Love’s Labour’s Lost

"The Arrival of the Princess of France" - Thomas Stothard (1834)

The Play’s the Thing: The King of Navarre and his three friends, Biron, Longaville, and Dumain, have decided to take an oath that for the next three years they will focus on scholarly studies and swear off seeing any women and the romantic entanglements that come with the fairer sex (sounds a lot like going to grad school, really). Biron is a little reluctant but agrees to join the group of men in their oath. However, a minor exception is made as the Princess of France is shortly expected to arrive as an emissary for her ill father to discuss the disposal of Aquitain. After taking the oath, the local constable, Dull, arrives with Costard, a clown, who has been caught with a woman, Jaquenetta by Don Armado, a thoroughly ridiculous Spaniard. Costard is given into Armado’s keeping for a week while Armado oversees his punishment for contravening the decrees that exclude women from the King’s court. However, we shortly learn that Armado is in love with Jaquenetta and hopes to contravene the decree as well. Meanwhile, the Princess of France and her three friends, Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine, have arrived in Navarre and have been forced to pitch tents in a field a short distance from the King’s castle, as women are not permitted inside. The King and his three friends meet the Princess and her three friends to have the initial discussion about Aquitain. Predictably, all four men are very charmed by the four women. For reference’s sake, the King likes the Princess, Dumain likes Katharine, Longaville likes Maria, and Biron likes Rosaline. Armado decides to set Costard free so that he can deliver a love letter from Armado to Jaquenetta. On his way to deliver the letter, Costard encounters Biron who also gives him a love letter to be delivered to Rosaline. Unsurprisingly, Costard mixes up the letters and gives Armado’s letter to Rosaline and Biron’s letter to Jaquenetta. Biron heads into the woods to compose some poetry to Rosaline but then hides in a tree when he hears someone coming. The King, Longaville, and Dumain then all show up in succession each composing a poem to the lady he fancies and then hiding in the woods when he hears the next one coming. Eventually, they all admit that they’ve broken their vow already and have fallen in love. The four men decide to go in disguise to court the ladies and then return as themselves. The women hear of this plot and decide to mess with the men a bit and put on veils and switch up who wears the gifts each man sent, so that the men will court the wrong woman. The four men show up disguised as Russian travelers, the women act rather uninterested, and the men leave and then return. It is eventually revealed the men will have broken oaths twice as they broke their vow to abstain from women and then broke the vows of love that they made to the wrong women. News is then brought that the King of France has died. The Princess and her ladies must return home, however, each lady makes her respective man vow to do one task for the next year and if he succeeds she will then consider his proposal of love. And then the play ends with a song about cuckoos and owls (I kid you not).

Heroes and Villains: Biron gets my affection mostly because he makes the best speeches in the play. He’s got a sharp sense of humour and his verbal sparring with Rosaline is the best in the play. Armado gets honourable mention for writing some of the most purple prose in his letters that it’s entirely giggle-worthy.

Wordsmith:

  • Study knows that which yet it doth not know (I.i)
  • I love to hear him lie (I.i)

Speech to Know: Biron has some massive speeches in this play. The best is after the four men confess to each other that they’ve all fallen in love:

“But 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.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye:
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,
Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of  cockled snails;
Love’s tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste:
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
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.
Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were temper’d with love’s sighs:
O, then his lines would ravish savage ears,
And plant in tyrants mild humility.
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world,
Else none at all in aught proves excellent.
Then fools you were these women to forswear,
Or, keeping what is sworn, you will prove fools.
For wisdom’s sake – a word that all men love,
Or for love’s sake – a word that loves all men,
Or for men’s sake, the authors of these women,
Or women’s sake, by whom we men are men,
Let once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths:
It is religion to be thus forsworn;
For charity itself fulfills the law,
And who can sever love from charity?” (IV.iii)

View from the PitLove’s Labour’s Lost has a few moments of humour and brilliance but it continuously ends up being slightly off. There are too many main characters, making them difficult to keep track of and, with the exception of Biron, don’t really get the chance to speak enough to really make them strong and individual characters. Speeches tend to go a bit too long. Each of the interchanges between the four couples are the same thing over again in slightly different words. Armado’s overblown speeches and letters are humourous but there are just a few too many so that eventually they become tedious. And the curate and the schoolmaster (whom I left out of the play summary because they’re really not important to the plot) with their interchanges are tedious as well, especially with all of the Latin that they use. The five act structure feels a little wobbly as the last two acts have the bulk of the content, which is abnormal for Shakespeare. And the ending is extremely odd. There is no indication throughout the play that this will be anything but one of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies with the anticipated ending of four weddings. Instead we end up with just a funeral, with the promise of four weddings a year later. It’s an odd note to end on, making the play an unsettling read as it never quite hits the stride to be expected of a Shakespearean comedy.

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