Reading this play was like standing in an ocean of words and having twelve foot waves of verbiage crash over me. It’s full of puns, inside jokes, 16th century topical allusions, patter dialogue and about 15 characters who “have been at a great feast of language and have stolen the scraps.”
One of these characters is called Dull. Sir Anthony Dull. He has a dull little riddle, which was one of the few exchanges that I immediately understood:
Dull: What was a month old at Cain’s birth that’s not five weeks old as yet?
Holofernes: The moon was a month old when Adam was no more,
And raught not to five weeks when he came to five-score
The allusion holds in the exchange.
Dull: ‘Tis true indeed; the collusion holds in the exchange.
So I got that one. I needed help for what went on before the dull riddle:
Holofernes: The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood. . .and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth.
Nathaniel: Truly, Master Holofernes. . . it was a buck of the first head.
Holofernes:Sir Nathaniel, haud credo.
Dull: ‘Twas not a haud credo; ’twas a pricket.
Holofernes: Most barbarous intimation! yet a kind of insinuation, as it were, in via, in way, of explication; facere, as it were, replication, or rather, ostentare, to show, as it were, his inclination, after his undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather, unlettered, or ratherest, unconfirmed fashion, to insert again my haud credo for a deer.
Dull: I said the deer was not a haud credo; twas a pricket.
What you have to know—and you have to know it because it took me twenty minutes to get it straight and I’m damned if that is going to waste—is that a “buck of the first head” is a five year old buck, not a deer. Haud credo is Latin for “I do not think so” but Sir Anthony Dull is hearing the last syllable of “credo” and thinks the reference is to a doe. A pricket is a two year old male deer, so he keeps insisting that the animal in question is a two year old male deer, not a doe and not a buck. And Holofernes always talks “ostentare, to show, as it were, his inclination” to verbiate way too much.
Here’s the plot of Love’s Labor’s Lost: The King of Navarre has gathered three young men to his headquarters who are prepared to deny themselves female company in order to study philosophy with him for three years. One flaw in the plan–beyond the obvious– is that the Princess of France is due on a state visit the very next day. She comes with three female attendants. The men fall in love with the women and try to keep it secret from each other but they all get together in the end. That’s kind of it. There are other characters and, as I said, a tsunami of words.
One interesting word that comes up twice is yclep. It’s the old English past participle of the verb clepe, which means to call or to name. Mostly in Shakespeare, I am familiar with the actual words. It’s the way he uses them that flummoxes me. But yclep was downright weird. I never took a class in Chaucer in college but I remember hearing the inimitable Dr Thomas D. Howells reading Middle English. And that reminds me of my advisor Dr. Walter Broman (who I adored) telling us he had spent the summer lying on the porch reading The Faerie Queene and that it had been a pleasant way to pass the summer. I was 19 years old. I thought that sounded nuts. But here I am spending the summer reading Shakespeare and loving it.
I picked up another strand of memory when I got to Act IV, scene i. I was sitting outside after dark, reading from a nifty bed-desk with reading light, a Christmas present from my neighbor Gwen who knows something about just about everything. The character Rosaline sings:
Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit, my good man.
I bolted upright. My father and I used to chant that song around the house when I was growing up. Where did we get it? We must have heard it somewhere. Lawrence Welk? What an odd thing to trip over after all this time. The footnote says it’s “ribald” but doesn’t explain how.
But I digress. Which is kind of what Love Labor’s Lost does all over its five acts. Here are some exchanges I enjoyed (after I figured them out) and some of the famous lines:
*King: Did you hear the proclamation?
Costard: I do confess much of the hearing it, but little of the marking of it . . .(I, i)
*Armado: Boy, what sign is it when a man of great spirit grows melancholy?
Moth: A great sign, sir, that he will look sad. (I, ii)
*Remuneration! O! That’s the Latin word for three farthings. (III, i)
*Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfills the law
And who can sever love from charity (IV, iii)
*Moth (pronounced Mote): They have been at a great feast of language and stolen the scraps.
Costard: O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word, for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus. Thou are easier swallowed than a flap-dragon. (V, i)
(And here you need a footnote to tell you a flap-dragon is a drink of brandy containing a flaming raisin. Sounds like a Christmas party thing.)
*In the posterior of the day which the rude multitude call the afternoon. (V, i)
*He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.(V,i)
*A light heart lives long. (V, ii)
* (Sung by Winter)
When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring-owl,
Tu-whit, tu-who—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, tu-who—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot. (V, ii)