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love's labour's lost

10 september 2015

I had never particularly liked Love's Labour's Lost – when I was a student, it was fashionable to disparage the play as dramatically cluttered and desperately overwritten. I'd never read anything interesting about it (or interested in it, no coincidence) and I'd never seen it on stage. But the sheer enthusiasm that William C. Carroll expresses in his New Cambridge edition of LLL gave me new things in the play to look at, and a new appreciation for this problematic Shakespeare comedy.

Love's Labour's Lost offers so many parallels to A Midsummer Night's Dream that it would be tempting to identify Dream, the happier of the two plays, as the missing, elusive Love's Labour's Won. The only problem is that Francis Meres, our famous source for the title Love's Labour's Won, mentions Dream in the next breath, so he was clearly thinking of a different play if he was thinking clearly at all.

But in both LLL and MND, there are four pairs of noble couples (at least one of them royal) who engage in various antics and realignments before they convene to watch a play in the final act. That play, within each play, is performed by a cast of idiots who have been mugging things up in the preceding acts. The noble folks contribute snarky remarks on the action, which is pretty worthy of them. But at the end of Dream, Jack hath his Jill, and all four couples proceed to further solemnities. At the end of Love's Labour's Lost, the grief of the Princess at her father's death postpones any happy ending for a year and a day – or perhaps to a sequel that has been long lost.

In the main plot of LLL, the action is clear and strongly drawn, and the language, though ornate, is lovely and expressive. The play suffers more than Dream from the indistinguishability of the characters. The King and the Princess are at least a little higher in rank, if not much different from the three noble couples. Among those three, Berowne and Rosaline are a bit more clever, or at least given more room to show it; but you are a Shakespearean expert if you can tell Longaville and Dumaine apart, or say which one loves Kate and which Maria, five minutes after you close the book.

That's the clutter that prevents some people from enjoying LLL. The overwriting is a graver problem. Most of it is concentrated in the dialogue among the "lower" characters, various pages, sages, dullards, and Spaniards. Almost at random:

COSTARD. The boy hath sold him a bargain — a goose, that's flat.
Sir, your pennyworth is good, an your goose be fat.
To sell a bargain well is as cunning as fast and loose.
Let me see: a fat l'envoy— ay, that's a fat goose.
ARMADO. Come hither, come hither. How did this argument begin?
MOTH. By saying that a costard was broken in a shin.
Than called you for the l'envoy.
COSTARD. True, and I for a plantain, thus came your argument in. Then the boy's fat l'envoy, the goose that you bought, and he ended the market. (Act 3, Scene 1)
There is a huge amount of that kind of stuff in Love's Labour's Lost: Shakespeare succumbing to what Samuel Johnson called his "fatal Cleopatra," the "quibble." Verbal comedy that moves that fast and furious may leave 'em laughing or leave 'em scratching their heads. But it's not fun to read and it can't be played for laughs in the modern theater without a lot of physical business coming in for comic support. As Moth famously says of one of these interminable quibbling bouts, "They have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps"; but as we've just seen, Moth is as bad as any of them.

By contrast, the overwritten love poetry that characterizes the "nobles" plot is precious but at least direct enough – and here too, the characters complain about themselves in memorable ways. "Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed / In russet yeas and honest kersey noes," says Berowne early in the fifth act when it looks like love's labour is about to be won. After the Princess's father's death has dashed that hope, Berowne seems really to have learned his lesson: "Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief," he says. The play matures in a hurry and reaches a lovely, if melancholy, conclusion, sealed by the wonderful song "When icicles hang by the wall."

Carroll says that Love's Labour's Lost can be a great play on stage, basing that opinion mainly on a 1970s Royal Shakespeare Company production by John Barton, which few people under the age of 60 will be able to remember. (I first saw the RSC in 1981, so I missed it by a few years.) Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film was notoriously unwatchable; I never even tried, and Carroll's comments don't make me want to. There have been frequent revivals, some storied (ones by Peter Brook and Tyrone Guthrie in the mid-20th century are even further back in living memory), most forgettable – and tellingly, the play pretty much disappeared between the Restoration and the late 19th century. But it "repays study," as old-school scholars like to say. For all its flaws, it was a way for Shakespeare to get some beautiful excess language onto the page.

And perhaps more than any other play by Shakespeare, this one shows men and women as equals, with the women somewhat more mature and sensible. The misogyny that Shakespeare could let his characters express at times – that comes out even in the gorgeous Midsummer Night's Dream's Oberon and his minor cruelties to Titania – is completely absent here. It's not that the men are idiots, either, à la The Merry Wives of Windsor, but simply that for once man's love is his whole existence, not "of his life a thing apart," while the women have a better-rounded view of the world. That's a very notable strength to go with the lush language and the clever construction of Love's Labour's Lost.

Shakespeare, William. Love's Labour's Lost. 1598. Edited by William C. Carroll. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. PR 2822 .A2C37