Love's Labor's Lost Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 54) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Love's Labour's Lost

Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and thought to be of considerably less merit than his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost has more recently elicited the interest of critics who view the play as a transitional work. The drama details a pact made by four noblemen 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. Some critics have called Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare's worst play, opining that it suffers from weak and haphazard characterization and a feeble plot. Indeed, few critics have felt that the play's strengths are to be found in its dramatic form. Many commentators, however, have noted that there is no other Shakespearean play that can compare to the wit and wordplay of Love's Labour's Lost. Consequently, it is in its language that most critics have discovered the vitality of the play. In addition to language issues, contemporary scholars have focused on the unique resolution of the play, which denies comic expectations by failing to conclude with happy marriages. A related line of critical inquiry has concentrated on Love's Labour's Lost as an example of the artificiality of comic form. Lastly, a number of commentators have examined the significant role of gender relations and sexual politics in the play.

Some critics perceive the tension between the beginning and ending of the play, and between the comic exposition and disappointed resolution, as central to an understanding of Love's Labour's Lost. The play has been called a drama with a beginning but with no middle or end. Louis Adrian Montrose (1977) comments on the work's open plot and the unsettled nature of its conclusion. For Montrose, the lack of dramatic reconciliation on the level of story and theme are in some sense surmounted by the play's closing songs, which introduce concepts of the harmony of nature and the end of human discord. G. Beiner (1985) observes the artificial and reflexive qualities of Love's Labour's Lost, noting that the work's resistance to comic resolution disrupts the conventional expectations associated with comedy. Robert Ornstein (1986) maintains that the unique rift between the play's comic exposition and disappointed denouement lends itself to a satiric purpose. According to Ornstein, the close of the play reveals the folly of a search for hermetic truth in place of love.

The view of Love's Labour's Lost as a statement on the possibilities and limitations of comic form prevails in the assessments of many contemporary critics. G. R. Hibbard (1990) contrasts the play with Shakespeare's other comedies, seeing Love's Labour's Lost as formalized, highly stylized, and consciously concerned with comedy as artifice. Although Love's Labour's Lost bears similarities to other comic works in its principal motifs of opposition and reversal, it differs from these other plays, according to Hibbard, in its failure to usher in a new and improved society at its conclusion. Likewise, Harry Curtis, Jr. enumerates the points of departure between Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labour's Lost, arguing that the latter transforms the conventional comic ideology of the former into an inextricable paradox. Cyrus Hoy (1962) perceives the primary function of the work as comic; that is, to highlight the nature of human incongruity and fallibility. Thomas McFarland (1972) emphasizes the artificial setting of Love's Labour's Lost in an enclosed, almost pastoral paradise within the King of Navarre's royal park. Like Hoy, McFarland comments on the play's concern with foolishness, and contrasts this with the elusive ideal of human happiness. Harry Levin (1985) also perceives the work's elucidation of a comic theme, in which scholarship and bookishness are juxtaposed with love as the source of life-giving vitality.

Concerning language and the dynamics of gender in Love's Labour's Lost, many contemporary critics consider these two subjects to be complementary. Ruth Nevo (1980) maintains that the play is only secondarily concerned with love, and primarily with wordplay, wit, and the courtly folly of its male characters. Irene G. Dash (1981) has studied the relationship between male oath-taking and female truth-telling in Love's Labour's Lost, and—in contrast to some earlier estimations—finds the female characters in the play as complex, fully-developed figures. Katherine Eisaman Maus (1991) conducts a contemporary reexamination of gender in the play and of the linguistically-constructed issues of faith and trust between men and women operating in Love's Labour's Lost.

Harry Levin (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sitting in the Sky (Love's Labor's Lost, 4.3),” in Shakespeare's “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, University of Delaware Press, 1985, pp. 113-130.

[In the essay below, Levin presents an overview of Love's Labour's Lost, studying the play's language, plot, and theme of scholarship versus courtship, while noting its playfulness and wit.]

All's Well That Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing, The Comedy of Errors—such phrases are generic as well as proverbial, and might be applied to almost any of Shakespeare's comedies. He was even more off-hand about specifying...

(The entire section is 7657 words.)

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Love's Labor's Lost,” in Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 35-47.

[In the essay below, Ornstein emphasizes the artificiality of Love's Labour's Lost as a comedy and a satire of abstruse intellectuality in conflict with love.]

Like most farces Errors has to be seen on stage to be fully appreciated, partly because of its slapstick scenes and partly because its ingenious plot is inspired by the stage—by a playwright's control of the lives of his characters, who enter and exit on cue and meet or avoid each other as his comic plan requires. The relation of Love's...

(The entire section is 6478 words.)

Louis Adrian Montrose (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Sense of the Ending: ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play,’” in “Curious-Knotted Garden”: The Form, Themes, and Contexts of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, edited by Dr. James Hogg, Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1977, pp. 154-76.

[In the essay below, Montrose considers the indeterminacy of the ending of Love's Labour's Lostand the thematic reconciliation of actuality and imagination in the play's closing songs.]

The spell of the playworld's magic circle is weakened from within before it succumbs to the pressures of an inexorable outer reality. It is threatened from the play's beginning, and is only...

(The entire section is 6944 words.)

G. Beiner (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Endgame in Love's Labour's Lost,” in Anglia, Vol. 103, No. 1/2, 1985, pp. 48-70.

[In the essay below, Beiner studies the disruption of comic form, and Shakespeare's refusal to provide a comic resolution, in Love's Labour's Lost.]

“Not because I was ignorant of the precepts”

Lope de Vega

Isn't that your mission […] to give life to fantastic
characters on the stage?”

Six Characters in Search of an Author


It is a characteristic feature of Shakespearean comedy to foreground artifice: to emphasize the use and creative expansion of literary...

(The entire section is 8432 words.)

Cyrus Hoy (essay date 1962)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Love's Labour's Lost and the Nature of Comedy,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 31-40.

[In the essay below, Hoy argues that Love's Labour's Lost reveals the function of comedy as a means of discerning human infirmity and incongruity.]

Love's Labour's Lost, says M. C. Bradbrook, “is as near as Shakespeare ever came to writing satire”;1 and what, in addition to fine manners, pedantry, and the disguises of love, is being satirized in it is, I would suggest, the infirmity of human purpose. Its fable, which turns on vows sworn and then forsworn under the pressure of circumstance and necessity...

(The entire section is 5598 words.)

Thomas McFarland (essay date 1972)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Full of Dear Guiltiness: The Playfulness of Love's Labour's Lost,” in Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy, The University of North Carolina Press, 1972, pp. 49-77.

[In the essay below, McFarland analyzes the comic spirit and form of Love's Labour's Lost, noting the artificiality and thematic significance of its paradisiacal setting.]

The setting of Love's Labour's Lost is not that of Arcadia. The action occurs in the King of Navarre's park. Such a variation of the pastoral environment is significant for the special kind of playfulness in which the plot revels.

The park, though not Arcadia, is nonetheless truly a pastoral...

(The entire section is 9712 words.)

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Navarre's World of Words,” in Comic Transformations in Shakespeare, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1980, pp. 69-95.

[In the essay below, Nevo contends that the transformative power of language is central to Love's Labour's Lost. She examines the significance of the play's ending, seeing the work as transitional among the comedies.]

‘The distinctive human problem’, says Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, ‘has been the need to spiritualize human life, to lift it onto a special immortal plane, beyond the cycles of life and death that characterize all other organisms.’1 His words would have been heartily endorsed by Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 9370 words.)

Irene G. Dash (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Oath-Taking: Love's Labour's Lost,” in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. 9-30.

[In the essay below, Dash examines the oaths made by male characters in Love's Labour's Lost, relating these to the representation of honesty and of women in the play.]

“A time methinks too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.”


In Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare employs oaths to reveal how men and women characters perceive the meaning of truth and honesty. During the play, oaths increase in seriousness, progressing from the extravagantly...

(The entire section is 7482 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Agnew, Gates K. “Berowne and the Progress of Love's Labour's Lost.” Shakespeare Studies IV (1968): 40-72.

An analysis of Love's Labor's Lost focusing on the figure of Berowne. Agnew maintains that the play achieves its effect by flouting the conventions of comic drama.

Alvis, John. “Derivative Loves Are Labor Lost.” Renascence XLVIII, No. 4 (Summer 1996): 247-58.

Contends that both the main and subplots of Love's Labor's Lost “function in concert to comment upon the nature and consequences of vanity.”

Bevington, David. “‘Jack Hath Not Jill’: Failed Courtship in Lyly and Shakespeare.”...

(The entire section is 694 words.)