Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Folly of Oaths and the Wisdom from Lost Love
By Heather Helinsky, Dramaturg
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the men have returned successful from wars and are retreating from the world to conquer peace. The King of Navarre turns his court into a “little Academy” in hope of finding philosophical wisdom, yet wisdom only comes in the form he has renounced: women. In this play—a comic war of words between men, women, servants, and foreigners—the lesson learned comes when they all recognize how ridiculous their strict oaths actually were: denying their hearts’ desires.
In Shakespeare’s inventive way, he puts love at the center stage of intellectual life and wisdom comes from fools. Yet, witty language serves none of the characters well: they wait too long to act upon their passions and their courtships suffer from bad timing.
The King of Navarre and his lords are hunting after immortal fame. By swearing oaths to three years of study, they are searching for answers to the ultimate question: what will I be remembered for? Their earnest efforts to fast, sleep only three hours a night, and avoid the sight of women is the sacrifice they will make to secure their legacy. Will they be found worthy? Like the pageant of the Nine Worthies at the end of the play (which is performed by fools), how will their lives stack up against the classical figures of Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon? Yet what makes the King of Navarre and his followers ridiculous is that they underestimate their own hearts, believing that cold reason alone will be the key to understanding life’s mysteries.
When the men take their oaths, they ignored the possibility that women might challenge them. Chosen by her father the King to be his envoy and negotiate with the men, the Princess of France arrives in Navarre. Three equally strong ladies accompany her and they are supportive confidants. The Princess is also accompanied by Boyet, whose advice she accepts, even as she reprimands him for flattering her. This Princess insists on honesty and directness, and rejects flowery language. When the King meets her outside the court, she proves perfectly capable of negotiating a delicate political situation.
The men eventually give in to their passions, break their oaths and make a new vow to pursue the ladies of France. Shakespeare mocks the male tradition of oath-taking, and denies them the opportunity to marry. No matter how clever, witty, and poetic the men try to be, they are at a loss for winning long-lasting love.
Love’s Labour’s Lost first appeared on the stage sometime in the 1590s, and by 1598, the published Quarto lists that it was performed for Queen Elizabeth at court during the Christmas season. A play where the women have the upper hand in the battle of the sexes may have appealed to the Queen. With courtly inside jokes, the premise of the play could have referenced a recent event. In 1592, Queen Elizabeth visited Oxford University in violation of her own proclamation: women were forbidden from lodging on the premises of a college. Perhaps she was amused with the mocking reminder that she, like the Princess in the play, must be refused admittance to the Academy, or break her own oath.
Rev. Francis Meres in his 1598 essay on English poets gives Shakespeare his first rave review. “…so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in the mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare…As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines, so Shakespeare among ye English is most excellent in both kinds for the stage.” In this essay, Meres lists Love’s Labour’s Lost among of Shakespeare’s best comedies to date.
There are a few historical sources of the play. In 1586, a French book by Peter de la Primaudaye was translated into English, describing four fictional young gentleman of Anjou. Set during the religious wars in France, the young men withdraw from the stress of war to a country house. The book is a series of discussions between the men concerning “the good and happy life”: a sixteenth-century combination of classical Stoicism and Christian theology. At the end of the first day, they decide that happiness can be found by “purgeth pride, presumption, ambition, choler, revenge, covetousness, injustice…philosophy teaches us not to be carried away by lust.”
The historical King Henri (not Ferdinand) of Navarre was a potential ally for Queen Elizabeth, as he began his reign of Navarre as a Protestant King. However, in 1593, the King of Navarre converted to Catholicism and took the French throne. The names of Shakespeare’s four young men were all well-known from England’s participation in the French religious wars. Biron, or Berowne, was the name of Navarre’s marshal, who had fought in the siege of Rouen alongside the Earl of Essex and English troops. Longaville was a supporter of Navarre, and the Duke de Mayenne (Dumaine) was a former opponent who became an ally following a truce in 1595.
Yet earlier, on October 2nd, 1578, another incident involving Henri of Navarre mirrors the play in a tantalizing way, but not certain. Henri of Navarre was married to Marguerite de Valois, who was Catholic and the daughter of Catherine de Medici and sister to King Henry III of France. Navarre and Marguerite, both of whom had taken many lovers, had been separated for two years. Religious tensions were so intense that when Marguerite de Valois traveled to the south of France for reconciliation, the Protestant husband and his Catholic wife could not safely reside in the same city. Despite these problems, the encounter was celebrated in a lovely outdoor park of the chateau de Nerac.
During their stay, in her memoirs, Marguerite records that she was there to settle a matter of her unpaid dowry, against which he was holding parts of Aquitaine, which parallels the business matter debated by the King and Princess in Shakespeare’s play. French court records from the event also mention that two large sets of tapestries which depicted the images of the Nine Worthies were hung in Nerac, for the enjoyment of Marguerite, her mother, and her maids of honor. In France in that same year, the Duc d’Alencon gave an elaborate entertainment which included soldiers masquerading as Russians.
While Elizabethan England knew French politics and culture well, it is worth noting that Russia had been “discovered” by the English only in 1553, when a ship commanded by Richard Chancellor left an Artic expedition to the White Sea and visited Moscow. England charted a company the following year to exploit trade between the two realms. By the 1590s, reports from these expeditions portrayed Russians as rude, cruel, hard-drinking, and liars. “As for the truth of his word the Russe for the most part maketh small regard of it so he may gain by a lie and breach of his promise,” Giles Fletcher reported in 1591 in Of the Russe Commonwealth. The perception of Russians as liars reflects the play’s themes and the lords who forswear their oaths to woo with flattering words. A merry, ridiculous moment in the play, as the men try to court the ladies disguised as Russians, the ladies see through and catch the lords in their lies.
Love’s Labour’s Lost, though, is much more than an imitation of French politics. Shakespeare’s plays have a completely different thrust to reveal human nature and its flaws. His extravagant language is on full display in this play, with the longest word in all of Shakespeare’s plays: honorificabilitudinitatibus.
The courtly language acts as a verbal mask as the men show off their skills. They try to communicate their emotions, but in doing so, they get lost in a labyrinth of words. It’s the lower class characters who see the folly in this, sometimes stating simply their confusion. The play ends with a reminder of the ordinary realities of country life in opposition to the play’s courtly setting. This play of linguistic acrobatic moves, surface lightness, and frivolity, ends with simple, deep, and profound truths and feelings of love lost.