Love’s Labour’s Lost
Things to consider while reading Love’s Labour’s Lost
We know from other sources that this play was the first of a pair, the second (now lost) surviving only in its title, Love’s Labour’s Won. As such it is curiously incomplete. It also contains a few rather peculiar elements that are hard to square with the overall flow of the plot, though it is impossible from here to say whether they would have made more sense had they been taken up again in the sequel.
The play is a relatively early one — having been written in 1595 — and its pillorying of the Spanish ambassador may reflect the general English attitude toward the Spanish after the destruction of the Spanish Armada (1588).
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on Love’s Labour’s Lost, containing a brief synopsis of the play and the production history with the company.
Here’s a summary of Love’s Labour’s Lost on film.
Love’s Labour’s Lost and what has come before
- The play is thoroughly a comedy in tone, language, and structure, though it is of a “higher” form than The Merry Wives of Windsor — about 65% of it is in verse.
- The comic plot takes a rather dark down-turn at the end, and the play concludes with a period of mourning for the dead king (whose death is purely incidental, and has not come about from anything in the plot). How does this square with the other comedies you have read?
- The situation of the play is largely an artifact of Ferdinand’s decision to live a celibate, almost monastic life in pursuit of study. His resolution is tried and almost completely undermined by the events of the play, which involve the arrival of a number of charming young ladies. It is therefore in that respect character-driven, rather than circumstantial (compare here something like The Comedy of Errors. How does that affect the way the play proceeds?
- Those who have read or seen Hamlet may want to consider the place of the play-acting in respect to that play’s play-within-a-play.
- Like The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, this play has no obviously discernible sources.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- Theatricality is perhaps the most obvious distinguishing feature of this play. It flaunts the fact that it is a play, and toys with many of the conventions of the stage in fairly obscure and subtle ways.
- Is the King’s initial proposal realistic or is it doomed from the outset?
- How far are the four gentlemen obliged to maintain their commitment? What kinds of grounds are offered (or accepted) for breaking their oaths?
- What do you make of Berowne’s reticence at the beginning of the play?
Symmetries in the play
- What do we make of the characters of the king and his three companions? What differences do they present and highlight among themselves?
- In a similar vein, what do we make of the parallels and contrasts between the princess and her three companions?
- How are the four women paired up with the four men, and why? Is this arbitrary, or is there something else going on?
- The opposition of the life of the mind and the life of the world is always foremost — the latter being represented in the most obvious way by the women who come to visit the court.
Problems in the play
- The play is one of the most self-conscious and theatrical of all of Shakespeare’s plays, toying as it does with themes of play-acting, mistaken identity, and pretense, all wrapped up in a shell of overt performance. What does this do for you as a reader?
- Does the conclusion of the play leave you satisfied? Dissatisfied?
- Would another play in which all the various pairs are reunited and married off improve your overall sense of the play?
- William Hazlitt, a contemporary of Keats and a well-known critic of Shakespeare in his day, considered this Shakespeare’s single worst comedy. What do you think? Are its deficiencies such that another play could have made them good?
- Much of the humor of the play seems to be wrapped up in learned and obscure contemporary references to forms of art and philosophy current in the day, but not readily accessible to the modern reader. Does this undercut your appreciation of the play as well?
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