Study Guide

Love's Labour's Lost Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Love

    Shakespeare was probably the biggest mushy-hearted, googly-eyed, sighing romantic around. His version of love isn't just physical, spiritual, or intellectual—it's all of the above.

    In Love's Labour's Lost, love is the great synthesizer of humanity. Most of the characters want to be one thing: a warrior, a scholar, a teacher. They think they can only do these jobs well if they cut out the rest of life (and especially love). They discover, however, that love enhances everything else. For the main characters, physical attraction sparks a journey toward becoming complete human beings. The journey doesn't end with the play's resolution. By writing an ambiguous ending, Shakespeare seems to suggest that the journey continues.

    Questions About Love

    1. Are love and sexual attraction interchangeable in Love's Labour's Lost?
    2. What are the instances of love acting as a negative force?
    3. If love is the central theme in the play, why don't the couples marry at the end of it?

    Chew on This

    In Love's Labour's Lost, love is the unifying force of several sets of opposites: man and woman; reason and passion; civilization and nature.

    The characters' conduct of love relates to gender and class assumptions in Elizabethan England.

  • Education

    They don't need no education, they don't need no mind control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom.

    But they think they needs tons of book-learnin'... and nothing but book-learnin'.

    In Love's Labour's Lost, the main characters are young people figuring out how to live. There are no elders there to guide them, so they are self-educating. The men are extreme, taking vows to abstain from women, food, and sleep, the better to focus on their studies. In their world, education is social currency. When they're infected by love, however, their horizons broaden. Their senses sharpen. Their poems improve. The play's great argument is that education is bigger than books alone.

    Questions About Education

    1. If the Princess and her ladies in waiting had not arrived in Navarre, do you think that the King's plan to study and swear off women for three years would have worked?
    2. Is Shakespeare arguing that books are the enemy of love?
    3. By the end of the play, what have the men learned?

    Chew on This

    In Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare depicts several different kinds of learning with equal passion, advocating balance in society.

    Love's Labour's Lost is paradoxical because, while it argues that life experience is the best teacher, its extravagant wordplay could only be understood by the educated.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    In the world of Love's Labour's Lost, where men and women are kept apart, seduction takes the form of language. The men's wits are their version of a peacock's tail—it's all about getting the girl.

    Intellectual conversations and witty banter are mating rituals indulged by nearly all characters that we meet. Prolonged volleys of wits establish sexual chemistry between two potential partners. Intelligence is also powerful, establishing status between characters. If you're not actual royalty, you've got to be the wittiest to stay on top.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Is cleverness an advantage or a liability—or both—when it comes to love?
    2. Who is cleverer—Berowne or Rosaline?
    3. Who is the cleverest character in the play?
    4. What is the relationship between wit and love in Love's Labour's Lost?

    Chew on This

    Berowne and Rosaline's increasing attraction to each other exhibits itself in their battles of wits.

    The witty successes of Moth and Costard indicate Shakespeare's lack of class prejudice. He believed genius could be found anywhere.

  • Literature and Writing

    What happens when you fall in love? In Love's Labour's Lost, step #1 is writing a love letter. Writing is practically a prerequisite to being in love.

    Once a character explores the art of love-writing that character must endure the humiliation of either: 1) someone reading your letter aloud to strangers, or 2) your best friends eavesdropping on you and mocking your most intimate confessions. Despite the embarrassment, however, love is a wise and inspirational teacher, whose influence can be most clearly seen in the student's writing.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why do the lovers in the play become poets?
    2. We see only the lords participating in literary exercises. Why don't the women in Love's Labour's Lost write poems?
    3. Who do you think wrote the best love letter? Why?

    Chew on This

    Reading letters aloud contributes to the atmosphere of romantic tension and influences the characters' actions in Love's Labour's Lost.

  • Sex

    In Love's Labour's Lost, sex and sexual attraction sparks self-discovery. If the characters hadn't been attracted to each other, they wouldn't have renounced their absurd, life-denying vows. If they hadn't renounced their vows, they wouldn't have been free to pursue love. If a character couldn't pursue love, he or she wouldn't experience the mind-bending, cataclysmic change of worldview that comes with it.

    Of course there's the satirical side of sex, too—the side that leaves a country wench pregnant and engaged to a zany character.

    Questions About Sex

    1. How does sexual attraction transition into commitment in the play?
    2. What does the confusion of identity in the masque scene say about the seriousness of the men's love?
    3. Why do the noblewomen so easily withhold their favors?

    Chew on This

    With men and women separated from each other, the word becomes the most important erotic currency in the play.

  • Principles

    The principles we see in Love's Labour's Lost are way too restrictive, and too prescriptive for this open-air world. The play begins with young men taking oaths not to have any contact with women. And we know how well that works out.

    But these men know nothing about women and abandon their vow when the Princess of France shows up with her ladies-in-waiting. The play argues for a more liberal approach to principles, especially since the characters are young. They don't know themselves and they don't know the world.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Is Berowne's claim that the men must "lose their oaths to find themselves" (4.3.93) valid, or a rationalization?
    2. Is there a character in the play whose principles never waver?
    3. How do the set of principles embraced by the nobles differ from those of the rustics?

    Chew on This

    Love's Labour's Lost argues that principles and instinct are not mutually exclusive.

    The Princess of France provides a model of principle that diminishes the noblemen.

  • Men and Masculinity

    The men in Love's Labour's Lost are young and full of ambition. They want to be great men, strong, smart, and famous. They want to be Hercules and Solomon, all at once. They just don't quite know how to get there.

    This is basically the conversation that happens: "Maybe if we do nothing but study for three years?" "And lift weights?" "No girls, okay?" "Yeah, then we'll totally be Hercules."

    But they're young. And they like girls. So they spend the play learning that they can be strong, smart, famous, and in love—and will be better men for it. This play calls into question what it means to be a man and how gender roles should be defined—although, at the end, we seem to have more questions than answers. How do you think Love's Labour's Lost conceptualizes masculinity?

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. How does Shakespeare contrast the behavior of men in love versus women?
    2. Is love emasculating in this play?
    3. How does Armado's character mimic and parody the noblemen?
    4. How do the men in Love's Labour's Lost understand love? Do the different lords seem to define love differently? What about the ladies?

    Chew on This

    The behavior of the characters defies typical gender stereotypes. The men are impetuous and irrational in their actions; the women collected and logical.

    In Love's Labour's Lost, the noblemen, prone to extreme behavior, learn a dose of temperance from the women.

  • Women and Femininity

    The women of Love's Labour's Lost are miles—no, light-years—ahead of the men. They seem older and more sophisticated. They know what's up. They're not confused little girls.

    The play ends with each man running after the woman he loves, and each woman saying, "Come back in a year. No need to rush this. Time will tell." Led by the graceful, almost stoic Princess of France, the women present a feminine front that is unified, classy, and totally smart.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Does Jaquenetta introduce a femininity contrary or complementary to that represented by the Princess?
    2. Who wins the battle of the sexes in this play? How does the outcome compare with other Shakespeare plays concerned with male/female relations?
    3. Are the women actually in love with the lords of Love's Labour's Lost? What makes you say yes or no?

    Chew on This

    The Princess represents the measured, practical monarch Shakespeare might have seen in Queen Elizabeth.

    Shakespeare gave Love's Labour's Lost a surprisingly feminist ending.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Nature is all around Love's Labour's Lost: in the setting, stage directions, and imagery. It's also portrayed as the reason that all these supposedly chaste guys want to get their lovin' on... and the reason that these women roll their eyes at the idea of a three year girl-free stint.

    The action takes place in the open air. Exposure to the elements, which are gentle enough for the women to camp outside, influences the characters' behavior and pervades their speech. They start comparing themselves and others to plants, animals, and celestial bodies—a virtual almanac. They climb trees and hide in bushes. Being in nature gives the characters permission give in to their instincts to love.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. If you made a continuum of man's relationship to nature in Love's Labour's Lost, where would each character fit on the spectrum?
    2. Which characters use nature imagery most frequently, and why?
    3. How does the natural setting impact the characters' actions?

    Chew on This

    Love's Labour's Lost argues that love is the only thing that can unify man's intellect and his instinct.

    In Love's Labour's Lost, the principal characters journey from civilization, through wilderness, to a transformed society.

  • Time

    Time plays a big role in Love's Labour's Lost—and not just because it keeps on slipping into the future. In the absence of the courtiers' birth parents, Nature and Time work together to teach their young charges.

    The lessons? Number One: timing matters. Number Two: there are things brought on by Time—like sex and death (and taxes?)—that no oath can control. The women know this already and the dudes are catching on.

    Questions About Time

    1. Why do the women make the men wait a year to woo them?
    2. Is the nobles' view of time different from the rustics'? In other words, is there a difference along socioeconomic lines in terms of perception of time?
    3. In how long a period of time does the play take place?

    Chew on This

    The Princess's request for a year apart echoes Berowne's earlier argument for seasonal appropriateness. The play is governed by the principle that timing is important.

    Oaths, rules, and societal conventions are no defense against time.