A Rite to Bay the Bear: Creation and Community in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Love's Labour's Lost celebrates no marriages. "That's too long," sighs Berowne, "for a play." In the end Shakespeare leaves the conflicts of the play suspended in the lyrical debate of Spring and Winter. The following two chapters examine A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet, contemporary plays which do give love dramatic form and time to develop. But while both plays include marriages, one issues in a magical blessing, the other in fatal catastrophe. Rather than speculate about dates and the influence of one play upon the other, I wish to look at them as divergent resolutions of the arrested action of Love Labour's Lost: opposing visions which lead, respectively, through the great comedies and tragedies to the tragicomic art of the late romances.
Let me briefly sketch the unrealized conclusion toward which Love's Labour's Lost moves. Marriage would join the courtiers and the ladies, but their two kingdoms also. In the marriage of Jaquenetta and Armado it would bring together within Navarre common and noble estates. A union might also integrate spirit and flesh, magical thinking and "common" sense. Hopefully, as in the first group of the Sonnets, the conception of children would reconcile the courtiers' initial dread of love and death.
While the play shows us characters groping toward such a conclusion, the question underlying the edict--How shall a man live?--goes unanswered. With his plays on "labour" and "living art" Shakespeare emphasizes that such a union must be created. And the courtiers do improvise one approach to life after another: a vatic edict, sonnets, a masque, courtly palaver. But at length, as they begin to escape from artifice, "the scene begins to cloud" and death suspends their efforts. Ironically the play's "living art" turns out to be the song which teases and consoles and beguiles us.