Thoughts on Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’


Love’s Labour’s Lost is, as far as I can make out, one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays.  But it is worth a look.

The play is set in the court of a fictional Navarre.  Henri III, King of the real Navarre, had become Henri IV of France in 1589.

Comedies of the period end in marriage; tragedies end in death.  LLL commences with a battle of the sexes and ends in uncertainty.   


There is little plot, but what there is I’ll summarise.  In part, there is a love story, but instead of there being one man and woman falling in love with each other, and overcoming obstacles to their marriage, in this play there are four pairs. (Is this excessive?)

Four lords, then – three courtiers and their king (the King of Navarre) – first decide to study for three years, to achieve fame and honour, while remaining celibate – indeed, while banishing all women from the court.  They bind themselves by an oath.  However, the Princess of France promptly arrives, on a diplomatic visit, already arranged, escorted by three ladies.  The four lords are obliged to welcome the ladies and speak to them, thus compromising their ill-advised oath.  Their stance is further undermined by their falling in love with the four ladies.

The four lords proceed to find excuses to break their oath and to find ways to woo the ladies, via poem writing and play acting.  Describing the ladies as goddesses rather than mortal women, they try to wriggle out of their commitment to monk-like study.  The ladies refuse to take the men seriously, and indeed they mock them. 


At the end of the play, the Princess is informed of the death of her father.  Her grief reinforces the ladies’ need to delay their response to the lords’ marriage proposals.  As the princess says, the time is “too short/To make a world-without-end bargain in” (5.2).  Berowne sums up: “Jack hath not Jill” (5.2).  The ladies impose a year’s penance upon their admirers and state that they will reconsider the matter when the term is up.


Hence, the men appear immature and inept, the women as more mature and sensible and indeed wittier.  Indeed, though the other men in the play can be classed as clowns or pedants (or both), the gentlemen can be seen as clownish and pedantic too.


Firstly, the other male characters plan a pageant of the ‘Nine Worthies’, to entertain the ladies.  Unfortunately, when they put on the performance (Act 5, Scene 2), the gentlemen keep rudely interrupting and making fun of them.

Meanwhile, two comic characters – Armado (a Spanish knight and braggart) and Costard (a clown) – are rivals for the hand of Jaquenetta (a dairymaid).  To a degree, their own wooing parodies that of the gentlemen.  At the end of the play, it is revealed that Jaquenetta is pregnant by one of them.


The players are wordy in their attempts to be witty and persuasive, sometimes to excess.  They delight in word play and puns.  Unfortunately, many of the jokes are, nowadays, obscure.


Once the gentlemen decide to woo the ladies, they each choose to write a love poem, while hiding it from the others (4.2 and 4.3).  The embarrassing revelation of these acts of love (but also of oath breaking), in front of their colleagues, is a source of comedy (4.3).

In his sonnet, addressed to Rosaline, Berowne confesses that he is exchanging his oath for pursuit of his lady-love:

“If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?

Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed.

Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove.”


The King’s poem, addressed to the Princess, concludes thus:


“O Queen of queens, how far thou dost excel,

No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell.”


Longaville’s sonnet, addressed to Maria, is similar to Berowne’s:


“Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye….

Persuade my heart to this false perjury? ….

A woman I forswore, but I will prove,

Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee.”


Finally, in similar vein, Dumaine’s poem, addressed to Katherine, contains the lines:


“Do not call it sin in me,

That I am forsworn for thee.”




I’ll briefly examine Act 4, Scene 3.


First, Berowne enters, alone.  He admits, in a soliloquy, that he is in love with Rosaline.  Then the King enters: not seeing Berowne (who hides), he reads his poem (see above) out loud.  Next, Longaville and Dumaine arrive, in turn, and proceed to recite their poems (see above): each thinks he is alone, but each is overheard by his predecessors  Then, in reverse order, the lords emerge from hiding: Longaville confronts Dumaine; the King confronts them both, and wonders what Berowne will say when he finds out.


Browne now comes forward, saying, “Now step I forth to whip hypocrisy”: he claims that he is “honest”; and he holds it a sin “to break the vow I am engaged in”.  But his own hypocrisy is demonstrated by the intrusion of Costard and Jaquenetta, who are in possession of Berowne’s own love poem (see above), which has not reached its intended recipient.


Hence, the lords’ shared guilt comes to light.  But Berowne goes on to persuade his partners in crime to abandon their foolish oaths and to pursue the love of women:


“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.”


So off the lords go, to try their success with the ladies.




The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the scenes in Much Ado About Nothing (2.3 and 3.1), where Benedick and Beatrice, in turn, hear themselves being discussed by their friends.  But these discussions form part of a plot, to bring them together.  As for LLL, the idea of a series of men being overheard, while reading out their self-incriminating poems aloud, is ridiculous – but (despite this, or perhaps because of this) it is funny.  In his film of LLL (2000), Kenneth Branagh used the scene to great effect.  (Mention of this prompts me to comment on the film itself.)      




In the film, Kenneth Branagh used about 700 lines of the play’s 2,600 plus.  He placed the play in the early 20th century and inserted 20th century songs.  In Act 4, Scene 3, instead of the poems mentioned above, we have, firstly George and Ira Gershwin’s I’ve Got a Crush on You, and secondly, Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek.    The songs are fine; but I miss the poems; and it is a pity that space was not found for them. 




The play ends with a pair of poems, which could be sung or recited: the song of the cuckoo, related to spring, and the song of the owl, related to winter.  (They are omitted from Kenneth Branagh’s film.)  Even these verses are ambiguous: the cuckoo “mocks married men”; and the “staring owl” can allude to death, wisdom or good fortune, in mythology.




The play can be interpreted as a plea for honesty and plain speaking, and as an encouragement to men to respect the intelligence and judgement of women.


The empowerment of women and the uncertain ending make it appreciable (in principle) by a 21st century audience.


(I am grateful to these editors of the play: J Kerrigan (Penguin, 1982), G R Hibbard (Oxford, 1990), and in particular, H R Woudhuysen (Arden 3, 1998).)


David R Harries


February 2014