In A Nutshell
A king and three of his noble pals decide to swear off women for a while so they can spend more time studying. That sounds like a great idea, right? (Feel free to shake your heads out there.) Of course, as soon as they come up with this idiotic plan, a princess and three of her noble girlfriends show up. Do you see where this going? The dudes go visit the girls, and end up falling in love. Then everything gets messed up because some other guy gives one of the girls the wrong letter, and on and on and on. Everything eventually kind of works out, but it's really confusing. Basically, it's agreed that the dudes will marry the ladies in about a year because the ladies have to leave unexpectedly and—what's that? Why are we telling you all this?
Good question, Shmoopers. It's because that is the plot of Shakespeare's comedy, Love's Labour's Lost. Okay, great, so why do you need to know that? Because the lines that make up the poem "Winter" are the very last lines in the play (well there are two lines after them but who's counting?). Now, here's where it gets kind of tricky. In the play itself, a group of guys perform a play for the king and his nobles, only it gets interrupted. At the end of the real play, some of the guys who were performing the play-within-the-play show up and want to deliver the last lines of that play-within-a-play. (Please bear with us just a little longer.) Those last lines are two songs that are customarily referred to as "Spring," sung just before "Winter," and "Winter." "Winter," then, is at the end of both the play-within-a-play and the end of Love's Labour's Lost.
And not only that, "Winter" is a poem about… endings. When you read it next to its counterpart, "Spring," it becomes clear that everything that is alive and kicking in "Spring" is missing from "Winter" (flowers, non-predatory birds), which is instead a poem about how things stop moving (milk and water freeze, for example), become unusable (the roads are "foul"), are wrecked (one woman's nose is "red and raw"), etc. Winter, according to the poem, is in a way a time of death. The poem twice mentions an owl, for example, which, while a symbol of wisdom, is also one of the most notorious nocturnal birds of prey.
Now, all the death in this poem relates, in a way, to the ending of the play. Instead of a whole bunch of marriages (the conventional way to end a comedy), Love's Labour's Lost ends with—wait for it—separation. Huh? All the men in the play don't end up marrying their love interests at the end; instead, those love interests tell their beaus to wait about a year and do some other things. In the same way that "Winter" is about the end of some forms of life, so the play is about the (temporary) end or postponement of male-female relationships.
Despite all the "death" in this poem, however, and despite the fact that the guys in the play don't get their girls, one thing is definitely clear: people manage. They make fires, they cook food, they drink ale ("bowl"), and so on. Analogously, while the men will be temporarily separated from their love interests, they will also eventually get to marry them, or so it seems. Winter is the postponement of spring; the end of Love's Labour's Lost is the postponement of marriage. Wanna read more about the end of the play? Good news, gang—you can do that right here.
Whew, okay—so this is a poem about endings that is also about survival at the end of two plays. That's confusing enough, just like Love's Labour's Lost, which, as you may have guessed, is one of Shakespeare's most famously difficult plays. Even summarizing it is tricky for crimminey's sake. The play is laced with puns, word games, and confusions of all sorts, which is why it was never one of the more popular ones. We're even giving one small part of it the whole poetry treatment here, so buckle up your thinking helmets and dive on in.
Why Should I Care?
Winter is real drag sometimes. Seriously. On a typical day, you have to put on all kinds of clothes just to combat the sub-freezing temperatures. If you go someplace, you usually have to take off a bunch of those clothes because most places will have the heat cranked. On top of that, the melting snow ensures that mud gets just about everywhere (most houses will have some kind of mud-room or mud-mat), while the ice on the roads, on the sidewalks, and on your front porch can be deadly hazards to navigate. Winter equals no sunbathing, no swimming, no going to the lake, no beaches—no lots of things.
Now hold on a second. If given a choice, most people would opt to avoid winter. We sure would. But there's two ways to look at things (isn't there always?). You get to do things like ski, snowboard, build snowmen, drink tasty hot beverages, don awesome winter clothes, among other things. What's more, when it gets really cold and stormy out you get to enjoy the pleasures of a cozy fireplace. A nice evening by the fire? That's a tough pleasure to beat.
So, the point is, winter is no fun, but it can be… okay. There are really two ways to look at it and that, folks, is kind of the lesson of Shakespeare's "Winter," as well as the play from which it comes, Love's Labour's Lost. Sure, some lady's nose is red and raw, the milk freezes in the pail before it even gets home, people get sick and cough, but on the bright side there's ale with crab apples, beautiful icicles, warm fires, and whatever it is that "greasy Joan" is making in that pot (yum). Winter isn't the greatest thing in the world, but life goes on. In fact, some things are only really pleasurable if the weather is bad (warm ale with apples, a cozy fire, nice hot stew).
Now Love's Labour's Lost—we think it should just be called LLL for short—isn't a winter play by any means, but "Winter" fits in just perfectly because the play is obsessed with looking at things from multiple angles. How's that? Well, the poem seems to say that winter is both a time of destruction, death, and freezing (cold blood, frozen milk, muddy roads), but also a time when people get to enjoy a nice fire, warm pots of ale, Joan's famous cooking, and all those other wintery good times. Don't believe us? Be sure to re-read this module at the next snowfall. We'll be waiting right here, Shmoopers.