A review of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
We fall in love with our own hallucinations, according to the most rigorous of the “comedies” (if it is one), Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1595-1597). As the title itself announces, this will not be a typical Shakespearean comedy in which everyone gets married, whether they want to or not. From the final scene:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill [V:ii].
Courtship does not result in conjugality, but rather in the weak promise of deferred gratification: King Ferdinand “falls in love” with the Princess of France, who forces the Navarrean ruler to wait for her for an entire year. Berowne “falls in love” with the mysterious Rosaline, who forces the Navarrean lord to wait for her for an entire year (all while doing charity work at a hospital). There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Princess of France will give herself to King Ferdinand, nor is there any reason to believe that any of the French ladies will give themselves to the Navarrean lords, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville. The play ends, without ever ending, with the indefinite postponement of erotic fulfillment.
The King demands payment for the province of Aquitaine from the Princess of France. In vain. Just as his desire to be paid for Aquitaine is disappointed, the King’s lust for the Princess is disappointed. Not merely is it the case that the male desire to conquer the female fades into libidinal nonfulfillment (or “erotic defeat,” to use Harold Bloom’s term); the male desire to accumulate wealth fades into financial nonfulfillment. Women outwit their male suitors in this puckish farce, a sophisticated problematical comedy that ridicules all of its male characters and extols the brilliance of its ladies, who emerge looking far from foolish. To quote the Princess of France:
[P]raise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord [IV:i].
A feast of language in which the characters dine on scraps, the play mocks the speech of the hypereducated and of the undereducated alike. The speech of the pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel is all but unintelligible, since they speak Latin as often as they speak English and obsessively employ synonymia. (Synonymia: a long sequence of successive synonyms.) The magnificent Don Adriano de Armado, who avoids common expressions as if they were strains of the Ebola virus, is admirable and ridiculous at the same time. He obsessively employs synonymia and tatutologia. (Tautologia: a tiresome repetition of the same idea in different words.) The rustic Costard only talks in malapropisms, mistaking “reprehend” for “represent,” “adversity” for “prosperity,” “manner” for “manor,” “desolation” for “consolation,” “collusion” for “allusion,” and so forth. Somewhat implausibly, Costard is also the bearer of a word that seems above him, one of the longest words in the English language: honorificabilitudinitatibus (“to be gifted with honors”). Berowne is perhaps Shakespeare’s linguistic ideal, since he neither utters malapropisms nor translates his every word into Latin. He is mocked in other ways.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably Shakespeare’s filthiest play, as well, with at least two lines that sound like they belong to a hit song by Ke$ha:
Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit it, my good man [IV:i].
Two metaphorical strands are woven throughout the play. The first series of metaphors concerns the opposition between the spring and the winter. This one leaves me cold. The second metaphorical filament is immeasurably more interesting than the first: Ocular and optical metaphors proliferate throughout the play, which concerns the act of seeing and the relationship between seeing and desiring.
The men of this imaginary world have a purely visual interest in their female “beloveds.” For example, the entire sensorium of Navarre, according to Boyet, attending lord to the Princess of France, is housed in his eyesight:
All senses to that sense [eyesight] did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy [II:i].
Berowne’s fear, or so he says, is the loss of his eyesight from reading too much. He would much rather study a woman’s physiognomy:
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye [I:i].
The meaning of the first verse quoted seems to be: “Eyes that seek intellectual enlightenment are distracted from the light of truth, which comes from the eyes of a woman.” In the late sixteenth century, it was still believed that the human eye produced light beams. This idea, known as the “emission theory,” is at least as old as Plato.
All the eyes disclose are illusions. Moth, Armado’s page, makes this point in rhyme:
If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known;
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred,
And fears by pale white shown.
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know;
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe [I:ii].
What the peasant woman Jaquenetta is thinking and feeling Armado will never know. (Here we have the charming mixing of social classes that is so common in Shakespeare.) What the even more enigmatic Rosaline is thinking and feeling Berowne will never know. Again, the desire to master the totality of Woman is frustrated.
The unknowability of the object of desire is perfectly dramatized in the second scene of the fifth act. At the beginning of the scene (the scene itself is 1,003 lines long), the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting are in the park, ridiculing the gifts, letters, and attentions that they have received from their gentlemen callers. Boyet informs the Princess that he eavesdropped upon the king and his lords, who are planning to accost the ladies while disguised as Russians. The Princess orders the ladies to wear masks and swap the gifts that they received from the lords so that Katherine will be mistaken for Maria, and the Princess will be confused with Rosaline. When the men arrive, disguised, the ladies have their backs turned to them. As Moth remarks:
A holy parcel of the fairest dames / That ever turn’d their—backs—to mortal views!
Each man is disguised and therefore exchangeable with another; each woman’s face is veiled and is therefore exchangeable with another. Bodies are clothed; faces are inscrutable. All that is visible is the eyes. If you would like to find the authentic precursors of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), look no further.
The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are unknowable to the male characters, for the men only know the figures that they have created. In scene after scene of Shakespeare’s great play, we encounter men who love themselves more than the women they profess to adore. For instance, Boyet loves not his mistress, but his own language. As the Princess says of his overblown encomium to her beauty:
I am less proud to hear you tell my worth
Than you much willing to be counted wise
In spending your wit in the praise of mine [II:i].
Ingenuously or disingenuously (which will never be discovered), Berowne asks Rosaline (some versions, erroneously, say ‘Katherine’):
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? [II:i].
Berowne does not even seem to recognize the woman whom he “loves.” She mockingly repeats his leading question:
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
Repeating his question, she neither confirms nor denies its suggestion that such a dance had ever taken place. Whereas Bloom proposed Did I Not Dance with You in Brabant Once? as an alternative title to the play, I would suggest Last Year at Brabant, echoing, of course, the cinematic masterwork of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (1962). We know nothing of the prehistory of these lovers, if lovers they be. It is indeed entirely possible that their prehistory is wholly imaginary, that Rosaline is playfully assuming the fictitious role that Berowne has imposed on her. For Berowne loves only his own reflection, the mirror image that is reflected in her eyes. As he says (in prose):
By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes [IV:iii].
Berowne loves Rosaline, then, because she is a reflective surface. “What do you see when you look at me?”: This is Berowne’s implicit question. And Berowne is not the only autoeroticist in the play. From the King of Navarre himself, in a letter to the Princess of France:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep [IV:iii].
Translation: “Don’t love yourself! Love me!”
With these words Berowne describes the beauty of Rosaline:
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard [III:i].
Argus, the monster with one hundred eyes, is the castrated guard who protects the woman with sightless eyes. And into those null eyes Berowne looks and sees what he wants to see. He introjects his own images into the blackness. What does he see in Rosaline’s eyeless eyes? Nothing but himself. Her pitch balls are as black as the eyes of a chicken, and there is nothing but his own Self to be seen within their unfathomable, fathomless blackness.
All interpretation is projection, since interpretation is drawn not to objects, but to the absence of objects. We desire to interpret not when there is something to interpret, but when there is nothing to interpret.