Love's Labor's Lost

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Men and Women Theme Analysis

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Work, Pleasure, and Comedy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Love's Labor's Lost, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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Men and women operate in separate groups for much of the play, largely because of Ferdinand’s oath to keep women out of his court. The main plot of the play centers around a group of four male companions (Ferdinand, Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne) and a group of four female companions (the princess, Katherine, Maria, and Rosaline). Shakespeare is thus able to represent men and women as they socialize with their own gender, in order to probe questions about masculinity and femininity. Men in the play aspire to some stereotypical ideas of masculinity: strength, power, self-control, and intelligence. However, they generally fail to live up to these ideals. Almost as soon as Ferdinand and his men agree to their oath, they lose self-control and fall helplessly in love with the princess and her ladies. They try to be clever in wooing them, but are continually outwitted by the women they are supposedly better educated than. Love itself poses a threat to the characters’ ideas of masculinity: Armado worries that his love for Jacquenetta is a sign of weakness and so asks Mote to remind him of famous strong men who have also been in love. The men of the play are again comically unable to live up to standards of masculinity in the performance of the Nine Worthies, nine mythological, biblical, and historical great men. As the audience of the pageant continually points out with their heckling, the performers pathetically fail to embody the strength and greatness of their roles.

Through the eyes of the male characters, the play also shows how faulty male assumptions about women can be. The men in the play tend to see women only as passive objects of desire. Ferdinand’s oath implies that one would only spend time with a woman for romantic or sexual purposes. Moreover, the oath seems to assume that any women would gladly become romantically involved with Ferdinand and his men, that the only thing preventing love is the men’s abstinence. Even Berowne’s speech in favor of women objectifies them. He justifies love by saying that women can help men learn, but he only considers women as objects of study or aids to male learning—never as people able to learn themselves. The princess and her ladies, however, prove otherwise. They also have a say in the matter of love, as they resist the men’s wooing and laugh at how foolish the men’s love letters are. They outwit the men, wearing masks and switching identities, for example. And, in the end, the women exert some power over their romantic situation, making Ferdinand and his men wait for a year before continuing to woo them.

However, while the play mostly explores the comically incorrect assumptions of men about women, it also evidences some of the reverse: the princess and her ladies assume that the men are jesting and having fun with their proclamations of love and don’t believe they are really in love, when they actually are. Thus, some stereotyping about gender runs both ways. But, the deal at the end of the play for a year’s hiatus from courtship holds out the possibility of actual love at some point in the future—love that would bridge the gap between the male and female communities of the play, bringing people together beyond facile assumptions about the opposite gender.

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Men and Women ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Men and Women 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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Men and Women 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 Men and Women.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Longaville and Dumaine agree to and sign the oath without revealing the exact contents; we only know it is a three-year fast during which they will live and study with Ferdinand. Berowne, though, says he has already sworn to the three years of study, and he doesn't want to swear to anything more, believing it to be too harsh. We then learn that the oath requires them not to see women during the three years, to fast one day out of every week, to eat one meal only on all other days, and to sleep but three hours each night.

Berowne says all of these requirements are too strict and "too hard to keep." He also ends in a rhyme, quickly re-summarizing the oath with "not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep." Note that his rhyme launches a pattern of rhyming that will continue for much of the remainder of the scene. The oath shows Ferdinand's view on women and work: women (and love) are a distraction to study, and discipline and diligence are required for excellence, intelligence, and achievement. Through his denial, we also learn that Berowne has a more relaxed worldview, and that even from the start of the play he desires the company of women (and the ability to nap during the day).


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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.

Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

I will hereupon confess I am in love; and as it is base for a soldier to love, so am I in love with a base wench. . . . I think scorn to sigh; methinks I should outswear Cupid. Comfort me, boy. What great men have been in love?

Related Characters: Armado (speaker), Jacquenetta
Related Symbols: The Nine Worthies
Page Number: 1.2.57-65
Explanation and Analysis:

Armado and his page Mote begin this scene with an exchange of wits, discussing the nature of melancholy and the predicament of studying with King Ferdinand for three years. Here, Armado confesses that he is in love with a woman named Jacquenetta. He describes this woman as "a base wench" whom he seems to wish he did not love in the first place. He believes it is "base" for him to be in love, and believes that love is dangerous since it takes away his self-control.

Armado also feels emasculated by his love, thinking it makes him weak and less of a man. Here, love is dangerous, unwieldy, womanly, and unwanted. Wishing to feel better, he asks his page to remind him of the "great men" of history who have previously been in love. He believes that thinking of these great men will help him, since it will signal that even masculine heroes feel love. The two then discuss these great men, a scene which seems to look forward to the play's exploration of the Nine Worthies in later acts. 

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 3, Scene 1 Quotes

And I forsooth in Love! I that have been love’s whip,
A very beadle to a humorous sigh,
A critic, nay, a nightwatch constable,
A domineering pedant o’er the boy,
Than whom no mortal so magnificent.
This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
This Signior Junior, giant dwarf, Dan Cupid,
Regent of love rhymes, lord of folded arms,
Th’annointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents,
Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,
Sole imperator and great general
Of trotting paritors—O my little heart!
Am I to be a corporal of his field
And wear his colors like a tumbler’s hoop!
What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife?
. . . It is a plague
That Cupid will impose for my neglect
Of his almighty dreadful little might.
Well, I will love, write, sigh, pray, sue, groan.
Some men must love my lady, and some Joan.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), Rosaline
Related Symbols: Love Letters
Page Number: 3.1.184-215
Explanation and Analysis:

Berowne has just given Costard a love letter to deliver to Rosaline. Now, alone on stage, Berowne reflects on how possessed he has become by love, which he finds ironic, since he has previously been so critical of love. He cries out against Cupid with a long list of harsh adjectives suggesting at first Cupid's incompetence and then his power, until Berowne breaks off with "O my little heart!"

He then asks if he is going be "a corporal" in Cupid's army, playing with the common notion that love is like a battlefield. In this metaphor and Berowne's context, love is combative, violent, and destructive, and Berowne is just a foot soldier following the orders of a higher power. He goes on to call love a "plague," and we can remember Boyet's description above of a lover as "infected." Berowne believes he is inflicted by love because of his neglect of Cupid's "almighty dreadful little might," an incredible phrase which simultaneously shows Cupid's power and small size. Berowne ends by admitting to himself that he does love Rosaline, and must act accordingly: "I will love, write, sigh, pray, sue, groan." This list of single-syllable actions shows rhythmically the repeating, dramatic nature of the different steps in the course of falling in love. Berowne also says that some men must love women like Rosaline, and others must love less-esteemed women, and the steps and trouble he must take to woo Rosaline are more difficult because she is a member of a royal court.

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

Now step I forth to whip hypocrisy.
Ah, good my liege, I pray thee pardon me.
Good heart, what grace hast thou thus to reprove
These worms for loving, that art most in love?
. . .
O, what a scene of fool’ry have I seen,
Of sighs, of groans, of sorrow, and of teen!
O me, with what strict patience have I sat,
To see a king transformed to a gnat!
To see great Hercules whipping a gig,
And profound Solomon to tune a jig,
And Nestor play at pushpin with the boys,
And critic Timon laugh at idle toys.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), Ferdinand
Related Symbols: The Nine Worthies
Page Number: 4.3.158-178
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand is scolding Dumaine and Longaville for violating their oaths, but Berowne, who has been hiding, knows that Ferdinand has also violated the oath. Here, he comes out of hiding to "whip hypocrisy" and criticize the King and his other friends. He asks Ferdinand how he can call out Dumaine and Longaville for loving when he himself is in love as well.

In the second part excerpted, Berowne speaks of the foolishness he sees in the other men, saying that until now he has sat patiently. But now he has seen "a king transformed to a gnat," and "great Hercules whipping a gig," as well as other historical figures acting ridiculously. By comparing them to great, heroic men in pitiful states, Berowne suggests that love has made Ferdinand, Longaville, Dumaine act like fools and hypocrites. Of course, the irony here is thick, as we know that Berowne himself is in love too! Just as he tells them he feels betrayed, Costard and Jacquenetta will enter and reveal that Berowne, too, is in love and has broken the oath.

O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books.
For when would you, my liege, or you, or you,
In leaden contemplation have found out
Such fiery numbers as the prompting eyes
Of beauty’s tutors have enriched you with?
Other slow arts entirely keep the brain
And therefore, finding barren practicers,
Scarce show a harvest of their heavy toil.
But love, first learned in a lady’s eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain,
But with the motion of all elements
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye.
A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind.
A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound,
When the suspicious head of theft is stopped.
Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails.
. . .
Never durst poet touch a pen to write
Until his ink were tempered with love’s sighs.
. . .
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive.
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire.
They are the books, the arts, the academes
That show, contain, and nourish all the world.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), Ferdinand, Longaville, Dumaine
Page Number: 4.3.312-347
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand, Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne have all discovered that each other man has fallen in love with a woman and is temped to break the vow; Berowne's letter for Rosaline, mis-delivered by Costard to Jacqueneta, has also been revealed. Realizing that everyone is in love and wants to break the oath, King Ferdinand asks Berowne to use his intelligence and clever language to get them out of it with their honor still intact.

Excerpted is Berowne's clever argument, which allows the men to forget about their vow to work and study for three years while keeping good conscience. He says that they "have made a vow to study" and have given up their books. But this practice is responsible and even in line with their vow, he argues, since the men could never have learned from their books what they learned from the "prompting eyes / Of beauty's tutors." Love, he says, much more than the other arts or anything else, leads to usable, important knowledge that cannot be learned anywhere else. Love, seen in a lady's eyes, teaches everything they need to know. At one point, he suggest that no poet ever wrote "until his ink were tempered with love's sighs." Women, he says, are the "books, the arts, the academes / That show, contain, and nourish all the world."

This argument presents a stark reversal from the initial vow and Ferdinand's apparent position at the start of the play, which suggested that women were only sexual distractions from true work and study. Now that they are in love, the men justify their oath-breaking by saying that women are the best tutors for true knowledge. What's more, they are the books, the arts, and the academies that sustain the world and the pursuit of knowledge. 

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

The very all of all is—but sweetheart, I do implore secrecy—that the King would have me present the Princess, sweet chuck, with some delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or antic, or firework.
. . .
Sir, you shall present before her the Nine Worthies.
. . .
Where will you find men worthy enough to present them?

Related Characters: Armado (speaker), Holofernes (speaker), Nathaniel (speaker), The Princess of France
Related Symbols: The Nine Worthies
Page Number: 5.1.109-125
Explanation and Analysis:

After failing to present himself as intellectual, Armado tells Holofernes and Nathaniel that Ferdinand is planning on making some sort of theatrical production to impress the Princess. This production (or "delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or antic, or firework") will make a play within the play, and will mirror and (self-ironically) mock Love's Labor's Lost itself. Armado asks what he should prepare and present.

Holofernes suggests that they present "the Nine Worthies," a pageant of nine famous, heroic men from ancient and Biblical to medieval times. This production follows the pattern which has developed in the play, where men, feeling self-conscious or emasculated by love, remind themselves of the great men of history and lore who have loved before them. Nathaniel then asks where they will ever find men "worthy enough" to play the Nine Worthies, prompting Holofernes to cast himself, Armado, Nathaniel, Costard, and Mote in the play, noting that he will play three parts himself. This production is ultimately a hysterical failure which prompts the women to say that, of course, these men were not worthy to portray the Worthies.

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

We are wise girls to mock our lovers so.

They are worse fools to purchase mocking so.

Related Characters: The Princess of France (speaker), Rosaline (speaker), Ferdinand, Berowne
Page Number: 5.2.63-64
Explanation and Analysis:

The Princess, Katherine, Rosaline, and Maria have all received gifts from the men courting them. The ladies proceed to make fun of the gifts and the men, continuing their pattern of constantly displaying their wits, their intelligence, and their desire for humor. Here the Princess says that they are "wise girls to mock [their] lovers so," reversing the stereotypical role of women in courtship. Rosaline responds that the men are "worse fools to purchase mocking so," at once reinforcing the Princess's claim that the women are wise and adding an insult to the men. She goes on to joke how she wishes she had an opportunity to make Berowne fawn after her and do ridiculous tasks, reveling in the possibility of more mockery. Below, the women will devise a scheme to further make fun of and embarrass their gentleman suitors, continuing to one-up the men in terms of wit and levity.

The gallants shall be tasked,
For, ladies, we will every one be masked,
And not a man of them shall have the grace,
Despite of suit, to see a lady’s face.
Hold, Rosaline, this favor thou shalt wear,
And then the King will court thee for his dear.
Hold, take thou this, my sweet, and give me thine
So shall Berowne take me for Rosaline.

Related Characters: The Princess of France (speaker), Ferdinand, Berowne, Rosaline
Page Number: 5.2.133-140
Explanation and Analysis:

As the women talk about how foolish their lovers are, Boyet enters and informs them that the men plan to come in disguised as Russian ambassadors. With this knowledge, the Princess concocts a plan to "task" (make fun of) the "gallants." The ladies will all wear masks, and will refuse to show the men their faces. They will also switch gifts, so that when the men enter, they will mistake the women for each other and court the wrong people. This plan will result in embarrassment for the men, who will whisper private words of love to women they aren't in love with. The effect of her plan, says the Princess a few lines later, is to mess up the plan of the men, and to mock them (in merriment) for the trick that they planned to play on the women.

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.