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Mercury, Boy Yet and the ‘Harsh’ Words of Love’s Labour’s Lost

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Peter Holland
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame, Indiana
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Summary

If there is a god who might challenge Cupid’s place as the presiding deity of Love’s Labour’s Lost it has to be Mercury. Obsessed with the use, and abuse of words, the play closes with the gnomic utterance, ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’ (5.2.914–15), which, as they appear in the Folio, may be taken proleptically to refer to the announcement of separation which follows: ‘You that way, we this way’ (line 915). The utterance has attracted a diversity of interpretations, predictably given its enigmatic and sentential character, but there is a more or less general consensus that Mercury and his harsh words represent some form of reality principle which breaks up the Arcadian fantasy world of (the) play, and which is embodied in the figure of Marcade, the messenger who brings the news of the death of the princess’s father. Not only does Marcade correspond to contemporary versions of the god’s name, as several critics have pointed out, but his function corresponds to Mercury’s functions as messenger and psychopomp. There is, however, a more prominent figure that the play invites spectators to associate with Mercury. Linked to Marcade by his dramatic function as well as by his office – he is sometimes grouped with Marcade in the ‘persons of the play’ – ‘honey- tongued’ (5.2.335) Boyet, the only major male figure at the princess’s court, is associated with ‘sweet tong’d’ Mercury both through more general features and, more importantly, through the specific features attributed to him in the two portraits by Berowne, especially the first (5.2.316–35).

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Shakespeare Survey
An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production
, pp. 209 - 224
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2004

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