I have a special affection for Love’s Labour’s Lost: it was the first production I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford back in 1978. The director was John Barton, and the marvellous cast featured Jame Lapotaire and Michael Pennington as Rosaline and Berowne, and Michael Hordern as the perfect Don Armado. It was an entrancing night out at the theatre.
I still remember the impact made by that final scene: it’s surely amongst Will’s best. Suddenly, all those games with words, all those multiple puns and clever rhymes and devious conceits (much of it, admittedly, full of good old-fashioned smut) – they all seem swept away as the characters encounter real emotion: all of a sudden, life appears as something that cannot merely be joked away.
Before this happens, we have a show that a group of locals – including Holofernes, the eccentric but rather endearing Latin teacher – put on for the lords and the ladies (shades here of the later Pyramus and Thisbe). When they are performing their entertainment, the lords – but, significantly, not the ladies – take a delight in making various witticisms at their expense. We, the audience, may even find some of these witticisms quite funny. But Shakespeare had a knack of giving certain characters lines at appropriate moments that give us a completely new and unexpected perspective, and Holofernes, at this point, has just such a line:
This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.
And suddenly, this absurd pedant, who until now had been purely a figure of fun, emerges as a person of real humanity and dignity, and the ever-so-sophisticated lords appear merely boorish. It’s a wonderful line, and a wonderful moment.
Something similar happens with Don Armado. He, too, is an absurd figure, and when it is revealed that he has made the country wench Jaquenetta pregnant, he is subjected to quite a bit of ribbing. But his reaction to it all is admirable:
I have seen the day of wrong through the little hole of discretion, and I will right myself like a soldier.
How easy it would have been for Shakespeare just to have shared the jokes at his characters’ expense! But no – Shakespeare has to search out their humanity.
And there’s that ending, where the expected romances are interrupted by an announcement of death. And suddenly, all trivialities are swept away. In The Taming of the Shrew, it is the husband who educates the wife, but here, the roles are reversed: it’s the ladies who have a more profound understanding of life, and it is they who educate the men. They had gone along with the jokes and the high spirits, but there are certain things that need to be taken seriously: all of life cannot be dismissed as a joke, and the death of the Princess’ father has to be mourned. (There are fascinating glimpses here of Twelfth Night and of Hamlet, where, once again, the question is raised on how the dead are to be remembered if we are to value our own lives. This seems to be a theme that meant much to Shakespeare.)
When the ladies suggest that the men spend the next year nursing the sick, and to try out their jokes on the suffering, Berowne – the most intelligent of the men – sees immediately the true significance of this:
To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.
What is it about these lines that I find so moving? Is it Berowne’s sudden realisation of the essential seriousness of life? At the start of the play, the men had taken an oath (quickly broken) to devote themselves to monastic study. But compared to what they are now being asked to do, that was merely trivial – merely playing games. Here, they are asked to confront reality, to confront life itself: no more hiding behind clever wordplay. And Berowne, before anyone else, sees the gravity of this. Love-games, word-games, even study-games – they are all very fine, but to give any of that any significance at all, one has to engage with life. And this realisation casts everything that has gone before in a completely different light.
And finally, just when we think Shakespeare has played all his cards, he gives us something unexpected: Holofernes & co re-enter, and they recite two poems, one about spring, and one about winter. Compared to all the sophisticated word-play that had gone before, these poems are plain and simple: there is no clever wordplay, and the imagery is taken from everyday life. And yet, these poems contain the finest poetry in the whole play.
(Incidentally, the final enigmatic line – “You that way: we this way” – appears only in the Folio, and not in the Quarto. It is believed that this line is simply the instruction of the stage-manager that has accidentally found its way into the text. But it’s such a lovely final line, that it would be a shame to cut it!)