Love's Labor's Lost Love's Labour's Lost (Vol. 77)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 46,664 words.)