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.
Men and Women ThemeTracker
Men and Women Quotes in Love's Labor's Lost
O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
We are wise girls to mock our lovers so.
They are worse fools to purchase mocking so.
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.
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.