The exuberant language of Love’s Labour’s Lost makes it, in the words of Anne Barton, “the most relentlessly Elizabethan of all Shakespeare’s plays.” At times the dazzling wordplay has been deemed too clever, complex, and convoluted to make for a play that translates well to a modern audience, but audiences continue to sense, if not always completely comprehend, the wit and consequent fun inherent in the language—and it is on issues of language that appreciation of the play ultimately rests.
Several factors give the play special status in the William Shakespeare canon. It is one of the few Shakespeare plays for which an original source has not been found. For a comedy, it is also unusual in that, in spite of at least five possible couplings, it does not end with any traditional marriage or multiple marriages. The happy ending is suspended and left to the future, with the agreement of the couples to meet a year later. Further, the play is highly unusual in the way that death plays such a direct role in the outcome. Given the artificial motivation for the beginning of the plot, however, as well as the heavily verbal middle, it is not surprising that it takes the extreme intrusion of death to jolt the characters back to reality.
Critical attention to Love’s Labour’s Lost has focused largely on Shakespeare’s satire of the men’s behavior. The king of Navarre’s plan is patently absurd. In wishing to take a vow to separate himself from women and from pleasure and to dwell only on study, Ferdinand is plainly rejecting life’s realities. In his forcing his attendants to take the vow with him, and in their agreeing to do so, the entire trustworthiness of their effort is put at stake. The vow is, naturally, soon challenged by the intrusion into the king’s withdrawn world of the princess of France and her attendants.
What follows largely justifies the complaints of those critics who find the plot weak. Little happens to move the story forward—love letters are misdirected, and sonnets and verses are read. The games of words are followed by games of wooing, with some of the usual comic stage business of disguises and mistaken identities used to prolong the courtship. When the representatives of the outside world seem to have been thoroughly drawn into the king’s artificial world of games, the startling news of the death of the king of France shatters this fragile and illusory world built on words. As a commentary on the insubstantiality of language, the play is strong. As drama, the vows of love from it are not as strong.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is often excused as one of Shakespeare’s early plays, suggesting but not itself exhibiting some of the greater characterizations that came later. The cynical Berowne and the quick-witted Rosaline, for example, seem to foreshadow Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600). The clowns and comic characters provide a hint of the substantial subplots so common in later Shakespeare. Don Adriano de Armado, Costard, and Jaquenetta, for example, serve to reflect on the foolishness and self-deception of the main male characters.
With this play it may be helpful to remember that live performances are often comical and entertaining. Reading such a work may be laborious, with some of the language difficult to grasp. The easygoing silliness of the play in performance, however, can be rewarding. Love’s Labour’s Lost may have been written specifically to be performed for a small, highly educated audience. Discussions about the precise dating of the play have relied on the numerous historical...
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references in it. More than usual, Shakespeare seems to have chosen names that evoked real people of the time, a theatrical device that would appeal only to those in the know. Although not based on any specific sources, the play evokes the Petrarchan conventions and the exaggerated language of love so popular in the writings of courtiers of the time.Love’s Labour’s Lost is also remarkable for its large number of puns and other wordplay.
With this early play, Shakespeare seems to have fused form and content. In satirizing the unrealistic idealization of learning and in examining the reliability and trustworthiness of language, that fallible vehicle for expression, Shakespeare draws on his considerable stock of verbal tricks and games to make his points. Although all the labor that the men put into their verse and their trickery to express their love for the women seems lost at the end, it is a temporary loss. What the women ask, ironically enough, is that the men fulfill the vows that they undertook in the first place. Words may be inadequate, but there are practically no other means, especially for a playwright, for expression. The unexpected ending, with its promise of fulfillment, seems to be a challenge to make the promise of words of love become true in deeds of love.