Love's Labour's Lost
Early critical debate over Love's Labour's Lost focused upon its date of composition and its relative merit as a play; at the same time scholars also speculated on the possible sources for the plot of this Shakespearean comedy as well as on the likelihood that it contained topical allusions to other Elizabethan writers. Recent criticism, on the other hand, has become increasingly interested in the play's reflection of Elizabethan culture, its virtuosity with language, its unresolved conclusion, and the relationships between its male and female characters. Closely connected to these issues is what Love's Labour's Lost has to say about the nature of love and, more particularly, desire.
Maurice Hunt (1992) approaches the play's relationship to Renaissance culture by drawing a connection between Elizabeth I and the character of the Princess of France. He argues that through the Princess, Shakespeare represents the virgin Queen Elizabeth's jealous control over the affairs of her ladies-in-waiting and by extension voices the worries of England's populace, who admired Elizabeth's past accomplishments but were anxious about the current and future state of the country during the "last years of a vain, irritable, aging Queen." Following a similarly dark vein, Joseph Chaney (1993) discusses the implications of the play's irresolute ending, suggesting that by closing his comedy unconventionally without marriages but with a hint of tragedy, Shakespeare is testing the limits of the comedic genre.
Several critics have analyzed the play's preoccupation with language. James L. Calderwood (1965), for example, asserts that through their word games and brilliant witticisms, the characters express admiration for language in and of itself rather than for any truth that words might be able to communicate. Calling Love's Labour's Lost a play about words, Ralph Berry (1972) argues that the spoken word in fact achieves significance with the appearance in V.ii.716 of the messenger, Marcade, who delivers news of the King of France's death and thereby transforms language into a conveyer of stark reality. Seeing the play as a satire on romance, Peter G. Phialas (1966) points to the male characters' reliance on language to make extravagant avowals of love, and to the female characters' skeptical responses. Peter B. Erickson (1981) asserts that this tension between male and female characters is an expression of "female domination and male humility which had become established in love poetry" during the Renaissance and which Shakespeare chose to make the focus of his play.
Neal L. Goldstien (1974) shares this view of the play as a satire on the conventions of Renaissance love poetry—a type of verse which portrayed the female object of desire as divine and the male suitor as unworthy. Arguing that Shakespeare achieves his satiric ends by making "sensual gratification" rather than marriage the emphasis of the comedy, Goldstien observes that ultimately, Love's Labour's Lost questions sensuality as well as spirituality when the cynical songs of Spring and Winter demonstrate that the result of sensual indulgence is housewifery, or "drudgery and tedium, the reality of day-to-day existence." On a different tack, W. Thomas MacCary (1985) describes the play as a lesson in love seen chiefly from Berowne's point of view as he moves through "stages of development in the orientation of desire," treating women first as targets of his wit, then as idealized objects of worship, and finally as real individuals who are separate from himself and thus necessarily unpredictable. The themes of desire and education receive additional scrutiny from Carolyn Asp (1989). Acknowledging that the play "falls short of the conventional comic ending" of marriage, Asp disputes the argument that this "deferral of desire" is the fault of domineering female characters, and suggests instead that the women in the play teach the men the restorative value of humor over the corrosiveness of wit. Finally, David Bevington (1996) contends that the unsatisfied desires and unresolved ending of the play result from the male characters'—and Shakespeare's—misogyny, or the "uncomfortable vision of the female as the attractive yet baffling prize that seemingly cannot be attained or controlled."