A Wealth of Irony

Author: David Webb

Thomas Betterton as Hamlet. 1709. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed April 8, 2018. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Betterton_as_Hamlet.jpg

In his comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, William Shakespeare offers an interesting relationship between class and wit, or intelligence, and how people always try to flaunt those qualities in order to positively affect their roles in society. Shakespeare’s position, as evidenced in the play, is that there is nothing necessarily special about the noble class that makes them more intelligent than the rest of the general public. Furthermore, no amount of performance or self-aggrandizement in the face of others can actually increase your intelligence. In other words, aristocrats may try and leverage their social position into something spectacular, but in the end, they’re just as human as the rest of us.

The very premise at the beginning of the play is based around the yearning to supposedly become more intelligent. Yet, as we find out from reading the rest of the comedy, these lofty goals are quite far from the reality of the characters proposing them. All their great proclamations and binding oaths—with terribly cruel punishments supporting them—melt away as soon as they’re put into practice as if they had never existed. It’s very easy, especially for the nobility of the time, to pretend that their greatest passion is the pursuit of knowledge, and instead all the while pursuing social capital and all things involving the opposite sex. Berowne foreshadows that this will be the eventual course of action for all men at the beginning of the play (LLL 1.132, 1.148), and in fact he turns out to be correct. For all the rhetorical huffing and puffing of the King and his lords, they find themselves breaking the oaths that they so arrogantly forced upon each other. Each denies his infidelity, in fact, up until the very moment he is caught (LLL 7.1116, 7.1120, 7.1140, 7.1198).

The page and the braggart throughout the play have several interesting interactions, in which the Braggart often commends the boy’s knowledge and intelligence. When asked how he became so bright, the Page simply says he’s experienced (LLL 4.640). He’s learned from living. This is another important message from Shakespeare, that life experience makes a person more intelligent than simple forced study does. He’s also commenting to say that members of the noble class probably haven’t had as many life experiences as someone of a lower class would have. And the ones that they do have, they quickly forget. (LLL 4.645) They may sit in their lavish courts and wait for their servants to obey their commands, but they’ve never done or created anything meaningful themselves, so when there comes a problem in their personal lives, they have no solution but to ask the opinions of their more experienced servants.

Shakespeare toys with the question of relative intelligence through more differences than just class. Many people interpret the interaction between the disguised ladies and lords through the lens of modern feminism, where the gender roles of the time are reversed, in an attempt to shock the play’s audience of the time. That idea is slightly misguided, and the juxtaposition is more so one of noble arrogance, where the men feel entitled to whatever they want because they believe that they’ve acted so intelligently and courtly toward the ladies. There is then a reversal where the women have actually outsmarted the men, despite their lack of proclamation of a passion for study and knowledge. The claims of the pseudo-intellectuals have once again failed, and so has the idea of the link between nobility, social status, or gender relating to relative intelligence. This charade of disguises doesn’t drastically affect the plot of the play, so it can be reasoned that Shakespeare’s message is in this interaction alone. Again, the play showcases how nobody is inherently special in any society when it comes to base qualities such as intelligence. Just as the rich are no smarter than the poor, men are no smarter than women.

People lie, people feign, and people give up on their proclamations when they take sight of the next shiny object to bolster their social reputation. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare expertly draws into the light the true humanity that lies underneath every mask worn by the aristocratic class. In the end, through the glamour, we find that people are people, no matter what they may try to put themselves out to be. These detrimental human qualities tend not to be avoided—but rather amplified perhaps—by those participating in the noble class of Shakespeare’s time.