Love's Labour's Lost
Often disparaged for what is described as a meager plot and weak characterization, Love's Labour's Lost is believed to be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and stands out among Shakespeare's other comedies due to the refusal of the female characters to immediately marry their male counterparts. In addition to the deferral of marriage and its implications regarding gender roles, the play's unmatched witty wordplay and language, characterized by artifice and extravagance, have generated critical analyses with multiple and varied focuses. The play's topical allusions offer another challenge to critics who seek to uncover meanings that may be obscure to modern audiences.
Commenting on the limitations of Love's Labour's Lost, Thomas M. Greene (1986) assesses the play in terms of its concern with society, noting that the play lacks both a locus of political authority and a reliable representative of the citizenry. Greene contends that while the play does not portray a “living society,” it comments on the appropriate conduct of the citizens, and on the roles of entertainment, love, wit, and civility within society. Richard Corum (1999) approaches the play from another avenue, reviewing the situation of the eight young aristocrats as a conflict between their youthful desire for parental approval, and their adolescent rebellion against the dictates of their elders. Corum further explores the way in which this dramatic situation made it possible for Elizabethan audiences to “reappropriate” the comedy within the context of their own daily lives.
The main obstacle in the staging of Love's Labour's Lost is often perceived to be its intellectual language and artifice. J. M. Maguin (1991) reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play directed by Terry Hands, and finds that the artificiality of the set is emphasized, thereby underscoring the artifice at work within the play. Maguin additionally applauds the production's steady rhythm and the abilities of its principal actors. In his 1993 review, Stanley Wells praises the Edwardian Oxford setting at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The critic notes the way in which the set's visual appeal camouflaged the intellectual obstacles posed by the play's language. However, Wells finds that while the actor's studied approach to the language made the play more understandable, the pace and comic impact suffered. The actors in Emmanuel Demarcy-Morta's Paris production of the play are complimented by Ruth Morse (2000) for the clear manner in which they recited the play's verse. Morse asserts that the play was successfully staged as a black comedy. A less successful production, according to Stanley Kauffman (2000) is Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation, which suffered in terms of casting. Kauffman also notes that too much of Shakespeare's text was sacrificed to make room for musical numbers, which failed to make up for the elimination of the text.
The treatment of gender relations in Love's Labour's Lost is intertwined with its concentration on language. Carolyn Asp (1989) examines the different ways the men and women in the play utilize language. According to the critic, the men's language is self-centered, self-serving, and attempts to exclude women, compared to the women’s language, which is focused on the women's view of themselves in relation to the order of law and societal organization. Asp contends that the penance assigned by the women to the men as a prerequisite for the deferred marriages is the women’s way of forcing the men to consider the proper use of language. In contrast to Asp, Mark Breitenberg (1992) challenges the notion that the play's ending emphasizes the power the women hold over the men of Love's Labour's Lost, maintaining that the men are empowered through their Petrarchan idealization of the women. Like Asp, Jonathan Hall (1995) finds that the language of the men demonstrates their interest in self-affirmation. The critic characterizes the male discourse as socially irresponsible, and contends that a victory of this type of discourse would threaten patriarchal order. Ironically, Hall explains, the women's curtailment of the men's self-absorbed discourse defends the patriarchal order.
The contention of many critics is that the characters, setting, and situations in Love's Labour's Lost are related to Elizabethan figures and politics to varying degrees. Albert H. Tricomi (1979) dismisses efforts to correlate figures in the subplot to historical personages, but admits some correspondences can be made between characters in the main plot to the names of historical individuals involved in the French Civil War. Since these characters are depicted in broad and general terms, Tricomi surmises that Shakespeare perhaps idealized these individuals—familiar to most Elizabethans—for the purposes of entertainment through escapist fantasy. Mary Ellen Lamb (see Further Reading) similarly points out that the topical allusions in the play would have been apparent to aristocratic audiences and lower-class Elizabethans alike. Maurice Hunt (1992) studies the ways in which the figure of Queen Elizabeth, as both a nurturing and threatening female, informs the characterization of the Princess of France. Mark Thornton Burnett (1993) focuses less on the historical parallels between characters in the play and Elizabethan individuals and more on the play's treatment of Elizabethan cultural practices. Burnett is concerned in particular with the way gift exchange was used by Queen Elizabeth and the way it is explored in Love's Labour's Lost. In discussing the women's deferral of the marriage proposals, Burnett observes that this rejection reflects the play's most extreme deviation from traditional Elizabethan exchange practices. Burnett demonstrates that this refusal of reproductive and inheritance rights was particularly relevant to Elizabethan audiences, as Queen Elizabeth, the “virgin queen,” had no heirs. Consequently, fear and doubt surrounded the issue of the inheritance of the throne.