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"We know what we know": Reckoning in Love's Labor's Lost

From: Studies in Philology
Volume 105, Number 2, Spring 2008
pp. 245-264 | 10.1353/sip.2008.0008

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Berowne they call him, but a merrier man,
Within the limit of becoming mirth,
I never spent an hour's talk withal.
His eye begets occasion for his wit,
For every object that the one doth catch
The other turns to a mirth-moving jest,
Which his fair tongue, conceit's expositor,
Delivers in such apt and gracious words
That aged ears play truant at his tales
And younger hearings are quite ravished,
So sweet and voluble is his discourse.

—Rosaline on Berowne

Oft have I heard of you, my lord Berowne,
Before I saw you, and the world's large tongue
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks,
Full of comparisons and wounding flouts,
Which you on all estates will execute
That lie within the mercy of your wit.
To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain
And therewithal to win me, if you please—
Without the which I am not to be won—
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

—Rosaline to Berowne (5.2.829–42)

How does the audience of Love's Labor's Lost reconcile these two speeches, which are so specifically opposed as to create a contradiction? And how do the actors playing Rosaline and Berowne make sense of the gap? In the first speech, Rosaline praises Berowne's wit as "mirth-moving" and his mirth as "becoming." His "fair tongue," speaking as it does "apt and gracious words," delights both young and old—presumably moving all ages to the laughter that, in the second speech, from the play's last scene, Rosaline enjoins Berowne to evoke from the "speechless sick" as if he had never before delighted anyone. The very sense of humor that is said to "ravish" young people in the first speech becomes, in the second speech, "wounding" and toxic as "wormwood." The wit that is clearly described as salutary in the first passage has turned hurtful in the second.

This about-face is a particularly salient element of the play's larger shift from romantic comedy, seemingly headed for a quadruple wedding, to something more like satire or comedy manqué, in which the couples separate for a year before reassessing the prospect of marrying. What appears a failure of the play to cohere as a whole has been addressed by many critics. Kristian Smidt, for example, has argued that when Shakespeare began writing Love's Labor's, he intended to write a romantic comedy that he could neither abandon completely nor believe in wholeheartedly, so that, as the play progresses, it increasingly reflects his "two minds" about the project. While I do not want to over apologize for what Smidt and others identify as the play's flaws, I also believe that its interest and involvement in the idea and action of reckoning bridges its opening and closing more logically than might at first appear. Such was my experience when working with students on a production of the play. Rosaline's revised judgment of Berowne is one of many examples of reckoning—ranging from simple counting to more complex formulations of value—that, taken together, shape the play both subtly and profoundly and thus reward close inspection.

Both the term reckoning and various concepts of reckoning permeate the play and, in fact, Shakespeare's canon. The term carries as many different meanings in the plays as it does today. When Don Armado confesses that he is "ill at reckoning" (1.2.40), he means that he cannot add and subtract. Indeed, as the scene makes clear, he cannot so much as count to three (39–53). In a more sophisticated mathematical sense, reckoning refers to account keeping. So the Princess means when she tells the King that, at the point of "annual reckoning," she will review his success at his living without worldly pleasures for a year in an effort to win her hand (5.2.792). His accumulation of "deserts" will serve as penance for having failed to keep his original oath of austerity (5.2...



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