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 The vow is, naturally, soon challenged by the intrusion into the king’s withdrawn world of the princess of France and her attendants.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...
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