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“Folly, in wisdom hatch’d”: The Exemplary Comedy of Love’s Labour’s Lost Louis Adrian Montrose Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comic exploitation of the imagina­ tive energy which creates exemplary images, a theatrical anatomy of the manipulations to which paradigms of thought and action are subjected under the pressure of living in a physical, tem­ poral, and social world. Simple dichotomies are often used to summarize the argument and resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost: play/seriousness, study/love, fancy/achievement, art/nature, writing/speech.1 The first terms are characterized as the in­ adequate values of a fantasy-world created within the play by the King and his companions; the second terms are character­ ized as the authorially approved values embodied in the Princess and her entourage, who invade the “curious-knotted garden” of Navarre armed with the Reality Principle. Such convenient binary oppositions are belied by Shakespeare’s consistent re­ fusal to be homiletic in his plays. Love’s Labour’s Lost explores the dynamics existing between the fundamental movements into and out of the self: private and public, contemplative and ac­ tive, withdrawn and engaged. Each movement may be either positively or negatively realized—inwardness as self-discovery or narcissism; sociability as communion or a mob— and may thus exist in either antithetical or complementary relationship to the other. Shakespeare analyzes the interplay of the imagination with the actual worlds of society and nature within the imagina­ tive form of his play. He turns to his advantage the morally ambivalent uses of Renaissance playworlds—their power to shape the wisdom of analysis or the folly of escape—by creat­ ing a playworld in which to explore that very ambivalence. 147 148 Comparative Drama The King’s opening declaration of purpose is crucial to the total dramatic design: Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, Live regist’red upon our brazen tombs, And then grace us in the disgrace of death; When spite of cormorant devouring Time, Th’endeavor of this present breath may buy That honor which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge, And make us heirs of all eternity. Therefore, brave conquerors—for so you are, That war against your own affections And the huge army of the world’s desires— Our late edict shall strongly stand in force: Navarre shall be the wonder of the world; Our court shall be a little academe, Still and contemplative in living art.2 (I.i. 1-14) Upon examination, this piece of grandiloquence turns out to be an intensely ambiguous and ironic mixture of fear and desire. The King’s announced aim is to transcend the limits of mortality through the achievement of lasting fame and honor. There are two distinct paths to this end, yielding two distinctly different realizations. One path is a renunciation of the world of human action, involving a physical withdrawal from society and selfimposed sensory deprivation. The cultivation of the life of the spirit through meditation or study is an attempt to transcend the torpor of man’s fallen nature; it leads out of the world of physical reality. The contrary movement is into the world of physical and social reality, where the hero achieves fame among men by performing illustrious deeds. In their extreme forms, the contemplative and active lives lead toward antithetical ends. The former aims to transcend temporality and the ego and is anti-historical, while the latter aims at the indefinite perpetua­ tion of the ego in time and sees human history as the medium of etemization. It is in a peculiarly distorted and false synthesis of these contraries that the King expresses his purpose and method. The votaries will die to the “grosser manner of these world’s delights”; henceforth, “living in philosophy” (I.i.32). “Living art” and “living in philosophy” roughly translate the ars vitae or ars vivendi of classical Stoicism, familiar to the Renaissance through the writings of Seneca and Cicero.3 Ars vivendi, however, meant moral philosophy and was associated I Louis Adrian Montrose 149 with the active, not the contemplative life; Navarre has garbled his Humanist education. The King’s usage of spiritual ideals and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 147-170
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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