The Plays We Overlook: Love’s Labour’s Lost
By James Cappio
Why isn’t Love’s Labour’s Lost more popular? Perhaps this “feast of language” is a surfeit for some. Where A Midsummer Night’s Dream has but two romantic couples, Love’s Labour’s Lost has four, plus a love triangle. Where Much Ado About Nothing has but Dogberry and Verges to mangle the language, Love’s Labour’s Lost has linguistic misfeasors: a braggart, a clown, a constable, a pedant, and a divine. Romeo and Juliet’s improvisation of a sonnet when they meet serves an inspired dramatic purpose; when the King and the Princess do it here (Act 5 Scene 2 Lines 343-56) it’s one of eight sonnets in the play, and one can be forgiven for thinking that Shakespeare is just showing off.
But oh, how much richer this play grows with every encounter! The King of Navarre’s ludicrous scheme to cloister himself and his friends and its almost immediate collapse is hilarious. Berowne, the skeptical courtier, is probably Shakespeare’s wittiest character save Hamlet (ah, to have seen David Tennant play them in succession!). Each of the clowns is guilty of a different crime against the language. And at the opposite pole from The Taming of the Shrew, this is a battle of the sexes in which the women definitively have the upper hand. Not just the upper hand, either; this is one of Shakespeare’s filthiest plays, and the women have the dirtier mouths by far.
This is Shakespeare’s most frivolous play—right up to the end when it suddenly turns dark. A messenger “interruptest our merriment” (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 712) to inform the Princess that her father, the King of France, is dead. Et in Arcadia ego, indeed. Just like that, the Princess and her party prepare to leave—but not before explaining to these naïve youths, so easily deceived by the women’s flimsy disguises in Act 5 Scene 2, that they know nothing about life or love. Their “letters full of love” are “[a]s bombast and as lining to the time.” (Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 771-78). The final irony—the Princess imposes the same isolation on the King and his men that they vowed for themselves at the start of the play—is as darkly crushing as it is funny. For as Berowne sums up, “Our wooing doth not end like an old play;/Jack hath not Jill” (Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 862-63. Could the “old play” be A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Puck assures us “Jack shall have Jill/Nought shall go ill”? )
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.