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Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost (****) BBC Shakespeare Collection

Love's Labour's Lost - Index

The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is available:
– For streaming from Ambrose Digital ($25 /~£16)
– As a DVD from Amazon.co.uk for  ~$360 / £2.40 )
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.

Our Bottom Line:

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a difficult play for a modern audinece to ‘get’  – or at least it was for me. This is the only version that I have seen which makes sense, and is a delight to watch.

Our Review (****)

Players-Shakespeare.com  has recently edited Love’s Labour’s Lost for publication in our MFFEV5 series (see Love’s Labour’s Lost MFFEV5), and we also ran a play-reading of it (see Playreading Report: Love’s Labour’s Lost).

As I came to the end of the editing process, I was beginning to panic – I couldn’t ‘get’ the play. I read the play with my partner, and we watched a Globe production, but still we couldn’t ‘get it’. Our sub-editor, who checks my work, told me how she loved the play, and I panicked even more. In desperation, I watched the only other version I had – the BBC Shakespeare Collection production, and all became clear!  I ‘got it’, and more important than that, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The king of Navarre, and friends, swear to study for 3 years, and not to talk to women

This production is set in a seventeenth-century French court, with Watteau-like settings.

The King of Navarre, Frederick, and three of his courtiers, swear to study for three years, eschewing women, food, and sleep.

For companionship and fun, they have recruited a Spanish knight, Armado, and his page Moth, and there’s a host of other characters including Jaqenetta, a wench with whom Armado and Costard the clown, seem to be in love; a curate, Nathaniel; and a schoolmaster, Holofernes.

Of course, as soon as they have sworn their oaths, four women turn up. A Princess of France, with

The princess and her ladies-in-waiting

The princess and her ladies-in-waiting

three ladies-in-waiting, have arrived to negotiate, on behalf of her father, the King of France, the return of Aquitaine.

The four young men, forgetting their oaths, promptly fall in love, conveniently each with a different woman.

What do young men in a sixteenth / century court do when they fall in love? Of course they write poems, mostly sonnets, to their beloved, and give them gifts.

The young men with their poems

The young men with their poems

It is a little awkward that they have all sworn to avoid women, but all four are caught out, with their poems, so they  decide to make the best of a bad job, and court – and win – their ladies as their brides.

The women find  out that the men, disguised as Moscovites, are coming a-wooing, and decide to make life difficult for them. They swap the favours the men have given them and mask themselves, so each man woos, and swears undying love, to the wrong woman, each of whom rejects him.

The men retire hurt, but soon return in their true shapes, when the women mock them for swearing undying love to the wrong woman, and the men again break their oaths, by refusing to marry the wrong woman, but they do invite the women to some entertainment.

Holofernes, a schoolmaster (and a pedant), and Nathaniel, an admiring curate, are asked to put on a show for the ladies and gentlemen. The show is a bit of

'The preyful Princess pierced and pricked a pretty pleasing pricket.'

‘The preyful Princess pierced and pricked a pretty pleasing pricket.’

a disaster: Costard makes not a bad job of Pompay the Great; but the curate as Alexander the Great gets stage nerves, and bursts into tears; and Holofernes as Judas Maccabeus gets laughed off stage, which is ‘not generous, not gentle, not humble’.

In the midst of this entertainment, a messenger from the French court arrives, and tells the Princess that her father has died. It is traditional for the father in a comedy to prevent the young lovers from marrying, but perhaps this is going too far.

The king is dead.

The king is dead.

The princess goes into mourning, and decides to  leave immediately. The men try to persuade the women to stay, but no, they must go. Each woman offers their lover some hope. They set them a task to do for a year and a day, and if they successfully complete their task, they can renew their courtship with some hope of success.

Well all nice, silly, stuff, but what’s the point? The point, dear reader, is that the men break their words seriously twice: they swear to study for three years, and promptly break that oath to court the French ladies. They swear eternal love to the wrong woman, and then break that oath as soon as they find that out.  When the King pleads  to be granted their loves ‘Now, at the latest minute of the hour, Grant us your loves.’ the Princess replies:

A time methinks, too short,
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no, my lord, your grace is perjured much,
Full of dear guiltiness…

What I find rather shocking is that this wasn’t obvious to me from the start. It was only when I saw this BBC version, set in a decadent, French  C17 court, that it become clear. It seems that we don’t have the same concern with keeping our word that C16 courtiers did. Our politicians mispeak, our marketers say the most misleading things, and we accept that, and perhaps our words are no longer our bonds. We are all Machiavellians now!

There are other difficulties with the play: the play is fairly early (perhaps 1594), and the blank verse rhymes a lot, and has much stronger rhythms than later blank verse. For our play-reading we decide to just go with that and let the rhythms and the rhymes shine forth, keeping up a good pace (which always helps).

There are also an enormous numbers of witty jokes, mostly with some sexual content, but derived from archery, or other C16 topics which no longer make sense to C21 players. We used a technique, again taken from the BBC production, of laughing at anything which might remotely be a joke (particularly the men laughing at the men’s jokes; the women laughing at women’s jokes. Rather like Pascal, who suggested that if you get down on your knees and pray, you’ll end up believing in God, if you laugh at every possible joke in the play, it ends up becoming rather funny.

So Love’s Labour’s Lost is a difficult play, based on the premise that keeping your word is important, and words are important in other ways. The play is filled with witty wordplay which is largely incomprehensible to the modern ear, and the playfulness  extends to the verse. This production makes the story come alive, and makes you laugh.

Why doesn’t it get five stars? Well, there are still some problems: Moth, who is a young page and small, is played by an adult full-sized male: the 4 x 3 shape of the film is becoming harder and harder to accept, particularly with a large cast – it’s nigh on impossible to get 8 people (4 men, 4 ladies) onscreen at the same time. And I thought the operatic version of the songs of the cuckoo and the owl (‘While greasy Joan doth keel the post’), whilst in keeping with the court setting of the production, was not in keeping with the Shakespearean tradition of a folk song and dance to end the show.

Still, if you don’t know Love’s Labour’s Lost, and want to get to know it, and have some fun, I don’t know of a better production than this.


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Love's Labour's Lost - Index

2 Responses to "Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost (****) BBC Shakespeare Collection"

  • Tue Sorensen
    April 15, 2016 - 9:12 am Reply

    Thanks for this review – so many good points! I am also always bothered by Moth never actually being the “educated child” in performance that the play describes. Branagh’s movie adaptation had the same problem. Shall we never see a Moth of less than one score years?!

    • Tue Sorensen
      August 25, 2018 - 11:23 am Reply

      Actually, the latest disc version of this play from Canadian Stratford has a young boy as Moth! It’s great! 🙂

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