56 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Love's Labour's Lost

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1598

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Summary and Study Guide


Love’s Labour’s Lost is an early Shakespearean comedy, produced in the burgeoning theatrical culture of Elizabethan London. It tells the story of four Lords, led by the King of Navarre, who swear to dedicate three years to study and avoid women. However, they immediately fall in love with four ladies, led by the Princess of France. The play follows their attempts to woo the ladies, while a host of comedic characters in the subplot squabble with each other and pursue their own affairs.

The earliest surviving copy dates from 1598, though the title page suggests other copies may have existed; many scholars date its writing to around 1594-95. It was published a number of times during the early 17th century. There are variations and possible printing errors within the different publications, so contemporary editions vary enormously depending on editorial decisions: For example, sections may be cut or assigned to another character; words and character names may change.

This guide uses the 2016 edition freely accessible at The Folger Shakespeare Library (edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine), which can be read or downloaded.

Content Warning: The source text references period-typical stereotyping around ethnicity, cultural origins, and misogynistic attitudes. In 4.3, in particular, the characters discuss the physical features of women in a way that reflects racist notions of beauty.

Plot Summary

In Act I, the King of Navarre enters with three Lords in his court: Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville. They sign an oath to lead an ascetic lifestyle for three years and immerse themselves in study, hoping that they will gain great reputations. Berowne signs, but objects to the clauses limiting eating, sleeping, and forbidding interaction with women, skeptical about its plausibility. The Princess of France is visiting in a diplomatic capacity, so they will have to break the vow immediately anyway.

Constable Dull enters with Costard, a country youth. He gives the King a letter from Armado, a pompous Spanish visitor to the court. Armado caught Costard talking with Jaquenetta, a country maid. The King’s oath has restricted anyone in the court interacting with women: The King assigns Costard a minimal punishment of eating gruel, which Armado will oversee.

In the next scene, Armado enters with his servant boy, Mote. He reveals that he has fallen in love with Jaquenetta despite swearing the King’s oath. Dull enters with Costard and Jaquenetta. He hands Costard over to Armado, who has Mote lock him up. Dull says Jaquenetta will be detained in a lodge in the park; Armado surreptitiously tells her he’ll visit and proclaims his love.

In Act II, the Princess of France arrives with three attendant ladies: Rosaline, Katherine, and Maria. She sends her courtier, Boyet, to ask the King how they can hold negotiations given his oath. She is unimpressed that she is expected to camp outside the court in deference to it. The King and the Lords enter. The King and the Princess fail to reach an agreement but plan to talk again once Boyet has some evidential papers. After the King leaves, Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville each sneak back onstage to ask Boyet about Rosaline, Katherine, and Maria, respectively. Boyet teases the ladies about the men’s interest, including pointing out the King’s attraction to the Princess.

In Act III, Costard and Armado misunderstand each other constantly, to Mote’s amusement. He teases Armado. Armado gives Costard a letter to take to Jaquenetta from him. Once Armado and Mote leave, Berowne finds Costard, and gives him a letter to take to Rosaline.

In Act IV, the Princess and her attendants go hunting. Costard mistakenly presents Rosaline with Armado’s rambling letter to Jaquenetta, to everyone’s amusement. Boyet wonders who Rosaline’s admirer is; they use innuendo-laden wordplay to one-up each other. Costard joins in though misjudges the tone. In the next scene, Dull, Holofernes the schoolmaster, and Nathaniel the Curate enter, discussing the Princess’s successful hunt. Jaquenetta and Costard enter with the letter apparently from Armado. Holofernes realizes it is a sonnet from Berowne to Rosaline, and sends Jaquenetta to show it to the King.

Alone onstage, Berowne frets about his feelings for Rosaline. He hides when the King enters, who reads out a sonnet he has written to the Princess. He in turn hides when Longaville enters, and reads out a sonnet he’s penned to Maria. This repeats when Dumaine comes on, who reads out his sonnet to Katherine, unaware that the others are watching. Each one emerges in turn, criticizing the others for breaking their oath, only to be exposed when it materializes that they too have been heard reading their sonnet. Berowne takes the high ground as no one knows about him, but then Jaquenetta enters with his letter to Rosaline. He rips it up, but Dumaine recognizes his writing, and he confesses he too is in love. Initially they bicker and tease each other, but then they resolve to woo the ladies together.

In Act V, a group gathers: Holofernes, Nathaniel, Dull, Costard, Mote, and Armado. They have been tasked to prepare entertainment for the Princess and the court. Holofernes proposes a performance of the Nine Worthies. Elsewhere, the ladies compare the notes and tokens sent by the men. Boyet warns them that the Lords are coming, dressed as Muscovites as a prank. The ladies wear masks and swap tokens, pretending to be each other. They tease the Lords, themselves in disguise, who each swear love to the wrong person. After they leave, the ladies swap back at Boyet’s urging.

The Lords re-enter, no longer in disguise. The King invites them into the court but the Princess declines: She does not want them to break their oath. The ladies make fun of their “Muscovite” visitors, feigning ignorance of the prank. Berowne declares his love for Rosaline, and they reveal they knew all along. Berowne and the King assure the ladies that the Lords are all serious in their declarations and will stick to their promises. The ladies reveal that they swapped identities, so the Lords must all stick to vows made to the wrong person.

Costard, Armado, Holofernes, Nathaniel, and Mote begin their performance of the Nine Worthies, taking it in turns to present each character. The Lords and Boyet heckle them, driving some of them off the stage. Costard reveals that Armado has got Jaquenetta pregnant and challenges him to a duel.

The scene is interrupted by a messenger to the Princess, revealing that her father, the King of France, is dead. The women prepare to leave. The Lords ask about their suits of love. The Princess declares that the King should live an austere life for a year while she mourns; if he comes to her at the end of the year, she’ll marry him. Katherine and Maria say the same to Dumaine and Longaville. Rosaline sets a similar task for Berowne, but also asks him to use his famously cutting wit to bring joy to the suffering. The Lords all agree.

Armado re-enters and announces that he has sworn to stick with Jaquenetta for three years. He asks if they may present the final part of their performance, and the King agrees. The play ends with two songs, one about Spring and one about Winter.

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