“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. It belongs to that period in his writing career when he was discovering the extent of his genius as an author of Histories and Romances. The great Tragedies will come later – so despite the somewhat gloomy title, this is a light-hearted and cheerful satire on the challenges and satisfactions of falling in love.
It is also a play about language. There are numerous registers on show here, and numerous reflections on how language should be used. Holofernes the schoolmaster for example is ludicrously verbose, while Boyet excessively formal. Dull lives up to his name. Biron, who falls in love with Rosaline, reflects at length on how one should speak, eventually concluding that plainness is best, in sadness and in love.
For him to reach this conclusion is a touch ironic, since he is the character with the greatest flair and fluency. His sonnet to Rosaline says that real life is better than book-learning, and real life means love. Holofernes sees this sonnet by mistake, and polysyllabically dismisses it. But the play as a whole seems to imply that you cannot lock yourself away to study and pretend the opposite sex don’t exist.
It is thought that Shakespeare’s emerging genius in the 1590s was not universally admired by his contemporary playwrights: according to one he was an “upstart crow”; another observed that he had “little Latin and less Greek”. Most of them went to university while Shakespeare was wondering what to do with his life, the son of a glover, brought up three days’ travel from London. He had every right to look, as he does here, with a detached and ironical eye on the benefits of book-learning.
Still, there is nothing cynical or negative about this play, apart perhaps from its title. Really it should be called “Love’s Labour’s Postponed”, since that is the conclusion reached by the young lovers in the last act. But Shakespeare was only halfway through his project, since he had in mind a sequel, entitled “Love’s Labour’s Won”. So in the interests of clarity and brevity – Biron would approve – the play was given its misleading title. By contrast, “Love’s Labour’s Won” has, alas, since been lost.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Ferdinand of Navarre reminds his three companions that they have sworn to study for three years.
Biron doubts whether he can abide by the conditions governing celibacy, sleep and nourishment.
Given his reservations, he is invited to depart but reluctantly insists “I have sworn to stay with you”.
But rules against speaking to women are unworkable since the French king’s daughter is expected.
Ferdinand agrees this condition has to be “forsworn” and this loophole encourages Biron to sign up.
For entertainment, the presence of the verbose Don Armado along with Costard “will be our sport”.
Now an over-written letter arrives from Armado accusing Costard of consorting with Jaquenetta.
Costard admits he knew that womanising had been outlawed on pain of a year’s imprisonment.
But Ferdinand sentences him to “fast a week with bran and water”, to be monitored by Armado.
Act One Scene Two
Armado tells his aid Moth that he is melancholy, triggering a dialogue revealing Moth’s quick wit.
Armado reveals that he has agreed to study for three years with Ferdinand – easily done, says Moth.
Armado confesses he is in love with Jaquenetta – whom Moth believes deserves to be whipped.
Dull appears with Costard (to be kept safe by Armado) and Jaquenetta (to be kept safe by himself).
Armado reveals to Jaquenetta “I love thee”, only to be repudiated with insults about his appearance.
When Jaquenetta leaves, Armado delights in informing Costard “Thou shalt be heavily punished”.
Alone, Armado exaggerates his love, comparing himself to historical heroes Sansom and Solomon.
Act Two Scene One
The Princess of France rebukes Boyet for his inflated tribute to her and sends him to meet Navarre.
She knows about the prohibition on women, but requests a “personal conference with his grace”.
She asks her three companions if they know the three “votaries” (or vow-takers) besides Navarre.
Maria knows Lord Longaville to be a man artistic and brave, with a “sharp wit” if “too blunt a will”.
Katharine once met Lord Dumain, and believes him strong, innocent, positive and constructive.
Rosaline has heard about Biron, apparently light-hearted, witty and articulate, a pleasure to hear.
Boyet returns from Ferdinand to reveal the intention to “lodge you in the field” away from the court.
The Princess rebukes Ferdinand for his inhospitality, while Biron and Rosaline flirt with one another.
Ferdinand reminds the Princess that his father will retain Aquitaine until her father pays his debts.
The Princess denies that the debt is unpaid, and Boyet promises evidence of payment tomorrow.
Biron commends Rosaline “to mine own heart”, only for her to respond dismissively to his rhetoric.
Dumain, Longaville and finally Biron ask Boyet for further details about their ladies before departing.
Boyet alerts the Princess that Ferdinand was drawn to her with “all his senses … lock’d in his eye”.
Act Three Scene One
Moth attempts to train his master Armado in the art of romancing a woman with a tune and a jig.
He delights in confusing Armado with word play – and reminding him of his affection for Jaquenetta.
He summons Costard, and after further word play, sends him to deliver a love letter to Jaquenetta.
Costard runs into Biron by chance, and is asked to deliver a “seal’d” letter to Rosaline this afternoon.
Alone, Biron reflects on the fact that having always disdained love, he is now “a corporal of his field”.
But his love is reluctant: his girl has “two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes” and love is “a plague”.
Act Four Scene One
Out hunting, the Princess concedes that a successful kill would be “more for praise than purpose”.
Costard appears, unintentionally insulting the Princess, apparently bearing Biron’s letter to Rosaline.
The letter, actually Armado’s to Jaquenetta, is embarrassingly over-written, to “entreat thy love”.
Boyet tries to find out who has caught the ladies’ interest, but Rosaline fends him off skilfully.
Costard, told “you talk greasily” when he lowers the tone, ends the scene reflecting on Armado.
Act Four Scene Two
Holofernes the teacher, Nathaniel the curate and Dull the constable discuss the deer shot in 4.1.
Holofernes shows his verbosity, and Nathaniel observes Dull is uneducated: “he hath not drunk ink”.
They joke suggestively, “to humour the ignorant”, that the deer was a “pricket”, a young male deer.
Holofernes is praised for his command of words and admits he has “a foolish extravagant spirit”.
Nathaniel reads out Biron’s letter to Rosaline, which Jaquenetta believes written to her by Armado.
The sonnet conveys Biron’s belief that to know her is to be learned, though she may be out of reach.
Holofernes discovers the poem’s author and intended audience, and sends Costard to deliver it.
Holofernes invites Nathaniel and Dull to dine later, while dismissing Biron’s sonnet as “unlearned”.
Act Four Scene Three
Biron delivers an excited soliloquy on the pain and pleasure of his devotion: “By heaven I do love”.
Ferdinand appears, and as Biron hides, delivers a heartfelt poem describing his love – and grief.
Longaville appears and, as Ferdinand hides, delivers a poem balancing love against his broken vows.
Domain arrives, and as Longaville hides, delivers a poem renouncing his vow as “for youth unmeet”.
Longaville and Ferdinand emerge, and the King ridicules them both, predicting Biron’s derision.
Finally Biron emerges, and castigates this “scene of foolery” and derides his friends’ “sorrow”.
Biron portrays himself as “honest” but “betray’d” – one who would never “write a thing in rhyme”.
Now Costard and Jaquenetta appear with a letter but when it is given to Biron to read, he tears it up.
Biron immediately confesses his offences, and rhapsodises poetically about the “heavenly Rosaline”.
Ferdinand observes that “thy love is black as ebony”, but to Biron, she was “born to make black fair”.
Biron states his case: to renounce love is against nature in the young, and cannot be an aid to study.
We learn much from our relations with the opposite sex, and love endows us with “a double power”.
Love, he says, inspires poetry, humbles tyrants, and provides the learning to “nourish all the world”.
Finally he says he and his friends were “fools” to take the oath, and he urges them to abandon it.
Ferdinand is inspired, and all agree to “woo these girls of France” and devise “Some entertainment”.
Act Five Scene One
Nathaniel praises Holofernes’s conversation; Holofernes criticises Armado’s language in general.
When Holofernes greets Armado, Moth and Costard comment caustically on their use of language.
Holofernes aims to illustrate his learning by recourse to Latin, and praises Armado’s use of English.
Armado, entrusted by Ferdinand with the performance suggested in 4.3, asks Holofernes to help.
Holofernes suggests they take the Nine Worthies as a theme, and volunteers to “play three myself”.
Act Five Scene Two
The Princess derides Ferdinand’s poem: “as much love As would be cramm’d up in a sheet of paper”.
Rosaline, Katharine and Maria are also dissatisfied: “The letter is too long by half a mile”, says Maria.
Rosaline means to “torture” Biron, reflecting the contempt the young women have for their suitors.
Boyet announces the suitors’ imminent arrival disguised as Russians – but the ladies will be masked.
The ladies conspire to undermine the men’s performance by engaging with the “wrong” partners.
Rosaline snubs Ferdinand, the Princess blanks Biron, Maria cuts Dumain, Katharine mocks Longaville.
The men retreat, leaving the women to enjoy their triumph before they return to be mocked again.
Invited to visit Ferdinand’s court, the Princess refuses, claiming she hates to see oaths broken.
Ashamed of the Russian disguise, Biron will “never come in vizard to my friend, Nor woo in rhyme”.
The Princess reveals to the men that they romanced the wrong partners when they wore masks.
Costard announces the Nine Worthies’ imminent arrival – much to Ferdinand’s embarrassment.
First Costard appears as Pompey, then Nathaniel as Alexander the Great, Holofernes as Judas etc.
Holofernes and Armado are ridiculed by the men, and forced to retire before delivering their parts.
News of the death of the King of France leaves the Princess to announce her immediate departure.
The men protest their love sincere and the departing women charge them to wait one year for them.
Various challenges are assigned: Dumain must grow a beard, Biron visit the sick and amuse them.
The men escort the women away, promising that the romance is a year and a day from completion.
The play ends with a song delivered by the Nine Worthies actors, embracing all seasons, all varieties.
A key theme of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is language itself – especially the language of poetry – so it makes sense that it contains more rhyme than in any other Shakespeare play: in the opening scene, for example, rhyming couplets are prominent in the conversation between the four friends. But with the entrance of Dull (the constable) and Costard (the clown), prose reappears as the natural medium of speech, respecting the convention that lower-class characters in Shakespeare speak in prose rather than verse.
Ferdinand is the King of Navarre, but when he forgets that he is shortly to be visited by the daughter of the King of France (“Why, this was quite forgot”) we’re entitled to wonder whether he is not perhaps the most adept of leaders. His preference for study to real life anticipates the last of Shakespeare’s great creations, Prospero in “The Tempest”, who preferred studying to governing – a preference that costs him his position as Duke of Milan.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is one of only three Shakespeare plays to have no primary source – the others are “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest”. It was likely intended as an affectionate satire on four of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, patron of Pembroke’s Men. Moth, the diminutive and quick-witted assistant to Armado, is thought by some to have been inspired by Thomas Nashe, a contemporary London playwright whose plays were performed by Pembroke’s Men. Holofernes, the pedantic schoolmaster, may have been inspired by John Florio, the translator and lexicographer. Armado, meanwhile, is assigned a name that evokes uncomfortable memories of the failed Spanish invasion of 1588. Further details may be found in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare.
In Act One, Ferdinand’s injunction to his companions to forego the pleasures of the opposite sex for three years is contrasted with Costard’s encounter with Jaquenetta – and with Armado’s desire to replace him in her affections. Act Two brings the four young men of Navarre into close proximity with the four young women of France, and the course of the comedy seems settled: the vows of abstinence will be challenged and the pleasures of the opposite sex anticipated. In this way the main principles of Elizabethan comedy fall into place: flirtation, courtship, obstacles to romance inserted, obstacles to romance overcome, love, marriage. But there is a small number of Shakespeare’s plays in which the expected happy ending is withheld, and this is one such: hence the title.
As soon as Biron hands a letter to Costard to deliver to Rosaline in 3.1, the audience know that the clown will confuse it with Armado’s letter to Jaquenetta: on the basis of such confusions are comedies constructed. Not just comedies either: other letters that fail to reach their intended destinations in Shakespeare’s plays include the note written by Friar Lawrence for Romeo’s eyes in exile in Mantua, telling him that Juliet is not really dead but has merely taken a potion to give this impression. Fatally the letter fails to arrive – plague has brought lockdown, and the note is returned to sender – leading to deaths that are all too real.
Biron’s clumsy description of Rosaline at the end of Act Three as a woman with “two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes” strongly suggests that she has a dark complexion. In 4.3 this impression will be reinforced when Ferdinand tells Biron “thy love is black as ebony”. A number of critics suggest that her appearance anticipates the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets (many of which were written around the same time as this play), and believe the two characters may have been inspired by the same woman. “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, incidentally, was written a year or two before “Romeo and Juliet”, a play in which the hero banishes heart-broken thoughts of another Rosaline after he meets Juliet at the end of the first act.
Holofernes the schoolmaster, introduced in 4.2, is in love with his own eloquence and learning – and even more in love with this being recognised by others. In fact his conversation, beneath the sheen of intellectual name-dropping, is empty and in many ways ignorant. For example, Biron’s thoughtful sonnet, in which he describes love as more important than learning (“If knowledge be the mark, to know thee shall suffice”), goes over Holofernes’s head, and he condemns it as “unlearned”. In practice, it is actually rather bookish, developing a tradition in which the woman is portrayed as unobtainable and out of reach. The satire on the schoolmaster may owe something to Shakespeare’s own experience, since in some accounts of the “lost years” of his early adult life, he was employed as a teacher.
Biron’s address on the virtues of love in 4.3 is the longest speech in Shakespeare. It delivers a powerful response to Ferdinand’s project of isolating in the pursuit of learning. He begins by arguing that to renounce love while young is “treason ‘gainst the kingly state of youth”, and adds that “abstinence” from love “engenders maladies”. He then asks rhetorically how we can learn about beauty as effectively as through “a woman’s eye”, and suggests that learning without “beauty’s tutors” is mere “leaden contemplation”. Love gives power and energy, he continues, and to keep the oath of abstinence “you will prove fools” – hardly the original plan. In many ways this speech merely amplifies what Biron argues in his sonnet, discussed in the previous paragraph.
Holofernes’s encounter with Armado in 5.1 brings together the play’s most verbose and pretentious character with the most comically grandiloquent – perhaps in all Shakespeare. Observing their interaction, Moth (“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps”) and Costard (“they have lived long on the alms-basket of words”) comment sardonically on what they see. Holofernes has previously criticised Armado’s speech behind his back – “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument” – but some fifty lines later, addressing him directly, he is diplomatic (or hypocritical) enough to praise his choice of “posterior” for “afternoon”: “the word is well culled”, he comments, “sweet and apt”. In general this scene is a reminder of the primacy of the theme of language in the play.
In his lengthy conversation with Rosaline in 5.2, Biron returns to a figure he has used before in describing love as a “plague”. One wonders how Shakespeare’s audiences would have reacted to this metaphor, bearing in mind how destructive the plagues were in his day: around ten per cent of Londoners culled in a single year.
In renouncing elegant language for the purposes of courtship, Biron reminds the audience in 5.2 that language, style and register are insistent themes in the play: “Taffeta phrases,” he says, “silken terms precise, / Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, / Figures pedantical …/ I do forswear them …. / Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express’d / In russet yeas and honest kersey noes”. He might almost have been referring to Armado (“Three-piled hyperboles”) and Holofernes (“Figures pedantical”) in his determination to speak plainly in future. Later in the scene, when news comes of the death of the French King, Biron observes that “Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief”.
It is worth pausing to admire Biron’s dismissive summary of the five characters playing the Worthies in 5.2: Holofernes, Armado, Nathaniel, Costard and Moth are respectively (if disrespectfully) dismissed as “The pedant, the braggart, the hedge-priest, the fool and the boy”.
Who’s Who / Characters
Biron questions from the outset whether he will be able to stick to the terms and conditions, and only signs up for the project once he is assured there are exceptions to the rules. When the Princess of France asks her companions for their views on the young men, Rosaline is effusive in her praise of him: “a merrier man / I never spent an hour’s talk withal”, she says, and she adds that he commands “such apt and gracious words” that “younger ears are quite ravished”. His sonnet, which assures Rosaline that “If knowledge be the mark [or aim], to know thee shall suffice”, is thoughtful and well-written if (ironically) a touch too literary, and his reaction to the news of the death of the Princess’s father is appropriately sympathetic: “Honest plain words”, he believes, “best pierce the ear of grief”.
Comically verbose to the point of occasional incomprehensibility, the schoolmaster is said by some to be a parody of the polymath, linguist and lexicographer John Florio. If so, then the portrayal, while affectionate, is also damning, since despite his evident learning, Holofernes is also short of insight (he misunderstands Biron’s sonnet, damning it as “unlearned”) and lacking in integrity: witness the hypocritical way he deals with Armado in 5.1. Nonetheless the play is a light-hearted comedy, and though we don’t laugh with Holofernes, we don’t laugh at him either: more of a gentle smile.
Princess of France
In many ways a formidable character, respected by all – from her father the King of France (by whom she has been charged with negotiating the repayment of the debt to Navarre) to the lovelorn foursome she encounters on her mission. Equally a lively and witty companion, confidently keeping the men in their place while matching Ferdinand in a way that recalls the relationship, affectionate but spikey, between Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”.
For how long have the four companions sworn to study?
How is Costard punished for consorting with Jaquenetta?
How does the Princess of France react when her three companions report back on the men?
What will the King of France forfeit until the French debts are paid?
How does Biron describe love in 3.1?
Which suggestive word is used to describe the young male deer shot in 4.1?
What does Biron claim to his embarrassed companions in 4.3 he would never do?
What does Biron do with his letter to Rosaline when it is returned to him?
What is the main theme of the pageant put on for the visiting women in 5.2?
How do the men disguise themselves when they first visit the women in 5.2?
Shakespeare’s comedies often seem to unfold far from the stresses of urban life, in pastoral landscapes that sustain a diverse group of characters at ease with one another and with their place in the world: here a parson, there a schoolmaster, here a milkmaid, there a lord.
These networks have a timelessness about them, as if the characters have no past and future tenses, only a present in which something exciting or revealing is overheard – or misheard, or misreported, or misunderstood. Obstacles are thrown in the path of the romance. Then obstacles are overcome.
It hardly needs saying that Shakespeare’s company of actors and others – The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, then The King’s Men – were extraordinarily lucky to find themselves accommodating the most remarkable (not to say lucrative) playwright in English history. But he was lucky with them too – not only because they understood his muse and gave expression to his spirit, but also because they remained remarkably stable throughout his working life.
True, there was a change of clown around 1600 – Will Kempe was replaced by Robert Armin – but other members of the troop were with him for the duration: Augustine Philips, John Heminges, Henry Condell and the incomparable Richard Burbage created and maintained just the kind of stable, mutually co-operative community that the playwright seems to reach for in pastoral comedies like “Love’s Labour’s Lost”.