Critical Criticism Essay Labours Lost Love Shakespeare

Peter G. Phialas (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Love's Labour's Lost," in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning, The University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 65-101.

[In the following excerpt, Phialas describes Love's Labour's Lost as a satire on romance, comparing it to other Shakespearean comedies and observing that its dual theme stresses the importance of an outlook which embraces both the realism of everyday and the idealism of romance.]

We may . . . consider [Love's Labour's Lost] itself as comedy, its theme and structure, and through these its contribution to the comic form which Shakespeare is developing for the accommodation of a love story. . . . [The] weight of comment on the play has been until recently overwhelmingly unfavorable. There is no need here to review what has been said of the play in detail. It will suffice to note the general tenor of that negative comment. Although Richard Burbage thought the play excellent for its "wytt & mirthe," Dryden and Dr. Johnson, each for a different reason, are the two early critics whose adverse comment began the long list of detractors. Most of these believed that Love's Labour's Lost was Shakespeare's earliest comedy and therefore his least attractive; and it is possible that other critics, believing this an unsuccessful play, determined to prove that it was Shakespeare's first. But what matters here is the reason for thinking the play unsuccessful. The reason given is that it lacks both plot and characterization: the play has no clearly defined characters and it has no structure. Pater, though seeming to praise the play, suggested its lack of plot in saying that "the unity of the play is not so much the unity of a drama as that of a series of pictorial groups, in which the same figures reappear, in different combinations but on the same background."38 This is as damaging as it is inaccurate, and it has fostered a variety of critical estimates of the play that are at best superficial. Later critics approached the play with the inherited opinion that it had no plot and no characters, that instead of these it had a park as its locus and a series of scenes reminiscent of a royal progress. One way of explaining what Professor Charlton has called "the spinelessness of the thing" is to see it as deliberate, to conclude that Shakespeare was not interested in a story with a serious plot, that he did not wish to lay stress on conflict in the play. "We know," says Professor Barber, "how the conflict will come out before it starts. But story interest is not the point: Shakespeare is presenting a series of wooing games, not a story."39 Knowing how the story will come out may be true of Love's Labour's Lost, but it is no less true of the conflict in Shakespeare's greatest comedies, the stories of Benedick and Beatrice, of Orlando and Rosalind, of Orsino and Viola. The outcome is never in doubt in any of these stories. What makes them different from Love's Labour's Lost is the way in which they arrive at their predetermined conclusion. And here Professor Barber is quite right; there is more story in these than in Love's Labour's Lost. But there is a story with its conflict, though both are much simpler, in Love's Labour's Lost too. In its simple linear movement that story is similar to that of Benedick and Beatrice, with this most important difference: it lacks its absorbing complexity. An important element of that complexity is that in the later play both Beatrice and Benedick reject romantic love and each other at the beginning of the play so that the action dealing with their relationship must show not only two rejections but two conversions as well. And it should be further noted that this conversion is not simply stated as in Love's Labour's Lost but represented in sequent steps. The difference, then, is not in the presence or absence of a story but in the episodic fullness of the one as contrasted with the simplicity of the other. It is as if Shakespeare had believed that the conversion of four men would somehow lend weight and even complexity to a simple plot: that multiplicity of reversal would make up for the lack of complexity in the story. Something analogous to this takes place in the concluding scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona where both Valentine and Proteus change attitudes from one extreme to another in the briefest time. There is repentance and forgiveness within a dozen lines. How this repentance and forgiveness should be represented, Shakespeare showed, as we noted in an earlier section, in the final scene of Measure for Measure.

There is a story, then, with its conflict, and there is a structure in Love's Labour's Lost, but they are both of a simple sort. For Shakespeare is experimenting with a theme and he invents a story for it which turns out to be rather thin. And of course it is for this reason that in resuming that theme in Much Ado he again invents a story for it, the story of Benedick and Beatrice, but he gives it far greater episodic complexity, and in addition joins it to another story, the story of Claudio and Hero. And he repeats the design in Twelfth Night. In Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare is presenting a play whose general action he develops far more successfully in later comedies. The play need not be thought to have "like opera, its conventions, which we must accept at the outset if we are not to be merely bewildered and antagonized by their apparent unreality."40 Its conventions are those of romantic comedy, as we shall presently see, although judged by these, as it must be, the play falls far short of Much Ado and Twelfth Night. But its relationship to these is so vital that one must reject out of hand Professor Charlton's conclusion that the play "has small importance in establishing the line along which Shakespeare's comic genius grew."41 On the contrary it lies fair in the middle of the path he trod. Aside from the successful characterization of Holofernes and Nathaniel, in whom Shakespeare may have intended incidental thrusts or mere allusions to individuals then living, the conception of Armado is a distinct achievement. In his selfinflation, his general deportment and language, and his role of commenting, through speech and action, upon the affairs of the aristocratic group—in these matters Armado prefigures Shakespeare's greatest comic character, whose exploits the dramatist was to immortalize in the Henry IV plays within a year or two. But it is not only in the characterization of the non-aristocratic group that Love's Labour 's Lost occupies an important position in the development of Shakespeare's comic genius. Much more significant is the play's experiment, admittedly not very successful, of dramatizing the conflict between the capricious rejection of love and the hyperbolic idealizing of it. And this, as we have often noted, henceforth becomes the structural cornerstone of Shakespearean romantic comedy.

Let us now turn to examine briefly the structure of Love's Labour's Lost, the aspect of the play which has received the most adverse criticism of commentators. Most of these assert that the play has no structure, and the reason is not far to seek. The play admittedly has a simple structure, but this is not what the play's detractors contend. They believe it has no structure whatever, and reach such a conclusion because they assume at the outset that Love's Labour 's Lost is Shakespeare's earliest comedy, or, more significantly, they take for its theme some aspect of the plot which in truth contributes to the theme rather than being the theme itself. For instance, it is said that "literary affectations . . . are the theme of the play";42 that "the dominant theme of this play . . . is the overwhelming event of the English language and all that had been happening to it in the last twenty years or so";43 that the theme of Love's Labour's Lost turns upon "the question of what is the best way of qualifying as a poet, of achieving full development as a man. . ."44 Another critic believes that "Shakespeare's real interest was in the general theme of active versus contemplative living";45 finally a recent commentator concludes that "the play, in both plot and subplot, is about the writing of love poetry."46Now if one assumes that one of the above is the theme of the play, it is not unreasonable that he should conclude that the comedy lacks both characterization and structure. But one might reach the same conclusion if he assumes that lyrical poetry is the theme of Romeo and Juliet or that Hamlet's incomparable mastery of the arts of language is the theme of his play. Now it is true that the role of language in Love's Labour's Lost is greater than in the other plays, but the difference is a matter of degree. This is particularly true if we consider for a moment the language of Claudio in Much Ado, Orlando in As You Like It, and Orsino in Twelfth Night. Their language, when they speak or write of love, is no less forced and extreme than that of the lovers in Love's Labour 's Lost. The difference between the two is that, in this play, the language of the lovers and of the low comedy characters, though serving the theme, is given greater space than in the later comedies. But language, or the writing of love poetry, is not the theme of Love's Labour's Lost any more than it is the theme of Twelfth Night or As You Like It. One of the points in which these comedies are superior to Love's Labour's Lost is that in these the role of language is made properly subordinate to the theme it serves to express. This failure to subordinate means to ends can be found elsewhere in Shakespeare's drama, even in later comedies than Love's Labour's Lost. In The Merchant of Venice the bond plot, intended as a contributory action, usurps first place and for a while threatens to eclipse the love story. And of course the character of Shylock does most surely overshadow everybody and everything else in the play. And this, from the point of view of the mutual accommodation of theme and sub-theme within the plot, that is, from the point of view of the just relationship of theme and structure, may be seen as a flaw. Or this imbalance between the weight given to the theme and to the devices by which that theme is expressed can lead to a misunderstanding not only of the dramatist's intentions as revealed in the over-all structure of the plot but also of the theme of the play itself. For instance, the emphasis on satire through language—and we shall return to this matter later—may lead one to conclude that the play is a satire of language and no more, that the play's "mood [is] not of comedy but of good-natured satire."47 This is an unjust estimate of the play's mood, and it would be inaccurate to reach the further conclusion that the play is a satire rather than a romantic comedy, albeit one in which the necessary satiric devices are given unduly extensive scope. Satire is not the theme and aim of the play: it is romantic love. Satire is a means to dramatizing that theme, as it is in all Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

Such misunderstanding of the play's theme, then, may be in part responsible for the conclusion that the comedy lacks structure, or that its structure is different from that of any other Shakespearean romantic comedy.48 Not infrequently one finds a favorable comment about the plot-structure, namely the startling entrance of Mercade near the end of the final scene. It is indeed a coup de théâtre, and Professor Dover Wilson has stressed the "extraordinary impression left upon the audience by the entrance of the black-clad messenger. . . ."49 And he adds that Mercade's entrance taught him two things: "(a) that however gay, however, riotous a Shakespearian comedy may be, tragedy is always there, felt, if not seen; (b) that for all its surface lightness and frivolity, the play had behind it a serious mind at work, with a purpose."50 The observation is just, and the general attitude towards the play which Professor Wilson expresses in his comments is like fresh air stirring the cobwebs. But although striking, Mercade's entrance upon the scene of courtship and revel is not in itself an outstanding or praiseworthy element of the plot; it fails to vindicate the play against the charge that it lacks plot and structure. For the episode is sudden, unexpected, external. Mercade is like a deus ex machina. His sudden appearance to announce the death of the Princess' father interrupts the progress and possible consummation of the love affairs, and by so doing it weakens the more organic or internal obstacle to that consummation, namely, the conviction on the part of the ladies that the expressions of love they have received from their respective lovers have been too facile, expressed in such exaggerated language that they cannot be accepted as the witness of a love that alters not "when it alteration finds."51 And so, the widely acclaimed and theatrically effective episode with Mercade is yet another symptom of the play's structural deficiency.

But structural deficiency, as already noted, is not characteristic of Love's Labour's Lost alone among Shakespeare's comedies. What is of interest here is that the play employs a new theme-structure which, though not fully successful, becomes the basis for the construction of later comedies. What, then, is this comic structure of Shakespearean romantic comedy? The principle which organizes the events of the play is analogous to that of tragedy. It is the committing by the chief characters of a comic error, which in turn leads to reversal and recognition. The error is of two kinds: one is the rejection of love, the other the exaggerated idealizing of it. After the experiments of the early comedies Shakespeare seems to have concluded that romantic comedy could best be based upon these two antithetical errors which express contrasting attitudes towards love. But there is a third element in this comic structure, one that brings about changes and reversals in the other two, and that is truth of human nature, what man really is, not what he is said to be by either those who reject love or those who idealize it.

In the first half of the play the King and his lords, as well as Armado, forswear love and the society of ladies in order to devote themselves to study and contemplation. This vow is their initial error, which immediately becomes the target of relentless satire both in the main action and in that of the non-aristocratic characters. That vow redounds most awkwardly upon them, for it is broken on the very day it is taken; at the first sight of the French ladies these "brave conquerors," as the King calls them, fall in love, lowering their colors "at the first summons from a troop of petticoats." And even as he presents them in love Shakespeare introduces the subject of the second half of the play, which is the extravagant idealizing of romantic love. In this second half, then, the chief action presents the satire of the extreme Petrarchism of the lovers, particularly as it is expressed in their language. Thus the two parts of the action mock first the rejection of love and then its opposite, the romantic idealization of it. And though Shakespeare does not state it directly, the intention or end of the action is to lead, by the juxtaposition of the two extreme attitudes, to a middle point of view. The King and his lords move from one extreme to the other, and though the play ends inconclusively on the surface, our inference is that at the expiration of the year of penance, they will have achieved the balance in their attitude toward love which they lack at present.

We might note here that Love's Labour's Lost introduces another structural principle, namely, the change from one extreme attitude towards love to the other in the same character or characters, instead of presenting the extremes in different characters, as in The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. What Shakespeare is doing, then, is to replace the juxtaposition of characters representing opposite attitudes with the juxtaposition of such attitudes within the same individual. And this very clearly leads to a more careful conception of character. In the play before us, with the exception of Berowne, the attitudes juxtaposed do not produce the tension we find in such characters as Benedick and Beatrice, and the reason is that one attitude replaces the other too swiftly: what we have is really the replacement of one attitude by another, instead of their juxtaposition. Even in Benedick and Beatrice the integration of the two attitudes is imperfect, that perfection being achieved only in the conception of Rosalind and Viola in the last two of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

Though satire is a much over-worked device in the play, it is a device, a means serving a larger structural and thematic principle. In an earlier section mention was made of Shakespeare's choice to express his comic vision in terms of conflict which leads to reconciliation. And it was noted there that the conflict was to be between the rejection of love and the romantic or sentimental idealizing of it. And in addition we saw that there was a tertium quid, the indispensable motif acting as agent of the reconciling process: the truth of human nature, the sober, non-sentimental, balanced approach to the human condition. This is, then, the reducing ingredient which aims satire against the two extreme attitudes. In Love's Labour's Lost the King and his lords choose philosophy instead of love and in their vow they violate the very nature of their being. But the choice of contemplation over love has been taken by many critics to be the theme of the entire play, the consequence being a bewildering accumulation of studies, theories, and opinions concerning topical allusiveness, the question of the School of Night, and so on. The comic error of these characters is not the choice of philosophy or contemplation but the rejection of love, the resolve to isolate themselves from the normal processes of life, to "study, fast, not sleep"! As Berowne tells them after they have broken their vows:

Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.

(IV, iii, 361-62)

They fall in love, for nature will not allow them to lose themselves long; the vows are broken on the day they are taken, and they are broken because man is not what the King and his lords had supposed him to be: certainly that philosophy, that sort of self-knowledge, was deficient. And this is the chief source of the comic in the first half of the play. Now if we glance for a brief moment at their oaths as romantic lovers, oaths implied or stated in their professions of undying love, may we not anticipate also the possibility of their violating those vows as well since they, like the earlier ones, take scant note of man's true nature, his flesh and blood, his instincts and affections? And is this not precisely the reason why the ladies must reject their suit and must ask them instead to wait till they have achieved more of self-knowledge?

Now the second movement of the plot has to do with this non-realistic rush to the opposite extreme of romantic idealization of both the experience of love and of the beloved ladies. And this part of the plot-structure occupies a much larger portion of the story. The change of the lovers from rejecting love to writing Petrarchan sonnets is swift, too swift, as we have already noted. Indeed the satire aimed at them inheres in the very speed of their transformation. In the second movement of the story, the satire of the lovers' Petrarchism, particularly as this is expressed in terms of language, occupies most of the play. And again the wide scope Shakespeare gave such satire has led commentators to suppose that language or linguistic affectation is the theme of the comedy. It is not so. The satire of linguistic pyrotechnics is there, but it is not the chief idea of the play. That idea is to mock or satirize attitudes toward love, not simply the language in which those attitudes are expressed. It is true that the play satirizes the language of wooing, both in the sonnets and other protestations of the aristocratic lovers as well as in Armado's missive to Jaquenetta. And it is also true that here Shakespeare devotes a large part of the action to this satire, but he does the same in Much Ado, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. In the later comedies that satire is not quite so persistent because the stories in these plays are by design more complex so that the episodes satirizing the lovers' Petrarchism are fewer and more widely spaced. But the kind of satire in these episodes is the same as in Love's Labour's Lost. Again, the difference is in degree, not kind. And here, too, it may be added, Love's Labour 's Lost shows a deficiency, a lack of economy in both the amount and quality of the satire needed to express effectively the play's theme.

This satire of romantic attitudes and of the language which records them begins early in the play, but perhaps a good place to note is Berowne's description of Rosaline to Costard, who is to carry Berowne's love letter to her. How is Costard to find her? Berowne tells him:

When tongues speak sweetly, then they name her name,
And Rosaline they call her. Ask for her,
And to her white hand see thou do commend
This seal'd-up counsel.

(III, i, 167-70)

But Berowne is no ordinary sonneteer. He will write love sonnets, but he knows what he is doing and can see himself in self-mocking perspective. And in this he of course stands apart from the King and the others and historically anticipates not only Benedick and Beatrice but also the heroines of the other two "joyous" comedies, Rosalind and Viola. For indeed he "runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds."52 The difference between him and these heroines is that he is too concerned with the tension between his two points of view and that he has much to say about it. And in this he is closer to Benedick. For suddenly Berowne discovers himself in love, though he can scarcely believe it, and for good reason:

And I, forsooth, in love! I, that have been love's whip;
A very beadle to a humorous sigh;
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable; . . .

(III, i, 175-77)

But in love he is, and all the "maladies of hereos" are upon him:

And I to sigh for her! to watch for her!
To pray for her!

And yet underneath all this there is a reservation simultaneously expressing not simply his incredulity at his change but also his earlier attitude towards love. That reservation is revealed in both matter and manner in Berowne's concluding couplet.

Well, I will love, write, sigh, pray, sue, groan:
Some men must love my lady, and some Joan.

(III, i, 206-7)

When he writes to her, however, he composes as a romantic sonneteer, no longer like an "obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty." In his misadventured sonnet to Rosaline he tells her:

Well learned is that tongue that well can thee commend,
All ignorant that soul that sees thee without wonder;
Which is to me some praise that I thy parts admire.
Thy eye Jove's lightning bears, thy voice his dreadful thunder,
Which, not to anger bent, is music and sweet fire.

Celestial as thou art, 0, pardon love this wrong,
That sings heaven's praise with such an earthly tongue.

(IV, ii, 116-22)

Though earthly, Benedick's tongue calls Rosaline "celestial" and likens her to Jove also. Though he is forsworn in loving her, he assures her that to her he will "faithful prove." The King's poetic effusion is more literate, containing a complex, Donnesque conceit of tears which may have some connection with "A Valediction: of Weeping." He, too, admits that he lacks the skill necessary to extol the beauty of the Princess.

O queen of queens! how far thou dost excel
No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell.

(IV, iii, 40-41)

And how does Longaville describe Maria? He speaks of the "heavenly rhetoric" of her eye, she is a goddess, she is "heavenly love," she is the "fair sun," she is "a paradise." Dumain's beloved is a "most divine Kate," and the "ode" he has composed to her concludes in this manner:

Thou for whom Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiop were;
And deny himself for Jove,
Turning mortal for thy love.

(IV, iii, 117-20)

This and much more "painted rhetoric" is expended by the lovers in the praise of their loves. And thus in their about-face and in their very protestations of love, the lovers employ language and express attitudes which expose them to further satire. Berowne voices the meaning of breaking their vow even as he had predicted its necessity, its inevitability:

Sweet lords, sweet lovers, O, let us embrace!
As true we are as flesh and blood can be.
The sea will ebb and flow, heaven show his face,
Young blood doth not obey an old decree.
We cannot cross the cause why we were born.

(IV, iii, 214-18)

And this is nothing less than the record of their recognition of what had been a comic illusion; love they cannot avoid, for it is as necessary and unavoidable as the truth of their own being. In loving they are as "true as flesh and blood can be." But the directness and simplicity of this gives way to a different attitude, already manifested in their "sonnets," and it will be expressed, appropriately enough, by Berowne in his long and comprehensive declaration. For he is the one lover who has throughout shown the temperament necessary for both experiencing and expressing simultaneously different and even opposed points of view.

In that declaration Berowne sets down the romantic conception of love, not only in harmony with the "sonnets" of the four lovers, but going far beyond them in its Petrarchan hyperboles. And it is precisely in these hyperboles, in this overstating the case for romantic love, that Berowne admits into his effusion the selfcritical element of exaggeration. His wit is too much for him; it is his only real love, and it appears that Berowne's ecstasies have much more to do with this love than with the other. And this is his second comic error, which is treated in the second portion of the play. It is well for Berowne to say that

To fast, to study, and to see no woman

is nothing short of

Flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth.

(IV, iii, 292-93)

Nor can we object to his vigorous assertion that

. . . love, first learned in a lady's eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain;
But, with the motion of all elements,
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.


But presently Berowne's rhetoric runs away with him:

A lover's eyes will gaze an eagle blind;
A lover's ear will hear the lowest sound
When the suspicious head of theft is stopp'd. . . .
For valour, is not love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo's lute, strung with his hair;
And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony.


And he concludes that, for "wisdom's sake" or "love's sake," or "men's sake," or "women's sake," they should lose their oaths in order to find themselves.

Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn.


It is all lovely and vigorous and persuasive and overdone. This last is its important structural feature, for as we have said a large portion of the play is devoted to exposing and satirizing wit and rhetoric or rather their abuse, the emphasis on the word rather than the thing or idea it conveys. But before we leave the scene, it is interesting to note that Berowne's role of seeing both sides simultaneously is not vitiated by the hyperboles of his long declaration. On the contrary, one suspects that Berowne is conscious of his "painted rhetoric"—his own phrase. And the dramatist, as always eager to guide our understanding, gives him this composite line at the end.

Allons! Allons! Sow'd cockle reap'd no corn!

Even in his homeliest idiom Berowne affects the French!53 He is never so clearly sophisticated as when he is trying to be plain.

The satire of wit is fundamental to the theme-structure of Love's Labour's Lost, and it is carried on in both actions of the plot, the aristocratic story and the story of Armado and Jaquenetta, Nathaniel and Holofernes. By means of wit the King and his lords try to declare their love but in so doing they express something less than their true selves and their true loves. Indeed they fail to communicate with the objects of their love, for they address them in language which disguises instead of revealing. Rosaline tells her friends that in his verses to her, Berowne calls her "the fairest goddess on the ground," and that she is therein "compar'd to twenty thousand fairs." Katherine interposes that she has "some thousand verses of a faithful lover," and Maria protests that Longaville's "letter is too long by half a mile." And the Princess has received from the King

as much love in rhyme
As would be cramm'd up in a sheet of paper,
Writ o' both sides the leaf, margent and all. . . .

(V, ii, 6-8)

The lords' fascination with their own wit is their undoing, for, as the Princess declares,

None are so surely caught, when they are catch'd,
As wit turn'd fool.54

(V, ii, 70-71)

When the disguised "Muscovites" call upon the Princess and her ladies in the park, Rosaline, impersonating the Princess, demands of Boyet to know of them:

What would these strangers? Know their minds, Boyet.
If they do speak our language, 'tis our will
That some plain man recount their purposes.
Know what they would.

(V, ii, 174-77)

She learns that they wish peace and gentle visitation, which she grants and then asks that they be gone. To which the King interposes:

Say to her, we have measur'd many miles
To tread a measure with her on this grass.


And Rosaline:

It is not so. Ask them how many inches
Is in one mile: if they have measur'd many,
The measure then of one is easily told.


As Hamlet says of the grave-maker, "how absolute" these ladies of France are! Wit, alas, tends to cloud and hide the matter. And when the Princess and her ladies hint to their lovers that their wit had indeed betrayed them, Berowne again voices his recognition of their comic folly and offers to amend his ways:

O, never will I trust to speeches penn'd,
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. . . .
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express'd
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes.

(V, ii, 402-13)

To woo in "russet yeas and honest kersey noes" is perhaps a little too much for Berowne, who starts to woo Rosaline anew, but not without some remnants of what he calls "the old rage."

And, to begin, wench,—so God help me, la!
My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.


"Sans sans, I pray you," she retorts!

But the folly of wit, of the placing stress upon words rather than the things they stand for, is mocked more consistently in the action of the non-aristocratic characters. Here are a few lines from Armado's love letter to Jaquenetta: "By heaven, that thou are fair, is most infallible; true, that thou are beauteous; truth itself that thou are lovely. More fairer than fair, beautiful than beauteous, truer than truth itself. . . ." (IV, i, 60-64). According to Holofernes, Armado "draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the scope of his argument." And what of Holofernes and Nathaniel? Theirs is the more particularly bookish rhetoric, with its ridiculous alliteration—"The preyful princess pierc'd and prick'd a pretty pleasing pricket"—its strings of synonyms, its incorrect Latin, obstacles all to communication. In these two what is ridiculed is their language, whereas in Armado, who is one of the lovers in the play, what is satirized is not simply language but a lover's language. It is as if Shakespeare thought of speech or style as a metaphor whereby a lover reveals himself: as a man speaks so he loves. A lover's mannered and overwitty speech betrays shallowness of feeling. No wonder that such characters as Henry V and Hamlet are, as the latter says, "ill at these numbers." And it is precisely this wit in Berowne and the rest that a year's probation is intended to eliminate, as Rosaline tells her lover:

To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain,
And therewithal to win me, if you please,
Without the which I am not to be won,
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

(V, ii, 857-64)

And this is precisely the same censure obliquely addressed to Benedick and Beatrice by those taking part in "one of Hercules' labours . . . to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection. . . . " The reason Hero gives for not telling Beatrice of Benedick's love for her is that she fears Beatrice will scorn that love with some witty word:

Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly, that to her
All matter else seems weak.

If I tell her of Benedick's love, says Hero,

she would laugh me
Out of myself, press me to death with wit.

(III, i, 51-54; 75-76)

It would be the same with Benedick. But what is to be noted here is that in the later play Shakespeare assigns to wit no more space than is necessary to stress that aspect of his theme.

In Love's Labour's Lost the lovers fail to win their ladies at the end of the play because they have fallen in love too suddenly, too soon, before they have had the opportunity to know them, indeed before they have known themselves. And they betray all this in their language, in their excessive use of wit. At the end of the play, as earlier, the dramatist underscores his point. When the Princess resolves to return to France because of her father's death, Navarre addresses to her a speech of some dozen lines imploring her to reconsider. But the lines are so brimming with metaphor that the speech brings from the Princess the emphatic response:

I understand you not.55

(V, ii, 762)

To which the ever-ready Berowne adds his own (and presumably the other lords') recognition of the folly of their wit and rhetoric:

Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief.


And here we may observe the lovers' second recognition. . . . But that recognition is not synonymous with profound change and for that reason "Jack hath not his Jill." Their sport, says Berowne, is made "a comedy." And the reason is that both in their rejection of love and the swift about-face and subsequent Petrarchism—in both of these—the lords took no notice of the facts of human nature. It is that truth of human nature which brings about the two reversals, first their yielding to the human impulse to fall in love, and second their failure to consummate that love. In falling in love they were "as true as flesh and blood can be," something they had wholly overlooked; in their expressions of love, in their very concept of that love, they again left flesh and blood far behind. Of that neglect they are reminded obliquely by the mocking of the French ladies but more bluntly by two episodes in the final scene of the play. The high point in the play of "The Nine Worthies" is reached when Armado enters as the all-conquering Hector, who "far surmounted Hannibal." Whereupon Costard, who is onstage, brings into the "play" these startling circumstances:

Costard. The party is gone, fellow Hector, she is gone; she is two months on her way.
Armado. What meanest thou?
Costard. Faith, unless you play the honest Troyan, the poor wench is cast away. She's quick; the child brags in her belly already. 'Tis yours.
Armado. Dost thou infamonize me among potentates? Thou shalt die.

(V, ii, 678-85)

Is not this the most shocking revelation to be made in the presence of the romantic lovers? How bluntly Costard thrusts upon the spiritualities of romantic love the irresistible force and claim of the flesh! Into the midst of mounting sentiment created by the declarations of love, Costard's communication introduces the reducing ingredient of fact and truth to nature with the result that the atmosphere of the scene is brought to a lower, middle region, a mean between the idealism of romance and the realism of nature. To this same end is employed the quite large incidence of bawdry in the play.

The second episode through which Shakespeare places the life of flesh and blood by the side of its idealization by romance is the entrance of Mercade upon the scene of courtly proceedings. His appearance is sudden, unprovided for, external to the inner necessity of the plot, and for that reason aesthetically unsatisfactory, though theatrically effective. But its purpose is clear. The excessive idealism of the romantic scene is thus reduced by the two episodes and brought to a view of life more compatible with both fact and sentiment, neither as it is idealized by romance, nor yet as represented exclusively by the bluntness of nature. In this mutual accommodation of the real and the ideal, the scene implies, lies the very path towards happiness in this workaday world.56

That this is the theme of the play, the heart and meaning of its story, is confirmed by the concluding songs of Spring and Winter. These, as other elements of this widely misunderstood and underestimated play, have been subjected to much detailed study yielding a diversity of opinion. Some critics see no thematic relevance in the songs and dismiss them as mere tags to the play.57 On the other side are those who find in the songs a connection with the play but disagree as to the nature of that connection. One view of the songs of the cuckoo and the owl is that one is "a reminder of the flesh, the other of death."58 Professor Bronson's interpretation of the songs is that they express the idea that the "sum of vernal delights but serves to remind husbands of their fears of infidelity in their wives"; and that the "sum of winter's annoyances but intensifies one's sense of well-being (given fire and a pot)."59Another critic holds that the two songs contrast youth (Spring) and adulthood (Winter), with the admonition that "in the winter of life a person must live fully. He should be married and at home, living in the midst of life and not afraid of or repelled by it."60 Somewhat related to this view is the notion that the songs are "an expression of the going-on power of life."61 Though these views contain helpful elements, most of which are mutually compatible, they do not relate the songs vitally to the theme of the comedy. Richmond Noble, in his study of Shakespeare's songs, came very near hitting the mark, although at the critical point his comments glance off the target. He sees the content of the two songs much more clearly than their thematic significance, and this for a very good reason. "Both," he says, "are Elizabethan comic songs, without any serious intention whatever."62 To this conclusion he may have been led a priori by his belief that the play "is a conversational satirical comedy, a forerunner of Sir Fopling Flutter and The Way of the World, and it is absolutely devoid of any serious intention."63 Having said this of the play, he was not likely to see serious thematic content in the two songs. And yet this is what he does discover, although he fails to relate it in any way to the play. Of the first song he has this to say in part: "All the learned men's idealism of the meadow flowers, the shepherds' piping on oaten straws and the merry larks waking the ploughman is dissipated by the fear of the woeful tragedy with which, as the cuckoo's habits remind them, married men are threatened in the Spring. . . ." Of the Owl Song he says that "in the first stanza romance is contrasted with reality, the picturesque with the disagreeable.. . ."64 But is not this precisely what the whole play does, and is not the function of the songs to crystallize in a few verses the theme of the entire comedy? There is spring and winter in love and life, even as there is both beauty and ugliness in both spring and winter. As Spring and Winter in their symbolic opposition yet borrow in transverse fashion of each other so that each in turn and both together represent a wholeness, so love and all life partake of the spirit and of the flesh, of the ideal and the real, of mind and body. It is in the springtime, with its beautiful flowers, its daisies and violets and larks, symbols all of romantic love and idealism, that the cuckoo sends out its fearful note to married men. And it is likewise in the midst of the cold and ugly scene of winter, with its foul ways and sights, highlighted by greasy Joan and "Marian's nose .. . red and raw," that the owl nightly sings its "merry note." We may, if we like, take the last phrase as ironic, in which case the Owl Song expresses the raw uncomeliness of winter in opposition to the loveliness of spring.65 The second view may find support in the concluding line of the play: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo." Thus the broad opposition of Winter and Spring is reinforced by that of the two gods, one the patron of commerce, the other the patron of music and poetry.66


38 Walter Pater, Appreciations (London, 1924), pp. 162-63.

39 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, 1959), p. 89.

40Love's Labour's Lost, ed. Richard David. The New Arden Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), p. xv.

41 H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London, 1938), p. 270.

42 Charlton, "The Date of Love's Labour's Lost," p. 388.

43 Gladys Doidge Willcock, Shakespeare as Critic of Language (London, 1934), pp. 8-9.

44 Frances A. Yates, A Study of Love's Labour's Lost (Cambridge, 1936), p. 195.

45 M. C. Bradbrook, The School of Night (1936), p. 161.

46 Walter Oakeshott, The Queen and the Poet (London,...

Love's Labour's Lost

One of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1594-95) details a pact made by the King of Navarre and three of his courtiers who swear off women in order to focus their energies on intellectual pursuits. The oath is quickly forgotten, however, following the appearance of the Princess of France and her entourage. Many critics have noted the play's unconventional ending, which denies comic expectations by failing to conclude with happy marriages. Historically regarded as one of Shakespeare's minor comedies and considered inferior to his later works in the genre, Love's Labour's Lost has traditionally been disparaged by critics for its weak and haphazard characterization and feeble plot. Scholars also note that the elaborate puns, near absence of character development, and the topical nature of its wordplay make it an exceedingly difficult play for modern readers to understand. Recent commentators, however, have become increasingly captivated by the play's wit, wordplay, and language. Today's critics also demonstrate significant interest in the structure and style of Love's Labour's Lost, and well as its themes concerning sexual politics, gender roles, and class issues.

Although the characters in Love's Labour's Lost are generally considered to be flat and one-dimensional, many critics have attempted to uncover their hidden depths. Ursula Hehl (see Further Reading) applies the concepts of narcissistic personality disorder to a psychoanalytic understanding of the principal male figures in Love's Labour's Lost: Berowne, Navarre, and Armado. According to Hehl, the narcissistic ego imbalance of the King and his fellow noblemen explains their vanity, lovesickness, rationalizations, and arbitrarily shifting desires, as well as their failure to win over the women. Meredith Anne Skura (1997) contends that Shakespeare parodied the concepts of heroic honor and fame through his characterization of the pretentious figure of Don Armado and the clown Costard. Skura also explains how Shakespeare's characterization of these figures provides a satiric perspective on the Elizabethan aristocracy. In his 1973 study, Trevor Lennam maintains that the principal figures in Love's Labour's Lost resemble characters found in traditional morality plays; for example, the King of Navarre and his companions represent Wit, Armado represents Recreation, and the Princess and her entourage represent both Wisdom and Shame. Harvey Birenbaum (2003) analyzes the themes of will and desire in Love's Labour's Lost and illustrates how these themes are developed through the actions of the characters. Birenbaum also notes that the women in the play have something to teach the men about “what life is and how it works” and contends that although the male characters are often seen as immature and foolish, they are in fact sincere.

Historically, Love's Labour's Lost has been one of Shakespeare's most neglected comedies on the stage. After being abandoned for nearly two centuries, the play was revived in the nineteenth century and has gained some measure of popularity with modern audiences and directors. The play's first film adaptation—Kenneth Branagh's 2000 reworking of the play as pre-World War II film musical—met with mostly negative reviews. Lindsay Duguid (2000) argues that a lack of atmosphere was the film's most serious shortcoming; commenting on the film as a whole, the reviewer comments “It is hard to know for whom all this expensive foolery is intended—someone who has never seen the play, or any play, perhaps; or someone who has never seen a movie.” Love's Labour's Lost was once considered nearly impossible to successfully stage; however, the play has had a number of recent productions, including Trevor Nunn's highly praised 2003 Royal National Theatre production. Susannah Clapp (2003) applauds Nunn's successful staging of this play, noting that “Love's Labour's Lost is the most knottily worded and clown-stuffed of Shakespeare's plays, one of those comedies which is hardly ever funny.” Also reviewing Nunn's production, Sheridan Morley (2003) lauds Nunn's decision to set the play as a dream sequence on the battlefields of the World War I and praises Joseph Fiennes's fine performance as Berowne. Matt Wolf (2003) calls Nunn's staging a “partial success,” noting that the production came alive only in the second half of the play. Wolf praises Nunn as a director “with an acute sense of text who can shadow even this play's sunnier passages with the gathering clouds of pain.”

Many contemporary scholars, such as Koshi Nakanori (1982), have attempted to reassess the structure and style of Love's Labour's Lost, which has long been judged as inadequate in relation to other romantic comedies of the period. Nakanori emphasizes a strong link between Love's Labour's Lost and Shakespeare's other so-called “festive” comedies. While acknowledging the play's defects of character and plot, Nakanori nevertheless defines the piece as a transitional work that bears fundamental structural similarities with other Shakespearean dramas. Critics are also interested in the play's representation of sexual politics, gender roles, and class issues. Patricia Parker (1993) highlights the various class and gender relationships in the play, contending that the rhetoric and language of Love's Labour's Lost “forges links between the play's reversing of letters and words and its reversals of the conventions of gender.” Similarly, Katharine Eisaman Maus (1991) offers a feminist critique of Love's Labour's Lost, in which she explores the connection between the play's language and its theme of sexual politics. Miriam Gilbert (1993) attempts to show how Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences would have experienced Love's Labour's Lost. In her analysis, Gilbert examines the play's complex style, verbal extravagance, and unique ending, noting that “this comedy, which seems in many ways more artificial than Shakespeare's others, more concerned with affectation and stylistic brilliance, becomes finally the most realistic of all, as it acknowledges that the theatre cannot always solve life's complex relationships.”

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