Love’s Labor’s Lost forced me to think about how we perceive art. Most often it is as the artist intends for us to experience it (I intentionally do not say “see”). Plays are unique in that it seems we most fully appreciate them when we take them in both on stage and in writing. I cannot think of another art form that consistently demands duel viewings as does drama, or more specifically, as does Shakespeare.
LLL is rife with pun, innuendo, and wordplay so dense that it is often as difficult as some of the great tragedies to wade through. I struggled as I made my way, often feeling more lost than loving the labor. This frustrated and puzzled me because I perceive the comedies as “easier.” Not so with LLL.
So I felt I had to watch it, as closely as possible as to how Shakespeare intended it to look and sound, to see what I was missing in the reading. I intentionally avoided Scorcese’s 1930’s-stylized musical version despite its stars Kenneth Branagh and Nathan Lane. I dislike it when producers and directors go too far afield in their attempt to modernize or put some new twist on the plays.
Instead I chose a 2007 Opus Arte filming of the Globe’s stage production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. This historically accurate production felt comfortably close to home; closer to what Shakespeare would have wanted the play to look like.
The viewing reinforced for me that all art is vastly different depending on which senses we employ in its consumption vis a vis those intended by the artist. Beauty is in the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and fingertips of the beholder, and shifting the medium vastly shifts our perception.
In LLL, The King of Navarre and his three scholars-in-residence forswear all sensual pleasures for the sake of study. But the French King’s daughter and her coincidentally and conveniently numbered coterie of three ladies in waiting come for a visit and challenge their commitment.
Act IV, scene iii strongly elucidates the immense difference between reading and watching the play. The lovestruck lads struggle with the need to honor their perhaps ill-thought-out vow (at which Berowne balked initially) and the desire to honor their feelings. Berowne, followed by the King, Longaville, and finally Dumaine, enter unseen by each other to rehearse their love letters. On paper, it’s simply a sequential confirmation of their intentions toward the absent ladies, full of sweet turns of phrase about love. Finally they come together to convince themselves that their new goal of wooing the ladies more honors than contradicts the spirit of their original vow.
Berowne’s words tumble the reader into the scene with a rapid-fire cascade of double and triple entendres which are confusing enough to read, but downright confounding to try to follow in action. We know that he struggles with the conflict between his love for Rosaline and his oath. The intricacies and allusions in his opening salvo are lost on the casual theatergoer:
“I am coursing/myself. They have pitch’d a toil: I am toiling in a pitch – a/pitch that defiles – defile! a foul word. Well,/said and so say I, and I the fool: well proved,/wit! By the Lord, this love is as mad as Ajax. It kills/sheep; it kills me, I a sheep: well proved again a’ my/side! I will not love; if I do, hang me; i’faith I will not. O but her eye- by this light, but for her eye;/I would not love her; yes, for her two eyes.” (IV,iii,1-10)
I barely followed that even as I typed it out! It’s as tough to catch as a fly ball in the sun when he knocks it out on stage.
Then in his scene-ending speech, Berowne waxes poetic about love and convinces the King and his companions that to court the princess and her entourage would support, not abort, their vow. It’s his closing argument, to the jury of the King, Longaville, and Dumaine. It is an outstanding, persuasive paean to love:
“And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony.
Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were temper’d with Love’s sighs:” (IV,iii,341-344)
“For wisdom’s sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love’s sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men’s sake, the authors of these women,
Or for women’s sake, by whom we are all men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to our oaths.” (IV,iii,354-59)
This tongue- and ear-twisting language is largely lost on the theatergoer, except, perhaps one who has already read the play. But sandwiched between these two dense orations which really need to be read and reread to fully appreciate, antic actions ensue. The others scramble on stage, each reading aloud their own love letters to their absent targets of affection. Berowne, watches, unseen, from the perch to which he has scrambled after his opening dissertation. On paper it’s pretty simple verbal repartee, but on the Globe stage it comes alive to turn into the Three Stooges, Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello all rolled in to one. And roll, they do. Away from, toward, over, and under each other, in a madcap, slapstick highly physical romp that is completely lost on paper. The audience roared with laughter as they twisted and turned themselves to watch theses acrobats juggling themselves.
When the King drops his note for the princess to find he has to “crawl on his belly like a reptile” (as David Bromberg would say in Sharon) to retrieve it before Longaville grabs it. The three sneak, scamper, steal, and hide in a highly choreographed and immensely bawdy cat and mouse chase. They each carry, as part of their costume, polished, pointed animal horns slung across their torsos ostensibly to summon one another. These, of course, end up in all sorts of compromising and suggestive positions (not indicated in the stage directions). They squeal, squawk, and sit on each other. In the grand finale they embrace in a tangled scrum, and then pair off and run at each other, piggyback, like kids playing in a pool.
The result is a fast-moving uproariously funny, farcical, tour-de-force of physicality. There is just no way to get this from sitting in Starbucks (as I’m wont to do) and reading this scene. But nor is it possible to appreciate the fine nuance of the words as they whiz by on stage. To fully appreciate it, you must do both.
It’s this yin/yang aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, and perhaps great drama in general, that make them unique. You really have saturate yourself with the words and the action. There are classes and bookstore sections dedicated to the great playwrights whose oeuvres endure long after they’re gone. We read them and we see them, and are richer for doing both. That just doesn’t apply to other art forms.
Normally we just read novels and poems. Because they’re meant to be read and are best read. I’m sure some will disagree, but I can only think of a handful of movies that were as good as or better than the novels on which they were based. As magnificent as Doctor Zhivago is on screen, it is simply better in print. And yes, poems put to music often make great songs, but great poems stand on their own without the music.
Songs and symphonies are best heard. Most of them make pretty lousy poems (“She loves you yeah yeah yeah?, with the glaring exception of Bob Dylan’s canon, most of whose songs stand alone quite well as poetry. Generally the only reason to look up and read the lyrics of any song is to settle a disagreement or life-long misinterpretation. Who knew, for example, that Elton John was saying “boat upon the sea” and not “photo pharmacy” in Harmony? (Hint: clearly not I.
Paintings, photographs, and sculptures must be seen, and in person, when possible. Someone could describe Van Gogh’s Starry Night to you, but I can’t imagine it doing the painting justice. A postcard or art poster is nice, but it’s not the real thing. I understand that there is a new technology which allows certain masterpieces to be reproduced in a Braille-like format so that blind patrons may touch the replicas to “see” them, but I would imagine something is lost in translation there, too. It’s lovely to be able to touch sculpture if the docent in the gallery doesn’t see you, but often we’re estopped from doing so.
We watch movies. Save for very serious film studies students, I doubt I’d ever scan a screenplay to better understand a movie. The big screen, big sound, and total immersion are an essential part of the experience.
Even Operas, as complex as they are, may be accompanied by a libretto, but those are synopses meant to serve as a guide, not to be studied as diligently as the performance.
Different art media are so important precisely because they do stimulate all our different senses. We ought to be equal opportunity consumers to spark sensory neurons and encourage connections between them. With Shakespeare, though, we get a unique two-(or three)-for-the price-of-one experience if we take the time to both read AND see the plays.