Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 54)


Love's Labour's Lost

Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and thought to be of considerably less merit than his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost has more recently elicited the interest of critics who view the play as a transitional work. The drama details a pact made by four noblemen who swear off women in order to focus their energies on intellectual pursuits. The oath is quickly forgotten, however, following the appearance of the Princess of France and her entourage. Some critics have called Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare's worst play, opining that it suffers from weak and haphazard characterization and a feeble plot. Indeed, few critics have felt that the play's strengths are to be found in its dramatic form. Many commentators, however, have noted that there is no other Shakespearean play that can compare to the wit and wordplay of Love's Labour's Lost. Consequently, it is in its language that most critics have discovered the vitality of the play. In addition to language issues, contemporary scholars have focused on the unique resolution of the play, which denies comic expectations by failing to conclude with happy marriages. A related line of critical inquiry has concentrated on Love's Labour's Lost as an example of the artificiality of comic form. Lastly, a number of commentators have examined the significant role of gender relations and sexual politics in the play.

Some critics perceive the tension between the beginning and ending of the play, and between the comic exposition and disappointed resolution, as central to an understanding of Love's Labour's Lost. The play has been called a drama with a beginning but with no middle or end. Louis Adrian Montrose (1977) comments on the work's open plot and the unsettled nature of its conclusion. For Montrose, the lack of dramatic reconciliation on the level of story and theme are in some sense surmounted by the play's closing songs, which introduce concepts of the harmony of nature and the end of human discord. G. Beiner (1985) observes the artificial and reflexive qualities of Love's Labour's Lost, noting that the work's resistance to comic resolution disrupts the conventional expectations associated with comedy. Robert Ornstein (1986) maintains that the unique rift between the play's comic exposition and disappointed denouement lends itself to a satiric purpose. According to Ornstein, the close of the play reveals the folly of a search for hermetic truth in place of love.

The view of Love's Labour's Lost as a statement on the possibilities and limitations of comic form prevails in the assessments of many contemporary critics. G. R. Hibbard (1990) contrasts the play with Shakespeare's other comedies, seeing Love's Labour's Lost as formalized, highly stylized, and consciously concerned with comedy as artifice. Although Love's Labour's Lost bears similarities to other comic works in its principal motifs of opposition and reversal, it differs from these other plays, according to Hibbard, in its failure to usher in a new and improved society at its conclusion. Likewise, Harry Curtis, Jr. enumerates the points of departure between Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost, arguing that the latter transforms the conventional comic ideology of the former into an inextricable paradox. Cyrus Hoy (1962) perceives the primary function of the work as comic; that is, to highlight the nature of human incongruity and fallibility. Thomas McFarland (1972) emphasizes the artificial setting of Love's Labour's Lost in an enclosed, almost pastoral paradise within the King of Navarre's royal park. Like Hoy, McFarland comments on the play's concern with foolishness, and contrasts this with the elusive ideal of human happiness. Harry Levin (1985) also perceives the work's elucidation of a comic theme, in which scholarship and bookishness are juxtaposed with love as the source of life-giving vitality.

Concerning language and the dynamics of gender in Love's Labour's Lost, many contemporary critics consider these two subjects to be complementary. Ruth Nevo (1980) maintains that the play is only secondarily concerned with love, and primarily with wordplay, wit, and the courtly folly of its male characters. Irene G. Dash (1981) has studied the relationship between male oath-taking and female truth-telling in Love's Labour's Lost, and—in contrast to some earlier estimations—finds the female characters in the play as complex, fully-developed figures. Katherine Eisaman Maus (1991) conducts a contemporary reexamination of gender in the play and of the linguistically-constructed issues of faith and trust between men and women operating in Love's Labour's Lost.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Harry Levin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Sitting in the Sky (Love's Labor's Lost, 4.3),” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, University of Delaware Press, 1985, pp. 113-130.

[In the essay below, Levin presents an overview of Love's Labour's Lost, studying the play's language, plot, and theme of scholarship versus courtship, while noting its playfulness and wit.]

All's Well That Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing, The Comedy of Errors—such phrases are generic as well as proverbial, and might be applied to almost any of Shakespeare's comedies. He was even more off-hand about specifying...

(The entire section is 7657 words.)

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Love's Labor's Lost,” in Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 35-47.

[In the essay below, Ornstein emphasizes the artificiality of Love's Labour's Lost as a comedy and a satire of abstruse intellectuality in conflict with love.]

Like most farces Errors has to be seen on stage to be fully appreciated, partly because of its slapstick scenes and partly because its ingenious plot is inspired by the stage—by a playwright's control of the lives of his characters, who enter and exit on cue and meet or avoid each other as his comic plan requires. The relation of Love's...

(The entire section is 6478 words.)