The Audience-Affect of "Love's Labour's Lost"

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One view of this script has been that it is a coterie play designed for an in-group of high-society intellectuals who will recognize participants in "the School of Night" (IV.iii.253) such as John Florio (Holofernes), Sir Walter Raleigh (Don Armado), etc. This elusive characterization seems an extremely unlikely interest for most audiences, though Shakespeare is certainly parodying and ultimately rejecting some of the grossest verbal extravagances of the University Wits, such as the Euphuism of John Lyly. It is much more significant that he is exploiting the Elizabethan fascination with the dashing King of Navarre, later King of France, and his celebrity wife "la reine Margot"—the subject of endless recreations such as the recent film starring Isabelle Adjani. The "escadron volant" or "light cavalry" of seductive (not to say scandalous) ladies of the Valois court was notorious. These dynamic women would have appealed greatly to the equally liberated London women in both the popular and court audiences—for England was proverbial among visitors as (in one permutation) "a paradise for women, a purgatory for horses, and a hell for men." With such exciting models of female autonomy, one understands why in 1641 John Johnson complained about Shakespeare's prominence in "Love's Library" so that his work "creeps into the women's closets about bed-time" and "young sparkish girls would read in Shakespeare day and night." By contrast, all the men in the play are humiliated to the point of accepting penance, with the possible exception of the cunning yokel Costard, who may well be perceived to escape punishment for impregnating Jaquenetta.

However, the most striking single thing about the the play's impact in performance is the shock effect of its inconclusive ending, which continues to startle even modern audiences accustomed to such effects from the analogous end of Ibsen's A Doll's House with Nora's departure. The abrupt intrusion of the news of the death of the King of France (the Princess's father) calls in question the value of the previous manners in the play in a way which Lope de Vega's aesthetics of audience-challenge require. The final songs have an often unrecognized choric quality in the summation of Don Armado: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo" (V.ii.919-20). Apollo is the god of (ambiguous) prophecy and the Fine Arts, leading the Muses. Apollo's Spring song is full of charm, sensuality, and seduction, leading to the social disorder of adultery, symbolized by the lifestyle of the cuckoo (hence the derivative "cuckold"). On the other hand, the authentic rigors of Winter require the determined self-maintenance of human society via hard work (icy milking, log-carrying, stew-skimming) and attendance at church even when chilled. Mercury is the messenger of the gods' judgments, and the owl is the familiar of Athena, the goddess of Intelligence. So the ending of the play is a kind of Zen koan—about truth to the facts of life versus seductive fancy—the mastery of which may yet satisfy the sophisticated spectator, if it is properly staged. Anyway, in 1578 the King of Navarre and the Valois Princess did get together at Nérac for a time, and the historical duc de Longaville did marry Marie de Nevers, as she promised (see the Richmond article in the bibliography above).

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond