Love's Labour's Lost | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Love's Labour's Lost | Context

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A Lyrical Play

The oldest surviving published version of Love's Labour's Lost was in the First Quarto (1598 printing on paper 9.5 by 12 inches in size); however, some scholars believe there may have been an earlier published version. This belief is due to a note on the First Quarto's title page indicating a "newly corrected and augmented" Love's Labour's Lost. In addition the First Quarto also notes that the play was "presented before her Highness this last Christmas." So while the exact dates for the first publication and performance of the play are not known, it seems an early performance of the play was for Queen Elizabeth around Christmas, possibly in 1597. Love's Labour's Lost is grouped with A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600), Richard II (1595–96), and Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594–95), all considered lyrical plays, full of poetry and rhyme. For these reasons scholars often place the writing of the play around 1595 or 1596.

Sources and Influences

Although Shakespeare regularly borrows plot elements from other sources, there is no specific known source for Love's Labour's Lost. However, the basic plot may take inspiration from L'Academie Française (The French Academy) written by French writer Pierre de La Primaudaye in the late 1500s. In this work four men choose to forego the outside world to pursue scholarship. Scholars also think the characters of the four male protagonists are based on the historical King Henry IV of France and members of his court.

The Italian theatrical form of commedia dell'arte (featuring masked characters), with roots in Roman theater and popular from the 1500s through the 1700s, is a strong influence on certain aspects of Love's Labour's Lost. This influence is particularly evident in the play's reliance on stock characters and plot devices (recurring as types across works). The pairs of lovers, the Spanish braggart soldier (Don Armado), the comic rustic servant (Costard), the mocking servant (Mote), and the pedant or doctor (Holofernes) are all based on common commedia dell'arte stock characters.

Masques and Pageants

During the English Renaissance and Elizabethan period (15th to 17th centuries), masques and pageants were popular pastimes for the royalty and nobility. During a masque performers and participants would enter, masked or otherwise disguised, and act out a play, usually with a magical, allegorical, or symbolic storyline that also involved music and dance. Members of the nobility often took part in the performance, and masques were famous for their elaborate stage settings and expensive costumes. The visit of the "Russians" and the masking of the ladies in Shakespeare's play show the influence of the masque as a form of entertainment.

The schoolmaster Holofernes's pageant of processional costumed figures is made up of exemplary figures of history: the "Nine Worthies," whose identities trace back to the 1300s. The Nine Worthies typically included three pre-Christian warriors (usually Trojan warrior prince Hector, Roman politician Julius Caesar, and Macedonian king Alexander the Great), three Jews (usually Israelite leaders Joshua and David and Jewish priest Judas Maccabaeus), and three Christians (English mythological King Arthur, Roman emperor Charlemagne, and Frankish knight Godfrey of Bouillon). These men exemplified aspects of the perfect man. In Holofernes's version Roman politician Pompey the Great and Greek hero Hercules are included, although they are not in the traditional list. In any case these men exemplify the qualities of chivalry and "worthiness."

Euphuism

During the Elizabethan era a literary style called euphuism became popular, based on a romance called Euphues by English writer John Lyly. This style was known for excessive use of literary elements such as

  • balance: a sentence made up of two segments, which are equal in length and in grammatical structure or meaning
  • antithesis: two sentences of contrasting meanings in close proximity to one another
  • figurative language: use of words or expressions with meanings different from their literal meanings, such as similes and metaphors
  • sound devices: alliteration, or the repetition of the same or very similar consonant sounds in words that are close together

Foreign words drawn from Latin, Greek, and French were also used by the educated to show their sophistication. This verbal excess is treated satirically in the play, although Shakespeare himself was inclined to the liberal use of language. Therefore, although the issue of clear vernacular versus poetic or educated language was being debated, Shakespeare found a playground in the tension between the idea that language should be used to convey clear meaning and language as sport.

Changing Opinions

From the beginning critics have been free in their criticism of Love's Labour's Lost. English poet Robert Tofte wrote in 1598 that the play was "comicall" for most audiences but for the poet "tragick." In 1710 English literary critic Charles Gildon called the play "one of the worst of Shakespear's Plays, nay I think I may say the very worst," noting that it must have been Shakespeare's very first play for its quality was so poor. English writer and poet Samuel Johnson wrote, "The stile of the rhyming scenes in this play is often entangled and obscure."

However, Love's Labour's Lost gained admirers over time, and by the late 1800s critics began to find something praiseworthy about it. In the 20th century the play saw a resurgence of interest. Respected Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom wrote of the play in his 1998 book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that "Love's Labour's Lost is a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none."

Love's Labour's Won

In 1598 English cleric Francis Meres mentioned a play by William Shakespeare titled Love's Labour's Won. A fragment of a packing slip dated 1603 and listing the play has also been discovered. Some believe Love's Labour's Won was lost, and the possibility of a lost sequel lends a certain mystique to Love's Labour's Lost. Whether this play ever existed and if it was written by Shakespeare are debatable, however. Some scholars think that Love's Labour's Won was simply a working title for Much Ado About Nothing, since the characters in that play, Benedick and Beatrice, do seem like more fully formed versions of Berowne and Rosaline.
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