Learning to Speak Gently

Pre-Show Talk on Love’s Labour’s Lost, given at the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival in July 2017.

You are in for a “great feast of language tonight” – for this play is primarily an exercise in playing with words. Normally, a plot is always animated by conflict of some kind. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, nobody’s life is threatened.  No shipwrecks separate families. No parental figures forbid a marriage. In fact, there aren’t any parents on stage in this play. The young people seem remarkably free to conduct their own romances. The only parent-like figure, a man named Boyet, is more of a messenger and co-conspirator than a chaperone. No one flees to the woods.  A nominal conflict between the King of France and the King of Navarre over a loan and a piece of land serves mainly to get the Princess of France to Navarre.

The real conflict is created by the King himself when, in pursuit of “fame,” he decides to undertake a gruelling course of study. In the opening scene, the King pressures his three friends to forego food, sleep, and women for three years. One of those friends, the voluble and contrarian Berowne, complains that these are “barren tasks, too hard to keep!” But they all sign up anyway. Who is going to say “no” to the King?!

Before I talk about the consequences of that oath, let me give you a few pointers about how the play works. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s a main plot with aristocratic characters, and a secondary plot with a motley crew of characters lower down the social hierarchy. The two plots alternate throughout the play, and the two sets of characters interact sporadically, until the final scene when the secondary characters perform a pageant for the higher characters. 

The higher characters are divided into two courts. The action is set in the court of the King of Navarre, which is represented by four men: the king himself, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville.  The Princess of France comes to Navarre on a diplomatic mission. Her court is represented by four women: the princess, Rosaline, Katherine, and Maria. (You can probably guess where this is going already!) Not only do things happen in fours, but we get mirror image scenes, where men and women trade roles and power. And of course everyone falls in love.

The secondary characters tend to be humorous – in the sense that they exemplify some character trait or “humour.” And so we have the Clown, Costard, who has street smarts but a poor vocabulary. We have a Spanish visitor, Don Adriano de Armado, who fancies himself a much better master of English rhetoric than he actually is. We have his witty boyservant, Moth or Mote, who is as witty as Don Adriano is obtuse. We have Constable Dull, whose name says it all. And Holofernes the school master, and Nathaniel the Curate, who have “stolen the scraps” from the great feast of language. We also have Jaquenetta, the dairy woman, who doesn’t say much but is central to the plot.

 The arrival of the Princess and her ladies, Rosaline, Katharine, and Maria, precipitates a crisis. How can the Princess be housed and entertained under the terms of the king’s decree? The ambassadorial mission begins with a witty dispute over the rightness of lodging the Princess “in the field, / Like one that comes here to besiege his court.” The military simile is apt. We are about to embark on a war of wit.

The rest of the play is preoccupied with increasingly elaborate courtship games, as the King, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville predictably fall in love with the four women. Overcoming their initial shame in a hilarious scene of mutual discovery, the men resolve to win the women. Poetry, gifts, elaborate disguises, and games ensue. At every turn, the women best the men at their own game, until the men admit defeat and promise to woo honestly and humbly.

They have one more lesson to learn, however. The Pageant of the Nine Worthies—a play within a play performed by the characters from the secondary plot—reveals the four lords’ patronizing attitude towards their verbally inept social inferiors. The four defeated suitors, relieved to have “one show worse than the King’s,” mock and humiliate the amateur actors, until poor Holofernes departs from his script to complain that “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” The Princess and her ladies models better audience behaviour, expressing appreciation for the show, which resumes at her bidding.

The plot has one final twist, a surprise ending that prevents the four couples from moving swiftly towards the marriages we expect from a comedy. The four men are told to wait a year before they resume their amorous addresses. In that twelvemonth period, they are to perform charitable service. Berowne is tasked with amusing the “speechless sick.” He must reform his “wounding flouts” and “mocks” to be worthy of Rosaline. In short, he must learn true gentility, which lies not in rhetorical victories but in humility.

Much of the pleasure of the play lies in its linguistic games. To really enjoy the play, imagine the verbal play as a kind of tennis match. Who is serving first? Who is in control of the volley? Who loses the “set of wit”? Listen for the rhetorical devices that early modern English playgoers loved. There were no lighting effects or car chases in early modern – but a few lines of stichomythia was sure exciting! Stichomythia is rapid-fire dialogue where each speaker has one line. Plays on words are especially frequent in this play. Listen for those moments when one character willfully misunderstands what another character has said, turning his or her meaning on its head and using the word in a different way. Pay attention to who gets to supply the second rhyme in a rhyming couplet. Listen for the repeated words – called anaphora. Listen for the repeated sounds – called alliteration. Listen for the repeated phrases and parallel sentence structures – called isocolon. Whoever masters these linguistic tricks has the upper hand in the dialogue.

Welcome to this great feast of language, and enjoy the show!