Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 38)
Love's Labour's Lost
For further information on the critical and stage history of Love's Labour's Lost, see SC, Volumes 2 and 23.
Early critical debate over Love's Labour's Lost focused upon its date of composition and its relative merit as a play; at the same time scholars also speculated on the possible sources for the plot of this Shakespearean comedy as well as on the likelihood that it contained topical allusions to other Elizabethan writers. Recent criticism, on the other hand, has become increasingly interested in the play's reflection of Elizabethan culture, its virtuosity with language, its unresolved conclusion, and the relationships between its male and female characters. Closely connected to these issues is what Love's Labour's Lost has to say about the nature of love and, more particularly, desire.
Maurice Hunt (1992) approaches the play's relationship to Renaissance culture by drawing a connection between Elizabeth I and the character of the Princess of France. He argues that through the Princess, Shakespeare represents the virgin Queen Elizabeth's jealous control over the affairs of her ladies-in-waiting and by extension voices the worries of England's populace, who admired Elizabeth's past accomplishments but were anxious about the current and future state of the country during the "last years of a vain, irritable, aging Queen." Following a similarly dark vein, Joseph Chaney (1993) discusses the implications of the play's irresolute ending, suggesting that by closing his comedy unconventionally without marriages but with a hint of tragedy, Shakespeare is testing the limits of the comedic genre.
Several critics have analyzed the play's preoccupation with language. James L. Calderwood (1965), for example, asserts that through their word games and brilliant witticisms, the characters express admiration for language in and of itself rather than for any truth that words might be able to communicate. Calling Love's Labour's Lost a play about words, Ralph Berry (1972) argues that the spoken word in fact achieves significance with the appearance in V.ii.716 of the messenger, Marcade, who delivers news of the King of France's death and thereby transforms language into a conveyer of stark reality. Seeing the play as a satire on romance, Peter G. Phialas (1966) points to the male characters' reliance on language to make extravagant avowals of love, and to the female characters' skeptical responses. Peter B. Erickson (1981) asserts that this tension between male and female characters is an expression of "female domination and male humility which had become established in love poetry" during the Renaissance and which Shakespeare chose to make the focus of his play.
Neal L. Goldstien (1974) shares this view of the play as a satire on the conventions of Renaissance love poetry—a type of verse which portrayed the female object of desire as divine and the male suitor as unworthy. Arguing that Shakespeare achieves his satiric ends by making "sensual gratification" rather than marriage the emphasis of the comedy, Goldstien observes that ultimately, Love's Labour's Lost questions sensuality as well as spirituality when the cynical songs of Spring and Winter demonstrate that the result of sensual indulgence is housewifery, or "drudgery and tedium, the reality of day-to-day existence." On a different tack, W. Thomas MacCary (1985) describes the play as a lesson in love seen chiefly from Berowne's point of view as he moves through "stages of development in the orientation of desire," treating women first as targets of his wit, then as idealized objects of worship, and finally as real individuals who are separate from himself and thus necessarily unpredictable. The themes of desire and education receive additional scrutiny from Carolyn Asp (1989). Acknowledging that the play "falls short of the conventional comic ending" of marriage, Asp disputes the argument that this "deferral of desire" is the fault of domineering female characters, and suggests instead that the women in the play teach the men the restorative value of humor over the corrosiveness of wit. Finally, David Bevington (1996) contends that the unsatisfied desires and unresolved ending of the play result from the male characters'—and Shakespeare's—misogyny, or the "uncomfortable vision of the female as the attractive yet baffling prize that seemingly cannot be attained or controlled."
Peter G. Phialas (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "Love's Labour's Lost," in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning, The University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 65-101.
[In the following excerpt, Phialas describes Love's Labour's Lost as a satire on romance, comparing it to other Shakespearean comedies and observing that its dual theme stresses the importance of an outlook which embraces both the realism of everyday and the idealism of romance.]
We may . . . consider [Love's Labour's Lost] itself as comedy, its theme and structure, and through these its contribution to the comic form which Shakespeare is developing for the accommodation of a love story. . . . [The] weight of comment on the play has been until recently overwhelmingly unfavorable. There is no need here to review what has been said of the play in detail. It will suffice to note the general tenor of that negative comment. Although Richard Burbage thought the play excellent for its "wytt & mirthe," Dryden and Dr. Johnson, each for a different reason, are the two early critics whose adverse comment began the long list of detractors. Most of these believed that Love's Labour's Lost was Shakespeare's earliest comedy and therefore his least attractive; and it is possible that other critics, believing this an unsuccessful play, determined to prove that it...
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Neal L. Goldstien (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Love's Labour's Lost and the Renaissance Vision of Love," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 335-50.
[In the following essay, Goldstien asserts that Love's Labour's Lost is a satire on the Renaissance or Petrarchan view of love as spiritual or ideal, presenting love instead as sensual desire.]
Perhaps one measure of the richness of a work of literature—though certainly not the only measure—is the variety of critical approaches which it allows. If that is the case, then Love's Labour's Lost is certainly one of the richest of Shakespeare's plays, approached, as it has been, through analyses of its language, its topical allusions, its place in the comic genre, its themes, and so on. The analyses of the play's language, the viewing of the play as a satire on various kinds of elaborate expression and rhetoric, has been at least a subsidiary consideration in most treatments of the play. A number of critics, however, have, it seems to me, misread Love's Labour's Lost by subjugating all the elements of the play to its language. One critic, for example, views the resolution of the play as "a proposal for therapy . . . [for] linguistic disease."1 A. C. Hamilton takes the approach to its logical extreme:
[The] spectacle is verbal, and the...
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James L. Calderwood (essay date 1965)
SOURCE: "Love's Labour's Lost: A Wantoning with Words," in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. V, No. 2, Spring, 1965, pp. 317-32.
[In the following excerpt, Calderwood asserts that in Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare begins by focusing on language as an art form rather than as a source of meaning, but ends by preparing the way for his more accomplished and meaningful later comedies.]
When Bacon diagnosed the "study [of] words and not matter" as symptomatic of the "first distemper of learning," he might have been thinking, not only of the word-entranced scholars in Love's Labour's Lost, but of Love's Labour's Lost itself. For surely nowhere else in Shakespeare do we find words so ascendant over matter, and language so insistently the mother, and not the mistress, of meaning. In perhaps no other play does language so nearly become an autonomous symbolic system whose value, somewhat like that of pure mathematics, lies less in its relevance to reality than in its intrinsic fascination. The referential role of words as pointers to ideas or things is consistently subordinated in this play to their relational role as pointers to other words. When Maria says of Biron, "Not a word with him but a jest," her line, though it conveys in idea about Biron, has as its primary object the setting up of a syntactic pattern...
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Peter B. Erickson (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The Failure of Relationship Between Men and Women in Love's Labor's Lost," in Women's Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1981, pp. 65-81.
[Below, Erickson examines the issues of love and power between men and women as they are presented in the play, arguing that the male characters 'foolishness and the female characters ' dominance prevent this comedy from ending conventionally in marriage.]
For all its comic charm, Love's Labor's Lost presents an extraordinary exhibition of masculine insecurity and helplessness. While the veneer of male authority is brittle and precarious from the outset, female power is virtually absolute. This startling reversal of the expectation that men control women gives the play its capacity to disquiet us. By setting up such a marked inequality in their respective power, Shakespeare creates a gap between men and women which cannot be bridged. My thesis is that this fixed gap enables Shakespeare to explore dramatically the conventions of female domination and male humility which had become established in love poetry. I propose to examine the psychology of male and female stereotypes expressed in the men's poetry in order to show how this psychology creates a barrier which keeps the men and women apart.
The play's first scene quickly exposes the pretensions of masculine idealism and the...
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Agnew, Gates K. "Berowne and the Progress of Love's Labour's Lost." Shakespeare Studies IV (1968): 40-72.
Argues that the "ambivalent" character of Berowne is responsible for making Love's Labour's Lost an unconventional comedy.
Anderson, J. J. "The Morality of Love's Labour's Lost" Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971): 55-62.
Compares the play and its uncomic ending to the morality plays of the Middle Ages.
Berry, Ralph. "The Words of Mercury." In Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form, pp. 72-88. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Focuses on the messenger, Mercade, to argue that the plot of the play is a progression toward reality and away from fantasy, with language functioning as reality's vehicle.
Breitenberg, Mark. "The Anatomy of Masculine Desire in Love's Labor's Lost" Shakespeare Quarterly 43, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 430-49.
Looks at the play from the point of view of the male characters' idealization and vilification of women according to the tradition of Petrarchan love poetry.
Burnett, Mark Thornton. "Giving and Receiving: Love's Labour's Lost and the Politics of Exchange." English Literary Renaissance 23, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 287-313.
Regards the play as a reflection of and a commentary on the custom of gift-giving in...
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