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.
Language Quotes in Love's Labor's Lost
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.
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.
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.
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 that which we lovers entitle “affected.”
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.
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.
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.
Judas I am—
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.
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.