What does Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost have to do with New Year’s? In part, it’s a play about self-improvement. The characters make resolutions and set goals. . . and then fall way short of achieving them.
Title Page from the 1598 Quarto of Love’s Labor’s Lost. Folger Shakespeare Library. STC 22294 copy 1.
In the beginning of the play, the King of Navarre has a four point self-improvement plan. Three of his courtiers, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, sign the pledge (although Berowne puts up a fight). Through a process that we might call “trickle-down resolutions,” the rest of his court is also affected. That means Don Armado the visiting Spaniard and Costard the swain (who are in love with the same country maid) and the Princess of France and her three ladies-in-waiting, who are visiting Navarre on a diplomatic mission.
Here are the resolutions included in the King of Navarre’s pledge, quoted directly from the play. In case you’re looking for some New Year’s resolutions of your own, we’ve added some hints for improvements.
1. To live and study here three years
The king says “Our court shall be a little academe.” This resolution’s okay, but maybe they should consider breaking it into a series of more manageable goals. Like, “I’m going to memorize all fifty state capitals by March,” or something. Berowne helpfully reminds our heroes about the perils of eye-strain:
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
2. One day in a week to touch no food, and but one meal on every day besides
Lots of people use the New Year to jump-start a new diet or exercise regimen, but this—as Berowne points out—is extreme. This king and his pals resolve to fast one day a week and eat only one meal a day for the other six.
By now, you’ve probably read that diets like this don’t work. If you must, try something that you can reasonably incorporate into your life.
3. To sleep but three hours in the night, and not to be seen to wink of all the day
This one is stupid! Studies show that we need more sleep, not less. If you want to make a sleep-focused New Year’s resolution, do exactly the opposite of the King of Navarre.
4. Not to see a woman in that term
4.a. That no woman shall come within a mile of my court. . . on pain of losing her tongue
This one is stupid and misogynistic!
4.b. If any man be seen to talk with a woman within the term of three years, he shall endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possible devise.
What is wrong with these guys?
Of course, Love’s Labor’s Lost is a comedy, so the resolution “not to see a woman” for three years is the one that trips everyone up. Berowne immediately reminds the king that the Princess of France will arrive in Navarre that day. “What say you, lords?” asks the king, “Why, this was quite forgot…”
We must of force dispense with this decree.
She must lie here on mere necessity.
Necessity will make us all forsworn
Three thousand times within this three years’ space…
Of course, the Princess has three ladies-in-waiting with her: Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine. The three lords fall in love with the three ladies, the king falls in love with the princess, and everyone is immediately and hilariously forsworn. So, in Act 4, the king, Longaville, and Dumaine ask contrarian Berowne to reason a way out of their sworn oaths:
“Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Alexandre Bide, 19th century, watercolor, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Have at you, then, affection’s men-at-arms!
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 leaden contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty’s tutors have enriched you with?
Other slow arts entirely keep the brain. . .
But love, first learnèd in a lady’s eyes,
Lives not alone immurèd in the brain,
But with the motion of all elements
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye.
Berowne suggests that the king could not write beautiful verses (“such fiery numbers”) without the “prompting eyes of beauty’s tutor”—of the woman he loves. Plus, “other slow arts”—other branches of learning—stay entirely in the student’s brain, but “love, first learnèd in a lady’s eyes,” circulates through the entire body and “gives to every power a double power.” Perhaps, Berowne reasons, the ultimate path to inspiration and self-improvement is to love and be loved—to welcome people into our lives, rather than to shut them out. So, the king and his courtiers resolve to ditch their bonkers resolutions and woo the four ladies of France.
So, whatever your New Year’s resolutions are, whether you stick to them or not, we hope they lead you toward something (or someone) you love. Happy New Year!
Read or download the full text of Love’s Labor’s Lost with our Folger Digital Texts! Then, catch Love’s Labor’s Lost onstage this spring at Folger Theatre. GIFs from Giphy.