In this love letter about love letters, a young king and his companions vow to swear off worldly pleasures and devote themselves to gaining eternal fame through scholastic pursuits. When a lovely princess and her ladies visit the palace, their oath immediately proves difficult to keep! Set in pre-World War I 1914, ragtime, early jazz, and the English Music Hall will create much of the milieu for this lively and hilarious production, directed by Curt Tofteland (Shakespeare Behind Bars).
Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, convinces the lords Biron, Longaville and Dumain to take an oath of celibacy, fasting, and study. Biron is skeptical, but agrees to sign. A letter arrives from Armado, a Spanish soldier, describing Jaquenetta and Costard's liaison. Ferdinand sentences Costard, and Armado confesses that he loves Jaquenetta, giving Costard a letter for her. The Princess of France arrives with her ladies Rosaline, Katharine and Maria. Despite his oath, Ferdinand decides that meeting her is necessary but does so outside the castle. The men fall in love with the ladies: Ferdinand with the Princess; Biron with Rosaline; Longaville with Maria; and Dumain with Katharine. Biron writes Rosaline a letter, also giving it to Costard to deliver. Costard mixes up Biron's and Armado's letters, giving Jaquenetta the letter meant for Rosaline and Rosaline the letter meant for Jaquenetta. Each man "privately" confesses his love, overheard by another in hiding. Biron keeps his secret until Jaquenetta arrives with his letter to Rosaline. Biron argues that courting the women could be educational, and the men agree. The ladies receive a gift from their lord. Learning that the men will visit in disguise, they switch gifts and plan to refuse to dance. The disguised lords profess their love to the wrong ladies, then return undisguised and enjoy a pageant. A messenger arrives with news of the King of France's death. The princess must return home to mourn her father. The women insist that the men wait one year and prove themselves trustworthy before courting them again.
Love's Labour's Lost is one of Shakespeare's earlier comedies, written after Comedy of Errors (1589) and Taming of the Shrew (1593) but probably before Merchant of Venice (1596). (A Midsummer Night's Dream falls in here somewhere as well, though its exact date is unknown. Estimates range as early as 1590 to 1597, but most likely 1595-1596.) Scholars date Love's Labour's Lost between 1594 and 1596, though it likely did not premiere until at least 1597, in a performance before Queen Elizabeth herself at the Inns of Court. Its penning date is not long after the formation of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company in which Shakespeare would be a "sharer" (or shareholder) for the remainder of Queen Elizabeth's reign.
Scholars point to no specific sources for Love's Labour's Lost, other than the Roman New Comedies that Shakespeare would have read as a school boy. Prince Ferdinand may be loosely based upon Henri de Navarre, who became Henri IV of France in 1589 when he married Marguerite de Valois, Princess of France. Indeed, much evidence points to Henri as a great letter-writer himself, and official court documents indicate that he had men in his service by the names of de la Mothe and Boyet.
Scholar Marjorie Garber has described Love's Labour's Lost as "a play about young lovers caught with their sonnets down." The men open the play by signing an oath to study, fast, and avoid women for a period of three years -- a promise that Berowne finds difficult to stomach: "O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,/ Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep!" Once the Princess and her ladies arrive in Navarre, it becomes clear that the men have fallen in love, despite their lofty intentions.
At the time of the play's writing, theatrical life in London had been turned upside down. 1594 brought an outbreak of bubonic plague that caused all theatres to close. While the plague abated later in the season and theatres were able to open again, many companies faced ruin. The Queen's Men were struggling, and the Earl of Pembroke's Men went bankrupt. By the end of the season, The Earl of Derby's Men, The Earl of Sussex's Men, and the Earl of Hertford's men had all disbanded. Out of the rubble emerged the two companies that audiences today might recognize: The Lord Chamberlain's Men and The Lord Admiral's Men.
Some scholars suggest that the uncertainty and turmoil of these years could have impacted Shakespeare's writing. For the most part, the play operates much like a traditional comedy. Without giving too much away to the reader who hasn't seen the play yet, however, its closing scene parts with convention. Lovers love and clowns clown, but a darker reality intervenes, ending the play with questions about the future rather than resolutions, and characters parting ways rather than uniting. And while its final lines, spoken by Don Armado, may have layered meanings (including the possible "Hey, audience, time to go home!"), they do point to the intrusion of travel and separation upon the lovers' merriment: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of / Apollo. You that way; we this way."
Shakespeare seems to have written a sequel, perhaps developing the lovers' stories further and providing answers that Love's Labour's Lost doesn't provide. Indeed, records from the period indicate that a play entitled Love's Labour's Won existed by 1598 and had been printed by 1603. Was it a lost play? A play with an alternative title? Various arguments exist about whether that play was a freestanding text or instead a subtitle of another play, perhaps even one that audiences today might recognize. Audience members who saw last year's Much Ado About Nothing might observe some similarities in characters, themes, and storylines in Love's Labour's Lost. This play is one of a handful suggested as the possible sequel. Berowne and Rosaline bear striking resemblances to Benedick and Beatrice, with their witty banter; the Much Ado entourage gathers following political turmoil that seems foreshadowed in Love's Labour's Lost; and the lovers indicate past relationships with each other, for example.
This season, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival offers the professional premiere of a new play that answers some of the questions raised in Love's Labour's Lost. Scott Kaiser's Love's Labor's Won opens on July 19 in Illinois State University's Westhoff Theater, with the same cast that audiences will see in Shakespeare's play. Kaiser chose to set his play in 1918, on the heels of World War I; to pair well with that piece, director Curt Tofteland sets Love's Labour's Lost in 1914, just as World War I descends upon Europe. Early jazz and ragtime provide some period flavor, and the entertainer characters – Clotaldo and Jaquennetta – might remind audiences of particular performers from that period. (For more information about the period and music hall performers, stop by the dramaturgy displays in the stables at Ewing.)
By: Ann Haugo with Laura Bouxsein, Rachel Hettrick, Melissa Kosanda
For further reading:
Barber, C.L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton University Press, (1959) 2012.
Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. Random House, 2004.
Mehran, Hooman, and Frank Scheide, eds. Chaplin's Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition. McFarland and Company, 2006
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