Love’s Labour’s Lost
By Dennis Abrams
Act One: King Ferdinand has proclaimed a new moral order: By persuading his lords to sign an agreement renouncing women and dedicating themselves to three years of study, he hopes to turn the court into the academic envy of the world. But aristocrats aren’t alone in feeling the effects: the countryman (clown) Costard is brought before the King and punished for “pursuing” the wench dairymaid Jaquenetta. The insufferably pompous (and seriously funny) Don Armado, who has informed against Costard soon reveals why – he wants Jacquenetta for himself.
King Ferdinand of Navarre
Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine, lords attending the King
Princess of France
Rosaline, Katherine and Maria, ladies attending the Princess
Boyet, a French lord attending the Princess
Don Adriano de Armando, a Spanish braggart
Moth, Don Armando’s page
Marcade, a French messenger
Costard, a clown
Jacquenetta, a dairymaid (wench)
Sir Nathaniel, a curate
Holoferenes, a schoolmaster
Anthony Dull, a constable
No direct sources survive, making it seem likely that Love’s Labour’s Lost is an “original” work. However, given that the real-life Henri of Navarre (1553-1610) had two lords named Biron and Longueville, speculation does exist that the play derives from an account of them, now lost.
And in a curious aside regarding things that are lost. In 1598, Francis Meres published Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, which included a list of a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays. His list of the comedies read: “for Comedy, witnes his Ge[n]tleme[n] of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s labors lost, his Love’s labours wonne, his Midsummers night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice.
Since then there has been speculation. Was there a play called Love’s Labour’s Won? Was it a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost? Was it an alternate title for another play such as All’s Well That Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing, both believed to have been written around 1598?
And as for the first act: Let me start with Garber, who unpacks and deciphers the opening lines very well:
“The play’s opening lines, sonorous, portentous, and, befitting their speaker, just a little pretentious, tell us what we need to know about the plan, and the young King and his colleagues:
Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live registered upon our brazen tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death
When, spite of coromorant devouring time,
Th’endeavour of this present breath may buy
That honor which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge
And makes us all heirs of all eternity.
Therefore, brave conquerors – for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires –
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force.
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world.
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
For all its majesty – these lines closely resemble phrases in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which were being written at about the same time as the play – the King’s speech fairly bristles with warning signs for an alert audience. ‘Heirs of all eternity’ is vainglorious; warring against one’s affections is always a mistake in Shakespeare’s plays, edicts are peremptory and ripe for overturning, as are oaths and vows; and to be ‘[s]till and contemplative,’ while a happy idea for a work of art like a statue, is both impossible and undesirable when its constituents are living, breathing, loving, fallible human beings. All of this is established, with superb economy, in the first fourteen lines of the play, as the speech shifts from lofty generality (‘Let fame…’) to personal exhortation (‘Therefore, brave conquerors –‘) and finally to specific instructions that are also necessary theatrical exposition for the audience, naming the others onstage and explaining the compact:
You three – Berowne, Dumain, and Longueville –
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me
My fellow scholars, and to keep those statues
That are recorded in this schedule here.
Your oaths are passed…
The King ends by underscoring this last point: ‘Subscribe to your deep oaths, and keep it, too.’ The insistence is its own strong signal: such oaths cannot, and will not, be kept.
The device of the ‘little academe,’ which mirrors actual ‘Platonic’ academies in fashion in the Italy and England of the day, is a characteristic Shakespearean invention, for however amusingly and ingeniously this academy is designed, it sets itself up against basic human needs and wants (love, sex, food, company, even frivolity). The academy plan is a sign that the King and his friends don’t fully understand themselves or the nature of human nature, and it is thus, from the beginning, doomed to fail. Indeed, no sooner is this high-toned plan announced than titillating and disquieting news arrives: the Princess of France and her ladies are en route. Unfortunately, the courtiers have sworn never to entertain ladies on their supposedly austere scholarly premises, but immediately a loophole is found: they will meet the Princess in the field, in the open air.
Thus, with characteristic deftness, the playwright establishes the self-blindness of his earnest and lively young protagonists, and their susceptibility both to high-sounding goals (fame after death) and to intrinsic appetites (romance, love-play, and – all too soon – amateur theatricals.)”
Bloom points out about the King’s speech that it has all the “stigmata of a comic Baroque:
“The mock eloquence, with its grandiose vocabulary of death, time, war, and desire, does not altogether conceal the Shakespearean undersong that makes these first fourteen lines almost a blank verse sonnet, akin to several of the Sonnets. Though he is careful to distance us from Berowne and all the other fantastics of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare seems unable or unwilling to distance himself from the enchantingly negative Rosaline. At an emblematical level, the play opposes Berowne’s vision – half Promethean, half narcissistic – of women’s eyes, to the unreflecting ‘pitch-balls’ so fascinatingly stuck in Rosaline’s face. Protesting Navarre’s proscription against women during the three years’ term of the little academy, Berowne gives us his initial apotheosis of the female eye:
Why! all delights are vain, but that most vain,
Which with pain purchas’d doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book
To seek the light of truth; while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look:
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile:
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye,
Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed,
And give him light that it was blinded by.
Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun,
That will not be deep-search’d with saucy looks;
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others’ books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights,
That give a name to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wat not what they are.
Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
And every godfather a name.
Fortunately for me, Bloom explains what seemed the dazzling yet perplexing line:
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile:
Harry Levin unpacked this as: ‘intellect, seeking wisdom, cheats eyesight out of daylight,’ a sound deciphering of Berowne’s polemic against solitary study.”
And finally, Bloom’s look at one of my favorite passages of the play so far: the scene between Moth and Don Armando:
“Love’s Labour’s Lost shares with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It an amiable mingling of social classes. Prince Hal, in the Henry IV plays, is all too aware that he is on vacation with the people, while poor Malvolio in Twelfth Night is ruined by erotic aspirations that transcend his social status. But in what C.L. Barber called Shakespeare’s ‘festive comedies,’ there is a kind of pragmatic idealization of class relations. Barber attributed this to ‘the sense Shakespeare creates of people living in a settled group, where everyone is known and to be lived with around the clock of the year.’ That conveys very aptly the serenity between classes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where the only strife is the contest between eloquent lust and wise disdain. The madness of language, triumphant in the proto-Falstaffian wit of Berowne, is equally prevalent in the exchanges between Armado and Moth, Holofernes and Nathaniel, and Costard the Clown with everyone he encounters. Little Moth, a child genius of rhetoric, is particularly effective in his witty outracings of the quixotic Armado, who dotes upon the boy:
I will hereupon confess I am in love, and as it is base for a soldier to love, so am I in love with a base wench. If drawing my sword against the humour of affection would deliver me from the reprobate thought of it, I would take Desire prisoner, and ransom him to any French courtier for a new-devised courtesy. I think scorn to sigh: methinks I should outswear Cupid. Comfort me, boy. What great men have been in love?
Most Sweet Hercules! More authority, dear boy, name more; and, sweet my child, let them be men of good respite and carriage.
Samson, master: he was a man of good carriage, great carriage, for he carried the town-gates on his back like a porter; and he was in love.
O well-knit Samson! strong-jointed Samson! I do excel thee in my rapier as much as thou didst me in carrying gates. I am in love too. Who was Samson’s love, my dear Moth?
A woman, master.
Of what complexion?
Of all the four, or the three, or the two, or one of the four.
Tell me precisely of what complexion.
Of the sea-water green, sir.
Is that one of the four complexions?
As I have read, sir; and the best of them too.
Green indeed is the colour of lovers; but to have a love of that colour, me thinks, Samson had small reason for it. He surely affected her for her wit.
It was so, sir, for she had a green wit.
My love is most immaculate white and red.
Most masculate thoughts, master, are masked under such colours.
Define, define, well-educated infant.
My father’s wit and my mother’s tongue assist me!
Sweet invocation of a child; most pretty and pathetical!
‘Define, define, well-educated infant’ must be the most charming educational plea in all of Shakespeare, with its wonderful mixture of affection and incomprehension. Moth’s dry ‘Most masculate thoughts, master, are masked under such colours’ conceals, partly through its alliteration, the page’s demolition of Armado’s erotic idealism. The flamboyant Armado (whose name jovially alludes to the defeated Spanish Armada) and the incisive Moth are a grand comic duo, and their bantering is a foreshadowing of Falstaff and Hal’s exchanges.”
And of course, although it needs no elaboration, the entire scene with Costard, the King, and the accusatory letter from Armado was, I think, a delight. I laughed a lot.
Our next reading: Love’s Labour’s Lost: Act Two
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.