The story told in Shakespeare’s early comedy Love’s Labor’s Lost seems, at first glance, to offer little outside of easy laughter. Four young men (one of them, admittedly, a king) decide to withdraw from the world for three years. They take an oath that, most importantly, forbids them to have anything to do with women in that space of time. Warned by Berowne, the most skeptical of the lords, that the oath will inevitably be broken, the King of Navarre is immediately put in an impossible situation: the Princess of France and her attending ladies are on their way to Navarre on an embassy. Fighting to keep his oath, the King lodges the Princess outside the gates of his court, but that ungracious strategy fails to head off the inevitable, as all four men fall immediately in love with the French ladies, abandoning their oaths and setting out to win the ladies’ hands.
The laughter triggered by this simple story—usually at the expense of the misguided young men—is augmented by subplots involving a braggart soldier, a clever page, illiterate servants, a parson, a schoolmaster, and a constable so dull that he is named Dull. Letters and poems are misdelivered, confessions are overheard, entertainments are presented, and language is played with (and misused) by the ignorant and learned alike. This is a play that entertains and amuses.
At a deeper level, though, Love’s Labor’s Lost also teases the mind. It seems to begin with the premise that women either are to be feared and avoided as seductresses who tempt young men away from heroic endeavor, or are instead to be worshiped as goddesses who are men’s sole guide to wisdom. The play soon makes it clear, however, that while this split vision of woman is what the men in the play accept, the reality of male-female relations is something other.
Our first major clue that the men’s view of women is not to be trusted comes at the end of Act 3 (which, in this play, with its strange and misleading act divisions, is actually quite early in the action). Berowne confesses to himself (and the audience) that he has fallen in love with Rosaline. He is angry with himself—he who has so scoffed at love, now to be marching in love’s army!—but his self-contempt gives him little excuse for the things he says about Rosaline. He has barely met her: in the previous scene he has had to ask her name. Yet he now accuses her of being the “worst” of the four women, a “wanton” who “will do the deed / Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard.” This bitter attack on Rosaline as a wild sexual creature is preceded by a more general comment on “woman”—“like a German clock, . . . ever out of frame,” “never going aright, being a watch, / But being watched that it may still go right.” This is the same speaker who will shortly describe Rosaline as “the sun that maketh all things shine” and praise women’s eyes as “the books, the arts, the academes / That show, contain, and nourish all the world.”
Because we see Rosaline for ourselves, we see that both poles of Berowne’s responses to her are incredible exaggerations. She is neither whore nor goddess. But Berowne’s attitude toward her is of a piece with male views and expectations of women throughout the play. Lodged in the fields as potential seductresses, the women quickly become the focus of a military-style campaign of seduction themselves—“Advance your standards, and upon them, lords. / Pell-mell, down with them.” The men will argue that, under the power of the ladies’ eyes, they have been transformed and that their courtship, though seeming “ridiculous,” has expressed genuine love; the women will answer that the men’s gestures have been taken as “pleasant jest,” “as bombast and as lining to the time,” as “a merriment.” The women seem quite bewildered by the men’s belief that the women should, because the men want them, immediately give themselves in marriage.
Much of the action of Love’s Labor’s Lost turns on the discrepancy between, on the one hand, what the men think about the women and, on the other, how the women see themselves (and see the men). That women are not identical to men’s images of them is a common theme in Shakespeare’s plays. In Love’s Labor’s Lost it receives one of its most pressing examinations. Thus, while the play amuses, it also gives us much to ponder.