What an odd and thought-provoking play.
The play as advertised on the title page of its First Quarto publication declares its putative genre: a Pleasant Conceited Comedy. And so it is for four and a half acts. Not only is it based on a simple comedy plot conceit—four royal gents, including the King of Navarre, try to forswear thoughts of women, but give up as soon as four women visitors, including the Princess of France, arrive—but the copious wordplay, wealth of literary allusions, and satirical sallies aimed at the pretensions of the educated classes, indicate the young “upstart crow” of a playwright calling attention to his easy gifts, leaving his calling card with not a little hubris. The play is drunk with puns and verbal sparring, and with parodies of those who would spend so much time twisting words into what they’re not. Shakespeare juggles the words, plot, and characters with due ostentation, like a strolling player with four balls in the air at once. There is no hiding art with art here: his art is all out there on display.
The play at first seems to share a theme that most of Shakespeare’s comedies embody: love makes us all mad and makes us do silly, out of character things. And like many of the other comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost employs many of the same comic plot devices with its verbal sparring between lovers, disguises, mistaken identities, and maskings and unmaskings.
And this is how the play goes for four and a half acts. The men woo the ladies, the ladies demur, the men disguise themselves and try to trick the ladies, but the women get their own back by swapping identities among themselves during a masked entertainment. Finally the duplicities are uncovered and the women triumph, embarrassing the men, getting the men to admit their faults and their love. It’s just at this juncture in the other comedies where there would be a laughing, a forgiving, and the men and women would conclude by dancing a merry jig, with weddings in the air. That’s what the theatrical clock anyway says should happen here, given the stage time left to wrap up.
But here instead in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare does an extraordinary thing. A messenger delivers the news from France that the Princess’s father has died. The news casts a terrible pall on the proceedings and causes the women to withdraw completely. Even though the men earnestly declare their love for the women as honestly as they can, the women will have none of it; they are too perturbed by sorrow and get ready to go back home to France. It’s a remarkable moment; it’s as if someone had come out and said to the audience, sorry folks, there’s no comedy tonight, one of the actors has died. . .we tried to keep your sorrows at bay for the last few hours, but unhappy reality always creeps in, and so it has again. The women must go home to mourn; they say that they will be back in twelve months, but only if the men can prove they have become better people, and have done genuine social penance in that time. And we are left hanging.
In construction, Love’s Labour’s Lost is unique in the Shakespeare canon. Although other Shakespeare plays shift gears in the final moments as Love’s Labour’s Lost does, those other so-called “problem plays” —Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and All’s Well that Ends Well, for example—do so in a decidedly different way. Those plays start off as apparent tragedies, and then suddenly by a happy turn of events, often due to an act of bold and generous forgiveness, lovers are reconciled, friendships are repaired, and the world is righted once again. But not so in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Its construction is the very opposite of the problem plays. It seems to have every intention of being a comedy, but in the last moments the play morphs into sadness, snatched from the jaws of happiness. As far as I know, Shakespeare doesn’t do that anywhere else.
In another play, the unhappy turn of events at the end might serve as a plot twist in the middle of the play, only to be merrily overcome by the end. But no such luck in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The time is out of joint. One of the men announces quite openly to the other players (and the audience):
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an’ a day,
And then ’twill end.
That’s too long for a play.
The play ends with a song, not by the assembled would-be lovers, but by players representing Spring and Winter, introduced by Armado, a foolish visiting nobleman. The song about spring warns married couples that they are subject to being cuckolded, while the song about winter reminds the assembled of all the chores and drudgery that the cold weather brings, albeit bringing perhaps a kind of small domestic satisfaction. When the songs are over Armado says in a bittersweet curtain speech, “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Mercury traditionally was the deliverer of messages, while Apollo was the God of art, music and poetry. It was as if Shakespeare were saying, as an artist he could ease you with the comforts of art, but he couldn’t close his eyes to what life could bring at any moment. One unfortunate message is enough to turn any happiness upside down. It is an odd, odd ending for a comedy. The curtain comes down as Armado says, “You that way, we this way.”
Who is Armado addressing that line to? Who is the “you” and the “we”? The men and the women of the play? The audience and the actors? Or Shakespeare and everybody else? For community and the very act of storytelling seem to be at root the very essence of comedy, yet Shakespeare insists on ending with a separation.
It was an audacious jump. Shakespeare wanted to go “that way,” differently from the “this way” of others. He could set a plot in motion as well as any other trifling theatrical, he could parry and thrust his wit as sharply as any of his peers. But in the end he wanted something different. By this time, he had already thrown Aristotle out the window—no precious Unities of time and place for him, the world was too encompassing for that—but he now also wanted to do away with false endings that spoke of finality, when the truth was that everything one knows can change in an instant, and happiness can turn into sadness in a heartbeat.
What could have prompted such a desire in the playwright at this time? The Quarto title page may provide a clue. It was printed in 1598, but the notice on the page declares that it had been performed for the Queen the previous Christmas in 1597. So it’s not unlikely that the play was composed around 1596-1597. But in 1596, the successful London playwright got a visit from Mercury himself with the news from Stratford-On-Avon: Shakespeare’s only son, eleven-year-old Hamnet, had died. Was it this awful blow that turned a sunny comedy into a darker meditation on the ephemeral nature of life? I think it must be so.
What must Will’s audiences have thought of the play? It was thought well enough of, that it was published in several Quarto and Folio editions. But perhaps that was for the more literary-minded, because actual productions of the play after its initial performances were few and far between until the 20th century. I think, ultimately, that the play was not a crowd-pleaser. In short order, the practical-minded impresario Shakespeare eventually came to his senses, and never wrote such a bitter comedy again. In truth, the very comedic form which Love’s Labour’s Lost subverts is exactly the kind of comedy that Shakespeare then goes ahead and writes for the next decade. He never seeks to end a comedy in such a melancholy way again. So figuratively he writes with one hand behind his back, and the titles give his contempt away: As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night or What You Will— that’s what you want from Will, that’s what you will get.
He never did write a comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost again, although certainly he expressed the darker side of his nature in the tragedies and the histories. He retired after 37 plays, a wealthy man, with a newly minted coat-of-arms, to his house in Stratford-on-Avon. But Love’s Labour’s Lost stands as a bold experiment in form by a young playwright near the peak of his powers who once allowed Mercury’s harsh words to interrupt Apollo’s song.