A friend of mine trying to quit smoking once made a bargain to go cold turkey with another friend and hold each other accountable. After a week, my friend broke down and slinked back into his favorite tobacconist’s shop, only to bump into—you guessed it—his partner in accountability. Or crime, as it were.
That’s essentially the idea behind Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s play about four young bachelors who swear a three-year vow of celibacy in order to devote themselves to study in brotherly fraternity—only to catch each other in the act of pining when a delegation of four ladies comes through town.
My cold-turkey friend ended up having a good laugh with his co-conspirator, and then buying packs of American Spirits. Likewise, there’s something so very understandable about Berowne—one of the bachelors, and the cleverest—and his rationale for breaking the sodality:
O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books;
For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,
In leaded contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty’s tutors have enriched you with?
Then fools you were these women to forswear,
Or, keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfills the law
And who can sever love from charity?
The vows were made in youthful ignorance; any lawyer knows a contract made by a infantile person is voidable. Indeed, the vows were self-defeating: the end of study is to perceive the good, true and beautiful, and so it is simply foolish to forswear beauty when it comes calling.
I get that. Once, in the throes of a middle school youth group retreat, I promised that I would not kiss a girl until the preacher told me to kiss my bride. I don’t regret breaking that vow. Q.E.D.: “Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves.”
And yet, breaking a promise is never without consequence. “When a man takes an oath,” says Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, “he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again….”
Not every broken promise dissolves an entire self. But I do think every unkept word wounds us in some way, leaves a little nick and scar, even if healed in time.
Perhaps that’s why, coming back to Love’s Labour’s, the ladies in question don’t yield to their reformed lovers’ suits, much as they’d like to. When news of her father’s, the king’s, death calls the ladies’ leader away, she won’t promise herself to her wooer—not yet.
A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no my lord, you grace is perjured much,
Full of dear guiltiness…
“Dear” guiltiness, yes, but guiltiness nonetheless. And so, to stave off a proposal, she poses a counterproposal:
If for my love (as there is no such cause)
You will do aught, this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust—
—but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world…
If, she continues, he can keep himself there for a full year and “If this austere insociable life / Change not your offer made in heat of blood…
Then, at the expiration of the year,
Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts,
And, by this virgin palm now kissing thine,
I will be thine.
Not a bad deal, thinks the young royal. A year’s wait, and then the prize. What’s to worry about in that? All’s well that ends well.
Berowne, who like the others has received similar instructions from his fancied gal, is not so sure. In Shakespeare there are, for the most part, comedies and tragedies. Comedies end in marriage and tragedies end in death. The action up until now, deep into the fifth of a five-act show, has been screaming “comedy.” A wedding should be right around the corner. But, observes Berowne,
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy…
…but they have not. The end is postponed and therefore uncertain. That’s the consequence of a broken vow—even a foolish one, even one that should have been broken.
It’s worth noting, too, that the consequence really is inescapable. If the ladies had been so overdazzled by their lovers’ shiny new words that they overlooked the older broken ones; if they had not demanded a salutary penance “to weed this wormwood from your fruitful [and so-beloved] brain,” they’d have simply bought themselves damaged goods, men whose characters they couldn’t really quite trust, with wounds that hadn’t scarred over. Is that really a happy ending?
And so, the final outcome is hazarded to delay. And though the bachelor’s ringleader isn’t concerned—“Come sir,” he consoles Berowne, “it wants twelvemonth and a day, / and then ’twill end”—his shrewder friend is not so sure, and closes the couplet: “That’s too long for a play.”
And so it is. Shakespeare has come to the end of Act Five, and has exhausted his audience’s stamina. The more interesting question is whether twelve months is too long for the characters’ play, the one that will play out, we suppose, over the next year. We are story-creatures, and so often our choices are guided, knowingly or not, by the kind of narrative we perceive ourselves to be in. “It’s a love story,” says Taylor Swift, and we know that baby should just say “yes.” Except when we know, like Rascal Flatts, that the almost-weres, were actually northern stars pointing to someone else further down a broken road.