How did they (amuse the audience) in Love’s Labour’s Lost

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Love’s Labour’s Lost, many people think was written for a performance at the Inns of Court – this is because it’s most striking feature is its focus on intellectual comedy. This is the polar opposite of a play like Titus Andronicus with its multiple murders and blood and guts enough to please the most sensation seeking theatre goer. And yet no record of that hypothetical performance for the legal scholars exists, the first recorded performance of the play that we know about occurred at Christmas time in 1597 at Court before Queen Elizabeth.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a kind of Marmite play you either love it or hate it – the introduction to the penguin edition claims that the play sings, sparkles and crackles with wordy wit, where as Wikipedia tells us that “ the pedantic humour makes it extremely inaccessible to contemporary theatregoers” – so love it or hate it how does Love’s Labour’s Lost at least attempt to amuse us?

Essentially with words…. Armado for instance, a Spanish braggart, is described by Berowne (a lord) as “A man of fire-new words” in fact he is amusingly pretentious –  this for instance is an extract from a letter from him to the King “Great Deputy, the Welkin’s vicegerent, and sole dominator or Navarre, my soul’s earth’s god, and body’s fostering patron.”

Now this may not seem all that funny to us but it may have been more amusing to the Tudor audience who were increasingly literate. For many people were increasingly becoming masters of language men (and women) of ‘Fire new’ words. The humour is in the fact that they master the language better than Armado. It’s a play which relies for its pleasure on the audiences own pleasure in being able to ‘get’ the joke.

We still revel in humour which points to those who do not understand the ‘new’ in our society – the hapless person trying to order a blackberry (to check his e-mails) from the green grocers – for instance. But what was new for a large proportion of Shakespeare’s audience was not technology but words.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Bret Wheadon

    I admit, that having only seen the Globe DVD, I was one who was at a loss for the supposed “humor” found in LLL, but I am desirous to look at it again, and try and understand more of the intent of Shakespeare. Nice article on a neglected play.

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