9. Love’s Labour’s Lost
In contrast to Comedy of Errors last week, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play I know reasonably well – I’ve seen it a couple of times, read it multiple times and have used one of Berowne’s speeches as an audition speech. Coming back to it, however, I am very aware of the problems it has as a play. I’d even go so far as to include it in the list of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays.’
Structurally this is a very bizarre play. By the time you’ve finished Act 3 you are less than halfway through the play. In fact, Act 5 is longer than Acts 1-3 combined, with Act 5 Scene 2 (the final scene of the play) going on forever and being very cumbersome. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (next week’s play), it includes a play-within-a-play during the final scene. But, unlike Dream, it is neither funny nor interesting! The play spirals out of control as the men of Navarre’s court become more and more estranged from their vow to live a life of quiet study and reject the society of women. The final scene becomes a blur of silliness and infantile mockery before coming to an abrupt end, when the Princess is informed that her father has died! This not only brings the frivolity to an immediate conclusion, but it also puts the breaks on the wooing process, meaning that the four couples part unmarried and with no guarantee that they will ever see each other again. It is for this reason that I would describe it as a ‘problem play’ since it does not fit the comic form of ending with happy couples.
Despite all this, it is a very enjoyable play with some brilliant moments. The scene in the middle, when the four men are each caught composing sonnets to their loves and thus breaking their vows, is Shakespeare at his best. And the playfulness, wit and power of the women in the story is refreshing and immensely enjoyable – they have one-up on the men throughout. Berowne and Rosaline are beautifully drawn characters with a fine balance of care-free wit and sincerity (generally viewed as a prototype Benedict and Beatrice – though I think that possibly devalues their merits as characters in their own right). In fact, the central plot of four men who take unrealistic vows of study and celibacy, who are then immediately undone by falling in love with four women, who in turn tease them mercilessly, is fun, enjoyable and satisfyingly simple.
Where the play struggles, is in the sub-plot. In amongst the court of Navarre, we have the ridiculous Spaniard Don Armado, who I’m sure would have been immensely funny for an Elizabethan anti-Spanish audience but to a modern audience just falls incredibly flat. Similarly, there’s a small bunch of pedantic know-it-alls who think they’re incredibly clever, quoting Latin and the classics (the same group that perform the play-within-a-play at the end). Whilst I can appreciate the comedy from a literary point of view, just with Don Armado, these characters and scenes fall very flat on modern ears. Modern audiences are not attuned to quick-fire word play or battles of wit, nor are they well versed in the classics. So, if I was to direct this play, I’d definitely be tempted to cut these scenes – or at least trim them to their barest essentials.
There definitely is a good play in here and it is one that I have always enjoyed when I’ve seen it. I certainly would be open to directing it, as long as I had the freedom to give it a bit of a dramaturgical overhaul! In fact, I would actively like to have a good play with the script, cutting and shuffling scenes round to see what I could make of it. I like the fact that it is not straightforward and that it appears to be a comedy but surprises you by not ending neatly. I like that it all seems so light-hearted and frivolous but then it ends with the death of a lead character’s father and the male suitors all begging to be taken seriously as lovers. I find this all exciting in its messiness and conflict. So, yes, I would like to direct it, but it may not be a production for the purists!