Arguably, it can be said of Love’s Labour’s Lost that, among Shakespeare’s plays, it is relatively seldom performed and therefore less known by those who go to see plays and those who study S’s works.
Kenneth Branagh made a film of LLL in 2000. He used very little of the original text. He set the story in the 1930s, with period American songs to match (like a musical).
In recent years, LLL has been put on at The Globe and by the RSC. Seeing the latter on DVD has prompted me to reconsider my attitude to the play (which remains somewhat mixed).
What is it about? Why is it less popular?
“Boy meets girl”
Here, we have the matter of four boys chasing the four girls who arrive at their court (ostensibly on an embassy). The gentlemen (or lords) – The King of Navarre and his coterie – are boyish and immature. They swear a foolish oath, to abjure the company of women for three years, and swiftly break it in the light of reality (their sexual drive).
The “girls”, on the other hand – the Princess of France and her attendants – are grown-up ladies. They are impressed, neither by the men’s oath, nor their breaking of it. The ladies leave to go home, on receipt of the news that the Princess’s father (the King of France) has died. The coup-de-théâtre – the arrival of the messenger from France, in the middle of an entertainment – dramatically breaks the comical tone, bordering on the farcical, that has characterised the play hitherto.
The male suitors are made to wait for a year (and meanwhile to use their time wisely) before trying to court the ladies again. As one gentleman (Browne) puts it: “Jack hath not Jill.” (Compare the ending of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.)
Can one identify with any of these characters? At least, the ladies are more sensible than the gentlemen.
The other characters
Most of these are comedians or caricatures (or both). The comic ones are: the ladies’ male attendant, a Spanish knight (and braggart), his page, a pedantic schoolmaster, a curate, a constable, and a clown. The dairymaid and the forester are neutral. By virtue of his role, the messenger from France is serious.
Arguably, Shakespeare sees some of these men as figures of fun. They tend (variously) to use puns and plays on words, Latinisms and ornate language. There are jokes, but many of these are unintelligible nowadays, without notes; and so they are best omitted from the play in performance. Notably, the knight’s language reveals no Hispanic features. (The thinking behind this is lost to us.)
One can accuse the male suitors (above) of elaborate, dense language traits too. The ladies are more straightforward, while still witty.
In a way, nothing much happens in this play. The men talk, the ladies arrive, the men try to court the ladies (without success), and the ladies leave, leaving sound advice as their parting shot.
One can add that the dairymaid is revealed to be pregnant – either by the clown or the knight. There is an implication that it is the knight who will care for her.
The play has much to do about language – its uses and abuses. (Compare The Merry Wives of Windsor, in this regard.)
Much of the play is written in rhymed verse (spoken by the lords and ladies). Embedded in the speeches there are six sonnets, by my reckoning. The four lords compose one love poem (each) to the ladies they profess to love: three of these are sonnets. (Worth a look.) (Three of the poems are reproduced in The Passionate Pilgrim.)
The play ends, delightfully, with two songs – (i) the spring song of the cuckoo and (ii) the winter song of the owl. (Worth a look too.)
The male characters – both lords and commoners – attempt to entertain the ladies – but with little or no success.
At one point, the lords approach the ladies disguised themselves as Muscovites (why!?); but, as the ladies have been tipped off, they have no difficulty in getting ready for them, by disguising themselves, too, and hence confusing them.
The comic male characters put on a show of the “Nine Worthies” (five attempting to portray nine, between them!); but their acting is disrupted, firstly by the derision of the lords, and secondly, by the arrival of the messenger from France.
LLL has great displays of wit. But how funny is it?
Perhaps the funniest part is to be found in Act 4, Scene 3. Here the four lords, arrive, in succession, to read their love poems aloud but (as they suppose) in secret. They suffer the indignity of being spied on by their fellows and then being confronted with the breaking of the shared oath. Each one has to admit that he is in love with one of the ladies.
(The men are fine poets but clumsy lovers.)
LLL is hard to put on; it is hard to make a success of it; it requires the exercise of imagination and a willingness to make cuts, on the part of the production team. With the aid of explanatory notes, LLL is readable – in places, amusing, in other places, rather tedious.
Many of Shakespeare’s works show a timeless quality (although times and places are evoked). On examination, LLL comes across as very much product of its period, the 1590s, by virtue of its veiled allusions (i) to the works of certain of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, eg those of Sir Philip Sidney, and (ii) to contemporary events, eg in France – all rather obscure, today. Hence, there is a distance between the rather artificial world portrayed by LLL and our world today (and the literature and drama that reflect it).
Love’s Labour’s Won
Such a play may have existed – a sequel to LLL; but if so, it is lost, under this title. Various hypotheses have been put forward, suggesting that one or other surviving play fits the bill – Love’s Labour’s Won under a different name – for example, Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well. I venture to suggest, instead, The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Fenton succeeds in marrying Miss Anne Page (winning out against Dr Caius and Slender).
Editions and versions taken into account
I have read these editions of LLL and the editors’ introductions:
1 Kerrigan, J (1982), Penguin: Harmondsworth (Middlesex)
2 Hibbard, G R (1990), OUP: Oxford
3 Woudhuysen, H R (1998), Arden 3 (Thomas Nelson & Sons): Walton-on-Thames
1 Branagh, K (director) (2000) – cinema film and video
2 Luscombe, C (director) (2015) – DVD of live performance.