Have you ever wondered what Shakespeare, the person behind the plays, was really like?
Walter Pater, Victorian critic and essayist, thought he knew:
Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the idea of Prospero from The Tempest as a stand-in for Shakespeare. But Berowne is a less prominent character from a less popular play. The main plot of Love’s Labor’s Lost can be—and often is—summarized without even mentioning Berowne’s name: Four men swear an oath to study together for three years (during which time they will sleep little, eat less, and see women not at all); four women arrive; the men break their oaths. In terms of action, Berowne does nothing different from the King of Navarre, Longaville, and Dumaine; in terms of his attitude, however, Berowne stands out.
As Pater puts it, Berowne “is never quite in touch with, never quite on a perfect level of understanding with the other persons of the play.” Like “Shakespeare himself,” according to Pater, Berowne is “able to stand aside from” the world in which he lives. Nor was Pater alone in seeing something especially Shakespearean in Berowne. Edward Dowden, Pater’s contemporary, proclaimed Berowne “the exponent of Shakespeare’s own thought.” Even when biographical interpretations of Shakespeare’s characters became less popular in the twentieth century, scholar Anne Barton described Berowne as “existing upon a deeper level of reality within the play.” This statement might seem perplexing: are there levels of reality within a play? Aren’t all the characters equally fictitious? What Barton meant, I think, is that next to the flat and farcical figures of Navarre, Longaville, and Dumaine, Berowne seems relatively rounded and realistic.
In act 1, Berowne is in the same structural position as Cordelia at the start of King Lear: a king, who seems slightly “off”, proposes a grand scheme; two dependents agree to the plan with a whole lot of zeal and no questions asked; finally, a third person, more sane and sensible, says what the audience has been thinking all along—this is nuts. Unlike Cordelia, however, Berowne goes along to get along. In acts 3 and 4, Berowne takes the audience into his confidence by addressing them directly in soliloquies and asides. By act 5, he even seems aware of being a character in a play, saying, for example: “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; / Jack hath not Jill: these ladies’ courtesy / Might well have made our sport a comedy.”
In Shakespeare’s text, Berowne becomes progressively more “real” over the course of the play.
This summer I saw three different live productions of Love’s Labor’s Lost in a single week. And, while I did not see Shakespeare in the role of Berowne, I saw something better: I saw Berowne, the fictional character, in real life (IRL). But Berowne wasn’t Shakespeare. He was Ryan Zarecki, resident fight director and properties master for the Ohio Shakespeare Festival.
For me, Zarecki became Berowne. And he did it by flipping Shakespeare’s script: right from the start, he stood out and stood aside from the fictional world represented in the play. Berowne’s first speech in the play is written as dialogue, addressed to his king, “my liege.” But Zarecki played it as a soliloquy or an aside, directing his speech to (and establishing eye contact with) the offstage audience, taking us into his confidence with the very first line:
I can but say their protestation over—
Rather than referring to Longaville and Dumaine while speaking to Navarre, Zarecki’s Berowne referred to all three men standing beside him while speaking to us, as if only he knew we were out there watching. In the same speech, Shakespeare has Berowne deliver one line three times:
Which I hope well is not enrolléd there.
I have seen these lines—referring to the rules forbidding women and restricting food and sleep, respectively, in the contract he is being asked to sign—delivered with Berowne holding onto or standing over the document in question. Not Zarecki. Moving downstage, away from both the paper and its signatories, Zarecki’s Berowne made clear with these opening stresses on “there” and “their” that he had one foot firmly planted out “here,” in the real world, with “us.” At one point in the opening scene, Zarecki not only had his back turned to his scene partners but was lying on his side, his head propped on his hand, mugging for us, the audience, as he tossed lines behind him.
This Berowne seemed like someone using his peers as mere backdrop, or setting, while he took a selfie or live streamed his day’s activities for more important viewers elsewhere. By establishing an ironic distance from his onstage scene partners while forging an intimate rapport with the offstage audience to begin the play, Zarecki made Berowne’s first scripted soliloquy in act 3 more poignant and dramatic: it was like seeing a swaggering selfie-taker lose their balance and go over a cliff.
The way Shakespeare wrote the soliloquy, Berowne is surprised to find himself falling in love with Rosaline; the way Zarecki performed it, Berowne is not merely falling in love but at the same time falling into the fiction of the play. Where once he’d been one of us—and, as such, able to see us—he was now more invested in the story and less aware of our presence. And so were we.
Love’s Labor’s Lost, as its title warns us, doesn’t end happily. At the end of the comedy, the four women instruct the four men to spend a year on self-improvement before coming to see them again. Rosaline’s directive to Berowne is as follows:
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit,
To enforce the painèd impotent to smile.
If Berowne wants to be in Rosaline’s life (IRL) he must grow up. There is no starker contrast to the King’s plan for a “little academe / Still and contemplative in living art” at the start of the play than Rosaline’s final image of a bustling ICU. This is the kind of place where the bare essentials of life—eating and sleeping, for example, which the men began the play by swearing to do as little as possible—become challenges and accomplishments to be celebrated. For Berowne, things are about to get real.
The play ends where Berowne’s character arc begins.
Audiences and readers alike are left to wonder how Berowne will fare at his task, but from now on, when I picture Berowne heading to the hospital it will be Ryan Zarecki I see.
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