Monday, February 27, 2006

RE: Love's Labor's Lost - Structure

Lost Boys,

I have declaimed against Love's Labor's Lost for its lack of plot; Gil found plot in "the dramatic tension in the noble plot," in their "journey from the artificial to the natural." I like this characterization. Anne Barton in the Riverside Shakespeare substitutes "reality" for "nature" in her argument that the men in the play must "learn something that the women have known all along: how to accomodate speech to facts and to emotional realities, as opposed to using it as a means of evasion, idle amusement, or unthinking cruelty" (177). She concludes "the gradual revelation of ... why the women must reject their suitors and demand a resolution outside the limits of comedy, is the main business of Love's Labor's Lost: in fact, its plot" (175). (Just because Love's Labor's Lost has lost the name of "action" doesn't mean it's not there, I guess.)

Both these subtle plots, Gil's movement from artificiality to nature or Barton's movement from "fatally self-indulgent," shallow, untrustworthy wit to reality, satisfy my need for a sense of motion in the narrative. And while Love's Labor's Lost may not follow a conventional (was it conventional in 1594, Ernst?) comic chaos-to-order structure, I notice a number of characteristics which indicate a more formal attention to plot. For one, we have peripeteia, or reversal of fortune. Here, it comes at the end of the play rather than at the the beginning or middle when the men -- convinced that all their word play and heartfelt sonnets will get them their Jills, every man Jack of them -- discover that their hopes will go unrealized for a least a year. Certainty to uncertainty: reversal of fortune.

Second we have a mild form of anagnorisis, or the recognition of something unknown. I think this begins with the Princess's balloon-puncturing:

"We have received your letters, full of love;
Your favors, the ambassadors of love;
And in our maiden council rated them
At courtship, pleasant jest, and courtesy,
As bombast (!) and as lining to the time.
But more devout than this in our respects
Have we not been, and therefore met your loves
In their own fashion, like a merriment." (Signet, 5.2.778-785)

Reading this I was surprised. At no time in the previous 5.1 acts and scenes did I get the impression that the men weren't sincere. They may be artificial and out of touch with Nature, but they seem to truly believe they are in love. Why else would we get Berowne berating himself: "What? I love? I sue? I seek a wife? ... Go to, it is a plague / That Cupid will impose for my neglect / Of his almighty dreadful little might" (3.1.191, 203-205). The Princess's "we didn't take you seriously" statement then divides the world into self-indulgent wit and serious wooing. And it is at this point that the men begin to see the difference.

I would point to Rosaline's further articulation of the difference:

"A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it." (5.2.862-864)

The men's wit has been entirely self-indulgent, jokes that leap off their tongues with hands in the air squealing "me, me, look at me!" Rosaline proves that wit should serve a purpose that is more self-less. And this is a revelation, even to Berowne who has earlier backed up the Princess's criticism of Ferdinand:

"That sport best pleases that doth least know how,
Where zeal strives to content, and the contents
Dies in the zeal of that which it presents." (5.2.515-517)

(This is also something of an irony, given the intricately rhetorical and often frivolous nature of the play in which these broader points about humor are made.) Rosaline's task for Berowne insists that he fully come to know something he has not -- the role of comedy in a suffering world. She sends him away not only for a year secluded from her but to a hospital to,

"... visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile." (5.2.853-855)

I think I've seen the sequel; it's called Patch Adams. Robin Williams is a lousy Berowne. Anyway, in keeping with Drs. Findlay and Barton's interpretations, the things unknown here are internal. The men do not know either themselves (which they will come to know, as Gil points out, "through the medium of love") or the proper balance of their artifice and the world's reality. But by the end of Act V with both peripeteia and anagnorisis in evidence, Love's Labor's Lost has satisfied Aristotle's expectation for comic mimesis. And once again, as with Comedy of Errors, we have a Shakespeare play that in the midst of frivolity peers more deeply into the well of human nature than one might have expected.

I deposited three farthings in the pedantry bank for the three big words I used here. THERE's your remuneration.


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