Love’s Labour’s Lost
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: The King’s plan to impose a new moral order hits an unexpected snag: The Princess of France arrives in Navarre with three ladies, announcing that her father will repay an outstanding loan – but Ferdinand disputes the figures, claiming that he is owed more. With the delay in settling the loan, Ferdinand is forced to accommodate the party (to the secret delight of the lords – each one of whom secretly asks for details about their female guests. Longaville likes Maria, Dumaine likes Katherine, Berowne likes Rosaline (with whom, it seems, he had previously danced at Brabant). Even King Ferdinand seems to have a crush on the Princess.
So, the lines are set. A King and his three lords, a Princess and her three ladies. A battle of wits and of wills, it seems, is about to commence.
First, from Bloom…interesting.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost is itself an opera, rather than a libretto that an opera can enhance, though Thomas Mann projects just such a fictive composition in his Doctor Faustus (1947). There Adrian Leverkuhn, the daemonic German modernist composer, sets Love’s Labour’s Lost to be:
‘as un-Wagnerian as possible, and most remote from nature-daemony and the theatrical quality of the myth; a revival of opera bouffe in a spirit of the most artificial parody and mockery of the artificial: something highly playful and precious; its aim the ridicule of affected asceticism and that euphemism which was the social fruit of classical studies. He spoke with enthusiasm of the theme, which gave opportunity to set the lout and ‘natural’ alongside the comic sublime and make both ridiculous to each other. Archaic heroics, rodomontade, bombastic etiquette tower out of forgotten epochs in the person of Don Armado, whom Adrian rightly pronounced a consummate figure of opera.’
Mann captures much of the tone and mode of Love’s Labour’s Lost, even though he imports something of his own irony into Shakespeare’s play. Joyous as Shakespeare’s exuberance is in the language of LLL, there are several kinds of irony in the comedy; and none is quite Mannian.”
He goes on…
“What is mysterious about Love’s Labour’s Lost is not its supposed hermetism but its occult relationship between Berowne and Rosaline, who seem to have a prehistory that Shakespeare evades foregrounding except for a few delicious hints such as this, when they first meet in the play:
Did not I dance with you at Brabant once?
Did not I dance with you at Brabant once?
I know you did.
How needless was it then to ask the question!
You must not be so quick.
‘Tis ‘long of you that spur me with such questions.
Your wit’s too hot, it speeds too fast, ‘twill tire.
Not till it leave the rider in the mire.
What time o’day?
The hours that fools should ask.
Now fair befall your mask!
Fair fall the face it covers!
And send you many lovers!
Amen, so you be none.
Nay, then will I be gone.
The essence of Berowne is in that insouciant line, uttered upon meeting a French lady-in-waiting in Navarre: ‘Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?’
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a superb and exact title, but Did Not I Dance with You in Brabant Once? would have done almost as well, since it conveys the outrageously high sophistication of this comedy.”
And to continue with Bloom, and Berowne’s line Act 1, 1, 80-81, ‘Study me how to please the eye indeed,/By fixing it upon a fairer eye,’
“Pursuing a ‘fairer eye,’ Berowne is ambushed by Rosaline, who warns the other ladies: ‘His eye begets occasion for his wit.’ Shrewdly exploiting the play’s insight that men fall in love primarily through visual stimulation, while women fall in love more comprehensively [MY NOTE: WHAT DO YOU ALL THINK ABOUT THIS?] Shakespeare pursues the ill-fated quest of his four light-dazzled young men for their wary and elusive objects of desire. Boyet, counselor to the Princess of France, discerns that Navarre, on first sight, has fallen in love with her:
Why, all his behaviors did make their retire
To the court of his eye, peeping thorough desire:
His heart, like an agate, with your print impress’d,
Proud with his form, in his eye pride express’d:
His tongue, all impatient to speak and not see,
Did stumble with haste in his eyesight to be;
All senses to that sense did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair:
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy;
Who, tend’ring their own worth from where they were glass’d,
Did point you to buy them, along as you pass’d:
His face’s own margent did quote such amazes,
That all eyes saw his eyes enchanted with gazes.
I’ll give you Aquitaine, and all that is his,
An you give him for my sake but one loving kiss.
‘All senses to that sense did make their repair’ is a pithy summary of the erotic despotism of the male eye.”
And a point I’d like to make: Even though the characters in LLL are frequently playing games with one another, the stakes are sometimes perilously high. For, while the King and his lord indulge themselves in ivory-tower academe fantasies, the Princess and her three ladies, in the words of critic Anne Barton, “come from a world outside the conditions of Navarre that is colder and more realistic than the playground of the park.’ (How ironic is it that it is the women who are the ‘realists’?) They arrive on financial business, and from the first they refuse to indulge in the niceties of politesse – or insist on seeing through it. Take their introduction to the men for example. Meeting the party outside of the court (so as to uphold the oath), the King nobly declares them “welcome to the court of Navarre.” But the Princess doesn’t hesitate to show her disapproval that they are going to be left camping outside. ‘Fair, I give you back again,’ she indignantly states,
And welcome I have not yet. The roof of this court is too high to be yours, and welcome to the wide fields to base to be mine.
This from Garber regarding the oath:
“From the beginning, it turns out, the King’s aristocratic young friends have had their doubts. As Berowne, the genial critic and cynic among them, observes,
O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep –
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.
Furthermore, beyond the personal inconvenience of these various modes of abstinence there lies a deeper hubris, which is readily disclosed in a set of rhyming lines, batted back and for the between Berowne and the King:
What is the end of study, let me know?
Why, that to know which else we should not know.
Things hid and barred, you mean, from common sense.
Ay, that is study’s god-like recompense.
The tone is playful, and the rhymes make it more so, but the danger is nonetheless clear, to the audience if not to the play’s characters. Though Berowne jauntily concedes (‘Come on, then, I will swear to study so/To know the thing I am forbid to know’), the quest for forbidden, ‘god-like’ knowledge is the bane of existence for more serious and substantial figures from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to Shakespeare’s Prospero. ‘God-like’ is always itself a telling sign. From the beginning to the end of his dramatic career Shakespeare insists on the human place of human beings, neither god nor animal.”
According to one count, there are more “new” words (words the playwright hadn’t used before) than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays. Frank Kermode notes that as its characters adore wordplay and fast-talking quibbles, so over 60% of the comedy’s lines are rhymed, a figure unmatched by any other Shakespearean play. But going beyond that is the realization that the play seems to illustrate what happens when language goes out of control. From Kermode’s book Shakespeare’s Language:
“…Love’s Labor’s Lost, noted for its word games, [also] confirms that the language of comedy is not always frivolous. We find here a witty, teasing investigation of language, with hints, but no more than hints, of the sort of intense brooding over words that becomes so important in Shakespeare’s style, and apart from the famous verbal fireworks in LLL there are already signs that quite serious linguistic investigations are being touched on bye the repeated use, apparently casual or trivial, of certain words such as ‘will.’ ‘A sharp wit match’d with too blunt a will,’ which is Maria’s characterization of Longaville [II.i.49), may make us think of the formula ‘erected wit, infect will,’ in Sidney’s Apology [MY NOTE: OR MAYBE NOT], and of the play on the sexual senses of the word ‘will’ in the Sonnets. Maria, not content with a simple assertion goes on: ‘Whose edge hath power to cut, whose will still wills/It should none spare that come within his power.’ The object here is to obviously force the word ‘will’ on the hearer: this will is blunt but can still cut; will will still will; man is fallen and in need of special grace to control his will.
Katherine’s comment on Dumaine warns us that the lighter senses of such words as ‘wit’ and ‘grace’ are still in play: in the same scene she says he has ‘wit to make an ill shape good,/And shape to win grace though he had no wit.’ Here ‘grace’ has sacrificed most of its theological flavour to its other sense, of physical beauty, but the opposition of wit and will is still in our ears. [We may also remember Berowne’s initial protest to the King, that ‘every man with his affects is born,/Not by might mast’red, but by special grace.’ Here is a verbal plot or subplot about grace and desire (affects, or will), about ‘the huge army of the world’s desires’ with which the fallen will inevitably collude. The theological point is that without grace one cannot master these desires, which leads to the point that the attempt to do merely by an effort of study is doomed. There are better ways of deserving grace than by repressive academic labour. (One such way is to live as a hermit or comfort the sick, as the young men are eventually driven to do.) So ‘grace,’ which means so many things, is never quite detached from its theological sense.
It may be said, then, that Shakespeare had a developing passion for exploring the range of particular words. Empson noted the remarkable array of ambiguities inherent in his deployment of words like ‘wit’ and ‘sense.’ Here the word is ‘grace,’ which occurs in LLL more often than in any other play (except, curiously enough, Henry VIII, where the frequency is partly explained by the number of noblemen formally addressed).
Not that tone is always as solemn as it becomes in the closing passages of the play; there is also a movement that celebrates mirth and happiness in the world. These are the culture wars as the scholar Frances Yates has revealed them (in A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1936): the wits versus the pedants, those who value affect against those who would repress it or will it away. At the bottom of this, lightly proposed, is a conflict between a libertine valuation of experience in the world and a monastic devotion to study, a conviction that wits may acquire grace from the active participation in the created world that pedants foolishly abjure…
One ought not to make LLL to serious, but there is, under the wit, this ground bass. ‘Will’ is a multicoloured word in Shakespeare, and here its colours vary from the sense given it by the Articles of Religion in the church of England’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer (‘We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have good will,’ runs Article X) to the frankly sexual senses, for ‘will,’ by association, can include not only sexual desire but the genital organs themselves, identified, in some of the Sonnets, with those of the author, Will. (It may be worth adding that the word ‘will,’ which of course it not always a noun, occurs with much more than average frequency in this play.”
And for your possible entertainment, the first two parts from Kenneth Branaugh’s 2000 musical version (yes, a musical version) of LLL.
So…what do you all think so far? Are you as astonished as I am to realize that it’s only approximately five years between the composition of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost?
Our next reading: Love’s Labour’s Lost: Act Three
My next posting: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.