This spring, Folger Theatre presented a Love’s Labor’s Lost transplanted to 1930s Washington, DC, complete with record players and secret caches of whiskey or bourbon you’d expect to find in a Thin Man movie. It worked, because the play’s comedic energy aligns perfectly with another type of romantic comedy popular in 1930s American cinema: screwball comedy.
In Love’s Labor’s Lost, the women’s arrival upends the men’s plans, and any oaths they made to devote themselves to study and to scorn the presence of women go out the window. Soon the men find themselves (in this production) stumbling around lovesick in the middle of the night, searching for the right turn of phrase to woo the ladies, all while trying to hide their infidelity to their oath from one another. It’s straight out of a golden-age screwball film.
A battle of the sexes waged with words
One of the hallmarks of screwball comedy is witty, fast-paced dialogue, a battle of the sexes waged with words; think of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading barbs a mile a minute in His Girl Friday. Shakespeare too delights in his characters’ wordplay, especially that of the King, his men, the Princess, and her ladies. In Shakespeare’s day, such ready wit was indispensable for a refined courtier, though if tennis was the metaphor for verbal sparring, Shakespeare’s is a friendlier game of court compared to Grant and Russell’s. But both achieve the same effect of satirizing love, aiming at its traditional story (in screwball comedy) and its language (in Shakespeare).
The men and ladies in Shakespeare’s play are both skilled at the game of wits, but the women often best the men. Similarly in screwball comedy, the woman is usually the dominant partner. Mild-mannered paleontologist Cary Grant doesn’t stand a chance against Katherine Hepburn’s slightly batty heiress in Bringing Up Baby. Bookish professor Gary Cooper is no match for nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck, in Ball of Fire.
Disguises and escapism
The ladies reassert their dominance after receiving letters and gifts to wear from their suitors. They opt to have some fun, trading the gifts among each other and donning masks before the men arrive, raising another feature of screwball comedy: disguises, masquerades, and mistaken identities. Think of Irene Dunne pretending to be Cary Grant’s sister (rather than his ex-wife) when she meets his new fiancée in The Awful Truth. The entire plot of The Lady Eve hinges on Barbara Stanwyck posing as the eponymous society woman rather than the con artist she really is. Here, in Love’s Labor’s Lost, the ladies assume each other’s identities, prompting the men to assert the earnestness of their pursuit. Until now, the women have been, to varying degrees, less swept up than the men, not realizing how serious the men actually are.
Even the setting parallels screwball comedies, which reveled in escapism—no surprise given their popularity during the Great Depression. Here, the Court of Navarre suggests a kind of escapism in that it was supposed to be a place of study—an intellectual refuge. It is a particular source of escapism for the Princess, whose father is sick. Though she is ostensibly there on business, we see very little actually conducted.
A bittersweet ending
True, the parallels aren’t perfect, the key deviation being the play’s abruptly sad ending. At the height of their revels, once the masquerades are set aside and the couples paired off, a herald arrives with grave news: the old king is dead. The Princess, now Queen, must return home with her ladies and go into mourning for a year. Rather than a happy, boy-gets-girl ending, Shakespeare gives us an ending where boy and girl must separate. As Berowne says, “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill” (5.2.947-8). Though the men pledge to wait, a year is a long time. We have to wonder if the foundation of these relationships, based on initial attraction and verbal sparring, is enough to withstand the test. A bittersweet ending, where boy never gets girl, is possible.
No matter how their story ultimately ends, bittersweet is the right word for this play. The Princess and her ladies may have enjoyed their respite and even fallen in love in Navarre. But duty and responsibility can’t be ignored indefinitely and may even prove obstacles to happy endings, something the Princess understands perhaps best of all. This is just as true for the audience. As Berowne notes, a year is “too long for a play” (5.2.952). We can’t stay to see how it ends. We have responsibilities, too. Shakespeare underlines his point by addressing the last line to us: “You [the audience] that way: we [the players] this way” (5.2.1003). Instead of pure screwball escapism, Shakespeare injects his play with the acknowledgment that the revels can’t go on forever. Eventually, the games—and the plays and movies—have to end.