Love's Labour's Lost is a perfect example of why I took this project on. Less often produced than the big ones, I'd never seen it performed on stage or screen, and somehow had never managed to read it. Mere lines into Act I, I realized I knew virtually nothing about it -- it never much came up in classes or critical writing I've encountered. It's not a minor play, but you can easily get by without knowing it, and that's what I wanted to remedy for myself.
It's fun to read a Shakespeare play without knowing the first thing about it -- and my mild embarrassment about how many plays fit this bill for me is far outdone by the pleasure of reading them fresh.
But I have to confess, I had a really hard time with this one. A few of the reasons are purely technical. First of all, there are several characters whose humor is based on their convoluted or overbaked way of speaking, and layered on to already unfamiliar Elizabethan language, that made it hard going for me. Second, there is a ton of clearly topical and slangy comedy that is easily lost in the sands of time. I can often tell that something is supposed to be funny about what is being said, but I'm not always sure I understand why. There is some super-duper bawdy double-entendre humor in this play that is much enhanced if you know the basics of Elizabethan dirty jokes, and having Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy at hand was, as it always is, indispensable. Then, pile on the usual love-cross trickery -- misdelivered letters, masked balls where the wooers woo the wrong wooee -- and the opportunities for total confusion abound.
But all that is remedied with good use of notes, glossaries, plot summaries, and the like. My bigger problem had to do with just not finding this play -- its themes, its poignancy, its poetry -- as transporting and insightful as I usually find Shakespeare. Was it just me?
I asked a dinner party full of theater friends if any had worked on Love's Labour's Lost in their careers, and if so, what did they think of it. One friend, a costume designer, was the only person who had, and she loves the play, finds it extremely rich on the subject of relationships. I admire and trust her, so I kept reading with her endorsement in mind. If there was something deeper to find beyond the humor, I really, really wanted to find it. Another friend suggested listening to a good audio recording, in case it just wasn't coming off the page to me.
I read it again, carefully, and watched one of the few films available, Kenneth Branagh's 2000 musical adaptation. It helped! If anything could make the material sparkle it's one of Branagh's hugely talented all-star casts performing the play as if a bright Hollywood musical circa 1940, complete with faux newsreel footage, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs, and Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire type choreography. Here, the world is nervously watching as Ferdinand, the King of Navarre takes an oath that he and his courtiers will spend three years at ascetic study without interacting with women, just as Europe is on the verge of war. His self-imposed inability, then, to negotiate with the Princess of France, should set high stakes.
This framing device, though, didn't remedy for me some of the essential problems. I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that the King would impose this set of restrictions on his court, but for dramatic purposes it really proves to be little restriction at all, as the court, led by Ferdinand's best pal Berowne, immediately sets about rationalizing why meeting with the princess outside the palace gates is no violation of the oath. But restricting the ability of the courtiers to further woo their respective love interests among the ladies-in-waiting feels more than a little contrived, and we get various scenes of hair-splitting discussion about why they can go this far but no further. What with the comic love triangle involving a pregnant country girl, the ladies double-crossing the gents by switching masks at the ball, and a bad play performed by bad actors for the royal courts (this is handled about a gazillion times better in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the preparations for this theatrical monstrosity are fully integrated into the play and resonate beautifully with the play's themes), I felt the pairs of lovers were being kept apart simply to keep all these balls in the air.
The ending, though, contains a twist I honestly wasn't expecting at all. You know what happens at the end of a Shakespeare comedy, right? Of course you do -- the pairs of lovers confess their love, are united in a big wedding scene, and everyone walks off happily together into the sunset, except for whatever amusing punishment needs to be handed out to the comic characters. And that's exactly what doesn't happen here.
Instead, when the time comes for the pairs of lovers to join in happy matrimony, the princess and her ladies inform their guys that because the men broke a solemn oath to woo them, now they must prove their seriousness and constancy by spending a year and a day engaged in service. The King and his right hand man, Berowne, conclude this way:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an' a day,
And then 'twill end.
That's too long for a play.
I find that just delicious in so many ways. I love that there is some blowback for bad behavior, not just the usual brushing it off because there is a wedding that has to happen by Act V. I love when Shakespeare gets all meta like that. And I love all the speculation about what might have happened in the lost play Love's Labour's Won, and whether that was just an alternate title for a play we know, such as Much Ado About Nothing.
While I can't say I found a new favorite Shakespeare play, or even one I like a lot, I'm very glad I dug in and found something to admire. I'd actually very much like to work on a production of Love's Labour's Lost to see if the production process makes it richer for me (this has happened to me in the past, yes I'm talking about you, Oleanna) so if anyone in Vancouver would like a cheap dramaturg or assistant director for their production, you know how to reach me.