Love's Labour's Lost

Why This Play?: 

I wanted to try something new for this reading.  First, some backstory: about 10 years ago, I was living in Los Angeles and my parents were out in Scottsdale, AZ.  It’s a roughly 6-hour drive between the two cities, so I would road trip out on occasion to visit them.  During that period, I amassed a number of audio books on CD to help pass the solo drive.  One I picked up on the cheap happened to be the Arkangel dramatized recording of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  I listened to it once on a desert drive, tucked it away in my car, and promptly forgot about it for a decade. [I solemnly swear I’ve cleaned out my car multiple times in that decade, I just always kept hold of it in case I had another long solo drive.]  I stumbled upon it again in recent months, and I’ve been saving it for this blog post.

For this reading, I unearthed my old 2007 Macbook, popped in the CD, and followed along with my written copy.  What a fantastic way for the language in this one to come alive!  LLL is infamous for being heavy on the Elizabethan wordplay, and this really helped with my understanding far more than footnotes could.  I may have to dig up more of these at my local library!  This play is about what happens when four men desist their contact with women, but women happen into their lives anyway.  There’s a stupid, cliché adage that love only comes when you cease to look for it.  The thing is... that's actually what happened that led me to my husband.

So What Happens?:

The Kingdom of Navarre

The Kingdom of Navarre

The stage rises on the kingdom of Navarre.  King Ferdinand is a young and bright-eyed lad, and he’s decided to enlist his best noble homeboys to endeavor a project to better their minds.  The kingdom slows down, turning itself essentially into a monastery.  They’ll forgo the company of women for three years so they can devote themselves to study instead.  Along with that, they’ll fast and barely sleep.  Because that’s the way to truly gain, absorb, and retain all the knowledge, guys!

You totally don't need sleep to focus, right Boo?

You totally don't need sleep to focus, right Boo?

His pals Longaville and Dumaine are totally on board.  They even sign an agreement that’ll hold them to all the King’s crazy conditions.  His buddy Berowne, however, has a bit more common sense.  He claims that he agreed to study with the King for three years and not to leave the kingdom, but he’s not so sure about declining women, food, and sleep for that long as well.  The agreement lays out punishment to be doled out to anyone interacting with a woman during the three years, but Berowne points out that the King himself will break is contract – doesn’t he remember that the Princess of France is scheduled to arrive for on a diplomatic errand?  Oops.  King shrugs and says that if a woman comes to court out of “necessity” that it’s no big deal, so Berowne opts to sign the agreement if the excuse of “necessity” can be used to break the rules.  That's what loopholes are for!

But what will they do to entertain themselves over the three years other than study?  King laughs and says the visiting Spanish knight, Don Adriano de Armado and the clown Costard will be entertainment enough.  And wouldn’t you know it?  Costard enters on cue!  He brings the King a flowery letter from Armado, accusing Costard of talking with a woman after the King’s orders expressly forbid it.  After much bandying about, the King sets Costard’s punishment to a week of fasting.  Elsewhere, Armado confesses to his (far more intelligent) servant Mote that he secretly loves a milkmaid names Jaquenetta.  But he needs to put on a stern face for Costard as he orders the King’s punishment to be seen out.  He whispers to Jaquenetta that he loves her and will meet up with her later.  She’s semi-receptive.

The Princess of France has arrived in Navarre!  But…her crew hasn’t been received at Navarre’s court, and they are forced to camp in a field outside.  She sends her attendant, Boyet, to the palace to request an audience with the King (he can go without an issue, since he’s male).  To pass the time, her female attendants talk of the King’s cronies.  Turns out Katharine once met the dashing Dumaine, Maria has seen the witty Longaville, and Rosaline danced with Berowne.  The first two are more full of admiration than the latter.  The King arrives with his lords in tow, profusely apologizing for his complete lack of manners (all in the name of study!) over making a Princess sleep in a field.  But the Princess is all business; she’s here on a mission.  France wants to regain the region of Aquitaine, which is currently in Navarre’s possession.  The King insists that France owes 100,000 crowns from an old wartime debt, and the Princess confirms that proof of payment will arrive the following day.  They pend business for tomorrow.  As the lords leave, they each separately inquire with Boyet about the ladies: Dumaine remembers Katharine, Longaville fancies Maria, and Berowne has a brief skirmish of wits with the feistyRosaline.  Boyet teases the Princess that the King was awfully admiring of her.

Armado and Mote wax philosophical about love.  There’s even more silly wordplay about prepositions and “hobby-horse[es]”.  Costard joins in the fun as they all argue over the term “l’envoi”, which is basically a poem with a moral.  They practice reciting one about a fox and a goose and whatnot.  Armado hires Costard to be his messenger and deliver a letter to Jaquenetta.  Once he starts on his mission, Berowne also hires him to deliver a letter, but his will go to the Princess’s camp to Rosaline.  Disgusted with himself, Berowne acknowledges that he is head over heels for her.

The ladies get ready to hunt deer in the park around the king’s castle.  The Princess is gathering up her bow and arrow (love metaphor alert!) when Costard arrives to deliver her letter.  Only problem is, he hands over the wrong letter.  Boyet reads aloud Armado’s wordy letter (meant for Jaquenetta), much to the ladies’ delight.  Local curate Nathaniel and tutor Holofernes watch the hunt from another part of the park, engaging in a lot of “learned” language with plenty of Latin thrown in for good measure.  In other words, they are the epitome of academic snobbery.  They barely endure patrolling Constable Dull when he tries to join the conversation.  Jaquenetta and Costard arrive, and she implores Holofernes to read her letter for her.   Again, wrong letter – the tutor reads aloud a love sonnet Berowne composed for Rosaline.  He sees the name of the intended recipient on the letter, and sends Jaquenetta and Costard to take the letter to the King since one of his men is breaking his vows of study.

Berowne wanders around, nervous about how Rosaline will feel about his sonnet.  The king strolls in, and Berowne hides himself away to spy (usually staged with him up in a tree or concealed in a bush for maximum physical comedy).  The King reads aloud a love sonnet that he’s written for the Princess.  Concealed Berowne is quietly indignant at the King’s behavior.   Longaville enters, and the King in turn hides in the bushes to eavesdrop on Longaville’s love complaints about Maria.  And what do you know?  Longaville also hides when Dumaine arrives sighing over Katharine. 


Longaville rushes out to confront Dumaine about breaking their oath to forgo women.  Then the King comes out of hiding to call out Longaville on his hypocrisy, wondering aloud what Berowne would have to say about Longaville and Dumaine’s behavior.  Berowne decides this is the perfect opportunity for him to emerge and lecture all three about being lovesick fools.  Jaquenetta interrupts…with the tell-tale letter.  The King asks Berowne to read it to them, and upon perusing to himself, embarrassed Berowne quickly tears his sonnet to hide it from the others.  Dumaine grabs a piece and proclaims to everyone the mystery letter is in Berowne’s handwriting.  Berowne confesses that he is also in love.  The King worries about the oath they all signed, but Berowne reasons the agreement moot -- the men can all break their oath of study so they may actually learn about life and participate in the world by being in love.  The four men all resolve to chuck their vows and woo the ladies.  The King calls for a show to entertain the ladies as the first step.

Armado has been tasked with devising the revels for the royals.  He recruits Holofernes and Nathaniel to help put on a show.  There are many verbal witticisms, and Holofernes is particularly taken with Armado’s euphemism for afternoon: “posterior of the day”.  Holofernes takes charge, claiming they will perform the Nine Worthies, a showcase of the great world conquerors.  Mote will help out, too. 

The ladies gossip about love letters and trinkets sent to them by the lords.  They’re pleased at the attention, but don’t seem to take it too seriously.  Boyet announces that the lords are heading to the camp, dressed as Muscovites (not the kind of rock, rather people of Moscow).  The ladies decide to have a bit of fun: they’ll mask themselves as well and play coy with the gents.  They’ll confuse their identities further by trading love tokens – the Princess takes Rosaline's, and Maria and Katharine trade theirs.  The Muscovites arrive, fake accents and all, requesting private audience with each of the ladies.  Rosaline (as the “Princess”) turns down their offers of dancing, but allows the King to speak with her apart.  Sure enough, Berowne does the same with the real Princess, Dumiane heads off with Maria, and Longaville mistakenly courts Katharine.  The dudes are all more or less shot down after confessing love.  They escape, tails between their legs, and return dressed as themselves.

I'd decline dancing too if a man thought this was the way to woo me.

I'd decline dancing too if a man thought this was the way to woo me.

The men now invite the ladies into court (*record scratch*).  Uh, doesn’t that mean that the men are reneging their vows?  The Princess doesn’t think highly of men who go back on their word.  When the ladies also hint that they know exactly who those Muscovites were, Berowne gets upset and takes it out on Boyet for giving away their disguises.  There’s about to be fisticuffs, but the pageant of the Nine Worthies begins.  The ladies and lords settle in to watch, and to tease poor Mote as he tries to introduce the Worthies.  Costard is Pompey, Nathaniel is Alexander, Holofernes is Judas, Armado is Hector, and all of them are thoroughly mocked by the lords in the audience to the ladies’ amusement.  Everyone’s having a grand old time, when French messenger Marcade interrupts to inform the Princess that her father has died, and she is now Queen of France. 

The fun is over, and all are solemn.  The King of Navarre grants Aquitaine to the new Queen of France as promised.  She thanks him and rallies the ladies to immediately return to France.  Berowne insists that they can’t go so soon – the men are in love.  The Queen gently informs them that the ladies thought their courting was a jolly game, an amusement.  In light of their broken oaths of scholarship, she doesn’t now if their pronounced love will be similarly forgotten.  The Queen insists she will return to France to mourn her father for one year.  In that time, if the King secludes himself as a hermit and still remains faithful, then she promises she will wed him at the end of that year.  Rosaline make a similar promise to Berowne – provided that he will use his wit to entertain the sick during their year apart (and hopefully be cured of his sharp tongue during that time).  The men are disappointed, but understanding.  Armado receives news that Jaquenetta is pregnant by him, and he vows to spend three years farming with her, building their life together.  To end the pageant, he introduces songs about the promise of spring and the desolation of winter.  Sadness and grief occur, but hope will always return.

Check This Out:

Many people don’t care for the Branagh film that came out in 2000.  But I find it pretty enjoyable.  Maybe it’s because I like Gershwin and Porter.  Maybe it’s because I wholly approve of the heavy edits to the play (you have to toss or shorten so much of the Academics’ and Clowns’ wordplay) to help make it more palatable to the modern audience.  Maybe it’s just because Adrian Lester can DANCE!  Dude pulls off some serious Gene Kelly moves during his “I’ve Got a Crush on You” number BEAUTIFULLY.  Regardless, I think it’s fun and lighthearted (until the end, when it isn’t). 

There’s a lot of talk of a lost play, Love’s Labour’s Won.  Essentially, it shows on a list of titles of plays of performances that Francis Meres saw around 1598.  Some theorize that it’s a lost sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, when the Princess and her ladies return to Navarre after their year of mourning.  Others think it’s an alternate title to an existing play.  In recent years, the RSC put on Much Ado About Nothing under the alternate title.  The two leads performed in that play (as Beatrice and Benedick) as well as in Love’s Labour’s Lost (as Rosaline and Berowne).  Check them out, talking about it here:

Jillian Keenan’s new book Sex with Shakespeare is a must for Bard-lovers.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It’s the memoir of one woman’s exploration of her sexuality (specifically, coming to terms with her spanking fetish) through her take on Shakespeare’s plays.  You mean she looks for personal life lessons through 400 year old plays?  A girl after my own heart!  For Love’s Labour’s Lost, she focused on the masks in the final act, and how it’s easy to jest when we’re wearing them…but real conversations need to occur once they’re removed.

Public Theater in NYC performed a musical version of LLL a couple of years ago, and the cast recording is actually pretty fun.  You can listen on Spotify here.  I like Young Men and Hey Boys (Reprise).

Thoughts & Themes:

Fun Tropes of LLL

1)   Book Learning vs. the School of Life

2)   Academic Pretension (Worth a Pound of Manure?)

3)   The Importance of Oaths – Can They Be Trusted?

4)   Surprise! Love Came to Town

Jumping straight into Trope 4.  There’s a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad cliché: when you stop looking for love, that’s when you’ll find it.  It’s a smug couple’s mantra hated by their single friends.  It’s the platitude that induces massive eye rolls during wedding speeches.  But I think it means a bit more than it so simply states.  It doesn’t mean once you give up on the search for love that some perfect soul mate will stumble across your path due to some weirdo reverse-karma.  Rather, I think it means when you stop focusing so much on your outer life (i.e. putting all your energy into pleasing others) and start working on bettering yourself, you can find fulfillment and love from doing so.  Sometimes it’s as basic as gaining a greater sense of self-love.  Sometimes treating yourself with more care and confidence can make you a person who is more susceptible to attract others.  When you care more about yourself, I believe it’s easier to recognize the good people in your life (and how you are able to be good for them as well). 

Love’s Labour’s Lost is the very literal example of that maxim.  The King and lords of Navarre vow to abstain from the company of women for three years – I can’t think of a more direct way to avoid finding (heterosexual) love.  This period is meant for them to study philosophy and the great thinkers of the world, to better themselves and learn the great lessons of life.  Until, of course, life has other plans.  The Princess of France and her lovely ladies arrive, beautiful specters from the men’s past come back just when they are least expected.  And love, naturally, blossoms.  But how on earth does this play out in someone’s real life?  Personal story time!  [Then, back to themes, I promise.]

Well, dear reader, I am one half of that smug married couple.  My marriage is the proof that when you stop looking for love you find it…but only under the conditions that I laid out above.  When you give up on other’s people’s or society's expectations and cut yourself some slack (and truly mean it), things can get really good.  I’ve mentioned my husband, Bobby, on this blog several times, but always sort of vaguely and in passing.  But this post I realized that the story of how we came together kept popping into my head while reading.

I was young: 23, graduated from university merely a year before.  Starting a career I had stumbled upon, drinking too much, and dating all kinds of bad-for-me dudes (and admittedly, I was bad for them too). I had spent the past few months thinking I needed a boyfriend and being way too involved in a search for one.  To the point where my behavior was so self-involved and immature that I wasn’t a very good friend to my roommates (two college girlfriends).  So much life changed in such a short amount of time, I was bewildered and it showed.  The dénouement of that period was the UCLA Young Alumni Reunion, an annual party at the university for locals who had graduated within the past 5 years.  I went with aforementioned roommates and their friends, but not before drinking too much and eating too little.  I ran into a guy a couple of years older than me, the brother of my sorority sister and a passing acquaintance.  He had a friend with him, a fellow alum that I had never met.  A very cute guy that was funny, obviously very smart, and politely tolerant of my awkward advances.  I drunkenly refused to leave him alone for the evening, swatting him with my purse in (oh, shudder at the recollection) what I thought was a playful manner whenever he got cheeky (he later confirmed it was a weird but memorable flirtation tactic).  I even somehow convinced him and our mutual buddy to give me a ride home that evening (during which I sat on a chocolate chip cookie, squishing crumbs and choco-goo into his backseat and onto my jeans).  This guy politely took my phone number at my insistence.  I did not hear from him afterward.  Surprise, surprise.

That spring of 2005 was when I realized just how ridiculous I was.  Some changes had to occur.  I had spent too much time trying to integrate my college identity into my new grown-up life, and it was not working.  I needed to let those college days go (so many of my friends had already moved on to bigger and better things), and venture further out into the unknown.  Two huge things changed for me during that period.  The first was that I needed to branch out my social life.  I opted to find a new living situation (which actually helped patch up my friendship with those roomies).  Through careful sweeps on Craigslist, I found new roommates that were my age, in a similar precarious state, who were looking to branch out.  Those girls and I became fast friends (still are today as well!), and they were a blessing.  The second thing that changed was that I let go entirely of my desire to land a boyfriend.  By the time summer rolled in, I was in a much better headspace – less desperate to please, more at ease with myself, more open to new people. 

I went out one night with one of my new roommates.  While we were waiting outside of a bar to get in, I noticed someone walking toward me.  This time, I was not drunk.  This time, I was relaxed, confident, just having fun with a friend.  This time, I happened to be wearing the exact same outfit I had worn when I first met him months before.  You guessed it – that guy who never called was heading directly my way.  He approached:

“Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?” 

Ok, so that’s not exactly what he said.  It was more along the lines of, “Hey, remember me?  I’ve been hanging out in that bar across the way and I thought I recognized you.  I tried to call before, but I had the wrong phone number.”  Turned out he inverted some digits when I gave him my phone number at the alumni reunion.  Now, here’s the thing.  I FIRMLY believe that if he actually had been able to call me after our first meeting, I would have screwed up any chance with him.  We would have maybe gotten through one date of me trying to be someone I wasn’t.  Our re-meeting was so different from that strange first encounter.  I was excited to see him again, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself (or on him!) as we chatted that evening.  We bonded over our mutual love of The Goonies, and started dating seriously soon after.  Because I had made the decision to stop putting so much pressure on a search for love, I was able to be more myself around him.  And being myself helped me to recognize what a good person he was. 

This sort of leads me in a back-end way (is there any other way?) to one of LLL’s other motifs.  You see, because I relaxed and took the pressure off trying to immediately jump into a relationship, it also freed me from some of the ridiculous notions I had about what my “type” or an ideal boyfriend should be.  I used to want a man who was well read and liked some of the same books/music/hobbies I did as well (much like my old college boyfriend).  The springtime version of me was still caught up in my own levels of academic pretension, much like Holofernes.  I had an idea of what kind of boyfriend I wanted on paper.

This is the exact WRONG way to date.

This is the exact WRONG way to date.

Summertime me became enthralled with a man who didn’t read.  Seriously, y’all – to this day, Bobby has not even skimmed a short story since the mandatory English course required by his Computer Science major 17 years ago (important caveat – he DOES read picture books to our kids on a nightly basis).  Also, I love music – discovering new bands, going to concerts, analyzing lyrics, and understanding the history of modern rock & roll and all genre offshoots.  Bobby just sort of turns on the radio and nods along to whatever is on.  I had thought those qualities were so important to share in a partner.  We didn’t have a lot of interests in common when we first met.  But we laughed at the same things.  And I quickly realized how much we could learn from one another.  But being with him helped me to see that common interests are way less important than what kind of life you want to lead – having similar ideas about what we wanted in the future was how we knew we could build one together. 

Somewhere in all this written ranting of a blog post, I had a half-formed idea about how I had to let go of all my English major snobbery and just dive into learning about life.  To stop being so clinically bookish about everything.  Something that would tie into the LLL men diving into learning from the School of Life rather than books.  The thought then got away from me when I realized that I write about Shakespeare for fun.  Hmmm.

Lastly, I’ll just say how much I love the ending of this play.  The ending is such a beautiful tie-back to the play’s ongoing concern with vows.  Vows are made only to be immediately broken in Act One’s contract of celibacy (Berowne notes the loophole of seeing women from France out of “necessity” – he only signs because there’s a loophole).  The Queen of France has a valid point in Act Five when she’s concerned about the men’s oaths of love holding strong if they broke their own contract of study so easily.  What more fitting ending could there be than for the ladies to outline a test of the men’s vows of fidelity before marriage can occur?

Sorry, folks – I’m usually a bit more coherent, but it’s been a rough week while I’ve pounded out these thoughts in random 20 minute spurts (while dealing with 2 kiddos while Hubs was out of town on business).  I missed him this week, which is probably why I tied LLL back to our early days.  I’m wondering if I did this play justice.  It’s the most entertaining of the early comedies, and the most interesting in terms of giving the women a lot of power in their roles.  Ultimately, they hold all the cards and are able to easily match wits with the men of learning.  There’s room for a lot of fun interpretative backstory for the actors to work with, as each lover pair has met previously. Just cut some of the Elizabethan wordplay (i.e. the Latin), and it’s still very palatable.  I enjoy it.

Time to dive back over into the Histories; it’s been awhile since I’ve dabbled in that territory.  I just heard from a friend about Trevor Nunn’s interesting production of King John, so why don’t I go with that for the next play?