Shakespeare 2022: Love’s Labour’s Lost

This is the third post in a year-long series in which, week by week, I’m reading the complete works of William Shakespeare, more or less in chronological order. In my previous post, I wrote about Two Gentlemen of Verona.

I don’t rate the play itself very highly. In fact, if pushed, I’d probably argue that The Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona are more interesting for their flaws than this one is for its successes. But it’s in here, the thing I’ve been looking for these last few weeks, the cohesion of the signs of Shakespeare coming into being as Shakespeare. Somewhere between those earlier plays and this one (written mid-1590s?), Shakespeare seems to have arrived at a fledgling understanding of the raising of stakes, and how the raising of stakes can be refracted through different characters at different points in a narrative in order to illuminate a range of thematic concerns.

So, for example, after the initial dilemma, when the three companions swear off the pursuit of love, and after this dilemma drives them to hatch a plot, when the three concede that they may be forsworn and conspire to hide this fact from the King of Navarre, Shakespeare serves up a succession of dramatic concerns whose gravity increases as the play proceeds. Among these concerns? Authenticity, its importance for the health of the soul, the impediments it encounters in social situations. Duplicity, its effects on one’s self-esteem, its toll on one’s standing among others, even when it is considered only as a hypothetical course of action. And, of course, power: its forcing of disparities between like-minded persons, its felt effects on the powerless even in the absence of its exercise. These and related issues all arise in the course of Love’s Labour’s Lost; and although they would not come into their thematic fullness until Shakespeare embarked the Henriad and the great tragedies, credit must be given to the first place in the corpus where they all appear together.

There are other minor pleasures, and other fleeting sparks of the masterworks to come. Consider, for instance, the extended rhyme-off between Brabantio and the Duke of Venice in the first act of Othello: “When remedies are past, the griefs are ended / By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended.” On and on it goes for another dozen lines. It’s impossible, I think, not to hear that exchange as an echo of Berowne’s retort to the King of Navarre when the King implores the three companions to concentrate on their studies:

Why, all delights are vain; but that most vain
Which, with pain purchas’d, doth inherit pain:
As painfully to pore upon a book,
To seek the light of truth; while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile;
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.

Then, too, whenever the pompous Holofernes opens his mouth, it’s hard not to hear some mongrel combination of the condescending Polonius from Hamlet and the dim-witted Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing. And as for the character of Moth, through whom Shakespeare is clearly developing his knack for clownish diversions, I see, again, a mishmash of the playwright’s later forms of amplificatio, here deployed purely rhetorically:

…sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuffed up love by smelling love; with your hat penthouse-like o’er the shop of your eyes, with your arms crossed on your thin-belly doublet, like a rabbit on a spit…

Mercutio lingers within those first few lines — doesn’t he? — when Moth’s words are given over to insouciant repetition: “If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.” But Ophelia is in there as well, I think, when the repetition gives way to fanciful elaboration: “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced; / No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d, / Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle; / Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other…”

At this point, though, I find I have little more to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost in its own right. Its virtues as a self-contained work are less apparent to me than its virtues as an early landmark in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, its signalling that here stands a playwright on the very cusp of something greater than anything he has produced up to now.

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