The tone of Love's Labour's Lost is strongly influenced by its setting: how can you be anything but cheerful in idyllic nature? These characters are on one long picnic/barbeque/camping trip.
Until the entrance of Marcade, an open feeling of fun and silliness pervades the play, which abounds with games. The characters play word-games with each other, exchange riddles, climb trees, play dress up, and tease each other relentlessly. Just check out Rosalind's good-hearted glee when she thinks of mocking Berowne:
ROSALINE: How I would make him fawn, and beg, and seek,
And wait the season, and observe the times,
And spend his prodigal wits in bootless rhymes,
And shape his service wholly to my hests,
And make him proud to make me proud that jests! (5.2.67-71)
Humanist satirist that he was, Shakespeare succeeds in making fun of all the characters while preserving our sympathy for them. For the most part, the characters are all likable. They are people we want to watch getting up to all sorts of nonsense... and we want them to succeed in the end.
Is Love's Labour's Lost a comedy? Berowne sure doesn't think so. Think about when he says: "These ladies' courtesy / Might well have made our sport a comedy" (5.2.948-949).
On the other hand, the play features confused, incomplete people wandering blindly through the wilderness before finding themselves and each other. Plus, there are all those jokes. And the closing musical number. That seems like comedy, folks.
The play is also a pastoral. The pastoral is an old, old poetic form. (We're talking old—3 B.C., when Theocritus wrote poems praising the life of Sicilian shepherds.)
In Shakespeare, the pastoral often compares a complicated, neurotic court life to a simple rustic one. In the country (or in Love's Labour's Lost), characters can cast off the court's rules and behave more freely and recklessly: they're getting back to nature. In this play, the outdoor setting, the abundance of nature imagery, and the cast of stock characters including a milkmaid, schoolteacher, curate, constable and "rustic" are all signs pointing to pastoral.
Using pastoral conventions, Shakespeare highlights the theme of the irrepressibility of nature... as well as its tendency to make people think about sex, sex, and more sex.
This one is a head-scratcher for students and scholars alike, the whole world over. The first issue is a purely practical one: how do you spell the dang thing, anyway? Is it Love's Labors Lost? Love's Labour's Lost? Are there two apostrophes? One? None?
You might not be the best speller, but this time the confusion is not your fault: we don't know exactly what Shakespeare intended. Different editions have printed it different ways ever since he penned the play. Argh!
But we can make a little more headway on the meaning of the title: it could suggest either that the labor of love is lost, or the lost labors of love. Either way, the title gives us a couple of hints of what we're about to see—a very convoluted love story. For the smitten characters, love means work, mostly of the literary kind: hours spent working out flattering images and melodious rhymes. And as for that "lost"—well, the play doesn't end with wedding bells... and the labor these poor dudes put in trying to seal themselves off from love doesn't exactly pan out.
Someone who hasn't seen or read this play might be surprised at the ending. After several extended wooing sessions, many sighs, far more love poems than we thought possible, a masque and a play-within-a-play, what do we get? No marriages. Not one.
A Hollywood producer would drop this one right in the toilet. Even Berowne, one of the main characters, is a little skeptical:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play.
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy. (5.2.947-949)
Shakespeare wrote the comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream around the same time as Love's Labour's Lost, and that play concludes with multiple marriages. In fact, the magical character Puck even states that "Jack shall have Jill" – the exact opposite of the quote above. Shakespeare has a more complicated, ambiguous resolution in mind for Love's Labour's Lost. The ladies set challenges to their men, ranging from medium-high intensity (wait a year for me) to very high intensity (wait a year for me in a monastery).
The Princess instigates this move for a number of reasons. She's shocked by her father's death and entering a mourning period when an engagement might be inappropriate. (Remember how miffed Hamlet got about the funeral meats at his mom's second wedding?) And besides, she needs to test a young man who has already proven he can't keep a vow. The other ladies naturally follow suit. They can't exactly return to France flaunting a big diamond when their king has just died.
While the play begins with a vow of celibacy that is meant to facilitate self-improvement, it ends with a vow of celibate constancy. The men are asked to focus on something outside themselves—Berowne is even asked to minister to the poor. The plot resolution is ambiguous. We believe the couples will eventually marry...but we can't be sure.
This ambiguity is heightened by the rustics' song of Winter and Spring. In it, love and youth brush up against hardship and death. "That's life," Shakespeare seems to say.
Navarre is a region in Northern Spain, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that this play takes place outside. In Shakespeare's comedies, outside means freedom, fun, and sexual chemistry. (Three of the best things in the world.)
Think cross-dressing in the country in As You Like It, or magical mischief in the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (See "Genre" for more about the influence of pastoral conventions on this play.) We know that the weather is warm enough for the French ladies, denied entrance to the King's Court, to camp on the King's grounds. There's plenty of opportunity for frolicking. Grown men hide in trees, eavesdropping on their friends. The sun, moon, and stars are visible, bewitching everyone and finding their way into love poems.
Outside, in good weather, everyone's feeling frisky.
Like a lot of Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost is much harder to read than it is to see on stage. Why? In a word: wordplay.
Battles of wits are huge in this play, and you often just won't get the joke unless you read a footnote or watch an actor work it out. The vocabulary would have been way out there even for an audience in Shakespeare's time; he made up new words and used existing words in unusual ways. So don't worry if it takes a little time to get through it, and if you're getting bogged down, skip ahead to plot points. You can always go back.
See "Writing Style" for more about why Shakespeare used so much wordplay. (He wasn't just showing off.)
Witty banter is almost another character in this play. Seriously: the plot just seems like an excuse for Shakespeare to indulge his taste and talent for putting words together. Have you ever seen so many letters read aloud in a play?
But, because it's so old, language in Shakespeare can be difficult. And the language of Love's Labour's Lost is certainly no exception. Here are some conventions to watch for:
These are the kind of groan-worthy jokes that might seem a little cheesy. A pun plays on words: either two different meanings of the same word, or on the sound or meaning of two different words. When Rosaline finds out Berowne has written her a love letter, Boyet asks, "Who is the shooter?" (4.1.123). He's referring to the hunt they're involved in, but also making a joke about Rosaline's suitor.
Ugh. It's like Shakespeare is making a Dad joke.
You are probably already familiar with this one. Love's Labour's Lost is full of rhyme—like the scene with the boys in trees. Rhyme is playful, melodious and funny (and full of puns and sexual innuendo as well):
MARIA: Come, come, you talk greasily. Your lips grow foul.
COSTARD: She's too hard for you at pricks, sir. Challenge her
BOYET: I fear too much rubbing. Good night, my good owl. (4.2.161-164)
We get the triple threat of the "owl" rhyme, and we also gets some super-sassy plays on the words "pricks" and "rubbing." Simmer down there, Shakes.
(Oh, and take a look at "Tools of Characterization" for more about when Shakespeare uses verse and when he uses prose.)
This play has five—count 'em, five—sonnets.
Quick recap: a sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines that rhyme according to particular rules, and often taking up the subject of love and romance. Shakespeare is the most famous English sonnet-writer—he wrote about 150 around the same time as he was composing Love's Labour's Lost. Here's one by Longaville:
Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,
'Gainst whom the world cannot hold argument,
Persuade my heart to this false perjury?
Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore, but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee.
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love.
Thy grace being gained cures all disgrace in me.
Vows are but breath, and breath a vapor is.
Then thou, fair sun, which on my earth dost
Exhal'st this vapor-vow; in thee it is.
If broken, then, it is no fault of mine.
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To lose an oath to win a paradise? (4.3.59-73)
Aww, shucks. Put that in a Valentine's Day card and watch your sweetie melt.
The sonnets aren't just an actor's chance to show off in Love's Labour's Lost; they are also important to the plot. It's Costard's mix-up in delivering the sonnets that causes Berowne to be outed as a lover, moving the story forward.
Bonus: if you're interested in sonnets (or looking to woo someone hardcore) be sure to check out some more of Shakespeare's sonnets.
This is a long, SAT word for the one-liner. Think television sitcoms—the characters banter, the pace is fast, the energy is high. Long sections of stichomythia make up the "sets of wit" that are all over the play. Like this one in which Boyet tortures Longaville:
I beseech you, a word. What is she in the white?
A woman sometimes, an you saw her in the light.
Perchance light in the light. I desire her name.
She hath but one for herself; to desire that were a
Pray you, sir, whose daughter?
Her mother's, I have heard.
God's blessing on your beard! (2.1.203-120)
You can almost hear the laugh track in the background.
Rich or poor, the men in the play need people to look up to. The motif of heroes recurs again and again – go to "Shout Outs" for a running list. At one point Armado asks Moth what other great men were lovers. At another point, Berowne excuses his love by comparing himself to Hercules. The men seem to want to reassure themselves that their behavior is OK, that they're still big dogs. But are the men of Love's Labour's Lost heroes? Judging from the disastrous Pageant of the Nine Worthies, we'd say not. Shakespeare enjoys lampooning the men and reminding us that they are simply human.
In one sense, you could make the argument that Love's Labour's Lost is all about the eyes. Berowne is especially obsessed with them. They are the vehicles through which knowledge reaches the mind, whether from books or from looking at a beautiful woman (the latter being Berowne's preferred method). They are the feature that makes one fall in love. You could write a whole term paper on eyes in Love's Labour's Lost.
Sun, moon, roses, snow, geese, deer, cuckoos: the list of images drawn from nature could go on and on (and does, in Holofernes' lines). Shakespeare infuses his characters' speech with reminders that, no matter how many oaths they take, they can't escape nature.
A play within a play lets us watch characters watching something. This device gives us clues to their character and/or advances the plot. Having spent most of his life in the theater, Shakespeare loved this device. He used it most famously in Hamlet, where Hamlet accuses his uncle of murder through a play put on by traveling actors. But we also see examples of the play within the play in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Love's Labour's Lost, Armado, Holofernes and the other rustics put on the Pageant of the Nine Worthies. This not only wraps up the motif of "Great Men" mentioned above, it provides another opportunity to contrast the behavior of the men and the women. While the men heckle and shame the rustics, even fanning the fire of Armado and Costard's potentially deadly rivalry, the Princess is kind and supportive. Perhaps her recognition of the King's display of immaturity is part of what prompts her postponement of their union at the end of the play.
These lords want to reject everything that gives pleasure: food, women and sleep. In their youthful eagerness to understand things, they set up artificial divides – men against women; learning against worldly experience; the intellect against nature. As soon as the women of France enter, maintaining those divides gets more complicated.
Embarrassed by what they perceive as weakness, the men try to keep their crushes secret from each other. They overcome the hurdle of admitting their love; now they want to act on it. It's not so easy. The women, half in fun but also in self-protection, obscure their identities when the men come in costume to woo them.
While the plot doesn't resolve with a classic pairing off in the sense of marriage, the women do unmask and address the appropriate partner. Having attained some balance of knowledge and desire through love, the men are equipped to handle the women's call for patience.
The play opens with the King, Berowne, Longaville and Dumain putting in writing what they've already agreed to do: study for three years, abstain from women, sleep little, and eat less. While Berowne is unwilling, his loyalty to the King convinces him. It looks like the four will enjoy their time in peace, with entertainment provided by Armado.
Enter the Princess, with her beautiful and intelligent ladies-in-waiting. The men don't have a chance. While the King denies them access to the court in order to keep his oath, he falls head-over-heels for the Princess.
Hijinks and letter-writing ensue, and the men find out about each other's loves. They break their oaths and prepare an onslaught of wooing. The women reject and tease them.
The women haven't made any commitments yet, but everyone's cozily watching a silly play devised by Armado and Holofernes. Marcade enters with the news that the King of France has died. Wherever these romances were heading, they're not heading there now—not yet, anyway. The Princess has to think about returning to France and assuming the throne.
Slightly insensitively, the King presses the Princess. She protests that the women only flirted for fun. When the men argue that they are serious, the women challenge them to prove it by waiting for a year.
The men agree to wait for the women. Armado enters with the news that he has committed himself to Jaquenetta for the next three years.
With the uncertain promise of future conjugal bliss, the lovers enjoy the Song of Winter and Spring.
The King of Navarre and his pals take an oath to swear off women. Their resolve is tested when the Princess of France and her women arrive on the scene.
The men go through elaborate rituals of wooing, culminating in a failed costume party and a play. Marcade enters with news of the French King's death.
The Princess of France rejects Navarre's offer to stay and love him. She and her ladies propose the men prove their love by waiting for a year.