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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wit! Honour! Love!

To their dismay and for our amusement, the characters of Love’s Labor’s Lost keep trying to live up to their highest ideals, especially when they come into conflict. These ideals are wit (or, as we might say, intelligence), honor, and love.

Devotion to intelligence drives the ill-fated endeavor to embrace study for three years. That devotion also fires the sparkling wit that the lords and ladies find so attractive and so dangerous in each other. The same drive finds expression in Armado’s and Holofernes’s and Nathaniel’s extravagant love of language and in Costard’s admiration for the cleverness of Moth’s dealing with Armado and of the ladies’ dealing with Boyet. Jaquenetta is overwhelmed by the artfully expressive love letter she briefly believes to be written for her. Wit also finds expression in the keen mockery that tends to keep everyone at some distance from each other.

As for honor, there is nothing more important for these characters than following through on what one has sworn to do. It really means something terrible, painful for them to be perjured, to be forsworn, or to see someone they admire fail to honor an oath. The lords feel they should keep their word (or, failing that, maintaining the appearance of keeping their word), but also feel they must break the oath in order to be with the women they love. The ladies feel that the lords must break the oath in order to be decent hosts, but also seem to wish that their beloved gentlemen could keep their misguided word. The men would be better, more admirable people if they could keep troth – not to mention more promising lovers, companions, spouses. Armado is perhaps most vulnerable to melancholy because he cannot keep his own oath, as a true soldier and subject should.

Finally, these characters believe in love. The Princess admires the King’s nobility (it may be that Boyet’s first speech repeats her own praise of Navarre); Maria is impressed by Longaville’s virtue; Katherine by Dumaine’s grace; Rosaline by Berowne’s witty eloquence. But the ladies do not realize how ardently their affections are returned and so are skeptical of the lords’ attempts at romantic compliment. They too cleverly – the shadow side of wit, again – seek to keep themselves from being fooled or mocked, even as they truly want to be loved by these men. Although he’s dismissed as "an old lovemonger," Boyet sees and understands it all. Armado, in pursuit of love himself, recognizes the King and Princess near the end of the play as a "most royal couplement" – a couple.

While the play overall might poke gentle and not so gentle fun at these social conventions and ideals, the characters are utterly convinced of their value. Anticipating (and perhaps influencing) Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, the play is all the funnier the smarter and more sincere and serious its primary characters are, even as wit and honor and love regularly lead them to folly.

The Flatwater Shakespeare Company production of Love's Labor's Lost opens next Thursday night, June 7th, at the Swan at Wyuka, 3600 "O" Street, in Lincoln. Show time is 7:30 p.m. The run continues June 8-10, 14-17, and 21-24. Call 484-7640 for reservations.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Happiness of Life

Rehearsals have started for our 2007 Summer show at the Swan, Love's Labors Lost. Bob Hall has again assembled a wonderful cast -- more on all of them, in future postings -- and the first read-through was filled with laughter and not a few discoveries.

One of the first discoveries was prompted by a bit of what seems almost throwaway dialogue between Nathaniel, the local curate, and Holofernes, a schoolmaster, both from the precincts around the court of Navarre. The teacher has invited the clergyman to dine with him at the "father's [house] of a certain pupil," in order to continue a literary debate.

Nathaniel is grateful and observes that "society (saith the text) is the happiness of life."

Holofernes replies that "the text most infallibly concludes" that sentiment.

Since Nathaniel is a man of the cloth, we might presume that "the text" to which he refers is the Bible. But there doesn't seem to be a single passage in all of scripture that supports such a "conclusion," no matter what Holofernes says.

Is Nathaniel mistaken? He is, after all, only a curate -- likely hired to serve a congregation in place of the priest who actually holds the living, or income, from the parish's tithes.

Is Holofernes mistaken? He seems, after all, far more attuned to the literature of Greek and Roman antiquity than to anything else.

Is Shakespeare mistaken? There has been plenty of discussion about the playwright's "true" religious affiliations -- or lack thereof.

Or is there another "text," close to hand, that might convey the message that the definitive source of happiness in this life is society: company, companionship, community?

One possibility is the script itself. Along with the play's obvious considerations of love and more subtle considerations of learning, Love's Labors Lost also meditates on human isolation and intimacy. And maybe Nathaniel distantly echoes a rather famous biblical text (from the Geneva version): "It is not good for the man to be himself alone."