Summary and Analysis
The Princess and her retinue are in an open park preparing for a hunt. "But come, the bow!" she calls, after seeing a rider in the distance and asking:
Was the King, that spurred his horse so hard
Against the steep uprising of the hill? (1–2)
She engages the Forester in conversation, displaying her intellectual superiority with puns and clever turns of phrase before rewarding him with money. After a lengthy speech on the pursuit of fame, she says,
And, out of question, so it is sometimes,
Glory grows guilty of detested crimes,
When, for fame's sake, for praise, an outward part,
We bend to that the working of the heart;
As I for praise alone now seek to spill
The poor deer's blood that my heart means no ill. (30–35)
and the Princess then turns her attention to Costard, who has just entered with a letter which, he says, is addressed from Monsieur Biron to Lady Rosaline. "O, thy letter, thy letter! He's a good friend of mine," she exclaims boldly, requesting Boyet to read the missive at once. The letter is, in fact, from Armado to Jaquenetta, written in the most bizarre meandering style:
Shall I command thy love? I may. Shall I enforce thy love? I
could. Shall I entreat thy love? I will. What shall thou
exchange for rags? Robes. For tittles? Titles. For thyself? Me.
Thus, expecting thy reply, I propose my lips on thy foot, my
eyes on thy picture, and my heart on thy every part. (81–86)
"What plume of feathers is that indited [wrote] this letter? asks the Princess. She tells Costard that he has misdelivered the letter, then exits with all but Boyet, Maria, Rosaline, and Costard. Boyet teases Rosaline, who responds in sharp form. It is Maria's turn next to banter with Boyet over the affair. As their speech grows more and more bawdy, Costard chimes in with an obviously obscene remark, causing Maria to say, "Come, come, you talk greasily." Costard has enjoyed the chatter immensely, convinced that he and the ladies have "put him [Armado, and perhaps Boyet] down." He loves the ,'most sweet jests, most incony [excellent] vulgar wit."
The display of wit is a chief resource of the characters in this play. To start the scene, the Princess aims her wit at an easy target, a Forester assisting her on the hunt. When he tells her that she is to have the "fairest shoot," she coyly takes it to mean that she is the fairest one who will shoot. The Princess and her retinue surely enjoy the Forester's befuddlement: "Pardon me, madam, for I meant not so." These pleasantries at the expense of a member of a lower class of society were quite normal in Shakespeare's day, as reflected in his comedies. To end the scene, another "low' character, the rustic (or "clown," as Shakespeare refers to him) Costard joins the verbal games with his betters. Boyet's suggestive language, "And if my hand be out, then belike your hand is in," prompts Costard's "Then will she get the upshoot by cleaving the pin." "Pin" refers to the male sex organ, and the talk merits a rebuke from Maria. Shakespeare contrasts the refinement of the Princess's airy allusions to Cupid and his bow at the front of the scene, to the sexual reality of romantic love here at the end. In his better plays, he manages to intermingle these two in a more interesting manner.
The Princess's musings on the subjects of "fame" and "glory," quoted in the summary above, sound a central note of the play. Her philosophical bent from the first time we met her was such that she played down the importance of external beauty, or external virtues of any kind. All the while she is speaking, remember, and throughout the scene she has a hunting bow in hand (Cupid's symbol). The implicit metaphor of the bow as a means of subduing game, if not killing it, as it relates to the battle between love's demands (Cupids) and man's or woman's resistance to those demands, can be extended' to the "battle" between the sexes. Boyet teases the Princess, saying that women try to "lord it over" their lords "for praise's sake," and she responds haughtily:
Only for praise, and praise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord. (39–40)
When Costard asks for "the head lady," the Princess says that she is the "thickest and tallest." Costard then says that it must be she, for she is the "thickest." It is unlikely that he would insult her outright — "thick" can normally mean "corpulent" or "stupid," or both. It is, of course, possible that some of the Princess's insistence on the irrelevance of external shape is prompted by her own slightly large frame. She does respond to Costard's words in a huff: "What's your will, sir? What's your will?'
The long nonsense letter from Armado, read aloud by Boyet, allows the actor ample opportunity to lampoon the hyperbolic style of the braggart Spaniard, but in the context of the comedy as a whole, it allows for a mockery (including self-mockery) of all the courtly lovers in danger of making fools of themselves in pursuit of their partners.