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.
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 we have to want to, unless we are content to be guided by stock responses. In between the beginning and the ending Shakespeare seems frequently to have been in two minds about the mood of his play, and his impulsive decisions and revisions have left startling unconformities, to some extent in the plot, but chiefly in the portrayal of characters. (I use the word ‘unconformity’ in the geological sense of discontinuity or fault and it has no direct or final evaluative implications).
The plot of Love's Labour's Lost on the whole is firm and well articulated, and encourages expectations of consistency in other aspects of the play. It is surprising that some leading scholars have thought otherwise. Here is H. B. Charlton:
But though Love's Labour's Lost is mere gay trifling, its peculiar gaiety almost frustrates itself by the formlessness and the spinelessness of the thing as a play. And Shakespeare's first recoil from the insouciant romantic formlessness of Love's Labour's Lost seems to have been a feeling that plays without backbone are hopelessly crippled. No plot, no play.2
More recently J. D. Huston has spoken of the apparent haphazardness of the meetings which occur in the play.3
Surely it is astonishing that this kind of thing can be said of a comedy which is so dependent for its effect on a clear two-sided conflict, on thrust and counter-thrust, dissimulation and discovery, and surprising twists and turns, not to speak of internal agonising, as is Love's Labour's Lost. Consider: first a male alliance, including one unwilling signatory, is formed against all women, then the alliance is threatened by a political intrusion and the external enemy rebuffed, next it is secretly undermined from within until by accidental circumstances a general treachery is revealed among the allies and a completely opposite line of conduct decided upon, plans are laid and betrayed and advances made which in turn are rebuffed, a truce is called and in a surprise ending made conditional on trials to follow. The story-line is unbroken and strong in its main progression. Unbroken, that is, except for the long scenes of comic dialogue, and it is these, of course, that have led so many commentators to see Love's Labour's Lost too exclusively as a play of words and a play about words. The ‘feast of languages’ is no doubt an important feature of the satire but it should not be allowed to obscure the dramatic development. It is not the backbone that is lacking, but the comedy as we have it is strangely fleshed, since the wordplay, particularly of the secondary characters, tends to overwhelm the plot. This, one might say, is its most outstanding unconformity, though not the most interesting.
The secondary characters, in fact, are much in evidence. Between them they account for just about one third of the dialogue, and that is not counting Boyet. Their parts are well defined, but in the case of two of them somewhat redundant. Wishing to parody the affectations of a pedant (I won't go into the discussion of which particular schoolmaster or tutor he may have had in mind), Shakespeare at first rather incongruously attributed them to his Spanish traveller. That formidable gusher of words was there from the start to grant quick recreation both to the noble brotherhood of contemplatives and to us, the common spectators. At some stage Don Adriano de Armado must have been thought of as a miles gloriosus or a boastful Spaniard of the commedia dell'arte variety, since stage directions and speech headings in parts of the play introduce him as ‘Braggart’. But the only occasion on which we catch him actually conforming to this role is the one on which in Falstaffian fashion he boasts of his familiarity with the King. Instead we find him enumerating synonyms and teaching grammar:
which here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest The time when? … the ground which? … the place where? I spoke it, tender juvenal, as a congruent epitheton appertaining to thy young days, which we may nominate tender
Then for good measure Shakespeare introduced a professional schoolmaster who speaks in the same strain, only with more show of learning:
coelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven the nomination of the party writing to the person written unto The posterior of the day … is liable, congruent, and measurable for the afternoon:
Clearly Armado and Holofernes are duplicates. They would no doubt look very different on the stage, and the visual impact of Elizabethan plays, as Michael Hattaway has recently reminded us,4 was an important part of the intended effect. They are both immensely funny and both have moments of moving pathos. We would not want to lose Holofernes, but he could easily be eliminated without damage to the plot. He is there for the satire.
Armado, on the other hand, figures in a subplot which is woven into and comically parallels the main action. Love's Labour's Lost is basically about sex and love, as the title tells us. There is a general contest of the sexes for superiority, and in this respect Love's Labour's Lost forms a companion piece to The Taming of the Shrew. One may even wonder if it represents Shakespeare's act of penance after presenting that patriarchal play. It would be a very tongue-in-cheek act of penance, as I hope to show. In any case, the Princess's admonition to her attendants, ‘and praise we may afford / To any lady that subdues a lord’, could well serve as an epigraph. And much of the action—which in this connection includes the wordplay—is seen in terms of warfare and battle, not least from the ladies' point of view.
The most common interpretation of Love's Labour's Lost seems to go along with Berowne's disrespectful and healthily sensual criticism of cloistered study and his romantic belief in the virtue of female beauty, and with the women's ridicule of the pretensions, presumptions and conventions of the men. The men are foolish, vain, not serious in love, cruel in their addiction to verbal cleverness, which is misnamed wit. They need a lesson and fortunately begin to learn it in the course of the play. The women are sensible, realistic, generous, serious in love, altogether morally superior beings. They have had fervent admirers among the more prominent critics and scholars. Let me quote from two introductions to Love's Labour's Lost:
Anne Barton (Riverside edition) stresses the realism of the women:
The Princess and her retinue come from a world outside the confines of Navarre that is colder and more realistic than the playground of the park. They too are witty, and they like to play with words. Unlike the men, however, they play their verbal games without ever losing sight of facts and situations … Throughout the comedy the women are ruthless in their dismemberment of the airy rhetoric, the unexamined conceits and images offered by the men … These suitors judge by courtly outsides alone, in marked contrast to the women, who seize upon manners and traits of character in talking about the men they love and distrust in equal measure.5
John Kerrigan (New Penguin edition) admires the emotional maturity of the women:
Shakespeare has made the women much more sensible, sensitive, and generous than the men … Rosaline, Katharine, and Maria have lost their hearts before the play even begins …, and their mistress quickly gives hers away. Aware of their vulnerability, all four cultivate a protective scepticism … The passion which the men display …, although deeply felt and delightful, is immature … It is an aspect of [Berowne's] immaturity that he should groundlessly abuse his mistress for doing the very ‘deed’ which his own ‘affects’ urge … Navarre wants his marriage to follow so hard upon a royal funeral that the baked meats served to the mourners could feed the wedding guests … It is indeed a tribute to the perceptiveness and generosity of the women that, even with this conspicuous example of male inadequacy before them, they agree in principle to marry.6
Kerrigan's views, though extremely onesided, are probably more typical than he himself is willing to believe.
Typically, too, the plot is experienced as romantic to the end, beneath the surface of wit and practical joking. The penance which the lords are enjoined is hard but appropriate, and has to be accepted in the spirit of comedy. A happy ending is in sight. And there is a present gain in the victory of common sense over conceit and vanity. Some critics take the final songs to illustrate this admirable realistic attitude.
And now let us examine the evidence. That these particular men, the academicians of Navarre, are fools in many respects need not be disputed. Their vain project is ridiculed implicitly by Shakespeare in the very first lines of the play, spoken by the King—
Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, Live register'd upon our brazen tombs, And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
—and explicitly by one of their own number, Berowne:
Small have continual plodders ever won, Save base authority from others' books. .....Too much to know is to know nought but fame;
The upstart crow, no doubt, is having a fling at the university wits, and who knows but that Greene's Groatsworth was itching in his feathers at the time of composing Love's Labour's Lost. His satire is directed at three scholarly follies: the vanity of seeking knowledge for the sake of fame and reputation, the illusion that bookish studies are superior to experience of the real world, and the abuse of language for mere display of cleverness. It is this last of the follies which is chiefly exemplified in the play and which may be assumed to have been the main irritant to the dramatist.
Affectation of speech is linked with cruelty. And this is where a major discrepancy appears. Berowne is described in the second act by a lady who remains anonymous in the Quarto but whom the Folio identifies as Rosaline:
Berowne they call him; but a merrier man, Within the limit of becoming mirth, I never spent an hour's talk withal. His eye begets occasion for his wit; For every object that the one doth catch The other turns to a mirth-moving jest, Which his fair tongue (conceit's expositor) Delivers in such apt and gracious words That aged ears play truant at his tales, And younger hearings are quite ravished; So sweet and voluble is his discourse.
And here is Berowne described by Rosaline at the end of the play; she now addresses him directly:
Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Berowne, Before I saw you, and the world's large tongue Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks; Full of comparisons and wounding flouts, Which you on all estates will execute That lie within the mercy of your wit:
Can this indeed be the same gentleman who is first praised for his ‘becoming mirth’, his ‘fair tongue’, his ‘apt and gracious words’, and his ‘sweet and voluble discourse’? The fact that Rosaline in the first instance seems to have been previously acquainted with Berowne and in the second instance to have only heard of him before the meeting in Navarre is only the least of the anomalies. The very character of Berowne is made inconsistent. And if it is argued that Rosaline's speech to Berowne at the end of the play is part of a revised passage written in some time after the play was finished in its original state, as indeed seems to be the case, this still does not explain why such a glaring inconsistency was allowed to remain.
Now it so happens that one of the other noblemen, Lord Longaville, is censured in Act II by ‘I. Lady’ for
a sharp wit match'd with too blunt a will; Whose edge hath power to cut, whose will still wills It should none spare that come within his power.
It is this same Longaville who devised the penalty announced in the opening scene of the play for any woman coming within a mile of the court. She is to lose her tongue, in Longaville's opinion obviously her most offensive organ. It is Longaville, then, in the beginning of the play, who can be accused of cruelty and who needs to have his knuckles rapped. But in fact neither Longaville nor Berowne demonstrates sadistic tendencies of any kind until we get to the show of the Nine Worthies, which is on the afternoon of the second day of the action and very near the end of the plot. They, with Dumain and Boyet, heckle the poor Worthies mercilessly. One suspects that Shakespeare by that time needed an excuse for Rosaline's dressing-down speech to her lover and belatedly provided it by letting Berowne unexpectedly show this streak of meanness.
Scholars may be fools, and wits may be cruel, but lovers are greater fools, and Shakespeare never tired of saying so in his early comedies. Puck is amazed at the seeming madness of mortal lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, though the fairies do not manage much better. And Touchstone reminisces and philosophises in As You Like It: ‘We that are true lovers run into strange capers; but as all is mortal in nature, so is all nature in love mortal in folly’. Armado, in a similar quandary in Love's Labour's Lost, asserts that ‘Love is a familiar; Love is a devil: there is no evil angel but Love’. Among the strange capers that lovers run into is the compulsion, which even Armado feels, to write sonnets—a compulsion in itself conventional and artificial and even more conventional and artificial in the forms of wit and sentiment it specialises in. There are three regular love sonnets in Love's Labour's Lost, all deifying the objects of worship. They are charming enough, but completely vapid. And the lovers may be charming and still ridiculous, making themselves particularly foolish when they start out as misogynists.
Berowne, at least, is aware of his foolishness. But in love as in wit Berowne is inconsistently portrayed. It is Longaville, in the beginning of the play, who is the true misogynist. Berowne, on the contrary, eloquently defends women and love against the ascetic project of the King. In the received text he is the first person (apart from Costard and Armado) to start a flirtation. At the end of Act III he sends a sonnet to Rosaline and admits his passion. He stands up for Rosaline against her mocking detractors in the great exposure scene, raves about her beauty, and more generally argues the rights of love, elaborating on conceits he used in the opening scene as well as in the sonnet:
Now, for not looking on a woman's face, You have in that forsworn the use of eyes, And study, too, the causer of your vow; For where is any author in the world Teaches such beauty as a woman's eye?
He once more returns to similar sentiments and imagery in the farewell scene. Nevertheless, in the jarring soliloquy which closes the third act, Berowne tells himself that he has been ‘love's whip’. He professes to despise love, lovers, and women, and in particular himself as a follower of dan Cupid and Rosaline as the object of his passion:
And among three, to love the worst of all; A whitely wanton with a velvet brow, With two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes; Ay and by heaven, one that will do the deed Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard: And I to sigh for her! to watch for her!
Pitch-balls for eyes can hardly serve as heavenly mirrors. Soliloquising again at the beginning of IV.iii, but now in prose, Berowne resumes in the same strain of disgust:
The king he is hunting the deer; I am coursing myself: they have pitched a toil; I am toiling in a pitch—pitch that defiles:
True enough, his sweeter feelings prevail on this occasion, but after his enthusings on love later in the same long scene he ends both the scene and the act with the remark ‘Light wenches may prove plagues to men that love’. And his very last comments in the play may well be spoken in a new upsurge of bitterness:
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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