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Why Love's Labour's Lost Is the Feminist Story We Didn't Know We Needed

Do Shakespeare's play really hold relevance for us today? In Love's Labour's Lost we observe some very contemporary dynamics that arise in this classic "battle of the sexes" story. The Calvin Theatre Company takes on this comedy for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

Why Love's Labour's Lost Is the Feminist Story We Didn't Know We Needed

How does the saying go? “The tragedies of Shakespeare end with bodies covering the stage and someone is suicidal because they have a poor relationship with their mother and the only people alive are the ones who could maybe bring the kingdom out of its terrible state since all of the leaders have killed each other”? Oh, right, and all comedies end with a wedding. Or something like that.

Obviously, that was a paraphrase of something that I heard in a class once. But I believe that I am correct in saying that when a typical audience member attends the theatre, he or she expects something in particular from a Shakespeare play. I go to see Othello if I want to cry over the injustice of Desdemona’s death and HOW MISUNDERSTOOD OTHELLO WAS AND WOW CAN ANYONE BE AS EVIL AS IAGO. I go to see Much Ado About Nothing if I want to text “relationship goals” to my friends and see Beatrice and Benedick finally realize that they are kind of perfect together (and will probably have a lot of marital issues but also a lifetime of witty banter). We have expectations about the Bard and his ability to explore human beings, as complex as we are. So when he goes in a different direction than we expect, we are forced to stop and think.

One of Mr. Shakespeare’s earliest comedies was Love’s Labour’s Lost; it was written in the mid-1590s for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth I and her court. Many of the characters in the play are based on real people, but the plot is one of only a few that seems to be original to Shakespeare. It is fascinating to observe how his work evolved from the beginning of his playwriting career to the end; in Love’s Labour’s Lost we see the development of Beatrice and Benedick starting to form in the characters of Rosaline and Berowne, for example. And we are also privy to watching Shakespeare play with character, structure, plot, and language. Upon seeing the original production, audiences surely left the theatre with anticipation about what this amazing playwright would do next.

So what is so special about this play? It is certainly not Shakespeare’s best work, nor his most popular one. There is a definite lack of scholarly research and inquiry that has been made about it. It is Shakespeare's wordiest play, which can seem pretty daunting. But Love’s Labour’s Lost contains that which no other Shakespeare comedy does – an outright refusal by the women to stay with the men, even after they have expressed their feelings with all of the eloquence that one expects from a lover.

A bit of context: Calvin Theatre Company’s upcoming production is set in Alaska (namely, the fictional kingdom of Navarre). The King of Navarre and his entourage of gentlemen (the ultimate bromance) arrive, camping gear in tow, to a backwoods retreat. They have sworn an oath: for three years they will fast, study the ways of the true outdoorsman, and never admit a woman to their rustic kingdom. Unfortunately, they have forgotten an appointment with the Princess of Canada (originally France) and her ladies-in-waiting, who have traveled to the frontier to discuss a land dispute. Upon seeing the women, the four men face a moral dilemma: Should they keep their oath or pursue love at first sight? (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) They decide to break their oath (surprise?) and woo the ladies through some pretty ridiculous means; we’re talking Russian disguises, expensive jewelry, and LONG love letters. The women, however, decide to mock the men with their own trickery; for after all, they can’t possibly be serious. And besides, they kept their oath to not talk to women for about an hour; so how can they be trusted? It turns out that the men were completely serious about pursuing the women the whole time. “Our letters, madam, show’d much more than jest,” one character says in Act V. But the ladies, completely shocked, refuse to accept the love-at-first-sight mentality. “A time, methinks, too short to make a world-without-end bargain in,” the Princess murmurs. The women then ask their men to wait – for twelve months and a day – before pursuing them again. “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill.”

And it’s not a typical ending, right? We might expect there to be a quadruple wedding at this point, but the women return home, leaving the men to contemplate their new vows. Here’s where the ladies show their wisdom and add a surprisingly contemporary twist to this four hundred-year-old play: They know that the men are more in love with the idea of being in love than with them. They also realize that these guys are still pretty immature; they swore an oath “in the heat of blood” that they broke almost right away. What if they treat their marriage vows the same way? And they misconstrued some “mocking merriment” for passionate affection. Put on the brakes, gentlemen.

As a woman myself, I’m really over the mentality that “the guy gets the girl” in the end of practically every story, book, film, song, etc. That’s not reality. And maybe that’s a cynical point of view, but the ladies of Love’s Labour’s Lost understand where I’m coming from. They downplay the importance of male affection on their identities and focus on friendship, sharing experiences, and living fully. That’s such a significant and refreshing change of pace and something that all women need to hear. It’s okay to say “maybe later” to a relationship. It’s okay to focus on ourselves and invest in things other than finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s okay to stand up for yourself; in fact, it’s encouraged. For Shakespeare himself to place this theme so prevalently in one of his plays four hundred years ago is incredibly important – because it still rings true today.

Love's Labour's Lost opens at Calvin College on April 21 and runs April 21-23 & 28-30.


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