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Love's Labor's Lost /

A Modern Perspective: Love’s Labor’s Lost

By William C. Carroll

Love’s Labor’s Lost begins with the young King of Navarre anticipating the “disgrace of death,” when he and his courtiers will succumb to “cormorant devouring time” and become “heirs of all eternity” (1.1.3–7); the play ends with the stunningly dramatic entrance of Marcade, whose brief “tale” (5.2.796) announces the death of the old King of France, and with the futile efforts of the young courtiers to “make a world-without-end bargain” (5.2.866) with the ladies they have courted. Within this rather somber, even apocalyptic frame, however, Love’s Labor’s Lost is a witty, lively, romantic comedy that contains some of the most exuberant and fantastic language Shakespeare ever composed. Earlier critics tended to stress the verbal exuberance in their accounts of the play, linking its linguistic energies to the supposed “youth” of the author, who was likely around thirty—virtually middle-aged in the sixteenth century—when he wrote the play. The eighteenth century’s general disapproval of linguistic exuberance, and especially of the pun, which is the linguistic DNA of Love’s Labor’s Lost, led to faint praise that dismissed the play as “early” and “immature.” By contrast, modern criticism of Love’s Labor’s Lost has looked more closely at the play’s framing conception, along with its complex representations of gender and court politics, and has attempted to relate both structural form and ideological content to the play’s wit and romance. This wider view has led to several provocative modern reassessments of the play and its place in the Shakespeare canon.

To many modern readers, one of the play’s most distinctive features is its extraordinary uses of language—not only in its subplots, where Holofernes and Armado are said to have been “at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps” (5.1.38–39), but also in the court figures, whose language is by turns lyrical, witty, narcissistic, obtuse, and eloquent. This rich linguistic texture is the product of the play’s historical moment: a time that looked back at the humanist tradition of eloquence and copiousness, now petrified in the ludicrous synonymic lists of the schoolmaster Holofernes, but also a time that expressed a new, contemporary confidence in the dynamic possibilities of language, marked by the coining of new words and a nearly uncontrollable fertility of invention. What once seemed Shakespeare’s “immaturity” in this linguistic profusion is now seen as sophisticated experimentation, a self-consciousness about testing verbal limits and an enthusiastic foray into excess. One comic mark of this exhilaration may be seen in Costard’s reaction to being given three farthings by Armado (which in Armado’s elevated diction is termed a “remuneration” [3.1.138–39]), and a much more generous shilling by Berowne (which in Berowne’s affected French diction is termed a “guerdon,” misheard by Costard however as a “gardon” [3.1.178–80]). As happy as he is to receive the money, Costard is nearly as delighted with the remarkable sounds of these words, and he leaves the stage uttering the magical names “Gardon! Remuneration!” (3.1.183). This exchange is a kind of visual pun on the “coining” of new words.1

The play acknowledges Shakespeare’s contemporary precursors, especially Sir Philip Sidney and the playwright John Lyly, by allusion to and parody of their typical linguistic characteristics, but it also obviously seeks to go beyond them. The play acknowledges as well the classical tradition absorbed by all Elizabethan schoolboys—Ovid, Horace, Quintillian, Cicero—but they too are more honored in the breach than in the observance. “Ovidius Naso was the man” (4.2.148), Holofernes declares, but for the schoolmaster he is only an instrument, a useful aid—a “Naso,” or nose—for help in “smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy.” Finally, Love’s Labor’s Lost’s lyricism has also suggested its links to an early “lyrical group” among Shakespeare’s plays—Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard II—as well as to his own sonnets, many of which were probably written at roughly the same time.2 Indeed, one mark of the fine line Shakespeare treads between lyricism and excess, between poetic convention and open parody, is the fact that three of the lords’ love sonnets, read aloud in 4.2 and 4.3 as examples of comic hypocrisy and poetic narcissism, were later reprinted “straight” in regular collections of love poems.3

Shakespeare’s audience would have associated many of the languages of Love’s Labor’s Lost with the court, or courtliness, and it seems no accident that the play itself was presented before the royal courts of both Elizabeth and James. Navarre’s court in Love’s Labor’s Lost is, like the play’s linguistic texture, situated at a complex historical moment, which in some ways still remains obscure. The idea of making the court into “a little academe” (1.1.13) of contemplation and study derives from a noble humanist tradition (typified in the previous century by Cosimo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy in Florenee), most recently articulated by Pierre de la Primaudaye’s L’Academie française (translated 1586). The historical king of Navarre had been the royal patron of such an academy in the early 1580s.4 (The Princess’s royal embassy has in the past also invited considerable speculation about the relation of Navarre’s court to various models in Renaissance France.) Several of the characters’ names reflect French prototypes, but convincing historical parallels go only so far, and in most cases persuasive evidence of specific connections is lacking. Other parallels have been argued that connect the court in Love’s Labor’s Lost to the court of Queen Elizabeth, particularly in the scene in which the Princess hunts the deer (4.1), a scene perhaps reminiscent of comparable moments in Elizabeth’s royal progresses. Elizabeth’s court also may be more generally suggested by the frustrated wooings, the petty rivalries, and the competitive displays of wit.5

Whatever its royal origins, however, the “little academe” of Love’s Labor’s Lost almost immediately collapses; it is revealed to be not “the wonder of the world” (1.1.12) but a ridiculous comic failure. The ends of study—the grand humanist aspirations to godlike knowledge—degenerate here to the tautological goal, “to know which else we should not know” (1.1.57), or in Berowne’s mocking phrase, “Things hid and barred . . . from common sense” (1.1.58–59). Common sense, it turns out, is exactly what this academy lacks. The rigorous educational program of other academies becomes in Navarre a series of merely negative oaths, impossible prohibitions that are broken almost as soon as they are first enunciated: for three years’ term, “not to see a woman in that term”; to fast once a week, and take only “one meal on every day besides”; “to sleep but three hours in the night,” and not to close one’s eyes during the day. Moreover, “no woman shall come within a mile” of the court, and no man shall “be seen to talk with a woman.” The embassy of the Princess of France means that several of these prohibitions already have been, and others soon will be, violated, as anyone could have predicted.

The King of Navarre declares in his opening speech that he and his lords struggle against a powerful, cunning enemy—themselves. They are to be “brave conquerors, for so you are / That war against your own affections / And the huge army of the world’s desires” (1.1.8–10). The specific objects of their affections, however, will be the ladies from France, and desire will be the power driving the turns and transformations of the plot. “Fame” may be one way to triumph over the “disgrace of death” (1.1.1–3), but so too is the desire to woo, marry, and reproduce, as many of Shakespeare’s sonnets argue. Thus Navarre’s foolish prohibitions are themselves life-denying, a fact underlined not only by the arrival of the desirable Princess, but also by that of the apprehended Costard, whom the constable Dull delivers, with a fantastic letter from Armado describing Costard’s having “sorted and consorted, contrary to [the] established proclaimed edict and continent canon,” with Jaquenetta, who is “a child of our grandmother Eve, a female; or, for thy more sweet understanding, a woman” (1.1.259–66). This comic allusion to the Fall in the garden, as in traditional misogynistic discourse, locates in women the source of male self-betrayal. The anxieties associated with the “world’s desires”—as if the world, not men, were desirous—are evident in the comic uncertainty of Jaquenetta’s exact status, always defined in sexual terms, as either a “wench . . . damsel . . . virgin . . . [or] maid” (1.1.283–97), otherwise known, in Armado’s phrase, as “the weaker vessel” (1.1.272). At the end of the play, however, just before Marcade’s entrance, we learn that Jaquenetta is already “two months on her way” (5.2.745–46), pregnant neither by the world, nor by Costard, but by Armado himself. In an ironic echo of Navarre’s oaths at the beginning of the play, Armado ultimately vows to Jaquenetta “to hold the plow for her sweet love three year” (5.2.957–58), while the lords are being required to do various penances to their own ladies for “a twelvemonth and a day” (5.2.899). The Jaquenetta subplot thus more than demonstrates the “necessity” that will make all the lords “forsworn” (1.1.152). Costard puts it in oracular terms: “Such is the sinplicity of man to hearken after the flesh” (1.1.222–23); his coinage ironically strikes again the note of prohibition, according to which sexual desire is a sin. But the flesh won’t be denied, as comedy is always reminding us, and the play suggests that the very establishing of a prohibition simultaneously produces a desire to transgress it.

The comic action with Jaquenetta reproduces the main plot in several ways. Hearkening after the flesh is one underlying level of the games and conventions of courtship being played out between the lords of Navarre and the French ladies. The uncertainties attending Jaquenetta’s title, and her apparent receptivity to different partners, are replicated in the Masque of Muscovites scene (5.2.164–291): here the ladies wear masks and exchange the “favors” that the men had previously given them, so that the men woo the wrong ladies, after having offered a “penned speech” to an unreceptive audience. The lords’ inability to “read” their lovers, to see their faces literally and figuratively, suggests how the men have idealized the female body, projecting upon it stale Petrarchan clichés that serve both to distance and to control desire. Their use of such rhetoric continually stresses the eye, suggesting the superficiality of the lovers’ vision—“My eyes are then no eyes, nor I Berowne”; “love, first learnèd in a lady’s eyes, . . . adds a precious seeing to the eye”; “From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive” (4.3.252, 321–27, 344). The play’s repeated “I”/“eye” puns reveal the lords’ fundamental narcissism, seeing what they want to see, otherwise blind (and deaf) to “necessity.” When the lords finally understand how the ladies, with their masks and exchanged favors, have deceived them, they also (partially) understand how their own language has betrayed them, as Berowne observes in a stirring speech:

O, never will I trust to speeches penned,

Nor to the motion of a schoolboy’s tongue,

Nor never come in vizard to my friend,

Nor woo in rhyme like a blind harper’s song.

Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,

Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,

Figures pedantical—these summer flies

Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.

I do forswear them, and I here protest

By this white glove—how white the hand, God


Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed

In russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

And to begin: Wench, so God help me, law,

My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.


Sans “sans,” I pray you.

BEROWNE                            Yet I have a trick

Of the old rage. Bear with me, I am sick;

I’ll leave it by degrees.                     (5.2.438–56)

It is a wonderful speech, full of illumination, but, as Rosaline observes and Berowne admits, it also still bears more than a trace of the “old rage,” a kind of verbal infection. Further distinguishing the language of the women from that of the men, this speech suggests how the women’s language in the play is more critically self-aware. Berowne, by contrast, is forswearing linguistic affectation here in favor of plain speech, yet doing so in a perfectly formed sonnet, thus wooing “in rhyme” even as he swears not to. The implication is that he could find some transparent, “natural” language, but the play has shown, in a suggestive anticipation of modern linguistic theory, that language is always compromised, opaque, self-contained as well as referential.

The language of the men, both high and low, misunderstands, misreads, and misappropriates the women in the play. A comparable miscognition provides the very occasion of the play, the dispute over the land of Aquitaine, “a dowry for a queen” (2.1.8). Navarre claims that the King of France did not pay the hundred thousand crowns he claims to have paid, and in any event still owes an equal amount, as repayment of Navarre’s father’s support of France in his wars; thus he holds Aquitaine as surety for the money. France not only claims that he has paid, but asks for repayment, and the return of the land; the Princess says that she has “acquittances / For such a sum” (2.1.165–66) which will prove France’s contention, although they are not with her at the moment. Navarre is willing to return Aquitaine if she can prove her case, but, aside from the Princess’s enigmatic thanks for her “great suit so easily obtained” (5.2.814), the issue is never resolved in the play. With her father’s death, the Princess herself inherits the disputed “dowry for a queen.”

This fundamental conflict over property rights is but one instance of the play’s continuing interest in the relations between property and gender. Navarre is partly dismissive of Aquitaine’s value, “so gelded as it is” (2.1.152)—that is, reduced in value, or deprived of some essential part, but also emasculated, and therefore of less value. Property can serve as a gender marker in the play in other ways as well. As one critic has noted, the names of the lords in Love’s Labor’s Lost are inherited, and refer to the property passed down through the male in each family—Navarre, Berowne, Longaville, Dumaine—while the noble ladies have no surnames, and the Princess no name at all, only a generic title identifying her as a daughter.6 As Aquitaine is said to be a “dowry,” moreover, it is linked to the Princess and her marital status. In this respect, at least, Navarre’s possession of it is premature and improper. Thus Aquitaine figures as a kind of substitute for possession of the Princess herself, as the men struggle throughout the play to appropriate and possess the ladies through courtship. Given the way in which such relations are usually resolved—by the woman delivering “property” (herself and the dowry) to the male—it is all the more surprising that the Princess rejects the “bargain” (5.2.866) being proposed, with her and her ladies returning to France unwed. It is so surprising an ending, so completely different even from the endings of Shakespeare’s other romantic comedies, that Berowne remarks on it:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play.

Jack hath not Jill. These ladies’ courtesy

Might well have made our sport a comedy.


Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,

And then ’twill end.

BEROWNE                    That’s too long for a play.


Berowne’s rueful self-consciousness returns us to the notion of Love’s Labor’s Lost as a relatively sophisticated, experimental play. Shakespeare is certainly well aware here of the elements of his own artifice: the violation of comic form in the non-marriages at the end is only one of several self-consciously metatheatrical moments in the play. The Masque of Muscovites scene, which we have already considered from the perspective of male misrecognition, should also be seen as an embedded play-within-the-play. A typical courtly “entertainment”—it may even be based on a real masque8—the Masque reflects some of the transformations and semiotic confusions associated with wearing masks and performing roles. A second scene that functions much like a play-within-a-play is 4.3, in which each lord enters, reads a foolish love sonnet that is overheard by the previous lord, and is then mocked by him—and he, in turn, is then exposed as guilty of the same hypocrisy. Even Berowne, who takes the highest position on the ladder, is exposed when Costard brings in his misdelivered letter. (Letters and words are always being misdelivered in Love’s Labor’s Lost, of course.) The sonnet-reading scene also reflects ironically on the idea of perceptive and imperceptive audiences and defeated expectations.

The only formal play-within-the-play, however, is the Pageant of the Nine Worthies—or the nine wordies, as it was probably pronounced9—in the final scene. Here irony and self-consciousness again work as elements within the play as well as serving as a commentary on its own principles. The Worthies were legendary figures in a literary tradition dating back to the early fourteenth century. They were usually three pagans (Hector, Alexander, and Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus), and three Christians (Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon), but others were occasionally substituted, as Pompey is here. The Worthies were paragons of the heroic life, who had achieved all the “fame” and “honor” that the men of Navarre could ever dream of; they were truly “brave conquerors” and “heirs of all eternity” (1.1.1–8). Yet devices representing the Worthies had by this time also become overused, a little moth-eaten, turning the heroes into examples of falsely inflated worth. In this Pageant, they have also become further examples of linguistic instability and the shifting sands of poetic convention. Their speeches are comically inflated and archaic in style, and even their names are subject to the ravages of the pun: thus “Pompion [i.e., pumpkin] the Great” (5.2.553), “Ajax” (i.e., “jakes,” or privy [5.2.645]), and “Jud-as[s](5.2.698).

The actors of the Pageant are ludicrously incapable of performing their heroic parts, just as the lords have been confounded and self-betrayed in their various attempts at securing fame or love. For the most part this dissonance between actor and role is figurative, but it is literal in the case of the boy Mote, who is playing the greatest of all heroes (“Great Hercules is presented by this imp” [5.2.655]). As comic reflections of Navarre’s court, the Worthies expose the flawed and comic pretensions of the lords who overrate their own “worth” and engage in shallow “praise” of the ladies throughout. Yet Navarre and his men remain unable to “see” themselves. Their mockery of the Worthies’ Pageant, almost cruel at times, exhibits a condescension that has not been earned.

The Pageant of the Nine Worthies does not have a proper ending, just as Love’s Labor’s Lost does not. It ends with a near-fight between Armado and Costard, who has brought the news of Jaquenetta’s pregnancy. But at the moment that Armado backs away from combat, Marcade enters with his stunning announcement, with what results we have already seen. The play-within and the play that contains it remain parallel even in their shattered forms, ending before their “natural” resolutions can occur. Instead, the lords are given their twelve-month penances, extending beyond the structural and chronological boundaries of the play itself. As the chief possessor of an ungoverned wit, Berowne is given the most difficult task: for the term of a year to

Visit the speechless sick, and still converse

With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,

With all the fierce endeavor of your wit,

To enforce the painèd impotent to smile.

Berowne’s response is quite logical: “To move wild laughter in the throat of death? / It cannot be, it is impossible” (5.2.924–29). But Rosaline wants him to learn about decorum—learn when particular styles of speech should be used and how different audiences respond, as if Berowne were a playwright trying to write a comedy for the most difficult audience imaginable. Shakespeare himself has done something similar here, moving laughter against the “disgrace of death.”

This extraordinary self-consciousness evident throughout Love’s Labor’s Lost, from ironic puns and metadramatic self-references to the formal play-within-the-play, which explicitly analyzes the customs and conventions upon which all drama depends, indicates that Shakespeare must have had a very clear idea of the challenges, both verbal and dramatic, which he faced as a playwright

The final songs of Spring and Winter offer a remarkable further step in the play’s interrogation of style and artistic self-consciousness. They seem to embody a more “natural” poetics (associated with “the songs of Apollo”), yet they are very carefully crafted. They offer a vision of natural sexual completion (“When turtles tread, and rooks and daws, / And maidens bleach their summer smocks”), but this completion is attended by all too familiar projections of male anxiety (“The cuckoo then on every tree / Mocks married men . . . O word of fear, / Unpleasing to a married ear”). The songs offer images and rich associations that link them to various elements of the play, yet they remain elusive, suggestive, even mysterious. In performance, the effect of the songs on the audience can be profound. They seem to be exactly the right ending for Love’s Labor’s Lost, even if—or especially because—they are not the one an audience expects. This deliberately “open” ending seems especially modern in its suspension of form and certainty. The final line of the play—“You that way; we this way”—may divide the members of the cast into their separate exits, but it may also serve as an ultimate distinction between the audience (“you”) and the actors, sending the audience back into the world where “cormorant devouring time” is not always countered, or transformed, by the seasonal time of Spring and Winter.

  1. On aspects of language in the play, see James L. Calderwood, Shakespearean Metadrama (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971); William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Keir Elam, Shakespeare’s Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Malcolm Evans, Signifying Nothing: Truth’s True Contents in Shakespeare’s Text (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986); and Patricia Parker, “Preposterous Reversals: Love’s Labour’s Lost,” MLQ 54 (1993): 435–82.
  2. E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 1:335
  3. Berowne’s, Longaville’s, and Dumaine’s poems appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), which also included a poem by Marlowe; Dumaine’s poem also was printed in the well-known collection England’s Helicon (1600), which included such authors as Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, Greene, Surrey, and Marlowe, among others. Both collections were nostalgic in tone, and must have seemed faintly archaic when they appeared.
  4. See Frances Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (London: The Warburg Institute, 1947).
  5. See Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, Shakespeare: Out of Court. Dramatizations of Court Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).
  6. Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Transfer of Title in Love’s Labor’s Lost: Language, Individualism, Gender,” in Ivo Kamps, ed., Shakespeare Left and Right (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 210, 216.
  7. As if to make amends for the fractured ending here, Shakespeare has Puck promise, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “And the country proverb known, / That every man should take his own, / In your waking shall be shown. / Jack shall have Jill; / Naught shall go ill; / The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well” (3.2.487–93).
  8. Performed at a somewhat notorious revels at Gray’s Inn in the 1594–95 Christmas season, at which The Comedy of Errors was also performed; see Chambers, William Shakespeare, 1:336.
  9. The th sound was apparently sounded as a t; thus “Moth” was probably pronounced “mote.”