Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Love's Labor's Lost and screwball comedy

Love's Labor's Lost
Love's Labor's Lost
Love's Labor's Lost

Love’s Labor’s Lost at Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography.

This spring, Folger Theatre presented a Love’s Labor’s Lost transplanted to 1930s Washington, DC, complete with record players and secret caches of whiskey or bourbon you’d expect to find in a Thin Man movie. It worked, because the play’s comedic energy aligns perfectly with another type of romantic comedy popular in 1930s American cinema: screwball comedy.

In Love’s Labor’s Lost, the women’s arrival upends the men’s plans, and any oaths they made to devote themselves to study and to scorn the presence of women go out the window. Soon the men find themselves (in this production) stumbling around lovesick in the middle of the night, searching for the right turn of phrase to woo the ladies, all while trying to hide their infidelity to their oath from one another. It’s straight out of a golden-age screwball film.



I definitely agree with your comparison of Love’s Labor’s Lost to the screwball comedies of the 1930’s, although your examples are a bit more highbrow than mine.

When I introduce my high school students to Love’s Labor’s Lost I start with the basic story of the king and his crew making the pledge to study, fast, and forswear the company of women for a year, under severe penalty for any violation. Enter the girls, and the boys start writing poems. Add a couple of misdirected love letters and the fun begins.

I stop there and tell them that this plot reminds me of something from my past. When I was young, television was in its infancy and short on programming Often, short subjects that had originally been shown in theaters got repackaged for the tube.

Then I show them the Our Gang/Little Rascals short Mail and Female (1937). Alfalfa finds himself elected president (in absentia) of The He-man Woman Haters Club right after asking Buckwheat to deliver his love letter to Darla. He makes a brilliant attempt at a cover-up, (cross-dressing, a Shakespeare favorite) as the tale reaches its hilarious conclusion.

I have thus removed the intimidation factor. Love’s Labor’s Lost isn’t ancient and impenetrable. It’s (relatively) current and relatable comedy. But wait! There’s more!

I then bring out the big guns. I show them Women Haters, the 1934 film that introduced The Three Stooges to the big screen. Again, the boys swear off the girls under penalty, and then find themselves tempted at every turn. As an added bonus, this film is a musical with all dialogue delivered in rhyme!

These two short films not only capture the spirit of Love’s Labor’s Lost, but reuse the plot so closely that I am amazed no one has published a scholarly comparison.


Richard K. Heilmann, Pittsburgh

Richard K. Heilmann — August 22, 2019