Photograph: Marnya Rothe
by Gabriella Edelstein and Claudette Palomares
Love’s Labour’s Lost, lost?: When Shakespeare is not Shakespeare by Gabriella Edelstein
Post-script by Claudette Palomares
Love’s Labour’s Lost, lost:
When Shakespeare is not Shakespeare
By Gabriella Edelstein
For hundreds of years, scholars have been asking who was Shakespeare. More recent criticism, however, has turned the question into the problem of what. You may ask, does this question even matter? In our culture obsessed with genius figures, asking what we classify as Shakespearean is a question that can potentially topple artistic hierarchies. By turning the question away from biography and towards cultural standards we are able to realise just how much even the concept of Shakespeare has to bear on our notions of literature, the English language, and even Western civilisation as a whole. As someone who makes a point of researching (currently) unpopular Renaissance playwrights, the figure of Shakespeare is a spectre that looms over our notions of taste and intellectual achievement. So when a production of a play like Love’s Labour’s Lost comes to town, we’re given a rare glimpse into what we think Shakespeare is.
Shakespeare wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost somewhere between 1596-7, around the same time he was writing Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and a large portion of the Sonnets. These texts are known for their verbosity, wit, and rhyming couplets. Aside from Love’s Labour’s Lost, they are often schoolchildren’s first introduction to Shakespeare: he’s the winking Elizabethan playwright with one earring who likes to compare people to summer days. This is the Shakespeare who makes your head hurt when you’re trying to take apart his Gordian knot metaphors. This is the Shakespeare who stays in our cultural imaginations; we usually don’t imagine Shakespeare as the dark – and weird – Jacobean playwright of the 1610s. Love’s Labour’s Lost, then, is the ultimate Shakespeare play for a cookie-cutter vision of Billy Wagglestick during the fun years.
Why then haven’t you heard of this play before? Firstly, it’s rather situated within its context. It was written as a court performance for either the flaming beauty Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (the potential young man of the Sonnets), or for Queen Elizabeth herself. LLL constantly riffs on people and places (the French and the Spanish) and the jokes aren’t that funny for an audience who aren’t clued in on court gossip from the 1590s. Secondly, LLL happens to sound like a two-hour sonnet:
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile;
So ere you find where light in darkness lies
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Here one of the King of Navarre’s courtiers, Biron, is arguing that being forced to do what you love takes the joy out of it. The King has come up with what he thinks is a brilliant plan: he and his courtiers shall spend 3 years studying, fasting, and not setting sight on a woman. You can imagine how this one turns out. Enter the Princess of France and her three ladies – there’s one for every male courtier, how convenient. Biron tries to convince the King that this studying idea isn’t that great: the eye (light) looking for knowledge (seeking light), loses its sight (light of light beguile); so, before you find that knowledge you were looking for (So ere you find where light in darkness lies), your love of knowledge evades you because you’ve lost your will to learn (Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes). If you’re the kind of person who gets excited by these sorts of pedantic arguments and wordplay, then this is definitely the play for you. If you found that taster unsavoury, then maybe stick with a blockbuster like Macbeth.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a very funny play, but you really have to listen to hear the jokes. Sport for Jove’s taking on of this largely ignored text shows their bravery, and I was very excited to see what they did with it, seeing as they have been able to take somewhat inaccessible plays and make them fun. Their productions have such a sense of joy and vitality (especially their Twelfth Night) and they have been able to move me to tears during The Tempest. Sport for Jove is able to be consciously anachronistic whilst remaining true to the texts themselves, which is difficult to achieve. For this reason, I thought the company would do justice for this neglected play. Whilst the production certainly embodied the spirit of LLL, by the end of the two hours’ traffic of the stage, I was asking myself whether this was even Shakespeare I was hearing.
Damien Ryan’s vision of Love’s Labour’s Lost was certainly creative, especially in his modifying of the male courtier Longaville into a pants-role in disguise. He took a golden opportunity to make a statement about marriage equality in Australia, but, he did so at the cost of the playtext. By making huge cuts in order to put in additions that aren’t from Shakespeare’s quill, I wonder, is this really Shakespeare? If he could have made the statement without having the changed the words of the play, then I think it would have been a greater theatrical achievement.
L-R: Curtis Fernandez (Dumain), Edmund Lembke-Hogan (King Ferdinand of Navarre), Gabrielle Scawthorn (Longaville) and Tim Walter (Biron) (Photo: Marnya Rothe)
For all of Ryan’s political creativity, he also somewhat let down the audience in the assumption that they can’t understand elements of the play. As mentioned earlier, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a particularly sonnet-ridden play; Shakespeare wrote new sonnets that his characters read out in letters to their respective beloveds. In this production, Ryan cuts these sonnets and replaces them with the old faithfuls, ‘Let me not the marriage of true minds’ and ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, and then quite out of the blue, Lord Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’. Was this done under the assumption that the play would be more accessible if the audience heard something they already knew, or done as a way to show how Shakespearean this play is? By clumping together parts of Shakespeare, this production essentially espoused the message our culture has of Shakespeare in general: it’s all the same anyway, so let’s just pick and choose what we like and mix it all together because everything sounds similar.
So what is Shakespeare? It’s any rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter. It’s also Lord Byron, as it turns out. Shakespeare is anything we consider high culture, it is also any political statement we want to make, Shakespeare is an amorphous mass of words and images that clearly can be anything we want it to be without actually using the words that came out of some dude’s quill (or the printing press) 400 years ago.
I am not advocating for Shakespeare’s plays to only be portrayed in historical isolation. One of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen was consciously anachronistic: Cheek By Jowls’ placement of Measure for Measure in contemporary Russia – with the creepy-bureaucrat-rapist Angelo stylised as Putin – was a stroke of genius. This was a playworld that expanded the perimeter of the original text, but within the limits of Shakespeare’s script. This is what a Shakespeare production should do – because in all honesty watching an “original practices performance” is like watching the seventeenth century sterilised with Betadine. I acknowledge that directors need to make choices to cut sections of the text that don’t fit inside their vision, or have to go because they’re just tedious, but is it a Shakespeare play when you re-write swaths of text? Putting new words in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets does not Shakespeare make. As Claudette asked quite adroitly during our discussion, “Are we seeing Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, or are we seeing Love’s Labour’s Lost, an adaptation by Damien Ryan?”.
Sport for Jove’s production certainly wasn’t a situation of Love’s Belaboured Dross, it was a lot of fun and well acted, designed, and thought out. Perhaps I’m just one of the pedants that Love’s Labour’s Lost does such a good job of sending up, but, when I go and see a Shakespeare, it’s Shakespeare that I’m expecting to hear.
—Gabriella Edelstein, December 2015
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by Claudette Palomares
In his show notes for Love’s Labour’s Lost, Sport for Jove’s (SFJ) Artistic Director, Damien Ryan, writes of the play’s “completely void stage history in this country”, leading him to speculate that he is the lonely figure for which the play is a favourite of all of Bill’s comedies. Whether his speculation is true or not, Ryan’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, performed on the new open main-stage at Bella Vista Farm is a fine argument not only for more frequent mounting of the play on Australian stages, but also as an excellent introduction for neophytes and those for which the appeal of the Bard still remains elusive. Be warned: SFJ’s is a lengthy production. Beginning with a thirty-minute theatrical aperitif – Josh Lawson’s droll short Shakespearealism – a night with SFJ’s Love’s Labour’s Lost clocks in at more than three and half hours. Yet the three and a half hours that SFJ asks of its audience runs at a splendid pace, thanks to some truly inspired comic turns, Ryan’s boundless directorial imagination and the general effervescence of the entire SFJ team.
One of the most interesting aspects of the play – and Ryan’s vision of it– can be found in its representation of women. Those of us who fell in love with Shakespeare by way of Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing will find similar charms in the Princess of France and her triumvirate of witty maidens. In the play’s text, Shakespeare affords the ladies of Love Labour’s Lost a considerable amount of agency – much more than the general female character of his ouevre. In comparison to the King of Navarre and his courtiers, the Princess of France and her companions are wordly and wry. Indeed the men of the play seem hopelessly naïve. Firstly, in their hapless – yet distinctly self-aggrandising – vow to an ascetic ideal which, from the outset, seems doomed for failure. Secondly, by rushing headlong into a campaign of wooing that proves similarly unfruitful. In contrast, in her very first line, the Princess of France rejects chaperone Boyet’s attempts to enflame her vanity by complimenting her beauty:
Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues:
I am less proud to hear you tell my worth than you much willing
to be counted wise In spending your wit in the praise of mine.
She and her companions react with similar asperity to the honeyed words of their would-be woo-ers. For these four women, the pursuit of love is most akin to the sport of war, where wit is the weapon of choice. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, each woman is much more skilled in the arts of such warfare than her male counterpart. As the Princess declares, in merry war cry:
There’s no such sport as sport by sport o’erthrown,
To make theirs ours and ours none but our own.
So we shall stay, mocking intended game,
And they, well mocked depart away in shame.
By the end of Act IV, Navarre, Biron, Dumaine and Longaville are all enflamed – maddened even – by the idea of love and all its torments. In comparison, the Princess of France, Rosaline, Katherine and Maria never lose their equanimity or clear-sightedness on the affairs of the heart – at least, never for any prolonged moment. Even at the play’s last moments, the Princess and her companions resist the most fervent attentions of their lovers, which they view as the methods by which men control women. Ever skeptical of the men’s protestations of true love, each women wheedles from their lovers a vow of a year’s separation by which each man must prove his fidelity through acts of selfless charity. The play never resolves this last question-we are never given any conclusive proof that any of the lovers will see each other again. The fairy-tale ending that we are so accustomed to is never fully realised, making this play, among Shakespeare’s other love comedies, a most unique specimen.
L-R: Lara Schwerdt (Maria), Emily Eskell (Princess of France), Sabryna Te’o (Rosaline) and Madeleine Jones (Katherine) (Photo: Marnya Rothe)
In his production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Ryan both expands on this theme of female agency, while also arguably diminishing it. Take for example, a key scene at the beginning of Act IV. In the play’s text, the Princess and her companions are hunting deer, an action which reveals and comments upon the Princess’ unique position of power and privilege. Yet in Ryan’s production, instead of hunting, the women are passively sitting for a portrait. Instead of Shakespeare’s intended words, Ryan gives the Princess a monologue (presumably not from the original text) about the objectification of women: both of their bodies and their symbolic presence as pawns of powerful men. Ryan underlines this scene by adding a profuse number of empty picture frames within the set, as well as a giant picture frame that encloses the four women as they sit for their portrait. It’s a very visually acute moment that Gabriella and I both felt made pertinent points, albeit in quite an unsubtle way. We also felt that the complete omission of the Princess’ chaperone Boyet meant the elimination of one of the play’s wryest, truest and funniest voices, as well as the only male character that has any real notion of what is really going on. Perhaps the elision of Boyet was to give the Princess and her friends more levity and freedom in their behaviour onstage. Yet as a result, the Princess and her friends are frequently seen in a most unladylike light. In Ryan’s production, the ladies scream, giggle, taunt and fight like a gaggle of high-spirited teenage girls. Gabriella disliked this directorial choice, feeling that this behavior undermines the women’s authority and agency afforded to them in the text. In contrast, I rather liked Ryan’s characterization of these women. From my perspective, Ryan makes these characters feel modern and relatable, much more akin to behavior of real, warm-blooded women than the portraits of women by Segar and Gower that often form our notions of femininity of the period.
In her essay, Gabriella writes wisely and wittily about the problems of Ryan’s production which resembles not so much a true mounting of the text so much as an great adaptation of it, thanks to Ryan’s judicious edits. Yet I do think that, despite this, Ryan stays true to the esprit of the play- or at least how I have come see it: a coming of age play about the snares and variability of love, as well as the essentialness of being part of the world in order to come to any real understanding it. The King of Navarre and his friends have seemingly noble intentions: to live the life of an ascetic, utterly removed from the sensualist world in order to pursue the very heights of intellectual flight, and by doing so, achieving fame and general transcendence. Biron protests this vow from the beginning, but it is only when the rest of the men are already tipped by the brush of love do they start to comprehend his protestations:
For where is any author in the world
teaches such beauty as a woman’s eye?
Learning is but an adjunct to ourself,
and when ourselves we see in ladies eyes,
Do we not likewise see our learning there?
By enclosing yourself away from the world, one ceases to really, truly live, and without living, there is no real learning – least of all, the learning of one’s own self. It is only when we inhabit the world and face its pitfalls and possibilities for disappointments that we come to an understanding of the world and our own hearts. This is the lesson that Navarre and his friends ultimately learn.
Similarly too, the Princess also comes of age. Before the plays’ final denouement, Navarre, the Princess and their friends are in the midst of a rambunctious war between Costard and Don Armado over the hand of Jacquetta. This gaiety is quickly wrung out by the sudden news of the Princess’ father – the king’s – death and subsequently, the Princess’ new role as Queen. Like that of her real-life counterpart and inspiration, the future that the Queen of France faces will be fraught with danger and edged with vipers at every corner. So from a spirit of joyful frenzy, the play moves to a much quieter, sombre end, where many vows and much promises are made, but where no bliss is found – no consummation realised. The great age of merriment and youthful love is over: boys have become men, young princesses, queens and Don Armado is to wed. At the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost and encroaching even the hallowed land of Navarre is real life, waiting to be lived.
—Claudette Palomares, December 2015
Sport for Jove’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost runs at Bella Vista Farm until December 30th 2015 and at Leura Everglades Garden 9- 24th of January 2016. For more information click here.