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Agnostics Anonymous

Like the contemporaneous King James Bible, Shakespeare's plays show an English language revelling in an explosion of vocabulary and a fluidity of expression that still speaks to us. But, despite the odd Biblical reference, Shakespeare was not a religious writer. This opened up a wealth of subject matter, compared to medieval mystery plays, but it also meant that he approached the questions of how to live and where to seek truth in a new way. Take for example Love's Labour's Lost, a strange play in which almost nothing happens. Listed as a comedy in the First Folio, it lacks a happy ending, and the four pairs of so-called lovers fail to consummate their love. Really, it's an extended philosophical argument. The King of Navarre declares that in order to become 'heirs to all eternity', he and his three friends must fight 'against your own affections, / And the huge army of the world's desires.' Reluctantly, the men sign an oath to forswear food, sleep, and women. Berowne is not convinced: 'What is the end of study, let me know?' KING: Why, that to know which else we should not know. BEROWNE: Things hid and barred, you mean, from common sense? KING: Ay, that is study's godlike recompense. For the King, study can make you 'god-like' by accessing rarefied knowledge denied to those who indulge in worldly pleasures; but, for Berowne, it means to lose one's human nature, and by denying the world, to wilfully blind oneself. Of course the oath doesn't last the week; upon the arrival of the Princess of France they all fall instantly in love, proving Berowne's point: 'From women's eyes this doctrine I derive: …They are the books, the arts, the academes, / That show, contain and nourish all the world'. The play seems to become a typical Shakespearean comedy, with mistaken identities and a play within a play: finish with a happy quadruple wedding and exeunt omnes, right? Wrong. The Princess of France sees things a bit differently:

If for my love - as there is no such cause - You will do aught, this shall you do for me: Your oath I will not trust; but go with speed To some forlorn and naked hermitage, Remote from all the pleasures of the world;

The hapless King and his friends find themselves banishéd to do a year's penance: some self-denial is needed after all. These questions trouble us today; should we embrace the world and its pleasures, or deny our passions in the name of self-improvement? Unlike the Bible, Shakespeare's plays explore the problematics of how we are to live, without the deus ex machina to get us out of trouble. It denies us the easy answers, but, in the beauty of its language, shares with us the pleasurable pain of seeking them.