A Feast of Language: Love’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare

Arrival of the Princess of France by Thomas Stothard

Arrival of the Princess of France by Thomas Stothard

Love’s Labor’s Lost is Shakespeare at his strangest. Instead of crafting a clever and inimitable plot as he did in so many of his other works, he decided to concentrate instead on the words themselves, prompting Harold Bloom to famously dub it a “feast of language.” The story may seem bland or ridiculous, but the characters are as engaging as any in Shakespeare’s immortal gallery of lovers, philosophers, tyrants, jesters and madmen. In its lightness and theme Love’s Labor’s Lost is like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but is also vaguely reminiscent of The Winter’s Tale in the way of meanders (though not nearly as much or as violently). It is a play about scholars written for scholars and those with scholarly pretensions. Its title at first seems like little more than an excuse for alliteration, but it  properly and beautifully summarizes its contents. At the very beginning King Ferdinand proudly proclaims:

“Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,

Live register’d upon our brazen tombs

And then grace us in the disgrace of death;

When, spite of cormorant devouring Time,

The endeavor of this present breath may buy

That honour which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge

And make us heirs of all eternity.”

The king and his courtiers have decided to abstain from sex and other earthly delights in order to pursue knowledge exclusively for three years. They find asceticism unbearable. As one would expect from warmblooded males with the cynical but jovial genius the bard is inclined to bestow upon his favorite characters (Mercutio, Falstaff, Berowne (Biron in some editions)), they break their vow. One can only speculate about which of his creations was dearest to his heart, but the eloquence of their speech and the loftiness of their thoughts may be taken as a sign of his favor. The king’s proclamation extends to the entire court. From the start there are problems. Don Armado, a pompous Spainard sometimes compared to Don Quixote, catches the clown Costard and a “country wench” named Jaquenta.  Costard’s punishment is not terribly severe. He must fast with “water and bran.” However, he is also is forced to accompany Don Armado, who in many ways is like Zapp Brannigan of Futurama fame (not to be confused with his cousin Kenneth Branagh). Armado soon falls for  Jaquenta in the way Quixote falls for Aldonza Lorenzo. Biron seems skeptical of the entire undertaking from the start and any support he shows is likely feigned for the benefit of his benefactor.

BIRON

Why, all delights are vain; but that most vain,

Which with pain purchased 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…

To which King Ferdinand replies, “how well he’s read, to reason against reading!” A favorite quote of mine. Perhaps you don’t care for it. The real trouble begins, however, when the Princess of France arrives. Biron, Longaville and Dumaine are all smitten with the ladies the Princess has brought along. From this point on the play evolves (devolves?) into a standard comedy of errors. Costard mixes up Biron’s letter intended for Rosaline with Don Armado’s letter to Jaquenta. Hazlitt’s contention becomes more pertinent as the story unfolds: the characters are the ones who make this piece. It can be thrown away, but they cannot. Biron and Rosaline are the dueling wits, much like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. The attraction is instant and mutual. His brilliance draws her like a moth to a flame.

ROSALINE

Biron they call him; but a merrier man,

Within the limit of becoming mirth,

I never spent an hour’s talk withal:

His eye begets occasion for his wit;

For every object that the one doth catch

The other turns to a mirth-moving jest,

Which his fair tongue, conceit’s expositor,

Delivers in such apt and gracious words

That aged ears play truant at his tales

And younger hearings are quite ravished;

So sweet and voluble is his discourse.”

BIRON

Your wit’s too hot, it speeds too fast, ’twill tire.

ROSALINE

Not till it leave the rider in the mire.

Rosaline’s need to dominate and rule over Biron may say something about Shakespeare’s sexuality. There seems to be a distinct submissive streak in him. She views herself as the ruler and Biron views himself as the one to be ruled, yet he seems to have no anxieties about this relationship. Maybe the bard’s lack of misogyny, almost utter absence by the standards of the period, stem partially from a desire to be dominated. Predictably the grand scheme continues to unravel after Biron hears the King announcing his love for the princess and the others discover each other’s breech of the oath. Holofernes and Sir Nathanial are both fairly one dimensional pastiches of contemporary scholars with whom Shakespeare was likely to have known. Maybe he was mocking his friend Ben Jonson? Poor Jonson. We are also treated to some exquisite deadpanning:

LONGAVILLE Pray you, sir, whose daughter?

BOYET Her mother’s, I have heard.

The situation becomes more ridiculous when they decide to go into the female camp disguised as Russians. Maybe Shakespeare is mocking the entire premise of mistaken identity here. Maybe he is trying to say men so versed in poetry and plays would be inclined to a harebraned scheme like this one because they could not divorce plots from Terence and Plautus from reality.  In any case, the Muscovite scene will make one groan or chuckle depending on one’s mood and temperament.

BIRON

Sweet lords, sweet lovers,O, let us embrace!

As true we are as flesh and blood can be:

The sea will ebb and flow, heaven show his face;

Young blood doth not obey an old decree:

We cannot cross the cause why we were born;

Therefore of all hands must we be forsworn.

Furthermore, he calls the oath:

BIRON

Flat treason ‘gainst the kingly state of youth.

Say, can you fast? your stomachs are too young;

And abstinence engenders maladies.

And where that you have vow’d to study, lords,

In that each of you have forsworn his book,

Can you still dream and pore and thereon look?

For when would you, my lord, or you, or you,

Have found the ground of study’s excellence

Without the beauty of a woman’s face?

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive;

They are the ground, the books, the academes

From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire…

Love’s Labor’s Lost concludes with the Princess and the ladies leaving. They will be back next year. An odd ending to an odd premise played out oddly in the oddest way. Yet viewed with the right lens Love’s Labor’s Lost may not be an oddity at all.  It poses a serious question with which any professional has had to grapple, and it answers it in a splendidly irreplicable manner. There is balance and, if one does not overindulge, the pleasures of life can serve as wellsprings of inspiration, assistants rather than distractions from one’s higher purpose.

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