One of William Shakespeare’s early comedies, Love's Labour's Lost
, follows four Spanish men’s attempts to resist the allure of four women. The title implies the difficulties and disappointments that often accompany the pursuit of romantic love. The five-act play was written in the mid-1550s and first performed for Queen Elizabeth I soon after.
The play’s themes include the primacy of art, the negotiation between ambition and real-life desires, and the possibility for love to provide the most important education. The playhas been lauded for its wordplay, beautiful syntax, and learned allusions to the court of Navarre.
The King of Navarre, a former Spanish territory situated on the French border, is the first to speak. He proclaims that he and his three noblemen – Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine – will take a vow forbidding them to act in a hedonistic fashion, which includes thinking about love or pursuing women. Ferdinand wants Navarre to be a world-renowned center of intellectual thought and appreciation for art and philosophy.
Longaville and Dumaine happily agree to fast, and focus on strengthening their knowledge of philosophy. But Berowne hesitates; he’s agreed to study in the royal court for three years, but he doesn’t believe he can give up women for three whole years. But eventually, he’s persuaded to try.
The stipulations of the vow include that no woman should travel within one mile of the court. This rule applies not only to the three noblemen, but to all of the men who live in the palace.
Almost immediately, someone violates Ferdinand’s latest rule. The first rule-breaker is Costard, the court jester, a country bumpkin who often has the cleverest lines in the play. He is brought to court by a foolish Spanish local, Don Adriano de Armado, who accuses Costard of spending time in a park with a simple, country girl, Jaquenetta. The king reprimands Costard; as punishment, he’s to be lorded over by the self-righteous Don Armado and to only drink water and eat bread for one week.
After Costard’s sentencing, Don Armado reveals to his page, Moth, that he was the one who was in the park consorting with Jaquenetta. The first act ends with Don Armado writing a letter to Jaquenetta, and then forcing Costard to deliver it.
The second act opens with the Princess of France, and her attendant ladies, arriving to discuss a political matter on behalf of her father, the King of France.However, because of the proclamation, they are forced to camp a good distance from the palace. The princess is furious that the king would dare to do such a thing to the future Queen of France.
One day, the Spanish noblemen visit the French ladies at their camp. Instantly, they each fall in love with one of the women: Ferdinand with the Princess; Berowne with Rosaline; Longavillle with Maria; and Dumaine with Katherine.
Berowne writes a letter to Lady Rosaline and asks Costard to send it to her. Costard accidentally switches Don Armado’s letter (he can’t read), and ends up giving Berowne’s letter to Jaquenetta. Jaquenetta, who also cannot read, visits two scholars – Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel – to read the letter for her. They read the contents; tell Jaquenetta it’s from Lord Berowne, and that she should inform the king.
Sequestered in the palace, the men try to ignore the fact that they’re in love. But overtime, their true feelings come to the surface; Berowne even hears Ferdinand reciting a love sonnet
he wrote for the princess.
The king senses that the men have love on their minds, and he berates the others for breaking their sacred vow. But Berowne challenges him by noting that the king himself is in love with the Princess.
Jaquenetta and Costard then burst onto to the scene; they’re holding Berowne’s letter, and accusing him of treason against the state. Berowne does not shrink away from the accusation. He admits to writing the letter and being in love with Rosaline. He declares that the only subject truly worth contemplating is love. The other noblemen are stirred by his speech, and together agree to renege on their earlier pledge.
The men then plan to play a trick on the ladies. They will invite them to court, but disguise themselves as Russians from Moscow (Muscovites, in the play). Boyet, a humorous French lord who loves gossip, informs the ladies of the trick. The ladies then plan to play a trick of their own: they will disguise themselves as one another.
The “Muscovites” entertain the ladies. They return and reveal their true identities. The ladies in turn ridicule them, and expose their own elaborate plan.
Humbled by the ladies’ intelligent maneuvering, the men apologize. All identities are revealed and the couples are appropriately paired up.
They watch a play that includes the scholars Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, Costard, Moth, and Don Armado. The play is quite bad, and the four lords, as well as Boyet, shout insults throughout. Frustrated, the players start berating each other, and Costard reveals that Don Armado impregnated Jaquenetta. Armado and Costard almost get into a fist fight because of this revelation.
The physical altercation is halted by the news that the Princess’s father has died. She hastens to return to France with the rest of her ladies in waiting; she must now assume the responsibilities of Queen. The ladies tell the men that if they really love them, they will wait one year and a day for their return. The men agree to the challenge.
The play ends with Don Armado swearing the same pledge to Jaquenetta. To celebrate his victory and love (as well as to placate any objections they may have toward his relationship with Jaquenetta) Don Armado serenades the lords with a song.