PTS 09/054: 400 Year-Old Smoke Signals

Sometimes the smoke is easier to read than others …

BH smoke

Love’s Labour’s Lost – Act III

Inspired by Ursula K Le Guin and The Pet Shop Boys, I picked this up again with a steely glint in my eye.  I’ll read.  I’ll gloss.  I’ll conquer!

Until now, I’ve been in defiant denial of Shakespeare being ‘hard’ at all – perhaps it’s my default position, when my job so frustratingly includes standing on the barricades, battling young people who won’t engage either because it’s:

  • too hard; or
  • boring

Engage first, and then want to adopt those positions?  Fine.  Otherwise, I’ll continually evangelize that Shakespeare should be given a chance, thumping one of my Shakespeare bibles, David Crystal‘s Think On My Words – Exploring Shakespeare’s Language.  One of the things Crystal does is explode several Shakespearean myths.  The most pertinent quotations for today are:

‘A distinction has to be drawn […] between difficulty of language and difficulty of thought’


‘None of this adds up to a strong argument for translation or modernization.  At worst we are talking about somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent of Shakespeare’s grammar and vocabulary posing a problem.  Rather than modernize Shakespeare, therefore, our effort should be devoted to making ourselves more fluent in ‘Shakespearean’.1

Visitors to my Bookshelf and/or those who looked at my 2017 Reading River, will know the extent to which I do this.

But, whilst patient, curious ‘reading round’ effectively deals with ‘difficulty of language’, it can only go so far in unravelling ‘difficulty of thought’.  I’ve reached my limit with Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Sweet smoke of rhetoric! (III.i.60)  ARMARDO3

And here’s the crux.  For the most part, rhetoric is something I appreciate and enjoy, from the highly stylised drama of the two Talbots’ deaths in 1 Henry VI, to the bawdy idiocy of Lucio in Measure For Measure.  But I simply can’t respond to passages like the opening segment of Act III emotionally or intellectually.  These Shakespearean smoke signals have dispersed too far.  Cue Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint in The Usual Suspects2:

See the play, don’t read it‘ is advice I often see given online.  Unusually, I followed it, reaching for my 1985 BBC version, directed by Elijah Moshinsky.  As a set, these BBC productions are usually the most faithful – some might say staid – renditions, and yet much of the material I was wading through had been cut out.  I felt validated.

So aside from a few double entendres, and Costard’s adoption of new currency terms, there was little to enjoy until Berowne arrived.  OK, I thought, we ought to have some fun in Act IV with the Costard’s inevitable inability to play postman.  I settled down to hear what Berowne had to say, and was almost instantly transported to the Messina of Much Ado About Nothing, and felt better.  It might as easily be Benedick speaking, and this is the kind of stuff that floats my boat – look at his description of Cupid:

‘This whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy;
This senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid;
Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents,
Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,
Sole imperator and great general
Of trotting ‘paritors:—O my little heart:—
And I to be a corporal of his field,
And wear his colours like a tumbler’s hoop!
What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife?’  (III.i.174-184)

Plenty to like here, I think.  The paradoxes of ‘senior-junior‘ and ‘giant-dwarf‘ reflect his confusion, as well as the general discombobulation that accompanies being lovestruck.  I also liked the satirical treatment of the typical Petrarchan symptoms of love (which he will be condemmned to) as they kicked of a crescendo of indignation ending in those almost despairing rhetorical questions.

Why the despair?  Partly because he realizes the extent to which his prediction that the men would be foresworn has come true.  But also his interesting and perhaps anti-Petrarchan reflections on who he’s fallen in love with.

There’s just a hint of Sonnet 130 (‘My Mistress’ Eyes’) in the line:

‘with two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes’ (III.i.192)

but actually, what we see is an echo of the nasty, spiteful streak we seem to have seen from the women in Act II.  There’s contempt in:

‘one that will do the deed

Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard’ (III.i.193-194)

Or at least there is to my 2018 sensibilities.  Back to David Crystal, and being Shakespearean in my outlook.  Two supporting quotations for you here:

And as Armado is in love with Jaquenetta, so Berowne is drawn to the conventionally unattractive Rosaline.
What he says about her reveals something about his view of the sexual world of the court. […] On the whole, the male courtiers’ separation of words from their meanings enables them to indulge in what might be called safe sexual banter. Yet Berowne’s language here is not witty and evasive, but blunt and to the point. Furthermore, he is not alone and, although he may be indulging in the sort of misogyny which lies behind some of what the courtiers say, his view of Rosaline is shared by Boyet 3


One aspect of Renaissance family life which may well […] seem particularly strange to us is the virtually universal male paranoia about the possibility of female infidelity. On the evidence of the plays, poems and prose romances of the period, the entire culture would seem to be suffering from what modern psychiatrists have diagnosed as ‘Othello’ syndrome – that is an obsessive and ungrounded fear of being cuckolded. (The female equivalent of cuckold, ‘cuckquean’ is much more rarely used.) Literary and non-literary writing alike abounds in tags and proverbs which casually dismiss and demonize all women as likely to be unfaithful – ‘casta est quam nemo rogavit’ – ’she is chaste who no-one has asked’ i.e. the only woman who has not strayed is one who has not yet been propositioned). 4

What I think the two quotations do (and the second is one I constantly refer to), is remind us that although misogyny is alive and well in 2018, causes and symptoms might have changed.  I say might because as I type, my assumptions are being systematically undermined by reports that the UK’s ‘great and good’ – actually, today’s courtiers’ – recently attended a men-only charity evening where it’s obvious to the most casual, naive observer that the ‘hostesses’ were employed to be sexually available for the attendees. 5  Complimentary gropes with their canapes, and negotiation as to what else was on the menu. There we have it again, the rich and powerful, and their dirty assumptions.  And we’re back to David Crystal, surely, telling us that we needn’t modernize Shakespeare at all.  In Berowne’s case, and I think there is a subtle difference, it is the fear, the paranoia described by Hopkins and Steggle which makes us understand our courtier better. For the oh-so-suddenly-disbanded Presidents Club (and here I refer you to the video of Verbal Kint again) the assumption is not one to fear, but to exploit.

Either way, either century, a question that always pops into my head is this:

‘Have these men no mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends?’

See you on the other side of Act IV …


1. Crystal, David,  Think On My Words – Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge, 2008)

2. Brian Singer (dir), The Usual Suspects (1995)

3. HR Woudhuysen (ed.), Love’s Labour’s Lost (Arden Third Edition), (Methuen Drama: London, 1998)

4. Lisa Hopkins and Matthew Steggle, Renaissance Literature and Culture (Continuum:  London, 2006)

5. The Financial Times: ‘Men Only:  Inside the Charity Fundraiser Where Hostesses are Put On Show‘ (24 January, 2018)




Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

3 thoughts on “PTS 09/054: 400 Year-Old Smoke Signals”

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