Love’s Labour’s Lost
We know from other sources that this play was the first of a pair, the second (now lost) surviving only in its title, Love’s Labour’s Won. As such it is curiously incomplete. It also contains a few rather peculiar elements that are hard to square with the overall flow of the plot, though it is impossible from here to say whether they would have made more sense had they been taken up again in the sequel. (A 2015 production of Much Ado About Nothing from the Royal Shakespeare Company has been labeled as Love’s Labour’s Won, but there seems little if any evidence supporting the connection: certainly the cast of characters is entirely different, and it doesn’t answer any of the character or thematic questions from Love’s Labour’s Lost.)
The play is a relatively early one — having been written in 1595 — and its pillorying of the Spanish ambassador may reflect the general English attitude toward the Spanish after the destruction of the Spanish Armada (1588).
The play is thoroughly a comedy in tone, language, and structure, though it is of a “higher” form than The Merry Wives of Windsor: about 65% of it is in verse. For most of its duration the play is purest fluff — perhaps not entirely farcical like The Comedy of Errors, but still dominated by an overt theatricality and explicit spectacle. It flaunts the fact that it is a play, and toys with many of the conventions of the stage in both obvious and subtle ways. This theatricality is perhaps not as well integrated with the whole as is the play within a play (the Mousetrap) in Hamlet, but it’s still emphatically persent, and I would argue that the playing of roles is genuinely thematic in the play.
For all that, however, the comic plot takes a rather dark down-turn at the end, and the play concludes with a period of mourning for the dead king (whose death is purely incidental, and has not come about from anything in the plot). The comic situation of the play is largely an artifact of Ferdinand’s decision to live a celibate, quasi-monastic life in pursuit of study. His resolution is tried and almost completely undermined by the events of the play, which involve the arrival of a number of charming young ladies. It is therefore in that respect character-driven, rather than circumstantial (as compared to The Comedy of Errors). And yet the ending dilemma comes from matter entirely outside the orbit of the play’s action.
Like The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, but unlike almost all the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, this play has no significant external sources, and accordingly we cannot draw on external referents of that sort for clues. The real question of the play, I would argue, is whether this dark ending and Berowne’s puzzling commission can be squared with the rest of the comic content of the play, and, if so, how. What is his charge? What does that have to say about the role of the playwright himself?
Film versions of this play are more often than not very mannered (though perhaps none went as far as Kenneth Branagh did, in turning it into a 1930s-style musical, interleaved with popular songs of the period, lifted shamelessly from the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with a cinematic aesthetic that at least nods to Busby Berkeley. They all tend to be good fun, though one will have to look quite hard at them to find anything of enduring consequence.