Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Love’s Labour’s Lost

1/ Love’s Labour’s Lost is not among Shakespeare’s most popular comedies and it’s not hard to see why—it is his most verbal comedy and there is lots of wordplay, some of which may be obscure or difficult, and may be lost if you’re watching a production. It is fascinating though, because Shakespeare seems to be testing, playing with, and stretching the English language, to see what it can do.  

Here is Tony Tanner explaining the context: 

“Even up to the 1580s, in learned circles, where Latin gave dignity and conferred prestige, it was a matter for debate whether English was suitable for anything but low, everyday matters. Then quite suddenly, towards the end of the 1580s, apologies for the barbarousness of the vulgar tongue gave way to a new (nationalistic) triumphalism concerning the English language (a triumph finally sealed with the translation of the bible). […] Barber says of Love’s Labour’s Lost that it catches something of ‘the excitement of the historical moment when English, in the hands of its greatest master, suddenly could do anything’. You also feel, in this play, that Shakespeare is beginning to realize that he can do anything, too.” (Introduction) 

The play barely has a plot, and to borrow a friend’s phrase, it’s about a bunch of people farting around. But that is the fun, so we have the king of Navarre (Ferdinand) and his 3 witty lords Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, who vow to buy themselves in books but fall in love the next day and resort to Petrarchan and bookish conventions when talking to their lovers; the princess of France and her 3 ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine, who engage in a battle of wits with the king and the lords.

See this hilarious bit when Longaville wants to know Maria’s name and asks Boyet, a French lord who attends on the princess and her ladies: 

“LONGAVILLE I beseech you a word: what is she in the white?

BOYET A woman sometimes, and you saw her in the light.

LONGAVILLE Perchance light in the light. I desire her name.

BOYET She hath but one for herself; to desire that, were a shame.

LONGAVILLE Pray you, sir, whose daughter?

BOYET Her mother’s, I have heard.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 


The play also has Don Adriano de Armado, a Spaniard who has a very convoluted style in writing and uses 10 sentences when one would do. See his letter to Jacquenetta. 

“By heaven, that thou art fair, is most infallible; true, that thou art beauteous; truth itself, that thou art lovely. More fairer than fair, beautiful than beauteous, truer than truth itself, have commiseration on thy heroical vassal! The magnanimous and most illustrate king Cophetua set eye upon the pernicious and indubitate beggar Zenelophon, and he it was that might rightly say veni, vidi, vici; which to anatomize in the vulgar—O base and obscure vulgar!—videlicet, he came, saw, and overcame: he came, one; saw, two; overcame, three. Who came? the king. Why did he come? to see. Why did he see? to overcome. To whom came he? to the beggar. What saw he? the beggar. Whom overcame he? the beggar. The conclusion is victory. On whose side? the king’s; the captive is enriched: on whose side? the beggar’s. The catastrophe is a nuptial. On whose side? the king’s, no, on both in one, or one in both. I am the king, for so stands the comparison; thou the beggar, for so witnesseth thy lowliness. Shall I command thy love? I may: Shall I enforce thy love? I could: Shall I entreat thy love? I will. What shalt thou exchange for rags? robes; for tittles? titles; for thyself? me. Thus, expecting thy reply, I profane my lips on thy foot, my eyes on thy picture, and my heart on thy every part.

Thine, in the dearest design of Industry,

Don Adriano de Armado.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

This man needs to chill. All he means to say is simply “I love you, will you marry me?”. 

Armado has a page named Moth (pronounced Mote), who is funny. 

“ARMADO The way is but short: away!

MOTH As swift as lead, sir.

ARMADO Thy meaning, pretty ingenious?

Is not lead a metal heavy, dull, and slow?

MOTH Minime, honest master; or rather, master, no.

ARMADO I say, lead is slow.

MOTH You are too swift, sir, to say so:

Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

And if Armado says 10 sentences when one would do, Holofernes the pedant is one who seems to think that he doesn’t say something unless he says it about 6 different ways. Here is him praising himself: 

“HOLOFERNES This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions: these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.” 

(Act 4 scene 2)   

He also throws in his speech a lot of Latin. 

“HOLOFERNES Most barbarous intimation! yet a kind of insinuation, as it were, in via, in way, of explication; facere, as it were, replication, or, rather, ostentare, to show, as it were, his inclination,—after his undressed, unpolished, un-educated, unpruned, untrained, or, rather, unlettered, or, ratherest, unconfirmed fashion,—to insert again my haud credo for a deer.” (ibid.) 

In this speech he is mocking Anthony Dull, who is not a learned man like other people. Shakespeare seems to have lots of fun with the English language in this play. 

2/ Unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream and some other plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost doesn’t have 2 people loving the same person so it’s all very neat—the king loves the princess, Berowne loves Rosaline, Longaville loves Maria, and Dumaine loves Katharine.

But the point is that the king and the lords are bookish (or nerds, as the kids say), so the ladies would have to teach them how to love and how to live—Shakespeare celebrates language and at the same time makes fun of pedantry, affectation, and the abuse of rhetoric. 

The men in Love’s Labour’s Lost are such donkeys though, I have to say. The most hilarious scenes are probably the overhearing scene and the scene where the men woo the wrong women by mistake. 

Consider the overhearing scene—it starts with Berowne, a fool in love; he hides and eavesdrops when the king enters, talking to himself about his infatuation for the princess; the king hides, separated from Berowne, when Longaville enters, reading out loud his sonnet about Maria; Longaville then hides, without knowing about the previous two, when Dumaine appears, reciting his love poem about Katharine, making them “four woodcocks in a dish”; seeing Dumaine, Longaville and the king come out of hiding and admit that they have both fallen in love and broken the oath, then the king says that if Berowne were here, he would laugh at them.  

So Berowne now appears and mocks them all. 

“BEROWNE […] I am betrayed by keeping company 

With men like you, men of inconstancy. 

When shall you see me write a thing in rhyme? 

Or groan for Joan?” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

The chutzpah! 

3/ I note that Berowne is the one who argues with the king from the start that his rules go against nature and the oath would be broken, but he is later the one most surprised at finding himself in love, and most aggressive at denying it and decrying others. He even, more than once, compares love to the plague.  

Funnily, Tony Tanner notes in the introduction that Love’s Labour’s Lost was written quite close to the 1592-1593 London plague. 

(And now I’ve just read it during a plague). 

4/ Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost has a play within the play (well, sort of): the nine Worthies. 

However, if the audience of Pyramus and Thisby in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are a bit critical, the audience here are absolutely brutal—it’s like they appear on Britain’s Got Talent and get roasted by Simon Cowell, but worse. 

It’s funny how the lords cruelly make fun of the performers when just a few minutes ago they were tricked and exposed by the ladies to be pompous fools. Such short memory they’ve got! 

Tony Tanner says:

“There really is nothing like the bad manners of good society! […] As the crude, rude, mockery continues, we feel that if this is so-called wit, then it is wit at its most despicable, turned to bad ends.” (Introduction) 

See Holofernes’s reaction to the mockeries: 

“This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” (Act 5 scene 2) 

That should shame them all. 

Only the princess is gracious and supportive (and her ladies are silent) whilst the men are being cruel. 

5/ Look at these lines from Love’s Labour’s Lost

“BEROWNE Our wooing doth not end like an old play;

Jack hath not Jill; these ladies’ courtesy

Might well have made our sport a comedy.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

The play doesn’t have a conventional ending for a comedy. But what does that speech make me think of? 

“PUCK […] And the country proverb known,

That every man should take his own,

In your waking shall be shown:

Jack shall have Jill;

Nought shall go ill…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

That is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

6/ Is this love? Tony Tanner asks the right question. 

“One cannot help but feel that these young men enjoy talking about it; trying to find clever ways of expressing how they feel, competing in hyperbolic praises of their adored ones. They seem to be caught up in—enjoyable—post-Petrarchan posturings.” (Introduction)

It’s all a game to them, and the princess and her ladies are perfectly right in taking it all as a jest, a merriment—nothing serious.  

Berowne understands it:  

“The ladies did change favours, and then we,

Following the signs, wooed but the sign of she.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

That is an excellent line. They don’t see the princess, Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine as individuals, but as some generic idea of the female. 

The question now is, would their love last a year? Would they be together in the end? We cannot know. The fun is interrupted. 

“The ‘sport’ is over, and it is back to the naked, unadorned realities of birth, work, sickness, and death.” (Introduction) 

7/ It’s interesting to read Love’s Labour’s Lost right after Romeo and Juliet—if Juliet and Romeo fall in love at first sight and get married the next day, the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost regard the flirtations and professions of love with coolness, caution, and wit, and they all are more mature than the men. The women, especially the princess and Rosaline, see through the men, beat them at their own game, and force them to accept their terms. 

If anyone thinks Shakespeare is a misogynist, this play is the rebuttal. 


  1. Interesting - I have been enjoying reading your accounts of these plays. For what it's worth, Harold Bloom rates LLL as one of his favorites, and among the best of Shakespeare's comedies.

  2. In his Shakespeare book, he writes, after noting which plays tend to take the top marks, "But we all have particular favorites, in literature as in life, and I take more unmixed pleasure from LLL than from any other Shakespeare play. I could not argue this as an aesthetic achievement . . . but I entertain the illusion that Shakespeare may have enjoyed a particular and unique zest in composing it. LLL is a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources."

    Interestingly, you picked up in the very thing Bloom noted - the virtuous verbal wordplay. I actually have not read this one yet, but it is on my list!

    1. His book is (I think) a decent companion to Shakespeare. He has a few howlers in there (his chapter on Hamlet is bad), but by and large I feel like he seems to have written a book in the Hazlitt vein, which you seem to really enjoy.

    2. Okay. I might look up the book at the library or something. So far I've not particularly liked what I've read from him, haha.
      You should read Love's Labour's Lost. It's a fun read, though I found it difficult sometimes.


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