Of all Shakespeare's plays, this one is in some ways the most remote. No specific literary source has been found. Instead several characters are likely modeled after contemporary celebrities, and a substantial portion of the dialogue is satire of literary and poetic fashions of the playwright's day. Parody of topicalities, however, rarely lasts beyond the immediate time. Still, for our purpose, the examination of character, the play offers rewards, for the figures at the center of the comedy reflect several of Shakespeare's major themes.
The opening lines set the tone. They clarify that the King's goal is to make himself and his colleagues "heirs of all eternity" (I, i, 7), and such vanity makes us regard the rest of his speech none too seriously. The King then decrees that his court will become a sanctuary for his three colleagues:
Your oaths are pass'd, and now subscribe your names, That his own hand may strike his honor down That violates the smallest branch herein. If you are arm'd to do, as sworn to do, Subscribe to your deep oaths, and keep it too. (I, i, 19-21)
The convoluted, pompous language clarifies the personality of the King and also suggests that his scheme of remaining in isolation for three years is ill-conceived. To deny all company is to force unnaturalness on oneself, and we suspect that the foolishness of the King's directive is soon to become apparent.
Berowne realizes this truth immediately and protests that they will be denying themselves the company of women (I, i, 47-48), but he is willing to play along:
. . . all delights are vain, but that most vain Which, with pain purchas'd, doth inherit pain: As, painfully to pore upon a book To see the light of truth, while truth the while Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look. (I, i, 72-76)