Love’s Labor’s Lost. The title alone is a bit of a tease. What about those two apostrophes, the most misused, wandering, and abandoned of all punctuation marks? Holofernes, the play’s village schoolmaster, would be delighted to explain—in fact he uses the word to mean a contraction for the very first time in English literature: “You find not the apostrophus, and so miss the accent,” he says, without making anything more clear. That’s the kind of guy he is. In fact the apostrophes of the title have been much debated by critics. The consensus is that the long version of the title should read THE LABOR OF LOVE IS LOST: one apostrophe has been deployed as a possessive, the other as a contraction of the verb “to be.” Are we all better now?
As nearly every undergraduate in the Pikes Peak Region knows, you can swat most apostrophes out of your way and still be understood. The title has become a familiar phrase, and we all get the idea: in this play love will not carry the day. That’s an odd premise for a comedy, especially a Shakespeare comedy, which nearly always ends with couples dancing off to the altar whether the audience approves or not (they do in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It; in Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well we’re not so sure). There is certainly no shortage of love or couples in this play: four stylish and energetic young men are paired off with four witty women, which is a Shakespeare record. The play is a kind of group courting dance. There is a fifth couple too, if you count the Spanish knight and his beloved dairymaid, and you should. So what goes wrong? Why and how are these labors of love lost?
The answer to this central question should really be learned by seeing the play, which you couldn’t do for nearly two hundred years. Love’s Labor’s Lost was well known and often quoted when first performed, but after the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642, it did not return to the stage. There’s a reason for that. On the page, the play seems almost plotless, and full of fussiness, obscurity, and linguistic complexity. It abounds in puns, exactly the kind of wordplay Samuel Johnson famously criticized in his favorite author:
A quibble [a pun] is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. . . let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
No play of Shakespeare’s has more quibbles than this one, and for a long time Johnson’s verdict was universally shared. And then, in the middle of the 20th century, Love’s Labor’s Lost found its way back into the theaters, and to everyone’s surprise it proved wonderfully accessible. Audiences didn’t seem to mind the absence of dramatic tension, and all those puns, verbal fireworks, and clever dirty jokes proved no more obstacles to delight and understanding than those pesky apostrophes in the play’s title. In fact, all the distracting quibbles only added to the general enjoyment. I first directed this play more than 30 years ago, and I remember being horrified when I first saw ignorant parents bringing their young children to the show. But an hour later I watched those 8 year olds leaning forward in anticipation and then leaning back with laughter; they seemed to get everything. How could this be? Partly it’s because kids don’t worry about what they miss, as long as there’s something in front of them that holds their attention. They never watch a play through a rear-view mirror, so they often take in the show moment by moment more fully than their parents. But the other reason why kids liked the play is that it is actually very funny, and very human, and very easy—and it’s that way for parents too. The verbal confectionary of its surface lays on some terrific frosting, some complicated meringue, and more than a few cherries, but it all goes down like delicious cake.
We all know Shakespeare’s basic comic recipe: create an obstacle, quickly knock it down and then full speed ahead to love and marriage. In Navarre, a kingdom in the north of Spain, four fashionable young men have decided it’s time to get serious; it’s time to really do something. They will immerse themselves in serious study for three years, study so rigorous, so dedicated, so focused that it will make their court a little wonder of the world. They will read, they will fast, they will hardly sleep, and, most importantly, they will see no women, because we all know what women can do to serious male study. Naturally, no sooner have the oaths been taken than four young women arrive from France. The gentlemen meet the women but refuse to let them into their court; instead, the ladies are offered nice camp sites out of doors. But the poor hosts are instantly smitten; Cupid’s arrow has struck them all “under the left pap.” Solemn vows melt like the dew, and the play plunges joyously into games, disguises, and festivity, into word play and love play of the most high-spirited kind. So most of what this play is, is terrific fun. Everyone gets into the swing, including a group of villagers invited to put on a pageant as court entertainment. And these rustics are a sensational little crew: “the pedant, the braggart, the hedge-priest, the fool, and the boy.” There’s also a cop, who can’t quite keep up. They are gifted, believe me.
Word play is the beating heart of the play’s festivity. The universal passion in Navarre is a shared love of language and its unlimited possibilities. The melancholy Spaniard, Don Adriano de Armado, is welcomed at court for his astonishing, strange, and weighty vocabulary; by contrast his zippy page is light enough to move words faster than speeding bullets. The local schoolmaster is spouting fountains of Roman authors; the hedge priest drinks ink and savors “the dainties that are bred in a book.” For the illiterate but eager clown, each new word in his vocabulary feels like a brand new super-power. Everyone is reading, writing, and talking with extraordinary gusto: “a set of wits well played,” says the Princess after delighting in a verbal tennis match. Even the constable, a man named Dull, has a word game he wants to play. And now that love is in the air, the men are all writing poetry and making beautiful speeches. Love, like everything else in Navarre, turns into words. Some of the poems are good, some not, but it’s all positively infectious.
The girls, too, are more than ready to play, if not to lie down and surrender. They have some ideas and some considerable wits of their own, so they form another set of obstacles for their word charged wooers to overcome. All this makes for a series of hilarious encounters, and more than a few bumps on the way to happy coupling. But this is a comedy, and we know where it’s going, until suddenly we don’t. The scene begins to cloud. First the play within the play dissolves into a quarrel, and then the play itself stops, running out of time. The girls go home. Love’s Labors are lost. Whoa.
For the better part of two hours we have recreated in Navarre’s “curious knotted garden,” enjoying its wonders, its follies, its verbal bouquets and fireworks. And then abruptly the garden walls are breached, and we find ourselves in a larger world of spring and winter and death. Against this wider background, we are invited to see the lovers’ fun and games for what they were: fun and games, but not the deep down experience of real love, real life. The wooing high jinx of the oath breakers is suddenly viewed as if Dr. Johnson had turned on his moral searchlight. The lovers’ ecstatic declarations and sonnets look more like quibbles, golden apples of diversion, distractions from higher and more serious ground, diversions from “reason, propriety and truth.” The women of the play, always Shakespeare’s wiser gender, see this; the giddy boys do not, or rather, they only begin to see when the show ends. Shakespeare anticipates Johnson—he bakes his yummy cake and then, like his later critic, suggests it had too much frosting to be healthy. Berowne, the liveliest of the lovers, owns up to his own verbal excess:
“Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyberboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical—these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.”
The labors of love turn out not to have been labors at all, merely games in which nothing worthy could be won. Yet all is not lost. The play ends when actual labors of love have been proposed, more serious oaths have been taken, and love, though deferred, might yet be found and won. The play is a comedy after all, full of continuous surprises. No wonder quibbles are at its core, since a pun is a word that refuses to stay anchored in a fixed category of meaning. Love’s Labor’s Lost is a quibble on a larger scale, a play which refuses to remain in its traditional comic box. This is one reason it is so truly marvelous. You must wend your way to Rock Ledge Ranch to find out for yourselves. Our festivities begin in the early evening. “The time when? About the sixth hour, when beasts most graze, birds best peck, and men sit down to that nourishment which is called supper. So much for the time when.” We’ll see you in Navarre.