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4. LOVE'S LABOUR’S LOST – TWO GENTLEMEN OF
VERONA - ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.
“Love's Labour's Lost” attaches itself immediately to "Twelfth Night, or What You Will.” The fantastic element in its composition is distinctly apparent. Caprice and chance, the most extravagant wit, the most whimsical conceits, with the most wonderful fantastic characters and comic situations, keep up the merry game. Intrigue, however, preponderates; since what little of action there is in the piece is confined to the plots and counterplots of the two contending parties who stand opposed to each other on the field of love. We propose, therefore, to commence with this play the series of pieces which, from their prevailing tone, we would designate as Comedies of Intrigue.
The youthful King of Navarre, with three of his knightly companions, have adopted the strange conceit of devoting three years to the study of wisdom and science, in strict retirement from the world, and especially from all female society. To this engagement they have bound themselves by oath. Their steadiness, however, is quickly put to the proof by the arrival of the beautiful Princess of France, with lier ladies, demanding an immediate audience on urgent affairs of state, which admit not of delay. The votaries of wisdom and retirement fall in love at first sight with these fair dames, who are not more beautiful than mischievous. Hereupon commences a merry combat of wit and repartee, the knights either taunting each other with their violated oaths, or seeking to justify themselves to their own conscience, or striving to win their ladies' hearts, which the latter as cleverly defend, retorting wit for wit, and inflicting a just punishment on their affectation of superior wisdom, and the engagement which is broken as quickly as it was foolishly made. Interwoven with all this is the sprightly contrast afforded by the comic scenes, where we are introduced to the two insipid pedants, and a knightly pretender to taste and learning, a young saucy page, and a privileged fool. The motley web is, however, suddenly cut short by news of the death of the Princess's aged and infirm father, and the piece concludes with a lesson intrinsically serious, however jestingly conveyed. The task which the King and his companions, in a light humour, had engaged in, is enjoined upon them with some slight modification by their lady-loves, in punishment of their arrogant caprice. The whole concludes with a song between Spring and Winter, maintained by the Cuckoo and the Owl, which, with its poetic chiaro-oscuro, diffuses a soft halo over the meaning and purport of the poem.
The leading idea of the piece is, in short, the significant contrast of the fresli, youthful, and ever-blooming reality of life, and a dry, lifeless, and recluse study of science. Either member of the contrariety, nakedly opposed to the other, and placed in hostile opposition to, and wholly uninfluenced by it, becomes untrue, preposterous, and absurd. The science which abstracts itself from reality and retires in lonely contemplation, must either quickly entomb itself in the barren sands of a tasteless and pedantic erudition, or else, overcome by the gay seductions of life, give itself up to excessive pleasure and learned trifling, and earn for itself the merited reproach of affectation or pretension. One of these results is embodied in the Curate, Sir Nathaniel, and the Village Schoolmaster, Holofernes—those truthful representatives of the retailers of learned trifles — and in the pompous and bombastic Spanish Knight, Don Adriano de Armado—the Quixote of a highsounding phraseology. The other is indicated by the King and his companions. From the pursuit of wisdom, which they blindly hope to gain by abstract study, they soon fall into the veriest silliness and fooleries of love-making ; in spite of their oaths and fraternity, nature and truth quickly make themselves felt, and gain an easy victory. But this victory over false wisdom is fundamentally nothing more than the defeat of folly by folly. For, on the other hand, nature and reality, taken by themselves, are but fugitive and illusory images when apart from the solidity of the cognizant mind; separated from this, the merry sport of love and life is checked and damped; talents, shrewdness, and acquirements, become a mere vain and superficial wit, and love itself, when unassociated with the solidity, earnestness, and moderation, which occasional solitude and contemplative reflection alone can bestow upon the mind, sinks into a tawdry show of tinsel and spangle. And to such meditation the Prince and his courtiers are for a while consigned by the objects of their adoration. We have here the triumph of the fine and correct judgment of a noble woman, which is as complete as that of her social wit and clever management. The speech of the Princess, in which she condemns the Prince to twelve months of seclusion and self-denial, and the words of Rosaline, which indignantly expose the thorough worthlessness of wit and talents when exclusively directed to festive and social amusement, convey, as it were, the moral of the fable. The end of the comedy returns, so to speak, into its beginning: the dialectic of irony has palsied both members of the truth when presented to it in their untenable and one-sided exclusiveness. The highest splendour and pleasures of life, wit and talents, without the earnestness and profundity which a thoughtful mind lends to them, are a mere false tinsel, while learning and science, abstracted from, and undirected to the realities of life, are equally worthless and unsubstantial. The same truth is conveyed by the closing contrast between Spring and Winter; separate from each other they either lose themselves in self-destroying and pernicious excess, or in the cold and stiffness of death; in reality, however, they are not in truth, and cannot be made, thus independent of each other, but by their constant interaction and mutual influence produce life and fertility.
Thus considered the present comedy likewise acquires a profound poetical significance. We have no longer to look about for the meaning of those ridiculous characters, Sir Nathaniel, Holofernes, Armado, and Dull, and of the apparently superfluous and impertinent scenes in which they are introduced. And we also see grounds for the partiality with which Shakspeare evidently regarded this piece, and which led him to submit it to several revisions and corrections *. It was a merry parody on the tasteless imitation of Lilly by a pedantic literary clique of his contemporaries, who were doing all in their power to corrupt their native tongue by coquetting with alliteration and antithesis, by introducing orthographical improvements and the most fanciful etymologies, and by an affectation of learning and the constant use of Latin phrases and forms *. In scarcely another piece is so great an influence allowed to wit and humour, and to harmless satire and intrigue. In a certain sense the whole is nothing but a lively game at ball with joke and banter, a sparkling of antithesis and pun—à perpetual rivalry of wit between the lists of sense and reason. By this means the contrast between the latter, which otherwise were too grave and too important for comedy, is resolved into a sportful and amusing antithesis. Over the whole, poetry rises on the light undulations of that dialectic irony which is the soul of the comic view of things; without, however, forgetting the seriousness, which is also an element of it. “Love's Labour's Lost” is, however, open no doubt to the objection that it lightly and wickedly trifles with broken oaths. But if we consider that they do not seem to have been meant very seriously—and were really little more than a knightly parole of honour--and that, on the other hand, the violation is made to incur a grave penalty, the charge of irreverence seems to be in fact groundless. its very nature, comedy must adhere strictly to the ordinary realities of life and the usual estimate of things, and this, we all know, sets but little store by such knightly pledges. Moreover, the drama itself, like all other of Shakspeare's compositions, if we overlook a few low jests and equivoques, is full of the most chaste and reverent meaning.
* In the oldest known edition, the title-page has the words—" newly corrected and augmented.”
That this comedy was written before 1598, is proved by the date of the earliest extant impression, and by the testimony of Meres, who mentions it immediately after its pendant of “Love's Labour's Won.” No piece of Shakspeare's bearing this title has come down to us, and the supposed loss has been the occasion of much regret. Probably, however, it is, as Farmer has conjectured, the same work with “ All's Well that Ends Well.” Shakspeare may have changed the original name to its present one, either from a feeling that with a fundamental difference of idea between the two works, the affinity of title might mislead his readers and spectators, or for some other reason not now known to us. For in its
* According to the conjecture of Warburton and Farmer, Holofernes wa designed for Giovanno Florio, a teacher of Italian. See Drake, i. 474 ; ii. 291.
groundwork, “ All's Well” is far nearer allied to the “ Two Gentlemen of Verona,” than to “ Love's Labour's Lost;" with the latter it has no connection but of opposition. The invention also in the latter* would appear to be Shakspeare's property, whereas the fable of “ All's Well” is borrowed from a tale of Boccaccio's (Dec. iii. 9,) which was translated into English as early as 1566, by Painter, in his “ Palace of Pleausure,” (i. 88,) and that of the “Two Gentlemen of Verona," either from an episode in Montemayor's popular Pastoral of “Diana in Love,” or from Bandello's Tales, (ii. 36, see Drake ii. 367.) The publication of the three falls in all probability within the years 1591 and 4. The “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and “ All's Well," are probably the latest, but to determine their dates more precisely must be left to the occupation of critical triflers. The appearance of greater finish, so manifest in “Love's Labour's Lost,” is unquestionably owing to the later corrections and additions which it received. That it was originally older than “All's Well," at least, is proved by the frequency of the rhymes, and the recurrence of the so-called doggerel verses, which Shakspeare allowed to remain after revision as relics of the older versification. Malone indeed, and Drake, give" All's Well” to 1598, and Chalmers places it as late as 1599; but internal evidence of characterization, language and versification, are decidedly against them. Chalmers is manifestly wrong, since “All's Well” is evidently the same work as the “Love's Labour's Won” of Meres; and as to the opinion of Malone and Drake, they have neglected to show how two or three pieces could have been written in 1598 by Shakspeare, and yet be mentioned by Meres, whose work was printed and published in the same year. These three critics agree in giving no reasons for their own opinions. But even the “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is placed too late by Malone and Chalmers. Although they are both induced, by the structure of the verse and language, as well as by the versification, to assign the latter work to his earlier career, they nevertheless refuse to place it previous to 1595, because of certain pretended allusions
* Douce (Illustrations of Shakspeare, &c.) supposes that “ Love's Labour's Lost" must likewise be founded on some French tale or other. But his conjecture is not supported by proofs. Why could not Shakspeare have followed his own invention, especially where the plot is so very simple as in the present case ?