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  • Title: An Humorous Day's Mirth: Critical Introduction
  • Author: Eleanor Lowe

  • Copyright Digital Renaissance Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Eleanor Lowe
    Peer Reviewed

    An Humorous Day's Mirth: Critical Introduction


    Since both An Humorous Day’s Mirth and Love’s Labour’s Lost play on the acquisition and punning use of words, it is no surprise that linguistic comparison can be made between the two. In his introduction to Love’s Labour’s Lost, Woudhuysen notes several similarities between Shakespeare’s play and An Humorous Day’s Mirth, most of which have been mentioned in the Date and Sources sections of the Textual Introduction. Two further possible examples are included in this section, since they involve borrowings of language. In 1.2 Armado uses the phrase ‘pretty and pathetical’ (ll. 92-93), which also appears in An Humorous Day’s Mirth (1.36) and The Widow’s Tears (3.1.120-1).[98] Woudhuysen also suggests that the word ‘preambulate’ used by Armado at 5.1.74 is copied by Chapman, and uses this example to support changing the Q and F reading from ‘preambulat’, despite the occurrence antedating the first OED entry.[99]

    Further similarities between the language and word-play of the two comedies are noted below. It is difficult and dangerous to identify specific lines as source material which might simply be products of a shared cultural and linguistic background. However, the instances below are recorded for interest’s sake, particularly because the words involved present difficulty of interpretation in either play.

    Just such an example is the reference in An Humorous Day’s Mirth to Lemot as an ‘imp of desolation’ (TLN 311). When Armado calls Moth ‘dear imp’ (1.2.5), Woudhuysen notes that use of the word as a noun is quite rare in Shakespeare, only occurring twice in this play and twice in two others. ‘Desolation’ also occurs in Love’s Labour’s Lost at 1.2.153, but causes the editor confusion since its context calls for a different word. It appears again in 5.2.357 to imply ‘loneliness, solitariness’. Lemot is again referred to as Florila’s ‘desolate prover’ in 6.24. A description of Berowne by Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost could also be used of Lemot:

    His eye begets occasion for his wit,
    For every object that the one doth catch
    The other turns to a mirth-moving jest,
    Which his fair tongue, conceit’s expositor,
    Delivers in such apt and gracious words
    That aged ears play truant at his tales
    And younger hearings are quite ravished,
    So sweet and voluble is his discourse.

    The passage captures Lemot’s fondness for mirth and jests, as well as his charming gift with language, a gift he can easily use to mislead or hurt other characters.

    155The opportunity for word play on Lemot’s name, in French literally meaning ‘the word’, is mirrored in Moth’s name. In 5.1 Costard punningly comments to Moth that he marvels ‘thy master hath not eaten thee for a word’ (ll. 38-39), playing on the French pronunciation of Moth as mot. Chapman develops the theme in Scene 5 of An Humorous Day’s Mirth, in which Martia and Lemot engage in a battle of wits which almost becomes a slanging match, and all the women present take part. Every possible meaning of mot, mote and moat is employed until Lemot concludes the section with a further pun: ‘Here’s a poor name run out of breath quickly’ (TLN 492). Without drawing breath, the dialogue turns to the Latin lesson as a source of mirth.

    Shakespeare employs this theme over the next couple of years in The Merry Wives of Windsor and also in Henry V, where the subject of the lesson has become English. Lemot invites Martia to ‘Decline me, or take me a hole lower’ (TLN 505), correctly observing the proverbial origin of the phrase, and therefore explaining its use in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Moth advises his master, Armado, ‘let me take you a buttonhole lower’ (5.2.696), meaning that he will unbutton his master’s clothes for the fight, but the phrase also implies humiliation.

    Lemot flirtatiously humiliates Martia with his sexual invitation, but she rejects his advance and continues with her Latin declination. The resulting joke, observed and articulated by a crowing Labesha, is that Martia calls Lemot an ass by declining ‘moto, motas‘ (TLN 508). An identical joke is included in 5.2 of Love’s Labour’s Lost, where Holofernes, playing Judas Maccabeus in the show, is called an ass: ‘Jud-as away!’ exclaims Berowne (l. 622). Both plays include a joke about the state of a character’s shirt, or lack of it, with reference to Rowley and Armado. All An Humorous Day’s Mirth lacks is the concluding cuckoo song from Love’s Labour’s Lost, for a play in which every husband is either almost cuckolded or has attempted to cheat on his wife.

    Lemot describes one of Blanvel’s humours thus: ‘he will speak the very selfsame word to a syllable after him of whom he takes acquaintance’ (TLN 65-66). He then gives an example of this, in which the imaginary Blanvel repeats word for word whatever Lemot says. When his character enters shortly afterwards, he neither disappoints nor contradicts Lemot. After a short series of repeated phrases Lemot goes about plotting his next intrigue, and Blanvel’s humour is forgotten until the end of the scene. The joke seems to lie in the fact that, because of his repetition of everything Lemot says, it is difficult to encourage Blanvel to exit. He rejects Lemot’s politeness at offering to follow him in, his repetitious quirk forcing the compliment to be returned to Lemot.

    An example of this word for word repetition also occurs in Love’s Labour’s Lost when the King of Navarre welcomes the French Princess to his court. Berowne expresses recognition of Rosaline in the line, ‘Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?’ (2.1.114). Rosaline flirtatiously repeats the line back at him, word for word. The joke is, of course, that if he danced with her, she must have also danced with him, but Rosaline also uses the device as a clever way of wrong-footing Berowne. Chapman uses the same trick but turns it into a humour all of its own, a feature of Blanvel’s character. The incident is important in An Humorous Day’s Mirth since it illustrates at an early stage Lemot’s control over language, particularly other people’s. He chooses lines he knows Blanvel can and will repeat.

    160Lemot’s second predictive language game occurs in the ordinary, while the gallants are clustered together, playing cards as they wait for their dinner. When Lemot’s question prompts a predictable response from Rowley, the idea of the game is placed in Lemot’s mind. He boasts to Catalian, ‘I could have told thee before what he would have said’ (TLN 1238-1239). When Catalian denies the possibility of this sort of trick, Lemot is goaded into action. He remarks that just as he knows Rowley’s ‘gay outside’ (TLN 1220-1221) disguises his ‘foul and sweaty’ undergarments (TLN 1221), Lemot’s wit can permeate the entire assembled company: ‘Thou seest here’s a fine plump of gallants, such as think their wits singular, and their selves rarely accomplished. Yet to show thee how brittle their wits be, I will speak to them severally, and I will tell thee before what they shall answer me’ (TLN 1241-1246). Lemot prefaces his prediction of Rowley’s reply with ‘Whatsoever I say to Monsieur Rowley’ (TLN 1248). This is simply the linguistic magician’s sleight of hand, since Lemot carefully chooses what he says to each victim, in order to prompt the predicted response. Fortunately for Lemot the gallants’ and lords’ responses are characterised by their proverbial content, illustrating his comment on their ‘brittle wits’, which are founded on unoriginal stock phrases. Jaques’s entry at TLN 1285 conveniently ends the game, since Lemot has run out of specimens, and the new sport of concealing the King's party begins.

    The word games highlight Lemot’s dexterity with language in overt usage. More cunning is the way in which Lemot chooses language carefully when undertaking ordinary dialogue with other characters. The principle is very similar: a game is still being played, but it is a different type, prompting action and response rather than innocuous phrases. Of particular interest is the relationship between Lemot and each of the higher ranking women. The Countess is suspicious of Lemot but not clever enough to take his words at anything but face value. Lemot preys on the Countess’s jealousy of her younger husband and she responds as forecast:

    Lemot. Hark you, madam, have you no more care of the right of your husband, than to let him talk thus affectionately with another?
    Countess. Why he speaks not for himself, but for his cousin Colinet.
    Lemot. God’s my life! He tells you so. Nay, an these excuses may serve, I have done.
    Countess. By the mass, now I observe him, he looks very suspiciously indeed.
    (TLN 590-598)

    As well as placing pressure on the tense relationship between husband and wife, Lemot makes subtle but constant reference to the Countess’s old age, further heightening the gap between them. When Lemot refers to the ladies present as ‘passing lovely’ (TLN 476-477), the Countess comments on his flattering ways and is curtly reminded of her seniority when he explains he meant she was ‘passing from your loveliness’ (TLN 484). Again, in Scene 9, Lemot prefaces his information that Moren is at the ordinary with ‘that light hussy Martia’ (TLN 364-365) with a reference to the Countess’s age (TLN 1361). He continues by referring to her ‘motherly care’ (TLN 1366), pointing to her as a maternal, rather than wifely, figure to her husband. This is delivered as if a compliment, but is actually an anxiety-prompting comment, much as the apparently careless but actually careful comments of Iago fire Othello’s jealousy.

    Lemot’s contact with Martia lacks the acerbic scorn he pours on the Countess. In Scene 5 they engage in a quick-fire battle of wits, in which Martia demonstrates agility in punning on Lemot’s name and her knowledge of Latin. When his innuendo reaches sexually explicit territory, and he invites her to take him a hole lower (TLN 504), her response is to retreat: ‘Nay, sir, I’ll leave when I am well’ (TLN 513). He is the powerful commander of language and she goes only so far before backing down and acknowledging defeat. Lemot is then able to stand aside and talk with Martia, informing her of the planned trip to the ordinary, knowing she will agree. There is almost a sexual chemistry between the two, but his referral to her as a hussy in Scene 9 perhaps reveals disgust at her willingness to flirt with several men at once.

    In many ways Florila provides Lemot with his greatest challenge. Strictly directed by her religion, Florila represents the instantly recognisable Puritan. Lemot’s aim is primarily to incense her husband, but part of his motivation must also lie in his suspicion of Florila’s hypocrisy. Littering her language with Biblical references and pious sentiments, her Puritanism is also expressed through her humble clothing, since both Blanvel (TLN 118) and Labervele (TLN 232) refer to her milkmaid’s clothing. Just as Florila rejects Labervele’s suggestion that she wear a velvet hood (TLN 235), she also pounces on Catalian’s ‘idle words’ (TLN 281):

    ‘My ladyship’, and ‘my honour’! They be words which I must have you leave...’ My duty to you’, or ‘I desire you’, were a great deal better than ‘my ladyship’, or ‘my honour’.
    (TLN 280-283)

    165In his previous lines, Labervele has objected to Catalian’s presumptuous use of pronoun:

    Catalian. Why, sir, I have a message to my lady from Monsieur du Barte.
    Labervele. To ‘your lady’! Well, sir, speak your mind to ‘your lady’.
    (TLN 273-275)

    For Florila, the noun phrase is more objectionable than the pronoun, and she helpfully points Catalian to more appropriate exemplary phrases. His tongue-in-cheek response is to thank her for her ‘Christian admonition’ (TLN 284).

    Labervele and his wife have a curious relationship with words, which are feared as incitements to sin and temptation, even if the actual words used are harmless. For example, Labervele objects to Lemot craving a word with Florila, responding rather hysterically: ‘These words are intolerable, and she shall hear no more’ (TLN 317). Anxiety about speech and language, clothes and status, religious behaviour and sin is the manifestation of jealousy and tension within the inter-generational relationship. As it turns out, Labervele is right to be wary and Florila is correct to be guarded, since as soon as Lemot appears he penetrates her zealous piety.

    Lemot disguises his assault on Florila’s hypocrisy as a religious test. He has come to ‘prove your constancy’ (TLN 328). This immediately puts Florila at her ease and ensures that she will welcome his advances. Labervele, however, responds with exclamatory rage. When Florila initially balks at being kissed, Lemot persuades her that it is the surest test, a test she must undergo in order to claim herself chaste and honourable. Her invitation to explain the philosophical benefits of kissing effectively allows Lemot to woo Florila. He does so with a romantic description of ‘the stronger assault against your constancy’ (TLN 372), by penetration of her ears and lip with words and kisses. Lemot’s careful choice of erotic language quickly works on Florila, so that by the end of his speech she is convinced and urges him to kiss her with the phrase ‘prove my constancy’ (TLN 376).

    Once over the first hurdle, Lemot proceeds to the next, persuading Florila she should begin socialising in order to take the test to more extreme levels. This appeals both to her Puritan pride and her subdued desires, so that ‘this is perfect trial indeed’ (TLN 414). Lemot achieves what Labervele tentatively suggested, but withdrew from, that is, convincing Florila to put off her melancholy reclusiveness, prove her constancy, and pass ‘the full test of experiment’ (TLN 409-410).

    170This next stage of Florila’s test begins when Lemot returns in Scene 6. In order to encourage Florila to remove her final pompous barriers against him, Lemot must falsely convince her of his love for her: he swears ‘I am shot thorough with your love’ (TLN 706-707). Her guard comes down, she confesses her reciprocal love for him, and he is at last in a position to inform her of the ‘private meeting/ This day at Verone’s ordinary’ (TLN 750-751), a suggestion which would have been rejected outright without Lemot’s careful wooing of her suppressed spirits. Witnessing Florila’s false signs and her plan to lie about fasting inspires Lemot to play one final time with equivocal language before his exit. He informs Labervele he has ‘the constantest wife that ever –’ (TLN 764-765), before purposefully cutting himself off without finishing the sentence. This ensures that, without lying, Lemot is also reassuring Labervele of his wife's exemplary conduct, and is necessary to enable the grand 'ordinary' plan to come to fruition.

    Scene 12 demonstrates Lemot’s aptitude for lying as much as his linguistic skill. Faking a hurt right arm, Lemot invents the King’s danger in order to goad the Queen into finding her husband in the company of Martia. He also taunts the poor Queen with a misleading narrative, making her think the King no longer loves her and finds her abhorrent, while the next moment reassuring her that he is faithful. The Queen can be forgiven for assuming that when Lemot describes the King as blind, the reference is to visual deprivation, since Lemot’s description of the King’s condition involves him groping ‘about in corners,/ Void of the cheerful light should guide us all’ (TLN 1599-1600). Lemot employs duplicitous language as his major tool with which to expose the Queen’s folly. The King is not blind in sight, but in reason, ‘whose light you know/ Should cheerfully guide a worthy king’ (TLN 1615-1616).

    Lemot uses a similar duplicitous trick when misleading the Queen into thinking the King’s ‘instrument of procreation’ (TLN 1629), his penis, is about to be removed from his person. The Queen, like the Countess, is guilty of accepting Lemot’s equivocal language at face value. As has been mentioned earlier, the climax of Scene 12 is also graced by another of Lemot’s predictive word games, in which Foyes, Labervele and the Countess inquire about the identity of a daughter, a son and an earl, one of whom relates correctly to each of the inquirers.

    The influence Lemot has on other characters manifests itself in the colouring of their linguistic register with his specifically chosen words. When, in Scene 10, Foyes and the Countess bang on the doors of the ordinary, they cry out for ‘the strumpet’ and ‘this harlot’ (TLN 1391-1392). The reference is to the woman in the company of the King, Martia, but Foyes is obviously unaware of his daughter’s involvement. Labervele knocks at the door with his favourite cry, ‘puritans ... murderers’ (TLN 419 and 1389), which appellation is in stark contrast with the lords and gentlewomen who are actually inside, and include Labervele’s own wife. These assumptions are based on Lemot’s lies and expose the characters’ folly and gullibility.

    In 1606, an act was passed stating that if any persons ‘jestingly or prophanely speak or use the holy name of God or of Christ Jesus, ... [they] shall forfeit for every such offence by him or them committed Ten pounds’ [3 Jac.I.c.21]. It is obvious from the use of oaths that An Humorous Day’s Mirth predates this act. God and heaven are referred to most frequently, with examples including ‘By heaven’ (Lemot, TLN 60), ‘God save you’ (Colinet, TLN 170), ‘i’ God’s name’ (Labervele, TLN 243-244), ‘God’s my passion’ (Labervele, TLN 310), ‘God’s my life’ (Lemot, TLN 595), ‘By the mass’ (Countess, TLN 597), ‘by Jesus’ (Countess, TLN 605), ‘God’s precious coals’ (Dowsecer, TLN 921), ‘for God’s sake’ (Labesha, TLN 569), ‘in the name of God’ (Jaquena, TLN 1038-1039), ‘by the Lord’ (Berger, TLN 1128), and ‘’Sblood’ (Berger, TLN 1268). Oaths are employed to indicate surprise, haste and anger, as well as simply padding out everyday speech.[100]

    175Interestingly, for one with such a Christian wife, all Labervele’s oaths contain the word ‘God’ and all occur when he is most under threat in Scene 4. The care with which Lemot chooses his vocabulary is illustrated in Scene 5, when his increase in swearing mimics the oath-punctuated speech of the Countess, with whom he is in conversation. Presumably Lemot is matching her linguistic register in order to reassure her, increasing the likelihood of her believing what he has to say concerning her husband. He also uses oaths at this point to convey his feigned shock at her allowing Moren speak with Martia. In Scene 7, when Foyes exclaims ‘By’rlady’ (TLN 1008), Labesha, the hopeful prospective son-in-law, matches it with ‘By’rlord’ (TLN 1009). More oaths occur in Scene 8 than any other, possibly confirming the bad reputation of drinking dens. However, it would be careless to overlook the fact that this scene is one of the longest in the play, and is therefore more likely to contain more oaths, and is also a scene detailing extensive dramatic action, in turn prompting exclamatory language.

    Some characters have their own quirky, individual oaths, such as Labesha’s ‘By skies and stones’ (TLN 1356 and 437), and Labervele’s ‘God’s my passion’, used twice in Scene 4 (TLN 250 and 310). Perhaps the most gruesome oath, ’sblood, makes its first appearance in Berger’s mouth (TLN 1273), and, although he is noted for his chiding by Lemot (TLN 1268), Jaques (TLN 1338), Catalian (TLN 1545) and Lemot (TLN 1701) subsequently also use it in mildly exclamatory ways.