begin, wench--so God help me, law!--
My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.

— V.ii.403-416

The women have scorned the men for their foolishness (“dry-beaten with pure scoff” [V.ii.264]).  And now, in confession of his own foolishness–a confession to both the ladies and himself–Berowne renounces the foolish things that love has provoked him to do:

  • memorizing speeches (“speeches penned”)
  • babbling like a youth (“a schoolboy’s tongue”… and remember that it was Berowne, way back in the first scene, that told the King that they were much too old to be playing the role of schoolboys: “to study now it is too late” [I.i.108])
  • using a mask (“come in vizard”)
  • write poetry (“woo in rhyme”… ironically, in the midst of a sonnet!)
  • let language run amok (“taffeta phrases, silken terms…hyperboles…figures pendantical” … there is irony piled on irony here: Boyet described the women as “no richer than rich taffeta” [V.ii.159]… and this from the man who is the recognized king of words… especially as he says that this wild use of language has “blown [him] full of maggot ostentation” [talk about your disturbingly extended metaphoric hyperbole])

He declares that he will only use plain words (“russet yeas and kersey noes”) to state his love, and then proclaims that his love for Rosaline is “sound, sans crack or flaw.”  The door is open for acceptance.  But Rosaline refuses, mocking him still: “Sans ‘sans’ I pray you” (V.ii.417).

Berowne’s “wit is at an end” (V.ii.431).

I know how he feels.  I tried to see the lighter side in the women’s mockery, tried to see it as jest rather than ridicule.  But the text just doesn’t support it.  The women’s “courtesy // Might well have made our sport a comedy” (V.ii.859-860), Berowne concludes.  He understands they’ve been fools.  He understands that they’ve been playing in a mere “pleasant pasttime, entertainment or amusement” or “jest or joke” (sport: OED).  He also understands that the only thing keeping that entertainment from being a comedy, one in which we have a conclusion of marriage or union, is the women’s “courtesy” or “graceful politeness or considerateness in intercourse with others” (OED).  But there is no courtesy; there is only mockery… and thus, no comedy, no union, no happy ending.

In a sense, Berowne steps out of the play at this point, either as a critic or an audience member:  his use of “sport” has an additional meaning, remember: “A theatrical performance or show; a play” (OED).  Like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Chorus in Henry V, Berowne realizes what he is in, and comments upon it to us, the audience, his peers.  We are his peers because we, too, were foolish to think that this could end as a comedy.  It was never meant to be… not when the women are as cruel as these.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *