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Written by Timothy Sexton
Ferdinand is the King of Navarre. The plot of the play revolves around his decision—made in conjunction with Biron, Longaville, and Dumain, to recreate the king’s court in the image of an academic utopia which be “contemplative in living art.” To get to that point requires an oath made by all to spend three years studying, fasting, sleeping little and with absolutely no women while doing so
Of the three great friends of the King who join him in his determination to create an academic utopia, Biron is quite clearly the most quick-witted and entertaining character. Many critics have pointed to this more razor sharp characterization as evidence that Shakespeare was already working his way toward Biron’s more popular successors like Benedick from Much Ado about Nothing.
The second of the courtiers who briefly maintain the oaths foresworn alongside their King. In fact, he signs up for the three year fast from food, sleep and women before the Biron. Quite possibly because he lacks Biron’s natural charm and wit and rather than expressing that lacking in jealousy and envy, tends to reveal that he wishes he were more like him.
A little less than Biron and perhaps just a little slightly more than Longaville. Or perhaps less. Certainly not the equal in wit of Biron, but capable of holding his own during many free-spirited demonstrations of the learning all four men aspire to.
Princess of France
The best-laid plans of Kings and courtiers to keep the dreaded company 0f women from ruining their idea of an ideal utopia is almost immediately put to the test with the arrival of the Princess of France and—surprise!—her THREE ladies-in-waiting. Destined to become the French Queen after some waiting of her own, the Princess arrives in Navarre with some plans of her own to take home rights to the province of Aquitaine in the name of her father.
One of those ladies-in-waiting of the Princess is Rosaline. Since the play contains a King and Princess, the expectation that much of the action will focus on the inevitable evolution of their romance that quashes the King’s three-year plan. Like Much ado about Nothing, however, audience attention almost always shifts to the romance developing between their underlings, Biron and Rosaline. Just as Biron is a rough draft of Benedick, so is Rosaline clearly a precursor to Beatrice. Rosaline is way more than capable of just keeping up Biron which is no mean feat for any man in Navarre.
Just as Rosaline is the ideal fit for Biron, so is Maria a perfect match for Longaville. Which is to say, she is somewhat less than Rosaline…and, well, less than Katherine as well.
With only one of the King’s courtiers not already hooking up with one of the ladies-in-waiting, readers might well expect that Katherine ends up with Dumain. And, indeed, she does. Notably interesting about Katherine, however, is we learn through a bit of so-called wit from Rosaline that her face is marked with pocks.
Boyet is one of the lords who arrives with the Princess of France. Boyet is proof enough that merely being in the orbit of wit can elevate one’s own sense of wit. Or, perhaps, thing have worked the other way around. Boyet is a strange figure in the play, seeming to inhabit a presence that goes well beyond his official role as presenter of royalty and announce of new arrivals.
Marcade is another lord of the French court who makes announcements. He takes stage only near the end of the play, but the message he brings is absolutely vital to the progression of the narrative towards its climax.
Don Adriana de Armado
What are a King and his three lords to do for entertainment for three years without women? Make sport of those they find amusing in their inability to rise to their own level, of course. Don Adriano de Armado thinks exactly along the same lines as those who find him amusing, however, so one might suggest that it is as a knowing parody of their own intellectual failings that the King and his gang of three really make sport of. Or, perhaps, it is just the sound of Armado trying to keep pace with their witticism through repetitive responses marked by clever-sounding but ultimately nonsensical verbiage.
Moth is one of those Shakespearean characters that you ultimately decide he simply did not provide enough to do. Moth is Armado’s page, but he is every bit as clever as the fasting four when it comes to recognizing the pomposity of his master and using his quick wit to undercut that pomposity at every opportunity. The only real problem is that he just is not given enough opportunity.
Costard is Shakespeare’s early attempt at creating one of his beloved clowns which populate his canon. Costard is another tool of amusement for the King and his crew when the lack of sleep and women get to be just a little too taxing on the focus toward creating an academic utopia. He engages in both physical and verbal pratfalls…as clowns do.
What is the opposite of a truly inspired education that can stimulate an academic utopia? An uninspired education that results in a pedantic dystopia. Such is the evidence that Holofernes and his brethren are intended to reveal. Holofernes is evidence enough that the concept of a little learning being a dangerous thing is very true as his epic attempts to demonstrate his own capacity for learning through expressions of witticisms fail miserably and contribute to those scenes in the play most likely to irritate modern audiences.
A local curate for local people, Nathaniel looks upon the exhibitions of education spewing forth from Holofernes like educated manna from the gods…not his God, of course, but some god, anyway.
The dystopia of the pedants already has representatives from the worlds of education and religion, but what about enforcing authority? Enter the pedantically appropriate head of the constabulary in the anti-utopia that parallels the utopia ideal the King and his men seek to establish.
Jacquenetta is a rather lusty local wench who stands in direct parallel to the somewhat sexually standoffish Princess of France. She attracts the eyes of both Costard and Don Adriano de Armado and this leads to one of the typical mix-ups that characterize the romantic entanglements in Shakespearean comedy.
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