Study Guide

Love's Labour's Lost

Love's Labour's Lost Summary

Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost with a side-by-side translation HERE.

Warning: don't go reading this play looking for snazzy, intricate plot. Instead, read it for a prime example of Big Billy Shakespeare being a wordsmith. This play is all about the "how," not the "what." The story's a bit thin, but there's not a plot-point in this play that isn't introduced, embellished, or concluded with a round of wordplay.

So we'll give you the breakdown... but remember there's a whole lot more than just the plot.

The King of Navarre and his lords Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain meet and swear off food, women, and sleep in order to study for three years. Berowne, the most independent of the four friends, isn't so keen on this whole idea (huh. wonder why?). He reminds the King that the Princess of France is visiting on business. And what are they going to do for fun, anyway?

They'll be entertained by Armado, a Spanish soldier full of stories told in the bizarrely verbose style first introduced by a letter. He's tattling on the villager Costard for his entanglement with dairymaid Jaquenetta. The King sentences Costard to a week with only bread and water.

Armado is with his spicy page, Moth, sighing for love of Jaquenetta. She enters with the constable Dull and Costard. She's not so interested in Armado, so he takes his anger out on Costard and imprisons him. Giving up his warring ways, Armado sits down to write a love letter.

The Princess of France arrives on business, with her ladies Rosaline, Katharine, and Maria. Having heard something about the King's vow against women, she sends Lord Boyet as scout. She kills time by asking her ladies about the other lords of Navarre. It turns out that each lady has a crush on one of the lords. The noblemen emerge. Each connects with a woman and asks Boyet for her name. Boyet informs the Princess that, though the King won't grant her entrance to his court, he has a serious crush on her.

Meanwhile, Armado is breaking the no-women-in-Navarre rule by sending out Costard with a love letter for Jaquenetta. Berowne has the same idea for his letter to Rosaline. Naturally, Costard mixes the notes up, and the noble ladies—busy hunting—end up with Armado's ridiculous ode to Jaquenetta's "heroical vassal."

Meanwhile, schoolmaster Holofernes and country preacher Nathaniel discuss the Princess's kill with Dull. Illiterate Jaquenetta enters with Berowne's letter, and Nathaniel reads it aloud. The two learned men critique the poetry.

Unsuspecting that his letter fell into the hands of a milkmaid, Berowne delivers a monologue wondering that he can fall in love. He's interrupted by the approach of the sighing King, and hides in a tree. He eavesdrops as the King reads aloud the sonnet he's written for the Princess. Then Longaville enters and the King hides and listens. Dumain enters and Longaville hides. One by one the men emerge, scolding each other for breaking their oaths. Berowne almost gets away without revealing his love, but Jaquenetta and Costard have excellent senses of timing. They enter just then with Berowne's letter, proof of treason. Berowne finally convinces the others that there's nothing wrong with wooing women and that it actually can be educational.

At the King's request, Armado organizes a pageant called the "Nine Worthies," with Costard, Moth, Holofernes, Nathaniel, and even Dull taking part. But first, the noblemen visit the women in the guise of Russians. Boyet has tipped the women off and they play a trick, confusing their identities by swapping favors (gifts the men gave them). Humiliated and turned out, the men return as themselves only to be scorned again. The nobles enjoy the pageant of the Nine Worthies – or rather, they enjoy heckling the incompetent actors – until they are interrupted by the arrival of the messenger Marcade from France. The King of France is dead, and the Princess and her ladies will have to return immediately.

The King of Navarre begs her to commit her love to him, but she says it's too soon to make such a decision. She asks him to spend a year in a monastery. If privation doesn't kill his love, she'll have him. The other ladies exact similar promises from their suitors.

The play ends with one last performance, the Song of Winter and Spring.

  • Act 1, Scene 1

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 1 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • King Ferdinand of Navarre meets with his friends, Berowne, Longaville and Dumain.
    • The King's excited about this scheme they've cooked up. They're going to get famous by establishing a school at the court for the next three years. The King wants them to sign their names to promise to obey the rules.
    • Longaville agrees. He wants to work on his mind and forget his body.
    • Dumain, too. He'll leave love and fame in favor of philosophy.
    • Not so fast, says Berowne. He's into the studying part—but no girls? One meal a day? Only three hours of sleep a night? Is this prison?
    • The others remind him he agreed to do it, but still, he's unconvinced. In the first of many long and elaborate speeches, Berowne argues against too much studying (like some other, um, excessive acts, it will make you go blind) and for experiencing life, especially the part including attractive women.
    • Impressed by his eloquence, still, the boys are unmoved. If you're not in, you're out, says the King. Nah, I was just being difficult, says Berowne. I'll sign.
    • But wait a minute. Berowne is daunted by the fine print: any lady approaching the court will lose her tongue, and any man seen talking to her will be publicly humiliated. He reminds the King that the Princess of France is coming to meet about the surrender of Aquitaine.
    • The King totally forgot about that. Well, he has to meet with her; that's a necessity.
    • Berowne suggests that many more necessities will arise over the next three years, so many more exceptions will be made. With that out, Berowne finally signs.
    • Berowne thinks it may be a dull three years. Has the King arranged for any entertainment?
    • Oh but yes! A funny Spaniard who likes to make up words will tell them stories—his name is Armado.
    • Berowne seems satisfied by this offering.
    • Longaville offers up the peasant Costard for additional amusement.
    • And here Costard comes now. With the Constable Dull, bearing a letter from Armado. The young scholars are eager to read it.
    • Costard wants to get a word in first—the letter is about his involvement with a country girl Jaquenetta.
    • Enough out of this clod, let's get to the letter from Armado. The King excitedly reads it—with a number of interruptions from Costard. It's a long, hilariously flowery creation tattling on Costard for breaking the rules and talking to a woman.
    • The King asks Costard if he heard the proclamation threatening one year's imprisonment for talking to a wench. Costard tries to get Jaquenetta upgraded from "wench" to "damsel," "virgin," and "maid," but it makes no difference—he's sentenced to bran and water for a week. Don Armado will be his keeper.
    • The King, Longaville and Dumain exit with renewed faith in their noble plans for self-denial. Skeptical Berowne stays behind with Costard, who is comically playing the martyr.
  • Act 1, Scene 2

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 1 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • Armado is walking in the park with his servant, Moth. (Yes, his name is Moth.) Moth likes to give his master a lot of lip. Now he's making fun of Armado for moping about love.
    • In a round of banter, we find out that Moth is young, small and witty. Moth needles Armado till he gets angry and changes the subject. Like the young lords, he has promised to study three years with the King—and hence swear off women. Now's he's in love, and in trouble.
    • Armado asks Moth to comfort him with examples of other great men who have been in love. Moth comes up with Hercules and Sampson, and a lot of nonsense about Delilah looking like an ogre.
    • When Armado describes his love as white and red, Moth quips that lust usually comes in those colors. And they can't be trusted in a woman—they might be makeup.
    • Armado confesses that his crush is Jaquenetta. Moth is amused and in asides (lines delivered the audience and unheard by the other characters) makes fun of them both.
    • Armado requests that Moth sing, but Moth says wait a minute as he points out that someone is arriving on scene.
    • It's Dull, Costard, and Jaquenetta. Dull is delivering Costard to Armado's custody. He'll take Jaquenetta to the park to be a dairymaid—but not before Armado tells her he loves her. She's not that into it.
    • Dull and Jaquenetta exit.
    • Armado turns his attention to Costard, directing Moth to lock him up. They exit.
    • Left alone, Armado speechifies about his love. He's going to give up his weapons and write.
  • Act 2, Scene 1

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 2 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • The Princess of France arrives with her ladies, Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine, with Boyet, one of her attendants, and with two other lords.
    • Boyet gives us an exposition. The Princess is coming on behalf of her father the King, to negotiate with the King of Navarre about a piece of land called Aquitaine. Boyet reminds her to be charming and generous to the King.
    • The Princess shoots from the hip. She says that there's no need to flatter her, and wants to get to the point. She has heard that the King has taken a vow not to see any women, so she wants Boyet to announce their arrival and find out what's what.
    • Boyet exits.
    • The Princess asks her ladies what other lords have taken this vow with the King. It turns out they know the men and kind of like them!
    • Maria describes Longaville. He's intelligent, a good warrior, does everything well. The only problem is he's got a mouth on him.
    • Katherine describes Dumain. Virtuous, smart, and good-looking.
    • Rosaline has Berowne. It's all about his mind: he's the funniest, most eloquent man she's ever met.
    • Good lord, says the Princess—all my ladies are in love.
    • Boyet comes back with the news that the King intends for them to camp in the field, as though they were enemies.
    • The King enters with Longaville, Dumain, Berowne and attendants. The Ladies mask themselves.
    • When the King greets the Princess politely, she doesn't reciprocate. She's a little miffed she can't gain access to the court. The King tries to apologize and explain about his oath, receiving no end of teasing from the Princess. Then she remembers she's there on business, and gives him a letter from her father about Aquitaine.
    • Meanwhile Katharine—or Rosaline—has a battle of wits with Berowne. (There's some inconsistency in the names, so some scholars and directors assume this exchange should be with Rosaline. She's the one who just admitted acquaintance with Berowne.)
    • Back to the matter of Aquitaine. In response to the letter, the King gives a long speech. He claims that the Princess's father still owes him money for the land.
    • Nuh-uhh, says the Princess. We're all settled and Boyet has the papers to prove it.
    • The papers are still on the way. They'll have to wait till tomorrow to discuss the matter further.
    • The King won't let them in the gates, but he'll try to make them comfortable in the grounds. As comfortable as in his own heart.
    • He exits with Longaville and Dumain. Berowne stays behind to have a little flirt with Rosaline.
    • Dumain reenters, asking Boyet for Katharine's name.
    • Longaville reenters, asking after Maria. Boyet messes with him before giving it up.
    • Berowne inquires about Rosaline. Yes, she's single.
    • All the men exit with the necessary info. The ladies unmask. The game is on.
    • Katharine (or maybe Rosaline—same question about names as above) and Boyet have a wit session, but the Princess asks them to save it for the boys of Navarre.
    • Boyet has news for the Princess. The King thought she was attractive. He was ogling her the whole time he spouted that nonsense about Aquitaine.
    • The Princess can't believe what she's hearing. Neither can the other maidens. They decide to go to their camp.
  • Act 3, Scene 1

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 3 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • Armado finally gets that song out of Moth. He plans to release Costard to carry his love note to Jaquenetta. Moth teases his hapless master about his love and how he plans to win it. Armado sends him to fetch Costard.
    • Costard has a broken shin and is starving. He confuses "l'envoy" (the conclusion of a piece of writing) with salve for his broken leg. This cracks Armado up and gives him an opportunity to show off his superior learning. Moth gets in on the action.
    • Finally Armado gets to the point: he'll free Costard to take a letter to Jaquenetta. He does it and gives him a little money. Armado and Moth exit.
    • Berowne enters. Costard asks how much ribbon he can buy with the three farthings Armado gave him. Berowne clearly has no idea, which Costard takes as an answer. But not so fast.
    • Berowne has an errand for the peasant. Take this letter and find Rosaline. He gives Costard money, too.
    • After Costard's exit, Berowne has a long monologue expressing his amazement that he—always so cynical about love—has fallen for a girl "with two pitch balls stuck in her face." Oh Berowne. That's the way to woo 'em.
  • Act 4, Scene 1

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 4 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • The girls are on a hunt. The Princess is in a good mood and teases the Forester for not calling her fair (as in beautiful). She plans to kill a deer to win praise.
    • Costard enters with a letter for Rosaline. Well, it's the wrong letter—the Princess holds Armado's letter to Jaquenetta—but Boyet reads it for laughs, anyway. It's long and ridiculous in its mock-learning. After a good bit of amusement, the Princess informs Costard that he's made a mistake and exits.
    • Boyet is amused that Berowne's sent Rosaline a letter and teases her about her suitor. She gives it right back to him. She exits and Maria gets in on the game, as does Costard. Lots of fun sexual innuendo ensues about "marks," "pricks," and "upshots."
    • Left alone, Costard gives a summary of the amusing characters populating the court at the moment.
  • Act 4, Scene 2

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 4 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • We're introduced to two new characters, the schoolmaster Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, the curate (country preacher).
    • Holofernes is learned and enjoys talking. If he hasn't said something six different ways (four of them in Latin), he hasn't said it at all.
    • Nathaniel seems to be a fan of this sort of thing. He compliments the schoolmaster's speech but disagrees with his assessment of the kill.
    • Dull misunderstands their flowery language and references, which Nathaniel says in understandable since he's not educated. (That's the "he hath not eat paper"/"he hath not drunk ink" bit.)
    • The three exchange a few more riddles (which mostly go over Dull's head), until Holofernes, inspired, offers "an extemporal epitaph on the death of the deer" (4.2.59).
    • Holofernes has at it, delivering a little speech full of alliteration and wordplay. Nathaniel is impressed; Dull not so much. 
    • They are interrupted by Costard and Jaquenetta, who want them to read her letter from Don Armado.
    • Well of course it's the wrong one! Nathaniel reads aloud Berowne's letter to Rosaline.
    • Holofernes looks it over and gives it a big fat shrug. Nothing special, in his opinion. And was it really meant for Jaquenetta?
    • She thinks so. But Holofernes reads the address and sees "Rosaline." He advises Jaquenetta to take the letter to the King. She exits with Costard.
    • Holofernes insults Berowne's letter a bit more and invites Nathaniel and Dull to dinner. They all exit.
  • Act 4, Scene 3

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 4 Scene 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • Berowne enters with Speech #2 praising the pitch-ball eyes of Rosaline. He's got it bad. When he hears the King approaching, he hides.
    • The King comes in with a classic Shakespearean love-groan (4.3.4). Berowne is excitedly watching the King betray his oath with a drippy sonnet about weeping for her love.
    • But here comes Longaville. The King hides (separate from Berowne), and he and Berowne watch the action, commenting without hearing each other. Longaville fears he's not so good at poetry, but nevertheless reads his sonnet aloud. It's all about how his vow not to speak to women doesn't matter—because Maria's a goddess.
    • Longaville hears someone coming got it—hides.
    • Guess who? Yes, it's Dumain's turn to enter and profess his love. Now Longaville, the King and Berowne are all hiding—separately—and spying on their lovesick friend. His poem is about wishing he were free as the wind to love her.
    • Just as Dumain has finished reading his poem out loud, Longaville jumps out of his hiding spot to blame him for loving Maria.
    • The King comes out next and chastises them both. He warns them that Berowne will be merciless when he gets wind of their love. They'll be teased to death.
    • He doesn't have to wait long to find out, as Berowne reveals himself and accuses the King of being in love, too. He has a heyday making fun of them, and lies about his own love.
    • But here come Jaquenetta and Costard, and you know what they have in their hands (i.e., Berowne's letter to Rosaline).
    • Costard presents Berowne's letter and calls it treason. The King, unsuspecting, lets Berowne read it. He tears it up.
    • Longaville sees through Berowne's little tantrum, and Dumain picks up the scraps of paper. He recognizes Berowne's handwriting.
    • Now Berowne has to admit it. He'll confess more but wants to get rid of the yokels first.
    • The boys skirmish about which of their loves is the most beautiful. Rosaline gets kind of trashed by the boys because of her dark hair.
    • The King calls a truce and asks Berowne how they can justify escaping their vow.
    • No problem. Berowne gives a long speech, the gist of which is: a) this vow didn't make sense in the first place, and went against all the virtues of youth; b) the best way to learn about beauty (and about how to write) is in a woman's eyes; c) being in love heightens your senses and powers of observation; d) love makes one brave, mysterious and musical. Let's go for it.
    • The boys need no convincing. They resolve to woo the women, starting with a little entertainment in their tents.
  • Act 5, Scene 1

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 5 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • Holofernes, Sir Nathaniel and Dull enter from dinner. Nathaniel is up to his usual brown-nosing with Holofernes. He says how refreshing it is to enjoy a scintillating conversation after having spent time earlier in the day talking to Armado.
    • Armado seems to be a sore spot with Holofernes, who busts into a long critique of Armado's ornate communication style.
    • The schoolmaster and curate are showing off their Latin skills when Armado enters with Moth and Costard.
    • Moth is, as usual, not so respectful, and gets into a playful battle of wits with clueless Holofernes. Moth wins.
    • Armado invites Holofernes to take a little walk and hear his proposal. After a good bit of bragging, Armado comes out with it: the King wants him to organize a pageant. Having heard that Holofernes and Nathaniel are good at such things, he's asking for their help.
    • Holofernes doesn't miss a beat. They'll present a pageant of the Nine Worthies—great men in History. Nathaniel, Armado, Costard, and Moth will all have parts, and Holofernes will play three heroes himself. Dull will dance.
  • Act 5, Scene 2

    Read the full text of Love's Labour's Lost Act 5 Scene 2 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

    • The Princess and her ladies enter the grounds and compare gifts and letters from the men in their lives. They make ruthless fun of the long letters full of exaggerated flattery. In an otherwise light exchange, there's one shadow: Katharine's sister died of love. At the moment, the women protect themselves with their wit.
    • Boyet enters laughing. He overheard the King and his men planning to dress up like Russians and visit the women.
    • Boyet also shares the important detail that each man will know his woman by the favor (gift) she wears—the Princess's diamond, Rosaline's pearl, Katharine's glove and Maria's necklace.
    • Oh, will they now? The Princess has the ingenious plan to mask their faces and exchange favors, so the men will woo the wrong lady. On top of that, the women will refuse to dance or even listen to their love speeches.
    • Why? Because they assume the men are pursuing them for sport, so they'll give sport back. And they'll win. 
    • The men, costumed as Russians, enter with Moth and other attendants dressed up to look like Africans.
    • Moth addresses the women in a speech of praise evidently written by Berowne. The ladies turn their backs.
    • Enjoying the turn of events, mischievous Moth extemporizes. Berowne gets a little miffed, corrects and then dismisses him.
    • With Boyet as intermediary, the men address the Princess—who is actually Rosaline. She messes with them. She asks for music, then refuses to dance.
    • Each man approaches the woman he thinks is his love. Berowne talks to the Princess, Dumain to Maria, Longaville to Katharine. They all seem pretty insulted.
    • Fed up, the men leave. The ladies unmask and have a good laugh at the foolishness of the men, and Boyet tells them they'll be back. Rosaline proposes to tease them further with complaints about the Russian imbeciles who just made a visit.
    • And here they come, dressed as themselves. Boyet receives them politely (the girls have run back to their tents) and Berowne gives a speech about Boyet's clever and insincere hospitality.
    • The Princess and her ladies emerge, full of power, and the King invites them to enter the court. The Princess refuses the invitation, saying that the women wouldn't want to make the men break their vows.
    • The King begs her to reconsider, saying that the lords feel bad that the women have been so lonely and abandoned.
    • Not at all, says the Princess. She informs the King that they were just visited by some very nice Russians.
    • They were not very nice, chimes in Rosaline. In fact, she adds that the women were not exactly impressed by the "Russians" who visited them.
    • Berowne is actually humble for once. He flatters Rosaline that she's so smart, she makes any man seem unworthy of her attention.
    • The men are a little demoralized by the women's nonstop teasing. Rosaline reveals that the women know the men were the Russians.
    • In a long, highfaluting speech, Berowne promises to give up long, highfaluting speeches in favor of plain talk.
    • Rosaline has her doubts.
    • The King confesses and apologizes for masking as the Russians. When the Princess forces him to say aloud what he told her in her mask, Rosaline reveals that such a thing was told to her. The men realize they were duped, and Berowne chides Boyet for taking part in the men's ruin.
    • Costard enters, asking whether the nine worthies may come in. Berowne teases him a little and says yes.
    • The King is worried that the play will be another embarrassing failure. In this situation, says Berowne, there's nowhere to go but up.
    • The Princess wants to see the play. Armado comes in with the program identifying the cast. Berowne is excited to see these eccentric townspeople play the heroes of history.
    • Costard comes in as Pompey. Berowne and Boyet both mock him, but Costard bravely gives his speech and receives the Princess's applause.
    • Enter Nathaniel as Alexander. He's immediately heckled by Boyet and Berowne, who asks Costard to run Nathaniel off.
    • Next comes Holofernes as Judas Maccabeus, with Moth as Hercules. A sustained round of heckling from Boyet, Berowne, and Dumain runs Holofernes off. The play is turning into a kind of death-match American Idol.
    • Armado enters as Hector—now Longaville is joining the fun. Armado valiantly pushes through and attempts to win the audience over.
    • Armado might wish he had run away, though, because Costard deviates from the play to inform him that Jaquenetta is pregnant—with Armado's child.
    • The King and his lords are loving it.
    • Armado challenges Costard and they get ready to fight.
    • A messenger, Marcade, enters with news from France. The King is dead.
    • The Princess wants to leave immediately, but the King of Navarre hopes she won't.
    • Apologizing for harassing the men so much, the Princess thanks the King for settling the business of Aquitaine (this part of the plot doesn't matter much now, and isn't explained).
    • The King begs her not to abruptly abandon their new love. Berowne asks the women not to judge the men by the one oath they broke.
    • The Princess protests that they took all the wooing as play. But the men are serious.
    • It's too early to make a lifelong commitment, replies the sensible Princess. She poses this challenge to the King: go to a monastery and spend a year there. Only then can the King come back and woo her.
    • Whoa, he says he'll do it! Now that's love.
    • Katharine doesn't make Dumain become a monk, but taking the cue from her lady, she asks him to come back in a year. Maria and Longaville follow suit and ask their lords to wait one year before wooing them properly.
    • What about Berowne? Community service. Rosaline charges him to use his wit to make the sick smile. He doesn't think it's possible, but agrees. If she'll love him for it, sign him up.
    • Berowne observes that their fun won't end like a comedy—there are no marriages.
    • Armado enters with a last distraction. There was to have been a song at the end of their failed play. Can they sing it now?
    • Go for it, says the King.
    • Two (unnamed) characters—probably Nathaniel and Holofernes—sing songs of Spring and Winter.