“How ‘blow’? How ‘blow’? Speak to be understood”—demands The Princess to Boyet in the final act of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Her voice here, as elsewhere, tries to blow the chaff of rhetoric from the grain, and much of the play’s delight lies in the excess of rhetoric tripping over itself to its own detriment.
But her impatience with the words of the men comes to a head only later in that act when she receives word that her father has died, prompting her abrupt departure. When she announces it to the King, he implores her not to leave his love (and the love of his men) so readily:
The extreme parts of time extremely forms
All causes to the purpose of his speed,
And often at his very loose decides
That which long process could not arbitrate.
And though the mourning brow of progeny
Forbid the smiling courtesy of love
The holy suit which fain it would convince,
Yet since love’s argument was first on foot,
Let not the cloud of sorrow jostle it
From what it purposed, since to wail friends lost
Is not by much so wholesome-profitable
As to rejoice at friends but newly found.
The Princess will none of this: “I understand you not. My griefs are double.” What is interesting to me is what Berowne, the wittiest of the courtiers, does next, stepping in:
Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief,
And by these badges understand the King:
For your fair sakes have we neglected time,
Played foul with our oaths. Your beauty, ladies,
Hath much deformed us, fashioning our humors
Even to the opposed end of our intents.
And what in us hath seemed ridiculous—
As love is full of unbefitting strains,
All wanton as a child, skipping and vain,
Formed by the eye and therefore, like the eye,
Full of strange shapes, of habits, and of forms,
Varying in subjects as the eye doth roll
To every varied object in his glance;
Which parti-coated presence of loose love
Put on by us, if, in your heavenly eyes,
Have misbecomed our oaths and gravities,
Those heavenly eyes, that look into these faults,
Suggested us to make. Therefore, ladies,
Our love being yours, the error that love makes
Is likewise yours. We to ourselves prove false
By being once false forever to be true
To those that make us both—fair ladies, you.
And even that falsehood, in itself a sin,
Thus purifies itself and turns to grace.
The Princess will not take this seriously, responding that she and her ladies assumed their flippant jests of courtship were mere merriments, refusing to see in them commitment or responsibility on either side. But he does succeed where The King had failed. She hears him, and hears his intent. Perhaps had they spoken thus, rather than in their tones of “pleasant jest, and courtesy | As bombast and as lining to the time,” they might have succeeded in better wooing. His success on this instance, proving him serious enough to warrant comprehension as well as a rejection, is interesting because it presents, from within a play of rhetorical excess and play, what it means to do something else with language: it suggests, on Shakespeare’s own terms, a turn towards another way of speaking.
Berowne’s claim that he offers “Honest plain words” is perhaps not borne out; the extended figures, first the child and then the cloak, as well as the couplet on “true” and “you” might suggest that Berowne is not willing to shake off his old ways with words. But how could that be possible anyway? What he is doing is not to shed his old style for a new one, but to adapt his old style to a new purpose; and such an adaptation involves a deepening and extending of the figures. In the final two lines, he comments, I suspect, on what he has done: “And even that falsehood, in itself a sin | Thus purifies itself and turns to grace.” The falsehood to which he refers is primarily the “oaths” that the men broke, but it is also, I’d suggest, the less honest, and honorable, ways of speaking that the King’s words still exemplify, and that coincided with, and spurred, the breaking of the oaths. And it is also an admission that the falsehood of the former way of speaking, the cozening and deceptive willful wit (which extends to the witty play on the word “will” earlier in the play, ranging as it does between desire and intent), is not entirely absent from this new speech. The new plain way of speaking is honest not because it has abolished the figures, wit, or play, but because it has deepened them in the process of putting them to new ends: they are no longer being asked to seduce or excuse, but to justify and explain, and to justify by getting, as it were, within the will. That is, this honest plain speech, is honest because it exposes the movements and forces within the will, by means of the same sorts of figures of speech as, earlier in the play, had been used to demonstrate the will’s flexibility.
In Maria’s speech in Act 2, for instance: “If virtue’s gloss will stain with any soil,| Is a sharp wit matched with too blunt a will; | Whose edge hath power to cut, whose will still wills | It should none spare that come within his power.” Whether or not they are talking about the will, their rhetoric suggests a willfulness with words, and implies that words have sway over will. Now, at this later moment, speaking plainly, the will is not assumed to be so flexible; instead, it is under siege, from without and within, and it is mutable, but weak, as a consequence. The tension is not only between one will and another (the earliest history plays?), or between one’s words and the words of another (as in a war of the wits, as in comedies till Much Ado), but between one’s will and one’s words, one’s will and another’s will, one’s words and another’s will, and so on and so forth. The weakened will is apprehended I think in the extension of the figures, the metaphorical tangles that emerge. It is hard, on first reading, to see how these words are much plainer than the King’s (though the King’s in this case are exceptionally difficult to follow, perhaps because he is aware that they are unsuited for the occasion, constraining his tongue); though the intentions are more exposed, they are exposed by language that seems to have conquered as much as it has been conquered. The figures take on a life of their own; the will takes on a life of its own; the speech betrays itself; the will risks betraying the speech; the speech betrays the will. This is the key of the great span of the lengthy middle of Shakespeare’s career, emerging in the comedies first here, and in the tragedies in Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar.
It is worth returning to the final lines of the speech to note that they accommodate the couplet in order to outpace it; the new way of speaking does not erase but extends the old. And in outpacing it they attempt to perform what they proclaim: to purify and turn to grace.