Love's Labor's Lost

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One of the most notable features of Love’s Labor’s Lost is its exuberant use of language. Nearly every line contains some pun, a piece of wordplay, or a character’s overly literal misunderstanding of someone else’s language. Shakespeare’s play is a comedy, and all this wordplay serves the simple purpose of making the audience laugh. However, it also contributes to a deeper exploration of language. At first glance, puns and wordplay might seem to be marginal aspects of language, coincidentally allowed for but not important parts of how we communicate. However, Love’s Labor’s Lost reveals an element of play to be at the center of language. It is important to note that many of the play’s instances of wordplay are not intentional, but comic misunderstandings. Characters try to communicate with each other, but end up accidentally taking phrases in the wrong way and playing on the multiple meanings of a word or phrase.

Language is inevitably a system of words that can’t be pinned down to any one meaning. This has significant consequences for the important uses of writing in the play: namely, Ferdinand’s oath and the various love letters of the men in the play. These love letters are supposed to communicate deep, earnest feelings of sincere love, and the oath is supposed to establish an important law and bind the king and his men to an official promise. But if language is perpetually open to misinterpretation, ambiguity, and play, can writing adequately serve these purposes? The princess and her ladies underestimate the seriousness of their men’s love, thinking they are mostly joking. And, of course, Ferdinand’s oath does not last long. Berowne easily reasons his way out of the oath, mostly through some ingenious wordplay about “study.” Thus, despite some attempts to pin language down, it is always flexible and inexact, often not adequately carrying out the intentions of a speaker or writer. Even the title of the play reflects this. Different editions have different versions of the title—is it Love’s Labors Lost or Love’s Labor’s Lost? Does it mean that love’s labors are lost in the play (as the men don’t end up with their women), or that love is labor lost (because love wastes time that could have been used for important work), or something entirely different? It is unclear what Shakespeare’s intentions may have been, and it is perhaps best to read the title as embodying the very confusion, ambiguity, and proliferation of multiple meanings that so much of the play’s language delights in.

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Language ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Language appears in each scene of Love's Labor's Lost. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Language Quotes in Love's Labor's Lost

Below you will find the important quotes in Love's Labor's Lost related to the theme of Language.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

Item, If any man be seen to talk with a woman within the term of three years, he shall endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possible devise.

Related Characters: Ferdinand (speaker), Berowne (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.132-135
Explanation and Analysis:

After a brief argument in which Berowne cleverly argues that overstudying is harmful, we finally are given a glimpse at the contents of the written document that comprises the oath, binds Ferdinand and his court to its terms, and outlines the punishments of breaking it. The first item that Berowne reads stipulates that a woman cannot come within a mile of court or else she will have her tongue cut out. We can note that women were thought to talk too much, and Ferdinand clearly views them only as distracting temptresses.

Here, Berowne reads another item, which says that if a man is seen talking to a women within the next three years, "he shall endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possible devise." First, note that even just talking to a women causes punishment. This is because women supposedly talk too much and are distractions from male study, but also because talking to a women implies romantic and sexual purposes. In Ferdinand's mind there is no other reason a man would spend time with or talk to a woman. We can also note that the punishment has not yet been devised, but will consist of public shame. Honor and fame, which were cited as the purpose of such a rigorous course of study, here resurface as what is at stake when someone violates the terms of the oath.


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We must of force dispense with this decree.
She must lie here on mere necessity.

Necessity will make us all forsworn
Three thousand times within this three years’ space;
. . .
If I break faith, this word shall speak for me:
I am forsworn on mere necessity.

Related Characters: Ferdinand (speaker), Berowne (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.150-158
Explanation and Analysis:

Berowne tells the king that he himself will have to break the oath, since the daughter of the King of France is scheduled to visit his court on official business. Ferdinand says that he had forgotten about the visit, and says (in the opening couplet of the excerpt) that they will have to make an exception to the oath out of "mere necessity."

At this, Berowne realizes how easily the oath can be broken and slipped out of, predicting it will occur countless times in the three year span. He says that if he does break the oath, the single word that will absolve him is "necessity." Ferdinand's oath is made of language, and it is with language (not even particularly clever language) that the oath can be broken or put on pause. It is only after realizing this gaping loophole that Berowne consents to sign his name to the written agreement.

Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

I do affect the very ground (which is base) where her shoe (which is baser) guided by her foot (which is basest) doth tread. I shall be forsworn (which is a great argument of falsehood) if I love. And how can that be true love which is falsely attempted? Love is a familiar; love is a devil. There is no evil angel but love, yet was Samson so tempted, and he had an excellent strength; yet was Solomon so seduced, and he had a very good wit. Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules’ club, and therefore too much odds for a Spaniard’s rapier. . . . Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise wit, write pen, for I am whole volumes in folio.

Related Characters: Armado (speaker), Jacquenetta
Page Number: 1.2.167-185
Explanation and Analysis:

Armado closes Act 1, Scene 2 with this soliloquy, in which he says he loves the very ground Jacquenetta steps on. He makes a play on base, saying that the ground is base, Jacquenetta's shoe is baser, and her foot is basest, using base both literally (low) and figuratively (inferior or bad). For Armado, love appears to be a negative experience. He says that if he really loves, he will be "forsworn" (a liar), and relates love to falsehood. Love, he says, is a devil.

He moves on, however, to remind himself of the strong men of history and and legend who have also loved, like Samson (who "had an excellent strength"), and King Solomon (who "had a very good wit"). Even the hero Hercules fell under Cupid's power. We can note that Armado must constantly reaffirm his manliness, his strength, and his intelligence, since he believes that love is a sign he is lacking in all three areas.

Moving from a devilish, false picture of love to masculine heroic love, Armado concludes with an apostrophe (a rhetorical call to someone who isn't present) to the gods of rhyme. Armado has been inspired by love to write poetry, saying that he will "turn sonnet." (A sonnet is an extremely popular form of love poem comprised of 14 lines—Shakespeare wrote and published many, and included some inside his plays). What's more, by the end of this speech, Armado himself has become a text: "I am whole volumes in folio." Armado takes many views on love, but ultimately concludes that love is rooted in language and poetry, and the possessive power of love is so great that he as a lover embodies whole volumes of poetry.

Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

If my observation, which very seldom lies,
By the heart’s still rhetoric, disclosed wi’ th’ eyes,
Deceive me not now, Navarre is infected.

With what?

With that which we lovers entitle “affected.”

Related Characters: The Princess of France (speaker), Boyet (speaker), Ferdinand
Page Number: 2.1.240-244
Explanation and Analysis:

The Princess of France has arrived with her attendants, Boyet, the only man in her company, and three ladies: Katherine, Rosaline, and Maria. Boyet is initially sent to court ahead, and Ferdinand and his men eventually greet the Princess and her ladies, apologizing that the women must sleep in the fields. Within the interaction the women display their dazzling, sharp wits, and the men all flirt. As they leave, each asks Boyet for one of the women's names.

After the departure of the men, the women begin making clever jokes with each other, but the Princess says they would make better use of their intelligence and gift of language in a "civil war of wits" with Ferdinand and his men. After this assertion, Boyet makes the observation quoted here. He says that, "by the heart's still rhetoric, disclosed wi' th' eyes... Navarre [Ferdinand] is infected." Here he touches on two tropes describing love: first, it is rooted in language and rhetoric. We have already seen this develop in Armado's thinking. Second, love is communicated and seen in the eyes.

To the suggestion Navarre is infected, the Princess responds with the simple, "with what?" Boyet responds by completing his wordplay: "With that which we lovers entitle "affected," meaning love. Thus Boyet suggests that Ferdinand is in love with the Princess, and at once continues their game of wordplay, puns, and witticisms.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

Remuneration. Why, it is a fairer name than “French crown.” I will never buy and sell out of this word.

Related Characters: Costard (speaker)
Related Symbols: Love Letters
Page Number: 3.1.149-150
Explanation and Analysis:

After moments where Mote's intelligence is showcased and praised, this comedic moment hits particularly well. Costard has been imprisoned since he has been seen with Jacquenetta (Armado's beloved), violating Ferdinand's oath. Armado frees Costard on the condition that he delivers a love letter from Armado to Jacquenetta. In addition to freeing Costard, Armado gives him remuneration in the form of a coin for his troubles. Remuneration simply means payment for a service, but here Costard confuses the meaning and comically things it is a fancy word ("fairer name") for a French crown.

We can also note that despite the failures in language, both on the part of Armado and Costard, Armado places his hopes for love on a fool (Costard) and only in the written word (his love letter). These decisions will provide fuel for comedy, as Costard will later mix up love letters and deliver Armado's letter to the wrong person.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

By heaven, that thou art fair is most infallible, true that thou art beauteous, truth itself that thou art lovely. More fairer than fair, beautiful than beauteous, truer than truth itself, have commiseration on thy heroical vassal. . . . Shall I command thy love? I may. Shall I enforce thy love? I could. Shall I entreat thy love? I will.

Related Characters: Boyet (speaker), Armado (speaker)
Related Symbols: Love Letters
Page Number: 4.1.68-89
Explanation and Analysis:

The Princess and her train are on a hunt, when Costard enters with a letter he claims is from Berowne and for Rosaline. However, Costard mistakenly delivers Armado's letter meant for Jacquenetta. Boyet receives the letter and quickly recognizes Costard's error, but he still reads the letter out loud to the bemusement of the Princess and the other women. The excerpt contains the beginning of the long letter, and another line towards the end.

Armado's letter is ridiculous, over-wrought, and verbose. In the first sentences we see the roundabout way in which he declares Jacqueneta's beauty. His lines say that she is the superlative of beauty, fairness, and loveliness, but at the same time they are so convoluted that they say nothing at all. The ladies ultimately mock him extensively for his letter, saying that it shows he is much less intelligent than he thinks he is. The final lines excerpted are from later in the speech, in which he finally makes a direct request for Jacqueneta's love. However, he still does so in an over-the-top way. The "shall I... I may/could/shall" phrasing is pure dramatic excess, and more evidence that the over-educated Armado (whom we know seems less intelligent than his page, Mote) thinks much too highly of himself.

Act 4, Scene 2 Quotes

If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?
Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed!
Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove.
. . .
If knowledge be the mark, to know thee shall suffice.
Well-learned is that tongue that well can thee commend.
All ignorant that soul that sees thee without wonder;
Which is to me some praise that I thy parts admire.
. . .
Celestial as thou art, O pardon love this wrong,
That sings heaven’s praise with such an earthly tongue.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), Nathaniel (speaker), Rosaline
Related Symbols: Love Letters
Page Number: 4.2.126-143
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene begins with Holofernes, Nathaniel, and Dull discussing the Princess's hunt and their own intelligence, the first two making fun of Dull for not knowing latin. Then Jacquenetta and Costard enter, with the latter carrying the letter he thinks is from Armado for Jacquenetta, but is actually the letter from Berowne for Rosaline. The excerpt here contains three sections of the letter, which contains verses of love poetry. Berowne attempts to use poetry, rhyme, and skillful language to woo Rosaline, but as is becoming common in this play, the words reach the wrong audience with the wrong effect.

In the opening lines, he assures Rosaline that although he is breaking the oath he made with Ferdinand by talking to her, he will never break oaths to her and will always be faithful. Here Berowne seems aware of the irony in pledging his faithfulness while simultaneously breaking a vow. In the next section, Berowne says that knowing Rosaline will give him all the knowledge he needs, and that "well-learned is the tongue" that can properly praise her. This point foreshadows the argument he will make in the next scene, and that will justify everyone breaking the oath: true knowledge and study comes from women and love as much as from books and fasting. Finally, Berowne concludes his poem by apologizing for describing such a "celestial" woman with his meager "earthly tongue," a common poetic technique in which the author acknowledges that his or her subject matter is beyond mortal capacity for language.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

They have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps.

Related Characters: Mote (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.38-39
Explanation and Analysis:

Holofernes, Nathaniel, and Dull have been conversing in some Latin, making fun of one another, and bragging about their intelligence as they usually do. But here, Mote makes a clever aside to Costard, implying that Holofernes and Nathaniel aren't as smart as they think they are. Again, we see Mote's wittiness and brilliance on display. In this play, we see constant reversals of who is supposed to be intelligent and witty and who actually is. The educated men are ridiculous, and Mote (a servant) and the women (supposed to be less intelligent because of their gender) demonstrate the most wit and skill with language in the play. Mote hasn't had access to as much education as the other men (who've had access to "a great feast of languages") but he still knows more than the "scraps" they've taken.

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

White-handed mistress, one sweet word with thee.

Honey, and milk, and sugar—there is three.

Nay then, two treys, an if you grow so nice,
Metheglin, wort, and malmsey. Well run, dice!
There’s half a dozen sweets.

Seventh sweet, adieu.
Since you can cog, I’ll play no more with you.

One word in secret.

Let it not be sweet.

Thou grievest my gall.

Gall! Bitter.

Therefore meet.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), The Princess of France (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.246-257
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Berowne, disguised as a Russian, is speaking to the Princess of France, whom he believes to be Rosaline. The two exchange witty quips, and the Princess, whose plan is working flawlessly, outwits and and outspeaks her suitor. Berowne begins by calling her "white-handed mistress," white (along with pink or red) being one of the classical colors evoked in European love poems. He then requests "one sweet word" with her.

The quick-witted Princess uses his language against him, listing "honey, and milk, and sugar" as three literally sweet words, denying his intention. When Berowne tries to match her by naming three more sweets to make half a dozen, she responds cleverly with, "seventh sweet, adieu," continually shutting him down. The two complete each other's lines and rhymes in shorthanded verbal sparring, trying to outwit and flirt with one another. Beyond the humor in the puns and jokes, the scene is also funny because Berowne is flirting with the wrong woman.

Judas I am—

A Judas!

Not Iscariot, sir.
Judas I am, yclept Maccabaeus.

Judas Maccabaeus clipped is plain Judas.

A kissing traitor.—How art thou proved Judas?

Judas I am—

The more shame for you, Judas.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), Dumaine (speaker), Holofernes (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Nine Worthies
Page Number: 5.2.662-670
Explanation and Analysis:

The presentation of the Nine Worthies - a play within the play- is underway, and it is going terribly. Here Holofernes enters as Judas Maccabeus, a famous leader from the Old Testament, but introduces himself only with "Judas I am." This introduction allows Dumaine to make fun of Holofernes, shouting out "A Judas!" and implying that Holofernes is playing Judas Iscariot, the famous traitor to Jesus in the New Testament. Though he tries to correct Dumaine, Holofernes is interrupted again with the assertion that Judas without Maccabeus is definitely the other Judas, and Berowne interjects that he must be a "kissing traitor" (as Judas Iscariot famously betrayed Jesus with a kiss).

This interaction is a prime example of how poorly the presentation of the Nine Worthies is orchestrated, and the continual need of the male characters to assert their wit. The women, who already know that they have the superior wits, tend to wait for the actors to finish before interjecting their ironic praises and jokes.

We have received your letters full of love;
Your favors, the ambassadors of love;
And in our maiden council rated them
As courtship, pleasant jest, and courtesy,
As bombast and as lining to the time.
But more devout than this in our respects
Have we not been, and therefore met your loves
In their own fashion, like a merriment.

Our letters, madam, showed much more than jest.

So did our looks.

We did not quote them so.

Related Characters: Longaville (speaker), Dumaine (speaker), The Princess of France (speaker), Rosaline (speaker)
Related Symbols: Love Letters
Page Number: 5.2.852-862
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand begs the Princess to not let the bad news interrupt their courtship and love, and Berowne explains that the men have broken their oaths for the sake of love. But here, the Princess explains that the women never took the courtship seriously. They received the love letters and the gifts—"ambassadors of love," typical tokens that might signal affections—but the women believed in this case they merely indicated "pleasant jest, and courtesy." For this reason, the women have met the love from the men in what they believed to be the fashion of the courtship—"like a merriment." In other words, the women here claim they believed the men have only been joking the whole time, framing the entire romance as comedy instead of genuine passion. The men all quickly respond that they meant "much more than jest" and were attempting to be genuine.