Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837

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.

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 The vow is, naturally, soon challenged by the intrusion into the king’s withdrawn world of the princess of France and her attendants.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

(The entire section contains 837 words.)

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Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 38)