Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 64)
Love's Labour's Lost
For further information on the critical and stage history of Love's Labour's Lost, see SC, Volumes 2, 23, 38, and 54.
Often disparaged for what is described as a meager plot and weak characterization, Love's Labour's Lost is believed to be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and stands out among Shakespeare's other comedies due to the refusal of the female characters to immediately marry their male counterparts. In addition to the deferral of marriage and its implications regarding gender roles, the play's unmatched witty wordplay and language, characterized by artifice and extravagance, have generated critical analyses with multiple and varied focuses. The play's topical allusions offer another challenge to critics who seek to uncover meanings that may be obscure to modern audiences.
Commenting on the limitations of Love's Labour's Lost, Thomas M. Greene (1986) assesses the play in terms of its concern with society, noting that the play lacks both a locus of political authority and a reliable representative of the citizenry. Greene contends that while the play does not portray a “living society,” it comments on the appropriate conduct of the citizens, and on the roles of entertainment, love, wit, and civility within society. Richard Corum (1999) approaches the play from another avenue, reviewing the situation of the eight young aristocrats as a conflict between their youthful desire for parental approval, and their adolescent rebellion against the dictates of their elders. Corum further explores the way in which this dramatic situation made it possible for Elizabethan audiences to “reappropriate” the comedy within the context of their own daily lives.
The main obstacle in the staging of Love's Labour's Lost is often perceived to be its intellectual language and artifice. J. M. Maguin (1991) reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play directed by Terry Hands, and finds that the artificiality of the set is emphasized, thereby underscoring the artifice at work within the play. Maguin additionally applauds the production's steady rhythm and the abilities of its principal actors. In his 1993 review, Stanley Wells praises the Edwardian Oxford setting at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The critic notes the way in which the set's visual appeal camouflaged the intellectual obstacles posed by the play's language. However, Wells finds that while the actor's studied approach to the language made the play more understandable, the pace and comic impact suffered. The actors in Emmanuel Demarcy-Morta's Paris production of the play are complimented by Ruth Morse (2000) for the clear manner in which they recited the play's verse. Morse asserts that the play was successfully staged as a black comedy. A less successful production, according to Stanley Kauffman (2000) is Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation, which suffered in terms of casting. Kauffman also notes that too much of Shakespeare's text was sacrificed to make room for musical numbers, which failed to make up for the elimination of the text.
The treatment of gender relations in Love's Labour's Lost is intertwined with its concentration on language. Carolyn Asp (1989) examines the different ways the men and women in the play utilize language. According to the critic, the men's language is self-centered, self-serving, and attempts to exclude women, compared to the women’s language, which is focused on the women's view of themselves in relation to the order of law and societal organization. Asp contends that the penance assigned by the women to the men as a prerequisite for the deferred marriages is the women’s way of forcing the men to consider the proper use of language. In contrast to Asp, Mark Breitenberg (1992) challenges the notion that the play's ending emphasizes the power the women hold over the men of Love's Labour's Lost, maintaining that the men are empowered through their Petrarchan idealization of the women. Like Asp, Jonathan Hall (1995) finds that the language of the men demonstrates their interest in self-affirmation. The critic characterizes the male discourse as socially irresponsible, and contends that a victory of this type of discourse would threaten patriarchal order. Ironically, Hall explains, the women's curtailment of the men's self-absorbed discourse defends the patriarchal order.
The contention of many critics is that the characters, setting, and situations in Love's Labour's Lost are related to Elizabethan figures and politics to varying degrees. Albert H. Tricomi (1979) dismisses efforts to correlate figures in the subplot to historical personages, but admits some correspondences can be made between characters in the main plot to the names of historical individuals involved in the French Civil War. Since these characters are depicted in broad and general terms, Tricomi surmises that Shakespeare perhaps idealized these individuals—familiar to most Elizabethans—for the purposes of entertainment through escapist fantasy. Mary Ellen Lamb (see Further Reading) similarly points out that the topical allusions in the play would have been apparent to aristocratic audiences and lower-class Elizabethans alike. Maurice Hunt (1992) studies the ways in which the figure of Queen Elizabeth, as both a nurturing and threatening female, informs the characterization of the Princess of France. Mark Thornton Burnett (1993) focuses less on the historical parallels between characters in the play and Elizabethan individuals and more on the play's treatment of Elizabethan cultural practices. Burnett is concerned in particular with the way gift exchange was used by Queen Elizabeth and the way it is explored in Love's Labour's Lost. In discussing the women's deferral of the marriage proposals, Burnett observes that this rejection reflects the play's most extreme deviation from traditional Elizabethan exchange practices. Burnett demonstrates that this refusal of reproductive and inheritance rights was particularly relevant to Elizabethan audiences, as Queen Elizabeth, the “virgin queen,” had no heirs. Consequently, fear and doubt surrounded the issue of the inheritance of the throne.
Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: A review of Love's Labour's Lost, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 39, 1991, pp. 87-9.
[In the review below, Maguin offers a favorable review of the production of Love's Labour's Lost directed by Terry Hands. Maguin is appreciative of the unflagging rhythm of the production and the abilities of the principal actors, who expressed the dialogue with “rare clarity.”]
Love's Labour's Lost, directed by Terry Hands, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 23 January 1991, evening, back stalls centre.
The set, designed by Timothy O'Brien, combines richness of colour with architectural flatness. A dominantly green backdrop is fretted over with small splashes of autumn gold and red made to come to life as the lighting plays over them. Bushes and trees are formed into a series of screens beyond which, when they open up, a steep bank is seen to rise from a neat paper-like fold in the stage floor. The latter's green baize cover enhances the artificiallity of the structure. The constraint upon nature which Navarre's academic scheme is about to thrust upon his friends turns this particular clearing in the forest into something like a billiards table, where the carefully cued characters of Shakespeare's comedy are going to telescope and spin off one another to be all pocketed by Marcade (an impressive, top hatted, black-clad Griffith Jones), the messenger...
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SOURCE: “Before the War,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4727, November 5, 1993, p. 18.
[In the following review, Wells praises the Edwardian Oxford setting of the production of Love's Labour's Lost staged at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. According to the critic, the set's visual appeal camouflaged the intellectual obstacles posed by the play's language. However, Wells finds that while the actors’ studied approach to the language made the play more understandable, the pace and comic impact suffered.]
Ian Judge has had the ingenious notion of superimposing upon Shakespeare's many verbal conceits in Love's Labours Lost the theatrical conceit of locating its action in Edwardian Oxford. The court of Navarre becomes the courtyard of an Oxford college, the lodge in the royal park is a porter's lodge, and Don Adriano de Armado is not the only don on the horizon. John Gunter's charming basic set of old stone walls and mullioned windows festooned with greenery adapts easily and wittily to suggest a variety of locations: a high-backed settle trundles on, and we are in a buttery bar (Balliol, I fancy); puffs of smoke plus a few sound effects and it is clear that the Princess and her companions have arrived by train; Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel converse in deck chairs, while watching and applauding a cricket match that takes place somewhere in the auditorium; an awning...
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SOURCE: “Well, Not Completely Lost,” in The New Republic, Vol. 223, Nos. 4460-4461, July 10 & 17, 2000, pp. 32-3.
[In the review that follows, Kauffman reviews Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost, criticizing the casting as “dull” in some cases and “dreadful” in others, and protesting that the excising of two-thirds of the play's dialogue was not compensated for by the musical numbers.]
William Hazlitt dismissed it: “If we were to part with any of the author's comedies, it should be this.” But Harold Bloom has said: “I take more unmixed pleasure from this play than from any other Shakespearean play.” Kenneth Branagh, if he had read this, might not agree entirely with Bloom but would certainly side with him against Hazlitt. He'd especially agree with a further Bloom comment on one of the characters: “The essence of Berowne is in that insouciant line uttered upon meeting a French lady-in-waiting in Navarre: ‘Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?’”
Dance! Lightning could have flashed in Branagh's head from Bloom's line to a way of performing Berowne to the concept of transforming the whole play into a “dance” film. The play, of course, is Love's Labour's Lost, and it is now a Miramax musical-comedy film with Branagh as adapter and as director and as Berowne. The project was a promising possibility, not an instant...
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SOURCE: A review of Love's Labour's Lost, in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5052, January 28, 2000, p. 20.
[In the following review, Morse comments on a Parisian production of Love's Labour's Lost directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, characterizing the production as a successful black comedy.]
Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota's singular Love's Labour's Lost is sold out—and it is not hard to see why. His black comedy, in which the women have the better of it from the start by puncturing the young men's utopian fantasy, offers a rite of initiation into the brutalities of desire, and the accompanying shame of honour betrayed. As both Biron (Benjamin Egner) and the young Princess of France (Marie-Armelle Deguy) point out, the King of Navarre (Gerald Maillet) is on a hiding to nothing. The absence of cakes, ale and female company is a road not to virtue but to deceit. They may be swearing to devote themselves to three years of “philo”, but reality keeps breaking in. Their rhetoric comes to sound wonderfully like the subject of an essay: “comment l'amour fait changer le discours”. Discuss. The play is a polyphony on loving and talking.
An imaginary Navarre is a sandy-floored plain, framed by a stylized arcade. There is no accommodation in sight. With the accent firmly on what the words create, the occasional intrusion of real things is almost shocking: in the hunting scene,...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: “Love's Labour's Lost: The Grace of Society,” in The Vulnerable Text: Essays on Renaissance Literature, Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 140-58.
[In the essay below, originally published in 1971, Greene assesses Love's Labour's Lost in terms of its concern with society, noting that the play lacks both a locus of political authority and a reliable representative of the citizenry. Greene contends that while the play does not portray a “living society,” it comments on the appropriate conduct of the citizens, and on the roles of entertainment, love, wit, and civility within society.]
The qualities of Love's Labour's Lost determine its limitations. The arabesques of wit, the elaborations of courtly artifice, the coolness of tone—these sources of its charm contribute to that brittleness and thinness and faded superficiality for which some critics of several generations have reproached it. For its admirers, a heavy stress upon these limitations is likely to appear irrelevant. But even admirers must acknowledge that, placed against its author's work, Love's Labour's Lost is distinguished by a certain slenderness of feeling, a delicate insubstantiality. It is most certainly not a trivial play, but its subtlety remains a little disembodied.
One source of that impression may be the play's lack, unique in Shakespeare, of any firm social...
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SOURCE: “‘The Catastrophe Is a Nuptial’: Love's Labor's Lost, Tactics, Everyday Life,” in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday, edited by Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, pp. 271-98.
[In the following essay, Corum reviews the critical debate concerning the problematic ending of Love's Labour's Lost, reassessing the play as a whole and the ending in particular in terms of its relevance to Elizabethan cultural views on adolescence.]
I always thought marriage was one step away from death.
—Sandra Bullock, The Late Show with David Letterman, 12:10 a.m., Friday, July 25, 1995
In such conditions, the heterogeneous elements, at least as such, find themselves subjected to a de facto censorship. … They cannot be kept within the field of consideration.
—Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess,1
“In the eighteenth century,” Michel de Certeau writes, “the ideology of the Enlightenment claimed that the book was capable of reforming society, that educational popularization could transform manners and customs, that an elite's products could, if they were sufficiently widespread, remodel a whole nation.”2 This ideological program's long-term effect on Shakespeare's plays—their appropriation and...
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SOURCE: “The Witty Idealization of the French Court in Love's Labor's Lost,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 12, 1979, pp. 25-33.
[In the essay that follows, Tricomi dismisses efforts to correlate figures in the subplot of Love's Labour's Lost to historical personages, but admits some correspondences can be made between characters in the main plot to the names of historical individuals involved in the French Civil War. Since these characters are depicted in broad and general terms, Tricomi surmises that Shakespeare perhaps idealized these individuals—familiar to most Elizabethans—for the purposes of entertainment through escapist fantasy.]
No other play in the Shakespeare canon has invited as much topical interpretation as Love's Labor's Lost. The speculative enterprise of trying to draw connections between illustrious persons in Elizabethan England and such characters as Armado, Moth, Sir Nathaniel, and Holofernes still goes on but without having produced lasting or even widely accepted results.1 David Young's review of a recent book that employs a biographical-historical approach to Shakespeare's last plays sums up the achievements of this school of criticism: “It [Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach] is the same fruitless attempt to read the plays in terms of contemporary politics and intellectual movements that she [Frances Yates] employed in her...
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SOURCE: “Love's Labour's Lost: Language and the Deferral of Desire,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 35, No. 3, 1989, pp. 1-21.
[In the following essay, Asp demonstrates the way in which the women in the play invite the men to come to terms with human loss, and to temper this loss through both compassion and the “proper” use of language, that is, language focused on others rather than on the self.]
Love's Labour Lost is unique among Shakespeare's comedies in that its conclusion falls short of the conventional comic ending: marriage. Even Berowne, the hero, comments on its oddity: “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; / Jack hath not Jill” (V.ii.864-65), locating the play's generic defect in deferral of desire.1 Since he blames the ladies for a lack of “courtesy” which “might well have made our sport a comedy” (V.ii.874), he is the first of many critics to attribute aesthetic defect to feminine lack. Peter Erickson echoes Berowne's complaint when he alleges that the unresolved nature of the play's ending is the result of “the humiliation of men as helpless victims of female caprice.”2 In Erickson's view, it is not feminine defect as much as feminine excess (“women do not surrender their independence” [p. 10] that skews the comic resolution. These dominant women inspire fear in the patriarchal sensibility and create a tension that...
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SOURCE: “The Anatomy of Masculine Desire in Love's Labor's Lost,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1992, 430-49.
[In the essay below, Breitenberg challenges the notion that the play's ending emphasizes the power the women hold over the men of Love's Labour's Lost. Rather, Breitenberg maintains, the men are empowered through their Petrarchan idealization of the women.]
I introduce my subject by way of Montaigne's lengthy meditation on gender and sexuality, translated by John Florio as “Upon some verses of Virgill.”1 In this essay, Montaigne offers his readers a sometimes rambling collection of observations, anecdotes, classical exempla, and personal confessions on such matters as cuckoldry anxiety, male impotence, constancy and inconstancy in marriage, the nature and causes of jealousy among both men and women, and the social conditions and conventions of heterosexual desire. The essay appears motivated by Montaigne's recognition of the paradoxical fact that sexuality—“so naturall, so necessary and so iust”—is nonetheless rarely talked about “without shame.” The silence regarding sexuality, Montaigne further suggests, may very well promote rather than inhibit sexual desire: “Is it not herein as in matters of bookes, which being once called-in and forbidden become more saleable & publike?”2 In part,...
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SOURCE: “The Double Figure of Elizabeth in Love's Labor's Lost,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 173-92.
[In the following essay, Hunt studies the ways in which the figure of Queen Elizabeth, as both a nurturing and threatening female, informs the characterization of the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost.]
The shadow of Queen Elizabeth has long haunted the woodland park setting of Love's Labor's Lost. In the words of F. P. Wilson, “much of the action [of the play] is based on entertainments which Elizabeth was offered while on progress: pageants; hunting the deer—the Queen observing the hunt from a stand specially built for her; dramatic shows sometimes performed seriously by country people and organized by the local schoolmaster, sometimes a burlesquing of rural life and character and presented to the Queen out of doors in the park adjoining her host's house or castle; a masque or disguising ending in a dance and in song. … The following of the events of a progress or royal entertainment accounts for the episodic structure of the play.”1 According to Alice Griffin, Love's Labor's Lost “holds a special appeal for an audience which would recognize in it the features which made Elizabeth's own sojourns at the estates so memorable. … The short, complimentary lyrics and sonnets, in varying degrees of excellence,...
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SOURCE: “Giving and Receiving: Love's Labour's Lost and the Politics of Exchange,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 287-313.
[In the following essay, Burnett approaches the topicality of Love's Labour's Lost by exploring the play in terms of its critical discourse on Elizabethan cultural practices, especially that of gift exchange.]
In 1559, basking in the glory of her new queenly status, Elizabeth I processed through London to Westminster, the traditional site of coronation, and on route the sovereign availed herself of every opportunity to express gratitude for the smoothness with which her election had been effected. Elizabeth “did declare herselfe no lesse thankefullye to receive her people's good wille, than they lovingly offred it unto her.”1 Similar delineations of reciprocal protestations of indebtedness recur in the official account of the event. After a child had delivered a welcoming oration, Elizabeth “thanked most hartely both the citie for this her gentle receiving at the first, and also the peple for confirming the same.”2 And so it continues, this pattern of giving and receiving, of accepting proferred good wishes with courteous appreciation and approval. Witnessing a pageant and delighting in the gift of a Bible, Elizabeth displays consummate skills—wooing with modest grace, capturing affections,...
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SOURCE: “War, Wit, and Closure in Love's Labour's Lost,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 87-97.
[In the essay below, Hall describes the pursuit by the male characters of witty, erotic discourse as irresponsible, and contends that the patriarchal order is threatened through their actions, but ironically defended by the female characters.]
As this chapter introduces a new section and a shift in emphasis that will pertain for the rest of the book, it is useful to consider briefly its relationship to the arguments that have been made so far. I started my readings of the plays with a consideration of the merchant comedies, where the relationship between mercantilism and state power is relatively unproblematic in the sense that it enters into the theatrical representation itself. But in the other comedies, from Love's Labour's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona onwards, this is not the case, though it hovers on the fringes in Twelfth Night, through the figure of Antonio. This means that either I must concede that mercantilism is not an issue if it is not represented in some way, or that a more symptomatic mode of reading is called for.
In chapter 1, I cited Franco Moretti's argument in Signs Taken for Wonders, that emergent capitalism and the collapse of feudal “status...
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Alvis, John. “Derivative Loves are Labor Lost.” Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature 48, No. 4 (Summer 1996): 246-58.
Argues that in Love’s Labour’s Lost all elements of the plot, and its parallel subplot, serve to explore the nature of vanity and its consequences.
Bird, Christine M. “Games Courtiers Play in Love's Labour's Lost.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 11, No. 1 (1979): 41-48.
Studies the way in which the game playing of the courtiers leads eventually to the promise of emotional intimacy.
Carroll, William C. The Great Feast of Language in Love's Labour's Lost. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 279 p.
Provides a book-length examination and interpretation of the play's language.
Curtis, Harry, Jr. “Four Woodcocks in a Dish: Shakespeare's Humanization of the Comic Perspective in Love's Labour's Lost.” Southern Humanities Review 13, No. 2 (Spring 1979): 115-24.
Maintains that the comic vision Shakespeare unveiled in Love's Labour's Lost is not a deviation from his more mature comic accomplishments, but is representative of the central motifs that turn up in later comedies.
Draudt, Manfred. “Holofernes and Mantuanus: How Stupid Is the Pedant of...
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