“What is the end of study?” a nervous Berowne asks after the King of Navarre and two companions vow to swear off the company of women for three years in order to focus on fasting and intellectual pursuits. The King assumes Berowne’s asking about the goal of studying and replies, as if the answer is self-evident, “Why, that to know which else we should not know.” But as the title Love’s Labor’s Lost illustrates, and as Benedick says in Much Ado About Nothing (which may contain the remnants of Shakespeare’s long-rumored-and-lost sequel Love’s Labor’s Won), “There’s a double meaning in that.”
Parsing the meaning of words — testing them, defining them, attempting to live by them and woo with them — is both the subject and the action of Shakespeare’s early comedy. All of Shakespeare’s plays can be said to be in love with language, but Love’s Labor’s Lost is literally about language: about words and their definitions, and about how characters from every level of society play with words and tease and tempt each other with flights of rhetoric and literary wit. It’s a massive, wordy, and discursive play, and finding an emotional path through the verbal undergrowth is a tricky undertaking.
Like the over-the-top violence in Titus Andronicus, the sheer volume of verbal wit, multi-lingual puns, and linguistic gymnastics in Love’s Labor’s Lost is excessive and ridiculous. The danger for any production is to luxuriate in each terrible pun and treat every classical allusion as a precious gem to be held up to the light and marveled at and sighed over. Shakespeare’s plays need to drive forward with great urgency and stay one step ahead of the audience so that a fast-paced Comedy doesn’t become a leisurely-paced Melancholy.
What’s especially delightful about Love’s Labor’s Lost is that it’s a comedy about melancholy, a satire on youthful arrogance, intellectual pretension, and romantic naiveté, as Folger Theatre’s spring production demonstrates. Director Vivienne Benesch and her team lean into the wordplay by setting the action in a library — and not just any library, either. The Folger’s historic reading room is re-created on the stage with such wonderful texture and detail that you could be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into the wrong half of the building. It’s both a beautiful and an inherently comic setting for swoony young lovers to find themselves cavorting and sighing in, and the central conflict between the characters’ hearts and minds is symbolized by marble sculptures framing the main library door: A small statue of Cupid representing Love on one side and a bust of Shakespeare himself representing the Mind on the other.
The library setting makes literal the King’s aspiration to create “a little academe,” and also gives the director the opportunity to populate the stage with familiar types. Nathaniel becomes the classic archetype of a spinster librarian enamored with the pedant Holofernes, giving their polysyllabic scenes a playfully flirtatious edge and — in contrast to the romantically frustrated young people — a reassuring comically erotic charge that proves that, with a little seasoning, the heart and the mind (and the loins) can work very well together.
Berowne finally concludes that, rather than formal academic institutions, it is “women’s eyes [that]…are the books, the arts, the academes that show, contain, and nourish all the world.” He needn’t wait for his studies to end, or put off one for the other: Romance and education are not mutually exclusive, and the marriage of heart and mind can be found in love and (after some minor delays) actual marriage.
As it happens, seeing the Folger’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was the perfect cap to a weekend spent celebrating my son’s graduation from Georgetown as a double-major in Classics and English. Seeing a play that so wonderfully explores the ridiculousness of a strictly intellectual life, in a production that perfectly captures the comic tension between the heart and the mind, on the same weekend where my son’s formal academic life came to its regularly scheduled (at least for the moment) end, was a delightfully entertaining reminder of the value of a love of learning and of learning to love.
Turns out — if you do it right — learning, study, and love never ends.