Language and Intelligence in Love’s Labors Lost

Love’s Labors Lost basks in the use and misuse of language by those deemed intellectuals and, to a lesser extent, those deemed unintelligent. At the heart of the play is an examination of the relationship between language and intelligence. By examining how the characters say what they say, along with the meaning, we can see the role language plays in the perception of intellect. Simply using the most eloquent language, does not make one intelligent. It is the meaning behind the words chosen that truly indicates intellect.

Intellect is established as the center focus from the start. Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, has decreed that he, his comrades, and his entire kingdom will forego love, good food, and pretty much everything except studying. He hopes this will make his kingdom a capital of the thinking world. There’s one small problem, the Princess of France is on her way and women have been banned from entering the court. The King insists an exception must be made based on necessity. This is when Biron launches his key argument:

Biron: Why, all delights are vain; but that the most vain,

Which with pain purchased doth inherit pain:

As, painfully to pore upon a book

To seek the light of truth; while truth the while

Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look:

Light seeking light doth light of light beguile:

So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,

Your light grows dark by losing of you eyes.

Study me how to please the eye indeed

By fixing it upon a fairer eye, [Act I, Scene 1: 72-83]

In this scene, Biron argues that the King and his comrades will never be able to uphold their oath because necessity will come up time and time again. This is because they are giving up all the joys, specifically women, that make life worth studying. His argument is so well-reasoned that the others can’t help but tease him about it, “How well he’s read, to reason against reading!”[Act I, Scene 1: 94] Biron’s argument comes up again after all of the men discover each other’s love. He explains that this was inevitable because love is where true wisdom lies. Then, they all promptly abandon their oath, rendering the word of that oath and the King’s decree meaningless.

Contrast Biron with Armado, the notoriously long-winded Spaniard. Before he even walks on to the stage, the King talks of his entertainment value because he is so long-winded. He is someone who never uses one word when ten will do (points for getting the reference!). Armado and his page, Moth, often argues the finer points of language before actually getting to the point of their conversation.

Armado: Boy, what sign is it when a man of great spirit grows melancholy?

Moth: A great sign, sir, that he will look sad.

A: Why, sadness is one and the self-same thing, dear imp.

M: No, no; O lord, sir, no.

A: How canst thou part sadness and melancholy, my tender juvenile?

M: By a familiar demonstration of the working, my tough senior.

A: Why tough senior? Why tough senior?

M: Why tender juvenile? Why tender juvenile? [Act I, Scene 2: 1-12]

For Armado, language is a stumbling block to his intelligence. He is clearly well-read. He can argue the finer details of language, and yet, he is a fool in this play. Why? Because with his mouth so full of words, he struggles to get out any meaning.

Armado is not the only character plagued with this problem. Holofernes intentionally uses confusing language to appear intelligent, but the way he speaks makes him nearly impossible to understand, and frankly irritating. Even setting aside the over abundance of Latin (I would be fascinated to know if it’s correct) his word-choice is so obscure that he often has to repeat his meaning several times. Take, for instance, the riddle Dull poses and Holofernes’ answer:

Dull: You are book-men: can you tell me by your wit

What was a month old at Cain’s birth, that’s not five weeks old as yet?

Holofernes: Dictynna, goodman Dull; Dictynna, goodman Dull.

Dull: What is Dictynna?

Nathaniel: A title to Phoebe, to Luna, to the moon. [Act IV, Scene 2: 35-39]

He could have just said the moon, but instead he picks an obscure servant of the Roman moon goddess, Diana. Is he smarter than Dull for knowing this? Sort of, but he takes the long way round to actually answer the question posed. He is so obnoxiously pedantic that no one is impressed, they’re just irritated.

Throughout the play, the characters that use the most words often say the least. Intellect is not the result of having the best words. Intellect is the result of knowing how to use words effectively. Biron, for example, is exalted as someone with excellent wit, or intelligence. While he talks a lot, his chosen words are full of meaning and illustrates his greater points. By contrast, Armado and Holofernes say almost nothing in their dozens and dozens of words. It is the effective use of language is what makes someone witty.

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