Top positive review
4 people found this helpful
Unhappily Ever After
on June 29, 2015
Perhaps you know Shakespeare’s usual method of ending a play: at the end of his tragedies everyone is dead, and at the end of his comedies everyone is married. Not so in this comedy, and that’s part of the charm of “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” It’s an early play in the Shakespeare canon, unique in how it ends, unique in that the voice of Berowne’s is Shakespeare’s own, unique in that the plot is solely Shakespeare’s, and unique too in that the ending sequence of Act V.2 is the longest continuous sequence in all of the Bard’s plays, comprising over 900 lines, or about a third of the play. While the plot itself is a bit thin, the play parodies stuffy intellectuals and overly idealized medieval love stories, and showcases the Bard’s poetical gifts.
The story: Ferdinand, king of Navarre, and three lords make a pact to get away from it all for three years, and devote themselves to quiet academic study and contemplation. At the same time, they vow not to admit any woman onto their premises. This cannot possibly last, and they weaken when the Princess of France arrives (with three of her ladies) to conduct official state business. The king and his three friends call on the Princess and her three ladies, one thing leads to another, and each of the gentlemen falls in love with one of the ladies. In Acts III and IV, things get complicated. Costard, the clown, told to deliver two letters, gets them mixed up. The letter from Armado (a courier), meant for the village hoyden Jaquenetta, is read to the Princess and her ladies. A love sonnet from Berowne meant for one of the ladies (Rosaline) is instead read to Jaquenetta. The schoolmaster tells her to show it to King Ferdinand. She does when, in succession, the young men have caught each other reciting love-rhymes. The most eloquent of the lords is Berowne. Rosaline’s description of him (Act II.1) could be Shakespeare’s self-portait: “A merrier man, // Within the limit of becoming mirth, // I never spent an hour’s talk withal.” In a lyrical outpouring, Berowne says love belongs to study, that women’s eyes are “the books, the arts, the academes, // That show, contain, and nourish all the world.”
In Act V, when all are happily coupled, word arrives that the princess’s father, the kind of France, has died. The gentlemen ask the ladies to marry them, but they, unwilling to consent, impose a penance of a year’s wait. Yes, a year for academic study and contemplation they so desired in Act I, but clearly do not want now. Oh, the irony. Before departing, in Act V.2 (comprising 900-plus lines), they listen in the twilight to the villagers’ songs of spring (“When daisies pied and violet blue”) and winter (“When icicles hang by the wall”)—the cuckoo and the owl. The play ends, without marriage, unhappily ever after, perhaps. A year is a long time. Who knows what will happen? I prefer the Pelican Shakespeare edition for its conciseness, the sparest of footnotes, and the insightful, to-the-point introductions. In this case, it’s Peter Holland of Birmingham University, England, who provides the smart intro. Five stars.