This is not a commentary on my own failed wooing (not consciously, that is), rather, I just finished reading Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and felt like commenting on the end.
I’m twenty-six, but I have never seen this play performed nor have I read commentary on it. I had heard from some of my literary family that the end was a cop-out, but I was told nothing particular.
Now, with a title like Love’s Labour’s Lost one might think that it’s a story sure to go nowhere. But Shakespeare’s titles can be enigmatical — Much Ado About Nothing sounds like it could be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing,” but I think any audience of Much Ado will acknowledge that there’s something of substance there.
But it’s not just Love’s Labour’s Lost’s title that would make you think it’s a story that drives out into the wilderness and can’t find its way to a destination, far more damning are some of the last lines of the play where the King of Navarre says of the plot: “Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day, and then ’twill end.” To which his courtier Biron replies “That’s too long for a play” echoing the audience’s thoughts exactly. Aint nobody got time for that.
So if it needs a year more to wrap up the plot, what significance could we find in the story ending where it does? I think it depends on how it’s performed.
But first the beginning. I laughed a lot while reading the beginning of the play; I had met wit-crackers in Shakespeare before, but never a play so filled with so many, so desperate to be fluent in quick and eloquent wittiness and turning a phrase’s meaning on its head. One of the major themes of the play is the idea of the learned courtier who is skilled in speaking. Characters like Boyet, Biron, and Rosaline entertain us with their skill in quick jest, double-entendre, and casuistry, while characters like Holofernes and Don Armado entertain us with their ridiculous, overblown, failed attempts at learned eloquence.
Much of the play gallops along with quick repartee. In Act I scene i, after Biron has given an eloquent diatribe against book learning comes this quick exchange:
How well he’s read, to reason against reading!
Proceeded well, to stop all good proceeding!
He weeds the corn and still lets grow the weeding.
The spring is near when green geese are a-breeding.
How follows that?
Fit in his place and time.
In reason nothing.
Something then in rhyme.
I think this portion should be performed with very quick uptakes, and then a long pause before the line “How follows that?” as the other courtiers and the audience realize that Biron (like a good and varied comedian) has just broken the rules of courtly cleverness followed in the rest of the play by just throwing out a line of rhymed nonsense.
But while Biron is clever and self aware, Don Armado is ridiculous in his exaggerated courtliness. He’s kept at court for an unaware clown to entertain the more sophisticated with his pompous, ostentatious use of high-born words.
Armado is a most illustrious wight,
A man of fire-new words, fashion’s own knight.
Costard the swain and he shall be our sport;
And we do laugh at him. Everyone who attempts to be fanciful and poetical dreads becoming Armado! Read from his letter as he tells where and when something happened:
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. Now for the ground which; which,
I mean, I walked upon: it is y-cleped thy park. Then
for the place where; where, I mean, I did encounter
that obscene and preposterous event, that draweth
from my snow-white pen the ebon-coloured ink, which
here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest
But this much should be ample, sufficient, adequate and enough, for the beginning of the play. I was going to write about the end and how it should be performed!