7 of Cups - Berowne
Dramatis Personae: Berowne; Ferdinand, King of Navarre; Longaville; Dumaine; Rosaline; Maria; Katharine; The Princess of France.
Roman à clef : Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron; Henry III, King of Navarre; Henri I d'Orléans, duc de Longueville; Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne; Margaret of Valois.
Text & Context: The 7 of Cups is a card of choice and self-delusion. One has much, but it seems as nothing. Wherein lies the illusion - in what one has, in what chooses, or in what one is?
In Love's Labors Lost, language is stillborn. The medium impedes the message. Theory is error. Deliberation is captivity. Cleverness is a disease, and its contageon has spread to the writer. Berowne, the author's surrogate, stands apart from his brethren insofar as he recognizes the ill. The strict oath of the King's "little academe" he clearly sees to be absurd, and more to the point, impossible to hold to, yet he swears to it nonetheless. With some derision, and one hopes embarrassment, he observes his compatriots' stabs at sonneteering, yet perseveres with his own poses. Rebuffed yet again by Rosaline, he laments, "Bear with me, I am sick". His heart thus on his sleeve, he pulls out the old trick hid up it: "I'll leave it by degrees."
As with the epithet "Light, seeking light, doth light beguile", the play is a baroque way of saying book-learning causes blindness. Correspondingly, it is so artificial its own artifice grows difficult to see. Consider, for instance, the utter contrivance of eight suitors and four courtships - no overlap, no one left out - except during the masque, when the play self-consciously plays on this very conceit. It is a satire on courtship unseaworthy, written of the court, for the court, as courtly indictment. A youthful work about the vigor of youth; young men infatuated with themselves and infatuation rather than any avowed adoration of "the other".
Ever an artist of form, Shakespeare here allows the cup to runneth over until only one option remains: he kills it. Lost in the surface labyrinth of language, only Death wielded like a cleaver will cut through the cleverness, cleaving what remains of the whole. In this comedy of manners it is the women, bearers of life and the Curse of Eve, who have brought this Death with them - a Death as necessary as Life to these otherwise moribund men.
The advice the Princess gives the King - a year's fasting and prayer at a hermitage - seems a what's-good-for-the-goose version of "get thee to a nunnery", while Rosaline's prescription for Berowne's malady remains respectful to the man's nature - attend to the sick, and cheer them with humour. Yet Berowne protests: "Mirth cannot move a soul in agony." Rosaline's response is resolute - should his jokes fail, discard them, that those which truly enliven she may embrace, whole-heartedly, along with the man. This is true learning, what may mature to wisdom. When you put off making a choice too long, the choice is made for you.
In the outset of LLL, learning and loving are presented as antagonistic, a choice of alternatives, but by revealing the deeper meaning of each, Shakesepare draws them together and dissolves the seeming distance between. In the end, the characters are set to embark on a truer course of study, eschewing fear of the cuckoo's folly and brood parasitism for the wisdom of the winter owl, that learning and loving may become one and - if a person's affections are truly heartfelt - won.
Subtext: Love's Labor Lost is much ado about nothing; or, seen the other way, Much Ado About Nothing is love's labors won. As Beatrice and Benedick had a past, so too Rosaline and Berowne, but in the former's case that past may also be the latter's.
In 1592, soon after Anthony Bacon's return to England after a 9 year stay in Navarre, the first recorded performance of LLL was held at his Bishopsgate residence. Apparently as an inside joke, his passport contained 4 signatures: Dumaine, Longaville, Berowne, and Boyet. Anthony Bacon was the brother of Edward de Vere's cousin, Francis Bacon; his passport was issued in 1579. De Vere himself had visited with Henry III of Navarre on his continental trip in 1575. Orthodox dating of the play then, at 1595-96, is patently wrong, as is the idea it was ever intended as a play for the common man to be performed at a public theatre.
As it happens, 1595 was the year Henry IV of France [formerly Henry III of Navarre], wrote a letter to the Earl of Oxford in which he reminisced about shared memories and suggested, in view of what Oxford had done for him, the Earl might drop by the French embassy to see what they couldn't do for him.
That a play portrayed contemporary personages of high rank such as the King of Navarre would have necessitated a special dispensation to do so by the Queen. The relationships between the personalities in question, unlike the light-hearted courtesies portrayed in the play, were complicated and fractious. A possible time period for the relevance of such a play, so flattering to the French while supportive of Navarre, would have been during the Alençon marriage negotiations of 1581. The court of Navarre, being Protestant, was a more natural ally to England, thus the play both flatters the French and implies if they don't deal fairly with Navarre there may be no England-France alliance. But it's possible LLL went to far, showing the royalists Longueville and Biron on friendly terms with the heir apparent's recent rival, suggesting to the delegation England's outright support of Henri of Navarre over their man Alençon. Either way, de Vere at this very time was placed in the Tower for - at least ostensibly - impregnating one of the Queen's Maids of Honour. The other possible dating is circa. 1578-79, at the time of Marguerite de Valois' "flying squadron" of ladies at Nérac and the Protestant-Catholic detente.
Why Berowne is the focal point of the play is uncertain, but it was an ancient aristocratic French family and Biron was a man of considerable literary attainments. The name itself may point to the reason, as it means "place of the cow".