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Love's Labour's Lost | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Love's Labour's Lost | Themes


Conventions of Love

From the title of the play it is clear that love will be an important aspect of the plot. Yet the play doesn't approach every aspect of love—it hones in on a few pertinent questions about how one falls in love, how one behaves when in love, and how these actions and behaviors relate to true or lasting love. The conventions of love—the stock behavior and feelings of lovers—are clearly shown by the ritualistic actions the men go through as they each fall in love. Poem writing is chief among these conventions. Becoming melancholy and sighing are also expected behaviors. The entire process of courtship, or wooing, is similarly saddled with expectations—the giving of tokens such as jewelry or gloves, a flirty game of chase likened, in the text, to hunting. However, all of these conventions and courtship rituals are superficial and don't necessarily indicate deep feeling. Like a poem that has form but no meaning, these conventions present the form or appearance of love without being grounded in an inward truth.

The King of Navarre and his three lords spend almost the entire play trying to demonstrate love. They write the poems, they moan and groan, and they plan entertainments for their ladies in hopes of winning them. Yet they spend very little time with the women and cannot tell them apart when masked. Thus the women are not convinced of their love. As the princess says in Act 5, Scene 2, the women "received your letters full of love;/Your favors, (the) ambassadors of love;/And in our maiden council rated them/At courtship, pleasant jest, and courtesy." In a typical comedy this question might not come up. The couples would marry and the audience would believe in the "happily ever after" for them without asking if they are truly well matched. By introducing the plot twist of the princess's father's death, however, this play asks the audience to consider whether the men will really wait a year for the women given they made an oath and broke it almost immediately.


Reputation is another way of exploring the difference between appearances and reality. A person's reputation depends on what others know about his or her actions. The King of Navarre opens the play with his stated desire to achieve fame for himself and his kingdom: "Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives ... make us heirs of all eternity." The Princess of France notes that hunting and killing a deer is done for praise: "As I for praise alone now seek to spill/The poor deer's blood, that my heart means no ill."

The oaths that the men make (and quickly break) help to develop this theme, since their main concern is not breaking the oath but being found out. And the idea that a person's reputation goes before him so that a person may hear about someone before actually meeting him is woven throughout the play as well. Armado is discussed by the king and his lords before appearing onstage. The King of Navarre is known to be "Matchless" (Act 3, Scene 1). Maria says that Longaville is known to have a sharp wit: "They say so most that most his humors know" (Act 3, Scene 1).

Verbose versus Clear Language

If nothing else is clear from this play, it is that Shakespeare loves language—and not just for its meaning or message. He loves its forms, its syntax, its poetry and prose, and its simplicity and its complexity. He loves old words, new words, and foreign words. He loves noble and base words. He loves dirty words. He loves words used correctly and all the ways they can be used incorrectly.

Yet he also acknowledges that language sometimes gets in the way of meaning, and sometimes isn't even spoken to communicate meaningful ideas. The play is full of characters who use language with such excess they can hardly be understood. Armado never uses one word when a page full of words can be used instead. He packs his sentences full of redundant words, piles on phrase after phrase, and adds flowery adjectives. For example, rather than saying a woman he says "a child of our grandmother Eve, a female; or, for thy more sweet understanding, a woman" (Act 1, Scene 2). Armado loves lists of synonyms, describing Dull as "a man of good repute, carriage, bearing" (Act 1, Scene 2). The schoolmaster Holofernes is more educated than Armado, but his language, overly analytical and excessively sprinkled with Latin words and phrases, is even more unintelligible. Berowne is not as wordy as Holofernes and Armado, but he is excessively argumentative, and his arguments often involve complicated rhetoric that makes his points sound as if they are logical when they are not.

As much as Shakespeare clearly has great affection for all of this excess—he fills the entire play with it after all—he admits that it often obscures actual meaning for both speaker and listener. Armado's prose is continually mocked for its excess. Holofernes gets so wrapped up in the finer points of language and poetry he is slow to take in what is going on around him. Berowne can hardly express his love for Rosaline because of his wordiness; in Act 5, Scene 2 he promises Rosaline he will try to tone it down a bit: "Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed/In russet yeas and honest kersey noes."

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