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Love's Labour's Lost:
A Pleasant, Conceited Comedy

From Insights, 1994

 

To the Elizabethans, “conceited” meant fanciful or imaginative, and Love’s Labour’s Lost is filled with delight, doggerel, duplicity, comedy, and two excellent poems. It is a play about words and the uses of words. Language held a tremendous interest for the Elizabethans, who were not afraid to experiment with both diction and style. With this play, Shakespeare could utilize the fashionable linguistic tricks of the day and, at the same time, poke fun at some of the absurdities.

Puns dot the lines of the play, and satire is evident--although not bitter or forced satire, but rather easy, fresh, and joyful. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was attacking a group of intellectuals who considered themselves elitely studious, but, if this is the case, the “attack” is merry, and its plea is for simplicity and common sense.

The first printed text of Love’s Labour’s Lost is the quarto of 1598, and it is thought that the play, written early in Shakespeare’s career, and subsequently extensively revised by him, was constructed for an aristocratic audience and not for the public playhouse. It may have been designed for performance before the queen at some great house where she was being entertained. No indisputable evidence, however, fixes the time, the place, the occasion, or even the sources of Shakespeare’s material. No king of Navarre ever bore the name Ferdinand, but Henry of Navarre, who became Henry IV of France, was popular and well known in England.

The play reflects the attitudes, the foibles, the gossip, and the peculiarities of literary London, as well as the fashionable world of the court. Much of the humor is directed toward persons and situations lost to modern audiences, but even if we do not understand all the finer points of Shakespeare’s jokes (puns, for instance, we consider to be a weak form of humor; they enjoyed higher status with the Elizabethans), we can still understand very well the basic situation in which four unwilling young men give up love for study and then fall in love with four merry ladies.

Shakespeare does not use entirely original comic characters in this play, even though he used no known comedy “source.” For example, he borrows certain “types” from the Italian commedia dell ‘arte. He includes the loud braggart (Don Armado), a type that appears in early drama. There is also the zany (Moth), the pedant (Holofernes), the parasite (Nathaniel), the stupid rustic (Costard), and the unlearned magistrate (Dull). These were enduring types which also appeared on French and German stages and would eventually find their way into comic operas.

So Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play that is, in its simplest form, fun. It’s language may be rich and sometimes hard to understand, its characters may sometimes be pompous and silly, its plot may sometimes be simplistic—but asks a question that is still fun (and yet important) today: What should be the relationship between study, work, and the life of the mind and love, play, and the life of the emotions?


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