Folger Theatre’s “friendly and frisky” Love’s Labor’s Lost continues performances through June 16. This lesser-performed Shakespeare comedy features wit and charm—and is set inside the Folger Shakespeare Library. Folger Resident Dramaturg and UMBC Associate Professor of English Michele Osherow takes us inside Folger Theatre’s unique production to explore why this romantic comedy is so perfectly suited to DC in the 1930s.
Because Love’s Labor’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early (some say very early) plays, there are those who might excuse, or worse, dismiss it. But that loss would be even more unfortunate than the loss announced in the play’s title. Critical attention to Love’s Labor’s Lost frequently emphasizes the play’s anticipation of later and, presumably, more beloved comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. But this earlier work, generally dated between 1594-96, is shot through with surprising singularity. Like the swanky men of Navarre who open the action, the playtext seems keen to flex its literary muscle and “buy that honor which shall . . . make [it heir] of all eternity.”
Shakespeare rhymes more verses in this play than in any other—so much so, that unrhymed text was flagged for significance by this poetically savvy cast. In Love’s Labor’s, the playwright outdoes himself in mocking literary trends: Petrarchan conventions and courtly matter are among those hardest hit. Compelling, too, is the way Love’s Labor’s subverts expectations of comedy without venturing into the murky discomfort of the later “problem plays.” There is no problem in Navarre that may not be solved by a quick turn of phrase or the swift foot of time. The play’s loving laborers are steeped in optimism and boyish aplomb. Wit fuels every action. If there is a touch of the unseasoned in this work, it comes from the play’s confusion of linguistic ingenuity for bona fide affection.
Language is as much the matter of Love’s Labor’s as love itself. As William C. Carroll writes in the essay excerpted in this program, “the pun . . . is the linguistic DNA” of this work. The King and his lords dazzle with clever wordplay, twisting one another’s meaning at dizzying speed like a lexical ball spun on one finger. These rhetorical giants are too clever by half. Throughout the play, across class and gender, language is everyone’s playground. All recognize the pleasures to be had in using, coining, riffing, commanding, or lampooning others’ words. It is the rustic Costard, rather than the aspiring scholars or their tutor, who uses the longest word found in all of Shakespeare: honorificabilitudinitatibus, from medieval Latin meaning “the state of being able to achieve honor.” Costard uses it in conversation with a mere boy, confirming their mutual access to honor. Language is evermore the great equalizer.
Small wonder then, that such a play should be presented within these Folger walls. Director Vivienne Benesch’s inspired choice to recreate the Folger’s Paster Reading Room on stage winks an approval of both the enterprise to which the would-be scholars vow their service and tenderness of feeling that distracts them from it. In Collecting Shakespeare, Stephen H. Grant describes the story of Henry and Emily Folger as “a double love story,” one romantic, the other literary.
Setting this production in the early 1930s (the Library opened in 1932), complements the Folgers’ passion for Shakespeare as a source of faith and hope. In Love’s Labor’s, Navarre’s King makes clear his aim to cultivate “a little academe/Still and contemplative in living art.” Though the early ‘30s saw America in the devastation of the Great Depression, the period gave rise to all manner of “living art.” During that time, the Public Works of Art Project and the more expansive Federal Art Project commissioned work from more than 10,000 artists charged with integrating art into Americans’ daily lives. Many artists taught in educational art centers, also sponsored by the FAP. Art was an essential source, in those hard times, of relief, community, and learning.
The young men in this play are neither still nor contemplative long enough to find this out, distracted by the arrival of the whip-smart French Princess and her lively companions. Berowne justifies the exchange of rare books for rarer beauty, insisting that “women’s eyes” provide whatever education men need: “They are . . . the books, the arts, the academes, / That show, contain and nourish all the world.” It’s a stunning sentiment, and true enough if those ladies’ eyes are kept busy in a library, especially one devoted to turning old texts into living art, inside its walls and beyond them.
Don’t miss Folger Theatre’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, extended through June 16. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.