Love's Labour's Lost is a difficult play for modem readers, but it can prove to be a rewarding one. Its basic story-line, in which pretensions are deflated and love conquers all, has a universal appeal. It is well plotted and constructed, and it contains a number of attractive lyrical passages and many comical sketches. Its cheerfully unrealistic atmosphere of games and festive play yields, at the last, to a sterner but nevertheless attractive vision of achieved maturity in the real world and the promise of future happiness.
Nevertheless, the play can seem unapproachable. It is full of in-jokes for Shakespeare's contemporaries, and much of its more accessible humor concerns the use of over-elaborate language, which is of course even farther from our own English than most Elizabethan dialogue. Its characters are often types drawn from older traditions and based on social roles that no longer exist. And its four sets of lovers who barely know each other seem implausible, to say the least. However, the playwright's organizational and linguistic genius carries the audience through the development of the play's comic situation to the satisfactions of its resolution.
The reader can dispose of many of the play's difficulties by dealing with them in a fashion that makes its virtues more evident. The witticisms in Love's Labour's Lost are frequently baffling to the most committed scholars and may simply be ignored. It is enough to know that they refer to lost controversies that were possibly obscure even to much of the original audience. Similarly, the inflated rhetorical posturings of Armado and Holofernes are amusingly pretentious, although we may not recognize the once-fashionable manners being parodied. Indeed, the greater part of the humor of a scene such a 4.2, which introduces Holofernes and Nathaniel, lies in its incomprehensibility—to the audience no less than to Dull. Shakespeare's point—that pomposity and pretension in language are laughable—is easy to enjoy in itself, and it also is linked to the main plot.
The romance of the gentlemen and ladies provides the main interest. The play begins with the King's unnatural demand for a dry and rigorous asceticism in the name of learning. This strange proposition, counter to common sense and human instinct, is established in order that it may be refuted. Berowne begins, even in 1.1, to oppose it; his sense of reality never completely deserts him, and he is the first to shake off the fakery that the gentlemen have entangled themselves in. We see the extent to which the false ideal of ascetic scholarship has been manifested in language, and the subplots connection to the main plot emerges. Just as the gentlemen violate their own natures in attempting to emphasize dry learning over real living, so do the lesser characters err in reducing learning itself to foolish verbiage. In a sense, these figures may be said to be parodies of the King's gentlemen as well as of contemporary manners and mores.
The dramatic conflict between the high-flown pretensions of the King and the sensible humor of the Princess of France and her ladies is established early, and the comedy of the main plot lies in two chief manifestations of that tension: the embarrassed attempts by the gentlemen to resist and then deny love; and the practical joke played on them by the disguised ladies. The story alternates with the sub-plot, scene by scene, with very little overlap. A third component, the element of pageantry, integrates the two plots to some degree, although Shakespeare had not yet mastered the complex interwoven plots of his later, richer works.
If the characters in Love's Labour's Lost tend to be rather one-dimensional, this is not inappropriate to the somewhat abstract nature of the play. It is a comedy of notions, in which a blatantly false ideal is overcome by common sense and love is permitted to prevail. The humorous characters of the sub-plot derive mostly from the comical archetypes of the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte; the lords and ladies are simply courtly representatives of the warring ideals. The exception is Berowne, whose humanity provides a foil for the cold, ascetic withdrawal proposed by the King. His humorous self-mocking soliloquy in which he admits to having fallen in love (3.1.168-200) propels the play towards its lively series of climaxes, and his energy drives the comic tour de force in 4.3, when the King and his three courtiers discover that they have all succumbed to love.
Although Berowne is the most fully developed character in the play, several other figures briefly exhibit flashes of Shakespearean life. The Princess, for instance, is also humanly believable; from her first speech (2.1.13-34), she is intelligent and sensible. Rosaline's sharp wit and balanced sensibility also in spire affection. Katharine has one touching moment of reality, when she is reminded of the death other sister (5.2.14-18). Costard, primarily a character type, a combination of clown and fool, also engages our sympathy in a more personal way when he shamefacedly apologizes for misreading a line in the pageant of the Worthies (5.2.554-555) and when, shortly thereafter, he speaks up for Nathaniel, who is stricken with stage fright (5.2.575-579).
On the whole, however, the play does not exploit or depend on the delineation of character. It is a formal exercise, balancing the fantastic and the actual, and is as near to dance as it is to psychological realism. As such it must be crisply organized. The alternations of verse and prose, of main plot and sub-plot, merge in the pageantry of the final scene. Acts 1-2 constitute the exposition. Acts 3-4 develop both story lines, and Act 5 creates a transcendent world of romance and festivity, enabling the audience to forget the mundane world. The unreal atmosphere of the play is finally shattered by the appearance of Marcade, a messenger from the real world.
This bold and unexpected stroke, a coup de theatre, changes the tone of the play instantly. 'The scene begins to cloud', Berowne observes (5.2.714), and the final few minutes take place in a more sober atmosphere. But although the interval of festive mirth is ended, it is not repudiated. It must be found in a larger universe, the real world that includes grief and business, but it is allowed its place. A maturation that has taken place permits this, for the gentlemen have advanced from a self-absorbed withdrawal in the name of abstract ideas to a more humane involvement with others. The ladies require of the gentlemen a testing period before their loves can be consummated, but, beyond this chastening trial, the prospect of a happy conclusion is unmistakable. The reappearance of the entire company to sing the opposing songs of Winter and Spring expresses the reality of ongoing life.
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