After weeks with the history plays, wading around in battlefield muck and trying to avoid bloody heads in burlap bags, it was a boon to come to the lighter fare of Love’s Labours Lost. Written in the mid-1590s, with no identifiable source material, this seems to be a piece whose plot came from Will himself – and some literary scholars suspect that the character Berowne was created as the closest thing we have to a literary self-portrait of Shakespeare. The play counts the greatest number of neologisms, plenty of riffing in Latin, Spanish, and French, and the longest word (honorificabilitudinitatibus). We can hear Shakespeare releasing all his schoolboy frustrations into this play.
I found a delicious 1975 BBC production to watch (much fife, much codpiece) as I followed along with the Folger Shakespeare text. It’s really nice to see productions without famous A-listers; the conceit becomes transparent. My sole complaint is that the Spanish “schoolboys” in this version all looked forty or older, but maybe they were non-traditional students. Personally, were I a casting director, I would make sure all these lords and ladies were firmly under thirty, and looking no more than twenty-five.
I have mentally categorized Love’s Labours Lost as another “Shakespeare study abroad play,” together with “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” The story centers on young adults with ample privilege find themselves abroad. In this case, the princess of France inexplicably finds herself across the Pyrenees in Navarre, which is basically the France of Spain, with her three comely ladies-in-waiting. Just touring around! They cross paths with the King of Navarre and HIS three extremely handsome and witty lords, who are at home and NOT on study abroad, have unfortunately JUST taken a group vow to swear off ladies. Reason: hit the books. They are going to study! Says the king in his opening monologue,
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
You three, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me.
(Side note: I love their names: Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville. Like shadow Musketeers!) Due to the group vow, the king makes the French princess camp in a field. Too bad since they are sooo cute! Some letters between various characters are conveniently mixed up, wherein the audience learns some heartfelt secrets, and we get to meet the locals, who include a schoolmaster (whence the Latin jokes), a curate (source of more Latin jokes), and a constable, plus a wandering Spaniard named Don Armado (cue the Spanish jokes) seemingly in search of the Spanish Armada (England was still sore about 1588). There’s a townie couple, Costard and Jaquenetta, for added measure and parallelism. (The course of true love ne’er did run smooth, etc.)
Of course the four men from Navarre fall in love with the four women from France. Just to make sure they reallllly like them for their personalities, and not just their bejeweled bosoms and cute accents (isn’t that how it always happens), the Frenchwomen trade amongst themselves all the Spanish tokens of love, then disguise themselves as though in a masked ball. Of course the Spaniards all flirt with the wrong French women! Dommage!
Some sticklers who produce Shakespeare podcasts get all bent out of shape about historicity and feasibility. The characters can all understand one another, they sniff. Did they all suddenly become fluent in the language of the others? But please. Suspend disbelief, and enjoy the romp and the language. Or get out your Old Testament and say it’s a science textbook. It’s literature, people. If you can’t suspend, God forfend!
Well, everyone loves a play within a play, and the townspeople put on a rather high-flown piece, well beyond their grasp, for the lords and ladies. Unfortunately, the lords and ladies on their group date are less than gracious, and mercilessly mock the townspeople. Peccato! Halfway through the play, a messenger arrives to announce that the King of France is dead. (Somehow, the princess guessed it first. Maybe king had been unwell before she went on her program?) The group adjourns to mourn, the ladies to France, the king of Navarre and his lords back to their court, but not before receiving their marching orders from the beautiful women, who have seen them at their pitiless worst with the townspeople. The princess tells the king to take a vow of solitude. Rosaline insists that Berowne find himself a hospital to practice his wit on the sick and dying, and in the process learn a little empathy:
Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Berowne,
Before I saw you; and the world’s large tongue
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks,
Full of comparisons and wounding flouts,
Which you on all estates will execute
That lie within the mercy of your wit.
To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain.
Of course Berowne says that this task is impossible. He prefers to be funny while not in the company of people who are suffering. Rosaline insists:
A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it.
The play ends with two songs – one, a cuckoo, who warns married men against straying wives; the other, owls, who remind us of the grudge of daily life, most decidedly NOT a frolic as these lords and ladies would have it. Why, the icicles hang, and the milk is frozen in the pail, and greasy Joan doth keel the pot. (Poor Joan!) Exeunt, and Don Armado has the last word:
The words of Mercury are harsh after the
songs of Apollo. You that way; we this way.
Ah tempus fugit! the Japanese mono no aware. I have heard this play is popular in Japan and I understand why. Shakespeare takes an enormous dramatic risk in ending it, in media res and with climbing action, just as things are getting good. No one gets together with anyone. The flirtation ends. Real life crowds in. The referee blows the whistle. PLAY IS OVER! EVERYONE ON THE BENCH!
Moral: Enjoy your gallivanting, as few people have such opportunities, and don’t expect the fascination to last for long – regular life beckons. Thus are the lords taken down a few pegs. Maybe they will return to their books after all to examine their collective conscience, in hermitages and hospitals.
Language I love from Love’s Labours Lost: Me? … me? … still me? (Costard), all pride is willing pride – and yours is, coppice, what plume of feathers, the collusion/pollution/allusion holds in this exchange, perge, abrogate surrility, glozes.
Fair as Text B in a copy book. – Katherine (I had to look this one up – it’s a dispute between Rosaline and Katherine about a mixed-up missive. Originally it seems to have been text R, as in Rosaline, possibly)
Shall I have an audience? – Holofernes
Shall I tell you a thing? – Armado
A soul feminine salutheth thus. – Holofernes
Sweet Cupid! Thou has pumped him with thy bird bolt under the left pap. – Berowne (this one might be my favorite!)
Footnote: I now know where The Gruffalo’s owl got his tu-whit to-who.
Subfootnote: Berowne and Rosaline are a warm-up act for Benedick and Katherine in Much Ado About Nothing!