Thursday, June 09, 2005

Love's Labour's Lost: Wooing A Bunch of Jacks

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an early Shakespearian comedy; it does not have all the elements of classical comedy down exactly. The characters themselves step outside the narrative to alert us of the play’s peculiarities. Berowne says, "Our wooing doth not end like an old play;/ Jack hath not Jill: these ladies' courtesy/ Might well have made our sport a comedy" (V.ii.867-9), referring directly to the end-without-marriage (note, incidentally, the cool eye-rhyme on line 868—can you imagine how hard it was to write a play in verse?).

To understand my comments, it will help to know a summary of the plot. We are supposed to believe that four ostensibly straight men—the King of Navarre and three members of the court—decide to take an oath of celibacy so that they will be better equipped to focus on their “studies.” Right. They agree not to consort with women on the palace grounds. So suspend disbelief and go along with Shakespeare believing that they actually do want to date the women that come up in the next part.

Now when they take this oath, only one of them, Berowne, does so against his will. He tries to remind the king that the Princess of France is on her way to visit, but the king doesn’t listen. This is an excellent ruse, incidentally. Clearly Berowne is in love with the king. But seriously (or not), when the Princess and her court near, the king has to circumvent his own rule by inventing a way to visit her outside the grounds of the palace.

Well, of course as luck would have it, all four of the men fall for the princess and the women in her court—but the romance of it all is interrupted when the princess learns that her father has died. The women must leave and end the romances for a year—but promise to continue them later…and that’s the end, other than Berowne’s little speech-out-of-character there at the end. (Of course, this stroke of luck leaves them in tremendous relief to their homosexual rompings—which provides the REAL happy ending. But nobody’s supposed to notice THAT, right?)

So what does this mean? Well, it certainly still follows the plot arc of old comedy—up to a point. In the article, “The Structure of Aristophanic Comedy,” G.M. Sfakis proposes a standard narrative structure for Old Comedy: First we see “[v]illainy, lack or misfortune” (129). In the case of LLL, it is a lack the four men bring on themselves (at least ostensibly) when they agree to foreswear women. The second step is the men's “[d]ecision/plan to counteract misfortune,” (129) and in this case we see the plan to “step around” their noble plan of studying. They decide, instead, to bend the rules and meet the women outside the palace grounds. Third in the structure is “[s]ervice or help of a supernatural or quasi-magical helper” (129).

I’m not so sure about this one, though I do see Boyet, who is the attendant to the women, as somewhat of a helper and in many ways a catalyst to building the relationships, since it is his role to joke around with the men and to facilitate their meetings. Fourth in the plot is “[t]ransference” (130). I see this element as crucial to a romantic comedy because it’s so evident any romantic comedy. Here, we see that Costard, the clown, is supposed to deliver letters from the men to their respective ladies, but he makes a mistake and the wrong letter goes to the wrong lady. Number five, “[o]pposition or obstacles” (130), in this play means the confusion over connecting the proper man with the proper lady after the letter confusion. However, ultimately Love's Labour's Lost's plot is problematic because another major obstacle does not get resolved; the princess’s father dies and thus delays the wedding. Thus, the remaining plot elements, “persuasion exercised in debate…liquidation of villainy or misfortune….[and] triumph of hero” are not included (400).

Further on what it all means is to ponder the notion that for thousands of years, we have managed variations on a single form of plot without getting sick of the story. That goes to show us, though, that the form of a story is quite different than the delivery, subject matter, or characters.

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