William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost
By Dennis Abrams
This is going to be a good one. And a challenge. Love’s Labour’s Lost has been compared to the “curious-knotted garden” that the Spanish braggart Don Armado goes into rhapsodies over early in the play: it’s a winding comic maze, filled with interesting corners and delightful patterns, but, perhaps, and I mean only perhaps, not much of substance.
It’s a drama of love, and it’s a transitional work – a comedy which dares to end unconventionally, with a conclusion that keeps both critics and audiences guessing as to what it might ultimately mean. It’s the first of what are known as the “lyrical” plays – followed in short order by Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard II.
But most of all, it’s a play about language, about the pleasures of delighting in language, and its dangers: the social worlds of the play collide with what can be seen as occasional prickly hostility, and beneath the extravagant sparring and fireworks enjoyed by everyone, there lies underneath a vein of lingering pathos.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play in love with games – games with words, games with acting, games in love. It opens, in what seems to be apparent seriousness, with a resolution by the King of Navarre and his three lords to devote themselves to stern pursuits: for three whole years they will study, fast, be celibate, and sleep for four hours a night – all in the name of what Dumaine proudly calls “philosophy.” Do you think they have the remotest chance of doing it?
I’m going to turn to two of my favorites to sell you on the glories of this play. First up – Marjorie Garber:
“To modern audiences, the title Love’s Labour’s Lost is more familiar than the play, and the characters and events may seem obscure and hard to follow, despite the famous ‘dancelike’ rhythms of repetition, inversion, and cyclicality that mark the pattern of the plot. But this early play contains themes, embedded art forms, social laws, and character types that will recur over and over in later and better-known plays, from the idea of losing oneself to find oneself to the play-within-the-play that mirrors, and mocks the pretensions of the aristocratic audience on and off the stage. As we will see, the play begins with a law so antisocial that it begs to be violated: young men swear together to avoid women, sex, food, and sleep so as to become wise and famous. Although the play has some resonances with actual historical events, its pleasures for an audience of onlookers or readers come from its astonishing freshness and continuing ‘modernity,’ as so often, Shakespeare seems to have anticipated or shaped the social structures and psyches of modern life. The idea of a group of young men pretending to ignore attractive young women – and actually using this ‘resistance’ as a kind of adolescent courtship – is one that is familiar to parents, teachers, psychologists, young people, and, indeed, to everyone who was once young. This is a characteristic Shakespeare mode, superimposing a ‘timeless’ social observation on a ‘timely set of historical references and events.
Much that audiences and readers value and admire in later plays is fully formed, and brilliantly available here. The witty wordplay of Beatrice and Benedick, another pair of lovers resistant to being seen to be in love, in Much Ado About Nothing; the revealing play-within-the-play in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the clever balance of ‘low’ plot and ‘high’ plot that characterizes Dream, and Henry IV Part I; the stark reminders that death frames human comedy and daily pleasures, a theme that will take center stage in a darker comedy like Measure for Measure – all of those are anticipated and played out in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is, in fact, one of the greatest pleasures of reading Shakespeare to be able to find oneself in territory at once familiar and new.”
And this from Harold Bloom:
“There has almost always been agreement as to which plays are Shakespeare’s greatest, and the general consent still prevails. Critics, audiences, and common readers all prefer A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night among the pure comedies, and The Merchant of Venice as well, despite the darker shadings conveyed by Shylock. The two parts of Henry the Fourth have something of the same eminence among the histories, while Antony and Cleopatra rightly vies with the four high tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Of the late romances, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are universally preferred. Many critics, myself included, exalt Measure for Measure among the problem comedies.
But we all have particular favorites, in literature as in life, and I take more unmixed pleasure from Love’s Labour’s Lost than from any other Shakespearean play. I could not argue that as an aesthetic achievement, it stands with the fourteen dramas just mentioned, but I entertain the illusion that Shakespeare may have enjoyed a particular and unique zest in composing it. Love Labour’s Lost is a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none. Even John Milton and James Joyce, the greatest masters of sound and sense in the English language after Shakespeare, are far outdone by the linguistic exuberance of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
“I take more unmixed pleasure from Love’s Labour’s Lost than from any other Shakespearean play.” This is going to be fun.
Our reading: Love’s Labour’s Lost – Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning