Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Love’s Lost Labor in Love's Labour's Lost
by Marvin Krims
August 25, 2005
Shakespeare's is a comedy with a most unconventional ending: the main characters part without consummating their love. On the surface, the text attributes this unhappy ending to the restrictions against carnal pleasure imposed first by the King of Navarre and later, when he relents, by the Queen of France. The very fact that Shakespeare has the main characters abide by such unnatural restrictions leads me to an examination of the subtext for Shakespeare’s representation of unconscious conflicts which would then reinforce --and thereby enforce-- the royal edicts against love. Accordingly, this essay examines the words of the men (the women seem more normal) when they speak of love and tries to identify unconscious conflicts which would then further impede realization of wishes for romantic fulfillment.
Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost has an unusual dramaturgic structure for a comedy. It begins with a king's preoccupation with death and ends with a queen in mourning for her father. In between, the characters court each other in typical comedic style but their courtship then ends most unconventionally when they part without gratifying their love for each other. I intend to show that Shakespeare represents that anxiety in the male characters contributes to this outcome and that a reading of the subtext suggests that this anxiety is caused by an unconscious linkage of love with aggression and death. Finally, I shall show where this linkage appears rather transparently not far beneath the surface of the text.
The Nervous Men of Navarre
The play's unhappy ending is foreshadowed in the opening lines as Ferdinand, King of Navarre, presses his lords to sign an oath swearing to his statutes proscribing pleasure:
Live regist'red upon our brazon tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When spite of cormorant devouring Time,
Th'endeavour of this present breath may buy
That honor which shall bate his scythe's keen edge,
And make us heirs of all eternity.
Therefore, brave conquerors, —for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world's desires--
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force:
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
Here the king urges his lords to "war against your own affections" and create a "little Academe" where bodily desire is suppressed and all endeavour devoted to scholarship.1 The men of Navarre will live the Platonic ideal, "still and contemplative in living art." In return, the king promises eternal "fame ... registered upon our brazen tombs" that will "grace us... in the disgrace of death." Honor —after death, that is— will be achieved by three years of study.
The suppressive measures he proposes include: sleep limited to three hours a night; one meal a day and fasting one day week; and "not to see a woman in that term." Sleeping, eating, and making love are enemies to be conquered and it soon becomes plain that love is the paramount enemy. The king assures his men that this will make Navarre "the wonder of the world." No doubt Navarre would be the wonder of the world if her men gave up their pleasures for three years!
The king's "wonder" here may also contain a meaning he does not intend: "wonder" in the sense of "doubt." Perhaps at some deeper level, the king is uncertain about the Draconian measures he seeks to impose. He might wonder whether it is really possible to sublimate all pleasure into study and if this will bring the "honor which shall bate [Time's] cythe's keen edge." And he will soon show us that he himself is too interested in life and love to be so concerned with death. Accordingly, his "wonder" contains some uncertainty, some doubt about why he insists on renouncing the life’s pleasures.
On the surface though, the king shows no uncertainty about his edicts. Biron, however, the most articulate male character and perhaps a spokesman for the other, more sycophantic lords, is quite aware of their absurdity. He proposes a mock-oath as an alternative to the edicts:
To know the thing I am forbid to know,
As thus, to study where I may well dine,
When I to feast am expressly forbid,
Or to study where to meet some mistress fine,
When mistresses from common sense are hid;
Or, having sworn too hard-a-keeping oath,
Study to break it and not break my troth,
If study's gain be thus, and this be so,
Study knows that which yet it doth not know.
Swear me to this and I will ne'er say no.
Biron's intent is clear. His mock-oath is a caricature, intended to show the king that if the lords were to subscribe to the statutes, they would promptly study how to break them. But one line, "Study knows that which yet it doth not know," is obscure and thus invites closer scrutiny.
On the surface, these words might indicate that study will teach the men something they already know: they will try to subvert the edicts. But Biron here is speaking directly to the king. And notice he uses the present tense: "Study knows that which yet it doth not know" (my italics). Accordingly, Biron might be suggesting that study will teach the king something he already knows and yet does not know: the king will learn something he already knows unconsciously. Biron is suggesting that there is something in the king's unconscious that causes him to promulgate the foolish edicts.
However Ferdinand brushes aside Biron's words with a terse couplet: "These be the stops that hinder study quite,/ And train our intellects to vain delight" (1.1. 70- 71). He rejects Biron's suggestion about possible inner motivation and reiterates his determination to renounce "vain delight." If this were a psychoanalytic situation, one might say Biron's interpretation provoked increased resistance. The king is much too threatened now to look within himself.
The lords finally swear to the edicts and learn more of what they have foresworn. Earlier the king's statutes may have been somewhat ambiguous; Biron thought they merely called for three years' study. Now the full extent of the prohibitions becomes clear. Whereas before "to be taken with a wench" was forbidden, now just talking with a woman calls for as much "public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise." And no woman shall come within a mile of the court "on pain of losing her tongue."2 Clearly, there can be no contact with women.
Curiously, Ferdinand seems to have contrived these harsh measures at the same time as he had plans to meet with a woman —the Princess of France, to negotiate the return of Aquitane. The king had not disclosed this to his lords but he was not being duplicitous —he had completely forgotten the meeting. His forgetting this important affair of state cannot be merely a random event; there must be strong repressive forces operating within the king that caused him to forget. The presence of these repressive forces is a sure sign of the presence of unconscious conflict. Thus, Biron's "study knows that which yet it doth not know" is on the mark: there is something in the king's unconscious expressing itself in the edicts —and it seems connected to contact with women.
After being reminded of the meeting by Biron, the king proceeds with the conference with the Princess anyway, thus immediately subverting his own statutes. Although he does make some attempt to honor them by forcing the women to camp out in the fields, he then completely undermines the statutes by falling in love with the princess and courting her. Ferdinand's intense ambivalence is another indicator of unconscious conflict about women. This stimulates further reader inquiry into what might be the cause of the conflict.
A possible clue about what troubles Ferdinand is offered in the final scene. By now, the men and women are in love and the women are enjoying the men's love-tokens. Suddenly, without prior preparation in the text, Rosaline introduces a grim note about the king:
Katherine: He made her melancholy, sad and heavy,
And so she died. Had she been light, like you,
Of such a merry, nimble spirit,
She might 'a been [a] grandam ere she died.
And so may you; for a light heart lives long.
Rosaline reveals a dark side of the king: he killed Katherine's sister. There is no context for this and no connection with anything that follows. The lines seem strangely out of place in a comedy, as if they were misplaced from another play, perhaps a tragedy. This problematic, discordant quality of the lines calls for closer scrutiny.
Since the lines are in a comedy about love, they might indicate that Katherine's sister loved the king but he rejected her and she died of broken heart ("He made her melancholy, sad and heavy,/ And so she died. ") But after the word "died," Katherine breaks off in midline and radically shifts feeling tone to teasing sexual banter: "Had she been light like you." Thus she switches from the tragedy of her sister's death back to comedy, playing on "light" (Elizabethan for "wanton") in counterpoint to "heavy" (read here as "sad"). Note too that her banter goes on to a pleasant whimsy and then returns to death: "She might have been a grandam ere she died."
Perhaps Katherine changes mood to defend herself and the others from the sadness of her sister's death —the women had been lightheartedly joking before Rosaline's disclosure. But she could have more logically changed tone by resuming the banter about the men's gifts. Instead she switches to a new theme —lasciviousness ("light")— and thus unconsciously associates her sister's death with lack of sexual restraint. Accordingly, the subtext of her words contains a meaning far different from her conscious intent: her sister's death is associated with wanton behavior. (Since death was a popular metaphor for orgasm in Early Modern England, Katherine's words also may contain a reference to sexual climax.) Accordingly, "`a kill'd your sister" may represent Ferdinand as a lady-killer in both the literal and metaphoric sense.
Whether Ferdinand killed the Katherine's sister by loving her or rejecting her (perhaps both), the disclosure of the king as lady-killer offers a clue about the nature of the conflict which causes him to distance women. Ferdinand might feel guilty about the "killing" —real or imagined— and this guilt might then motivate his edicts. His "If any man be seen to talk with a woman ..., he shall endure as much public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise" then would be a projection of his private shame. His threat of mutilation for a woman who comes within a mile of his court then becomes both a representation of the harm he feels he has caused and an attempt to prevent further harm by distancing all women. Guilt also could account for his repression of the meeting with the princess as all women might be associated with Katherine's sister. In this reading then, the King’s lofty scheme for achieving eternal fame through hermetic study becomes an attempt to expiate guilt caused by Katherine sister's death.
The king's inner conflict is reflected in the leading themes of the play: love is threatening to women, shameful to men, forbidden by statute —and passionately pursued by all. At their first meeting with the ladies (already a violation) the lords fall in love, while at the same time reminding themselves and each other that they are violating their oaths. (The women are already half in love with the men before the play begins.) All then become occupied with finding ways to circumvent the oaths just as Biron had predicted. The comedy seems to be proceeding merrily along toward a conventional comedic ending.
Yet despite the men's passion for the women (most apparent in their bawdy word-play), their attempts at romantic intrigue always miscarry and subvert their wishes for intimacy.3 Perhaps all the lords are like the king and are conflicted about love. For example, conflict is clear in the words of Biron as he declares his love for Rosaline:
A very beadle to a humorous sigh,
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable,
A domineering pedant o'er the boy,
Than whom no mortal is so magnificent,
This whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
This Senior Junior, giant dwarf, Dan Cupid.
Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
Th' anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents,
Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,
Sole imperator and great general,
Of trotting paritors -O my little heart-
And I to be a corporal in his field,
And wear his colors like a tumblers hoop!
What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife?--
A woman that is like a German clock,
Still a-repairing, ever out of frame,
And never going aright, being a watch,
But being watched that it may go right!
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard.
Even as he proclaims his love for Rosaline, Biron unabashedly reveals his ambivalence about loving her —or any woman ("And I, foresooth in love! That have been love's whip,/ A very beadle to a humorous sigh").4 For him, Cupid is the "Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,/ Sole imperator and great general." "Codpiece" of course refers to the clothing worn by Elizabethan men over the penis and used here for "penis." "Plackets" signifies the openings in petticoats and hence slang for the female pudendum. Biron dreads the power ("Sole imperator and great general") of his sexual attraction to Rosaline. His attempt to be "a domineering pedant o'er the boy" indicates that this fear leads him to try to suppress these wishes —quite unsuccessfully. Although he has now largely abandoned this effort at suppression, his ambivalence and anxiety are apparent in his "And I to be a corporal in his field,/ And wear his colors like a tumblers hoop!/ What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife?" Biron is anxious about his sexual wishes and this anxiety interferes much more with consummating his love with Rosaline than the king's already corrupted edicts.
Biron declares Rosaline "a whitely wanton with a velvet brow," "one who does the deed though Argus were her eunuch and her guard." The text offers no support for this gratuitous devaluation. (Rosaline enjoys sexual banter but there is no indication she is "a whitely wanton.") Perhaps then Biron's anxiety about his sexual wishes leads him to disclaim his own wantonness and project it on Rosaline. The "whitely wanton" then is Biron in drag. And since his anxiety in effect castrates him, his "though Argus were her eunuch and her guard" also contains a reference to himself.
According to this interpretation, his egregious gender misrepresentation, "A woman that is like a German clock,/ Still a-repairing, ever out of frame,/ And never going aright" is a projection of concerns about himself. His love life is not going a'right and needs repairing; there is something in his own inner works that is ever out of frame. (In clinical terms, he is inhibited.) And since the other lords seem as constrained as Biron, they too might suffer from similar anxieties. The German clock in need of repair then can be a metonym for all the men: their inner works need repair. This focuses inquiry into just what is the nature of the men’s anxieties, what within needs repairs.
Love and Death in the Subtext
Although the death of Katherine's sister is a possible reason for the king's problem, there is nothing in the text that might account for difficulties in the other men. And indeed by the last scene, the men seem to be overcoming whatever problems they might have and are about to bring their courtship to the usual happy ending. Suddenly, they are interrupted by tragic news: the princess's father, the King of France, is dead. The grieving Princess (now Queen of France) declares another period of abstinence, echoing Navarre's earlier edicts:
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world.
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought the annual reckoning.
The play thus ends as it began: the shadow of death casts a pall over the possibility of love. On the surface, the queen's need for time to mourn her father and her distrust of the king's constancy preclude further courtship. But also in this reading, the death of the King of France, occurring just as the courtships are about to succeed, is Shakespeare’s intuitive representation of the men's unconscious problem: death and the drive associated with it —aggression— are closely linked with courtship and sexual fulfillment.
This linkage of love and death emerges with special clarity when men speak directly of making love in 4.1, the deer hunt. The scene begins with the Princess and her party on a deer hunt —pun perhaps intended by Shakespeare. The couples now are engaged in courtship ritual: the men in pursuit of the women and the women intent on capturing the men. Strong erotic undercurrents ripple beneath the Princess's opening lines: "Is that the king that spurred his horse so hard\ Against the steep-up rising of the hill." (l. 1-2) and "`a showed a mounting mind."(l. 4) The Princess clearly detests ("detested crime" l.31) the deer hunt and resists it by bantering with the forester, word-playing on "shoot," "wound" and "kill." Her word-play sets the semiotic stage for Boyet, the princess's salacious attendant, to take up hunting and killing as a metaphor for love:
'Gainst thee, thou lamb, that standest as his prey.
Submissive fall his princely feet before,
And he from forage will incline to play.
But if thou strive, what art thou then?
Food for his rage, repasture for his den.
Boyet's metaphors fuse predation with making love. His words situate the woman as the helpless lamb, the man the ravening lion. If the lamb resists ("if thou strive"), the lion devours her in a rage. If she yields, the lamb conquers and the lion submits and wants to play. But ultimately, the lamb —standing or striving— is forage for the lion, repasture for his den. Making love is at once play and depredation, oral pleasure and oral incorporation. The orality here is both an upward displacement of genital union and perhaps an indirect reference to oral sex. Love and hate, submission and predation, copulation and incorporation are conflated; lions eat lambs.6
Despite Boyet's signifying sexual aggression as a male attribute, it is clear that aggression is part of the women's character structure as well. They display their aggression in the teasing battle of wits and emerge the clear winners. They consistently foil the men's attempts at courtship while still managing to encourage their interest. Their adroit evasions of the men's advances wound without doing serious injury to masculine pride. They so outmaneuver the men in the battle of the sexes that Biron concedes defeat:
As is a razor's edge invisible,
Cutting a smaller edge that can be seen;
Above the sense of sense, so sensible
Seemeth their conference; Their conceits have wings
Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thoughts, swifter things.
(5.2. 256 –261)
Biron obviously feels the sting of feminine aggression. His reference to the threatening "tongues of mocking wenches" resonates with the king's punishment for a woman who comes too close. Both men locate a woman's aggression in her mouth: the Nemean lion and his lioness. The orality here, as in Boyet's metaphors, can be viewed a displacement of genitality. Biron's "tongues of mocking wenches are as keen\ As the razor's edge invisible" then is a representation of the vagina dentata. But Biron’s anxiety-laden imagery goes beyond the phantasy of the castrating vagina. He speaks of "arrows, bullets" ("Fleeter than arrows, bullets, wind, thoughts, swifter things") in association with "the tongue of mocking wenches. Beyond castration, Biron perceives the threat of death in the female genital. These frightening imageries result from Biron's fear of his own aggression which he disowns by projecting it on to the woman's mouth and genitals.
In this reading, it is the linkage between love, aggression and death that causes Biron (and men like him) to be "still a-repairing, ever out of frame" in love relationships.7
Love And Death Closer to the Surface of the Text
This interpretation of an unconscious linkage between love and death as a cause of the men's difficulties is of course an inference, an attempt to derive unconscious structure and process from Shakespeare’s words. But the text examined so far offers no explicit support for this linkage: the men pursue the women with no conscious thought of anyone really getting hurt. Biron's clock soliloquy tells us only that he is anxious about intimacy with women but not why. Similarly, Boyet's Nemean lion verse plays on the lion and lamb as a metaphor for passion, a figure so transparently love-in-disguise that it takes a psychoanalytic reading to see the harm. And Biron's "tongues of mocking wenches" shows a grudging admiration for women's wits with no reference to dangerous genitalia or death.
Psychoanalysis accounts for the discrepancy between the words-on-the-page and depth interpretation by the concept of repression: the linkage between love and death is repressed and therefore does not appear on the surface. However, psychoanalytic work with real people observes that repression is never complete and thinly disguised unconscious contents inevitably surface into awareness —especially when self-censorship is somewhat relaxed (for example, in dreams, day dreams, parapraxis, and, pertinent to this essay, play, including word-play). Accordingly, if my interpretation of an unconscious linkage between love and death in the play has validity, then Shakespeare’s extraordinary capacity to represent the human condition might show a rather overt linkage somewhere in the text. In my opinion, this occurs in the playful banter at the end of the deer hunt scene (4.1. 115).
The hunting party has now abandoned all pretense of the hunt and enjoys some thirty lines of word-play and bawdy badinage.8 Boyet begins the exchange: "Who is the shooter? Who is the shooter?" ("shooter" pronounced "suitor" in Elizabethan English). He is joined by Rosaline, Maria and Costard and together they discharge a volley of sexual puns on hunting and archery. The archery word-play is most revealing:
Boyet: A mark! Oh mark but that mark! A mark says my lady.
Let the mark have a prick i'it, to mete at, if it may be.
Maria: Wide o' the bow-hand. I'faith, your hand is out.
Costard: Indeed, a must shoot nearer, or he'll ne'er hit the clout.
Boyet: An if my hand be out, then belike your hand is in.
Costard: Then she will get the upshoot by cleaving the pin.
Many readers need a glossary. "Mark" is the target; "prick" is the spot in the center of the target (from a mark made by pricking, its earliest meaning and hence the center of the target); "mete" is aim; "clout" is a pin which fixes the center of the target (similar to "cleat"); "upshoot" is the last best shot, the upshot; "pin’ can refer to either the center of the target or the pin that fixes the center of the target.
The characters joke about making love but employ the language of violence: shoot, hit, prick, and cleave. Lest anyone wish to overlook their erotic intent and prefer to think they talk about archery, Maria teasingly chides: "Come, come, you talk greasily, your lips are foul" (l.136).
Boyet's "Let the mark have a prick in't" (l.130) is patently prurient. "Prick" has an androgynous meaning here: both "female introitus" and "penis," the latter meaning also available in Shakespeare's time.9 Accordingly, Boyet speaks openly of Maria's genital and his wish to enter her. Boyet delights ("A mark! Oh mark but that mark!") in this erotic phantasy, aware both of his lubricious interest and the imagery of piercing he uses to convey his meaning. Of course he has no wish to harm Maria (quite the opposite) but his words-on-the-page openly disclose an unconscious phantasy: erotic excitement fused with lancinating aggression.
Similarly, Costard's reference to coitus ("Then will she get the upshoot by cleaving the pin") plays with the imagery of love fused with the language of aggression. "Upshoot" may also contain a reference to ejaculation, associating it with an arrow shot into the center of the target. "Cleaving the pin" has mutiple erotic meanings, depending on how one might wish to interpret "cleaving" and "pin."10
Perhaps the playfulness of the scene relaxes censorship so that otherwise repressed imagery can become almost conscious. In this, the characters are like children playing out their phantasies in the safety of a playroom. Like children, they show no awareness that there is a dark side to their phantasies but at the end, the anxiety produced by the association of love with aggression prevents them from bringing their courtship to a happy ending.
1 Line references are to The Oxford Shakespeare, G.R. Hibbard, ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1990.
2 Longeville suggested this punishment but the king adopted it. The threat to, and of, the woman's tongue echoes in The Taming of the Shrew.
3 Two minor characters, Costard and Jacquinta, do manage to make love. The king punishes Costard by a “week of bran and water,” thus further undermining his decree of “a year's imprisonment to be taken with a wench.” (1.1.275)
4 Montrose offers a similar reading of Berowne: “Though he plays the devil's advocate among the votaries in the opening scene, his capitulation to the project is the first indication of the extreme ambivalence which will characterize his behavior for the rest of the play.”
5 Ericson (1981, 1985) relates the men's failure to their humiliation as helpless victim's of female caprice, reflecting the traditions of the love poetry of the time which idealizes women and debases men. Breitennberg explores how Petrachian tradition underlies the “economy of male desire that structures the play and shapes its action.” (p. 17) My psychoanalytic reading focuses on how people can be restrained by their anxieties about love. Perhaps this interpretation can be applied to earlier love poetry and help explain some of its themes of restraint. See Kerrigan for an exploration of “antifruition poetry” along similar lines.
6 Hehl understands the failure of the men's attempts at courtship to be caused by their fear of narcissistic humiliation by the women and defensive withdrawal into a phantasied “garden of Eden” —their “little Academe.” Excessive fear of narcissistic injury could be caused by early developmental failure. Such failure might both increase aggression and diminish defensive capacities, thus leading to heightened anxiety about aggression.
7 Asp (1989) locates the men's difficulty in their refusal “... to acknowledge the lack that is desire's source.” Accordingly, “...they repress desire by both denial and sublimation.” My reading traces their repression of desire to anxiety about unconscious aggression.
8 In performance, it seems probable that the bawdy words were accompanied by obscene gestures (perhaps even unscripted dumb shows) derived from the coarse, improvisational practices of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. (Barasch)
9 The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “prick,” “an impression or mark made by pricking” is from about 1000 C.E. (OED I, 1). The earliest phallic meaning cited in OED is 1592.
10 Although my reading of the bawdy utilizes The Oxford English Dictionary as an etymological base, it is also informed by the studies of Colman (1974) and Rowse (1978).
Asp, Carolyn. “Love's Labour's Lost: Language and the Deferral of Desire” Literature and Psychology 35.3 1-21, 1989.
Barasch, F. “The Bayeax Painting and Shakespearian Improvisation.” Shakespeare Bulletin, 11: 33-36, 1993.
Breitenberg, Mark. “The Anatomy of Male Desire,” Shakespeare Quarterly. 43: 430-449, 1992.
Colman, E. A. M. The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, London: Longman Press, 1974.
Erickson, Peter, Patriachal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama: University of California Press, 1985.
____________, “The Failure of Relationship Between Men and Women in Love's Labour's Lost,” Women's Studies, 9: 65 -91, 1981.
Hehl, Ursula, “Elements of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Love's Labour's Lost,” Literature and Psychology, 40: 48 -70, 1994.
Kerrigan, William, “The Personal Shakespeare” in Shakespeare's Personality, Holland, Homan, and Paris eds., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Montrose, Louis Adrian, Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, ed.James Hogg, Institut fur Englische Sprache and Literatur, Univ. of Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria. 1977.
Rowse, A.L., The Annotated Shakespeare, vol.2, New York: Clarkson N. Potter Press, 1978.
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Marvin Krims