CLAUDIUS: How fares our cousin Hamlet?
HAMLET: Excellent, i’ faith; of the chameleon’s dish, I eat the air, promise-cramm’d. You cannot feed capons so.
CLAUDIUS: I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet. These words are not
HAMLET: No, nor mine now. (Act III, scene ii)
Love’s Labour’s Lost: Act V
ME: Thank God for that!
HER: You’ve finished?
HER: Great, so now you never have to read it again.
ME: Well … I might in the future.
HER: What? Why? You’ve been moaning about it non-stop for the past month!
ME: Yeah, but, well … you know … in a few years, maybe I’ll enjoy it better.
HER: You. Are. Kidding. Me. Anyway, what’s next?
ME: A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
HER: God. That’s rubbish too.
You never know! This happened to me with The Lord of the Rings: my dad bought me a copy when I was about 11. I struggled with it for 6 months before putting it down, baffled as to why it was popular, and not very far in. In fact, I vividly remember that Frodo hadn’t yet left the Shire. Less than a year later, I tried again, and everything just clicked. After so many re-reads, I can pretty much finish any paragraph you give me the opening sentence to, sight unseen.
Either way, I finally finished the play, and promptly read Matt Haig‘s wonderful ‘How To Stop Time‘ in a feverish eight-hour stretch as an immediate palate-cleanser! Ironic, the title, given that is what LLL has just done for me. Anyway, I thoroughly recommend it – Haig’s work, that is.
Love’s Labour’s Lost ought, in many ways, to have been up my street: clever, often acerbic wordplay; feisty, smart women; knob gags a-plenty and a steady stream of puns. But it wasn’t. It was an ordeal, a trial by pentameter, and the main, perhaps only thing I can take from it is that I showed some resilience in finishing it. The doubt remains, though – was it the play, or just me? Is this just the wrong time, the wrong me, for the text? There is a curiosity: will I like it in a few years, when I am in a different place? Only time will tell, but at the moment the play is:
‘too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it were, too peregrinate, as I may call it.’ (V.i.13-15) (Holofernes)
My first mention of Holofernes in this read-through, constant readers will note. I have felt nothing other than mild irritation caused by apathy towards him throughout the play. To put it a little simplistically, what is Holofernes for? Reader apathy, as I am constantly telling students, is lethal. If you write something and generate no emotional response in your audience, you’ve lost.
Although HR Woudhuysen calls LLL a ‘comedy of humours’ (a form popular in the 1590s), I think of the play more as a Comedy of Manners, like a 16th-century forerunner of Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest. I feel it less about stereotypical characters and more about a subset of society. Wilde’s play is subtitled ‘A trivial comedy for serious people‘. Maybe Love’s Labour’s Lost is too trivial, and I am too serious, as 2018 opens. As a comedy of manners, the play satirises the court, an arena that Shakespeare was increasingly exposed to by this stage in his career and that of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But the 400 year old smoke signals are a little too diffuse for me – even after all last year’s contextual reading – to identify closely enough with the group being satirised. The satire ought to be recognisable, and funny, or cruel, or both. This feels too much like witnessing a private joke between friends.
Ultimately – and who knows? perhaps this is what Shakespeare was trying to do – the play exposes the vacuity of life at court, where:
When they are not paying extravagant compliments or getting into bed with each other, the courtiers pass the time by playing games.
[…] The court entertains itself with these sports: gambling and games show that the courtiers are wealthy and do not have to work or take part in business. But the games also hint at how boring court life must have been – there was nothing much else to do, so that ‘courtship, pleasant jest and courtesy’ (5.2.774) are the very stuff of court life. […] These formal games fill the time and divert the courtiers from what they really want to play. (Woudhuysen)
This vacuity leads our four male protagonists into a rash promise which exposes their immaturity. It quickly bounces back on them when they encounter women who – whilst admittedly harsh with our ‘heroes’ – are harsh because the stakes are so much higher for them, and partly to teach the lads an important lesson. Act V is full of references to the original vow to live an ascetic life, to flattery, and to the men’s immaturity:
‘A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no, my lord, your grace is perjured much. (V.ii.782-784)
‘I’ll mark no words that smooth-faced wooers say’ (V.ii.816)
The point is hammered home. As in other plays, forswearing an oath leads to consequences: in this case a lack of trust, tempered perhaps by the men being given a medieval romance type quest for ‘a year and a day’ – an opportunity to prove themselves and win love. And yet:
‘BEROWNE: Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.’ (V.ii.862-864)
Messages for Shakespeare’s audience? Firstly – and yet another one in the eye for those who believe Shakespeare to be misogynist:
‘The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen
As is the razor’s edge invisible’ (V.ii.256-257)
Also, that, perhaps, man cannot live in books alone. The apprentices in the audience will have taken away a renewed determination to see out their indentures, maybe. All, whether they were part of the circle or not, will have had a good, topical laugh at the Court, and those without just might have felt fortunate for any meaning they could derive from their mean existences.
So we – or at least I – end the play with grudging satisfaction at Shakespeare’s wordplay but a hitherto unknown and undreamt-of apathy towards the characters, and perhaps the sense that this is one play that is not ‘for all time‘, as Jonson might say. Which is fine, as they were never written with an eye on an audience born in a new millennium …
And Love’s Labour’s WON? I’ve got to be honest with you – not caring about or for any of the characters I’m glad I don’t have to read a sequel …
EDIT: a shout-out for John Mahoney, who has died today (the day I wrote this post) at the age of 77. From a ‘comedy’ to comedy. Frasier is, in many ways, a direct descendent of the Comedies, and my favourite – the scripts are a joy to read as well as watch, and I’m very sad to hear that ‘Martin Crane’ has left us ….
William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (Arden third edition, ed. HR Woudhuysen), (Methuen Drama: London, 1998)