Love's Labor's Lost

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Work, Pleasure, and Comedy Theme Analysis

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Work, Pleasure, and Comedy Theme Icon

At the beginning of the play, Ferdinand plans to dedicate all his time and energy to serious intellectual pursuits, denying all bodily pleasures. And the princess of France comes to visit him on an important diplomatic mission about the exchange of a territory. However, the rest of the play is filled not with serious business, but with merriment, jokes, and amusement. The king ends up caring less about negotiating with the princess than about entertaining and wooing her. Even the schoolmaster character Holofernes seems to care more about fun riddles and clever jokes than any real education. The play thus questions the importance of supposedly serious business and the distinction between labor and pleasure.

As the play’s many efforts of wooing—from writing, to strategizing meetings, to putting on the pageant of the Nine Worthies—show, fun can be serious work. The play’s justification of amusement and pleasure can be seen partially as Shakespeare meditating on his own writing of comedy. Indeed, the play has a significant meta-theatrical strain: the women’s hiding their true identities in masks, the men’s dressing up as Russian ambassadors, and the show of the Nine Worthies can all be seen as performances within the main performance of Love’s Labor’s Lost, allowing the play to reflect on its own status as a comedic production. In the final scene, Berowne even reflects on whether his and his friends’ loves have a suitably happy ending for a comedy.

Just as the play’s characters take time away from serious pursuits to devote energy to amusement, the play’s actors, producers, and audience devote time and energy to creating and enjoying an amusing production. The play’s consideration of work and pleasure can thus be seen as partially justifying its own existence as an amusing comedy. However, the pure merriment of the play cannot last forever. The sudden announcement of the death of the king of France effectively puts an end to the play, suggesting that at some point jokes must be set aside. As the princess decides to take a year for mourning, there appears to be a time for amusement and a time for more serious matters. The play ultimately argues for the importance of moderation and balance: rather than trying to abstain from all enjoyment or indulge in pure play forever, one must recognize that life is a mixture of both fun and work, love and labor. It is important to appreciate light comedy, then, while also realizing that every comedy must come to an end.

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Work, Pleasure, and Comedy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Work, Pleasure, and Comedy 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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Work, Pleasure, and Comedy 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 Work, Pleasure, and Comedy.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

Therefore, brave conquerors, for so you are,
That war against your own affections
And the huge army of the world’s desires,
Our late edict shall strongly stand in force.
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little academe,
Still and contemplative in living art.

Related Characters: Ferdinand (speaker), Berowne, Longaville, Dumaine
Page Number: 1.1.8-14
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines come from the play's opening speech, in which Ferdinand, King of Navarre, introduces his oath and his plan to devote three years time to study only. He invokes honor and fame, which will outlive them well beyond their deaths and the passage of time. Here, he refers to Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine as "brave conquerors" in "that war against [their] own affections / And the huge army of the world's desires."

The effort to conquer their own desires and affections hints at the contents of the king's "edict" which the men will all sign and agree to. This oath will be to devote three years only to the serious study of academics, with the purpose of making Navarre "the wonder of the world," and the court like "a little academe" (academic community). Ferdinand idealizes intelligence and places it as his highest priority. He swears to pursue intelligence and academics with a serious, solemn dedication, and appears to have no time for pleasure, play, or love. This intense plan to work is made more explicit by the specific contents of his oath, below.


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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).

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

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.

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.

God save you, madam.

Welcome, Marcade,
But that thou interruptest our merriment.

I am sorry, madam, for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The King your father—

Dead, for my life.

Even so. My tale is told.

Worthies away! The scene begins to cloud.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), The Princess of France (speaker), Monsieur Marcade (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Nine Worthies
Page Number: 5.2.790-797
Explanation and Analysis:
Everyone has become completely captivated by the play and their desire to enjoy its humor. Costard and Armado are preparing to duel, and the audience members (within the play) are joking that the characters which Costard and Armado are playing are going to fight. But Marcade suddenly interrupts the pure merriment and comedic high point with a more serious, tragic note: the King of France (the Princess's father) is dead. We can note that before he can say this news, the Princess prophetically predicts that he is "dead, for my life." Upon this knowledge, Berowne ends the play within the play and banishes the actors with "Worthies away! The scene begins to cloud." This line can be seen as meta-theatric, as the very scene in Love's Labor's Lost has become clouded with bad news and the introduction of a tragic element. Here we also begin to get the indication that this play will not end in the classic comedic form of happy marriages with all loose ends tied up.

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.

Oft have I heard of you, my Lord Berowne,
Before I saw you; and the world’s large tongue
Proclaims you for a man replete with mocks,
Full of comparisons and wounding flouts,
Which you on all estates will execute
That lie within the mercy of your wit.
To weed this wormwood from your fruitful brain,
And therewithal to win me, if you please,
Without the which I am not to be won,
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit,
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be, it is impossible.
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker), Rosaline (speaker)
Page Number: 5.914-930
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand, Dumaine, and Longaville have asked the Princess of France, Katherine, and Maria for their love, and each woman has given a similar response: wait a year, and then try courting me (since the Princess needs a year to mourn her father and her ladies follow suit). Rosaline gives Berowne a longer, more specific answer, excerpted here.

Rosaline says that she knows Berowne has a reputation for a sharp wit and a tendency for "comparisons and wounding flouts," puns and jokes and insults. In order to put this wit to good use and "weed this wormwood from" Berowne's "fruitfull brain" (that is, get the meanness out of Berowne's intelligent mind), Rosaline instructs him to spend the next year visiting hospitals. There he will converse with those who are too sick to speak (speechless sick), and use his wit to try and make them laugh and smile. She says outright that only by this task will he win her heart.

Berowne responds that it is impossible "to move wild laughter in the throat of death," and says that "mirth cannot move a soul in agony." The merging of humor and the darker, more serious matters of illness and death will have the effect of dulling the sharper edges of Berowne's wit and making him more suitable for Rosaline. We can also note that this "impossibility" has been demonstrated possible by Shakespeare, who has introduced a death in the end of a comedy and has delayed the typical comedic ending by a year filled with sadness.

Our wooing doth not end like an old play.
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.

Related Characters: Berowne (speaker)
Page Number: 5.2.947-949
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines of Berowne are rife with meta-theatricality. As the play ends, the characters within the play recognize that they are being denied the ending that is typically promised to characters within a comedy: marriage. Shakespearean comedy can most simply be thought of as a machine for marriages. Shakespeare sets up problems and confusions, hilarity ensues, and in the end, he makes as many marriages as possible happen.

But here, the "wooing doth not end like an old play." Berowne comments that his ending is not like classic Shakespearean comedy. What's more, his next line, "Jack hath not Jill," seems to reference A Midsummer Night's Dream, another Shakespearean comedy written around the same time as Love's Labor's Lost. In Midsummer, the play ends with multiple marriages, and midway through the play, this ending is hinted at with the line "Jack shall have Jill." The typical comedic structure has been subverted and delayed by the ladies and the year they request. Berowne even says that the ladies have made their sport (wooing) a comedy, playing on the word comedy as a name of genre and a word to describe the ridiculousness that has taken place during their attempts at courtship.