Shakespeare's Staging
Love's Labour's Lost
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:13


Engraved portrait of the probable historical model for Shakespeare's Berowne: Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, from Atrium heroicum Caesarum. . . (Augsburg) 1600-02.


This play was quite popular with Elizabethan audiences, as its revisions, revivals, and quarto text confirm. In it Shakespeare successfully rivaled and ridiculed the verbal virtuosity of his competitors, the University Wits, such as John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Christopher Marlowe. When the showiness of that style finally went out of fashion, interest in the play declined, but it has revived with the New Critics' interest in close reading of comparably sophisticated Elizabethan texts such as the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, who is known to have attended such plays as this. However, recent attention has been more focused on the vivacity of the characterization, particularly the spectacular social agility of the young women portrayed, who anticipate all the sexual autonomy claimed by modern feminists. It shows how misguided must be any narrowly patriarchal interpretations of The Taming of the Shrew, written by Shakespeare at about the same time.

Modern popular interest was initially hindered by assertion of the play's covert allusions to various Elizabethan intellectuals, but this esoteric approach has been corrected by recognition that its actual sources were contemporary newsletters about popular personalities involved in the religious wars in France, reinforced by the fashionable gossip of their English associates, well-known to Shakespeare (such as the Earls of Southampton and Essex). In fact, almost every aristocratic character in the play derives from historical identities, not only the King of Navarre (later King Henri IV of France), but also the Princess (Marguerite de Valois, his first wife), who visited him at Nérac in 1578 with her brilliant court of ladies (the notorious escadron volant or light cavalry; 10.g.3; 1.2). This play is the second in this historical vein in a series of four about these fascinating people: Marlowe's Massacre at Paris, George Chapman's The Conspiracy of Duke Biron, and his Death of Biron. Shakespeare built his characterizations directly from these historical identities, particularly that of the volatile Biron (Berowne), while the historical Longueville did marry his Maria as anticipated in the play. Casual allusions to the King as "Ferdinand" in early speech ascriptions at the play's start serve superficially to disguise the script's royal allusions from any censor, unlike the less distracted one who punished Chapman's unwise frankness about staging awkward biographical details about the future Henri IV. Shakespeare later changed the name of Oldcastle to Falstaff in 1 Henry IV for similar "diplomatic" reasons (Oldcastle was an early Protestant martyr).

Indeed, the pattern of these relationships recur in Shakespeare's later plays: the erratic youth, often a military hero (Prince Hal, Claudio, Bertram), his jaded if witty companion (Falstaff, Benedick, Parolles) and the fascinating French mistress (Princess Catherine de Valois, Rosalind, Helena). The play's unremitting mockery of academics matches the predictable views of the non-university-graduate Shakespeare. Modern revivals (such as those of Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Brook) have stressed the brilliance of Valois society (10.g.3; 11.7; 11.10), but also the play's melancholy ending note, apt for the religious wars of the time. Most boldly, in 1994, the Royal Shakespeare Company reset the play in the Edwardian era, ending it with the start of World War I (6.1.35). Branagh ended his film of the play with WWII. HMR


Alexander, Peter, ed. Love's Labour's Lost. London: BBC, 1986.

Brantley, Ben. "In Screwball Comedy, a Shakespearean Truth." Review of Love's Labour's Lost, directed by Terrence O'Brien, Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Boscobel Restoration, Garrison, NY. New York Times, July 31, 2012.

Church, Tony. "'Jack and Jill': A Consideration of Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream from the Point of View of Actor and Director." In The Arts of Performance in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama: Essays for G. K. Hunter, edited by Murray Biggs, Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank, and Eugene M. Waith, 135-46. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.

Fenwick, Henry. "The Production." In Love's Labour's Lost, edited by Peter Alexander, 17-25. London: BBC, 1986.

Gilbert, Miriam. "The Disappearance and Return of Love's Labor's Lost." In Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, 155-75. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Gilbert, Miriam. Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Hogdon, Barbara. "Rehearsal Process as Critical Practice: John Barton's 1978 Love's Labour's Lost." Theatre History Studies 8 (1988): 11-34.

Horton, G. L. Review of Love's Labour's Lost, directed by Spiro Veloudes, Publick Theatre, Boston. Aisle Say Boston, 1997.

Londré, Felicia, ed. Love's Labour's Lost: Critical Essays. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. [Contains numerous production reviews in Part III: Love's Labour's Lost on Stage, 345-474.]

Maher, Mary Z. "Moshinsky's Love's Labour's Lost [BBC]." Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 10 (1985): 2-3.

Petherbridge, Edward. "Armado in Love's Labour's Lost." In Players of Shakespeare 2: Further Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Robert Smallwood, 33-43. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Richmond, Hugh M. "Shakespeare's Navarre." Huntington Library Quarterly 43, no. 1 (1979): 193-215.

Love's Labour's Lost at Talkin' Broadway.

Sautter, Ursula, ed. Verlorene Liebsmühe [Love's Labour's Lost]. Tubingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1999.

Voss, Paul J. Elizabethan News Pamphlets: Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe and the Birth of Journalism. Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 2001.

Wells, Stanley. "Before the War." Review of Love's Labour's Lost, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon. Times Literary Supplement, November 5, 1993.

Wickham, Glynne. "Reflections Arising from Recent Productions of Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It." In Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance: Essays in the Tradition of Performance Criticism in Honor of Bernard Beckerman, edited by Marvin Thompson and Ruth Thompson, 210-18. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989.

Woodhuysen, Henry R., ed. Love's Labours Lost. London: Arden (3rd Series), 1998.


Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre, is one model for Shakespeare's witty Princess in Love's Labour's Lost, shown here in 1572 before she visited the King of Navarre.

The Audience-Affect of Love's Labour's Lost

One view of this script has been that it is a coterie play designed for an in-group of high-society intellectuals who will recognize participants in "the School of Night" (IV.iii.253) such as John Florio (Holofernes), Sir Walter Raleigh (Don Armado), etc. This elusive characterization seems an extremely unlikely interest for most audiences, though Shakespeare is certainly parodying and ultimately rejecting some of the grossest verbal extravagances of the University Wits, such as the Euphuism of John Lyly. It is much more significant that he is exploiting the Elizabethan fascination with the dashing King of Navarre, later King of France, and his celebrity wife "la reine Margot"—the subject of endless recreations such as the recent film starring Isabelle Adjani. The "escadron volant" or "light cavalry" of seductive (not to say scandalous) ladies of the Valois court was notorious. These dynamic women would have appealed greatly to the equally liberated London women in both the popular and court audiences—for England was proverbial among visitors as (in one permutation) "a paradise for women, a purgatory for horses, and a hell for men." With such exciting models of female autonomy, one understands why in 1641 John Johnson complained about Shakespeare's prominence in "Love's Library" so that his work "creeps into the women's closets about bed-time" and "young sparkish girls would read in Shakespeare day and night." By contrast, all the men in the play are humiliated to the point of accepting penance, with the possible exception of the cunning yokel Costard, who may well be perceived to escape punishment for impregnating Jaquenetta.

However, the most striking single thing about the the play's impact in performance is the shock effect of its inconclusive ending, which continues to startle even modern audiences accustomed to such effects from the analogous end of Ibsen's A Doll's House with Nora's departure. The abrupt intrusion of the news of the death of the King of France (the Princess's father) calls in question the value of the previous manners in the play in a way which Lope de Vega's aesthetics of audience-challenge require. The final songs have an often unrecognized choric quality in the summation of Don Armado: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo" (V.ii.919-20). Apollo is the god of (ambiguous) prophecy and the Fine Arts, leading the Muses. Apollo's Spring song is full of charm, sensuality, and seduction, leading to the social disorder of adultery, symbolized by the lifestyle of the cuckoo (hence the derivative "cuckold"). On the other hand, the authentic rigors of Winter require the determined self-maintenance of human society via hard work (icy milking, log-carrying, stew-skimming) and attendance at church even when chilled. Mercury is the messenger of the gods' judgments, and the owl is the familiar of Athena, the goddess of Intelligence. So the ending of the play is a kind of Zen koan—about truth to the facts of life versus seductive fancy—the mastery of which may yet satisfy the sophisticated spectator, if it is properly staged. Anyway, in 1578 the King of Navarre and the Valois Princess did get together at Nérac for a time, and the historical duc de Longaville did marry Marie de Nevers, as she promised (see the Richmond article in the bibliography above). © HMR

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