Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost

The first recorded performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost was for Queen Elizabeth for Christmas 1597.

It is a very funny comedy about the King of Navarre and three of his noblemen. They all take an oath to give up the company of women -- and quickly break that oath!
What I find fascinating about this play is that we don't know where Shakespeare got the story. It seems that this play and The Tempest are the only two of his plays whose source texts are unclear.
So, where did Shakespeare get this story, and why did he write this play?

David Tennant in a 2008 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company

By 1596-7 Shakespeare was the greatest and the most successful playwright in England. He was at the summit of his career.
The Earls of Essex and Southampton, two of the most popular and influential young Earls in Queen Elizabeth’s court, were Shakespeare's patrons.
Essex was the Queen’s favourite, which meant that she preferred him above anyone else, and gave him power and wealth in very unequal measure.

In the years after 1596-7 he would demand more and more from her, and by 1601 he had so fallen from favour that he led a Rebellion against her. He failed and was executed for this attempted coup d’├ętat.
But at the time Queen Elizabeth saw Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1597, her relationship with Essex was very strong.
In the play, the character of Navarre is based on Henri of Navarre, the future King of France. The other three noblemen in Shakespeare’s story are based on real historical figures.

Essex knew each of these men when he had supported Henri’s army, in 1591.
If Essex knew these men, then is it not reasonable to conclude that the characters and the indeed the story of Love’s Labour’s Lost came from Essex?

Is it not reasonable to conclude that Essex told the story to Shakespeare?
Perhaps the events of the play are not really fictitious. Perhaps they are based on some real event that Essex was witness to in 1591, or at least had heard about from one or all of these men.
Perhaps Essex was even involved in these events himself.
What if Essex told Shakespeare about these men, and Shakespeare crafted a play around them?
Did Essex hire Shakespeare to write it?
To what degree Essex supported Shakespeare, and how close he was to Shakespeare, is not very clear at all. When you read about Shakespeare, and then you read about Essex, it seems as if they hardly knew each other. 

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

I recently asked a very prominent Shakespearean scholar to what degree Essex collaborated with Shakespeare on any of the plays. This scholar was reluctant to suggest that Essex was involved in the writing of the plays. He said that Essex only knew Shakespeare in a professional manner, as if Shakespeare was just one of many artists whom the Earl of Essex commissioned.
I couldn't disagree more.
In the process of writing my versions of Hamlet, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and the forthcoming Othello, I have concluded that the relationship between Shakespeare and Essex was very strong, and very close.
To put it bluntly, Shakespeare wrote propaganda for Essex.
For example, Shakespeare wrote Henry V in 1599 to bolster public support for Essex as he went off to fight in Ireland, and Essex's execution in 1601 moved Shakespeare to write his greatest masterpiece, Hamlet.
Therefore, in 1597, it is rather clear that Essex hired Shakespeare to write a very funny comedy for the Queen.
Also, there is a record from the French Ambassador, Andre Hurault, who met with Queen Elizabeth on 8 December, 1597.
Is it possible that he also saw the play later the same month? Is it possible that the play was written to coincide with the French Ambassador's visit?

Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, ca 1592-9

Since the play was written for a performance on or near Christmas, was this play a Christmas gift from Essex to his Queen? 
He would have probably bought her other gifts. She would have received many lovely gifts from people she knew, other courtiers.
But in giving her the gift of a new play written for her entertainment by William Shakespeare -- the greatest playwright of her reign -- Essex would have been giving her a gift that surpassed everyone else’s.
I hope I have persuaded you a little to consider the play in a new light. 

Far from being just another play that was written and performed during the Elizabethan Era, Love’s Labour’s Lost may have been Queen Elizabeth’s favourite gift from her favourite courtier.

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