Love’s Labour’s Lost

Well, I’m not sure what I was expecting from the title, but this play is really sad… Really, lovely, but really also sad.  Technically speaking, it’s not even a comedy, since comedies are expected to end in a wedding.  But it certainly isn’t a tragedy, either.  There is a category of “Problem Plays” that scholars like to use for Shakespeare plays that don’t neatly align with History or Comedy, but I have never heard of Love’s Labours Lost getting put in with them.  So I’m going to just go ahead and keep talking about this play as a Comedy for two reasons: 1) If I ever had any regard for the term “Problem Play,” I would have used it to describe most of the History plays by now, and 2) It’s not a fucking problem to mix your comedy and your tragedy.  In fact, mixing your comedy and tragedy is usually the best damn thing you can do in a story.

The story begins absolutely wonderfully, with the King Ferdinand of Navarre embarking on a foolish endeavor with his court: to forswear the company of women for three years and study until their brains are bursting with wisdom.  The King proudly exclaims that, “Spite of cormorant devouring Time, Th’endeavor of this present breath may Buy that honour which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge, And make us heirs of all eternity.”  Of course, this plan immediately runs into problems when the Princess of France arrives outside the court on a diplomatic mission.

And she’s no dopey Princess, neither.

For the majority of the play, the Princess is denied admittance to the court because of the oath that the King has sworn with his lords.  So she is forced to live in the forest, just outside of the court, with her ladies.  When they speak with members of the King’s court, they are required to wear masks.  The opportunity for silliness and confusion abounds, especially since the studious lords all fall in love with a French lady, and the King in turn falls in love with the Princess.  Battle imagery abounds throughout this sweet play, and ultimately the men lose “That war against your own affections, And the huge army of the world’s desires.”  If I ever staged this play, the flirtation scenes would all be mimed battle scenes, or perhaps giant games of chess.  It is perhaps a bit abstract, but that sort of staging just seems so natural when the men go back and forth with the women, while the French lord Boyet sits overhead announcing the moves.

This is also #2 on my list of things I would own if I was ridiculously rich.

I really do like this play a lot.  It’s like the slapstick of Merry Wives of Windsor had a love child with the philosophy of As You Like It.  Shakespeare has a fantastic pen for capturing the complex dynamics of being in love: but this play manages to strike a perfect balance between showing us those ridiculous lovers in action, and then stepping back to comment on the entire situation.  It’s a complete portrait of “Dan Cupid; Regent of love-rimes, lord of folded arms, Th’anointed sovereign of sighs and groans.” The script could certainly use a few cuts for the sake of a modern audience, since there is an abundance of wordplay that isn’t going to read perfectly onstage all of the time.  But there is one outright verbal duels that absolutely must be included, because the audience does not need to understand the words, only the intent.  I am speaking of a scene between the pretentious schoolmaster, Holofernes, and the Spanglish speaking soldier, Armado.  I SWEAR TO YOU: SHAKESPEAREAN SPANGLISH.  The scene has almost nothing to do with anything; the Spaniard has simply been sent to summon men to perform in entertainment for the French ladies, but these learned men of Navarre are disgusted by his broken English.  Armado must then prove his intelligence to the men through ridiculous bandying of words, my favorite being his tactic to make normal English seem low as he searches for the proper wording himself: “Sir, it is the king’s most sweet pleasure and affection to congratulate the princess at her pavillion in the posteriors of this day, which the rude multitude call the afternoon” 

Don Adriano de Armado: my ideal casting

The knight Armado is also the focus of one of my other favorite scenes in this play, where he declares, “I will hereupon confess I am in love: and it is base for a soldier to love, so I am in love with a base wench.”  His faithful page, Moth, then attempts to comfort him with the names of other great warriors who have been in love.  Armado’s romance with the country wench, Jaquenetta, is never resolved, though neither is anybody else’s.  The Princess recieves word that her father has died, and so leaves in the final act just as the men have finally come to their senses.  What makes Armado’s love in this play unique, however, is that he stumbled upon his country wench fornicating in the woods with a clown named Costard.  Sex outside of marriage is liable to get a woman killed in any other Elizabethan-era play, but it does not stop the heartbroken Armado from pursuing her with affection.

It’s not even a virgin/whore argument. She is an individual that he loves.

It does not even have a tragic ending, I should say.  It’s just sad, or perhaps meloncholy is the best word for it.  The labors of love that both the lords and ladies undertake are not completely lost, just put on hold for a while.  It is stated that another year will pass before any of the lovers see each other again, and then the play just ends with the lines “You that way: we this way.”  The ending is brimming with hope, it just does not have a neat bow tied around it, and has a fantastically realistic breath of life in it (despite so many over-the-top antics.)  It has fun with the metaphor of love as a battle, but does not shy away from the brutal details of such a metaphor.  Berowne, one of the lords under oath, even delivers what I like to call the “St. Crispin’s Day Speech of Sex,” finally rallying the King and his men to embrace their affections and leave their studies: “For when would you, my lord, or you, or you, Have found the ground of study’s excellence Without the beauty of a woman’s face?  From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive; They are the ground, the books, the academes From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.” Earlier in the play, he is also the first character to recognize the folly of the King’s oath of celibacy and study: “To study where I well may dine, When to I to feast expressly am forbid,” and “While it doth study to have what it should, it doth forget the thing it should; And when it have the thing it hunteth most, ‘Tis won as towns with fire – so won, so lost.”  Then again, he is also the one who leads the charge to dress up like Russians for no apparent reason and crash the French women’s party

It’s a ridiculous scene.

I would love to produce this play some day, it really is truly lovely.  There is a dynamic between the men and the women like an all-boys school having a co-ed dance with the all-girls school for the first time.  The rules that the King makes the lords swear oaths to are very similar to the moral codes at a lot of Christian universities.  So, throwing this play into a contemporary world would not be difficult at all.  At the same time, I don’t want to let go of the abstract absurdity that is inherent in a lot of these scenes, especially with the abundance of rhyming couplets in the way people start talking right from the beginning.  It’s not the fantastical world I will be exploring next in Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s simply not a naturalistic one (which makes the reality of the ending so much more effective).

Not that people aren’t absurd in real life…

The important thing with this play is to play the reality of the love, and the absurdity of how people act when they are in love is simply taken to extremes.  The verbal and emotional fights are also physical fights, a broken heart can be literally pulled out of somebody’s chest, the giddiness is transformed into actual flowers and rainbows in all of this love.  Yet through the poetry and madness, the final scene mellows into an almost natural silliness, before tragedy strikes and the characters flee bag into metaphor through song.  But even though there is that sadness, it is floating on so much joy.  It’s a great time, and I am going to depart with one of my favorite Armado lines: “The heaving of my lungs provokes me to ridiculous smiling.”

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  1. […] not necessarily humor, but I find the ending to be badly forced and not really that happy. While Love’s Labor’s Lost has its flaws, it doesn’t live down here in the bottom five with Benedick and Beatrice who, […]



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