“Love’s Labour’s Lost is not the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, but it is one of the most perfect.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Four Critical Takes

By Dennis Abrams

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As we read our way through the play’s conclusion, I’ve got to say that I am really enjoying it – in some ways far more than I remember enjoying it the first time I read it.  The lushness of the language, the wit, the satire – it’s a play I can see myself going back and reading and rereading for pleasure.  And while I might not be as sold on it is as Harold “I take more unmixed pleasure from Love’s Labour’s Lost than from any other Shakespearean play,” I am, at the least, beginning to understand why he feels that way.

But as I’ve discussed in earlier posts, the critical reception for this play has been seriously mixed – here are a few samples:

From one of my favorite essayists, William Hazlitt, from Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays:

“If we were to part with any of the comedies, it should be this.  Yet we should be loth to part with Don Adriano de Armado, that mighty potentate of nonsense, or his page, that handful of wit; with Nathaniel the curate , or Holofernes the school-master, and their dispute after dinner on ‘the golden cadences of poesy;’ with Costard the clown, or Dull the constable.  Biron is too accomplished a character to be lost to the world, and yet he could not appear without his fellow courtiers and the king; and if we were to leave out the ladies, the gentlemen would have no mistresses.  So that we believe we may let the whole play stand as it is, and we shall hardly venture to ‘set a mark of reprobation on it.’  Still we have more objection to the style, which we think savors more of the pedantic spirit of Shakespeare’s time than of his own genius; more of controversial divinity, and the logic of Peter Lombard, than that of the Muse.  It transports us quite so much to the manners of the court, and the quirks of courts of law, as to the scenes of nature or the fairy-land of his own imagination.  Shakespeare has set himself to imitate the tone of polite conversation then prevailing among the fair, the witty, and the learned, and he has imitated it but too faithfully.  It is as if the hand of titian had been employed to give grace to the curls of a full-bottomed periwig, or Raphael had attempted to give expression to the tapestry figures in the House of Lords.”

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From Mark Van Doren (the father of Charles ‘Quiz Show’ Van Doren):

“The capacities required for the composition of LLL were all but the very highest.  They were, to their own loss, purely literary; and this is why, notwithstanding the exquisite skill of the writing, the play is not appreciated.  It has no story to tell, or if it has one it tells it artificially.  It counts on contemporary occupations with style – occupations now generally forgotten – to keep it interesting; it is Shakespeare’s most topical piece.  And its purpose, which is literary satire, is one that in the nature of things can never be long popular.  That it is brilliant, high spirited, and verbally masterful does not save it.  That its criticism of current affection and pedantry is so complete as to preserve those vices in their finest form, and to demonstrate their fascination for Shakespeare himself, not the last of whose qualities is a love of language for its own intoxicating sake, does not quite justify it in the human court.  And that the texture of its diction and its rhythm is the work of a superb weaver has not seemed to matter with a world which doubtless is right in demanding of poetry that it be other than satin; even the best satin.”

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From Maurice Charney’s All of Shakespeare,

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a formal and ceremonious play that shamelessly imitates and parodies the witty, courtly, highly sophisticated tone of John Lyly, a dramatist and prose writer who flourished in the decade immediately preceding Shakespeare.  LLL’s plot has a relatively simplified action in both the main plot and the subplot, but it is extremely verbal and witty and devotes a great deal of attention to figurative display…

LLL is not only very verbal but also very histrionic, in the sense that much attention is devoted to characters who come on stage to do their witty solos without advancing the plot – and the amusement is so striking that who would be foolish enough to insist on plot development?  In the subordinate action we have a remarkably rich assembly of characters:  Don Armado, Holofernes, Sir Nathaniel, Costard and Moth, and even Dull, the constable.  No other comedy of Shakespeare has so many buffoonlike characters who speak so many witty (and unconsciously witty) lines.”

And finally, from W.H. Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare:

Love’s Labour’s Lost is not the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, but it is one of the most perfect.  Its subject, education and culture, is interesting.  The forms of culture it deals with are those prevalent in Shakespeare’s time and include neo-Platonic humanism, courtly manners, courtly love, and Euphuism.  All humanism and learning is made fun of in the play, all social life is made fun of, all art is made fun of – it is not specific satire.  The play begins with a scheme of four young men to found a kind of neo-Platonic academy.  They already have a certain education in social manners.  You might think of four men meeting in Greenwich Village in 1946…

Let’s turn to Cupid’s blindness and to the play’s preoccupation with eyesight.  Berowne declares himself a reluctant captive to ‘This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy’ and later makes a speech in which he talks at length about the significance of eyes in love.  He says to the King, Longaville, and Dumain that the richness of love is first learned in a lady’s eyes…And at the end of the play, he asks the ladies to excuse the ‘unbefitting strains’ of their love,

All wanton as a child, skipping and vain,

Form’d by the eye and therefore, like the eye,

Full of strange shapes, of habits, and of forms,

Varying in subjects as the eye doth roll

To every varies object in his glance;

Which parti-coated presence of loose love

Put on by us, if, in your heavenly eyes,

Have misbecom’d our oaths and gravities,

Those heavenly eyes that look into these faults

Suggested us to make them.

(V.ii.770-79)

Cupid was not represented as blind before 1215 in a German work. Sight is the most intellectual of the senses:  you can see possibilities, your sight is under the control of your will, it is the organ of choice.  Eve saw the apple was good to eat.  The lower senses are innocent – guilt and love are conveyed by the eye.  Sight is active, hearing obedient.  Iconographically, the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation is represented as conceiving through the ear.  At the same time, sight is also the most unreliable of the senses.  It can be deceived by appearances.  In the sonnets Shakespeare often contrasts the eye and the heart as the outer and the inner:  ‘Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,’ ‘O me, what eyes hath love put in my head.’  Blind Cupid is used in a derogatory way in Renaissance writing, signifying the Pandemic versus the seeing, rational Cupid.  The mythological figure of Anteros, who was originally understood as a god of reciprocal love, was transformed by neo-Platonic writers into a god of purification who protected men from becoming fixed on the senses and seeing alone.

We put spectacles on highbrows to caricature them.  This is based on a legitimate psychosomatic observation.  Myopia is appropriate to those who wish to concentrate on their own special interests and withdraw themselves from the world.  For the clear-sighted, a city offers an oppressive variety of stimuli to the eye.  For a myopic person, sans spectacles, everybody looks fresh and lovely.”

My next post:  Thursday evening – Act Five of Love’s Labour’s Lost

Enjoy.

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