The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 9: Love’s Labours Lost

Date:  Mid-1590s.


First read: Circa 1998, before I felt equipped to take issue with Shakespeare’s work.


Productions seen: One student production some time in the late 90s and the rather odd film adaptation with Alicia Silverstone.


Productions worked on:  None. Long may that continue.


Edition I’m using:  An elderly Arden.





  • What the fuck did I just read?
  • I think everyone reading this has already figured out that these observations are personal and immediate, and I’m not making any claims to any kind of dispassionate or academic response. That said, brace yourselves. My feelings towards this play are strong.
  • Love’s Labours Lost is the kind of play that makes people hate Shakespeare. It’s overblown, overlong, long on wordplay and short on wit.
  • In terms of structure, this is a mess. Three very short acts followed by two incredibly long ones. A fifth act that contains an entire masque. A boring, boring masque, that doesn’t end until after the plot (such as it is) has already concluded.
  • The deft timing that makes some of his other comedy palatable is absent here. Every joke is made at least two or three times in a row just to make sure you get it, and also to pad out a play otherwise lacking in any kind of substance. There’s cumulative effect, and there’s DEAR GOD SHAKESPEARE MAKE IT STOP PLEASE PLEASE.
  • The characters are almost all uninteresting and interchangeable. Berowne stands out by dint of being given marginally wittier lines than his comrades, and by having a speech that marks him out as a sort of proto-Benedick (because everything and I mean everything in this abysmal play will be recycled in Much Ado and As You Like It, both of which are pretty weak). The Princess of France is distinguished from her ladies only by the fact that she tends to be the one talking. The comic relief (never has that phrase been more ironically used) is an indistinct lineup of idiots whose verbosity is, I think, meant to be amusing… but isn’t. And the whole thing ends with the sad and sudden death of a characters whose existence we were only vaguely aware of.
  • There’s absolutely nothing at stake for the characters in this play. The men have made an oath which they break immediately and feel no genuine anguish over. If their situation is meant to wound their pride, it would have been better to give them some. The women are motivated by that strongest of driving forces, namely being slightly miffed because the men are being weird. Seriously, the King of Navarre tells the Princess of France that he’ll put her up in a field and she’s merely a little bit put out? These are the wettest women in the canon thus far! I can think of another French princess of Shakespeare’s who would cheerfully start a blood feud for less…
  • I had planned to quote a particular line so that I could mock the play with its own text, but I honestly can’t bring myself to open the script to look it up. I can’t stand the sight of couplets any more. Think I’m just going to leave this one here and be grateful that the next play on the list is R&J.
  • To whoever managed to lose the text of Love’s Labours Won, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sparing me from it.



NEXT TIME: Romeo & Juliet

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, director, dramaturg, spoken word artist and acting coach. View all posts by jenbitespeople

6 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Re-Read Week 9: Love’s Labours Lost

  • joycemcmillan

    Hi Jen! I largely shared your feelings until I saw a great Bard In The Botanics production a few years ago. I’m sure they cut a lot of it, but some the poetry – Berowne’s in particular – just soared, and genuinely made my spine tingle. Seen in a garden, it looked like a complete youthful hymn to the idea of romantic love. A right mess in many of the ways you suggest, but zinging with joy! Keep reading…. j xxxx

  • Dr M. D. Bolsover

    Reblogged this on *the fold of the artist and commented:
    *week #9 of the (roughly) chronological read-through of the complete #Shakespeare plays: Love’s Labours Lost. …

  • BeeDice

    After the novice Two Gentlement of Verona and Henry VI plays, of questionable (if any) value, I get the sense that each of the four subsequent apprentice plays cleansed something crucial in Shakespeare, from Titus Andronicus’ pornographic violence, to Richard III’s outlandish villainy, to the Comedy of Errors’ dramatic momentum, to the Taming of the Shrew’s overambitious resolution. In a way, Love’s Labour’s Lost is itself an apprentice play, but whatever it may be, it is nearly flawless, and a fitting capstone to the opening stage of Shakespeare’s career.

    I’m finding it difficult to outdo others in describing this play, from Jonathan Bate’s “great feast of linguistic sophistication on the theme of the inadequacy of linguistic sophistication”, to Harold Bloom’s “exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none”, to Moth’s “they have been at a great of languages, and stolen the scraps” (5.1), which surely serves as Shakespeare’s own description, and not surprisingly, the aptept. It’s a love letter to a flawed genre, and like all such art (One Punch Man comes to mind), it’s filled to the brim with what makes said genre amazing, namely, an English so sweet it would do Chaucer proud, and what makes it awful, namely, complete incomprehension.

    Language is a marvelous mystery, and this play reminds me of the only piece of philosophy I find remotely palatable, Wittgenstein’s closing thought in his Tractacus, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. In this way, the play fits with the other four apprentice works mentioned above, in that it taught Shakespeare what comes from an overabundance of linguistic wit, namely, fuck all (Hamlet’s “words words words”). Shakespeare is all too aware of the limits of language, whether at its simplest or at its most sophisticated. Rosaline points out, in the play’s marvelous closing scene, that “a jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it, never in the tongue of him that makes it,” which echoes Dull’s wonderful response to Holofernes “Thous hast spoken no word all this while”: “Nor understood none either, sir.”

    Although my awe and admiration for this peculiar and zany little play stem almost entirely from its language, there is a finesse in the plot and the characterization that puts it apart from its predecessors, and closer to its magnificent successors (Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The comedy stems from how quickly and baldly the four lords fail to keep their oaths. The image of the king scurrying away over the top of his vantage point is emblematic, as is the Princess’ keen “whoe’er a was, a showed a mounting mind.” Sex is the end-all of our existence and our livelihood, and this truth bears down on all the main characters, even if they don’t fully comprehend it. Berowne is clearly the character most aware of this truth (although Rosaline and the Princess likely join him), and neurotic emphasis on eyesight and physical attraction adds an unsettling underscore to the general festivities. Hell, his reluctance to repent for a year (“that’s too long for a play”) may as well be the drama’s thematic climax.

  • BeeDice

    Ahh, I disagree with most of your points!! But I get where you’re coming from.

    * I wouldn’t say this puts people off Shakes, mostly because ain’t no one reading this who doesn’t already know what they’re doing. It’s an unpopular, unknown play. I doubt it ever gets taught in high school, and elsewhere, it seems to be taught mostly as an intellectual exercise. Hell, I enjoyed it mostly as an intellectual exercise (and surely Shakespeare wrote it as such).

    * I think the structure works wonderfully. It’s experimental, yes, but it works. Think of it as four short minor acts that set up a plot which will be resolved in the grand, five-part masque that is the fifth act.

    * Hmm, when I re-read this next (it’s now one of my favorite plays!) I’ll be on the lookout for repetetiveness. Maybe I was too taken by what was happening, but I didn’t notice it.

    * Ahh, the characters are so individual! Of the four pair of lords, true, two are interchangeable, but the Princess and Berowne are magnificent and fleshed out, and the King and Rosaline have their unique charm too. The schoolmaster’s pretentiousness outodes everybody’s, his pal Nathaniel just wants to play along, Dull just can’t figure anything out, Moth is a loveable young rascal, Armado is full of himself (and dotes on Moth, aw!), and Costard matches the nobles’ wit.

    * I don’t think the boys’ situation was meant to wound their pride. It’s significant that their decision to cloister themselves from the world is a) all but rejected by Berowne, and b) falls flat on its face INSTANTLY. There’s no reason to dwell much on their initial oath: it’s clear they have no idea what they’re talking about (except possibly Berowne), and the plot’s driving force is the awkward way the dudes fail to keep it. The scene where they all catch other reading god-awful love poetry is sublime!

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