Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare

Not one of Shakespeare's most popular plays these days, Love's Labour's Lost is the one play that suffers from being too smart for its own good. It's littered all over with extremely academic jokes and gratuitous Latin tags and goodness knows what--all aimed at the bright young things of Shakespeare's day, the rigourous nature of whose educations would make most modern-day Ph.Ds feel tired and inadequate. And yet, the advantage to diving into Shakespeare at an extremely early and ignorant age is that one skims over everything one doesn't understand, and heartily enjoys what one does understand.

So I have always had a fondness for this play. When asked what fictional world she would most like to live in, Dorothy Sayers said it was this play:"all the gentlemen are courteous ... the ladies still more so ... and everyone falls in love with the most suitable person."

In the little kingdom of Navarre (a medieval and Reformation-era kingdom located in the Pyrenees Mountains) the King of Navarre and his best friends Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville shut themselves away from the world to devote themselves to study. For three years, no women shall be admitted to the court of Navarre. This throws a spanner in the rival attempts of Costard (a country bumpkin who is nevertheless able to correctly pronounce the word "honorificabilitudinitatibus") and Don Armado (a miles gloriosus--there's some Latin for you--with a comically overdone Spanish accent) to woo Jacquinetta, a simple, if fickle, country girl. Worse still, it very soon threatens to totally wreck diplomatic relations between the King of France and the King of Navarre: the former sends a delegation headed by his beautiful and charming daughter the Princess of France and her beautiful and charming attendants, the Ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine.

And for your chamber, Your Highness, a cozy spinney.
The ambassadorial ladies are surprised to be lodged outside the Court of Navarre, in a tent in the meadow, and instantly plot their revenge. This, it turns out, is all too easy to accomplish. In a series of hilarious encounters involving attempted diplomacy, attempted disguise, hurricanes of puns, and some well and truly mistaken identities, everyone falls soundly in love with everyone else--a perplexing situation for four sworn bachelor students to be in!

The whole thing is impossibly charming. Miss Sayers again:
And why anyone should say that Love's Labour's Lost is a bad play, the Lord He knoweth; for to my mind it is one of the most reussi [successful] things of its kind ever made ... it is all pure fairy-tale; and some of the loveliest lines in the lyrical-witty mode ever written
I think "pure fairy-tale" describes it exactly. As for me, the best description I can make is to say that it's exactly what PG Wodehouse would have written if he had been writing in the sixteenth century. It has the same joyously comic tone.

While the ending of this play is unusual--as you will see for yourself when you read it; the title drops a hint--the most unusual thing about it is the fact that apart from The Tempest, this is the only play of Shakespeare's which he did not pinch off someone else. As PG Wodehouse himself said in Louder and Funnier,
In [Shakespeare's] early youth he seems to have had the idea that there was a good living to be made out of stealing rabbits from the preserves of the local squires, and it was only when approaching years of discretion that it suddenly occurred to him that a man could do much better for himself stealing plots. In the year 1591 he began to write plays, and from then onward anybody who had a good plot put it in a steel-bound box and sat on the lid when he saw Shakespeare coming.
As a result Love's Labour's Lost, with The Tempest, may provide a tantalising glimpse at Shakespeare's own plotting skills, to say nothing of the sort of story he liked. The thing is a fanciful and amusing exercise in wit and pedantry, the kind of thing that lends heft to the Oxfordian arguments.

If you've never read Love's Labour's Lost, I recommend that you try it! Footnotes should be able to explain the more obscure jokes, and the pleasure you'll get from the story and the more accessible humour will make it worth the effort.

Gutenberg etext

Kenneth Branagh, who is single-handedly responsible for most of the Shakespeare films that have been made in the last 15 years or so, chose to film Love's Labour's Lost in 2000 as a musical, with most of the script cut out and replaced with vintage jazz standards such as "I Get a Kick Out Of You" or "Cheek to Cheek." Sounds wonderful, doesn't it; I really, really wish I could recommend it...but I can't; despite some pretty dance numbers and song renditions and hello, the fact that it's the remains of a delicious Shakespeare play...the sensuality is a bit much and even with that discounted it's just not a great version of the play. I'll be investigating the BBC version next.


PB said...

You've whet my appetite. We just finished Comedy of Errors, and I've put in my order for this one to be read next ;)

Suzannah said...

Fantastic! I think you'll like it.

The Comedy of Errors is an old favourite too, but I don't think I'll get to it this week. Might we hope for some little review or post-reading summary at Baehrly Reading when you've finished your trip through Shakespeare?


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