Love's Labour's Lost
Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and considered inferior to his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1594-95) has traditionally been disparaged by critics. In fact, some commentators consider it to be Shakespeare's worst play, a work contrived from weak and haphazard characterization and a feeble plot. The drama details a pact made by the King of Navarre and three of his courtiers 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. Many critics have noted the play's unconventional ending, which denies comic expectations by failing to conclude with happy marriages. Modern commentators have tended to focus on the play's wit, wordplay, and language, rather than the inadequacies of its dramatic form. Additionally, many scholars have cautioned that the play was originally written for a private audience—one that was educated and familiar with the courtly manners and affectations upon which the play's humor is based. Contemporary critics have endeavored to produce a formal reassessment of Love's Labour's Lost, with scholars such as Koshi Nakanori (see Further Reading) drawing attention to the play's structure and stylistic concerns. Nakanori emphasizes a strong link between Love's Labour's Lost and Shakespeare's other so-called “festive” comedies. While acknowledging the play's defects of character and plot, Nakanori nevertheless defines the piece as a transitional work that bears fundamental structural similarities with other Shakespearean dramas.
Recent character-oriented studies of Love's Labour's Lost have attempted to uncover hidden aspects of Shakespeare's generally maligned principal figures. For Kristian Smidt (1984), the problematic genre of Love's Labour's Lost holds the key to a seeming lack of consistency within its characters and overall structure. Smidt argues that Shakespeare began his play as a romance by featuring a series of vain, insensible male figures, captivated by verbal ingenuity and wit, and contrasting them with a quartet of more reasonable, realistic, and morally discerning women. Instead of taking the romance to its logical conclusion of marriage, Smidt asserts, Shakespeare instead shifted his focus toward courtly satire, dropped the play's Petrarchan flourishes, and offered an ironic commentary on the nature of love. Meredith Anne Skura (see Further Reading) presents a complementary study focused on the pretentious figure of Don Armado and the clown Costard. Using these characters as foils to the King of Navarre and his romantic notions of the warrior ideal, Skura contends, Shakespeare parodied the concepts of heroic honor and fame, as well as the sheer braggadocio of theatrical performance. Psychoanalysis is the basis of Ursula Hehl's (see Further Reading) assessment of Love's Labour's Lost. Questioning the unconventional ending of the comedy, Hehl suggests that applying the concepts associated with narcissistic personality disorder to its male protagonists provides significant insight. According to Hehl, the narcissistic ego imbalance of the King and his fellow noblemen explains their vanity, lovesickness, rationalizations, and arbitrarily shifting desires—flaws the play's women do not possess—as well as their final failure to win over the more psychologically integrated objects of their affection.
Love's Labour's Lost has proven to be one of Shakespeare's more challenging dramas to successfully stage for contemporary audiences. The play's elaborate puns, near absence of character development, and the topical nature of its wordplay—the full appreciation of which requires an intimate familiarity with Elizabethan language—have all contributed to its dubious status in production. Additionally, the transition from stage to screen at the turn of the twenty-first century has highlighted another wrinkle in its performance history. Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film version of Love's Labour's Lost represents for some critics a low point in Shakespearean cinematic adaptation. Reviews of the film written around the time of its release were mixed, if not completely hostile. Richard Corliss (2000) accuses Branagh of amateurism and distortion for packaging Shakespeare's play as a salute to the golden age, pre-World War II film musical. Reviewer John Simon (2000) is even less forgiving, citing undistinguished or histrionic performances, and faults Branagh's poor adaptation of the Shakespearean text. James Bowman (2000) similarly suggests that Branagh's seemingly clever evocation of the Jazz Age as a substitute for Renaissance courtly romance solidly failed, serving only to “vulgarize Shakespeare.” Other reviewers were more merciful. A. O. Scott (2000) finds Branagh and the rest of the film's cast to be sincere and enthusiastic, even charming and entertaining, but deems the final product unimpressive. Derek Elley (2000) gives the most positive evaluation, acknowledging much to admire in the film, but considers the downside of marketing the work to a mass audience. In her 2002 retrospective study, Ramona Wray verifies that box office success eluded the film in both Britain and the United States. Wray analyzes the methods of cinematic nostalgia Branagh employed in this celluloid version of Love's Labour's Lost, concentrating on the work's lack of correspondence to the Shakespearean text which, the critic states, was largely replaced with a series of filmic clichés designed to pay homage to a hazy, prewar past that never was.
Recent thematic criticism of Love's Labour's Lost has touched upon a number of subjects, such as language, love, and the opposition between nature and artifice. In his 2002 survey of the drama, John S. Pendergast outlines the range of its principal themes, including the transformative power of language, the efficacy of sincere love, immortality obtained through fame, the status of nature and experience as the ultimate sources of knowledge, and the tension between artifice and nature. Joseph Westlund (1967) delves into the last of these, viewing the conflict between imagination and worldly achievement as the play's fundamental theme, one reiterated in its overall design as Shakespeare set the artificiality of rhetoric and wit against the realities of nature and time. Similarly, Catherine M. McLay (1967), in focusing on the play's concluding songs by the characters Spring and Winter, highlights a unified thematic movement from the illusory to the real, accompanied by a conveyance from the artificial to the natural, and from foolishness to wisdom. Turning more specifically to Shakespeare's use of language in the drama, John Alvis (1996) defines its central theme as the absurdity of vanity, a very human weakness that drives the plot of the play by obliterating the prospects of real love. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1997) emphasizes relations between women and men depicted in the play, which she compares to a similarly themed drama by Margaret Cavendish, The Convent of Pleasure (1668). Roberts regards Love's Labour's Lost as Shakespeare's “most feminist play,” a work that allows its female characters to triumph over self-indulgent, masculine power and to claim their own independence by rebuffing their puzzled suitors.