My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This early Shakespearean comedy, dating from the 1590s, is paradoxically slight but weighty, thin but dense. That’s no doubt partially owing to the lavish verbal resources it spends on such a simple plot. The story it tells is this: the King of Navarre invites three fellows to pledge to live in monkish isolation for three years. They will avoid all worldliness (to include any contact with women) and devote themselves to study. Almost immediately after they swear this vow, however, the Princess of France arrives on a diplomatic mission with three other young women in her train, and the four men and four women fall in love. Shakespeare considerably complicates this basic story—with comic side characters who steal the show and with the ritualistic maskings and unmaskings by which the men of Navarre and the women of France enact their courtship—but it remains, as a drama, so simple as to feel elemental.
If G. Wilson Knight found in Shakespeare’s late play, Timon of Athens, “the archetype and norm of all tragedy,” then the early Love’s Labour’s Lost (hereafter LLL) gives us the archetype and norm of comedy. This Signet Classics edition accordingly prints archetypal critic Northrop Frye’s essay on Shakespearean comedy in the back of the book. Frye doesn’t discuss this particular play very extensively—he writes only one sentence about it—but he argues that Shakespeare’s comic drama revises prior forms to gives us an artistic recreation of an ancient ritual:
We may call this the drama of the green world, and its theme is once again the triumph of life over the waste land, the death and revival of the year impersonated by figures still human, and once divine as well.
Because the King has vowed to keep women from his court, he receives the Princess and her ladies at a park away from the castle. “The roof of this court is too high to be yours,” the Princess dryly comments, “and welcome to the wide fields too base to be mine.” In other words, the men literally go to a green world where they are transfigured from ascetics to lovers.
Given this narrative, the play’s moral is clear enough: abstraction without affect, mentation without sensation, soul without body, will not be generative. Mind must submit itself to world, man must submit himself to woman, to achieve completeness—and the female characters dominate the play, while the men seriocomically lament their enslavement to Eros. The ritual Frye describes as the radical of comedy here serves Shakespeare’s polemical end: he upbraids intellectual puritanism, confronting it with intellect’s need to marry (literally) the world from which it wrongly wishes to escape if it wants to produce fruit:
Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were temp’red with Love’s sighs.
O, then his lines would ravish savage ears
And plant in tyrants mild humility.
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive.
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world;
Else none at all in aught proves excellent.
Perhaps Shakespeare even means to chasten intellectual misogyny, since “the world” in this play is figured not only as female (à la Eve, standing for temptation) but as individual female characters who are themselves consummately intelligent, more so than their male counterparts whom they trick and chide.
At the level of archetypal narrative, the above perhaps exhausts the play’s meaning; but it doesn’t quite account for LLL’s most noticeable quality: its linguistic extravagance (“Honorificabilitudinitatibus”). In one of its more famous lines, famous because it metatheatrically describes the verbal texture of the drama itself, a character observes, “They have been at a great feast of languages and have stol’n the scraps.”
Two minor characters, the “fantastical Spaniard” Don Armado and the pedagogue Holofernes, are intoxicated with their own capacity for verbal exuberance (and they predictably hate each other). Don Armado recapitulates the overall narrative in a more lowly comic register, falling in love with and even impregnating Jacquenetta, labeled “a country wench” in the dramatis personae, thus below his station. Here again, and on a social as well as metaphysical level, Eros brings humility to proud men. Shakespeare’s satire on his linguistic pretentiousness likewise humbles Don Armado, as when he writes a love letter to Jacquenetta:
By heaven, that thou art fair, is most infallible; true, that thou art beauteous; truth itself, that thou art lovely. More fairer than fair, beautiful than beauteous, truer than truth itself, have commiseration on thy heroical vassal! The magnanimous and most illustrate king Cophetua set eye upon the pernicious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon; and he it was that might rightly say, Veni, vidi, vici; which to annothanize in the vulgar,—O base and obscure vulgar!—videlicet, He came, saw, and overcame…
And so on, in the same arrogant, logorrheic style. Armado’s pretenses are often punctured by the wordplay of his servant, Moth, and learning is mocked in its absence through the characters of the clown Costard and the constable Anthony Dull, whose malapropisms offer inadvertent paronomasia. All the main characters, though, are full of verbal wit, often expressing itself either as bawdry—
Costard. She’s too hard for you at pricks, sir. Challenge her to bowl.
Boyet. I fear too much rubbing. Good night, my good owl.
—or, more impressively, as brain-twisting paradoxes that anticipate the 17th century’s metaphysical poetry—
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
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
The above lines are said by the play’s protagonist, if it can be said to have one, Berowne, described by another character as “the merry madcap lord: Not a word with him but a jest.” Berowne is the only strongly individuated figure among the major characters, and he speaks much of the play’s most consequential poetry. He understands from the beginning that the King’s monastic plan for intellectual retreat is flawed, as in the above lines, which elaborate on the paradox that too much reading will make you go blind: or, by metaphorical application, that the only way to preserve the intellect is to get out of the study.
This “madcap lord” is a comic premonition of Hamlet, saved from tragedy by his capacity to love. His frequent recourse to metaphors of sight and light (as in the above quotation about the “Promethean fire” in “women’s eyes”) offer a modified Platonism wherein we encounter the radiance of truth through erotic passion. Here, the eye as the chief sexual organ.
Another essay reprinted in the back of this Signet Classics edition is an appreciation of LLL by the late-Victorian aesthete Walter Pater. Aesthetes are drawn to the minor works of even major authors, since minor works’ circumscription allows for perfection of a kind (we last saw Pater admiring another early, minor Shakespeare play, the tragic history Richard II), whereas world-changing, world-making masterpieces almost always need the fuel of sheer bad taste (sentimentality, sloppiness, vulgarity, propaganda) if they are to storm the heavens. But Pater also praises this play’s minority for giving Shakespeare a chance to portray himself:
As happens with every true dramatist, Shakespeare is for the most part hidden behind the persons of his creation. Yet there are certain of his characters in which we feel that there is something of self-portraiture. And it is not so much in his grander, more subtle and ingenious creations that we feel this—in Hamlet and King Lear—as in those slighter and more spontaneously developed figures, who, while far from playing principal parts, are yet distinguished by a peculiar happiness and delicate ease in the drawing of them; figures which possess, above all, that winning attractiveness which there is no man but would willingly exercise, and which resemble those works of art which, though not meant to be very great or imposing, are yet wrought of the choicest material. […] Biron [Berowne], in Love’s Labour’s Lost, is perhaps the most striking member of this group. In this character, which is never quite in touch, never quite on a perfect level of understanding, with the other persons of the play, we see, perhaps, a reflex of Shakespeare himself, when he has just become able to stand aside from and estimate the first period of his poetry.
This observation explains LLL’s besottedness with language as well as its satire of language. As Pater notes, Berowne well understands that extravagant language can mislead; Shakespeare is here as ever concerned with appearance vs. reality, not only because his lovers go masked, but because words themselves can mask, can create a false veneer on things of authentic value:
O, never will I trust to speeches penned,
Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue,
Nor never come in vizard to my friend,
Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper’s song!
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical—these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.
I do forswear them; and I here protest,
By this white glove (how white the hand, God knows!)
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes…
Yet he has no other way of telling us about the treachery of words but in words, which, whether simple or complex, are not the world. In this play especially, russet and kersey are much less in evidence than taffeta and silk, even if Shakespeare only dresses his characters in the latter so that we’ll laugh at their gaudy pretense.
In Pater’s view, then, Shakespeare is portraying through Berowne both his love for language and his mistrust of it, just as the drama at large enacts a chastening of the arrogant intellect. The green world of language is poetry, where words go less to be honest than to admit they are not: a field of pure play or, as the heroine Rosaline puts it, “gravity’s revolt to wantonness.” And just as in Hamlet, where Shakespeare puts a perfectly good definition of poetry in the mouth of a fool (i.e., Polonius’s “by indirections find directions out”), so here he has the pedantic pedagogue Holofernes praise poetry for its “odouriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention”—jerks that this esoteric ritual of mind’s wedding to world reveals as the very motions of love.