I was considering choosing The Winter’s Tale as one of the Shakespeare plays to write about for this #Shakespeare200 series, but I have written about that play not once, but twice, only quite recently, and while it is true that these plays are inexhaustible, I don’t know that I have had in the last few months any startling new insight into this play that is worth communicating. And in any case, a series such as this should not consist only of the big hitters – the Twelfth Nights and the King Lears: there should be some advocacy also for at least one lesser known play. And there are a great many lesser known plays that deserve to be better known – the second (and perhaps also the third) of the Henry VI-Richard III tetralogy, the bitter and despairing Troilus and Cressida, and so on. And recently, I have found myself coming round to Cymbeline, the play memorably described by Samuel Johnson as “unresisting imbecility”: I used to think this play was something of an anomaly, but frequent re-readings, and seeing a very fine production of it live on stage, have convinced me that Shakespeare knew what he was up to. Whether we can figure out what Shakespeare was up to is perhaps another matter, but it’s worth making the effort.
But Cymbeline too I have written about quite recently; so the lesser known play I decided on was a very early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost – a play rarely included in anyone’s list of favourites, but one for which I have a great affection. This may well have something to do with the fact that, way back in 1978, on my first visit to Stratford-on-Avon, I saw a production of this play (directed by John Barton) that, even after all these years, strikes me as just about the most perfect evening I think I have ever spent in a theatre: it was lyrical, charming, delightful, funny, exuberant, and, by the last scene, wistful and sombre and sad. While much of this was due to the superlative quality of the production, so deeply satisfying a theatrical experience could not have been based on a play that is merely mediocre: there was nothing I saw on the stage that night that is not present, or at least implicit, in the text itself.
What I particularly remember from that evening, and what strikes me most strongly every time I revisit the play, is the sudden and very decisive change of tonality near the end. After all the high-jinks of the earlier scenes, just as we think we are heading for a happy and conventional boy-gets-girl finale – or, rather, boys-get-girls finale – the messenger Mercade enters, and this happens:
God save you, madam!
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.
I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–
Dead, for my life!
Even so; my tale is told.
“The scene begins to cloud,” observes Berowne, and from this moment to the end, the clouds don’t lift. What had been, till then, a happy and quite cloudless comedy now contemplates that reality from which none of us can escape – death. The boys don’t get the girls – not yet, anyway: the proposed marriages are deferred for a year:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ’twill end.
That’s too long for a play.
And yet, while the change of tone is striking and decisive, it does not seem like something tagged on as an afterthought: the closing scene is, somehow, perfectly consonant with what had gone before, and it is not easy figuring out why that should be. We could, of course, put it down to some mysterious alchemy that, as so often in Shakespeare, defies analysis, but let’s not give up on it so easily: the question is at least worth investigating – how is it that a play so abounding in cheerful major keys could shift so suddenly to the minor in the final scene, and yet not appear disjointed?
It seems to me that, despite this very drastic modulation near the end, the unity of the play derives from the tonality of the final scene providing a sense of completeness: it is a minor key tonality that had been lacking earlier in the play, but the very lack of this key had left a hole that its belated appearance fills.
We had seen the four young men – Berowne, the King of Navarre, Dumaine, Longaville – all, essentially, at play: these are people who are divorced from the messy business of living, and want to keep it that way. In the first scene, they swear, despite reservations from Berowne, to devote themselves to three years of study, living a life of austerity, and secluded, monk-like, from feminine company. That last condition has to be broken almost immediately: a deputation of ladies, led by the Princess of France, appears on the scene, and the men are obliged to meet with them. It is significant that it is the ladies who have come to the men, and not, as in Much Ado About Nothing, the other way round; and it is significant also that the ladies have come on a matter of serious business, the sort of thing the men have been trying to avoid. In most of Shakespeare’s comedies, the ladies are more intelligent than the men, and, indeed, educate the men, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this play.
Of course, the expected romantic attachments all follow, but there is still something lacking. What is lacking is a sense of seriousness. For these young men, life is merely a set of games, such as the oath taken in the first scene which is broken with such ease as soon as the ladies appear. The words they speak – especially Berowne’s words – are full of wit and fancy and clever wordplay, but they do not at any point address reality: language is relished for its own sake, and not for the reality it signifies.
Intermixed with all this are characters from a lower social order – Holofernes the schoolmaster, Costard the clown, Jaquenetta the dairymaid, Nathaniel the curate, and Dull the constable. And accompanying them is a “fantastical Spaniard”, Don Armado, whose peculiar and highly eccentric linguistic extravagance seems a sort of parodic counterpoint of Berowne’s sophisticated wordplay. These characters are, of course, absurd, and very funny: Holofernes, especially, is possibly the most lunatic, off-the-wall character Shakespeare ever imagined. We laugh at them: it’s hard not to. And yet, when they put on a show for the nobles, and the nobles – the men, at least – mock them mercilessly, we feel that something is not right. And Holofernes of all people, possibly the most absurd of all these characters, articulates in an unforgettable line what it is that is not right:
This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.
Never has a reprimand been more just, more deserved, and delivered with a greater innate dignity. The young men, cloistered in their own enclosed world of games, games both with words and indeed with life itself, have forgotten, or, perhaps, have never learnt, how to be generous, gentle, and humble. The ladies, who, significantly, take no part in the mockery, must educate the men: whatever joy and happiness one may find in life, it is a serious business, and, beyond a certain point, one must learn to put away one’s childish things. The tonality that had been missing in the men’s lives arrives with the news of the death of the Princess’ father: those who had refused to look on reality with any real seriousness must now face up to the challenge of the ultimate reality. Whether they will be able to meet the challenge, we do not know: as Berowne, the most intelligent of the men, says, “that’s too long for a play”. But the challenge is set. If the men are to win the ladies, they must prove themselves worthy of them.
Rosaline, the first in the line of Shakespeare’s great female protagonists of comedy – Beatrice, Viola, the similarly named Rosalind were to follow– sets Berowne a particularly demanding challenge:
…You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.
This a real world with which Berowne is not familiar – and from which, indeed, he had tried to shield himself.
To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.
And yet, this is the challenge that he must meet. No more nonsense about taking oaths to live lives of study and seclusion: life is a serious business, and its seriousness needs to be faced. That element that had been so conspicuously missing in the lives of the men is now provided by the new tonality, and there is a sense of completeness.
The play is left unresolved in a sense: whether the men can rise to the challenge set them by the ladies, we do not know; that the challenge is accepted is, however, resolution enough. And, after all the sophisticated wordplay, after all the spectacular verbal pyrotechnics, the play ends with two very homely songs, with simple words, and drawing on everyday scenes. It’s like a draught of fresh spring water on a palate sated with rich and exotic cocktails, and the effect is magical. It is hard to believe that such an effect was created by a young playwright just starting out on his career.
We need not see in Love’s Labour’s Lost intimations of what is yet to come: it is a great work in its own right, and really requires no special pleading.