Ask anyone about the world’s language, and English will be the answer. English, the language of the global economy. English, the language of mundane, functional communication. English, a bastard voice spawned from so many other languages, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, and forget not those Vikings, pillaging across Europe and the northern Atlantic ocean islands. English, the language of sit-coms and the latest block-buster movie of chase scenes and explosions and yelling hero’s slaughtering hoards of evil attackers. Would Shakespeare have labored over his love of language, should he have foreseen that his prose and poetry would be lost in 21st century tweets? The Spring season production of Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Blackfriar theatre graces us with the beauty that could be in the English language, as well as warnings of flippant male utterances and the folly of language devoid of substance.
I recall our first day traveling in Ireland in 2009 when I heard the beauty of the English language with absolutely no comprehension of what was being said. We had deplaned in Dublin at 7 a.m. after a trans-Atlantic crossing over night. Our rental car and bed-and-breakfast secured, we set out to the Wicklow Mountains for some touring, to keep ourselves awake through the afternoon. We joined a walking tour of the Glendalough Monastery. We stood in the shelter of the monastery ruins, watching sun and rain dance up and down the valley. I recall being lulled into a relaxed mind by the rhythm and cadence of the guide’s voice. Whether my ear was not yet tuned to the Irish dialect or jet-lag tugged at my pant legs and whispered to me to lay down on the cobbles to slumber like Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, I drifted on those words with absolutely no understanding of what the words were or meant. Such beauty the English language could have, were we all Irish.
Shakespeare stages his exploration of language in Love’s Labor’s Lost by appointing a challenge to three young scholars. The King of Navarre (Patrick Midgley) tasks his peers, Berowne (Patrick Earl), Longaville (Jacob Daly), and Dumaine (David Millstone) to spend three years in academic study with him, while foreswearing the one distraction from knowledge: women. This can take us to only one place: the codpiece, swollen with pride, pierced by Cupid arrow, hunted like Diana’s stag, hiding in the bush, cuckolded by the cuckoo’s song, deceived by one’s own deceit, and sunk by Don Armado’s (Rick Blunt) bombastic barbarism of language as the Spanish Armada fell hapless on the English shoals. And, thus does Shakespeare work his magic of words, like Bob Dylan reciting lists of phrases, all centered on one concept: Lay-Lady-Lay…
And, this battle of words will be fought between the lofty sentiments of Berowne, the base urges of Don Armado, and the scholarly pontification of Holofernes (David Millstone). Each draws out his rapier of eloquence as if to duel with the coarse lust of men’s eye for women, but with the dual purpose of winning the lady, to appease his lust, thereby negating his argument that men can be anything higher than their erect stature. Hey, if I keep this up, you too shall condemn me to a fall.
To press this point, Shakespeare must bring on the objects of the students’ abstinence: the Princess of France (Stephanie Hoolladay Earl), and her three ladies attending, Rosaline (Lexie Helgerson), Maria (Liz Ladato), and Katherine (Briget Rue). With them Boyet (Seth McNeil) serves as their man, to carry the luggage, and narrate to them the ways of men. Shakespeare twists his rhymes, entangling the men nearly instantly around their little fingers. The ink upon their study-pledge is hardly dry before they have lost sight of it for the enchanting eyes set upon the female figure. And, henceforth, though four more Acts, they will prance, prattle, and parlay in hopes of evading their peers to partake of their prize.
Should anyone believe that Shakespeare condones this love as lofty, night-in-shining amour, he fills out the cast’s trousers and petty-coats with a band of commoners, Don Armado, Moth (Stephanie Holladay Earl), Costard (Andrew Goldwasser), Jaquenetta (Bridget Rue), Holofernes, Nathaniel (Lexie Helgerson), Dull (Seth MeNeill), and Forester (Jacob Daly). And, in a nod to local humor, the cast introduces them, not as “commoners”, but the “commonwealth” as Virginia is not a state, but a Commonwealth, and hardly virginal, as “Virginia is for Lovers”.
While each student must have his match, but one woman can satisfy these earthy folks. Jaquenette posses enough vital magnetism to attract her opposite and bond their poles, as much to her delight as theirs. She need say little for truly sexual desire need not hide behind words. But, in her bosom she carries the mis-guided lover’s sonnet of Berowne to Rosaline, revealing his unkept oath to any who will reach to snatch it from her cleavage. Oh, should I keep this, you will certainly conclude I too write unsecured sonnets slipped between the rolling hills and exposed to all by batting eyes and coy smile.
And, those students pen their secret sonnets, reading them to themselves and to us, with off-stage guitar arpeggios, only to learn their peers have been hiding among the audience listening in attentively as have we. Ha! you traitors to knowledge, we see that wisdom has not gained ground beyond your knees, as you fall on them, swooning at the dreams that you desire. But, the ladies need not two hours, as do we, to see through your honey-dew words. For, they, receiving their poems and presents, do devise to turn the men’s deceit to their discretion. They swap the jewels, fan, gloves, and string of pearls, at a masked meeting, confirming that the men wish to woe them not for whom they are but for whom they believe them to be.
In a scene later, the ladies recite the secret desires whispered by the men, showing that they understand the words that the men pretend to comprehend. Men are but eyes wandering from beautiful sight to beautiful sight. Their eyes are truly the black pitch balls that they accuse the women of having. The women are the light that lights the light thereby obscuring the light that the eyes cannot see.
So, the beautiful feast of lyric words ends. Boyet enters with a pronouncement that the King has died. The Princess will go into mourning with her ladies. For twelve months, they will forego love, even as they have just joined hands with the men who profess to love them. They beseech them to wait. But, as with most of Shakespeare’s comedies, if we project what we have just enjoyed for two hours, we know that the happily-ever-after future is folly. These fickle men cannot withhold their longing for twelve minutes, let alone twelve months. To cuckold is not the domain of men or women, but the unsanctioned joining of the two. A play twelve months long is too much, Don Armado warns us. And Love’s Labor’s Lost is merely a beautify word salad, summed up by Moth: “They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps,…”. But, oh, what a feast it was.