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Love's Labor's Lost /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Love’s Labor’s Lost

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Love’s Labor’s Lost, for example, you will find the words wight (person), farborough (petty constable), welkin (heavens), and yclept (called). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Love’s Labor’s Lost, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Love’s Labor’s Lost, for example, the word passed has the meaning of “spoken,” stops is used where we would say “obstructions,” envious is used where we would say “malicious,” lie where we would say “reside,” and quick where we would say “lively.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Love’s Labor’s Lost, when Berowne says “Or vainly comes th’ admirèd princess hither,” he is using such a construction. (The “normal” arrangement would be “th’ admirèd princess comes.”) And so is the King of Navarre when he says “Nor shines the silver moon one-half so bright.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “Him I hit”). Dumaine’s “The grosser manner of these world’s delights / He throws upon the gross world’s baser slaves” is an example of such an inversion (the normal arrangement would be “he throws the grosser manner of these world’s delights upon . . .”), as is Berowne’s “So much, dear liege, I have already sworn.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, the play’s first two lines: “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives, / Live registered upon our brazen tombs.” Here, a subject (“fame”) is separated from its verb (“live”) by the clause “that all hunt after in their lives.” Or take Maria’s lines: “The only soil of his fair virtue’s gloss, / If virtue’s gloss will stain with any soil, / Is a sharp wit matched with too blunt a will.” Here, the “normal” construction “The only soil is a sharp wit” is interrupted by the insertion of a phrase (“of his fair virtue’s gloss”) and then a clause (“If virtue’s gloss will stain with any soil”). In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (e.g., “Let fame live registered upon our brazen tombs”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

In some of his plays (Hamlet is a good example), rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. While there are not nearly so many examples of this construction in Love’s Labor’s Lost as there are in Hamlet, this kind of sentence is, nevertheless, evident in, for example, the Princess’s words to the King of Navarre, near the end of the play:

If this austere insociable life

Change not your offer made in heat of blood;

If frosts and fasts, hard lodging, and thin weeds

Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,

But that it bear this trial, and last love;

Then, at the expiration of the year,

Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts.


Here the verbs (“Come challenge . . . challenge”) in this imperative sentence are delayed until the Princess can present in vivid detail her conditions for granting any further hearing to the King’s expressions of love.

In many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In his later plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In Love’s Labor’s Lost omissions are rare and seem to be used primarily for the sake of speech rhythm. For example, when Berowne mockingly responds to Dumaine’s praise of Katherine’s beauty (“As fair as day”), Berowne says “Ay, as some days, but then no sun must shine.” In Berowne’s speech the omission of the words “as fair” before “as some days” produces a regular iambic pentameter line. Or, to take another example, Berowne’s line “Nothing so sure, and thereby all forsworn” is both rhythmical and elliptical. It would lose much of its expressive force if its omissions were repaired: “Nothing is so sure, and thereby we are all forsworn.”

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Indeed the wordplay in Love’s Labor’s Lost alone is a topic that has been examined at book length. Here we will discuss only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). Much of the humor of Love’s Labor’s Lost depends on puns and related kinds of wordplay, a great deal of it to be found in the rapid exchanges of wit among its speakers. Take, for example, this verbal skirmish between Berowne and Rosaline:

ROSALINE  Is the fool sick?

BEROWNE  Sick at the heart.

ROSALINE  Alack, let it blood.

BEROWNE  Would that do it good?

ROSALINE  My physic says “ay.”

BEROWNE  Will you prick ’t with your eye?

ROSALINE  No point, with my knife.


There are two different kinds of puns in these lines. The one on ay and eye is an example of a pun using two words that sound the same but have different meanings. When Rosaline says “ay” to Berowne, he puns on the word to tell her, in a subtle and playful way, that he loves her. That is, he invites her to pierce his heart with her eye, an invitation that arises from a belief (about which much was written in Shakespeare’s time) that lovers’ eyes emitted beams that entered each other’s eyes and, through the eyes, penetrated to each other’s hearts. Rosaline declines Berowne’s overture with another kind of pun, one that plays bilingually on two different meanings of the same word. When Rosaline says “No point,” she can be understood doubly to deny Berowne because “no point” means both “not at all” (the meaning in French of non point) and “my eye has no point.”

To give only one other example of hundreds available in this play:


You sheep and I pasture. Shall that finish the jest?


So you grant pasture for me.

He tries to kiss her.

KATHERINE                                 Not so, gentle beast.

My lips are no common, though several they be.


Belonging to whom?

KATHERINE                    To my fortunes and me.


To refuse Boyet the kiss for which he is angling, Katherine is given one of the more complicated of the play’s puns, one that exploits three meanings of the word several. One of the meanings of several is opposite to that of common. While common refers to pasture where anyone may graze stock, several is pasture that is privately owned and enclosed. Not just any sheep, and particularly, in this case, not Boyet, may feed on Katherine’s several lips, which are also several because they are “more than one” and because they are “parted,” rather than together, as she verbally fends off Boyet.

Closely related to puns are two other kinds of wordplay that are widespread in Love’s Labor’s Lost, namely, polyptoton and (what we now call) malapropism. Polyptoton is simply the use, in rapid succession, of two words with the same root. The play’s third line exemplifies the scheme polyptoton: “And then grace us in the disgrace of death.” Dumaine’s first speech soon offers another instance: “The grosser manner of these world’s delights / He throws upon the gross world’s baser slaves.” While polyptoton showcases a character’s mastery of language and invites the audience to delight in such mastery, malapropism usually calls attention to a character’s inability to achieve even standard expression and invites the audience to ridicule the character for mistaking one word for another. Dull, for instance, tells us that he “reprehends” (instead of “represents”) the Duke. In Love’s Labor’s Lost, however, Shakespeare puts into the speeches of some of his characters malapropisms that may evoke from an audience rather more delight than ridicule. When Costard tells us that the “contempts” (rather than “contents”) of Armado’s first letter concern him, an audience may laugh at Costard’s blunder, but once the audience hears Armado’s letter describe Costard as “that low-spirited swain, that base minnow of thy mirth,” the audience may recognize that in Costard’s blunder lies an accurate assessment of Armado’s tone. Costard’s reference to “the sinplicity [not “simplicity,” or foolishness] of man to hearken after the flesh” has seemed to some readers another malapropism that is more than a mere blunder. The puns, polyptoton, and malapropisms of Love’s Labor’s Lost display wonderful agility and encourage the reader to approach the play with an attentive ear and a lively imagination.

Metaphors are plays on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. The King of Navarre’s opening speech in the play is thick with metaphors:

Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live registered upon our brazen tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death,
When, spite of cormorant devouring time,
5 Th’ endeavor of this present breath may buy
That honor which shall bate his scythe’s keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.
Therefore, brave conquerors, for so you are
That war against your own affections
10 And the huge army of the world’s desires,
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force.


In the first line’s metaphor, the King compares fame to quarry that all of us, as hunters, seek. Then, in line 4, time is metaphorically transformed into a cormorant, that is, a greedy, rapacious bird from whose scavenging it is a struggle to protect anything. But time does not remain a figurative bird. Instead, in a metaphor in line 6, it becomes a mower with a sharp scythe, cutting down the living. In yet another metaphor that extends across lines 8 to 11, the King figures his fellow scholars as brave conquerors, triumphing alone over a huge army that, again metaphorically, represents their own passions (affections) and worldly desires.

Since Love’s Labor’s Lost is so concerned with language, it may be appropriate to cite some of its metaphors that compare language itself to other things.

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.


In this speech is a series of metaphors comparing different orders of language to different kinds of cloth. Elaborate, ornate language, or “figures pedantical” (scholarly figures of speech), are represented as taffeta, silk, and velvet of the highest quality, whose pile is three times normal thickness. Plain, even vulgar, language is russet and kersey—that is, coarse homespun cloth, worn by peasants. Part of the fun in reading this speech is observing Berowne’s inability to maintain the distinction he himself has created, as in the last two lines he mixes plain language (e.g., “crack,” “flaw,” “wench,” and “God save me, law”) with the ornate and pedantic use of a word from a foreign language (“sans,” which is French for “without”).

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. At the beginning of the play, when the King of Navarre instructs his lords to “subscribe your names” and Longaville and Dumaine voice agreement, it is reasonably clear from this dialogue that they do indeed sign their names, and we provide stage directions to this effect. Again, a little later in the same scene when Constable Dull addresses the King with the words “This letter will tell you more” and the King remarks “A letter from the magnificent Armado,” it is fairly certain that this dialogue is accompanied by the transfer of a letter from Dull to the King. And so again we provide a stage direction that says as much: “He [i.e., Dull] gives the letter to the King.” At other points in the play, the action to be staged in conjunction with the dialogue is not quite so easy to imagine. In 4.3 Berowne is onstage alone as the King enters. Berowne notes the approach of the King with the words “Here comes one with a paper.” Then the First Quarto reads “He [i.e., Berowne] stands aside.” In one way, this stage direction is consistent with the action that follows: Berowne does escape the King’s notice, for the King speaks as if he were alone onstage. Yet in another way, the First Quarto’s stage direction is inconsistent with a later remark by Berowne, who observes several lines later, “Like a demigod here sit I in the sky, / And wretched fools’ secrets heedfully o’ereye.” These words suggest that he did not simply “stand aside,” as the First Quarto said, but climbed up above the King in some manner, perhaps scaling a stage-property tree. Here we, as editors, have chosen only to comment on the apparent inconsistency between the First Quarto’s stage direction and its later dialogue; we have not intervened to regularize it one way or the other, but have left the matter to readers, directors, and actors to ponder.

In 5.2 there appears a First Quarto stage direction that continues to present, after centuries of guesswork, a significant interpretive challenge to editors and readers. Just after Armado, who is playing the role of Hector in a pageant of the Nine Worthies, has begged the Princess to “bestow on me the sense of hearing [i.e., to listen to me],” the First Quarto prints the stage direction “Berowne steps forth.” Whatever the significance of Berowne’s stepping forward, the dialogue between Armado and the Princess goes on uninterrupted as the Princess replies “Speak, brave Hector.” Six lines after the stage direction, however, Costard interrupts Armado’s delivery of Hector’s speech in the pageant with the news that Jaquenetta is pregnant. Some editors attempt to connect “Berowne steps forth” to Costard’s later announcement by adding to the First Quarto’s stage direction words prescribing that Berowne whisper to Costard, but there is nothing in the First Quarto upon which to ground any such connection. We, therefore, have simply presented our readers with the First Quarto’s words so that our readers can engage with the interpretive issue themselves. Elsewhere, as editors, we have added stage directions (marked with brackets) when we feel reasonably sure our suggestions are valid, but readers, directors, and actors will need to use their own imaginations and their own understandings of the play for their individual stagings.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.