Shakespeare Saturday: Love’s labour’s lost

These are barren tasks, too hard to keep, not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep!

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a romantic comedy that could probably be described as bittersweet – it is about love, but while it doesn’t end in tragedy, it doesn’t have a traditionally happy romcom ending either. And it isn’t particularly funny, not like The Comedy of Errors or even Taming of the Shrew has the potential to be. It is thoroughly Shakespearean, but I somehow found it a bit… different, without being quite able to pinpoint why. The plot is extremely simple – boy swears off girls, meets a girl, temptation is too great to resist, but: in the end the girl’s situation in life changes and the boy loses the girl. It almost feels like Shakespeare is questioning if love is real at all, or simply foolishness.

A 1598 quarto of The pleasant conceited comedy of Loves Labors Lost on display in the Weston Library in Oxford.

King of Navarre has decided to improve his mind; to that end he, with few friends, swears off frivolities and pleasures to live ascetically and study. He will, with Dumain and Longueville, withdraw from the world for three years. The three of them persuade their mate Berowne/Biron to join them, even if he as the slightly older and wiser man has some reservations:

I can but say their protestation over;
So much, dear liege, I have already sworn,
That is, to live and study here three years.
But there are other strict observances;
As, not to see a woman in that term,
Which I hope well is not enrolled there;
And one day in a week to touch no food
And but one meal on every day beside,
The which I hope is not enrolled there;
And then, to sleep but three hours in the night,
And not be seen to wink of all the day–
When I was wont to think no harm all night
And make a dark night too of half the day–
Which I hope well is not enrolled there:
O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep!

The men take their oath (which comes with a harsh punishment clause), but even before they can begin, the King must already break this oath – the daughter of the King of France has arrived on behalf of her old, poorly father to pay off an old debt.

The princess and her companions Marie, Katherine and Rosaline have heard of the king’s plans to swear off women, and of course they are interested in the men they haven’t even really met. The princess has an audience with the King to discuss the political matter in hand, and inevitably, sparkles fly.

In the secondary cast, the clown Costard is being punished by the King for attempting to woo a local good time girl/milkmaid Jacquenetta. The King found out about this from Adriano de Armado, a random Spaniard who, of course, is in love with the girl himself. As a punishment, the King sentences Costard to 24 hours of bread and water, with Armado as his keeper (no points guessing which part of the punishment is worse). Once Costard is done with his punishment, both Don Armado and Berowne/Biron task him with delivering a letter to their beloved.

Costard finds the Princess and her companions in the King’s park, and accidentally hands them the letter meant for Jacquenetta, while Jaquenetta gets Berowne’s letter, and the whole situation unravels from this mishap. The men are forced to admit to each other that they are indeed in love with the ladies, and decide to abandon their oath and openly woo them. The King orders an entertainment to be organised in the Princess’ honour, and everybody dresses up in disguise, then reveals their true identity, the women gently mock the men, and they all then settle to watch the play-within-a-play (this is the second play in which Shakespeare uses this device). A messenger comes from France – the Princess’ father has died. She decides to leave immediately, but the King tries to persuade her to stay, asking her to marry him. The spell however has been broken, and she tells the King that she must go back to France and mourn her father. If in the time of one year and one day the King still loves her and has been faithful to her, she’ll accept his proposal. The other ladies give similar answers to the their respective suitors, and they then take their leave. The play ends in two songs, both questioning the possibility of a happy marriage.

Despite its external jollity, Love’s Labour’s Lost is quite a somber play. The men are tempted by what they themselves make a forbidden fruit with their oath, and the women get swept up by the situation. The news of the King’s death bring the Princess back to reality, and she understands the situation they are in – the brief time they have spent together, the infatuation they have for one another, is not something they could ever build a life on. Her life, the loss of her father, her home in France, are more real to her than the King’s love, and she acts accordingly.

A time, methinks, too short
To make a world-without-end bargain in.
No, no, my lord, your grace is perjured much,
Full of dear guiltiness; and therefore this:
If for my love, as there is no such cause,
You will do aught, this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust; but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world;
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning.
If this austere insociable life
Change not your offer made in heat of blood;
If frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds
Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,
But that it bear this trial and last love;
Then, at the expiration of the year,
Come challenge me, challenge me by these deserts,
And, by this virgin palm now kissing thine
I will be thine; and till that instant shut
My woeful self up in a mourning house,
Raining the tears of lamentation
For the remembrance of my father’s death.
If this thou do deny, let our hands part,
Neither entitled in the other’s heart.

In all the answers the ladies give, they make the same point – the lords broke their earnest oath to study and swear off women at the first sight of a woman, and so they cannot really trust these men’s words.

Not so, my lord; a twelvemonth and a day
I’ll mark no words that smooth-faced wooers say:
Come when the king doth to my lady come;
Then, if I have much love, I’ll give you some.

I’ll serve thee true and faithfully till then.

Yet swear not, lest ye be forsworn again.

Is is any good?

Yes. The secondary cast are perhaps a bit unnecessary and add slapsticky element the play doesn’t necessarily need. But as a whole this a good play, and it’s obvious that by now Shakespeare has found his voice and settled into his “skin” as a playwright. This is, notably, one of the very few works that are entirely his own devising – there are no obvious (known) sources for the play, making this uneasy tale of love in the context uniquely his.

Fun fact

The King and the princess must have come to some kind of agreement on the original matter of their meeting, for Aquitaine was never a part of Kingdom of Navarre.

What say thou?

There are lots of good dialogue and speeches about the nature of love and men’s weakness before women, but my favourite bit is the conversation Berowne and Rosaline have in the end. The spell has been broken, and she sees him for what he really is:

Studies my lady? mistress, look on me;
Behold the window of my heart, mine eye,
What humble suit attends thy answer there:
Impose some service on me for thy love.

Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Biron,
Before I saw you; and the world’s large tongue
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks,
Full of comparisons and wounding flouts,
Which you on all estates will execute
That lie within the mercy of your wit.
To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain,
And therewithal to win me, if you please,
Without the which I am not to be won,
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

Why, that’s the way to choke a gibing spirit,
Whose influence is begot of that loose grace
Which shallow laughing hearers give to fools:
A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it: then, if sickly ears,
Deaf’d with the clamours of their own dear groans,
Will hear your idle scorns, continue then,
And I will have you and that fault withal;
But if they will not, throw away that spirit,
And I shall find you empty of that fault,
Right joyful of your reformation.

Berowne/Biron is, in short, a bit of a jerk and Rosaline won’t have him unless he makes an effort to be a better person.

Best character?

The Princess and Rosaline both have great potential as early feminist icons.


My first cinematic Shakespeare! during this read through. I saw Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 film in the cinema way back when, and rewatched it now. Branagh did a bunch of Shakespeare adaptations in the 1990s and 2000s, and this is probably the weakest of them. He has cut most of the secondary plots and much of the primary one as well, so that only about one third of the original play text remains. He has set the play in a sound stage version of late 1939s Oxford, complete with autumnal fields and cricket screens, and has the cast regularly burst into song. It’s entertaining and completely forgettable.



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