Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A bit of Love's Labour's Lost

It's Wednesday, and Wednesday means Shakespeare. Okay, technically I believe it means "Odin's Day", and is in commemoration of that Norse God - I defer to (aka Tessa Gratton) to know that sort of thing for sure. But here at Writing and Ruminating, I try to provide a bit of the Bard midweek.

You may (or may not) recall that Love's Labour's Lost is one of the plays that I looked at during my June extravaganza, Brush Up Your Shakespeare Month. If you'd like a refresher on that play, here's my summary. Or, if you'd like to take a look at Shakespeare's use of poetry and wordplay within the text, you may prefer this post, which talks about the poetry, wordplay, and use of imagery in the play.

If you were to google "Shakespeare Christmas quotes," you'd likely find these lovely lines:

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.

Heck, I plucked them out of the play to feature in a quoteskimming post back in June. But if you look at the actual text of the play, you will see that they are taken entirely out of context, as one is wont to do with Shakespeare. In this particular scene, which is actual Act I, scene 1 of the play, we're learning of the King's desire to set up a girl-free learning zone. The sole skeptic among his sycophantic friends is Berowne, who wonders whether it really makes any sense. (He eventually goes along because he's a good sport, but he never expects them all to be able to pull it off.)


Berowne is like an envious sneaping frost,
That bites the first-born infants of the spring.


Well, say I am; why should proud summer boast
Before the birds have any cause to sing?
Why should I joy in any abortive birth?
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
So you, to study now it is too late,
Climb o'er the house to unlock the little gate.

Berowne is telling the King that he's left his scheme until too late in life, and that he's setting himself a momentous task; hence the "climb over the house to unlock the little gate" line - rather like the contemporary "it's like going around your ass to get to your elbow" sentiment> But I digress.

First and foremost, I have to say that I have no problem with taking bits of Shakespeare and using them out of context. Those three of Berowne's lines are lovely, but the fact that the middle line rhymes with the line above about "abortive birth" indicates that they are part and parcel of that earlier sentiment. Berowne is very much saying, as Pippin would later sing in the musical named after him, that "Everything has its season." Still, one can understand why the line about abortive birth isn't widely quoted - not that there's anything wrong with it in context, but out of context - well, it just doesn't play well.

Second, I have to take a moment to swoon over Shakespeare's use of the word "sneaping", a word which comes from the Middle English word (not so long-forgotten in Shakespeare's time) snaipen, meaning to injure, nip, or rebuke. Snaipen is probably of Scandinavian (read: Viking) origin, given the existence of a similar word in Icelandic (closest of all the Scandinavian languages to what the old-time Vikings spoke, incidentally - learned that when I was in Iceland a few years back). The Icelandic word is sneypa, and means "to scold". The "archaic" use of the word "sneap" was "to blast or blight with cold". So a sneaping frost was a nipping, injurious sort of frost - I suppose he means that Berowne had a sharp tongue.

Third, a word about form. All of the lines here are written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). Berowne's first two lines answer the king and rhyme with the king's lines (frost and boast being direct rhymes in Shakespeare's time, and spring and sing rhyming even now). The following six lines are rhymed ABABCC, which is a form known as Venus and Adonis stanza because Shakespeare used it throughout his lengthy poem, Venus and Adonis. That poem, which was written early on in Shakespeare's career, made a bit of a name for him. It's not surprising, then, that he opted to use it in this, one of his earliest-written plays, which is, as I've said before, a tour de force of poetry and wordplay, with nearly 2/3 of the play being in verse.

All this because I was putting out the wreath and doormat and whatnot today in a bit of holiday decorating, and thought I'd see what I could find that spoke about Christmas. Only now, instead of falalaing, I'm hearing Corner of the Sky on brainradio. Here are some of the lyrics, which I think apply well to Berowne's dialogue:

Everything has its season,
everything has its time
Show me a reason and I'll soon show you a rhyme.

Edited to add: Tessa gave me the answer on the Wednesday thing
Hey, lookie:

Wednesday = Wodan's Day, Wodan is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Odin... and Odin was a god of poetry and inspiration (in addition to war and death and magic) so I suspect he'd approve of Wednesday Shakespeare! Much more than Thor, Tyr, or Frey (Thursday, Tuesday, Friday) would have. So, it's the perfect day.

Ta Da!

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