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Love's Labor's Lost

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at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Marti Maraden

Q&A with the Director

When she visited Chicago to complete the casting process, Director Marti Maraden met with Chicago Shakespeare’s staff to talk about Love’s Labor’s Lost and her ideas for this winter’s production.

Marti, what keeps bringing you back to this play, certainly one of the lesser known among Shakespeare comedies?

Yes, it got lost in history for a very long time and was essentially rediscovered in the twentieth century. As happens with some of Shakespeare’s plays, they are forgotten for awhile and then they get rediscovered as people realize how rich and full of heart and meaning and joy they are. I love how full of joy Love’s Labor’s Lost is. There is a glorious sense of playfulness and mischief throughout.

Can you tell us about the historical period that is shaping our production here at Chicago Shakespeare?

We’re setting our production in the eighteenth century—“The Age of Reason” or “Enlightenment,” because it was a time of great intellectual and scientific pursuit. The movement away from superstition toward reason affected the arts as well as politics and social issues, and gives us a context both for the men’s interest in study and for the wittiness and wisdom of the play’s women. But in the play not all forms of study result in wisdom. Many of the characters are decidedly lacking in self-knowledge, and that deficiency results in no end of comic mayhem.

The eighteenth century is also a visually beautiful period. This story takes place not in a wilderness but in a lush park, contained and tamed in the grounds around the palace. We’re going towards something verging on autumnal. Leaves famously fall in this play. Our set designer, Kevin Depinet, has used the famous French artist, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, as his inspiration. The eighteenth-century artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun inspired our costume designer, Christina Poddubiuk. She was an exquisite painter who drew portraits of real people, in real clothes. The costumes will be clothes that you believe people could travel in and sit on the ground in and yet are lush and absolutely spectacular. Keith Thomas, a Canadian composer who has worked extensively at the Guthrie, at Stratford, and throughout Canada, will be creating original music inspired by this period for our production. His music is very rich and melodic and emotive.

What are the play’s big ideas to you?

I think that this play is fundamentally about two things. Learning is expressed in so many different ways: knowledge, erudition, being smart, learning, going to school. The four men in setting up their academe are well intentioned—and not entirely foolish. The idea of learning is certainly not a bad thing—it’s just the way they intend to go about it that is so against the nature of their youth. The play asks us to think about what is real learning and real knowledge? In this single play, Shakespeare gives us many different examples of how knowledge can be either shallow and fruitless or can be knowledge that actually leads to something rich in human experience. If you don’t understand your own heart, your own place and journey in life, then all the book learning in the world will mean nothing. Words get used to excuse bad behavior. Words get used to hurt, to punish, to mock other people.

Another great theme in this wonderful, giddy play is about growing up, about maturity. Near the very end, the shadow of death passes over the world of the play, and at that point the men only just begin to understand that they must take that step toward real responsibility and maturity, and the women lead the way. 

Talk more about how you understand the women in this play.

These women are so bright and learned. Yes, they’ve been well educated, but they are also people who are rooted in good practical common sense and an understanding of their own hearts, of the pragmatic aspects of the world as well as the intellectual. They are as in love with language as the men are, but they use language both playfully and to good purpose. The women in this play understand where they are in life; the men do not.

So, you think the men’s plan is completely misguided right from the start?

A young king—perhaps his father died not too long ago—wants to do something serious with his life, something that will ensure that his name and the names of his friends will live on for all eternity. He is at war with Death. This might be a worthy goal and Navarre is undoubtedly sincere, but the manner in which he has chosen to go about setting up his “little academe” is highly restrictive and goes against the very nature of youth. This involves an oath to live ascetic lives for three years, including not seeing women during that entire time. But the minute these four men see the four women, their solemnly sworn oaths are abandoned. The women, however, never forget that the men have treated their oaths frivolously, and by the end of the play they conclude that, despite their many good qualities, the men still have a lot of growing up to do. Shakespeare in his first several “procreation” sonnets urges young men to seek immortality by marrying and fathering children. In Sonnet 3 Shakespeare asks:

"Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?"

In the end, what do you think of their chances of getting back together?

One of the most important things that this play makes clear is that words can hurt. And of course this is as true today as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Where is humor appropriate and where is it not? When is it hurtful and when is it not? Grow up, grow up, grow up, the women say in the final moments. A song at the very end of the play about spring and winter is expressed in simple, evocative images, which leave behind the elaborate wordplay of the lords and ladies, and remind us of the mixture of beauty and harshness touching all of our lives. Do we think they will get back together in the end? Yes, I believe that there’s a fair reason for hope.

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