Love’s Labour’s Lost

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Love’s Labour’s Lost was a battle in a private war between court factions.”

This statement by Richard David neatly and clearly underlines the uniqueness of the play. No other play shows so much consistent evidence of Shakespeare’s involvement in one of the many vituperative literary quarrels of the day, to such an extent that there are many both obvious and hidden verbal references to it. Even more, it is certain that some of the characters are intended to satirize some of the actual participants in a now long-ended literary row. It is, in modern parlance, an “in-play” whose full impact no modern audience will ever experience because the events to which it is attached, and the allusions which it employs, are defunct. Some scholars, commenting upon the fact that it is the only play of Shakespeare’s with no known literary source, combine caution with incredulity and believe that the source is yet to be found. However, given the circumstances of its writing – a source was hardly necessary, indeed might well have been a drawback.

Shakespeare was deploying satire and he used contemporary events as his material. The nature of both that material – and the satire – immediately suggests that the play was not intended, initially at least, for public performance. It is a play of ‘litterateurs’; no Elizabethan apprentice, benchman, butcher, trader or soldier would respond to its artifice with more than a feeling that reminded him of some quarrel whose rumblings he had dimly heard of.

Its logical setting was private performance for aficionados, either at court or at some noble household, possibly the Southamptons. Richard David suggests that the large number of boy players required in the play argues for a household which had a resident troupe of choristers. Wherever the place, the audience would have been literate, noble, and doubtless well primed to enjoy the “in-jokes.”

Its relationship to the literary coteries of the time helps, though not precisely, to date it to about 1593 (or to date its writing to about 1593). Contemporary satire, as both modern stage and TV audience have reason to know, soon stales. The iron of the particular quarrel to which the play relates was hot in 1592-93. This creates a problem since, in terms of construction and comparative maturity of execution, the play would seem naturally to be the last of the four early comedies which would place it not before 1598. This, however, would be too late to catch the heat of controversy. There are some indications to suggest a revision of the play around 1597 but these (variant speech-headings, conflicting allusions, alternative versions of the same speech) are largely technical, and do not change the overall literary status of the play.

What is certain is that the verbal style, the characterization, and the plot (what there is of it), put the play firmly in the context of the mid 1950’s – courtly comedy influenced in style by the university wits, and in plot and character by Latin and Italian models. Again, the evidences of the growth of a characteristically individual vision of the meaning of love tie it very closely, particularly with The Comedy of Errors and, to some extent, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The events are based with remarkable fidelity on certain actualities. In 1578 the Princess of France (Marguerite de Valois) was an ambassador from her mother (Catherine de Medici) to the court of the King of Navarre. In 1586, Catherine herself visited him. On the first of these occasions one of the issues discussed was Marguerite’s dowry which involved the suzerainty ofAquitaine. On both occasions the opportunity was taken for much junketing, doubtless given an extra piquancy by the presence of a large number of ladies who accompanied Marguerite.

The academy of the opening scenes also has a historical basis. In the 1580’s the King of Navarre, perhaps fired by the example of the Medicis, somewhat self-consciously made himself the patron of arts, but, more to the point, “furnished the court with principal gentlemen of Religion and reformed his house.” This furnishing and reforming was by way of creating a sophisticated salon or academy in which the favored discussed and debated artistic matters. Shakespeare may well have heard first hand accounts of this but more likely to have got his detailed knowledge from a book L’Academie Francoise translated into English in 1586, and very popular.

The Elizabethan literary world was a ferment of talent, genius, envy, love, jealousy and hatred. Its intellectual and emotional temper was increased by the very smallness of that same world. Shakespeare seems, on the evidence we have, not to have been so bitterly involved in its darker pursuits as many of his contemporaries like Marlowe, Greene, Nashe and Ben Jonson. The impression is that he was generally admired, though the very sharpness of Greene’s attack makes it clear that he was not immune from the attention of the envious. The quarrels and arguments, conducted in speech and written word were many and varied in subject and style, and any attempt to sort out issues and personalities is complicated by the fact that participants often changed sides.

A detailed account of bewildering circumstances of the contextual events of Love’s Labour’s Lost appears in Richard David’s introduction to the New Arden Edition of the play. What is pertinent to an appreciation of the play’s dramatic and theatrical realization may be summarized as follows:

  1. There was a prolonged quarrel between Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Nashe. The former was a Cantab scholar, friend of Edmund Spenser; the latter was also a Cantab man, dramatist and pamphleteer, a friend of Greene and Lyly.
  2. The quarrel was the result of complications following upon the publications of the famous Martin Maprelate tracts. These were puritan pamphlets attacking the Episcopal organization of the established church. Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted by guile and physical force to suppress them and to discover their authors. The Bishops, after vainly attempting to answer them failed to match their intellectual energy and vituperative brilliance and employed professional writers for the task. One such was Thomas Nashe.
  3. Some answers to Maprelate were made in play form – one of the most effective being Nashe’s An Almond for a Parrot (1590).
  4. The arguments, now involving lay artists as well as the clergy, became more personal and spread in subject and theme out of their original context.
  5. Having published a contribution to the Maprelate affair which said in effect, “a pox on both your houses,” Harvey, in two pamphlets – Plain Perceval and The Lamb of God – included an attack on Greene and Nashe.
  6. In 1592 Nashe in his Perce Penillesse, His Supplication to the Devil, furiously replied toHarvey.
  7. In the following two years attack and counter-attack was engaged in, reconciliation attempted and refused, by the two men.

By 1594, the original grounds of controversy – which were religious – had changed. The quarrel between Nashe and Harvey was largely upon personal grounds within which one can dimly see tensions and disagreements which involved basic literary attitudes. Peter Alexander expresses these issues thus:

“Gabriel Harvey, the Cantab scholar, stood for learning, and also, Nashe declared, for pedantry and conceit: Nashe, the Cantab graduate and satirist, regarded himself as the man of worldly experience as opposed to the mere plodder in books, The opposing parties fought under names that now require some translating: those who stood for scholarship were known as the Artists; those who preferred experience as their teacher called themselves Villainists with Nashe the protagonist of the Villainists, professing to regard the debtor’s prison which he had known, as a more instructive centre for an author than a college. Worldly experience was, of course, incomplete without love.”

The connection between Shakespeare’s play and this bizarre circumstance of Artists and Villains begins to become clearer. The specific allusions are both verbal and in terms of character. Nashe’s pamphlet, in which he first replied to Harvey, is conjured up by many plays and puns on the words “purse” and “penny”; the famous verbal gymnastics between Armado and Moth in Act I, in which the latter is referred to as “tender juvenal” which is generally regarded as a reference to a nickname for Nashe. The play is thick with such references, and also with satirical portraits and comments upon the participants in the pamphlet war. Moth is almost undoubtedly, in his quipping mockery of the learned, intended to be Nashe. Harvey is less easy to identify, for his style – affected and allusive – is found mocked in both Holofernes and Armado. Alexander believes that Holofernes is meant to remind the audience of Florio, the translator of Montaigne who, though not specifically involved in the quarrel is meant to stand as a well-known example of the Artists. Although positive identifications are difficult, the important point is that the play itself demonstrates the ridiculousness both of self-conscious learning and the nimble, often empty, sniping of the opposition. The play does not seem to take sides on the particular issue. It can best be regarded as a general rebuke first, of dissension, which is profitless, in that it does not lead to any sense of order or unity and second, of attitudes to life which confuse fact with truth, learning with wisdom, dalliance with true love and theory with experience. Those disposed to partisanship might read in it a justification for believing that Shakespeare ranged himself on the side of the “Villainists”, the naturals; that, not being a man of formal learning himself he was making a case for the truth of experience as superior to the sophisticated posturing of learning. This is too narrow a view of the play. In any case, even at this early stage in his career, Shakespeare’s tendency is towards reconciliation of opposed forces, not taking up of sides.

At the end of the play this reconciliatory grasp can clearly be seen by the modern audience even if they have missed much of the topical background which is its context. However, there can be little doubt that, up to this point, the presence of the context puts some strain upon the audience’s imagination. It is not easy, for example, to take Moth, Armado and Holofernes at their face value by deliberately forgetting their possible reference to actual people. If we forget the ghosts that lie behind them we are left with fantastic characters; a modern audience will accept such characters, such artifice, only if two conditions are satisfied – first, that they are interesting in themselves, and second, that they are involved in an ingenious plot. On neither score do these characters satisfy, though this is not to deny that a nimble-pated actor can use them for creating a sort of comic pantomime display of technique. Their remoteness from easy acceptance is considerably increased by the simple fact that they are the chief wanderers in a verbal maze whose entrances and exits are covered up in thickets of Elizabethan allusion:

Moth: Peace! The Peale begins.

Armado: Mounsier, are you not lettered?

Moth: Yes, yes, he teaches boys the Horn-Book: What is Ab, speld backward with the horn on his head?

Holofernes: Ba, Puericia with a horn added.

Moth: Ba most seemly sheep, with a horn: you hear his learning.

Holofernes: Quis, Quis, thou consonant?


The actual plot line is extremely thin – the only ingenuity likely to beguile an audience is the confusion of identities in the masking scene; even here, we are so cognizant of the truth that there is no real theatrical surprise. The characterization, with the exception of Berowne, and to some extent of the Princess, is lank – the cynic might call it an ineffectual clash of Debs and Blades.

The only mood in which the audience can approach this play with hope of delight is one of relaxation, in which one is prepared to spend time with a frivolity which provides the kind of intellectual testing we associate with the cross-word puzzle. Indeed, the more one is prepared to indulge oneself with something of the insouciance (indifference, carelessness) which the young gentlemen of Navarre’s academy display, the more likely one is able to appreciate the archetypal cleverness of the play’s construction.                       M.C. Bradbrook writes:

Nowhere else does Shakespeare display so consistent a linguistic interest as here. The varieties of speech set off each other, and are more sharply differentiated than elsewhere: Style is a garment indeed, and each character dresses in his own fashion.

This is true – in this play verbal hue has taken the place of psychological truth.

The King of Navarre is known to us as formal and courtly, being every inch the “glass of fashion” and the “mould of form”. His character is signified in his language which always seems on the point of moving into sonnet – neatly balanced in argument, musical, and flourishingly conclusive. Yet, in everything he says, which is to say – everything he is; he always mistakes the elegance of form for the truth of content:

“Therefore brave conquerors, for so you are,

That war against your own affections,

And the huge army of the world’s desires,

Our late edict shall strongly stand in force.”

His courtiers, with the exception of Berowne, are mirrors of their leader. They, like him, are trapped within a golden cage of language, protected by its symmetry from any real engagements with the facts of life. But Berowne’s character seems most robustly constructed of all because, he speaks “with more than one voice”; he is “both guilty of courtly artifice and critical of it” (Bradbrook). He, like his colleagues, plays at dalliance with language but a good deal of his attraction for an audience is that, at times, he gives evidence of realizing some substance behind the shadows. Like Mercutio, he has reached that mid-point of development where the delights of verbal play and the realities of meaning are beginning to have equal validity in his mind. He is capable of dalliance as the rest, but never lets it dominate him.

The language of the lovers when they appear together is that of love’s self-conscious combating – defensively bright, ostentatiously fashionable in the courtly manner, delicately allusive, making points not wounds in its child-like playfulness:

King:   All hail sweet Madame, and fair time of day.

Princess: Fair in all Hail is foul, as I conceive.

King: Construe my speeches, if you may.

Princess: Then wish me better: I will give you leave.


Holofernes is a victim of language because of his own conceit to be a man of the moment and consort with learned and fashionable people like Armado. He cannot go directly to a point for that is too ordinary; he skirts around meaning, fearful of seeming put down by mere clarity.

The posterior of the day, most generous Sir, is liable, congruent and measurable for the afternoon.

(V.i. 78-79)

Armado, like the rest, created out of his own speech, is almost all wind. He is high-minded about words, but neither his mind nor his tongue can quite match the grandeur of his pretensions. His rhetoric has the effectiveness of air that slowly escapes from a pricked balloon. He is a Malvolio whose ambitions have not yet been touched with rancour:

“Sir, the King is a noble Gentleman, and my familiar, I do assure ye, very good friend: for what is inward between us, let it pass. I do beseech thee remember thy curtesie. I beseech thee apparel thy head: and among other important and most serious designs, and of great import in deed too: but let that pass for must I tell thee it will please his grace (by the world) sometime to lean upon my poor shoulder, and with his royal finger thus dally with my ex*****, with my mustachio: but sweet heart let that pass.

(V.i 82-94)

Moth flies towards words with an unerring skill, and is too quick to allow them to burn him. His language, quick and pert, can match obscure allusion with downright comment. This isolates him and makes him a solo performer in the whole complicated dance of words:

Armado: Is there not a Ballet Boy of the King and the Beggar?

Moth: The world was very guilty of such a Ballet some three ages since, but I think now ‘tis not to be found: or if it were, it would neither serve for the writing nor the tune.

Armado: I will have the subject newly writ ore, that I may example my digression by some mighty precedent. Boy, I do love, that country girl that I took in the park with the rational hind –

Costard: She deserves well.

Moth: To be whipt: and yet a better love than my maister.

Armade: Sing Boy, My spirit grows heavy in love.

Moth: And that’s great marvel, loving a light wench.

(I.ii. 106-118)

Thus each plays his part in a large pattern of extraordinary device and virtuosity. In the final analysis what they are engaged to do by Shakespeare is to demonstrate the paradox: “that it takes fine language to mock fine language.” Shakespeare can play the game of satire and verbal device with far greater genius at his disposal than those whose sleeping ghosts lie behind this play’s action. In the long run his passing intention in this way was to show the delicious ineffectiveness of verbal contention, because his last scene clearly implies that his deeper intent lay elsewhere – fed and conditioned by the particular cast of his own imagination.

There is extraordinary change of pace and mood with the appearance of the messenger – Mercade. The play, up to this point, has been almost entirely playful. There have been no prevailing implications, as in The Comedy of Errors, or The Two Gentlemen of Verona of the characteristic purposefulness of Shakespeare’s comedy and his view of love. The lovers, particularly the men, have had their fun, the ladies have enjoyed themselves with judicious coquetry. Only Berowne, in his satirical, mocking words about the impossibility of the academy had, hitherto, given some hint of the ridiculousness of the gaming. Now it is he (but is as late as Act IV Sc iii) who announces the possibility that the play’s theme will, quite unexpectedly, take a different course:

For wisdom sake, a word that all men love:

And who can sever love from charitie.

(IV. iii. 353-367)

Even now, the King and his lords, shifting their ground with mindless ease, mistake his words for a declaration of just another move in the great game.

Saint Cupid, then! And soldiers, to the field.

Berowne, whom Walter Pater calls a man who “demands always the profit of learning in renewed enjoyment,” who yet, “surprises us from time to time by intuitions which could come only from a deep experience and power of observation,” is intellectually, the audience’s key to the play’s change of mood. It is not necessary to agree explicitly with Pater that there is something of self-portraiture in Shakespeare’s handling of Berowne to feel that there is nevertheless much of truth in Pater’s conclusion: “In this character which is never quite in touch, never on a perfect level of understanding, with other persons of the play, we see, perhaps, a reflex of Shakespeare himself, when he has just been able to stand aside from and estimate the first period of his poetry.”

There is a connection between the way this character is presented and the mood-shift of the play. Perhaps Shakespeare, like Berowne having made his gamesome points and shown that he is as capable as the next of tripping a light fantastic, became aware of the necessity not to compromise the realities inside his own imagination. In Berowne the awareness is intermittent but sharp. It is summed up in his words after the entry of Mercade:

Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief.

(V. ii. 741)

which is as much as to say, there is a time to stop the nonsense. In Shakespeare the awareness pours out in the last scene.

Mercade brings a notice of death which becomes a catalyst to dissolve the illusions. Shakespeare has already shown, through Navarre and his lords, that love cannot be pushed aside – even flippantly. Now he proceeds to show that an acceptance of love must involve more than striking one colour and hoisting another. The King has to learn a bitter lesson since, at the end, he is still self-indulgent:

Yet since loves argument was first on foot

As to rejoice at friends but newly found.

(V. ii. 735-9)

It is Berowne who sees clearest. He comments on, “What in us hath seemed ridiculous” and asks for love’s grace by which the former dalliance may be purified. All have to earn that grace, and prove that present oaths are less empty than past ones.

This is the only comedy of Shakespeare’s which ends with lovers on probation, as it were. Games must be paid for by penalties which will prove fidelity, but we do not see the result. What we witness at the end is a cooling of the sunlight – the academy, the muscovites, the nine worthies, all shadows, are dissolved, replaced by a natural imagery:

This is Hiems, winter, this Ver, the Spring, the one maintained by the owl, the other by the cuckoo.

(John Barton’s rehearsal notes)

The lesson is that men and women must have a care – life has its seasons.