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What Are They Reading?

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Love's Labour's Lost
by William Shakespeare

About the Author

Arthur C. Danto
Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army...

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I have been on something of a Shakespeare comedy jag over the past months; I laughed all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to New York a few weeks ago, reading Love's Labor's Lost. I had read As You Like It just before 9/11, and had a dream one night after that day that I was in the Forest of Arden with its population of clowns and witty young women picking cowslips. I felt entirely exalted until I woke up with the memory of the smoke and horror of the terrorist attack, and the sense that the comedy somehow distilled the world we had lost. So I read it again to keep the joy of the dream alive. And since then I have been going through the comedies whenever I need a happiness fix. I would love to have been part of the audience Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote Love's Labor's Lost. There are, in effect, two teams of extravagant talkers--the King of Navarre and his courtiers on one side, the Princess of France with her ladies on the other. The King and his followers have just taken an oath to forswear contact with women for three years when the Princess comes on some diplomatic mission; the four males fall immediately in love with the four females, for whom they are no match in the game of zinging witticisms past one another's ears.

Shakespeare's audience had to be able to disentangle quadruple puns as the lines flew back and forth. It is a comedy in which, as one of the male characters remarks, "Jack does not get his Jill." Everyone has to take a respite of a year and a day before they will be ready to face one another again.

I met a real life Jill not long ago--Jill Davis--who has just published a comic novel called Girl's Poker Night. Her book too has a team of daunting women, pessimistically looking for love. Her heroine, Ruby Capote, might well have made good material for the Princess of France's team of ladies who use language as a blood sport, though mostly she talks to the reader, since the males are more or less hopeless. In the end she opts for happiness with a man who is far from good enough for her. But--as she observes--"Happy endings are not for cowards."

Here, for those who frown on such light reading for these heavy times, is a word from Hegel:

"The modern world has developed a type of comedy which is truly comical and truly poetic. The keynote is good humor, assured and careless gaiety, despite all failure and misfortune, exuberance and the audacity of a fundamentally happy craziness, folly, and idiosyncrasy in general."

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