The Absurdity of Rhetoric

Author: Tyler von Pein

Extreme cases of rhetoric, especially literal vs figurative meanings by those of varying levels of education and intelligence.  Shakespeare speaks of this confusion in his play Loves’ Labours’ Lost.  From Berowne and his concept of the word “necessary,” to Costard and Mote’s unique usage of words and phrases,  Shakespeare reveals that even if someone is educated, they are not necessarily intelligent.  

The Princess of France’s party in the BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost


Early in the play, the Lords make a pact to study for three years without vices, including women.  Berowne has obvious objections and calls to the fact the King of Navarre is to meet with the Princess, breaking the oath.  The King says the meeting is a necessary duty, “She must lie here on mere necessity” (I.i.146), establishing the subjective usage of the word “necessary.”

The word necessary can imply the necessities of life, such as food and water.  However, Berowne means he needs women to help him study beauty.  “If I break my faith, this word shall speak for me: I am forsworn on mere ‘Necessity’” (I.i.151, 152)This is not the literal use of the word but a rhetorical one.  When confronted by one another for breaking the oath,  the King and Lords use this figurative definition to mean they need love to study beauty, a convenient work-around, justifying they have not broken the oath and can avoid shaming each other. Shakespeare shows that duplicitous rhetoric, when taken to the extreme, can cause ridiculous situations and be used to justify all actions, such as breaking the oath.

Rhetoric is not just specific to the Lords but is eloquently used by those considered to be uneducated, specifically Mote the Page and Costard the Fool.  In the opening act, Costard is to be punished for courting Jaquenetta.  The King accuses him of courting with a wench, which Costard denies.  During the following exchange, Costard displays the slippery slope of word play by interchanging titles for Jaquenetta, ranging from “I was taken with none sir; I was taken with a damsel” (I.i.277,278) to “This was no damsel either, sir; she was a virgin” (I.i.280,281).  

Later, Costard is describing payment from both Armando and Berowne to deliver letters to their loves. Armando gives Costard “remuneration,” which “must be Latin for three farthings” (III.i.135) for delivering a letter to Jaquenetta. This use of literal interpretation comes again when receiving “guedron” from Berowne for delivering a letter to Rosealine.  Costard takes the word “Gardon,” a mispronunciation, as meaning 14 farthings: “Gardon, O sweet Gardon! Better than remuneration; eleven pence farthing better: most sweet Gardon.” (III.i.166-168) Although “remuneration” and “guedron” define no specific amount of money, Costard implies that the specific amounts correlate with what was given to him.  Despite Costard’s ignorance of the two words actual meaning, he is able to cleverly derive literal definitions when only a figurative meaning is implied.

The absurd use of rhetoric is finally commented on during Act 5 scene 1 by Mote.  While speaking to Costard, he points out that men who deem themselves intellectually superior “have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.” Mote is implying that esteemed academics do not necessarily possess the intelligence to understand what they have actually learned, nor do they grasp the concept of how to apply their learning.  The most prominent example is Holofrenes’ and Nathanial’s incorrect use of Latin when speaking to Dull. Both attempt to force the fact that they are academically superior to the aptly named Dull.  The play criticises scholars who do not possess the ability to speak with to the common man, regardless of the common man’s intelligence.

In some cases, the common man can possess more intellect than the seemingly educated. In Act Three, Scene One,  Mote wishes that he moves “As swift as lead, sir.”(III.i.55)  Armando states “The meaning pretty ingenous, Is not lead metal, heavy, dull and slow?” (III.i.56, 57), to which Mote replies, “Minime, honest master; or rather, master, no.”(III.i.58)  Armando restates that lead is slow until Mote asks him “As swift as lead, sir. . .Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?”(III.i.59, 60).  While Armando is the more educated of the duo, Mote demonstrates his wit and intelligence in a way that until explained, Armando could not fathom.  This highlights the nobility of the common man who placates his hypothetical superior in all things pertaining to wit and intelligence.