1. Some Shakespeare scholars have thought Love's Labor's Lost to be a very early play, perhaps the first Shakespearian comedy. And it does have some mannered language reminiscent of works by John Lyly in the 1580s. This "euphuistic" style appears as a parody of bookish learning in some of the characters in Love's Labor's Lost. Shakespeare's play, however, has a sophistication of character and structure that places it after The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. More importantly, it is a play about emotional balance, an idea which would become the hallmark of the comedies to come.

2. Berowne, arguably the main character, is a prototype for Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, a man caught between his own comic narcissism and the woman he falls for. One of three noblemen attending on the King of Navarre, he becomes the barometer for their scholarly and amorous schemes, leading them through one excess after another. Although he is one step ahead of the men, however, he lags behind the women of the play, the Princess of France and her three ladies. As we will see in the comedies to come, Shakespeare's heroines are both quicker and more sensible than their male counterparts.

3. Navarre is a fairytale kingdom. Although a historical place, in this play it seems idyllic and isolated, like the imaginary Messina of Twelfth Night. In "Macao," W.H.Auden wrote, "And nothing serious can happen here," which seems a perfect image for Navarre until the last scene of the play. Early in the sixteenth century, most of Navarre had been annexed by Spain (the smaller northern part left to France), and this territorial dispute provides the slim plotline which brings the French Princess to the court of Navarre in Act 1. The announcement of her father's death in Act 5 recalls her to France, and brings a serious moment which interrupts the comic finale.

Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. We will be looking at scenes from Kenneth Branagh's film and the BBC studio production, which are as different as two versions can be. Each has a period setting: Elijah Moshinsky (BBC) chooses an 18th century salon, powdered wigs and all, while Branagh makes Navarre a 1930s European country on the verge of a World War II invasion. Each setting expresses a sense of isolation, intellectual or political, but the Branagh film prepares us from the first for the intrusion of the outside world in Act 5. First, here's the opening of the BBC scene 1:


In this carefully controlled environment, only Berowne dares point out the futility of their vow to study, and his objection is expressed quite meekly in this Age of Reason. Branagh begins with a newsreel summary of the impending war, but before long the young men launch into a musical number. Indeed, songs by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin make this adaptation a 30s musical, a choice hardly approved by audiences or most critics, unfortunately revealing their failure to understand what Shakespeare is up to:


Since modern audiences cannot fathom the intricate play of language in Love's Labor's Lost, Branagh uses music to express the exuberance of Berowne and company. (I've edited out all but one of the songs from our clips, but I do recommend you watch the whole film.)

5. Berowne is quick to point out the folly of study in isolation, both whimsically and practically:

Why, all delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchased, doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book,
To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light seeking light doth light of light beguile;
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes...
Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from others' books...
This article, my liege, yourself must break;
For well you know here comes in embassy
The French king's daughter with yourself to speak,
A maid of grace and complete majesty,
About surrender up of Aquitaine
To her decrepit, sick, and bedrid father.
Therefore this article is made in vain,
Or vainly comes th' admirèd princess hither.

King. What say you, lords? Why, this was quite forgot.

Berowne. So study evermore is overshot. (72-79, 86-87, 143-141)


The entrance of the French ladies seals the doom of the vow to study; the men try to keep their infatuations secret from each other, but inevitably they swing from one excess to another:


6. Take a look at our chart on the comedies. In The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare was developing the patterns of comic conflict and resolution he would use for twenty years: surviving fate, and overcoming opponents. On the left side of the chart, you see the evolving tension of ideas that first flowers in Love's Labor's Lost. The world of reason and order (the vow to study) is set against the world of emotion and freedom ("the huge army of the world's desires" [1.1.10]. The key to surviving comic fate or personal conflicts is balance. Finding your balance and keeping it is the story of this play, which has no visible external conflict for the lords of Navarre. In their sheltered green world (see the right side of the chart), they have only to find their emotional centers. Branagh's film adds an outside world, the threat of war, but the play as written has only a minor territorial dispute as external conflict. With the next comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the full pattern of mature Shakespearian comedy emerges.

7. The subplot of Love's Labor's Lost is also about balance, a series of broad parodies of the lords. Costard (Nathan Lane in the Branagh film) epitomizes the natural state of desire, while Don Armado is a pretentious would-be scholar whose comeuppance is to fall for Jacquenetta, to his lasting humiliation. Surrounding them are living parodies of the intellectual life (Holofernes) and social order (Dull).


In the next clip, we see how Branagh has condensed the subplot material from the first four acts. The plot device of the misdelivered love letters (Armado to Jacquenetta, Berowne to Rosaline) will set up the lords' grand discovery of their true natures:


We'll see both the BBC and Branagh versions of the discovery scene, 4.3. The rigid behavior of the enlightened lords finally collapses as they wrestle over Berowne's letter in the BBC production. Interestingly, the scene is transposed to a library, instead of the park most editors prefer. In this setting, surrounded by the books that are the emblems of their scholarly exile, the lords can finally admit their folly:


Branagh couches the discovery in broad, almost slapstick fashion. Berowne acts as director for the unfolding scene:

All hid, all hid—an old infant play.
Like a demi-god here sit I in the sky,
And wretched fools' secrets heedfully o'er-eye. (77-79)

The play metaphor sets up the stage images of Act 5, where there is a deus ex machina ending. But for now, singing and dancing the Gershwins' "I've Got a Crush on You," the lords physically break free from their bookish constraints:


8. Berowne has been the leader all along, dragged reluctantly into the vows, and now he brings the others back to sanity. It's a rarity to find alternate versions of a speech in Shakespeare, but Berowne's main speech is printed twice in the Signet edition, one of them a revision of the original. (See the Signet Classic edition, including footnotes, pp. 99-101, ll. 288-364.)

From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:
They are the ground, the books, the academes,
From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire...
O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books;
For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,
In leaden contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty's tutors have enrich'd you with?...
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
It is religion to be thus forsworn,
For charity itself fulfills the law,
And who can sever love from charity? (301-3, 317-22, 360-64)

He leads them into folly, however, with his proposed play-acting. In 5.2, complete with costumed disguises, they swoop down on the women in a masquerade, but the ladies are well prepared for this game:

Princess. But what, but what? Come they to visit us?

Boyet. They do, they do, and are apparelled thus—
Like Muscovites or Russians, as I guess.
Their purpose is to parley, court and dance;
And every one his love-feat will advance
Unto his several mistress, which they'll know
By favors several which they did bestow.

Princess. And will they so? the gallants shall be task'd;
For, ladies, we shall every one be mask'd,
And not a man of them shall have the grace,
Despite of suit, to see a lady's face...
The effect of my intent is to cross theirs.
They do it but in mockery merriment;
And mock for mock is only my intent. (119-129, 138-140)


9. Branagh shot the next scene in two different styles. Here is the wooing dance more or less as written, although in this deleted film scene the music track had not been dubbed in. Still, we can see the effort which evidently Branagh thought too silly for the final cut:


He decided instead to use a serious dance number not envisioned by Shakespeare:


Although the women play along in the revised dance number, their intent remains to mock the ludicrous behavior of the lords:


10. This final scene, is unusually long and varied. Three image patterns are woven: clothing/disguise, play-acting, and religion. Each develops our perception of the lords' excesses and prepares an important element of the play's closure. When the ladies' trick is revealed, Berowne confesses his disguise and vows to reform, that is, to find a better balance to his emotions:

Here stand I: lady, dart thy skill at me.
Bruise me with scorn, confound me with a flout,
Thrust thy sharp wit quite through my ignorance,
Cut me to pieces with thy keen conceit,
And I will wish thee never more to dance,
Nor never more in Russian habit wait.
O, never will I trust to speeches penned,
Nor to the motion of a schoolboy's tongue,
Nor never come in vizard to my friend,
Nor woo in rhyme, like a blind harper's song!
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical—these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.
I do forswear them; and I here protest
By this white glove (how white the hand, God knows!)
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be expressed
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes.
And to begin, wench—so God help me, law!—
My love to thee is sound, sans crack or flaw.

Rosaline. Sans "sans," I pray you.

Berowne. Yet I have a trick
Of the old rage. Bear with me, I am sick.
I'll leave it by degrees.

He will put aside the clothing of deception (taffeta, silk) and become an honest, plain man dressed in kersey (ordinary wool). When he slips and uses the fancy "foreign" word "sans" (without), Rosaline catches him up. This exchange capsulizes the peculiar ending of Love's Labor's Lost, which promises happiness yet denies it to both characters and audience, reversing our expectations. Both disguise and play-acting are invoked, as well as Berowne's reference to sickness which is developed a bit later.

11. Shakespeare withholds closure when he interjects a somber message from the outside world, news of the death of the king of France. To prefigure this change in the rhythm of the play, we see also a play-within-the-play, the pageant of the "Nine Worthies." The clumsy acting of Costard, Armado, and the rest will be mocked by the lords, who fail to remember their own pretensions as revealed by the ladies:

I see the trick on 't. Here was a consent,
Knowing aforehand of our merriment,
To dash it like a Christmas comedy. (461-63)

In a scene deleted from his film, Branagh tries to represent the topical humor of Shakespeare's day, but evidently the attempt falls flat:


Indeed, the "Nine Worthies" is satirized mercilessly until it is broken up by Costard's announcement that Jacquenetta is pregnant by Armado. This is hardly a fairy tale ending to the subplot, and is followed immediately by Marcade's sad news. The BBC version is the more faithful to the original:


12. The ladies lead us and the lords to a more realistic balance of emotions. The Princess had already set the scene with her tolerant attitude towards the inept players:

Ferdinand. Berowne, they will shame us. Let them not approach.

Berowne. We are shame-proof, my lord; and tis some policy
To have one show worse than the king's and his company.

Ferdinand. I say they shall not come.

Princess. Nay, my good lord, let me o'errule you now.
That sport best pleases that doth least know how,
Where zeal strives to content, and the contents
Dies in the zeal of that which it presents.
Their form confounded makes most form in mirth,
When great things laboring perish in their birth.

Berowne. A right description of our sport, my lord. (510-520)

When the mood darkens ("Worthies, away! the scene begins to cloud" [723]), Berowne's language changes to patterns of sin and penance:

Our love being yours, the error that love makes
Is likewise yours. We to ourselves prove false,
By being once false for ever to be true
To those that make us both—fair ladies, you.
And even that falsehood, in itself a sin,
Thus purifies itself and turns to grace. (772-77)


And the ladies insist on a year's penance, pushing comic closure far into the future:

King. Now, at the latest minute of the hour
Grant us your loves.

Princess. 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; (788-808)

13. Branagh's film ends with joyful reunions after the (world) war that has been threatening since the beginning of the play. We'll stop short of that ending here (although I do recommend it) and conclude with a last reminder that comic closure has been broken:

Berowne. Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.

King. Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then 'twill end.

Berowne. That's too long for a play. (875-79)



Love's Labor's Lost is a fascinating study in the development of Shakespearian comedy. In the play written just earlier, The Two Gentleman of Verona, Shakespeare had forced an abrupt closure; in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the next comedy, closure is achieved by literal and artistic magic. But here the author plays with his storytelling, experimenting with an ending that sheds light on all the comic closures to come. There is also a hero, Berowne, who is an early version of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. The Signet Classic edition has an excellent Introduction by John Arthos, and an important background piece by Northrop Frye.

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