Love's Labour's Lost | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Love's Labour's Lost | Symbols

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Outdoors

In Shakespeare's plays indoor spaces usually are associated with conventions, rules, and social structures. Outdoor spaces are associated with a more relaxed attitude toward rules and restrictions, including conventions around relationships between men and women. This is clearly seen in plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It, where characters go out into a forest area and all sorts of societal "rules" are broken—women take the upper hand in relationships, women dress as men, couples fall in and out of love, and the like. In Love's Labour's Lost it is significant that the women are lodged in a field outside the boundaries of the court, not in the court itself. The war of wits the women use, in which they try to outsmart the men (and succeed) by disguising themselves and trading tokens, would not occur had the women been lodged in rooms of the king's palace, for example.

Hunting

After they arrive in Navarre, the princess and her ladies go hunting. Hunting, of course, is a thinly veiled metaphor symbolizing courtship; when the metaphor is used in the literature of the period it often suggests a cynical attitude toward love—lovers are interested in the pursuit, not the connection. When hunting, the hunter pursuers his (or her) prey the way that a man, wooing a woman, pursues her. Hunting is a more amusing pastime than a serious means to an end, as the princess reminds the audience in Act 4, Scene 1: It is "more for praise than purpose" and "for fame's sake, for praise, an outward part." This is an apt description of courtship among the nobility—the men are active pursuers interested in the chase, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in what might happen after the chase or in developing relationships based on more than banter and flirting. Yet in this play the women are the ones who go out to hunt, and they are the ones who take the upper hand in the relationships as they confuse and control the men through masks and token trading.

The symbolic meaning of "the hunt" also allows Shakespeare to indulge in a whole series of hunting-related sexual innuendo having to do with "shooters," "marks," "pricks," "shots," and "rubbing."

Masks

Masks symbolize hiding one's true identity and are used literally in Act 5 of the play, as the King of Navarre and his lords are confused by the ladies, who have masked themselves. But the hiding of identity and true feelings goes deeper than this superficial trickery in the play. Berowne seems to hide behind his argumentation and fancy language, so much so that he has a hard time expressing his plain and simple feelings to Rosaline. The conventions of love—the poems, flirting, sighs, exchanging tokens—also seem to obstruct the expression of true feelings and identity, something that becomes all too apparent when the princess's father dies and the tone of the play becomes suddenly somber. The seriousness of the situation, turned from lighthearted flirting to grieving, exposes the inadequacy of love's conventions to tackle true emotions. Once the masks—of all types—come off, the lovers must determine if their love is real or all for show.

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