"Love's Labor's Lost": Shakespeare and the Doctrine of Justification

A little while ago, I got my hands on a book by author Joseph Pearce called Shakespeare on Love: Seeing the Catholic Presence in Romeo and Juliet, which changed the way I viewed that play in particular, as well as the way I read Shakespeare in general. Pearce has written books on Lewis, Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn, Chesterton, Belloc, and other prominent Catholic/Christian thinkers and writers of the 20th century and beyond. His work on Shakespeare is especially interesting because he makes the argument in both The Quest for Shakespeare and Through Shakespeare's Eyes that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic in a time when Catholicism in England was regarded as treasonous and often ended in martyrdom. Pearce applies this argument for Shakespeare's Catholicism to a reading of his plays; Through Shakespeare's Eyes considers King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet, while Shakespeare on Love tackles Romeo and Juliet. While he didn't allay all of my aggravations about Romeo and Juliet, Pearce did allow me to read the play with new eyes and get a better insight into what Shakespeare may have been trying to do with the play. His work inspired me to read through some of the other plays myself and see what I might find if I looked "through Shakespeare's Catholic eyes", as it were. I decided to look at Love's Labor's Lost and see what I could see.

Love's Labor's Lost is a play full of bawdy humor and witticisms, in which the King of Navarre and his gentlemen (Biron, Dumaine, and Longueville) spar against the Princess of France and her ladies (Rosaline, Catherine, and Maria) in a verbal battle of wisecracks and repartee. The King and his gentlemen have made vows to forsake the pleasures of life, including wooing women, to devote themselves to study. The Princess, however, arrives to conduct some business on behalf of her father. Naturally, the men fall head over heels for the women and break their vows in order to woo them, with much hilarity stemming from their failed attempts. The subplot of the play provides a sort of commentary on both the wit and learning of the gentlefolk by presenting buffoonish characters who make a mockery of both English and academic parlance. Much of this is standard Shakespearean fare, but the ending sets Love's Labor's Lost apart from most of his comedies in that it does not end with a marriage. Rather than eventually agreeing to marry their suitors, the death of the king of France sends the Princess home without making any assured commitments to her suitor. The King and his gentlemen, however, agree to spend themselves for one year in the ascetic life in order to prove their love for their respective ladies, putting themselves in the self-same position they intended to pursue at the play's opening. Personally, I find the play both funny and satisfying, since I disapprove of the King and his gentlemen getting their way in this instance. But are we meant to see anything distinctly Catholic in it?

Naturally, take everything I'm about to say with a grain of salt. I've done absolutely zero research into this whatsoever. No postdoctoral fellowships or research grants have gone into the making of this post. All I've done is read the play and thought about it a bit, and here's what I've come up with. There seem to be some hints that a small and implicit commentary is being made on the theological controversy surrounding the Protestant idea of sola fide, or justification through faith alone. According to the proponents of the Reformation, a person would find salvation only through their faith in Christ and not through any good works they might have performed during their earthly life. Catholicism, on the other hand, came to be linked by many of its antagonists with a sort of simoniac behavior towards justification, the idea that salvation could, in a sense, be "earned" or "bought" by a certain amount of charitable works or pieties. This is not the Catholic position, but it is one that has been repeated and perpetuated to the point that even my Norton Shakespeare asserts in a footnote that "Protestants considered it a common 'heresy' ... to think, as Catholics did, that one could be 'saved by merit'" [emphasis added]. At no time and in no place did the Catholic Church ever believe or teach that a person could be "saved by merit", as the Council of Trent definitively stated in its clarification of the truth of justification: " to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits" (Ch. XVI). The Catholic position is that both faith and works are necessary for the salvation of souls, along with the grace of God given as a complete gift to the soul through the sacrament of Baptism. One can perform good works without faith, but this will not merit one salvation; likewise, one can have faith without working for one's own sanctification or the sanctification of others, but this will not of necessity grant one eternal life. We must both accept the gift of God's grace in our lives and cooperate with Him in that grace through our actions in order to receive both the gift and the reward of the Beatific Vision.

Love's Labor's Lost, written fifty years after the Council of Trent's promulgation of the canon containing the official clarification on the matter of justification, could have been used as a small soapbox from which Shakespeare might have quietly made his Catholic faith clearer to his Protestant and Catholic brethren. Of course, this would have to have been done with extreme delicacy, since heresy was punishable by death, and the Catholic position on justification was considered a heresy in Reformation England. Only once in the play is the matter explicitly referred to: the Princess, in a game of witticisms at the expense of the King's poor Forester, purposefully misinterprets the man's words in such a way that it seems that he has claimed she is not beautiful. She gives him money for being honest about her looks, to which he responds that everything she possesses is beautiful. Her response points directly at the theological problem of justification: "See, see, my beauty will be saved by merit! / O heresy in fair, fit for these days -- / A giving hand, though foul, shall have fair praise." The Princess here mocks the supposed Catholic belief that charity from an unfaithful ("foul") person can merit the praise of heaven. This may seem to put Shakespeare back in the Reformation camp, but, if Pearce is correct in his assertion that Shakespeare was a faithful Catholic who knew his stuff, Shakespeare is well aware that this is decidedly not the true Catholic position. The underlying matter of the play, then, works to put this wrong understanding to rights.

We can understand the King of Navarre and his gentlemen to be subscribers of sola fide initially: they have decided to reject the pleasures of life -- food, sleep, and sex -- in order to devote themselves to study. They have sworn oaths to live on nothing but faith and, in doing so, lock themselves away from the world and shirk their responsibilities to the rest of humanity. After all, if all that is needed is faith, there is no reason why one should look to the needs and sufferings of those beyond oneself. You believe that Christ suffered and died to save you, and so you have merited it. What else needs to be done? What else is there to live for but to spend your time contemplating (studying) the goodness of God on your behalf until He comes to take you to Himself? The wrongheadedness of this position is quickly revealed when the Princess of France and her ladies arrive in the King's park and are denied admittance or hospitality due to the King's vow not to see women. He insists on lacking in generosity, charity, and hospitality to his guests, forcing them to sleep in tents in his park because his vow (his adherence to the doctrine of sola fide) justifies him in his actions (or lack thereof). The Princess comments on this critically: "I hear your grace has sworn out housekeeping. / 'Tis deadly sin to keep that oath, my lord, / And sin to break it." The "deadly sin" that the Princess explicitly refers to is the sin against hospitality, which had been considered a sacred duty since ancient times and which Shakespeare deals with more tragically in Macbeth. The Catholic undercurrent here, however, can be caught in the distinction between "deadly sin" and "sin": it is a "deadly sin", one that cuts the soul off from grace and kills it, to persist in the theological error of sola fide, while it is only "sin", a venial one, to break the oath he has made that causes him to cling to such an error. In the first two acts of the play, justification by faith alone is criticized, questioned, and ultimately discarded.

The King of Navarre and his gentlemen break their solemn oaths to study, but not in favor of a "Catholic" position in opposition to sola fide. Instead, they embrace a new kind of error at the eloquent insistence of Biron, the most verbose and personable of the King's three gentlemen. Biron resisted making the oath with the others at the play's opening, and is also the first to begin obviously wooing one of the Princess's ladies, Rosaline. He is the first to begin sonneteering, sighing and complaining of the melancholy of love, and he is the one the others turn to in search of justification for breaking their vow. Biron is not, however, the image of the Catholic man. He is, rather, the parody of both the Renaissance courtier and the supposed Catholic position of justification by merit alone. Biron's anthem could be "All You Need Is Love". He claims that the only books worth studying are a lady's eyes, that love will teach one all that is worth knowing, and that the fruits of love are far worthier than the fruits of the long labor of intellectual work. Biron rejects study (faith alone) for love (merit alone). In his monologue justifying the abandonment of their vows, Biron implicitly makes the true argument that it is not enough to be closed up with our faith and that we must come out of ourselves by living our faith in love: "But love, first learned in a lady's eyes, / Lives not alone immured in the brain, / But with the motion of all elements / Courses as swift as thought in every power, / And gives to every power a double power / Above their functions and their offices." Living out the life of charity is what strengthens our souls, perfects us in virtue, and fits us for heaven. As he continues in this vein, Biron compares the glories of love to the glories of the Greek gods and heroes, Bacchus, Hercules, and Apollo, concluding with the statement: "when love speaks, the voice of all the gods / Make heaven drowsy with the harmony."

This heavenly "drowsiness" that Biron speaks of is where Shakespeare shows how the false doctrine of justification through works dips into heresy. Just as justification through faith alone is a heretical statement about the nature of God's salvific work, justification through works alone is also heretical. The idea that our good acts -- charity towards the poor, brotherly love towards our neighbors, proper moderation in our personal pleasures, and so on -- without knowledge of Christ are enough to lull the justice of God to sleep so that we can slip through the gates of Heaven is just as misguided as the idea that professing Christ as Lord is enough to force the gates of Heaven open. Christ has explicitly spoken against both errors in the Gospels (Mt. 19:16-22; Mk. 10:17-22; Lk. 18:18-27; Mt. 7:21). The King's first vow to devote himself to study at the expense of his duties to others exemplifies loveless faith; Biron's encouragement to abandon their vows to pursue the Princess and her ladies exemplifies faithless love. Neither contains the totality of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Therefore, it is completely fitting that Shakespeare should end his play not with a marriage, as is the standard for romantic comedies, but with separation and the acceptance of new vows, ones that combine faith and love together. As the King and his gentlemen are clumsily wooing the Princess and her ladies, a messenger arrives with news that the King of France has died, making the Princess ipso facto the new Queen of France. The new Queen points to the men's broken oaths and foolish wooing as evidence that they are not serious about their attachments and, allegorically, are not serious about their religious belief. The ladies have interpreted all the men's actions as nothing more than a game, and that there never was any intention of "a world-without-end bargain" on their part. In order to prove their sincerity, the gentlemen are commanded by the ladies to spend the next year living a monastic lifestyle of austerity, fasting, and charity towards the sick. The gentlemen have now come full circle: they now enact those vows which they had promised and broken earlier in the play. The difference is that their faithfulness is now inspired by their love, and their love is made meaningful by their faithfulness.

There is evidence that Shakespeare also wrote a play entitled Love's Labor's Won, which perhaps might have allowed us to see these lords and ladies reconvene a year later and which might have ended with those hoped-for weddings. Unfortunately, the play seems to be entirely lost and its content completely unknown. The conclusion of Love's Labor's Lost should not be seen as wholly disappointing, however, since it allows us to hope for the future endeavors of the King and his men. It is the picture of the Christian life: the encounter with the Beloved inspires us to chase after Him and devote ourselves to His service, but the reward for such service is not here and now, but there and then. Our love for Him must be proved in lives of faithfulness to His word, and our faith must be lived through love, a truly living charity. This is what our salvation consists of, and we must each work it out in "fear and trembling", as the Council of Trent states, but with constant hope in the mercies of God. In the same way, the King, Biron, and the rest work out their courtship of the beloved ladies in "fear and trembling" at their possible rejection, but also in hope that, by being steadfast in obeying their command to love and serve, their ladies will accept them into the kingdom of their hearts. Is Love's Labor's Lost undeniably about the doctrine of justification? Perhaps not. But this reading does provide some satisfaction for the play's ending and explanation for its possible meaning through Shakespeare's presumably Catholic eyes.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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