A Year in Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

IMG_0118I’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 thaIMG_0117t 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!


A Year in Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

51rNEMHE2gLI had been secretly dreading this play. It’s not that I don’t like Much Ado About Nothing, it’s just that of all Shakespeare’s plays, I find it loses the most on the page. Without the live charisma and sexual tension that real performers can bring to Benedick and Beatrice, I get bogged down in footnotes explaining various obscure Renaissance puns – and while there’s some fun to be had in discovering how many lewd innuendos the learned Shakespearean scholar can discover, there’s nothing that kills humour quite so much as having it dissected, analysed and attributed, with references to various learned journals and scholarly works.

I began daydreaming instead of the last time I’d seen it in the cinema, with a beautiful French girl on a hot summer’s afternoon in York…

Ooh! I thought to myself suddenly. I wonder if there’s a screenplay available!

A quick search confirmed that there was a paperback edition of the screenplay of Much Ado About Nothing, a film by Joss Whedon, available for under a tenner. Not only that, but the film itself was available on Netflix. Score!

Much Ado is the tale of two romances, neither of which run smooth. Claudio and Hero have been making eyes at each other for a while, but Benedick and Beatrice cordially detest each other, and exchange verbal barbs each time they meet. Don Pedro organises Claudio’s marriage with Hero and her father, Leonato, and to while away the time until the wedding, composes a scheme to bring Benedick and Beatrice together by making each believe the other is madly in love with them. In the meantime, Pedro’s melancholy brother Don John hates to see a happy ending, and is making plans with his subordinates, Conrad and Borachio, to separate Claudio and Hero. His first plan is to allege to Claudio that Don Pedro is in love with Hero himself; after this fails, he comes up with a more ambitious plan. He arranges for Borachio to seduce Hero’s maid, Margaret, while Don Pedro and Claudio, looking on from a distance, are convinced it’s Hero they’re seeing.

This leads to one of the most gut-wrenching wedding scenes ever written, where Claudio basically walks her up the the altar and then calls her a prostitute. Hero, not unnaturally, faints dead away, and Leonato, Beatrice and Benedick come up with a plan to pretend she’s dead until after Don John’s minions have confessed their treachery and Claudio has shown himself properly repentant. By then, Benedick and Beatrice have discovered the nature of the trick that’s been played upon them – but so inseparable have they grown from one another in the meantime that they agree to marry also, and the whole thing concludes in one of those happy endings that make Don John spit.

Thus far in the project, this is the farthest I’ve wandered away from the actual text of Shakespeare. The director mentions in the introduction that he’s cut it down by about a third, though I’d be hard put to identify any particular scene or passage that got the chop. What’s most striking is the sudden change in texture. This is an example of Shakespeare’s usual terse scene setting, which is merely a scene number and a list of the characters onstage.

Actus primus, Scena prima.

Enter Leonato Gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his Neece, with a messenger.

I learne in this Letter, that Don Peter of Arragon, comes this night to Messina.

Joss Whedon’s screenplay takes a whole page to get to this point, in the course of which we’ve had a precredit sequence that completely alters our understanding of Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship by showing that they had a one night stand before the movie begins; then an establishing shot of black sedans rolling up the street towards Leonato’s estate. Then, only then, the opening scene, laid out in the clear, terse style of the shooting script.


The kitchen is abustle with people preparing food and elaborate punches, among the Beatrice (a few years older than we saw before) and HERO, her cousin, both working but neither clearly members of the household staff (who wear aprons). Beatrice wields a cutting knife, slicing oranges for a sangria.

LEONATO enters with Balthus, his ever-present AIDE. Leonato reads from an iphone…


I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this day to Messina.

And for viewers of the movie, there’s a second surprise. Leonato – Clark Gregg from all the Marvel movies – speaks with an American accent! For those used to the high theatrical English of the Royal Shakespeare Company it’s a very strange moment – but it’s a tribute to Amy Acker’s confident performance as Beatrice that by the end of the scene, it feels entirely natural.

Back to the screenplay. It’s very much a working document, rough around the edges but not without a certain charm. Whedon can’t seem to decide whether to print the rare blank verse sections of the play as verse or prose, resulting in some very odd typography. Sometimes he will let the dialogue continue for pages without an intervention, and when he’s describing the visually spectacular party scene, the result is hardly literary:


A bartender serves drinks. Claudio is surrounded by young men urging him to down a drink, frat-boy style…


People dive in, play about. Some with undies and shirts instead of suits, most with drinks.


On a trapeze, twin sisters perform an intricate, sensuous act…


A couple sneaks down past the back gate with amorous intent.

Excepting possibly the coy use of ‘amorous intent’, none of this language owes anything to Shakespeare – but there is something to admire in its terseness, its easy translation into the visual, and how unfazed it is by proximity to Shakespeare’s deathless verse and prose. There’s something also to be admired in the simplicity of Whedon’s solutions to complex plot problems – his notion that all the characters are simply roaring drunk the whole time certainly has something to say for itself. Another good notion is that Borachio’s behaviour – first scheming to slander Hero, then confessing and repenting all on markedly little provocation – is due to his being in love with Hero himself. This is very clear in the screenplay, but I hadn’t noticed it in the film – partly due to the fact that the actor playing Borachio appears to have only one facial expression.

This is far from the case with Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, who takes up a buffoonish role that offers very slender comic pickings indeed, and makes it genuinely funny. Douglas Adams, who remarks somewhere that there is nothing than seeing a certain type of old-school English actor trying valiantly to ham it up as Dogberry, would surely have approved.

Hard as it is to separate the screenplay and the movie – and I’ve barely tried – there’s a lot to love in both. After seeing so many English productions, it makes a pleasant change to watch one so thoroughly American – and not one whit ashamed about being so. Not to mention how pleasant it is to relieve that sunny afternoon in York, the entertaining few hours in the shade of the cinema, and the stroll through the cool evening streets thereafter…

A Year in Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives. Illustrations by John Austen

After reading Measure for Measure last week in a heavily annotated scholarly edition, I thought I’d take a new tack for The Comedy of Errors and read something designed for pleasure rather than education. It’s hard to get hold of the really, really nice editions on a student budget – neither the city nor the university libraries are likely to put them on loan, and my shelves run more to secondhand paperbacks than illustrated luxury hardback editions.

Fortunately Cardiff University has a handsome, modern and well-equipped Special Collections and Archives division – SCOLAR for short – in the basement of the Arts and Social Sciences Library. I turned up, surveyed the catalogues, ordered a few things and finally settled on a 1939 private press edition, published in New York by the Limited Editions Club.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.

According to the notes in the library catalogue, the book is ‘quarter bound in white buckram over decorative paper-covered boards displaying floral and fruit motifs on pink ground with an abbreviated half title set within decorative border on upper front cover.’ Dr Melanie Bigold, my PhD supervisor, gets very excited by bookbinding, and can use it to tell you where the book was first printed and sold and what the printer had for breakfast that morning – talk about judging a book by its cover! As a complete layman in that field, I couldn’t say much about it – but there’s no denying it’s a beautiful piece of work.

The rest of the book held up to the promise of the cover. I can’t say any of the accompanying illustrations by John Austen ever particularly gripped me, but they were a colourful art deco diversion, and the artist had made the best of it given The Comedy of Errors isn’t a visually spectacular play to begin with. The paper was thick and creamy, the margins generous, the typeface bold and eye-catching. After the Arden edition of Measure for Measure where the footnotes often swallowed up half the page, it was pleasant to be reading something with no critical apparatus whatsoever – the last time that had happened was reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in a Complete Works edition where the text was squeezed in to the very edge of the page with hardly any margin at all. Also – in a first for this project – this edition preserves the original first folio spelling, which adds a wonderful texture to even the less interesting lines of dialogue:

Why prat’st thou to thyselfe, and answer’st not?
Dromio, thou drone, thou snaile, thou slug, thou sot.

The Comedy of Errors itself is a piece of comic virtuosity, the story of a pair of identical twins with the same name, separated at birth and unaware of each others existence, and their identical twin servants, ditto. Naturally everyone keeps mistaking Antonio and Dromio for their opposite numbers – I confess that, without the aid of footnotes or an introduction, I didn’t entirely follow who was supposed to be on stage at once – but I think some confusion is part of the point. After various misunderstandings, during which each Antonio is respectively arrested and committed, the play concludes with the usual scene of recognition, and the family reunited.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives

In addition to having the most complex plot, it’s also the most elaborately poetic Shakespeare play I’ve read so far, even more so than Two Gentlemen of Verona, my previous benchmark. The play is written entirely in verse, and goes so far beyond the usual iambic pentameter that characters speak in rhyming couplets for entire pages – as in the quote above – and sometimes break into longer and more discursive hexameter or octameter lines. This elaborate formal invention matches well with the play’s complex, self-confident and symmetrical plotting. Reaching the final lines of Shakespeare’s shortest play, one feels its kinship to the short, controlled, rhetorically intricate forms the Renaissance revelled in, like the sonnet or the double-sestina. It will never have the popularity of one of the bawdier comedies or the bloodier tragedies – it sets itself out to be admired for its technical artistry rather than its drama or pathos – but as a work of self-conscious literary craftsmanship, it’s hard to think how it could have been done better. Reading it in an edition that was itself a work of high-end literary craftsmanship only deepened this insight.

A Year in Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

Book in one hand, placard in the other!
Book in one hand, placard in the other!

The Languages and Literature collection on the second floor of Cardiff Central Library was the dark secret of my undergrad. When the essay titles came out and the shelves of criticism on Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare emptied as if by magic, I’d abscond to the public library. They’ve a really good range of key texts, the Cambridge Companions and popular histories, and it saved me from having to beg coursemates for books on social media, or hand over an even larger chunk of my student loan to Blackwells in return for a book I was only going to use once.

Last Saturday, I nipped upstairs, located the Shakespeare section – which features an impressive range of DVDs to complement the books – and grabbed a copy of Measure for Measure, the fourth play in my attempt to read all the plays of Shakespeare in a year. It was in the Arden Shakespeare series, the rigorously edited, comprehensively annotated scholarly edition of choice. I was pleased to see no-one had skimped on out-of-date editions. Then I hurried back out the front, grabbed a placard protesting spending cuts and joined the crowd gathering in front of the building, clutching their favourite books in hand.

Cuts are biting hard in Cardiff, and the library service is taking the brunt. It’s usual for cuts to pinch hours and services, but Cardiff’s Central Library, one of the most handsome and best-stocked libraries in the world, has been decapitated. It’s entire top floor, with its local studies collection, has been closed off and mothballed. In addition, it’s lost the ability to open on Wednesdays, it may have to share space with social services, and staff have been warned not to discuss the cuts on social media. Bad enough, but it was the council’s decision to close and sell off seven of its local branch libraries that first mustered the people of Cardiff to gather in protest and make their voices heard. In a previous job as a bicycle courier, I got to know and visit many of those libraries, relishing the time to take a break, use the loo, and cast an appreciative eye over the fiction section. All of them were bright, busy and well-stocked, and all of them will be missed. And so I chose to celebrate an institution where I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours of my life by spending a few more rereading Measure for Measure, a classic story of hypocrisy and overbearing authority. Replace the Puritan zeal of Angelo, the ruler of Vienna, with the neo-liberal zeal of Cardiff’s city councillors, and the tale becomes very timely indeed.

It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – and coincidentally enough, the first Shakespeare I ever saw in Cardiff, performed on an unusual square stage down at the Bay. I was so close to the action that the actors would come and sit in the chair beside me when they were offstage – which, given that it was a reduced company, wasn’t very often. Despite this, the nightclub staging, complete with whiskey bottles (actually cold tea – I tasted) well-reflected the play’s concerns with decadence and propriety. The way the vile hypocrisy of Angelo seeps out from behind his icy facade was aptly reflected by giving the actor the dual role of Mistress Quickly, the owner of a brothel. It was one of those performances that makes someone know and understand and like the play better as a text.

measureIt’s the kind of performance worth reliving in the mind as I make my way through the pages of the Arden edition of Measure for Measure, which was all too clearly designed for scholarly use rather than reading pleasure. The introduction runs to nearly a hundred pages, devoted variously to questions of authorship, dating and sources before finally condescending to offer a few critical notes on the play. Similarly, the footnotes appear in two columns of small print and even then can swamp as much as half the page, forever sending the reader hither and thither after renaissance plays, modern critics and classical manuals of rhetoric. If you’re reading Shakespeare in order to give yourself a cheap library education, however, it’s hard to think of a better edition you could choose. Long may it grace the shelves of Cardiff Library!