Saturday, February 18, 2006

RE: Love's Labor's Lost - Some Reactions


First, thanks to Ernst, whose opening really focused my reading of Love's Labor's Lost in ways that I would certainly have missed, and not just for the little side trip to the corner of Lyly and Euphues, but for the contentions that Love's Labor's Lost is self-mocking and mature and exists for "exuberant playing" with language and rhetorical style. (You'll have to give me a few more sentences though, Ernst, on the "'fourteeners' of mid-century drama," because I know not to what you refer.)

A word about maturity. When I left Carleton, I felt I'd gotten pretty good at this writing thing. I got a job as a theater critic, paid by the inch in some circles, so I learned to use a few big words, though not as big as "euphuism" and "stochiomythic." I also spent a few weeks sitting in the dining nook of my first post-college apartment, banging away at a 35-pound typewriter, trying my hand at a few short stories. I was certainly no Shakespeare; what marked this period of my writing "career" is how absolutely derivative it was. Everything I wrote was, consciously or not, an imitation of my collegiate reading. My fiction, minimalist to a fault, could have been mistaken for Raymond Carver. And my criticism owed enough to Kenneth Tynan that I should've taken out a loan to pay him off.

Thus it was with some sense of familiarity that I read Love's Labor's Lost, a play in which the entire subject matter seems academic, inspired by a different sort of world than the other plays, an interior one of books and fellow playwrights and technique. Given the attention to Latin, the scene after scene of word-play for word-play's sake at the expense of any plot, and the imitation of his contemporaries' rhetorical stylings all seem to be the work of someone fresh out of King Edward VI Grammar School or the Stratford Free School, report card sticking out of his doublet reflecting an "A" in Latin. Even the aristocratic language, while ostensibly focused on love and beautifully wrought, is about wit rather than wit in the service of a character's passion.

Look at Berowne's soliloquy in 3.1, in which he frets about his new subservience to Cupid:

"This whimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
This senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid,
Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
Th' anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Leige 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 colors like a tumbler's hoop!" (3.1.181-190)

I count nine (9!) appositives, roiled by rampant alliteration and love-struck Romeo-esque oxymoron.

(As an aside, I agree with Gil that Berowne's reputation for wit seems far greater than his actual practice of it, or at least the display of his wit is inconsistent. Take for example his description of the lovely Rosaline: "A whitely wanton with a velvet brow, / With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes" (3.1.198-199). "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," indeed!)

The sheer quantity of rhetorical flourish here calls attention more to itself than to Berowne's struggle with love. And Berowne is far from the only character to demonstrate wit through the stacking of synonymic words and phrases. Why isn't this just verbal mugging? Do we take pleasure in the lack of restraint, in the ostentatiousness of the wit that serves only itself rather than character or theme? I enjoyed the talent, but found a certain lack of balance throughout the play. Gil mentions Shakespeare's short-changing of the men's "attempt to practice [their] oath" which would have established more of the moral consequences of their being so easily forsworn; instead the breaking of their oaths becomes the object of more wit until finally the Princess's reprimand grounds it at the end.

In addition we have an imbalanced panoply of comic characters: Armado, Moth, Costard, Dull, Holoferness, Nathaniel, Boyet. Each is the sort of character that Shakespeare later builds scenes around, like Dogberry or Touchstone or Belch/Aguecheek/Feste or the gravedigger in Hamlet. In Love's Labor's Lost, such scenes are constructed but they detract from each other; it's just seven clowns trying to squeeze into a tiny car. Five seem okay, but there we are midway through Act IV when Shakespeare stuffs in two more -- one whose humor is based on pedantry and one who provides the pedant's straight man, replete with lackluster puns and pretentious verbiage (Nathaniel's favorite word is "scurrility") -- and, for me, the wheels fall off. I can't tell you the sense of relief I felt reading this play when I got to scenes involving Navarre and the Princess. They were the only ones that seemed to move forward.

Yes, it may be misguided to blame a play that clearly seeks to explore the various shades of wit because it doesn't do something else. But if the play is about wit, what is it saying? Puck teaches us that wit makes fools of fools. Feste teaches us that wit may have roots in sadness ("the rain it raineth every day"). Love's Labor's Lost teaches us that wit is like a rhetorical chess match in which a Ruy Lopez opening results in two nights of tedious verbal banter between a Spaniard and his man, a French defense turns every comment into a bawdy pun (In Love's Labor's Lost, Shylock's rhetorical question "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" would become a joke about loss of virginity), and a Petrov's defense gets us four guys dressed up as Muscovites with bad accents. At times I yearned for the guioco piano.


PS: One last note on Berowne. I enjoyed Gil's pun on the UPS ad, "What can Berowne do for you?" As for pronunciation, though, I've been going with "Beh-RONE" as opposed to "Brown." I think the two syllables are borne out by Berowne himself, when he says pentametrically, "My eyes are then no eyes, nor I Berowne" (4.3.231), a lovely line by the way, given the assonance of "no eyes" and "nor I."

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