Love's Labour's Lost

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 51st season opened with Love's Labour's Lost on an idyllic night under the stars, and fully lives up to the dreamy setting and the elegant and flowery style of the play's romantic sentiments.

(Left to right) Seth Dhonau as Berowne, Marco Robinson as King Ferdinancd of Navarre, David Derringer as Dumaine, and AJ Voliton as Longeville
(L to R) Seth Dhonau as Berowne, Marco Robinson as King Ferdinancd of Navarre,
David Derringer as Dumaine, and AJ Voliton as Longeville
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
When John Lyly, one of the writers employed by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, published Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580), a brief, but lively, era of ornate and sophisticated literary style (defined by strict rules) was ushered in, engendering the English novel. This florid herald of the coming Baroque period of the Renaissance, a few decades hence, immediately spilled over onto the English stage with the early performances of Love's Labour's Lost, performed at the court of Elizabeth I.

As we can hear in the many fine monologues and witty repartee, de Vere—the pre-eminent patron of English literature, writers, and translators of his day—had a hand in creating Euphuism (via support for his studio of writers), as well as being the principal subject of this genre, and principle adaptor and employer of the style for the stage; in particular, this bucolic romance, as well as bursts in Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night, all of which feature the continuing thread of de Vere's romantic and marital entanglements,1 which are spoofed exceptionally well in this one.

During this euphuistic period, de Vere, still estranged from his wife for his supposition that his first daughter was not his—and which engendered cuckholding projections explored in Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, not to mention the antidote, or "bed trick," which appears in Measure for Measure and Allís Well that Ends Well—began seeing Anne Vavasor, a 19-year old "vestal virgin," as Elizabeth demanded of her ladies-in-waiting. The sublime emotions expressed between Berowne and Rosaline in Love's Labour's Lost, as well as those of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (performed earlier at court under the title of Love's Labour's Won), and between Romeo and Juliet, in their tragedy, are based on this affair, which ended rather badly—with Vavasor's giving birth, the two lovers spending time in the Tower of London, on orders of the Queen, and later, various street fights (over Vavasor's honor and revenge for its besmirchment) between the Vavasor and de Vere clans, which are chronicled with exactitude in Romeo and Juliet.

Marco Robinson as King Ferdinand of Navarre
Marco Robinson
as King Ferdinand of Navarre
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Given that this play begins with a speech by the king of Navarre, and that the native line of the kings of Navarre came to an end in 1234, this delightful, wickedly satirical, and thoughtful comedy is best understood as metaphor, written to entertain the court and stimulate discussion on topical issues, as were most of Shake-speare's works—excluding almost all the histories, which were written as propaganda to reinforce Tudor sovereignty and stir patriotism during a precarious time (with constant threats of the reinstatement of the Roman Church in England, via the powerful Spanish armed forces and/or monarchal marriage). For those labors, and for anonymously penning state-sponsored homilies for the pulpit, de Vere was given the third highest annual stipend in the realm, after King James VI of Scotland, who succeeded Elizabeth on the throne, and Francis Walsingham, who oversaw Britain's intelligence and spying operations.

As always, de Vere draws his characters from life experience, including multiple facets of himself, which in this case include two, or possibly three, fair ladies that got away—thus, his title, Love's Labour's Lost—plus, some fun with his literary relationships with Thomas Nashe, Gabriel Harvey, and Will Shaksper, the fellow from Stratford.

The conceit of Love's Labour's Lost, that four young noblemen aim to sequester themselves for three years and forswear woman derives from the conditions surrounding de Vere's thirteenth through fifteenth years, when the plague was rife, and those who could get away did so. During this period, de Vere lodged at St. John's College, Cambridge University, along with other prominent young men associated with Elizabeth's court. In general, the entitled classes did not take degrees per se, but studied independently and were often awarded—accompanied by the appropriate pomp and circumstance—honorary degrees based on the their studies.

Desirée Mee Jung as the Princess of France
Desirée Mee Jung as the Princess of France
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
During the Elizabethan royal progress of 1561, Elizabeth was shocked by the presence of woman and children in the sacred places of of the colleges and cathedral closes, and after getting talked down from more drastic measures, she issued an edict that prohibited women from lodging at universities. This action came back to haunt her,2 when she came to Cambridge for five nights (to celebrate the degrees bestowed upon de Vere and other nobles, including William Cecil, her chief executive officer), breaking her 1561 oath (a key theme applied to the men in the play, as well).

While there's no need to belabor the authorship question, which is dead and buried under the hefty tonnage of continually unfolding facts, it's worth noting that the young earl from the oldest earldom felt comfortable giving Elizabeth a good ribbing over this. A basic understanding of the power structure and class system of the Elizabethan age tells us that few others could have gotten away with such an insubordinate jest,3 via the king, Ferdinand, instructing the Princess of France to camp in the field, outside of his spartan academy.

Ferdinand. Fair princess, welcome to the court of Navarre.

Princess of France.
'Fair' I give you back again; and 'welcome' I have
not yet: the roof of this court is too high to be
yours; and welcome to the wide fields too base to be mine.

Ferdinand. You shall be welcome, madam, to my court.

Princess of France. I will be welcome, then: conduct me thither.

Ferdinand. Hear me, dear lady; I have sworn an oath.

Princess of France. Our Lady help my lord! he'll be forsworn.

Ferdinand. Not for the world, fair madam, by my will.

Princess of France. Why, will shall break it; will and nothing else.

Ferdinand. Your ladyship is ignorant what it is.

Princess of France. Were my lord so, his ignorance were wise,
Where now his knowledge must prove ignorance.
I hear your grace hath sworn out house-keeping:
Tis deadly sin to keep that oath, my lord,
And sin to break it.
But pardon me. I am too sudden-bold:
To teach a teacher ill beseemeth me.
Vouchsafe to read the purpose of my coming,
And suddenly resolve me in my suit.

Ferdinand. Madam, I will, if suddenly I may.

Princess of France. You will the sooner, that I were away;
For you'll prove perjured if you make me stay.
Act II, Scene I, 580-602

(Left to Right) Amber Scales as Katherine, Desirée Mee Jung as Princess of France, Scott Coopwood as Boyet, Aziza Gharib as Maria, and Brynn Tucker as Rosaline
(L to R) Amber Scales as Katherine, Desirée Mee Jung as Princess of France,
Scott Coopwood as Boyet, Aziza Gharib as Maria, and Brynn Tucker as Rosaline
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Despite this slight from the king, the Princess (as a stand-in for Queen Elizabeth I) and her entourage—Rosaline (Anne Vavasor), Maria (Mary Hastings), and Katherine, as well as Boyet (William Cecil, Lord Burghley)—remain in good spirits and prove to be a challenging match for the king and his lords, all the while maintaining impeccable French manners, exhibiting detailed French mannerisms, and providing a revealing glimpse of French courtly culture, much as de Vere experienced it during his stay at the French court, on his 16-month sojourn across the continent, when he was 26.

Brynn Tucker as Rosaline and Seth Dhonau as Berowne
Brynn Tucker as Rosaline and Seth Dhonau as Berowne
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
While all four of the courtly couples— Ferdinand and the Princess, Berowne and Rosaline, Longaville and Maria, and Dumain and Katherine—have their sweet and sour moments, the most prominent monologues and dialogues fall to Berowne and Rosaline (the playwright and his muse at the time), our favorite being this verse:

Berowne. Consider what you first did swear unto,
To fast, to study, and to see no woman;
Flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth.
Say, can you fast? your stomachs are too young;
And abstinence engenders maladies.
And where that you have vow'd to study, lords,
In that each of you have forsworn his book,
Can you still dream and pore and thereon look?
For when would you, my lord, or you, or you,
Have found the ground of study's excellence
Without the beauty of a woman's face?
[From women's eyes this doctrine I derive;]
They are the ground, the books, the academes
From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire]
Why, universal plodding poisons up
The nimble spirits in the arteries,
As motion and long-during action tires
The sinewy vigour of the traveller.
Now, for not looking on a woman's face,
You have in that forsworn the use of eyes
And study too, the causer of your vow;
For where is any author in the world
Teaches such beauty as a woman's eye?
Learning is but an adjunct to ourself
And where we are our learning likewise is:
Then when ourselves we see in ladies' eyes,
Do we not likewise see our learning there?
O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books.
For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,
In leaden contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty's tutors have enrich'd you with?
Other slow arts entirely keep the brain;
And therefore, finding barren practisers,
Scarce show a harvest of their heavy toil:
But love, first learned in a lady's eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain;
But, with the motion of all elements,
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye;
A lover's eyes will gaze an eagle blind;
A lover's ear will hear the lowest sound,
When the suspicious head of theft is stopp'd:
Love's feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockl'd snails;
Love's tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste:
For valour, is not Love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo's lute, strung with his hair:
And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.
Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were temper'd with Love's sighs;
O, then his lines would ravish savage ears
And plant in tyrants mild humility.
From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain and nourish all the world:
Else none at all in ought proves excellent.
Then fools you were these women to forswear,
Or keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.
For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women,
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfills the law,
And who can sever love from charity?
Act IV, Scene III, 1636-1710

De Vere's short-lived connection with Mary Hastings, during their youth, provides some excellent comedic fodder during the wooing episodes of the play. Two years before de Vere was of the age of consent, his father, Earl John, and Henry Hastings, earl of Huntington, drew up a marriage contract, that, if confirmed two years later, would wed Edward to Mary Hastings, who was of royal blood by a brother to Richard III, and considered, at the time, to be the most likely successor to Elizabeth I, should she die childless. But the contract was never renewed, due to Earl John's death. A few years on, Mary caused a scene at court when she publicly refused a marriage offer from the Czar of Muscovy, an event which gained so much notoriety, that Love's Labour's Lost spoofs it, when the wooing lords disguise themselves as ambassadors from Muscovy and try to win over the Princess and her friends.4

Anastasia Davidson as Jaquenetta and Michael Bouchard as Costard
Anastasia Davidson as Jaquenetta
and Michael Bouchard as Costard
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Additional comedic relief is provided by Armado, Moth, Holofernes, and Costard, as stand-ins for de Vere, the writers Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, and the grain dealer turned theatre investor and "actor" Will Shaksper, of Stratford. It is the most intimate look presently available into the relationship between the playwright and his eventual emblem book (the First Folio) mask from Stratford.

In 1593, there were rumours circulating that "the erle of Oxford" was dissatisfied with his position in the English court, and that he "would be easily movyd to folow the Spanish king," if given the opportunity.5 Armado, who generally makes a fool of himself, going over the top with euphuistic filigree and arabesque, confesses that he is in love with a base wench, Jaquenetta (Anastasia Davidson), his literary muse, whose comely charms convince us that his worship is well-founded, regardless of her pedigree.

Rafael Untalan as Don Adriano de Armado
Rafael Untalan as Don Adriano de Armado
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
De Vere compliments his friend, Nashe, by calling Moth "a most acute Juvenal," the Roman satirist to whom Nashe was often compared. Moth and Armado trade rhymes about "the fox, the ape, and the humblebee," a spoof on Nashe's character creation, Pierce Penniless (de Vere), who waxes on an extended parable that includes a fox, an ape, and a honeybee.6 Nashe's fictional name for his friend de Vere literally translates as the bankrupt speare. In 1592, Nashe wrote that Pierce Penniless is the author of Venus and Adonis. This is just one of a handful of literary references that indicate the author of the canon, Shake-speare (as it was first used on the cover of the first edition of the Sonnets), is Oxford.

Harvey, too, gave the world a hint, albeit in Latin, in 1578, when he wrote "Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear," but he fares less well in de Vere's portrait of Holofernes, who is mocked as a verbose pedant, the epitome of the stock commedia dell'arte character, Il Dottore—Harvey being Nashe's nemisis, including their jabs over an obscure Latin verse, which Holofernes quotes in Act IV.

But the most telling engagement is that between Armado and Costard, during the period when the Stratford mask was beginning to take root. They have both loved the same woman, Jaquenetta (the literary muse), but it is Armado that impregnates her. After Armado is given custody of Costard (seriously!), he asks him to serve as a messenger for his writings penned to honor his muse (a telling metaphor for the Stratford mask), but Costard is either too dense, or illiterate, or both, to keep the recipients straight, after Berowne (de Vere's higher self) employs him to take his mash note to Rosaline. Later, when Armado pens a short scene to entertain the nobility, Costard, in the guise of one of "The Nine Worthies," Pompey the Great, says, in no uncertain terms:

"For mine own part, I know not the degree of the worthy. But I am prepared to stand for him." 7

To be fair, de Vere does provide a moment for Costard to shine, when he jumps in to keep the play going after the actor, Nathaniel, playing Alexander the Great runs off the stage crying. Yet, the growing animosity between de Vere and Shaksper is shown when Armado challenges Costard, but Moth breaks up the fight and tells Armado not the get into it with Costard. As the final, edited version of the canon (first folio) progresses past this play and the earlier A Midsummer Night's Dream (Bottom), the portraits of Shaksper become increasingly unfavorable, as we seen in As You Like It (Will) and the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew (Christopher Sly).

The verdant setting for the play, designed by Stephen C. Jones, evokes a well-maintained garden, as one would expect from the subject as well as from the playwright. Among the many disciplines that de Vere studied was horticulture, first with pharmaculturist Sir Thomas Smith, and later at Cecil House with John Gerard, who designed and maintained Lord Burghley's exquisite gardens. Love's Labour's Lost uses Gerard's floral imagery from his pamphlet "Herbal: Or General History of Plants," to pinpoint the seasonal emergence of the cuckoo bird—associating it with the blooming of silver-white lady-smocks.8

Director Brendon Fox employs the scene to set a brisk, yet well-tempered pace, and draws excellent performances all around, although the silent bookends of the performance, with actor Anthony Adu in a World War I uniform, arriving in Navarre, removing his soldier's garb, and joining the troupe, and to reverse his wardrobe at the end, sing a lovely madrigal, and presumably return to the Great War, is a bit of a head-scratcher, unless to employ the uniform to represent the big, bad, outside world, or as an excuse to adorn the ensemble in a very stylish wardrobe by Meghan Anderson Doyle—the latter reason alone justifying the choice, which could have been done without any heavy-handed "message." A costume consistent with a mourner (of a plague victim) would have been more accurate, if one wanted to contexualize the original period and intent; and besides, French royalty did not exist after 1848, almost 50 years before the WWI.

The repartee between King Ferdinand of Navarre (Marco Robinson) and the Princess of France (Desirée Mee Jung) is delightful, as Robinson embraces both a monarch's formality and a man's desire, which leaves him overmatched by the Princess, as a regal Jung dishes out delicious zingers, while dancing rhetorical circles around him. Brynn Tucker serves a sassy and playful sauce, as her Rosaline reminds Seth Dhonau's silver-tongued, erudite Berowne that despite his world-class verse, he foreswore his oath to woo her. (LOL! Talk about a double-standard: "Keep going! I'm flattered! No! Stop!"). Great shtick by Rafael Untalan as Armado and exquisite comedic timing by Michael Bouchard as Costard. Scott Coopwood's Boyet sparkles with wit and sarcasm.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Love's Labour's Lost runs through August 12th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

1 Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, pp. 160-61.
2 Ibid, pp. 12-13.
3 Ibid, pp. 28-29.
4 Ibid, pp. 15-16.
5 Ibid, p. 261.
6 Ibid, p. 261.
7 Ibid, p. 263.
8 Ibid, p. 20.

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