Monday, October 31, 2011

Love's Labour's Lost - Finding

Finding...a Few Things
in Love's Labour's Lost

This is a strange play. It confuses me. It's too fast for me. The analyses I've looked at so far seem to be about some other play. Even dear old Professor Bloom doesn't provoke me. No “aha, so that's what this is about!” No “Are you crazy?” Just a “Hmmm, yeah. Well, OK...”

I have a pile of books here with various analyses and someday I really will do my own intelligent analysis of some very obscure but vitally significant detail from the play (it's full of them!) but this time I'm going to take a vacation from analysis and simply write about a few things that I like about the play. Because in spite of the wary attitude expressed above, I do. Like it. So no analysis, just a list of superb quotes on the subjects of:
1.Education and reading
2.Some really funny language
3.The commons putting the nobility in their place
4.The women winning

1. As a teacher and book-lover, I have to love the mockery and irony of the role of education and reading. The whole idea of four young men locking themselves away from women and the world for three years of constant study reminds me of some of my earnest young students who promise that this time they really are going to complete the course with the highest grades. It could be them saying the following:

Biron: What is the end of study, let me know.
King: Why to know which else we should not know.

But of course my dear students often fail to live up to their oaths, just as our four heroes do. The difference being that my students are more likeable.

Anyway, Biron contradicts himself constantly throughout the play:

Biron: Study is like the heaven's glorious sun,
That will not be deep searched with saucy looks...
King: How well he's read, to reason against reading!
Biron: So study evermore is overshot
While it doth study to have what it would,
It doth forget to do the thing it should;
And when it hath the thing it hunteth most,
'Tis won as towns with fire – so won, so lost. (Act 1.1)

In other words, Biron points out that studying destroys what you want to learn. Still he signs on.

His oath, of course, is soon broken, as Shakespeare's oaths usually are. He and his three friends fall in love with the four Frenchwomen immediately and Biron conveniently explains:

O, what have we made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have foresworn our books. (Act 4.3)

“Books” here being the women's eyes, says the note in Norton. What he's saying is, “OK, guys, forget studying, what we really want to learn about is women and love.”

What I like is the dilemma – school or real life? What's the difference? What's “real” about “real life” (especially the way Biron and friends regard love, as if their love is real...)

Maybe I'll analyze all this with the many more appropriate quotes from the play next time. But to end this section I just have to include a quote I love which shows Holofernes' contempt for the uneducated in his diatribe against an incorrect description of a deer:

...his undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest unconfirmed, fashion, to insert again my 'haut credo' for a deer” (Act 4.2)

I wouldn't want to use a word inaccurately around him! But it's another example of Shakespeare's expertise at insults and leads nicely into my next point.

2. The language of this play, everyone seems to agree, is unsurpassed in English literature. It will take a lifetime of studying to appreciate it but here are a few of my favorites:

the wordy amiable Spaniard in talking of his love for the country wench Jaquenetta: “ still drum; for your manager is in love; yea, he loveth. Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise wit, write pen, for I am for whole volumes, in folio” (Act 1.2). A little gentle self-mockery on Shakespeare's part?

In response to Holofernes' expression of indignation (above) over the misuse of various words for “deer” (he says further, “O thou monster of ignorance, how deformed dost thou look!”), Nathaniel, the curate rather gently explains:

Sir, he hath never fed the dainties that are bred in a book.
He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink (Act 4.2)

Nathaniel and Holofernes make fun of Armado with a great long harangue – in itself worthy of study – to which Mote, Armado's page, and Costard, the clown, note

Mote: They have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps.
Costard: O, they have lived long on the alms basket of words. (5.1)

A few minutes later Armado enters the scene. His speech throughout the play is filled with lines consisting of dozens of words when one would suffice. Here an example: “...the posteriors of this day, which the rude multitude call the afternoon” (Act 5.1).

And finally, after two pages of this kind of babbling exchange between Armado and Holofernes, the latter turns to Constable Dull and says, “Via, Goodman Dull! Thou hast spoken no word all this while.” To which Dull replies, “Nor understood none neither, sir” (Act 5.1). I know the feeling!

I've chosen my examples from the exchanges of the commoners. The nobility in the play are no less wordy and in several instances their use of language is just as funny and/or absurd but that will have to wait. My point is that in all of this, the four noble heroes of the play turn out to be not so noble after all.

3. In his introduction to the Norton edition of the play, Walter Cohen points out that one of the strengths of the play is that the “upper class learns its manners from the lower” (page 773). The best example is at the end when Costard, Nathaniel and Holofernes bravely attempt to present a pageant on the Nine Worthies (Pompey, Alexander the Great, Judas Maccabeus, etc.) only to be taunted by the young lords, to which Holofernes replies with quiet dignity: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble” (Act 5.2). Unfortunately the the nobles do not listen. Their insults continue.

Still they get what they deserve in the end. They don't pay attention to the rebuke of the commoners but they can't ignore the rebuke of the women.

4. There's a lot of talk of love in this play. It's all spoken by the men. The women don't fall for it. Throughout, the women make fun of the men, mock them, play tricks on them and with clever and cool awareness of men's general shallowness and untrustworthiness when it comes to love, and evade them from start to finish. No romantic, dewy-eyed ending here. The Princess (now Queen of France) tells the king:

Your oath I will not trust, but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage
Remote from all the pleasures of the world.
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning (Act 5.2).

If he does, she'll accept him. If not, she won't.

Catherine tells Dumaine:

Come when the king to my lady come
Then if I have much love, I'll give you some (Act 5.2).

If, you'll notice. No promises here.

Marie tells Longueville:

At the twelvemonth's end
I'll change my black gown for a faithful friend (Act 5.2).

And finally, Rosaline, knowing exactly how much (or little) value there is in Biron's ceaseless flow of mocking wit and linguistic flights of fancy, banishes him:

You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches, and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the painéd impotent to smile (Act 5.2)

In a rather chilling realization of his own shallowness Biron protests that, “Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.”

Rosaline responds at length, saying essentially, “Exactly. You finally figured it out.” Like her three friends, she says that if he manages to stick it for a year, there might be a match, If not, too bad for him.

The four men reluctantly agree but Biron's last words, that a year is “too long for a play,” don't really give much indication of an and-they-lived-happily-ever-after ending (what Shakespeare play does?) No, what happens is that the four women “ride off into the sunset without their men” (Cohen, p. 773). Or, as Bloom puts it, “no one gets married, and...we are more than free to doubt that a year's service or penance by the men (unlikely to be performed) will bring about any unions” (Bloom, p. 143).

Hmmmm. I think I'm beginning to like this play. Next time around, I'm going to have to give it some serious thought!

October 2011

Works cited:

  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
  • Cohen, Walter. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).

Films seen:

  • BBC, 1984. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Mike Gwilym – Biron (or Berowne); Jenny Agutter – Rosaline; Maureen Lipman – Princess of France; Paul Jesson – Costard; David Warner – Don Armado; John Kane – Mote (or Moth); John Wells – Holofernes. Quite a straightforward interpretation. Lipman was best as the Princess of France.
  • The Kenneth Branagh version, 2000. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Kenneth Branagh – Biron; Natasha McElhone – Rosaline; Alicia Silverstone – the Princess of France; Nathan Lane – Costard; Timothy Spall – Don Armado; Anthony O'Donnell – Moth; Geraldine McEwan – Holofernes (Holofernia). I love this film. Set in the 30's just before WWII breaks out, it's a musical using old classics by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin. This is such a hokey movie and totally romantic. In other words, except for the rather effective use of the war as a sober backdrop, this version is so shallow and sweet that I should hate it. But Branagh is just so good, the cast are obviously having so much fun, the soppy ending is actually believable, the songs and lyrics fit in so perfectly and I'm a sucker for musicals so I fell for it immediately. This is the third time I've watched it but certainly not the last.

Seen on stage: no.


  1. Sir, he hath never fed the dainties that are bred in a book.
    He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink (Act 4.2)

    I like this quote! I think the opposite of it describes me on some weekends, eating paper and drinking ink for hours and hours...

  2. So true! Eating paper and drinking ink is my main occupation.