Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 88)

Introduction

Love's Labour's Lost

One of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1594-95) 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. Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and considered inferior to his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost has traditionally been disparaged by critics for its weak and haphazard characterization and feeble plot. Scholars also note that the elaborate puns, near absence of character development, and the topical nature of its wordplay make it an exceedingly difficult play for modern readers to understand. Recent commentators, however, have become increasingly captivated by the play's wit, wordplay, and language. Today's critics also demonstrate significant interest in the structure and style of Love's Labour's Lost, and well as its themes concerning sexual politics, gender roles, and class issues.

Although the characters in Love's Labour's Lost are generally considered to be flat and one-dimensional, many critics have attempted to uncover their hidden depths. Ursula Hehl (see Further Reading) 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. According to Hehl, the narcissistic ego imbalance of the King and his fellow noblemen explains their vanity, lovesickness, rationalizations, and arbitrarily shifting desires, as well as their failure to win over the women. Meredith Anne Skura (1997) contends that Shakespeare parodied the concepts of heroic honor and fame through his characterization of the pretentious figure of Don Armado and the clown Costard. Skura also explains how Shakespeare's characterization of these figures provides a satiric perspective on the Elizabethan aristocracy. In his 1973 study, Trevor Lennam maintains that the principal figures in Love's Labour's Lost resemble characters found in traditional morality plays; for example, the King of Navarre and his companions represent Wit, Armado represents Recreation, and the Princess and her entourage represent both Wisdom and Shame. Harvey Birenbaum (2003) analyzes the themes of will and desire in Love's Labour's Lost and illustrates how these themes are developed through the actions of the characters. Birenbaum also notes that the women in the play have something to teach the men about “what life is and how it works” and contends that although the male characters are often seen as immature and foolish, they are in fact sincere.

Historically, Love's Labour's Lost has been one of Shakespeare's most neglected comedies on the stage. After being abandoned for nearly two centuries, the play was revived in the nineteenth century and has gained some measure of popularity with modern audiences and directors. The play's first film adaptation—Kenneth Branagh's 2000 reworking of the play as pre-World War II film musical—met with mostly negative reviews. Lindsay Duguid (2000) argues that a lack of atmosphere was the film's most serious shortcoming; commenting on the film as a whole, the reviewer comments “It is hard to know for whom all this expensive foolery is intended—someone who has never seen the play, or any play, perhaps; or someone who has never seen a movie.” Love's Labour's Lost was once considered nearly impossible to successfully stage; however, the play has had a number of recent productions, including Trevor Nunn's highly praised 2003 Royal National Theatre production. Susannah Clapp (2003) applauds Nunn's successful staging of this play, noting that “Love's Labour's Lost is the most knottily worded and clown-stuffed of Shakespeare's plays, one of those comedies which is hardly ever funny.” Also reviewing Nunn's production, Sheridan Morley (2003) lauds Nunn's decision to set the play as a dream sequence on the battlefields of the World War I and praises Joseph Fiennes's fine performance as Berowne. Matt Wolf (2003) calls Nunn's staging a “partial success,” noting that the production came alive only in the second half of the play. Wolf praises Nunn as a director “with an acute sense of text who can shadow even this play's sunnier passages with the gathering clouds of pain.”

Many contemporary scholars, such as Koshi Nakanori (1982), have attempted to reassess the structure and style of Love's Labour's Lost, which has long been judged as inadequate in relation to other romantic comedies of the period. 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. Critics are also interested in the play's representation of sexual politics, gender roles, and class issues. Patricia Parker (1993) highlights the various class and gender relationships in the play, contending that the rhetoric and language of Love's Labour's Lost “forges links between the play's reversing of letters and words and its reversals of the conventions of gender.” Similarly, Katharine Eisaman Maus (1991) offers a feminist critique of Love's Labour's Lost, in which she explores the connection between the play's language and its theme of sexual politics. Miriam Gilbert (1993) attempts to show how Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences would have experienced Love's Labour's Lost. In her analysis, Gilbert examines the play's complex style, verbal extravagance, and unique ending, noting that “this comedy, which seems in many ways more artificial than Shakespeare's others, more concerned with affectation and stylistic brilliance, becomes finally the most realistic of all, as it acknowledges that the theatre cannot always solve life's complex relationships.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Koshi Nakanori (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Nakanori, Koshi. “The Structure of Love's Labour's Lost.” In Love's Labour's Lost: Critical Essays, edited by Felicia Hardison Londré and translated by Toru Iwasaki, pp. 289-99. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, originally published in Japanese in 1982, Nakanori argues that Love's Labour's Lost shares strong structural affinities with Shakespeare's other “festive” comedies.]

Some of Shakespeare's works have long been neglected and only recently come to critical attention. Love's Labour's Lost is a typical example, illustrating most vividly the fluctuations in Shakespearean criticism.

...

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John Kerrigan (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Kerrigan, John, ed. Introduction to William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare, pp. 7-36. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Kerrigan offers a historical overview of Love's Labour's Lost, examining its premiere performance, critical interpretations, and, most importantly, Shakespeare's potential source for the play.]

Love's Labour's Lost has finally come into its own. After more than three centuries of neglect, it stands today among those Shakespeare plays which can be guaranteed to fill houses, thrill audiences, and—most difficult of all—please actors. Ironically, the play is now popular for...

(The entire section is 8559 words.)

Miriam Gilbert (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Miriam. “‘As it was presented before her Highness’: Love's Labour's Lost on the Elizabethan Stage.” In Shakespeare in Performance: Love's Labour's Lost, edited by J. R. Mulryne, J. C. Bulman, and Margaret Shewring, pp. 1-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Gilbert attempts to show how Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences would have experienced Love's Labour's Lost.]

In this play, which all the editors have concurred to censure, and some have rejected as unworthy of our poet, it must be confessed that there are many passages mean, childish, and vulgar; and some which ought...

(The entire section is 8610 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Trevor Lennam (essay date winter 1973)

SOURCE: Lennam, Trevor. “‘The Ventricle of Memory’: Wit and Wisdom in Love's Labour's Lost.Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 1973): 54-60.

[In the following essay, Lennam contends that the principal figures in Love's Labour's Lost resemble characters found in traditional morality plays.]

… a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions. These are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourish'd in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute and I am thankful for it.

...

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Meredith Anne Skura (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Skura, Meredith Anne. “Armado and Costard in The French Academy: Player as Clown.” In Love's Labour's Lost: Critical Essays, edited by Felicia Hardison Londré, pp. 313-23. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1993, Skura contends that Shakespeare parodied the concepts of heroic honor and fame through his characterization of the pretentious figure of Don Armado and the clown Costard.]

The Taming of the Shrew, framed as theater by its Induction, is almost certainly earlier, but the pageant in Love's Labour's Lost is the first Shakespearean inner play proper. Since the players' roles call for...

(The entire section is 4953 words.)

Harvey Birenbaum (essay date March 2003)

SOURCE: Birenbaum, Harvey. “The Princess and the Pricket: Love's Labour's Lost on the Problem of Will.” Mosaic 36, no. 1 (March 2003): 103-20.

[In the following essay, Birenbaum analyzes the themes of will and desire in Love's Labour's Lost and illustrates how these themes are developed through the actions of the characters.]

King Ferdinand of Navarre has persuaded his three companion lords to join him in three years of study without women around, and without much food or sleep either. It does not take long for that good idea to fall apart. After the four aspiring lovers sigh aloud their stanzas of Petrarchan passion and together find out each other's...

(The entire section is 7416 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Lindsay Duguid (review date 7 April 2000)

SOURCE: Duguid, Lindsay. “No Kicks in a Plane.” Times Literary Supplement (7 April 2000): 34.

[In the following review, Duguid considers Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost.]

Love's Labour's Lost has an odd stage history; hardly ever performed between 1609 and 1939, it came strongly back into fashion in the 1970s, when it was put on in a variety of settings and costumes. The play's incomplete state attracts some sort of updating, and Kenneth Branagh's idea of setting it in the late 1930s seems to offer the advantages of stylish and recognizable costumes and an atmosphere of vanished gaiety.

Having had the idea, Branagh...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Susannah Clapp (review date 2 March 2003)

SOURCE: Clapp, Susannah. “So, Farewell, Clever Trevor: Trevor Nunn Bows out of the National Theatre with a Martial Production of Love's Labour's Lost.Observer (2 March 2003): 15.

[In the following excerpted review, Clapp praises Trevor Nunn's 2003 National Theatre production of Love's Labour's Lost.]

Trevor Nunn's production of Love's Labour's Lost is addressed to a country on the brink of war and a theatre in the throes of regime change. And Nunn has created an occasion to mark these endings, an evening flooded with sunlit nostalgia and fringed with darkness.

He bows out as artistic director of the National with a production that...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Sheridan Morley (review date 10 March 2003)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Love, Language, and Lyricism: Sheridan Morley Enjoys a Week of Poetic Inspiration from Shakespeare to Larkin.” New Statesman 132, no. 4628 (10 March 2003): 46.

[In the following excerpted review, Morley lauds Trevor Nunn's 2003 National Theatre production of Love's Labour's Lost, particularly Joseph Fiennes's performance as Berowne.]

After six years, Trevor Nunn bids farewell to the National Theatre. His parting play Love's Labour's Lost, reflects both his RSC beginnings in the reinvention of minor Shakespearian comedies and his interest in classic musicals—My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Anything Goes are all...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Matt Wolf (review date 17 March 2003)

SOURCE: Wolf, Matt. Review of Love's Labour's Lost. Variety 390, no. 5 (17 March 2003): 43-4.

[In the following review of Trevor Nunn's 2003 Royal National Theater staging of Love's Labour's Lost, Wolf contends that the production was a “partial success,” noting that it came alive only in the second half of the play.]

What a difference an interval—sorry, intermission—makes. There's no other way to sum up one's experience of the lavish and leisurely National Theater production of Love's Labour's Lost, which marks the final production of National a.d. Trevor Nunn after 5 1/2 years at the helm. Closing out his tenure with a staging that takes...

(The entire section is 770 words.)

Margaret Lael Mikesell (review date spring-summer 2003)

SOURCE: Mikesell, Margaret Lael. Review of Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare Bulletin (spring-summer 2003): 46.

[In the following review, Mikesell evaluates Sarah Megan Thomas's 2003 Thirteenth Night Theatre Company production of Love's Labour's Lost at the Tribeca Playhouse in New York.]

Sarah Megan Thomas, Producer, Artistic Director, and Birona (aka Berowne) in this production of Love's Labor's Lost, released the following “mission” statement: her company “aims to increase the accessibility of theatrical performances by exploring classical theatre from contemporary perspectives,” and it “encourages its audiences to discover connections...

(The entire section is 1306 words.)

Martin F. Kohn (review date 24 August 2003)

SOURCE: Kohn, Martin F. “Love Story Is Good for a Laugh.” Detroit Free Press (24 August 2003): 6E.

[In the following review, Kohn applauds Antoni Cimolino's 2003 Stratford Festival of Canada production of Love's Labour's Lost.]

The quickest way to discern the trifling nature of Love's Labour's Lost is to hear its rhythms. Much of it is in rhyme, unlike the preponderance of Shakespeare's plays. In another departure from the Shakespearean norm, some dialogue is in anapestic tetrameter. (In case you missed class that day, think “'Twas the Night Before Christmas.”)

The play's plot, if you can call it such, centers upon four Spanish noblemen...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Dorothea Kehler (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Kehler, Dorothea. “Jaquenetta's Baby's Father: Recovering Paternity in Love's Labor's Lost.Renaissance Papers (1990): 45-54.

[In the following essay, Kehler emphasizes the theme of deception in Love's Labour's Lost.]

When Longaville first sees Maria, he asks Boyet, “Pray you, sir, whose daughter?” “Her mother's, I have heard” (II.i.201-202),1 quips Boyet, in effect withholding the information Longaville seeks—Maria's paternity. Boyet's witticism intimates that establishing paternity is chancey. Faulconbridge, the Bastard in King John, reminds John that the paternity of “all men's children” is a secret that lies in...

(The entire section is 3236 words.)

Katharine Eisaman Maus (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “Transfer of Title in Love's Labor's Lost: Language, Individualism, Gender.” In Shakespeare Left and Right, edited by Ivo Kamps, pp. 205-23. New York: Routledge, 1991.

[In the following essay, Maus offer a feminist critique of Love's Labour's Lost in which she explores the connection between the play's language and its theme of sexual politics.]

Influential feminist critics of Shakespeare have rarely dealt with Shakespeare's early, linguistically extravagant work.1 Most have confined themselves to discussing Kate's capitulation scene in The Taming of the Shrew, or to tracing in the first years of...

(The entire section is 8249 words.)

Patricia Parker (essay date December 1993)

SOURCE: Parker, Patricia. “Preposterous Reversals: Love's Labour's Lost.Modern Language Quarterly 54, no. 4 (December 1993): 435-82.

[In the following essay, Parker highlights the various class and gender relationships in Love's Labour's Lost.]

At the beginning of Love's Labor's Lost, after the men of Navarre have sworn their “three years' fast … not to see a woman in that term” (1.1.24, 37), the Constable enters with a letter from the “magnificent Armado” accusing Costard of a crime that this so-called “shallow vassal” (1.1.253) proceeds to explain:

COST.
The matter is to me, sir, as concerning...

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Sidney Thomas (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Thomas, Sidney. “Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Love's Labour's Lost: ‘The Words of Mercury Are Harsh after the Songs of Apollo.’” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, Steven J. Doloff, and Edward A. Rauchut, pp. 243-50. Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Thomas examines the paradoxes found in Love's Labour's Lost.]

Love's Labour's Lost inevitably invites discussion by paradox. It is Shakespeare's most light-hearted and sportive comedy, yet the merriment is interrupted and the scene begins to cloud with an announcement of death. It is a love comedy, yet at its...

(The entire section is 3681 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Babcock, Weston. “Fools, Fowls, and Perttaunt-Like in Love's Labour's Lost.Shakespeare Quarterly 2, no. 3 (July 1951): 211-19.

Explores the wordplay in Love's Labour's Lost, particularly Shakespeare's use of puns.

Brown, Eric C. “Shakespeare's Anxious Epistemology: Love's Labour's Lost and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45, no. 1 (spring 2003): 20-41.

Argues that Shakespeare used Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus as a source for his Love's Labour's Lost.

Ellis, Herbert A. “Semantic Puns in Love's...

(The entire section is 219 words.)