Games of the English Throne, Shakespeare style

In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war.  See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient RomeSee too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.

The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French.  The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence.  The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer).  After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI.  His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself.  And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).

Richard III has a long history of success in performance.  Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate.  (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].)  Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.

Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours.  Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”.  He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.

Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.

Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed.  In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.

In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself.  King John is no match for Richard III, in interest.  He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader.  As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments.  The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.

The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness.  Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).

Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France.  The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted.  Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.

These societies are patriarchal.  Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled.  In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent.  But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones.  In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).

In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John.  The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).

To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”.  The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.

 

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The ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Ulysses’

 

Reading challenges

Having re-read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I thought I’d take another look at James Joyce’s (in)famous Ulysses (read and re-read years ago).  Homer is readable in translation – Joyce is barely readable, and lots of explanatory notes are required, even for a re-reading.  (I now draw upon the “1922 text” version, put out by OUP and edited by Dr Jeri Jones [1998].)  At least one can pick one chapter at random and concentrate on that.

 

Take for example Chapter 9, called ‘Scylla and Charybdis’.  This  consists of a philosophical discussion (set in a library) and centres largely on Stephen’s putting forward his hypotheses concerning Shakespeare (based on his works rather than recorded facts about his life) to a few friends.  The underlying (barely perceptible) conflict has been said (by commentators) to be between dogma and mysticism, through which a latter-day Odysseus (the reader?) should steer.

 

By contrast, the roughly corresponding passage in Book 12 of the Odyssey describes vividly and concisely Scylla, the man-eating, cave-dwelling monster, and Charybdis, the powerful, sucking whirlpool, which use every opportunity to kill sailors trying to steer the narrow course between them.  (In the event, six of Odysseus’s men are taken and eaten).  Nothing as clear and exciting as this appears in Ulysses.

 

Comparisons

Both the Odyssey and Ulysses are about the return of a hero or heroes (a protagonist or protagonists) to their home.  Homer’s Odysseus has been away from home at the legendary Trojan War and needs to return to his family in Ithaca; and his family want him back.  His fellow soldier Menelaus suffered his own delays on his way home (see Book 4).

James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is inspired by the city of Dublin, his love for his wife, and by his admiration for Odysseus, also known as Ulysses.  His protagonists (Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom) are all searching for an improved home life.

The Odyssey is dynamic and action-packed –with the constant thrust of the hero’s return home and his drive for revenge upon his wife’s gluttonous, proud suitors.  By contrast, Ulysses is static.  Nothing much happens.  Stephen may stay in touch with Leopold.  The state of the Blooms’ marriage may improve.

 

In the Odyssey, actors reveal their character through their stories.  (Some of Oysseus’s are lies!)  Notable are Books 9-12, where Odyssey tells the story of his adventures (the Cyclops etc) to his hosts.  In Ulysses, actors reveal their character through their internal monologues – the extreme case being Molly’s long monologue, in the final chapter, about her life, her courtship and her marriage.

 

Marriages

Leopold is an ordinary 20th century man, very loosely based on the mythical warrior and hero, Odysseus; and his unfaithful Molly = Odysseus’s faithful Penelope (rather ironically, perhaps).  (Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope.)

In the Odyssey, there are three relationships – not only Odysseus and Penelope but also two others.  Menelaus has accepted back Helen as his consort, after the end of the Trojan War, as Telemachus discovers (see Book 4) – number 2.  In Book 11, the ghost of Agamemnon informs Odysseus how his unfaithful wife Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered him on his return home from Troy – number 3.  Perhaps Leopold and Molly Bloom can also be compared with   Menelaus and Helen, insofar as they are contemplating a reconciliation.

Endings

 

The climax of the Odyssey (albeit before the very end) may be said to come in Chapter 23 when Odysseus reveals his true identity to Penelope and they exchange their stories (their trials and tribulations).

 

Ulysses ends, aptly, with Molly’s fond recollection of Leopold’s marriage proposal, years before:

 

and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

 

 

The Grey side of John Ruskin

The Grey side of John Ruskin

When I attended Newport (Mon) High School for Boys (established 1896), from 1958 to 1965, there were six “houses”, modelled, like much of the ethos of the school, on English “public” (actually, private) schools.  I fail to remember all the names of the houses.  I do recall that they were named after men – then, all famous.  I belonged to (Isaac) Newton, as my Uncle Ronald (killed in action in 1941) had belonged to it.  Another was named after (John) Ruskin (1819-1900) – eminent polymath, artist and art critic, social, commentator on social and economic and political matters, etc, etc.

Ruskin’s influence in his day is reported to have been enormous, on individuals and on movements.  (Among others, he influenced Marcel Proust, as can be seen, for example, in the chapter, ‘Séjour â Venise’ (‘Staying in Venice’), in À la recherché du temps perdu.)

I have read Proust but never Ruskin.

It appears to me that Ruskin’s many contributions to serious thought have been absorbed by others and hence have come down to us in the ideas of others.

What an extraordinary legacy, then!

What is Ruskin chiefly remembered for nowadays?  Probably, and sadly, his failed marriage (1848-1854) to Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray (1828-1897).  In 1855 she went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896); and she had eight children.

Much has been written and produced about this “triangle” over the years, to the exclusion, to a large extent, of Ruskin’s own merits.

I have just seen, on BBC television, the 2014 film, Effie Gray, which devotes itself exclusively to the matter of the failed marriage and the developing relationship between Effie and Millais.  Much of the content is based on guess-work.

Nothing indecorous is shown.  The acting and scene-setting convey all we (as viewers) need to know.

Ruskin himself is portrayed as unfeeling and patronising towards Effie, and at the same time largely under the control of his own parents.

As a viewer, I longed for Effie to escape from the stifling atmosphere created by the Ruskin family and to escape – to the arms of her admirer, Millais, as that is what she wanted.  A happy ending for her, then, and for Everett, but not for John.

The film makes much of this happy-sad story; but the material for the plot is rather slim.

There remains a larger story to tell about this Victorian sage.

 

 

 

Plots and spies, literature and censorship, in the times of Elizabeth I and James

Gunpowder and Elizabeth I’s spies

Two series have been running on BBC television – one about the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ (London, 1605) and the events leading up to it, and the other about Queen Elizabeth’s ministers’ extensive spy network.

It makes me think of the great number of English language poets and dramatists active at the time – Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  They had to live through these times.   They depended on their writing for a living.

The writings of the time that have come down to us do not mention (a) the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587) or the ‘Spanish Armada’ (1588) or the Gunpowder Plot.

I suspect that writers censored themselves.  There was also Government censorship.  Veiled references to current events can be found in the works.

The drunken porter in Macbeth mentions “equivocation”, which more or less amounts to lying, for the sake of the cause one believes in.

The anonymous Edward III refers to the loss at sea of a French fleet that was designed for an invasion of England.  Both King John and the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John refer to the loss of a back-up French fleet.  Spain was the main enemy of England at the time they were written, so perhaps a mention of France was safe.

The anonymous plays, Sir Thomas More and The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, which deal with riots and insurrection, respectively, suffered censorship.  Like Edward III, they disappeared from view (and from the repertoire) for centuries.  Now it is safe to pay them attention and to try them out occasionally on the stage.

Is civil order something we rather take for granted nowadays?

Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

Sparks from the flint – an analysis of Chapter VIII of D H Lawrence’s 2nd version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

Introduction

Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in 1920s industrial England.  Lady Constance (“Connie”) Chatterley and the gamekeeper employed by her paraplegic husband (maimed in World War One) have an affair; Connie becomes pregnant; by the end, Connie and her lover are pondering their (rather limited) options for the future.  The novel ends with matters unresolved.

Three principal themes are: (i) class divisions, (ii) relationships between the sexes, and (iii) the dire effects of disappointment and frustration with one’s lot in life.  Class divisions affect sexual relationships across the divide – adversely.  They are implicated in physical damage to ordinary working people, through maiming and death for some.  (World War One has done this too.)  They are also implicated in emotional damage – the encouragement of domination on the part of the employers, and the hurting of pride, and promotion of defiance, on the part of the employed.

Three versions

There are three versions of the novel: the third is the best known.

Pascale Ferran’s film, Lady Chatterley et l’homme du bois (2006) is based on the 2nd version of the novel.  This was first published by Penguin in the UK in 1973.  (It is called John Thomas and Lady Jane; but Tenderness would be more appropriate.) 

The main themes and plot are common to versions 2 and 3, as regards the strengths (characterisation and social analysis) and weaknesses (preachiness).  At the same time, there are also important differences, in the nature of principal characters and in details of the ending.  In the 2nd version, for example, the gamekeeper is called Parkin, not Mellors.  By the end, moreover, Sir Clifford remains unaware both of the affair and of Connie’s pregnancy.  Parkin has to go away to find work, and this disrupts the pursuit of his relationship with Connie.

In my opinion, the 2nd version of the novel compares very well with the 3rd.

Relations among the main characters, in Chapter VIII of the 2nd version

Chapter VIII (which corresponds roughly to Chapter X in the 3rd version) covers one day.  It is pivotal in the development of the story, as I hope to show.  It also sheds light on the nature of the four important characters who appear and speak in the chapter:

  1. Connie Chatterley, lonely and isolated, frustrated with her life, before meeting Parkin
  2. Sir Clifford Chatterley, stoical, strong-willed and domineering, frustrated by his disability
  3. Oliver Parkin, solitary, resentful of authority, mistrustful of women but softened by meeting Connie
  4. Mrs Ivy Bolton, Sir Clifford’s live-in nurse and care giver

Mrs Flint, young mother – neighbour and acquaintance of the Chatterleys – also appears.

In the course of the day covered by Chapter VIII, Connie meets and talks to all the others.  I shall examine the viewpoints of each of these four people and how the events of the day affect them.

CONSTANCE (“CONNIE”)

This is Connie’s view of herself at the beginning of the day: “She was miserable and angry with herself, feeling today more paralysed than Clifford.”

Clifford has gone out: she feels she must go out – so she goes to see Mrs Flint.

This is Connie’s appreciation of Mrs Flint and her child: “The quiet female atmosphere, just Mrs Flint and the baby, and the servant-girl, was infinitely soothing.”

And later: “And she was thinking so deeply of Mrs Flint’s baby.  It was a nice little thing, with hair like red gossamer, and such a delicate skin.”

On her way home, Connie bumps into Parkin, with whom she has already had sex twice. He grabs hold of her – she first tries to push him away.  In the event, this is what happens: “Her instinct was to fight him. He held her so hard.  Yet why fight?  Why fight anybody?  Her will seemed to leave her and she was limp.”

Connie lets Parkin take her.  (Does she give true consent?)  In the event, the sex that follows is described by Lawrence in these florid terms:

And then, something awoke in her.  Strange, thrilling sensation that she had never known before woke up where he was within her, in wild thrills like wild, wild bells.

But, about their relationship, Connie acknowledges her ambivalent feelings:

When she woke to herself, she knew life had changed for her.  Changed with him.  And she was afraid.  She was afraid of loving him.  She was afraid of letting herself go…..Ah, she adored him!  And she longed to abandon herself to the luxury of loving him.  At the same time, she mistrusted yielding to her lover.

Connie is changing, and she realises that she is changing:

She was full of a strange triumph, and a sort of glory of new pleasure.  She could still feel the echoes of the thrill of passion in her blood, ebbing away down all her veins like the rich after-humming of deep bells.”

Connie has a new aspiration: “And she felt sure she would have a child, a baby with soft live limbs, ensheathed in her own life.”

At home, Connie sees Clifford with new eyes:

And she thought, suddenly, what a queer rapacity there was in his naked face and his alert cautious eyes….He no longer cared about persons.  It was the mines that occupied his attention, on them his will was fixed.  He was going to pull them out of the depression: he was going to make money.

CLIFFORD

Clifford has an inkling of changes in Connie and her drift away from him.  First, he notices her inattention to his reading out loud to her (one of their habits):

The reading finished.  She was startled.  She looked up, and was more startled still to see Clifford watching her with a faint, cruel smile in his eyes.

The growing gap is reinforced when Connie goes to bed and wishes Clifford “Good-night!” (only):

As she spoke, she drifted dreamily nearer the door.  She was going without kissing him good-night.  He watched her with lynx eyes.  Even that she could forget!  And he was too proud, too offended to remind her.  Though the kiss, indeed, was but a formality….He could not make love to her! and therefore she was withdrawing every tiny show of love.  She forgot, no doubt.  But the forgetfulness was part of the whole intention….Ah well! he was a man, and asked charity from nobody, not even his wife.

Clifford takes comfort in cherishing his master-servant (child-mother?) relationship with his nurse, Mrs Bolton:

But after all, Mrs Bolton was his best tonic.  She did not understand the awfulness of his mental condition, as Connie did, therefore she was the best help….His dread was for the night, when he could not sleep.  But now he would ring for Mrs Bolton, and she would come in her dressing-gown….strangely girlish and secretive, and talk to him, or play chess or cards with him.

PARKIN

Parkin shows evidence of obsession with Connie, and possessiveness.  When he bumps into Connie, on her homeward walk, he shows anger at the thought that she might be avoiding him.  “You wasn’t slivin’ past and not meanin’ to see me, was you?” he says, challengingly.

In the event, he is implicitly forgiven for his forceful manner, as the sexual act turns out to be satisfactory for both of them, this time: “We came off together that time,” he says to her.

At home, later, Parkin finds that he cannot sleep: “He was unsettled, in a ferment.”  He goes for a night walk, with his dog.   His steps take him to the Chatterleys’ house.  Looking up at it reinforces his desire for Connie, sleeping within:

He went slowly up the incline, towards the house, hoping for the woman.  It was a necessity that he should see her, should come to her, should touch her, if only for a moment.  If he found his way into the house! – or if he made her know he was there! – or if he waited, waited, waited for naked day.

But Parkin realises the “futility of his yearning”: so, “he turned away, slowly, ponderingly, despairingly”.

Parkin, moreover, worries about the strength of the relationship with Connie and about his obsession with her.  His pride and his need for independence come through, in his thoughts: “A man must not depend on a woman.”

MRS BOLTON

Mrs Bolton already has suspicions about Connie, arising from the recent change in her.  On Connie’s arrival home from her walk, they talk, and Mrs Bolton thinks:

The eyes of the two women met, Mrs Bolton’s, grey and bright and cool, Constance’s, bright and burning.  And with the infernal instinct of her kind, Mrs Bolton knew that Constance had a lover of some sort.  She had suspected it before.  Tonight she was sure.  And a curious pleasure, a satisfaction almost as if it had been her own lover, leaped up inside her.  Only the question began to burn in her mind, who was he?

Again, later:

Tonight, at the back of her mind, she was continually wondering whom her lady had found for a lover.  There seemed no gentleman possible.

She does think of Parkin, but rejects the idea:

There was Parkin in the wood, of course!….But then her ladyship would never stoop to him!….He might be attractive to a low sort of woman, if any one could stand his overbearing, nasty way.  But for a refined woman, he was just a snarling nasty brute.

Does Mrs Bolton show insight into Parkin’s character, or prejudice, or indeed both?

Mrs Bolton follows up her critique of Parkin with an unflattering observation about “refined ladies” in general and Connie in particular:

Still, you never knew!  When women did fall, they sometimes liked to fall as low as they could.  Refined ladies would fall in love with niggers, so her ladyship might enjoy demeaning herself with that foul-mouthed fellow, who would bully her the moment he got a chance.  But there, she’d had her own way for so long, she might be asking to be bullied.

Later, still awake, she spots Parkin as he approaches the house in the dark – seeing but remaining unseen.  Her suspicion is confirmed.  Her thoughts, now, mark the end of the chapter:

And Mrs Bolton….saw him turn and disappear.  Yes, he was gone!  And his going made her more certain than ever.

“Well, would you ever now!” she said to herself, dazed with sleep.  “And not a young man either!”

Conclusions and Questions

Is Lawrence obsessed with sex?  Does the reader appreciate Lawrence’s style, when he writes about sex, explicitly?  This is a matter of personal preference, perhaps.

Is Lawrence hostile, not only to class divisions and conflict but also to the sexual morality prevailing in 1920s England (which condemned sex outside marriage)?  I think so.

Are Lawrence’s characters rounded?  Do they change?  Do they arouse understanding, or even sympathy, in the reader?  Are there ambiguities?  Can Parkin (for example) be seen from more than one point of view?  Can they all be true?  Yes, he is hard at times, gentle at others.  (Is there a history behind his hardness?  Yes.)

I believe that in Chapter VIII Lawrence portrays his main characters’ profound feelings and thoughts, especially about their relations with each other, very well indeed.  He is very good at conveying the tensions inherent in the relationship between Connie and Parkin – the forces pushing them together and those wrenching them apart.  On the personal level, both have ambivalent feelings – each wishing to yield to the other, and not wishing to yield, at one and the same time.  True to life, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

 

A poet’s labour lost?

Arguably, it can be said of Love’s Labour’s Lost that, among Shakespeare’s plays, it is relatively seldom performed and therefore less known by those who go to see plays and those who study S’s works.

Kenneth Branagh made a film of LLL in 2000.  He used very little of the original text.  He set the story in the 1930s, with period American songs to match (like a musical).

In recent years, LLL has been put on at The Globe and by the RSC.  Seeing the latter on DVD has prompted me to reconsider my attitude to the play (which remains somewhat mixed).

What is it about?  Why is it less popular?

“Boy meets girl”

Here, we have the matter of four boys chasing the four girls who arrive at their court (ostensibly on an embassy).  The gentlemen (or lords) – The King of Navarre and his coterie – are boyish and immature.  They swear a foolish oath, to abjure the company of women for three years, and swiftly break it in the light of reality (their sexual drive).

The “girls”, on the other hand – the Princess of France and her attendants – are grown-up ladies.  They are impressed, neither by the men’s oath, nor their breaking of it.  The ladies leave to go home, on receipt of the news that the Princess’s father (the King of France) has died.  The coup-de-théâtre – the arrival of the messenger from France, in the middle of an entertainment – dramatically breaks the comical tone, bordering on the farcical, that has characterised the play hitherto.

The male suitors are made to wait for a year (and meanwhile to use their time wisely) before trying to court the ladies again.  As one gentleman (Browne) puts it: “Jack hath not Jill.”  (Compare the ending of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.)

Can one identify with any of these characters?  At least, the ladies are more sensible than the gentlemen.

The other characters

Most of these are comedians or caricatures (or both).  The comic ones are: the ladies’ male attendant, a Spanish knight (and braggart), his page, a pedantic schoolmaster, a curate, a constable, and a clown.  The dairymaid and the forester are neutral.  By virtue of his role, the messenger from France is serious.

Arguably, Shakespeare sees some of these men as figures of fun.  They tend (variously) to use puns and plays on words, Latinisms and ornate language.  There are jokes, but many of these are unintelligible nowadays, without notes; and so they are best omitted from the play in performance.  Notably, the knight’s language reveals no Hispanic features.  (The thinking behind this is lost to us.)

One can accuse the male suitors (above) of elaborate, dense language traits too.  The ladies are more straightforward, while still witty.

Aspect One

In a way, nothing much happens in this play.  The men talk, the ladies arrive, the men try to court the ladies (without success), and the ladies leave, leaving sound advice as their parting shot.

One can add that the dairymaid is revealed to be pregnant – either by the clown or the knight.  There is an implication that it is the knight who will care for her.

Aspect Two

The play has much to do about language – its uses and abuses.  (Compare The Merry Wives of Windsor, in this regard.)

Much of the play is written in rhymed verse (spoken by the lords and ladies).  Embedded in the speeches there are six sonnets, by my reckoning.  The four lords compose one love poem (each) to the ladies they profess to love: three of these are sonnets.  (Worth a look.)  (Three of the poems are reproduced in The Passionate Pilgrim.)

The play ends, delightfully, with two songs – (i) the spring song of the cuckoo and (ii) the winter song of the owl.  (Worth a look too.)

Aspect Three

The male characters – both lords and commoners – attempt to entertain the ladies – but with little or no success.

At one point, the lords approach the ladies disguised themselves as Muscovites (why!?); but, as the ladies have been tipped off, they have no difficulty in getting ready for them, by disguising themselves, too, and hence confusing them.

The comic male characters put on a show of the “Nine Worthies” (five attempting to portray nine, between them!); but their acting is disrupted, firstly by the derision of the lords, and secondly, by the arrival of the messenger from France.

Aspect Four

LLL has great displays of witBut how funny is it?

Perhaps the funniest part is to be found in Act 4, Scene 3.  Here the four lords, arrive, in succession, to read their love poems aloud but (as they suppose) in secret. They suffer the indignity of being spied on by their fellows and then being confronted with the breaking of the shared oath.  Each one has to admit that he is in love with one of the ladies.

(The men are fine poets but clumsy lovers.)

Conclusion

LLL is hard to put on; it is hard to make a success of it; it requires the exercise of imagination and a willingness to make cuts, on the part of the production team.  With the aid of explanatory notes, LLL is readable – in places, amusing, in other places, rather tedious.

Many of Shakespeare’s works show a timeless quality (although times and places are evoked).  On examination, LLL comes across as very much product of its period, the 1590s, by virtue of its veiled allusions (i) to the works of certain of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, eg those of Sir Philip Sidney, and (ii) to contemporary events, eg in France – all rather obscure, today.  Hence, there is a distance between the rather artificial world portrayed by LLL and our world today (and the literature and drama that reflect it).

Love’s Labour’s Won

Such a play may have existed – a sequel to LLL; but if so, it is lost, under this title.  Various hypotheses have been put forward, suggesting that one or other surviving play fits the bill – Love’s Labour’s Won under a different name – for example, Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well.  I venture to suggest, instead, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Fenton succeeds in marrying Miss Anne Page (winning out against Dr Caius and Slender).

Editions and versions taken into account

I have read these editions of LLL and the editors’ introductions:

1 Kerrigan, J (1982), Penguin: Harmondsworth (Middlesex)

2 Hibbard, G R (1990), OUP: Oxford

3 Woudhuysen, H R (1998), Arden 3 (Thomas Nelson & Sons): Walton-on-Thames

Performances

1 Branagh, K (director) (2000) – cinema film and video

2 Luscombe, C (director) (2015) – DVD of live performance.