The words of Mercury, the songs of Apollo
Storm clouds may gather, but romance always wins the day.
If the King of Navarre, Berowne, Longeville and Dumain - the male protagonists of Shakespeare's "Love's Labor's Lost" - had been observant Jews, their fate would have been much easier in these days of annulment of hasty vows (but the play would have no plot).
In the first scene, the king and his fellow scholars vow to mortify their bodies under the canopy of scholarship: to study for three years, to fast one day a week, to sleep but three hours a night, and not to see a woman during that time.
This early Shakespearean comedy (1593) was one of the most popular during the life of its author. But then it dropped out of the repertoire for more than 200 years, earning scorn from scholars, who see in it, at most, a witty, topical and timely (but therefore out of time) satire on court wits and intellectuals. Most of them consider it one of the Bard's lesser efforts.
It is one of several Shakespearean plays that has never been translated into Hebrew and never performed on a professional stage here. The first Hebrew translation, by Dori Parnes, is dated 1998, and was commissioned by the Beit Zvi acting school. The only Hebrew performance of the play to date was by the acting school of Yoram Levinstein.
At the center of the plot is the age-old conflict between "life" and "book," or "love" and "intellect." The King of Navarre demands that his friends (and himself) give up the "vain delight" that hinders study. To which Berowne objects: "Why, all delights are vain; but that most vain \ Which, with pain purchase'd doth inherit pain: \ As painfully to pore upon a book, \ to seek the light of truth; while truth the while \ doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look: \ Light seeking light doth light of light beguile" (this last line earned a lot of scorn from Dr. Johnson, who claimed that it "might have been told with less obscurity in fewer words"). But the King of Navarre merely observes "How well he's read, to reason against reading!" To this very day many students go to universities "to read" humanistic subjects.
In the Court of Navarre, scene of the play, books are a symbol of learning and good taste. Here is Sir Nathaniel, voicing a condescending opinion about the constable, Anthony Dull: "... he hath not fed of the dainties that are bred of a book; he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink: his intellect is not
replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts."
At the end of the first scene, Berowne signs the vow, but tells his co-subscribers: "But I believe, although I seem so loath, \ I am the last that will keep his oath." And he knows what he is talking about: the Princess of France with three charming ladies in waiting arrives at Navarre, and the plot takes off to very silly, (to be frank), twists and turns.
Kenneth Branagh is a very talented successful movie and theater actor and director, with a proven record as someone who can bring the charm of Shakespeare to the big screen ("Henry the Fifth" and "Much Ado About Nothing"). He has an ego to match: In 1989, only 28 years of age, he published an autobiography, "Beginning." Now he has tackled "Love's Labor's Lost," but sensing the frailty and artificiality of the plot, he transferred the action to Europe on the eve of World War II. Disaster looms in the background - and black and white newsreels remind us that clouds of war are gathering - but in Navarre they play charades.
Branagh decided to fit into the plot, which indeed is the sort that is the basis of many musical comedies, some of the best known song and dance tunes by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. And these tunes reflect the times the plots (and we) live in: "There may be trouble ahead, but while there's music and love and romance, let's face the music and dance."
Shakespeare's play lets "life" win the day over "books." Or to be precise, it is the victory of "the women," or of "love." All four scholars break their vows and fall in love, and Berowne lectures them: "From women's eyes this doctrine I derive; \ they are the ground, the books, the academes, from whence doth spring the true Promethean fire \ (...) and when Love speaks, the voice of all gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony." And when Branagh reaches the word "heaven" he pauses, repeats it, and bursts into "heaven, my blue heaven," the well known beginning of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," and he and his friends hover slowly, singing, under a heavenly blue dome.
But the play does not have a happy end. The death of the King of France forces the separation of the lovers, for a year's period of mourning. The last sad words of the play are "You, that way, we, this way." And when the film is nearly over, there is a sort of a homage to the immortal "Casablanca." As the plane carrying the ladies away soars up high toward the cloudy skies, they all intone together (courtesy of George and Ira Gershwin): "Our romance won't end on a sorrowful note, though tomorrow you're gone. The song is ended but as the songwriter wrote, the melody lingers on. They may take you from me, I'll miss your fond caress, but though they take you from me, I'll still possess... the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, the way you've changed my life... no, no, they can't take that away from me..."
In Branagh's movie it is the war that parts the lovers, but when it ends with a victory, they reunite and celebrate (only the fools die in the battles). Maybe, indeed, this is the right movie to see these days.