Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Love's Labor's Lost - Structure

I found this reading of Love's Labor's Lost pretty slow going because I had the time to spend parsing all the glosses, quibbles, Latin, bad Latin, euphuisms, synonymy, and [Randall: pedantry alert] "homonymic sallies, the onomastic tours de force, the stichomythic fencing, the high-spirited logomachy" (Robert Bechtold Heilman, The Ways of the World, 193 -- Heilman was Ernst's and my chairman when we were grad students; I hope he is just fooling around here), thus focusing on Our Gang of rustics and pedants, so I lost track of connections.

But Randall's question about structure gave me focus. I said in my earlier reactions, I didn't find much plot, and the early vow to forswear the world in favor of study is doomed so quickly that it leeches out any resistance drama. But there is a dramatic tension in the noble plot. We, the audience, know that Navarre and his bookmen have made a foolish and unnatural vow, but they don't know. Their oath is artificial, pretentious, mannered, affected, self-deceptive (oh, where is my thesaurus when I need it?). Of course, it gives way immediately to necessity, but it takes four more acts for them to discover they must learn who they are, not from study of "knowledge" but from discovery of self through the medium of love.

Berowne is the truth sayer, yet he is also the leader in the theatre of wit that delays discovering their true natures. And the ladies of France play along, even play better. The announcement of the death of the King of France brings the games to an end, "the scene begins to cloud" (V.ii.721), and the boys are sent off to do a real year-and-a-day of ascetic penance -- "Jack hath not Jill" -- which violates the comic convention of happy endings. But it is the right ending, in that Navarre and his men have completed their journey from artificial to natural. There is nothing in the play to assure the four men will survive their quest toward love. If they fail now, it is because we are all subject to human limitations, and the human comedy -- happily -- revels in the infirmity of human purpose. Rather than happily ever after, our natural lives show, if I remember Cyrus Hoy, the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality, between the intention and the deed. Spring and winter. The cuckoo and the owl. Marriage (and cuckoldry) and death (but greasy Joan keeling the pot)

The opening ("hot house") edict, using the language of all-out war against the senses -- "That war against your own affections/ And the huge army of the worlds desires" (I.i.9-10) -- is suspect because Navarre is partly motivated by fame ("we'll have higher Board scores!!"). Poor Longaville even sees study as a sort of low-carb diet: "Fat paunches have lean pates; and dainty bits/ Make rich the ribs, but bankrout quite the wits"(I.i.26-27). Immediately, Berowne articulates the case for nature: "O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,/ Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep" (I.i.47-48). (Keep your eye on "barren" until the song that ends the play balances fecund Spring with deadly Winter.) But he goes along to get along ("I swore in jest") , but not before he articulates the key truth: "[I] like of each thing that in season grows/ [But] you...climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate" (I.i.107-09).

There is no need to satisfy my wish to see the fellows staying up drinking too much coffee and studying Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar (yeah, I went to grad school). The-edict-is-read-the-ladies-arrive [sic-I would type those statements one on top of the other if I could]. "Necessity will make us all forsworn.../ for every man with his affects is born,/ Not by might mast'red, but by special grace"(I.i.149, 151-52). You want necessity of "seasons"? Costard ignores the edict and has bonked Jaquenetta, recognizing the unassailable logic that his superiors lack: "It is the manner of a man to speak to a woman...Such is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh"(I.i.210, 217). I'd like to go back to the unreasonable laws we spoke of in The Comedy of Errors and will see again in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Navarre's edict is a law against Nature. It takes the whole play to rebalance.

Coincidentally, I am reading Karen Armstrong's Through the Narrow Gate about her pre-Vatican Two training as a nun, and the denial of everything natural -- mind, love, sleep, speech, culture -- puts me in mind of John McCain's Vietnamese prison experience, but it also has an eerie gloss on the program of self-denial Navarre is proposing. But we soon get the absurd. Navarre, to keep the letter of his oath, necessarily admits the embassy from France, but pitches a tent for the Princess and her train in a meadow, where the deer/dear and the antelope play, outside the palace. "Oh, what fools," quoth Puck.

Berowne falls in love with Rosaline, "O, and I, forsooth, in love!" (III.i.174), and in a play stuffed with comic catalogues of language, spins out a marvelous series of parallels for Cupid's whipping boy. But what do you gentlemen do with his description of Rosaline as "Among three to love the worst of all,/ A whitely [not, note, the conventional "fair"] wanton with a velvet brow,/ With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes;/ Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed/ Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard"(III.i.195-99)? A Dark Lady?! Or ugly? Certainly promiscuous. Is this Shakespeare of the Sonnets? Or does it show that the witty and wittily insightful Berowne is even more than the others subject to the forces of nature just as Costard is?

We might combine to "direct" Act IV, scene iii, with Berowne up the tree. Wonderful dramatic irony as we see the gentlemen reading (artificial) love poems, until Longaville exposes Dumain, then Navarre expose Longaville, and Berowne climbs down to expose Navarre, then here comes Costard with Berowne's love poem -- all forsworn. At last, Navarre asks good Berowne to prove "our loving lawful" and the response, "To fast, to study, and to see no woman--/ Flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth" (IV.iii. 288-89) leads to what I think is the key to the play, "Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, / Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths"(IV.iii.358-59).

We still have to get by the Muscovites, but that seems to me to be but a play within a play. No, it does not prove the men forsworn again. The ladies switch favors and wear masks. The men pay court to the favors (re: assumptions and therefore mistaken identity), thus to the wrong mistresses. I have used an observation by Parolles, of All's Well That Ends Well, "Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?" on much Restoration Comedy, where it is easy to trick a person who is innocent of necessary information, and that happens to the "Muscovites." (For me, it also illuminates how the innocent Othello can so easily be duped by the calculating Iago -- innocence is vulnerable). The plot against the Muscovites lets the bright and witty ladies even the score -- for having to sleep in that tent? -- "There's no such sport as sport by sport o'erthrown" (V.ii.153).

More telling about the gentlemen's characters is how nasty they are to the "rude mechanicals" trying to put on the pageant of the Nine Worthies. They are still trying to display their superiority, "to dash [the entertainment] like a Christmas comedy," having failed at ascetic study and love poetry. "We are shame proof," says Berowne. Well, they shouldn't be, this late in the play, and Holofernes correctly rebukes their jeering: "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble" (V.ii.629). The movement from artifice to nature and grace is not quite complete. Bring on the Cuckoo and the Owl.

Post Script: I note that I have read Love's Labor's Lost twice before, but not since 1978 when I was reading Comedy with Cyrus Hoy in Rochester. I remember seeing two productions, one as a teen in the '50s in, I think, Newcastle, England. It showcased young Michael Redgrave as Berowne. It certainly had traveled up from London, but I don't remember whether it was an Old Vic company or not. I have no program for it. There was a notable Peter Brook production about this time, and maybe this was it. I vividly remember Armado tipping Costard a three-farthing piece to deliver a letter to Jaquenetta. "There is remuneration" (III.i.131). Costard thinks the coin itself is called a "remuneration," and indignantly goes on and on like a waitress with only a 5% tip. Later Berowne gives Costard a shilling as "guerdon" (reward) for carrying another letter to Rosaline, and Costard waxes ecstatic at the economic superiority of a "gardon" over a "remuneration." He still, being illiterate, misdelivers the two letters, a part of the plot that does not seem to go very far. But note that my seventeen-year-old mind, faced with Love's Labor's Lost, retained this comic bit for more than forty years. My sister, eight weeks after brain surgery, is still in the hospital, and I was talking with her about this first encounter with the word "remuneration." She replied that her first encounter with it was in LaPorte, Texas, when a gym teacher told her she did not teach for the remuneration, but for the joy of physical activity. At that point, I knew my sister would recover completely.

The other production I saw about five years ago at the Denver Center Theatre. They used a young cast, none of their war horse actors, and the production was very pretty, all pastel costumes on a set that had a tree for Berowne to climb and a pond to dunk someone in. The lines were very well spoke. I began to forget it before the curtain call was over.

Sorry, this didn't argue as much about structure as I hoped.


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