I’ve been a bookworm all my life. Over the years I’ve acquired a number of related qualifications: a degree in English Literature, an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies, and a doctorate I’m still working on. I’ve read and enjoyed some of the biggest heavy-weights in the canon: James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory, and others too numerous to mention. I’ve got a chuckle out of Chaucer, forgotten a year’s worth of Anglo Saxon, and I scoff at those who find Shakespeare hard to read.
Except – and this is hard for me to admit – Love’s Labour’s Lost defeated me.
My only excuse is that I made a poor choice of edition. I was doing a lot of travelling at the time and couldn’t find a good individual printing, so I eventually seized up a copy of the complete works that once belonged to my uncle Gerry. It’s a bare utilitarian edition, with no footnotes, gloss, or help for the reader aside from a slim glossary at the back and a bare paragraph of introduction, warning me that ‘numerous topical allusions in the play make many lines hardly intelligible to a modern reader.’
I would have paid more attention, but I had good memories of Love’s Labour’s Lost in the last film version I saw, the splendidly cheesy Kenneth Branagh movie which attempts to blend Renaissance comedy with 1930’s movie musicals. The film was a box-office flop, but as a lover of Fred Astaire, William Shakespeare and Ginger Rogers, I’m squarely in the centre of the film’s tiny target audience. Which makes me feel smart.
Lulled by this false sense of security, I opened Love’s Labours Lost to confront Shakespeare’s expectations of his actual target audience – the classically educated, rhetorically aware courtiers surrounding Queen Elizabeth, compared to whom I am just another humbled, baffled groundling.
As the play begins, King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three courtiers are about to commit themselves to something that sounds distressingly like my PhD – a three year course of intensive study, augmented by fasting, enforced chastity, and sleep-deprivation. Their dedication is immediately put to the test by the arrival of the Princess of France and her three courtiers – and everyone rather conveniently falls in love with everyone else.
That’s the rudiments of a plot complicated with many misplaced letters and silly accents, obscene renaissance wordplay and obscure Latin puns. I sympathised most with Anthony Dull, a watchman, who certainly gets one of the best lines:
Holofernes: Via, goodman Dull! Thou hast not spoken no word all this while.
Dull: Nor understood one neither, sir.
Not that there isn’t a lot to enjoy about the play, but it would have been a lot better served in a better annotated edition, or in a luxurious illustrated copy to match the extravagant verbal artifice: the ‘taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical’ in which the play delights and abounds. The small print and tight margins of the edition might have lured me into the world of a bleaker, darker play, like Macbeth, but I found it insufficiently expansive for the comedies.
It was something of a relief to get to the ending of the play, which has puzzled critics for centuries. Just as it looks like everything is going to wrap up with multiple weddings, in the familiar manner, a messenger bursts on stage to tell the Princess of France her father has died, and she must come home at once. It’s an entrance that shocks the characters to their metatheatrical core: ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play,’ as one complains to the other. ‘Jack hath not Jill.’ And then, thank goodness, the play closes with a musical number for a bit of light relief.
It would be remiss not to mention the missing sequel, the fabled Love’s Labour’s Won. Did Shakespeare actually write it? Or was it simply an alternative title for an entirely different play? Love’s Labour’s Won has been identified at various times as The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida and As You Like It. There’s still an infinitesimally small chance it may yet turn up in some dusty, abandoned and ill-catalogued archive by the end of my Year in Shakespeare project to put me even farther behind than I already am. To be blunt, the possibility doesn’t exactly fill my soul with rejoicing. The idea of reading of the further adventures of King Ferdinand and the Princess of France fails to give me the same breathless anticipation as, say, the trailer to the most recent Star Wars movie. Maybe I should stick to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!