The Effects of an Existential Play

Author: Ryan Swope

Falstaff with Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page (from William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5, Scene 5). 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Switzerland.
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Upon beginning Love’s Labour’s Lost readers and viewers alike are tossed immediately into the narrative of the play, without any context or prologue. In doing so, Shakespeare distances his audience from the characters and narrative. Contrast this with his famous Romeo and Juliet, in which a narrator provides the setting and the audience is immediately and completely submerged into the story. Shakespeare intentionally distances his playgoers to create what Brecht would later refer to as the Verfremdungseffekt – or alienation effect – to force his audience to dedicate thought to the play. This, in turn, allows Shakespeare to comment about current issues without having to explicitly voice his distaste.

Quite famously, Shakespeare starts Romeo and Juliet with a prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…”. He gives us all the context necessary to understand why this story is starting, but simultaneously ‘births’ his characters. Until the start of the play and after the end, Romeo and Juliet and their cohorts do not exist; they exist between the pages of his play, and nowhere else. This puts Shakespeare’s audience in the play. We are meant to understand the circumstances of the play, and by doing so can fully relate to one or more of the characters. And, when the patrons leave, no one is left wondering what one character’s motives were or where they ended up in life. All storylines have concluded. In short, Romeo and Juliet is nothing more than a good story. It follows an archetypal narrative, the one of star-crossed lovers engaged in a forbidden courtship, and their attempts to overcome the powers that be. The characters themselves are archetypes; Romeo and Juliet the lovers, the snobby parents of both the Capulet and Montague household, the loyal friends, the wise nanny, and many more. This means that by definition Romeo and Juliet cannot be a commentary on anything; it uses typical characters to tell a typical story. Shakespeare’s version is particularly beautiful and heartbreaking, but it is ultimately not a new story.

Love’s Labor’s Lost, on the other hand, throws archetypes out the window. The men are idiots, the nobility are uneducated, the knights are downtrodden, and the lowest members of society, Costard the clown and the Steward, are the wittiest. Given only this information, one may say that it is simply Shakespeare reversing role conventions of the characters based on their societal status. However, Shakespeare’s real intention becomes clear when you consider complete lack of context or narration – the alienation effect – in his play. We have no clue what most of the characters are really thinking. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, these characters do not bother with exposition; instead, readers are left to interpret their true feelings and motives on their own. Additionally, the characters clearly exist before and after the play. We are thrown into the first scene with four of our main characters already having already interacted to a great extent. And the play ends without ever revealing how the characters end up “forever after.” Instead, we are alienated and made aware that we are seeing or reading a play, and we are forced to discern aspects on our own. This leads us, inevitably, to the conclusion that Shakespeare wanted to force us to think about his play on a deeper level.