Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 77)
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, 54, and 64.
Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and considered inferior to his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1594-95) has traditionally been disparaged by critics. In fact, some commentators consider it to be Shakespeare's worst play, a work contrived from weak and haphazard characterization and a feeble plot. The drama details a pact made by the King of Navarre and three of his courtiers 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. Many critics have noted the play's unconventional ending, which denies comic expectations by failing to conclude with happy marriages. Modern commentators have tended to focus on the play's wit, wordplay, and language, rather than the inadequacies of its dramatic form. Additionally, many scholars have cautioned that the play was originally written for a private audience—one that was educated and familiar with the courtly manners and affectations upon which the play's humor is based. Contemporary critics have endeavored to produce a formal reassessment of Love's Labour's Lost, with scholars such as Koshi Nakanori (see Further Reading) drawing attention to the play's structure and stylistic concerns. Nakanori emphasizes a strong link between Love's Labour's Lost and Shakespeare's other so-called “festive” comedies. While acknowledging the play's defects of character and plot, Nakanori nevertheless defines the piece as a transitional work that bears fundamental structural similarities with other Shakespearean dramas.
Recent character-oriented studies of Love's Labour's Lost have attempted to uncover hidden aspects of Shakespeare's generally maligned principal figures. For Kristian Smidt (1984), the problematic genre of Love's Labour's Lost holds the key to a seeming lack of consistency within its characters and overall structure. Smidt argues that Shakespeare began his play as a romance by featuring a series of vain, insensible male figures, captivated by verbal ingenuity and wit, and contrasting them with a quartet of more reasonable, realistic, and morally discerning women. Instead of taking the romance to its logical conclusion of marriage, Smidt asserts, Shakespeare instead shifted his focus toward courtly satire, dropped the play's Petrarchan flourishes, and offered an ironic commentary on the nature of love. Meredith Anne Skura (see Further Reading) presents a complementary study focused on the pretentious figure of Don Armado and the clown Costard. Using these characters as foils to the King of Navarre and his romantic notions of the warrior ideal, Skura contends, Shakespeare parodied the concepts of heroic honor and fame, as well as the sheer braggadocio of theatrical performance. Psychoanalysis is the basis of Ursula Hehl's (see Further Reading) assessment of Love's Labour's Lost. Questioning the unconventional ending of the comedy, Hehl suggests that applying the concepts associated with narcissistic personality disorder to its male protagonists provides significant insight. According to Hehl, the narcissistic ego imbalance of the King and his fellow noblemen explains their vanity, lovesickness, rationalizations, and arbitrarily shifting desires—flaws the play's women do not possess—as well as their final failure to win over the more psychologically integrated objects of their affection.
Love's Labour's Lost has proven to be one of Shakespeare's more challenging dramas to successfully stage for contemporary audiences. The play's elaborate puns, near absence of character development, and the topical nature of its wordplay—the full appreciation of which requires an intimate familiarity with Elizabethan language—have all contributed to its dubious status in production. Additionally, the transition from stage to screen at the turn of the twenty-first century has highlighted another wrinkle in its performance history. Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film version of Love's Labour's Lost represents for some critics a low point in Shakespearean cinematic adaptation. Reviews of the film written around the time of its release were mixed, if not completely hostile. Richard Corliss (2000) accuses Branagh of amateurism and distortion for packaging Shakespeare's play as a salute to the golden age, pre-World War II film musical. Reviewer John Simon (2000) is even less forgiving, citing undistinguished or histrionic performances, and faults Branagh's poor adaptation of the Shakespearean text. James Bowman (2000) similarly suggests that Branagh's seemingly clever evocation of the Jazz Age as a substitute for Renaissance courtly romance solidly failed, serving only to “vulgarize Shakespeare.” Other reviewers were more merciful. A. O. Scott (2000) finds Branagh and the rest of the film's cast to be sincere and enthusiastic, even charming and entertaining, but deems the final product unimpressive. Derek Elley (2000) gives the most positive evaluation, acknowledging much to admire in the film, but considers the downside of marketing the work to a mass audience. In her 2002 retrospective study, Ramona Wray verifies that box office success eluded the film in both Britain and the United States. Wray analyzes the methods of cinematic nostalgia Branagh employed in this celluloid version of Love's Labour's Lost, concentrating on the work's lack of correspondence to the Shakespearean text which, the critic states, was largely replaced with a series of filmic clichés designed to pay homage to a hazy, prewar past that never was.
Recent thematic criticism of Love's Labour's Lost has touched upon a number of subjects, such as language, love, and the opposition between nature and artifice. In his 2002 survey of the drama, John S. Pendergast outlines the range of its principal themes, including the transformative power of language, the efficacy of sincere love, immortality obtained through fame, the status of nature and experience as the ultimate sources of knowledge, and the tension between artifice and nature. Joseph Westlund (1967) delves into the last of these, viewing the conflict between imagination and worldly achievement as the play's fundamental theme, one reiterated in its overall design as Shakespeare set the artificiality of rhetoric and wit against the realities of nature and time. Similarly, Catherine M. McLay (1967), in focusing on the play's concluding songs by the characters Spring and Winter, highlights a unified thematic movement from the illusory to the real, accompanied by a conveyance from the artificial to the natural, and from foolishness to wisdom. Turning more specifically to Shakespeare's use of language in the drama, John Alvis (1996) defines its central theme as the absurdity of vanity, a very human weakness that drives the plot of the play by obliterating the prospects of real love. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1997) emphasizes relations between women and men depicted in the play, which she compares to a similarly themed drama by Margaret Cavendish, The Convent of Pleasure (1668). Roberts regards Love's Labour's Lost as Shakespeare's “most feminist play,” a work that allows its female characters to triumph over self-indulgent, masculine power and to claim their own independence by rebuffing their puzzled suitors.
Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Smidt, Kristian. “Shakespeare in Two Minds: Unconformities in Love's Labour's Lost.” English Studies 3, no. 65 (June 1984): 205-19.
[In the following essay, Smidt offers an analysis of the apparent inconsistencies in Shakespeare's characters in order to suggest that Love's Labour's Lost begins as a romance and ends as a satire.]
Love's Labour's Lost, says Muriel Bradbrook in a well-balanced judgment, ‘is as near as Shakespeare ever came to writing satire; and yet there is more than a spice of panegyric behind the ridicule of fine manners’.1 If I were to qualify this judicious statement, I would simply suggest that Shakespeare came rather more than near to writing satire and that the elements of satire and panegyric, or alternatively of satire and romance, are very unevenly distributed in the play. Shakespeare began Love's Labour's Lost in a mood of romance and finished it in predominantly satirical mood. Romance promises well on the arrival of a bevy of beauties already in love with, or at least ready to fall in love with, the noblemen they are about to meet. But it dwindles and changes. The elements of parody and satire are reinforced by the addition of the technically superfluous Holofernes. And satire also engulfs the romantic love theme. At the end of the play, which Berowne no longer thinks a comedy, we may still find romance if we want to, but...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Elley, Derek. Review of Love's Labour's Lost. Variety 378, no. 1 (21 February 2000): 36-7.
[In the following review of Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost, Elley provides a generally positive assessment, noting only minor flaws, but also considers the downside of marketing the work to a mass audience.]
Love's Labour's Lost is a luscious labor of love. As if to prove the two extremes of his affection for the Bard, Kenneth Branagh has followed his four-hour, belt-and-braces version of Hamlet with one of the most audacious adaptations of Will's works, hacked down into a faux, old-style Hollywood tuner and given the handle “A Romantic Musical Comedy.” Textual purists are likely to flutter their hands in horror, but anyone with an open mind and a hankering for the simple pleasures of Tinseltown's Golden Age will be rewarded with 90-odd minutes of often silly, frequently charming and always honest entertainment. Extremely smart marketing will be needed to overcome negative reviews by high-minded [critics] and to sell the concept as a fun, slightly campy entertainment to the younger crowd. Despite the movie's formidable intelligence and invention, modest returns look more likely in today's high-tech market.
[The film] poses a massive marketing problem because there are few recent precedents for such a picture. Though...
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SOURCE: Scott, A. O. “What Say You, My Lords? You'd Rather Charleston?” New York Times (9 June 2000): E12.
[In the following review, Scott characterizes Kenneth Branagh's film version of Love's Labour's Lost as entertaining but not particularly impressive.]
For every man with his affects is born. Not by might mast'red but by special grace.
These lines are spoken by Berowne, a witty courtier played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed Love's Labour's Lost, a whimsical, affected adaptation of Shakespeare's most forgettable early comedy. There is a great deal of dancing in the movie, which invokes the name of Stanley Donen and boasts a score packed with Broadway standards from Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers, but not much special grace.
Mr. Branagh has assembled a troupe of game, eager young stars, including Matthew Lillard, the gangly creepshow hearthrob from the Scream pictures, and Alicia Silverstone, the Bel Air Jane Austen heroine of Clueless, and sent them wobblingly forth to belt out show tunes, declaim pentameter and assay the leaps and twirls of Stuart Hopps's mercifully simplified choreography. He's even seen fit to include an Esther Williams-style water ballet sequence, complete with gold maillots and cabbage-leaf bathing caps.
If the cast were a sixth-grade class, and you were one of their...
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SOURCE: Corliss, Richard. “Branagh Faces the Music.” Time 155, no. 24 (12 June 2000): 82.
[In the following review of Kenneth Branagh's film version of Love's Labour's Lost, Corliss accuses the director and star of amateurism and lists several weaknesses of the project.]
We come to bury Branagh, not to praise him. Sorry, wrong play and all, but as Kenneth Branagh turns 40 this year—and as he presents Love's Labour's Lost, his fourth Shakespeare film as star and director—it's time to wonder what happened to this Great Hope of the British Theatre, this jack-of-all-arts, this next Olivier. By his mid-20s Branagh had earned raves as Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company, staged and fronted an acclaimed Romeo and Juliet and starred in the miniseries Fortunes of War with his future wife Emma Thompson. It all seems so very long ago when a new Branagh project was an event. Now it is a vague threat, and he is just another performer whose industry overwhelms his genius and sizzle.
After his burly film of Henry V, his al fresco Much Ado About Nothing and his all-the-words Hamlet, Branagh devises a high-concept Love's Labour's Lost. Hey, kids, let's cut most of the text, put in 10 classic show tunes and set the story in a mythical European kingdom at the start of World War II. He has cast it with young actors, many of whom have done...
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SOURCE: Simon, John. Review of Love's Labour's Lost. National Review 52, no. 11 (19 June 2000): 59-60.
[In the following excerpted review, Simon finds nothing redeeming in Kenneth Branagh's cinematic Love's Labour's Lost, and critiques the individual performances of its cast.]
Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost … [is] adapted into a musical with songs (most of them standards) by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Kern, sung and danced by a cast of mostly nonsingers and nondancers. The play's minor characters, forming an important subplot, are barely more than walk-ons, with Holofernes, for instance, changed and trimmed into Holofernia, giving the distinguished Geraldine McEwan a part that could have been handled by a hologram. Only Nathan Lane, as Costard, gets half a chance for, as it were, a half-life.
The action is moved to 1939 in a kingdom of Navarre oblivious to the threats of war, including that between Shakespeare's language and the pop-song lyrics. The singing is amateurish and the choreography, scaled down to the skills of people who aren't dancers, rather lame.
The four main men give unremarkable performances, with Branagh looking too middle-aged for Berowne, and the Americans Matthew Lillard (Longaville) and Alessandro Nivola (the King) not even sounding right. As Dumaine, Adrian Lester copes better than the others, but he is black,...
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SOURCE: Bowman, James. “All That Jazz.” American Spectator 33, no. 6 (July 2000): 80-1.
[In the following review, Bowman criticizes Kenneth Branagh's treatment of the scenes, context, and meaning of Shakespeare's text in his film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost.]
What? Will the line stretch out to th' crack of doom? For the third time in five months a trendy film director has attempted to tart up Shakespeare in order to make him, in the phrase of the loathsome Jan Kott, “our contemporary.” Early in the year, we had Julie Taymore's Titus, which almost persuaded us that Shakespeare was a postmodernist 400 years before anyone else imagined such a thing. Last month, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, presented the Prince of Denmark as Holden Caulfield or James Dean. This month Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost rips out the guts of the play—its rather creaky and over-learned Elizabethan wit—and replaces them with popular songs of the 1930's and 1940's. It is not a hopelessly bad idea, but the result is not in a class with Miss Taymore's Titus. In fact, though less obnoxious than Almereyda's Hamlet, it is like it in having little or nothing to do with Shakespeare.
For Shakespeare is not our contemporary, nor even that of our fathers or grandfathers, and to pretend that he is is to deprive ourselves of the pleasure and excitement of...
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SOURCE: Wray, Ramona. “Nostalgia for Navarre: The Melancholic Metacinema of Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost.” Literature/Film Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2002): 171-78.
[In the following essay, Wray analyzes the mechanisms of nostalgia utilized in Kenneth Branagh's faux prewar era filmic interpretation of Love's Labour's Lost.]
With Love's Labour's Lost (2000), [Kenneth] Branagh's narrative image found its animating logic in a generic transformation.1 In what was by far the most radical interpretive gesture of his career, Love's Labour's Lost was mooted as reinventing one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays as a Hollywood musical from the 1930s.2 Pre-release machinery reiterated the singularity of the metamorphosis time and time again, contributing to the forcefully generic coherence of the film's intertextual relay. In the newly diverse context of Shakespearean cinematic appropriation, the potential merging of the drama and a musical in one of the least known plays appeared viable. When Harvey Weinstein came on board for the American rights, predictions of box-office smashes, Academy Awards, and widespread acclaim ensued. Indeed, such was mogul confidence that Love's Labour's Lost was signaled as the first of a new Branagh/Shakespeare movie trilogy.
On release, however, Love's Labour's Lost proved not to be the success that...
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SOURCE: Westlund, Joseph. “Fancy and Achievement in Love's Labour's Lost.” Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 1967): 37-46.
[In the following essay, Westlund sees the conflict between imaginative fancy and achievement (paralleling a conflict between artifice and nature) as the central theme of Love's Labour's Lost.]
Love's Labour's Lost is organized around a central theme, but this fact is obscured by the usual approach to the play as a satire of overelaborate language. This interpretation accounts for the witty talk and suggests that the outcome of the action is due to the lords' excessive verbal play. It is difficult, however, to see the relevance of the academy plan, the commoners' role, or the startling final act of the play in terms of “wit”. This focus also makes the show of the worthies, an attractive play-within-a-play, a comic interlude unrelated to the rest of Love's Labour's Lost. And the unusually articulate final songs are treated as incidental to, rather than as the culmination of, the resolution of the play.
Wit is only one aspect of a larger concern. Love's Labour's Lost might be considered as a prelude to the more extensive commentary on imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Love's Labour's Lost is concerned with several kinds of imagination or fancy: the lords' conceit of setting up an academy; their romantic fancy...
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SOURCE: McLay, Catherine M. “The Dialogues of Spring and Winter: A Key to the Unity of Love's Labour's Lost.” Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 2 (spring 1967): 119-27.
[In the following essay, McLay maintains that the songs sung by Spring and Winter at the close of Love's Labour's Lost reflect and expand the play's major themes: the movement “from the artificial to the natural, from illusion to reality, from folly to wisdom.”]
Despite the heretical ending of Love's Labour's Lost,1 an ending where “Jack hath not Jill” (V. ii. 865)2 and the ritual marriage celebrations are denied or postponed “too long for a play” (V.ii.868), the drama does have its connections to the ritual origins of comedy in the concluding Songs or Dialogues of Spring and Winter.3 Although there is considerable controversy over the dating of the play, it is generally agreed to be the product of at least two different periods, and there is indication that the songs belong to the 1597 additions.4 Nevertheless, the songs are not merely tacked on to the completed play to bring it within the periphery of the usual comic definition. That they are functional, indeed that they hold a key to the interpretation of the central themes of Love's Labour's Lost, I hope to prove.5
The dramatic excuse for the Dialogues is admittedly weak....
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SOURCE: Alvis, John. “Derivative Loves are Labor Lost.” Renascence 48 (summer 1996): 247-58.
[In the following essay, Alvis concentrates on Shakespeare's use of the main plot and subplots in Love's Labour's Lost to convey the theme of constancy destroyed by vanity.]
Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost has attracted critics' attention to its subtleties of language, its shrewd psychological observations, and its topical allusiveness but not to its plot, which on first acquaintance appears indeed minimal, if not perfunctory.1 Although spare, the action of Love's Labour's Lost is well-adapted to conveying the theme of the play, a theme I take to be the expense of constancy in a waste of ostentation. To demonstrate the connection between action and subject, I propose to focus on the four chief features of Shakespeare's comic plot: 1) the initial plan of Navarre and his courtiers to set up a hermitage for philosophic study; 2) the paired scenes of forswearing, the first forswearing deliberate, the second, of the Russian maskers, inadvertent; 3) the playlet travesty presented by the clowns impersonating the Nine Worthies; 4) the penances set the courtly suitors in the final scene by the Princess and Rosaline. I must also consider incidentally the relation between the main action involving the court party and the parallel sub-plot involving Armado, Costard, Nathaniel, and...
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SOURCE: Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Convents, Conventions, and Contraventions: Love's Labour's Lost and The Convent of Pleasure.” In Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, pp. 75-89. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.
[In the following essay, Roberts compares Love's Labour's Lost with Margaret Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure (1668), and highlights the innovative thematic approach taken by both comedies with respect to relations between women and men.]
The temptation is strong to argue for Love's Labor's Lost as Shakespeare's most feminist play. Such an argument would be supported most obviously by the fact that the Princess of France and her three noble ladies control the action from their first appearance to their last. In spite of their exclusion from the inner sanctum of the court of Navarre because the King and his three noble followers have resolved on a cloistered life and have forsworn the company of women, the ladies arrive as visitors and soon become love objects for the four men. However, the women continue to defer capitulation to marriage even beyond the end of the play, assigning to the men a year of penance for their oath-breaking, to be followed by possible reconsideration. Such an ending has no parallel in Shakespearean comedy, and it looks like not only a violation of the...
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SOURCE: Pendergast, John S. “Themes.” In “Love's Labour's Lost”: A Guide to the Play, pp. 81-104. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Pendergast explores a number of prominent themes in Love's Labour's Lost related to language, love, marriage, nature, and artifice.]
The title Love's Labour's Lost suggests two of the major themes of the play, transformation and love. The title's personification of love suggests the extent to which it serves not only as a static theme but as a dynamic player in the action of the play. Love is transformative, even if the change it effects is ultimately a negative one, a loss. Further, the word “labour” suggests the labors of Hercules, and thereby the emphasis on learned myths and images as well as the role that “work” plays in the interaction between the characters: in the play, labor is characterized as the actual work of the lower-class characters and the playful leisure that defines the upper-class characters. However, as the play develops, the two worlds come together as both groups of characters attempt to win love in the course of the play. Thus, the title reflects some of the dominant themes and images that are reiterated throughout the play.
The opening speech of the play is a remarkable example of Shakespeare's ability to intertwine several themes in a poetically and dramatically...
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Arthos, John. Introduction to The Signet Classic Shakespeare: “Love's Labour's Lost,” edited by John Arthos, pp. xxiii-xxxiii. New York: The New American Library, 1965.
Offers a laudatory overview of theme and character in Love's Labour's Lost.
Cunningham, J. V. “‘With That Facility’: False Starts and Revisions in Love's Labour's Lost.” In Essays on Shakespeare, edited by Gerald W. Chapman, pp. 91-115. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Comments on the style of Love's Labour's Lost and Shakespeare's revisions of the text.
David, Richard. Introduction to The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: “Love's Labour's Lost,” edited by Richard David, pp. xiii-lii. London: Methuen, 1951.
Concentrates on allusions, sources, textual revision, and topical contexts in regard to Love's Labour's Lost.
Hehl, Ursula. “Elements of Narcissistic Personality Disorders in Love's Labour's Lost.” Literature and Psychology 40, nos. 1-2 (1994): 48-70.
Applies the concepts of narcissistic personality disorder to a psychoanalytic understanding of the principal male figures in Love's Labour's Lost: Berowne, Navarre, and Armado.
Hoberman, J. Review of Love's Labour's...
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