Summary and Analysis
Act IV: Scene 2
Together with Dull, two new characters — Holofernes the pedant and Nathaniel — enter the hunting park. The three engage in a very odd conversation, larded with pompous elocutions, misunderstandings, and convoluted stabs at wit. Typically, Holofernes holds forth on the subject of the deer which the Princess has just killed:
The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood; ripe as the
pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in the ear of caelo,
the sky, the welkin, the heaven; and anon falleth like a crab on
the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth. (3–7)
Holofernes, this dubious teacher of English youth, dominates the talk: "if their sons be ingenious, they shall want no instruction; if their daughters be capable, I will put it to them." As he concludes one long speech with the Latin expression "Vir sapit qui pauca loquitur" (he who speaks little is wise), a "soul feminine" approaches: Jaquenetta.
She greets the parson Holofernes and asks him to read a letter for her. It is the message from Biron to Rosaline, in the form of a sonnet which Nathaniel reads out to the others: "If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?" Holofernes criticizes the reading ("You find not the apostrophas, and so miss the accent") and further offers to appraise the poem itself for Nathaniel later at dinner. "I will prove those verses to be very unlearned," he promises, "neither savoring of poetry, wit, nor invention."
For Holofernes, the rule of speech is never to avoid an opportunity for affectation or for display of pedantry. In his hierarchy of characters, Shakespeare has created them according to their facility with words; Holofernes, thus, is a caricature of the master of language. He is in the tradition of the Dottore character from the Italian commedia dell'arte just as Armado is in the tradition of the commedia braggart and Spaniard. "O thou monster ignorance," exclaims Holofernes, though his abuse of learning is infinitely sillier than the homespun ignorance of other characters. The conversation between Nathaniel, Dull, and the schoolmaster is highly entertaining:
Dull: You two are book-men. Can you tell me by your wit What was a month old at Cain's birth, that's not five weeks old as yet?
Holofernes: Dictynna, goodman Dull. Dictynna, goodman
Dull: What is Dictynna?
Nathaniel: A title to Phoebe, to Luna, to the moon.
Holofernes: The moon was a month old when Adam was no more. And raught [reached] not to five weeks when he came to fivescore. Th' allusion holds in the exchange.
Dull: 'Tis true indeed; the collusion holds in the exchange.
Holofernes: God comfort thy capacity! I say th' allusion holds in the exchange.
Dull: And I say the pollusion holds in the exchange, for the moon is never but a month old; and I say beside that, 'twas a pricket that the Princess killed. (35–47)
Dull opens the gambit with a typical Elizabethan delight in riddles, whereupon the schoolmaster counters with pedantry, and the whole exchange dissolves into a stuttering of misunderstandings. The pleasure in this part of the scene resides purely in the comic language and general satire. Holofernes' delivery of his "extemporal epitaph" on the death of the deer calls for a virtuoso turn of mock elocution: "The preyful princess pierced and pricked a pretty pleasing pricket . . . ... His protégé Nathaniel applauds: "a rare talent!"
Compared to Holofernes's fractured language, of course, the poem which Biron has written to Rosaline is elegant and delightfully sophistic. He argues in the poem that his "wrong" (breaking the academic vow) should be divinely condoned.
Thy eye Jove's lightning bears, thy voice his dreadful thunder,
Which, not to anger bent, is music and sweet fire.
Celestial as thou art, O, pardon love this wrong, That sings
heaven's praise with such an earthly tongue! (119–22)