Last night I took my daughter to our local park to see a play. The play was performed in a small, natural, amphitheater near a pond. A few hundred people gathered their lawn chairs, brought some dinner, and sat in front of a simple set to watch a dozen actors perform Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The story starts with four noblemen pledging celibacy and fasting for three years while they complete their studies. But almost as soon as the ink is dry on their pledge, four noble women arrive and the men immediately begin a ham-fisted pursuit.
The bulk of the play consists of the men’s advances being scorned and ridiculed by the women. And ridiculed they should be. Each man in turn proves to be more romantically inept than the first, their poems and advances as weak as their resolve to stay celibate. Ferdinand reads one of his poems to his love, thus…
So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
To those fresh morning drops upon the rose,
As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote
The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows:
Nor shines the silver moon one half so bright
Through the transparent bosom of the deep,
As doth thy face through tears of mine give light;
Thou shinest in every tear that I do weep:
No drop but as a coach doth carry thee;
So ridest thou triumphing in my woe.
Do but behold the tears that swell in me,
And they thy glory through my grief will show:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep.
O queen of queens! how far dost thou excel,
No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell.
Shakespeare delights in nailing these would-be lotharios (kids today would call these men ‘fuckboys’ and I could see the play set in a townie nightclub) and gives each in turn a more ridiculous poem to read out loud, professing their love.
He then turns his wit on the scholars, who I suspect he feels have the same contempt for their subject as the Dons for theirs. There Shakespeare sends his Don Quixote to ask a scholar named Holofernes if he could put on a play for the King. Hilarity ensues…
ADRIANO DE ARMADO
Sir, it is the king’s most sweet pleasure and
affection to congratulate the princess at her
pavilion in the posteriors of this day, which the
rude multitude call the afternoon.
The posterior of the day, most generous sir, is
liable, congruent and measurable for the afternoon:
the word is well culled, chose, sweet and apt, I do
assure you, sir, I do assure.
ADRIANO DE ARMADO
Sir, the king is a noble gentleman, and my familiar,
I do assure ye, very good friend: for what is
inward between us, let it pass. I do beseech thee,
remember thy courtesy; I beseech thee, apparel thy
head: and among other important and most serious
designs, and of great import indeed, too, but let
that pass: for I must tell thee, it will please his
grace, by the world, sometime to lean upon my poor
shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally
with my excrement, with my mustachio; but, sweet
heart, let that pass. By the world, I recount no
fable: some certain special honours it pleaseth his
greatness to impart to Armado, a soldier, a man of
travel, that hath seen the world; but let that pass.
The very all of all is,–but, sweet heart, I do
implore secrecy,–that the king would have me
present the princess, sweet chuck, with some
delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or
antique, or firework. Now, understanding that the
curate and your sweet self are good at such
eruptions and sudden breaking out of mirth, as it
were, I have acquainted you withal, to the end to
crave your assistance.
Sir, you shall present before her the Nine Worthies.
Sir, as concerning some entertainment of time, some
show in the posterior of this day, to be rendered by
our assistants, at the king’s command, and this most
gallant, illustrate, and learned gentleman, before
the princess; I say none so fit as to present the
The four men devise a method to speak with the women one on one. They dress up like Russians. The women are keen to this deception and offer a deception of their own; they exchange garb with each other. Thus, when the men pick the wrong woman that they are “in love” with, it will prove that they aren’t truly in love.
The play ends with Holofernes and company putting on a play within a play, the Nine Worthies mentioned above. The women expose the men once again for their fuckboyetry (they are not, it seems, worthy) and the audience is laughing along until the play is suddenly interrupted by a messenger bringing news of the death of the Princess’ father. From there the play ends abruptly, with just a few short speeches. The women each tell the men to wait a year for the women to grieve properly and if they truly love, then at the end of the year they can woo again. The men accept and pledge their love. The play ends.
It felt weird and wrong to end the play that way. As if Shakespeare didn’t know what to do with this play or that he was planning a sequel.
I think the ending of the play felt wrong because we are used to certain narrative shapes in stories. Kurt Vonnegut championed this idea of narrative shapes in his master’s thesis in Anthropology. The thesis was rejected for being too simplistic but it turns out that Vonnegut was just way ahead of his time. Researchers looked at the fictions in Project Gutenberg and mapped their emotional arc based on their use of certain key words like “love” and “hate” and it turned out that every single story in the repository mapped to one of six curves:
- Rags to riches (rise).
- Tragedy, or Riches to rags (fall).
- Man in a hole (fall–rise).
- Icarus (rise–fall).
- Cinderella (rise–fall–rise).
- Oedipus (fall–rise–fall).
The emotional arc of Love’s Labour’s Lost rises steadily and then suddenly drops, like Icarus.
Vonnegut saw other shapes in addition to these but these match closely with his ideas. The Icarus shape, for example, he called the Old Testament. The Old Testament stories tend to build you up and then yank the rug out from under you. Think of the story of the creation. God creates man. God gives man, life, food, water, and even love. Man loses it all when he eats from the tree of knowledge and is cast out of Eden. In that narrative arc the main characters end up significantly worse than when they started.
Love’s Labour’s Lost built the same way: the humor of the play hurtles the viewer forward, drawing you into this romance between eight characters, and then at the very peak of the happiness, it drops you. It is a truly unsatisfying ending and yet it’s the only ending that could have been. The men were not worthy of the women. They were goofy and base in their pursuit but more importantly, they were not faithful to themselves and the promises they made.
What strikes me in writing this review is the notion of narrative arc in relation to Arsenal. When I was watching the play, I was unsatisfied with the Icarus-like story arc because I wanted a happy ending. But on later reflection a happy ending would have been far more nonsensical: the men had done nothing to earn the love of the women. For them to suddenly turn into doting wives would have made even less sense. So, I made peace with the way Shakespeare ended the play.
Arsenal’s summer transfers and transfers over the last three years have followed an almost Cinderella story arc. Vonnegut sees Cinderella as the most popular arc: the protagonist starts with nothing, is gifted a dress, shoes, and a means of transportation, attends the ball, has the great dance, and then falls as the clock strikes midnight. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the play ends there. But Cinderella gets the prince in the end and lives happily ever after, a sort of happy ending that transcends all happy endings.
In Arsenal’s case we were in a pretty low spot a few years ago. Then our fairy Godwenger gifted us an Özil, then an Alexis, and finally a Cech. We got to the big dance, all the way to the top of the Premier League, and we were ready to seal the deal with a kiss, but Leicester’s clock struck midnight and we fled the ball. Now we are at a low point, not as low as four years ago, because we will always have the memory of the big dance. But unless the prince comes along and fits the glass boot of a top striker on our feet, I don’t see Arsenal fans living happily ever after. I see us like the suitors in Love’s Labour’s Lost: promising to wait another year for our love to be requited.
But the big question is do we deserve that love? Are Arsenal a Cinderella or a Navarre? Have we done enough to show that we are worthy of the big name striker or have we sat in the pride of our conceit and figured that we are The Arsenal and thus inherently deserving of love? Does our story arc make more sense ending with another year of waiting?