Thursday, January 23, 2014

William Shakespeare: Love's Labour's Lost (1593-94, revised 1597)

Perhaps this play has only a shadowy existence for the general reader. Nevertheless, it's commonly found on Shakespeare university courses, because the teachers want to expose students to Elizabethan convention, artificiality and wit.

As a child my only glancing contacts with it were A. Practising saying the word Honorificabilitudinitatibus (mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records) B Singing the incomparable Winter song about "Dick the shepherd blows his nail" in the school choir.

This song was probably added in the 1597 revision, most likely for the performance for Queen Elizabeth in Christmas 1597. (These are plausible scholarly guesses. where nothing is certain.)

The quarto title-page describes itself as “Newly corrected and augmented” and this seems to imply that there was an earlier “bad” quarto. (Compare the good Q2 of Romeo and Juliet, which describes itself as "Newly corrected, augmented, and amended", or Q2 of Hamlet, which is “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect coppie.”)

Love's Labour's Lost, Title page of the Quarto

That the hypothetical bad quarto of LLL is not extant is not especially disturbing: after all, the bad quarto of Hamlet survives in only two copies, and was not rediscovered until 1827; and it was only in 1905 that a single copy of the 1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus, the earliest appearance of a Shakespeare play in print, turned up in Sweden.  It strikes me that there's something oddly polite about these good quarto references to their bad quarto predecessors. The Folio roundly describes all its quarto predecessors as "stol'n and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by frauds and stealths of injurious impostors". Given the Elizabethan taste for invective, you might have expected the good quartos to make a good deal of their own authoritative excellence and of their predecessors’ wicked incompetence: to describe themselves, instead, merely as “corrected” is in some degree to legitimize the earlier publications. Perhaps the former were not quite so illegitimate, or the latter not quite so legitimate, as we might suppose.

In the case of LLL the Folio merely reprints the surviving Quarto. It’s a good text, but the revision mentioned above is attested by several happy accidents which result in the inclusion of two versions of the same passage. Furthermore the spring song at the end uses Gerard's Herball of 1597. But the Navarre setting must, one would suppose, originate from the time of England's alliance with Protestant Navarre, which came to an abrupt end in July 1593 when Henry of Navarre decided that Paris was rather a mess.  (Compare Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris (1592) in which Henry is the Protestant hero.)  Allusions to Pierce's Supererogation and The Shadow of Night point to the end of 1593 or early 1594. The dates don't come together perfectly, but when you consider the text's numerous connections with the early sonnets and the generally early feel of the play, some time around 1593-94 must be right for the bulk of the play as we know it.     

The title refers to the ending of the play, to "Jack hath not Jill". I'm not sure what justifies the apostrophe in "Labour's" - this word could just as well, or more likely, be a plural. The Quarto merely calls it "Loues Labors Lost", a 1598 reference calls it "Loues Labour Lost".

There is evidence for a play Love’s Labour’s Won that Shakespeare wrote soon afterwards and that was apparently published in quarto, but we don’t know anything else about it. The inference that it might have picked up from the unresolved ending of LLL (and thus be a sequel in more than name) is obvious, perhaps a little too obvious. It would have been such an easy thing to resolve LLL in the first place, if that’s what Shakespeare had wanted to do. But everyone prefers LLL the way it is. The artificiality, playfulness, and lack of dramatic momentum are all redeemed by the unexpected bittersweetness of the close. An orderly working-out of artificial weddings between characters who resemble strophes more than individuals would be a bit boring.  You can see too how the sudden change of mood first essayed in LLL connects with the emphatic reassertion of a tragic mode in Act III of Romeo and Juliet.

Act 5 Sc 2, engraving by J. Heath from painting by Thomas Stothard, 1802

For better reproductions of this and a whole lot of other early illustrations, head straight for the Folger Shakespeare Library:'/mode/exact/page/2

(2009, 2014)



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