Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost

I WAS on a visit at an old country house in the south of England. The owner, or, as he liked better to call himself, the family tenant, was an old Indian civil servant, past work, but not past the enjoyments of old age, and especially those which he could share with the young. And as he loved his bit of Chaucer, he would apply to himself the description of the Clerk, —

“ And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.”

He used to call me “ Mr. Foster,” because, he said, I reminded him of a friend of his youth, Mr. Foster in Peacock’s Headlong Hall, or at least of Peacock’s explanation of the name as that of the lover of light; and

“We were a pair of friends, though I was young,
And Matthew seventy-two.”

We had breakfasted in a parlor the oak paneling and carved mantelpiece of which, the squire said, were among the embellishments of the old manor place made by Building Bess of Hardwick, to one of whose four husbands the house belonged when built. After breakfast we walked together down the steps of the terraces, and through the avenue of huge lime-trees and oaks, which my host told me were all planted by the same great lady. My thoughts wandered from that imperious dame to her still more imperious mistress, Queen Elizabeth, and from Queen Elizabeth to Shakespeare, and so to the Forest of Arden and to the park of the king of Navarre. It was in the leafy month of June. The air was fragrant with honeysuckle and sweetbrier growing along the banks of a brook hidden from sight, but telling of itself by the pleasant noise of a little waterfall into which it was breaking ; and the musical hum of unseen insects was all around, occasionally broken into by the cooing of a wood pigeon hidden somewhere in the trees. We stopped under a great oak, and sat down in the shade, on a mossy seat formed by the roots of the tree.

“ What are you thinking of ? ” said the squire, who had been silent since he had finished pointing out the works of the lady I have named.

I answered that I was thinking this was the oak in the branches of which Berowne lay hid while he listened to the talk of the king and his other lords.

“ I am glad to hear you call him, as Shakespeare himself did, ‘ Berowne.’ I respect as well as like the Cambridge editors, but I cannot conceive why they should substitute the spelling of the Second Folio, which has no authority, for that of the Quarto and the First Folio.”

My old friend seemed inclined to be warm on this point, so I turned the subject by saying, “ I know you do not make much account of internal evidence, but do you not think there is something in the case of Love’s Labour’s Lost to show that it was one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays? ”

The Squire. I can seldom find that the so-called internal evidence as to the date of any book is more than critical, that is more or less ingenious, conjecture. Where are you to stop if, after finding all the buoyancy and brightness of youth in this play, you go on (like Hallam, if I remember rightly) to discover a disappointed, it may be melancholy, and even a misanthropical Shakespeare in Hamlet and Timon, drawn from the experiences of manhood and old age?

Foster. I confess that internal evidence is for the most part like a circle in the water,

“ Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till, by broad spreading, it disperse to

Yet does not the circle start from a real stone thrown in ?

The Squire. Or from some bubble rising from we know not where ? Yet I am inclined to yield to you here, and to make an exception in favor of the indications that this was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of Shakespeare’s plays. Ferdinand and Miranda, Romeo and Juliet, are even more perfect representatives of the youth and maiden than are Berowne and Rosaline ; yet while these last require only that the poet’s pen should be dipped “ in ink tempered by love’s sighs,” it may have been that the others could not have been depicted but by an eye

“ That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality.”

Besides, “ I too once lived in Arcady,” and I should like to hear what you have still to say of the idea, or, as I suppose people would now call it, the motive of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and what it may possibly tell us of the poet himself, and so of its probable date.

Foster. I can hardly pretend to add anything to what Coleridge has already said on the subject.

The Squire. There is, indeed, not much more to be said when Coleridge has spoken, and his words have come down to us; yet — forgive the impertinence— a dwarf on a giant’s shoulders may see farther than the giant himself.

Foster. Artists say that a portrait, while it must be true to nature and a likeness of the individual whom it represents, must, if it be a true work of art, show the idea, or motive, either of calm repose or of the animation of the moment in which one characteristic expression is passing into another. And the motive of this play may, I think, be said to be youth at the moment of passing into manhood and womanhood. Boys and girls become dignified men and women before our eyes; and it is love which makes the magic change,— a change which Berowne describes in words so burning yet so pure and chaste, so passionate yet spiritual, that I, at least, can never read or repeat them too often : —

“ 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 stopped:
Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled 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
And when Love speaks, the voice’ of all the
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony.
Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were tempered 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 aught proves excellent.”

The Squire. They are indeed perfect; and we may well say with Berowne that when such ” love speaks the voice’ of all the gods make heaven drowsy with the harmony.” Does not Coleridge say that this speech is that of the very god of love himself ? But go on.

Foster. The ladies in the play, as in nature, are at first inclined to make fun of the serious ardor of their admirers, till the whole scene becomes a tiltingmatch or tournament of wits, in which — again with truth to nature — the ladies get the better, and the men confess themselves ” beaten with pure scoff.” But love is becoming lord of all with the ladies, too. Another transition is marked when the princess exclaims, “We are wise girls to mock our lovers so ! ” Then come the tidings of the death of her father, the king of France. In a moment the electric spark crystallizes that life of fun and joyousness. The generous and noble-minded youths and maidens become, as I have said, dignified men and women, and turn to the duties of real life, though agreeing that the new is still to be linked with the old. If the poet had told us the real ending, he would have called the play Love’s Labour’s Won, and so anticipated the answer to a still vexed question of Dr. Dryasdust.

The Squire. Well done ! I wish every one knew, and then he would prize this play as you do. Speaking in the name of Shakespeare, you stir the blood of chilled age, and make me say “ the dead are not dead, but alive.” But how does all this prove the early date of the play ?

Foster. You yourself said just now that you were inclined to recognize a distinction between the creations of Ferdinand and Miranda and Romeo and Juliet and those of Berowne and Rosaline. I think this is so, and that we must not look in this play for the expression of that mature genius which we find in the later works. But of the genius itself, not yet mature, we have abundant tokens ; and here is, in truth, one especial charm and interest of this play. How pleasant it is to look at the portraits of Milton, the child, the youth, and the man, and to trace the lineaments of moral and intellectual as well as physical beauty in their successive developments, — the child surviving in the man, and the man fulfilling the promise of the child ! And though no such portraiture of Shakespeare’s face in youth exists for us, we have the portrait of his mind in its successive stages of growth, if we follow Ben Jonson’s advice and

“ looke
Not on his picture, but his Booke ; ”
and again: —
“ Look, how the father’s face
Lives in his issue; even so the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly
In his well turnèd and true filèd lines.”

The Squire. You remember that Ben Jonson said something on the other side, — that he wished Shakespeare had blotted a thousand lines.

Foster. Yes, but the reconciliation is obvious as we read ; for we know Shakespeare does write with an accuracy as well as profoundness of thought which must have been the fruit of the highest intellectual training and culture ; with an ease and a fluency of utterance which sometimes verges on carelessness and negligenee of language, and shows especially when the poet is under the influence of his love of fun. But his play of Love’s Labour’s Lost is remarkable for its careful accuracy of thought and word even in its fun, and indicates how much Shakespeare must, in the days of his earliest compositions, have studied the logical use of language, even when he is employing it to express the most fanciful conceits or the most soaring imaginations. The play is full of instances of this careful composition, with its regular balance of thoughts, words, and rhymes in the successive lines. This use of language is perfect in its kind; yet how different it is from that of The Tempest, Othello, or Hamlet! Surely the difference between the youthful and the mature genius is plain enough.

The Squire. Yes, and you have made a good defense — or explanation shall I call it?—of Coleridge’s saying that this play is like a portrait of the poet taken in his boyhood. And let me confess to you that when I was young I myself wrote an argument in the same sense, endeavoring to show, by an analysis of Berowne’s speech against learning, how exactly it must have represented Shakespeare’s own experiences and conclusions as to the relations between the study of books and the knowledge of life, when he first came up to London with his small Latin and less Greek.

Then we got up, and walked to the wooden bridge which crossed the brook just above the waterfall; and I saw the small red and blue dragonflies and one great brown one — so formidable looking, though so harmless — darting to and fro over the water; and a kingfisher shot, flashing in the sunlight, from a hawthorn bush upon the bank.

Edward Strachey.