Sunday, August 8, 2010

Discussion: Love's Labour's Lost

The play: Love's Labour's Lost

The plot tweet: Lovers both courtly and rustic sit around mocking one another. Nothing much happens and nobody gets married -- a pure festival of language.

My favorite line:
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled shows,
But like of each thing that in season grows. (Berowne)


This play opens with a proposal we know is doomed to fail: The king of Navarre and his three friends swear off love, sleep and food to devote their attention to scholarship.
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.
Shakespeare's protagonist, Berowne, already knows this isn't going to work, but he swears along with the others -- who are almost instantly undone by the arrival of the princess of France and her entourage. What follows is a feast of courtly love poetry, much of it intentionally awful on Shakespeare's part, interspersed with comical scenes of the local rustics mocking one another's use of language.

Rosaline is an interesting character here, and scholars often compare her to the Dark Lady in the sonnets. She and Berowne have met before, but Shakespeare doesn't give us the history. It must be bad, because Berowne discusses his fears of being cuckolded by her, and she often treats him with harsh disdain. If their relationship does have similarities to Shakespeare's love of the Dark Lady, however, we'll never know for sure.

Marjorie Garber writes that Love's Labour's Lost is easy to watch but hard to read, because so much of the humor depends on the actors' comic timing and interactions. I wholeheartedly agree: Although I enjoyed the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of this play several years ago, I was actually bored by the text. Did anyone else have this experience as a reader?

I have, at least, found an opportunity to disagree with Harold Bloom, who considers this "festival of language" to be his favorite Shakespeare play, and an important lyrical step in Shakespeare's emancipation from Christopher Marlowe. Bloom is probably right, as usual, but I must agree instead with William Hazlitt, who writes, "If we were to part with any of the author's comedies, it should be this."


  1. Yes, I was bored as well. I found it very difficult to get into and therefore hardly ever got more than about ten pages read at a sitting. Any more and my mind was wondering elsewhere. I did like all of the word play and banter. But it just didn't hold up for 100+ pages.

  2. I also enjoyed the play more in seeing it than reading it. Following the banter and the plethora of puns was challenging for me without a secure command of all the nuances of meaning in the use of a particular word. I definitely feel more comfortable than ever with Shakespeare's English, now that I'm reading it constantly (a wonderful benefit of this project!) - but I'm not yet quite this facile!

  3. (It seems I always have a second post to say what I just forgot!)
    I thought one of the very interesting things here was the characters of Rosaline and Berowne - they seem like they could be the precursors of Beatrice and Benedick. Did Shakespeare look at them and think "I should write more about that pair - and let them get married next time"?

  4. Funny coincidence that I am reading LLL for my blog right now, too. I also watch film versions and go to live productions when I can, although I haven't seen this one live.

    I found LLL very hard to get into. I watched the BBC production (it's okay... but casual viewing would be very difficult) and now I'm watching the Branagh version (a giddy musical, cutting much of the text, and much easier to watch, but def Shakespeare Lite).

    Re the Beatrice/Benedick thing... I see that, as well. I read that there's some speculation that the "lost play" (if it ever existed), Love's Labour's Won... may have been an early title for Much Ado... so maybe the B&B similarity is more than coincidence. B&B are so much more emotionally satisfying, though. Do you really care if Berowne and Rosaline (or any of the couples in LLL) ever get together?

    This play must definitely be an acquired taste. I plan to read it again and think it through some more.

  5. I keep hoping Love's Labour's Won will turn up in an attic somewhere. Wouldn't that be the literary find of the century? I don't care much about the other lovers, but I am curious about how Rosaline and Berowne turn out.

  6. With Love's Labour, I am reminded that Shakespeare was an actor's playwright. This one was definitely not written to be read but to provide structure for strong physical humor by very skilled performers.

  7. Shakespeare's work did'nt get edited until after his death