Comments. The line can be interpreted in two ways, or better, adapted to two opposite circumstances. To state that vows are but breath means to deny the validity of any commitment. As such, the message has a negative tone to be deprecated by anyone endowed with an ethical compass. Still, the line perfectly describes the attitude of politicians and others in regard to their ability or intent to fulfill promises or vows. The matter is so obvious as to make any example redundant. For the sake of form we can only remember the countless ‘treaties’ with the American Indians regularly disregarded (just as the topic ‘vapour’) in the name of greed, or whatever other fancy name politicians may bestow on their crimes. Back to Shakespeare, the vow on the point of being broken is silly (see the ‘in the play’ section). The underlying idea, however, is that the meaning a word (and of associated actions) can be easily manipulated by focusing on hidden associations stemming from the word itself (vows -> breath -> vapour).
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In the play. Longaville attempts to find a tenable excuse to break the vows of total abstinence and chastity that he, the king and other friends made earlier in the play. The trigger for the change of hearts was the arrival of a group of charming ladies accompanying a Princess.
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