PTS read through: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I
It feels appropriate to arrive at this play in the month when it seems you’re not a functioning member of society if you don’t add some kind of punishing denial to the post-Christmas blues: Dry January, the unappetising-sounding Veganuary, or in my case, the Walk 1,000 Miles in 2018 challenge (already behind schedule). Personally, I think we’ve enough to cope with, waiting for things to warm up and the nights to become appreciably longer.
Nevertheless, this is how the play opens – with a preposterous resolution by the foolish King of Navarre and three of his intimates to ‘abjure the rough magic’ of the fair sex. Unlike Rocky’s trainer Mickey, they’re worried about the intellectual rather than physical effects that women may have on them
I give them a maximum of ten minutes, stage time …
Which is, of course the point. And where my other half and I always end up, in our own Battle of the Sexes when it comes to Shakespeare. She finds the Comedies, in particular, ‘predictable‘, I enjoy the sense of dramatic irony and arrive at the plays ready for a journey, not to reach a destination.
Our four young would-be scholars decide to withdraw from the Battle of the Sexes before a shot can be fired. There is a battle to be fought, though, the King emphasising the struggle and the glory to be had with a decidedly martial opening speech. It’s a battle against Nature. Their instinctively priapic natures. And they’re going to lose. As Benedick might say:
‘the world must be peopled.’ (Much Ado, Act II sc iii)
Only Berowne demurs at the excessively ascetic regime being proposed – further, his exchange with the King and elaborately-rhyming speech hints at something positively Promethean about this quest for knowledge:
BEROWNE: What is the end of study, let me know?
KING: Why, that to know which else we should not know.
BEROWNE: Things hid and barred, you mean, from common sense?
KING: Ay, that is study’s god-like recompense.
BEROWNE: Come on then, I will swear to study so,
To know the thing I am forbid to know (I.i.55-60)
I’m focussing here on the discomforting resonances of ‘should not know‘, ‘hid and barred‘ and ‘forbid‘, and the King’s suggestion that knowledge renders us ‘god-like’. My Arden suggests an echo of Adam in that negative verb, forbid. I’m also conscious of the outcome of Prospero’s excessive, obsessive scholarship: usurpation and exile. And, I like HR Woudhuysen‘s suggestion that the bargain lads’ bargain is somehow Faustian. Perhaps they’re better off taking their noses out of their books, after all. Perhaps I am too, come to think of it …
A reluctant reader, then, Berowne – whilst I sympathise with his prettily-phrased opposition to the group’s oath, still, he’s taking things a little far in saying:
‘Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun,
That will not be deep-searched with saucy looks,
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others’ books.’ (I.i.84-87)
Newton is right, matey: If we have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants!
Still, Berowne, who appears to have the most ‘common sense’ of the group is pressed into signing the ill-advised statute. But not before he reminds the King that with the Princess of Aquitaine’s amending arrival, they are all doomed to forswear themselves almost before they have begun. Scarily, if the King’s edicts are followed to the letter, his draconian punishment would see her tongue ripped out. These lads seem more frightened of women, apprehensive about the dangers of, heaven forbid, speaking to one, than anything else …
Whilst we await the Princess and her inevitable entourage of lovelies, we’re introduced to the characters who’ll doubtless supply most of the knockabout comedy. Longaville promises that during the group’s three-year fun famine:
‘Costard the swain and he [Armado] shall be our sport.’ (I.i.177)
Costard (and Dull) appear to be prototypes of Elbow and Dogberry in their malaprop mastery of the English language, and to be honest, that’s a type of humour I quite enjoy. That said, this passage was heavy going – I found myself looking at the glossed notes far more often than I usually do. Look at lines like the following:
COSTARD: ‘The matter is to me, sir, as concerning Jaquenetta. The manner of it is, I was taken with the manner.
BEROWNE: In what manner?
COSTARD: In manner and form following, sir. All those three.’ (I.ii.198-203)
If ever there was an example of the kind of passage that puts students off Shakespeare, this might be it – no wonder this play isn’t on the GCSE syllabus.
There are funny moments, though. Costard’s impatience in hearing Armado’s accusatory letter comically delays the confirmation of his fears that it’s he that is being derided, and the Spaniard’s writing style is humorous in it’s verbosity and inability to get to then point.
What is revealed is that we have an additional comic strain – the trope of idiotic rivals for a single woman, as we saw with the contest for Bianca’s hand in The Shrew. Not content with the promise of four higher class couples battling it out, I dare say we’re going to see these two suitors make fools of themselves and each other, with our wench, Jaquenetta, applying the finishing touches. Again, at this stage in the play that’s something I enjoy and look forward to – plenty of opportunity for practical jokes and dirty tricks on the horizon …
Armado’s letter describes her as the ‘weaker vessel’ (I.ii.259). We shall see … she brushes him off quite brusquely towards the end of the act, and we should also bear in mind that Armado has pledged to follow the King’s oath. He, too, is foresworn by the end of Act I.
HR Woudhuysen (ed.), Love’s Labour’s Lost (Arden Third Edition), (Methuen Drama: London, 1998)
Other lines from plays sourced at: www.opensourceshakespeare.org