Love's Labour's Lost
One of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1594-95) 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. Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and considered inferior to his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost has traditionally been disparaged by critics for its weak and haphazard characterization and feeble plot. Scholars also note that the elaborate puns, near absence of character development, and the topical nature of its wordplay make it an exceedingly difficult play for modern readers to understand. Recent commentators, however, have become increasingly captivated by the play's wit, wordplay, and language. Today's critics also demonstrate significant interest in the structure and style of Love's Labour's Lost, and well as its themes concerning sexual politics, gender roles, and class issues.
Although the characters in Love's Labour's Lost are generally considered to be flat and one-dimensional, many critics have attempted to uncover their hidden depths. Ursula Hehl (see Further Reading) applies the concepts of narcissistic personality disorder to a psychoanalytic understanding of the principal male figures in Love's Labour's Lost: Berowne, Navarre, and Armado. According to Hehl, the narcissistic ego imbalance of the King and his fellow noblemen explains their vanity, lovesickness, rationalizations, and arbitrarily shifting desires, as well as their failure to win over the women. Meredith Anne Skura (1997) contends that Shakespeare parodied the concepts of heroic honor and fame through his characterization of the pretentious figure of Don Armado and the clown Costard. Skura also explains how Shakespeare's characterization of these figures provides a satiric perspective on the Elizabethan aristocracy. In his 1973 study, Trevor Lennam maintains that the principal figures in Love's Labour's Lost resemble characters found in traditional morality plays; for example, the King of Navarre and his companions represent Wit, Armado represents Recreation, and the Princess and her entourage represent both Wisdom and Shame. Harvey Birenbaum (2003) analyzes the themes of will and desire in Love's Labour's Lost and illustrates how these themes are developed through the actions of the characters. Birenbaum also notes that the women in the play have something to teach the men about “what life is and how it works” and contends that although the male characters are often seen as immature and foolish, they are in fact sincere.
Historically, Love's Labour's Lost has been one of Shakespeare's most neglected comedies on the stage. After being abandoned for nearly two centuries, the play was revived in the nineteenth century and has gained some measure of popularity with modern audiences and directors. The play's first film adaptation—Kenneth Branagh's 2000 reworking of the play as pre-World War II film musical—met with mostly negative reviews. Lindsay Duguid (2000) argues that a lack of atmosphere was the film's most serious shortcoming; commenting on the film as a whole, the reviewer comments “It is hard to know for whom all this expensive foolery is intended—someone who has never seen the play, or any play, perhaps; or someone who has never seen a movie.” Love's Labour's Lost was once considered nearly impossible to successfully stage; however, the play has had a number of recent productions, including Trevor Nunn's highly praised 2003 Royal National Theatre production. Susannah Clapp (2003) applauds Nunn's successful staging of this play, noting that “Love's Labour's Lost is the most knottily worded and clown-stuffed of Shakespeare's plays, one of those comedies which is hardly ever funny.” Also reviewing Nunn's production, Sheridan Morley (2003) lauds Nunn's decision to set the play as a dream sequence on the battlefields of the World War I and praises Joseph Fiennes's fine performance as Berowne. Matt Wolf (2003) calls Nunn's staging a “partial success,” noting that the production came alive only in the second half of the play. Wolf praises Nunn as a director “with an acute sense of text who can shadow even this play's sunnier passages with the gathering clouds of pain.”
Many contemporary scholars, such as Koshi Nakanori (1982), have attempted to reassess the structure and style of Love's Labour's Lost, which has long been judged as inadequate in relation to other romantic comedies of the period. 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. Critics are also interested in the play's representation of sexual politics, gender roles, and class issues. Patricia Parker (1993) highlights the various class and gender relationships in the play, contending that the rhetoric and language of Love's Labour's Lost “forges links between the play's reversing of letters and words and its reversals of the conventions of gender.” Similarly, Katharine Eisaman Maus (1991) offers a feminist critique of Love's Labour's Lost, in which she explores the connection between the play's language and its theme of sexual politics. Miriam Gilbert (1993) attempts to show how Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences would have experienced Love's Labour's Lost. In her analysis, Gilbert examines the play's complex style, verbal extravagance, and unique ending, noting that “this comedy, which seems in many ways more artificial than Shakespeare's others, more concerned with affectation and stylistic brilliance, becomes finally the most realistic of all, as it acknowledges that the theatre cannot always solve life's complex relationships.”