Love's Labour's Lost
[Updated, with further annotations, on July 31, 2008.]
One may be tempted to assume, from the surfeit of Shakespearean adaptations which populate the schedule, that contemporary audiences have seen definitive productions of all 37 plays in their original settings and that they yearn for more relevant interpretations. But since the breadth of most theatregoers' experience with the canon falls woefully short of such wishful thinking, we might alternately assume that the manic propensity for "updating" the Bard must be for some higher purpose, such as revealing the universality of the play (and thus extending its meaning beyond its original scope), or because contemporary audiences are simply incapable of deriving any relevancy from a 400-year old work. Based on what we see on stage, however, these premises are also misguided.
Instead, we are left to conclude that the number one reason for adapting Shakespeare is to create context where directors believe that none exists—since so little is known about the assumed author, one William Shakspere of Stratford. We have nary a record of this fellow, other than six signatures (with various spellings) on some legal documents, and a will signed "by me." His parents and his progeny were illiterate, and there are no indications that he owned one book or authored any play. In fact, the only known poem attributed directly to him is the paltry ditty engraved upon his tomb:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be ye man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Clearly, there is a magical force at work here that allows such an undeveloped personage the power to produce a body of work which calls upon a cornucopia of classical European source material, much of which was untranslated at the time, and some of which was only available in single copies, sequestered in well-guarded aristocratic libraries. Such a spotty biography leaves the field wide open. Make up anything you want. Who's to say where the play came from and what persons and events are referenced? So-called (Stratfordian) Shakespearean scholarship is a house of cards, built entirely on inference.
And then there are those who don't buy this approach, including Walt Whitman, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Leslie Howard, John Geilgud, Charles de Gaulle, Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Michael York, Kenneth Branaugh, Keanu Reaves, and Supreme Court justices, John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun—all of whom agree that William Shakspere is not the author.
Once liberated from the Shakspere mythology, context for the entire canon, including references for all the characters and events, is readily within reach. For example, take the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's current production of Love's Labour's Lost. In the program for the play, director Gavin Cameron-Webb notes: "I did not choose an Elizabethan setting because I wanted to avoid drawing attention to the very objections that kept this play neglected for over 200 years—namely, its up-to-the-minute, contemporary 1590s jokes. Today, 400 years later, each punch line requires a page of footnotes." (How about avoiding the footnotes [see below] by substituting the names of the actual persons for whom the characters stand in?)
|(L to R) Elgin Kelley as Rosaline,|
Jennifer Le Blanc as Countess of France,
Jamie Ann Romero as Katherine,
and Laura Kruegel as Maria
Photo: Kira Horvath, CU Communications
Unfortunately, dating the play to the 1590s—that is, shoehorning it to fit the Stratfordian timeline—would mean that the jokes were ten years or more out of date: for the text's florid style, Euphuism, had it's hey day in the late 1570s and early 1580s. It was during that time that John Lyly, the author of Euphues: the Anatomy of Wyt and Euphues and his England was in the employ of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, to whom the latter book is dedicated.1
Love's Labour's Lost is a spoof on this outlandish style, written by the foremost practitioner of the art (de Vere) and his champion (Lyly), as Berowne so mocks it:
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise
Three-pil'd hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical; these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.
It may be difficult to weed through the peculiarities of the outlandish linguistic arabesques proffered by the playwrights, but the task becomes doubly troubling when the play is transposed to 1917, at a time when the manners that would support such erudition were quickly breaking down, which is evident in this production.
Only Ferdinand (Mat Hostetler) and the Countess (Jennifer Le Blanc)—20th-century substitutes for the original King of Navarre and the Princess of France2—remotely support the Euphuistic style and scansion, while the two characters that matter most, Berowne (Barzin Akhavan) and Rosaline (Elgin Kelley) do not.3 Rather, the ladies and gentlemen who mix and match in this curiously moral tale of love worth waiting for, perform as if this were a fraternity-sorority kegger.
|Elgin Kelley as Rosaline and|
Barzin Akhavan as Berowne
Photo: Kira Horvath,
Thus, the play's language, which is the centerpiece of the satire, is sacrificed to the colloquial genre, and any references to actual persons and events in the playwright's life are buried in the idiosyncrasies of the historically arbitrary setting. To make matters worse, the scenic design—a pleasant bucolic array by Andrea Bechert4—and the blocking regularly require large sections of the material to be performed far upstage, occasionally with the actors' backs to the audience, ignoring the amplification requirements for the space and further diffusing whatever ornamentation survives the informality of the elocution.
Another biographically related persona that become unrecognizable when the Euphuistic setting is shifted forward three hundred and forty years to the final days of European aristocratic power is Boyet, the Queen's chief minister (a light-hearted caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, de Vere's former guardian and, at the time of the play, his father-in-law).1
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Love's Labour's Lost runs in repertory with Macbeth, Henry the Eighth, The Three Musketeers, and Woody Guthrie's American Song through August 15h on the University of Colorado Boulder campus. 303-492-0554 or at www.coloradoshakes.org.
1 As with most of "Shake-speare's" plays, editing continued throughout the author's life. There were layers added to Love's Labour's Lost circa 1592-94 that caricaturize the pamphleteers Thomas Nashe (Moth—who speaks lines from Nashe throughout) and Gabriel Harvey (Holofernes—whose arguments with Nashe revisit, at times verbatim, their pamphlet wars), as well as the Stratford Will Shakspere (Costard—who ends up as Armado's charge, to woo in his stead: "For mine own part, I know not the degree of the worthy. But I am prepared to stand for him.") and de Vere himself (Armado—an allusion to the Earl's rumored allegiance to the Spanish King).
2 There is a funny scene between the King and the Princess when they (and their entourages) first meet. The Queen is taken aback that she is not invited to the palace. The King explains that he and his lords have taken an oath to foreswear women. This exchange pokes fun at Queen Elizabeth, who signed a law forbidding women to stay overnight at English universities and then broke her oath at Cambridge and then Oxford.
Another comic scene, when the four lords disguise themselves as ambassadors from Muscovy is a send up from when Mary Hastings (once engaged to the twelve-year old de Vere by their fathers, Maria in this script) publically refused a marriage offer by the czar of Muscovy, through his envoy, which caused quite a row.
3 Berowne and Rosaline are stand-ins for de Vere and his paramour, Anne Vavasor (the dark lady of the sonnets), with whom he carried on a illicit love affair that resulted in an illegitimate child and the couple's incarceration in the Tower of London. Eventually, de Vere was reconciled with his wife (having overcome his suspicions of her infidelity [Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, and The Winter's Tale], eventually believing he had been the victim of a "bed trick" [Measure for Measure]), and Rosaline is forsaken for a return to status quo ante (Romeo and Juliet [the battles therein, between the Montagues and Capulets, are based on actual street fights between Vavasor's and de Vere's families, including the timing of the deaths]).
4 As evidenced throughout the canon—and beautifully illustrated by "Shakespeare's Garden" in a courtyard near CU's Mary Rippon Theatre—De Vere received a thorough education in botany from the noted pharmaculturalist Sir Thomas Smith (one of his tutors) and esteemed horticulturist John Gerard (employed at Cecil House, where de Vere was raised after the death of his father).