Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Love's Labour's Lost, pt. 2

Poetry in Motion

The first thing I want to talk about today is the poetry in Love's Labour's Lost. And no, I'm not going to repeat 2/3 of the play here, which is about how much of this particular play is composed in verse. In fact, the play is pretty much all iambic pentameter, only some of which is blank verse (a phrase used to talk about unrhymed iambic pentameter), and quite a lot of which is rhymed – either in couplets (AA BB) or interlocking lines (ABAB), and sonnets, whether Shakespearian or Petrarchan. But I digress, and/or place the cart before my horse.

I'm going to start where I left off, at the end of the play, where the company closes with two songs, both of which are sometimes presented as poems. Just after the Princess and her ladies have said that they're taking off for a funeral and that if the King of Navarre and his companions manage to straighten up and fly right for a year, then maybe, just maybe, the women will consider marrying them. Maybe.

On that happy, if unconventional, note, the Princess and her entourage are set to sweep off when lo! Don Armado announces that he's going to be a farmer for three years in order to win Jaquenetta as his wife, and, by the by, doesn't everyone want to hear the verses dedicated to the cuckoo and the owl that was supposed to end the play of the Nine Worthies? (More on that in a tick, also.)

Why, of course we do! Whereupon the following songs are sung, one after the other, and Armado sends everyone on their way.

The Closing Songs

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadow with delight,
The cuckoo then on ev'ry tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws
And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks;
When turtles tread, and rooks and daws,
And maidens bleach their summer smocks;
The cuckoo then on ev'ry tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear.

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Both of the songs have the same exact rhyme structure: iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), using the rhyme scheme of ABABCC, followed by a short "chorus" composed of bird noise followed by a rhymed couplet (in Shakespeare's time, "note" and "pot" rhymed, you see). The version of "Spring" that I learned when I was a music major was entitled "When Daisies Pied", and was set to music by Thomas Arne. You can listen to a soprano named Yvonne Miller singing the song to organ accompaniment at YouTube, with a bit of mostly static artwork as a visual. "Winter" would have had its own tune, and not being personally familiar with one, I haven't added linkage here. If you know a setting and have a link, I hope you'll leave it in the comments!

Now, on the surface, the first poem is about the season we call spring, and the second is about winter. Spring seems like a happy song, even, particularly when set to Arne's tune. And winter, when parsed, is about the shepherd's cold hands, the need for firewood, messy roads, and illness, while Joan stirs the pot. But both of these songs are about the same thing: matrimony. More specifically, they are essentially black humor about matrimony, since both songs are about cuckoldry. Here's why I say that:

A word about the significance of the birds: BOTH of them were associated with cuckoldry in Elizabethan times. The cuckoo because his name sounds a bit like cuckold, and the horned owl because of the association between horns and cuckolds (a jealous husband was sometimes called a "horned owl". Both birds can be symbols of either the trapped (the cuckolded husband) or the trapper (their unfaithful wives). The cuckoo's call taunts the married man, labelling him as a cuckold (also, cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests, so a married man cannot be certain which "cuckoo" layed its "egg" in that man's "nest"); the owl cries "tu-whit" or "to it", a sort of sexual exhortation, and the bird's name was used to refer to prostitutes as well as to refer (in the "horned owl" variant) to a cuckolded husband. So both songs are about birds that are associated with cuckoldry, a common fear among men back in that time, and a common thing of which to make sport in comic plays.

Shall I Compare Thee to, well, Something?

Before we move away from poetry, a word about the wonderful scene involving four gentlemen and three love poems, found in Act IV, scene 3. The scene opens with Berowne (sometimes designated as Biron, by the by) talking to himself about being in love with Rosaline. He spots his friend the King coming along, and hides, thereby overhearing this sonnet, which has an additional couplet at the end:

So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
To those fresh morning drops upon the rose
As thy eyebeams, when their fresh rays have smote
The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows.
Nor shines the silver moon one-half so bright
Through the transparent bosom of the deep
As doth thy face, through tears of mine, give light.
Thou shin'st in every tear that I do weep.
No drop but as a coach doth carry thee;
So ridest thou triumphing in my woe.
Do but behold the tears that swell in me,
And they thy glory through my grief will show:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep.
O queen of queens! how far dost thou excel
No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell.

The King, spying Longaville on his way, hides. While Longaville pines a bit, we hear Berowne and the King both hoping that Longaville is also in love and acknowledging that they themselves
are in that condition.

Longaville's sonnet follows:

Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,
'Gainst whom the world cannot hold argument,
Persuade my heart to this false perjury?
Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore; but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee.
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;
Thy grace being gained cures all disgrace in me.
Vows are but breath, and breath a vapour is.
Then thou, fair sun, which on my earth dost shine,
Exhal'st this vapour-vow; in thee it is.
If broken, then, it is no fault of mine.
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To lose an oath to win a paradise?

Dumaine enters next, and as you've already guessed, Longaville hides, leaving Dumaine with a hidden audience of three as he expounds on the wonders of his lady (with extraordinarily funny and snide asides by Berowne and the others– a taste of that in a moment), and then reads his poem, written in trochaic tetrameter with masculine endings (so, 7-syllable lines, DUMta DUMta DUMta DUM) using rhymed couplets, aloud:

Dumain: O most divine Kate!

Berowne: O most profane coxcomb!

Dumain: By heaven, the wonder in a mortal eye!

Berowne: By earth, she is not, corporal, there you lie.

Dumain: Her amber hair for foul hath amber quoted.

Berowne: An amber-colour'd raven was well noted.

Dumain: As upright as the cedar.

Berowne: Stoop, I say;
Her shoulder is with child.

Dumain: As fair as day.

Berowne: Ay, as some days; but then no sun must shine.

Dumain: O that I had my wish!

Longaville: And I had mine!

King: And I mine too, good Lord!

Berowne: Amen, so I had mine: is not that a good word?

Dumain: I would forget her; but a fever she
Reigns in my blood and will remember'd be.

Berowne: A fever in your blood! why, then incision
Would let her out in saucers: sweet misprision!
Dumain: Once more I'll read the ode that I have writ.

Berowne: Once more I'll mark how love can vary wit.

Dumain: On a day--alack the day!--
Love, whose month is ever May,
Spied a blossom passing fair
Playing in the wanton air:
Through the velvet leaves the wind,
All unseen, can passage find;
That the lover, sick to death,
Wish himself the heaven's breath.
Air, quoth he, thy cheeks may blow;
Air, would I might triumph so!
But, alack, my hand is sworn
Ne'er to pluck thee from thy thorn;
Vow, alack, for youth unmeet,
Youth so apt to pluck a sweet!
Do not call it sin in me,
That I am forsworn for thee;
Thou for whom Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiope were;
And deny himself for Jove,
Turning mortal for thy love.

The poems are of varying quality, and are usually performed wholeheartedly for humor. Berowne's sonnet, which is contained in the letter to Rosaline that went astray, turns out to be the best of the four (no surprise, given his wit and way with words).

Battle of the Sexes

In this play, the men's talk is usually a lot of b.s.; they make oaths hastily and break them just as quickly. Their poems, although meant sincerely, seem insincere to the women. This goes for the secondary comic characters, like Armado, Costard, and the pedantic teacher, Holofernes, who is fond of saying the same thing in as many ways as possible. (E.g., "The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood, ripe as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven, and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth." Act IV, sc.2.)

The women's talk, on the other hand, leads to action. From "what if we played a joke on the men?" it's an easy step to "why don't we swap gifts and trick them into thinking we're each someone we're not?" to actually doing it. Recognizing that they cannot rely on the words of the men, who are, after all, notorious oath-breakers, the women initially fob off their declarations of love, then demand a year's earnest demonstration before they'll think about believing the men and accepting their offers. Again, the words of the women lead to action – this time on the part of the men.

When it comes to verbal sparring, all of the women in this play can hold their own when dealing with any man, and the women here (like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing) usually come out on top in a war of wits. (Not the case in, say, Hamlet, by the way, which we'll start talking about tomorrow.)

The Pageant of the Nine Worthies

The Nine Worthies was a conventional subject familiar to Shakespeare's audience at the time. Usually, it was a pageant play involving a group consisting of three noteable pagans, three Jews & three Christians, each of which would stand and recite. The most common configuration was as follows:

Hector of Troy
Alexander the Great
Julius Caesar

Judas Maccabaeus

Godfrey of Boulogne

There were variations, but usually the existence of three from each category was preserved. Shakespeare went wide when he chose five pagans - Alexander, Pompey, Hercules, Hector and Achilles - as well as Judas Maccabaeus (who is confused for Judas Iscariot by the lords in sport); moreover, he had only four players performing the nine roles; their play is cut short before they can name and portray the remaining characters, whomever they might have been. The presence of this pageant not only serves as sport for the lords, but shows that the lords are not always as mindful of their inferiors as they ought to be, for they are in some instances quite rude to the performers working for their entertainment.

Final Notes on the History of the Play

Although it is a deliberately "poetic" play, it is also incredibly crass. The entire play is a dazzling display of verbal wit, including an inordinate number of puns (many of which are incredibly bawdy in nature), double entendres (many of which are lost on modern audiences without explanation, but which would have had contemporary audiences howling in Shakespeare's time), word games, and conversational sparring.

This play is a demonstration of Shakespeare's wit and skill, and is particularly notable for lacking a prior source, although at least one commentator has pointed out the existence of a 1577 text entitled The French Academy, wherein is discoursed the institution of manners, and whatsoever else concerneth the good and happy life of all estates and callings, by precepts of doctrine, and examples of the lives of ancient Sages and famous men by Peter de la Premaudaye. The book was translated into English in 1586. Whether Shakespeare knew of it or not has not been established, although the general premise: four nobles locking themselves away in a country estate under the education of a learned man, and on cultivating a Stoic intellectual detachment, control of emotions, and sexual abstinence, seems to indicate that perhaps he'd read the book and lifted the premise therefrom, only to rip it to shreds in the course of his play as both impolitic and impracticable. But I digress.

Records show this play was performed before Queen Elizabeth I and her court during the Christmas season, most likely in 1597. The play appears to have been performed fairly widely under the reigns of Elizabeth and then James I, but by the 1700s it had fallen out of favor, most likely due to its reliance on extremely complex wordplay that frequently turned out to be obscene, and to its lack of a traditional happy ending. Whereas some of the other comedies (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream) ended immediately prior to the wedding of the main characters, Love's Labour's Lost ends at least a year before any weddings might occur, and even then, the weddings are contingent on the men satisfying the prerequisites set for them by the ladies.

In the commentary to the Royal Shakespeare Company's edition of the play, it's pointed out that the key to a successful performance of this play is a sense of emotional reality. In looking at the ending of the play, the commentary says this (quoting program notes from a 1978 RSC performance):

The conditions of the women at the end are not just a love test, but a test of language and humanity. With knowledge and language comes responsibility, and the educated young men have to learn to wield their linguistic powers, whether in matters of the heart or the head, with greater care: "Gently but firmly, the men are sent away to learn something that the women have known all along: how to accommodate speech to facts and to emotional realities, as opposed to using it as a means of evasion, idle amusement, or unthinking cruelty."

And now, I'm off to test my pillow for the night. If all goes well, I'll have a quoteskimming post for you later today with quotes from the three plays we've looked at so far.

Kiva - loans that change lives

Site Meter


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 7th, 2009 06:11 am (UTC)
Right. I'm blogging about cake-induced jitters and you're all literary and smart here. How is a woman supposed to keep up?!
Jun. 7th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Mmmmm. . . cake. I want cake.
Jun. 7th, 2009 12:30 pm (UTC)
I liked the movie.
This is IMO one of Shakespeare's hardest plays. It so easily becomes boring, since the stakes aren't convincingly high. It always reminds me of High School for some reason. Maybe that's just me being shallow and modern and ignorant.
Jun. 7th, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
I thought the Branagh movie was a good idea somewhat flatly executed. It's certainly one of the hardest plays because it does rely so very much on its wordplay and on the speed of the banter, making it that much harder to sort out. Between speed and content and obscure or forgotten references, it's tricksy!
Jun. 7th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
You that way; we this way
A few years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Love's Labor's Lost (my favorite!) performed at the Huntington in Boston (for free!). They did a wonderful job augmenting a number of places in the text whose humor no longer makes sense to the audience with music and dance; the repetition, the music, made it so comic that the audience laughed just where I would supposed the folks in the Globe did, although perhaps for different reasons.

I've only seen this one performance, so it may be that this is common in all of them, but with his final line ("You that way; we this way") Armado gestured first to the doors behind the audience and then to the wings off-stage. It was a powerful ending, both closing the story and sending the audience from within the world of the play back into their own lives.

Jun. 7th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
Re: You that way; we this way
Sounds cool!

My understanding is that sometimes Armado delivers the line just as you saw it - "you" being the audience and "we" being the actors - and sometimes he delivers it to the two different groups of singers on stage, so that spring goes off one way and winter the other. I think I'd prefer the way you saw it, but not having seen it live, I probably shouldn't offer an opinion!
Jun. 8th, 2009 12:24 am (UTC)
Re: You that way; we this way
I was expecting him to address the singers as you said, so it was a great surprise.

Thanks for discussing/publicizing this play!

Jun. 7th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
I so wish that Shakespeare hadn't made the owl-represents-evil-bird symbol even more popular. Although this poem is better than being an ingredient for a witches' brew in the Scottish play.
Jun. 7th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
In Elizabethan England, the owl also represented death (it's not just a Native American thing!), prostitution, cuckoldry, and wisdom. Not sure how all those meanings interact, frankly.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 7th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
No wonder you loved that Catherine Morland line so well: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

May 2018


Powered by LiveJournal.com