Love’s Labour’s Lost

William Shakespeare edited by H. R. Woudhuysen

DOI: 10.5040/9781408160251.00000021
Acts: 5. Scenes: 9. Roles: Male (13) , Female (5) , Neutral (0)

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy fascinated by the world of the court, by art, and most of all by language, knotted together with jokes, symbols, letters, poems, rhetoric and verbal trickery. It has been linked to contemporary humanist culture and to Sir Philip Sidney’s works, and touches on the traditions of Roman New Comedy and commeddia dell’arte. Written around the time of Shakespeare’s other ‘lyrical plays’, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play is generally dated to 1594-5, though evidence is scarce. It follows a vogue for social comedies of humours, epitomised by Ben Jonson by the end of the decade in Every Man in his Humour (1598), and was possibly influenced by the ongoing French Wars of Religion and the recent coronation of Henry of Navarre, King of France. This text is based on the first surviving Quarto, from 1598, from which the Folio text is also taken.

The King of Navarre and three of his lords, Dumaine, Longaville and Berowne, swear to renounce the company of women for three years, and retreat to the forest to study and fast. The Princess of France arrives on an embassy to recover money owed to her father. She is accompanied by a lord, Boyet, and three ladies, Maria, Katherine and Rosaline. The King falls in love with the Princess, Katherine with Dumaine, Maria with Longaville and Berowne with Rosaline. The lords overhear one another reading out their love poems, and excuse themselves from their vows; they dress up as Russians to talk to the ladies, who decisively outwit them. A messenger arrives and tells them of the Princess’s father’s death. Before they leave, the ladies impose year-long tasks on the lords, promising (more or less) after that period to return to marry them.

Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598) lists a supposed sequel to the play, Love’s Labour’s Won. Usually presumed to be a lost play, some scholars have speculated that it may be an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing or The Taming of the Shrew.