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Love's Labour's Lost: Current for Us Today

by Patricia Truxler Coleman
From Insights, 1994

 

According to G. B. Harrison, “Love’s Labour’s Lost is, at first sight, a difficult play . . . [abounding] in inexplicable lines, allusions, topicalities, jokes, and personalities so obscure and unintelligible that they bewilder even the most erudite of commentators.” The editors go on to add that, “as a result critics tend to leave the play to those who are more interested in literary puzzles than in poetry” (Shakespeare: the Complete Works [San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich], 394).

Taken, however, in the right spirit, this is far from true, for this play is as current for us today as it was for Shakespeare’s audience. After all, Love’s Labour’s Lost begins with Biron asking, “what is the end of study?” and the entire remainder of the play is dedicated to answering this question, one which no admirer of the Bard could avoid asking herself for long.

When we consider that Shakespeare had none of the “advantages” of a university education, and that a debauched and fiercely jealous Robert Greene once called Shakespeare “that upstart crow,” we are left, I think, with two important but not mutually exclusive responses to this play. As Harold Goddard has so succinctly put it, “Shakespeare was holding up to ridicule a group headed by Raleigh and supposedly including Marlowe, Chapman, and others who with John Florio thought ‘it were labour lost to speak of Love’” (The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 1 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951], 49).

And as members of Shakespeare’s audience we too find ourselves asking, “what is the end of study?” We are told, as women, that “we’ve come a long way, baby,” but strikes me as interesting that this phrase is part and parcel of a cigarette advertisement. Are we to believe that the “long way” we’ve come is merely the right to smoke with men? Or are we to pose another, far more significant question: Do we have the right--are we in fact capable--of interacting with them on equal intellectual footing? I suspect that Shakespeare had the latter and not the former in mind when he conceived this play.

While Love’s Labour’s Lost is clearly a play written for a Renaissance audience, a special kind of audience which may have enjoyed the pleasure but not necessarily the intellectual companionship of women, it is also, for today’s audience, still a parody of the sort that only Shakespeare himself--the genius of the theatre--would, in the glorious and uproarious language of farce, teach us where we have erred. Surely, we must conclude that Shakespeare would assert that the end of study is to know life, not abjure it. We have only to look to Rosalind from As You Like It to see the answer: she is, like so many of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines, the teacher, and the man is merely the pupil.

So let us begin with the essential problem of the play: what is a life of study. For the characters in Love’s Labour’s Lost it is, on the one hand, simple: see no women, eat but one meal a day, and sleep only three hours a night. In other words, it is to be a monk, an idea with which Shakespeare, who was so fond of advocating the advantages of reproduction, would clearly take issue. Thus the play is contentious: what does it cost to be an “intellectual” and is that life possible in a vacuum, especially in a feminine vacuum?
Yes, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play which excludes those normal, human, and, I would argue, necessary pleasures in order to achieve the life of the mind. But can this be done? Shakespeare’s answer here is simply “no.”

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, when Shakespeare, the man of moderation in all things and always the proponent of our serving our place in the great chain of being, will answer profoundly, albeit here with parody, that life without women, food, and sleep is no life at all.

Here Shakespeare anticipates what he so brilliantly works out in his future plays: women are not just a mere appendage to the universe; they are essential. After all, where would this “studying” go if men abjured women permanently, thus not reproducing but taking their great “labours” to the grave.

Here again he shows us, in a rather liberal way for a Renaissance man, that the world is compounded not only of well-schooled men but of both thinking men and women. To leave the women out would result, as we are shown here, a forgotten but unforgiven legacy that seems to cost everything and produce nothing.

What this play is really about is the final cost for all of us who attempt to divorce head from heart and heart from head. Clearly, we cannot go raging without reason into love, and Shakespeare would never advocate that. That’s what we learn in As You Like It, where Orlando and Rosalind’s infatuation must go through the Shakespearean formula: love-at-first-sight, followed by a test, and resulting in a lasting, life-long commitment. But equally clearly we cannot go raging into love, head without heart. That’s what wars and sexism and racism are all about.

So, Love’s Labour’s Lost is no less important a play for us today than any of Shakespeare’s others. It requires us to face the “life of our [own] design” as Alan S. Douner has put it. It demands that we witness what John F. Danly has referred to, in reference to another play, “the fool and the handy-dandy” (Both are chapter titles from Shakespeare: Modern Essays and Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967], ix-x). It insists that the nature of man is not simply the life of the mind. It forces us to face the fact that the life of the mind, a life without wine, women , and song (let alone sleep) is as vacuous as the life of the professional virgin. We must not forget what Viola reminds Olivia of in Twelfth Night, “what is yours to bestow [her virginity] is not yours to withhold.”

And that, applied to this play, is a reminder that the price of Love’s Labour’s Lost is everyone’s—for we cannot afford a universe in which those who can think choose not to do so in any way at all remotely human or in any way that can be shared and thus passed on.


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