To Wit, To Woo

August 5, 2010 at 8:34 pm (Film Adaptations, Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Oh, I’m tired. I’m witless from witty banter. I just finished reading Love’s Labour’s Lost and I’ve watched the 1984 Elijah Moshinsky version for the BBC Shakespeare series. I’ve watched it twice now. As I say, I am tired and witless from all the witty banter.

I had never read this play or seen it performed, so this was all new. It’s an acquired taste. I was lost the first time I watched the BBC version. The play is all about wit and puns and there’s very little action; it is difficult to keep up with the dialogue and make sense of it on casual viewing.

Then I read the play; I watched it again. Okay. I get it now. It’s very thick satire. Extremely thick, non-stop mockery of people who have nothing better to do than to be impressed with their own wit. So I say: To Wit, To Woo. That is, I think, Shakespeare’s pun on the lyrics in the final song representing the owl’s cry, “tu-whit, tu-who!”

The whole play is about wit and wooing. Or maybe, as the introduction in my text says, “Perhaps the men have been too witty to be able to woo effectively.” The banter and wordplay is just all-around too much for me. But I’m critiquing the content of the play itself, and that’s hard not to do when it’s the basis for the film.

I read that this is Shakespeare’s most intellectual play, and so one that is less accessible to modern audiences. And in fact, it probably was not originally produced for the general public, but for a learned audience who would get the thick allusions and wordplay. It’s not easy.

That said, I think that the BBC version does a good job of making it at least a bit accessible (and I’ve read that this play can also be quite enjoyable performed live… even when much of the witty banter goes right by you). There is really not a serious moment until the very end and the film keeps moving along briskly (not belaboring the wordplay at all).

The BBC setting reminds me of a Fragonard painting… a frothy 18th century French fantasia. The actors are well-suited to their roles. I especially like David Warner’s version of the endearingly goofy Don Adriano de Armado. I also enjoy the Beatrice/Benedick-esque sparring between Rosaline (Jenny Agutter) and Berowne (Mike Gwilym). But unlike Beatrice and Benedick, these characters are never developed enough in the play to really care about them and the sparring is all just verbal play — there’s little emotion behind it.

That’s a critique of the play again, not the BBC production. I cannot say I like this play much. It’s smarmy and pedantic. I feel like a pedant just saying that. When I start getting the jokes I feel like Miss Smartypants. The whole thing is making fun of smarmy pedants, but you have to be one to get the joke. And so the joke’s on you. Sneaky guy, that Shakespeare.

I appreciate that this BBC version is a fun take on Shakespeare. I can’t say I recommend this for people who are not familiar with the play. I don’t think most people will enjoy it or get much out of it on casual viewing.

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  1. Tue Sorensen said,

    It’s a somewhat inaccessible play, that’s true, but personally I’ve gotten past that hurdle long ago, and consider it as brilliant as all the other best plays of the Bard. You might want to see Kenneth Branagh’s film version (from the year 2000); it is very light-hearted and presents a much-abridged text, making it much more easily digestible. It’s also very comical, sometimes bordering on slapstick.

    Although, actually, I don’t think that film is on par with Branagh’s other Shakespeare films, but it *is* a lot more accessible than the play in written from. And it’s definitely worth watching. As our pal Will said in Othello, there are many events in the womb of time that shall be delivered…! 🙂

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Yeah, I’m totally not there. I have the Branagh movie on the way. Those are the only two movie versions I can find… do you know of any?

  2. Tue Sorensen said,

    As luck would have it, Shakespeare’s Globe in London is just now releasing a string of filmed stage versions of Shakespeare’s plays, incl. LLL (came out two weeks ago – here’s the link:, all region free. I have just ordered the As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet ones. The rest I’ll get when I have the money…

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      How cool! Thank you. Hopefully Netflix will pick them up soon.

      I’m enjoying the Branagh version now. It’s so over-the-top trippy, I really kind of like it! Much easier on the nerves than the BBC version.

      • Tue Sorensen said,

        🙂 I mainly prefer the BBC version, actually. It’s more classic and conventional and doesn’t CUT HALF THE TEXT!!

        Sorry, just my obligatory purist’s outburst… 🙂

        • orwhatyouwill said,

          I don’t miss any of the text here really. You know what this play reminds me of? I have a dim memory of some movies… Metropolitan and Barcelona… of college age kids all amazingly interested in hearing themselve talk on and on about nothing. 🙂 My memory might be totally off about those movies, but I think there’s a connection in the back of my mind!

          • Tue Sorensen said,

            I do think there’s a lot of “something” in this play, as in all the others. I could go on at length about it, but I’m not sure you would take to my interpretation… 🙂

            In short, I believe it is a companion play to Much Ado (i.e. Much Ado is the play Shakespeare wrote a year later, and which was initially titled Love’s Labour’s Won, and later revised). I generally look at Shakespeare (and much other poetry) as allegorical tales about truth and beauty, i.e. science and art. The main male cast here are representatives of science, trying to court art in order to convince its representatives (the main female cast) that science and art should be unified – which in the play of course translates to the union between men and women! This attempt is however made in a historical era where there isn’t enough mutual understanding between science and art to accept such unification, and that’s why the play is open-ended. As we come to Much Ado, on the other hand, we’re in the era where science and art (Benedick and Beatrice) *can* be united, and they are! And there are even greater depths to these plays than that, too… Artistically and poetically, I think there’s a lot to delve into here.

  3. orwhatyouwill said,

    Don’t worry how I take your interpretation. You’re right, though. I don’t get it. But I don’t mind reading it. You’re like a Shakespeare transcendentalist.

    So you think LLW=MAAN… but why did he not just make it clearly related and keep the same characters, etc.? I think it might have made LLL more fun for me if I could continue to LLW and see the same characters progress. Oh well. I’m sure he had his reasons!

  4. Remuneration « Or What You Will said,

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