04 March 2013

Love's Labour's Lost

Love's Labour's Lost...or why you shouldn't make an extremely definite resolution to live a life without the opposite sex when a group of women are coming on a state visit.

That's correct. Ferdinand, King of Navarre, decides one day that this is the time for him and his best friends to spend three years as ascetic scholars: much study, little food and some serious fasting, hardly any sleep, and no women!

Unfortunately, this decision coincides with the arrival of the Princess of France, and her ladies-in-waiting. Ferdinand decides that he simply can't have them staying at his home (too much temptation!), and kindly offers her tents in his park.

The best laid plans, of course, go awry. The king and his men fall head over heels for the ladies, and after much sneaking around and sending love letters and trinkets, eventually settle on breaking their vows and speaking frankly with their ladies.

The ladies have also fallen in love, but feel that the men really deserve some teasing and testing for being such idiots, so when the gentlemen show up for a masked party, the ladies swap trinkets to fool the gentlemen into courting the wrong one, just to show them up. When this is revealed, the ladies finally talk plainly with the men. They aren't really happy with the men for breaking a solemn vow just because they showed up (the sudden avowals of love are rather suspect), but nor do they wish to entirely refuse them. Therefore, they demand that the gentlemen spend a year in seclusion, at a hermitage, and if they still then wish to wed the ladies, then they will say yes. The gentlemen agree, and this comedy ends, but not, unusually, with a wedding.

Love's Labour's Lost (there's a bit of tongue-twister) has a unique twist on the happy ending comedy. The ending is essentially happy, since the lovers are united. However, they are parted for twelve months so that the men may prove their love. It's assumed from the conclusion that the men prove themselves and then wedded bliss follows, but of course, one never knows. It's a refreshing change from the sudden tumble into love, followed by matrimony, which is present in most of the comedies. If the parties are all certain at the end of the year, they may have a better chance of true happiness in marriage. But of course, this is a play, and a comedic one at that. Questions of the future don't typically trouble the characters beyond the final scene.

Next play: A Midsummer Night's Dream


"How well he's read, to reason against reading!" Ferdinand, Love's Labour's Lost, I.1.94

"By heaven, I do love, and it hath taught me to rime, and to be melancholy." Berowne, Love's Labour's Lost, IV.3.16

"For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women;
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn;
For charity itself fulfills the law;
And who can sever love from charity?" Berowne, Love Labour's Lost, IV.3.357-365

"Princess: We are wise girls to mock our lovers so.
"Rosaline: They are worse fools to purchase mocking so." Love's Labour's Lost, V.2.58-59

"Berowne: Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill; these ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
"Ferdinand: Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then 'twill end.
"Berowne: That's too long for a play." Love's Labour's Lost, V.2.882-886

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is one of the more popular comedies in the Shakespearean canon. It revolves around two love stories. The first is the conventional story of Claudio and Hero, a couple who like each other fairly well and who are marrying because Hero's father is happy to wed his daughter to Claudio, a favourite of the Duke. The second story involves the lovers Beatrice and Benedick--two characters with witty tongues who tease each other constantly, and, when set up by their friends, reluctantly admit to being in love with each other.

This, like Measure for Measure, is one of the thoughtful comedies. While it is a comedy, and has many moments of absurdity, it also has moments which provoke deep thought. The one that always confronts me is the difference between Beatrice and Hero, who are cousins. Hero's value, both to her family and to her lover, is essentially that of a commodity. She is valued because she is beautiful, lady-like, and virginal, and because she is her wealthy father's sole heir. The moment her chastity is so much as questioned, her value vanishes. Even her doting father briefly turns on her until he is convinced that the accusation is a lie. Her own protestations of innocence serve no purpose until the men who were hired to slander her are found and forced to confess. Her value is then returned, and she weds the lover who had earlier spurned her at the altar because he believed her unchaste.

Beatrice, on the other hand, is valued as a person. She has no parents visible in the story, so she is presumably an orphan. No mention is made of her dowry, and her guardians are her uncles, who would like her to wed, but make little effort to push her in that direction. Her value is found in her character. No one ever dares hint that Beatrice might be unchaste, but her behaviour is far more forward than that of her cousin's. She has nothing to hide, and therefore, everyone admires her. Her wit makes the people around her laugh, and wins her a proposal from the Duke himself, which she kindly refuses. When Benedick is forced to come to terms with his feelings for Beatrice, with whom it has been implied he has already had a relationship, he praises her mind as well as her beauty. When her cousin is slandered by his best friend, he accepts Beatrice's challenge and schedules a duel with Claudio, trusting her judgement more than his. When they decide to wed, it is a mutal agreement and no mention is made of money.

Much Ado serves to illustrate two different views of love and marriage, both of which would have existed in Shakespeare's time. The thought of marrying for love certainly existed, and was idealized, but marriage (particularly among those with property, whose marriages were dictated more by their parents than themselves) was often little more than a business contract. If love came out of it, well and good. If not, well, that was life. One had to have a way to live and a secure position for raising children. Marrying for love is a frequent theme in Shakespeare's work, and indeed, Claudio claims to love Hero when he proposes and in the days that follow. But the moment someone tries to convince him that she's not a virgin, he goes ballistic and publicly shames his bride. He values what she can bring to him, not her as a person. As soon as he is confronted with the truth, he is stricken with remorse and grief, and he makes his apologies, but the fact remains that he was all too willing to turn on the woman he supposedly loved when she appeared less than perfect. Benedict has no such illusions about Beatrice. He knows his own imperfections and hers, and yet loves her all the same, and she feels the same way about him.

I've seen multiple productions of Much Ado: Branagh's film version, a very traditional interpretation from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, and a delightful production set in post-WWII Texas performed by a Portland theatre company. My favourite one, for setting and characterization, was the Texan-style production. The comic sheriff, Dogberry, is perfect as a Texan sheriff. I am, I admit, also very fond of Branagh's Much Ado. Most of the actors in it are quite good, although I could have done without Keanu Reeves attempting to recite Shakespeare, or Michael Keaton's bizarre interpretation of Dogberry.

Up next: Love's Labour's Lost

Favourite Quotes

"Thou wilt be like a lover presently,
And tire the hearer with a book of words." Don Pedro, Much Ado About Nothing, I.1.316-317

"I was born to speak all mirth and no matter." Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, II.1.346

"Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?  
No; the world must be peopled." Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, II.3.262-263

"A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts." Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, V.4.91-92 

The Comedy of Errors

The Comedy of Errors. Two sets of twins, a shipwreck, men of a quiet town visiting a crazy city, and chaos ensues.

The story's background is that once upon a time, there was a family on board a ship. They had twin sons. They also bought a pair of twins as slaves for their sons (it's ancient Greece, so that was considered normal). Then they were shipwrecked, the families divided, and the twins separated from each other, each half of the family believing the other half was dead. The twins were named by each parent left to them, who happened to choose the same names. So now we have two sets of twins: two named Antipholus, who were the sons of the family, and two named Dromio, who were the slaves. They grow up and each Dromio serves each Antipholus. Then one day, the Antipholus and Dromio who reside in Syracuse with the father of the family come to Ephesus, where the other Antipholus and Dromio live, with the mother of the family. It takes most of the play for them to sort out the problems caused by having two of the same man running around town, especially when the Antipholus from Syracuse falls in love with his brother's sister-in-law.

It's an insane play, really. When I saw it performed at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival back in 2004, I nearly hyperventilated because I was laughing so hard. My favourite characters in the show are the Dromios. The version I saw used the same actor for the Dromio characters, so they naturally looked exactly alike. The guy was brilliant. Every moment he was on-stage, he was completely in character and every single thing he did was funny and felt spontaneous. Good show, good actors, obviously a good director. I came home from Ashland with a marionette dragon from one of the gift shops and I named it Dromio.

Comedy of Errors isn't so serious as our last one, Measure for Measure. It's more a comedy for the sake of comedy. And why not?

Next up: Much Ado About Nothing!

Favourite Quote

"I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop;
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself" Antipholus (of Syracuse), Comedy of Errors, I.2.35-38

A brief note on quotes: Sometimes I find a lot of quotes I enjoy, but other times, I don't really discover ones that speak to me. I'll include at least one quote per play, but some will have more than others.