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A scene from The Old Globe’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost.

You’ve heard of writer’s block, but have any of you ever experienced reader’s block? It sounds completely fake, but boy did I feel it this month. I received my plays in the mail and set them on my desk. I had zero motivation to read – me! But I said I’d finish going through the canon this year, and I’m the sort of girl that always keeps her word. So I (very listlessly) began to read Love’s Labor’s Lost, a play I had only ever heard of in passing. I felt nothing while I trudged through the first act. The next day, however, I found myself wondering what hijinks the men and women would get up to – and now, well, I’m in love with this play. There is just something incredibly whimsical about Love’s Labor’s Lost, and I will freely admit that I laughed out loud more than once. It’s clever, it’s silly, it’s charming, but the ending is strange. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, so let’s take it from the top.

The King of Navarre has a genius plan: to stay cooped up in his court for three years accompanied by books and his three loyal friends Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville. The purpose, of course, is to become learned men. But this declaration comes with a price: women will no longer be allowed in the court, and the men are forbidden from fraternizing with women. Dumaine and Longaville excitedly sign this edict. Berowne, meanwhile, seems a bit hesitant:

So much, dear liege, I have already sworn,
That is, to live and study here three years.
But there are other strict observances:
As not to see a woman in that term,
Which I hope well is not enrollèd there;
And one day in a week to touch no food,
And but one meal on every day besides,
The which I hope is not enrollèd there;
And then to sleep but three hours in the night,
And not be seen to wink of all the day –
When I was wont to think no harm all night,
And make a dark night too of half the day –
Which I hope well is not enrollèd here.
O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.

Berowne certainly isn’t wrong to be hesitant. Forget women, how are they supposed to survive on only one meal a day and three hours of sleep for three years? The King manages to convince Berowne to sign off, even after he reads through all the ridiculous terms of this edict.

So to the laws at large I write my name,
And he that breaks them in the least degree
Stands in attainder of eternal shame.
Suggestions are to other as to me,
But I believe, although I seem so loath,
I am the last that will last keep his oath.

[He signs his name.]

You’ll notice, of course, that the last two lines are an equivocation. Berowne is ambiguous in his words – we can either read this as him insisting that he will keep this oath the longest (despite signing off on it last), or as him implying that he will be the least likely to keep it.

It is perhaps worth mentioning here that it is largely believed that Berowne is Shakespeare’s self-insert character. Love’s Labor’s Lost is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that is 100% his – it is not based on historical events, or even on tales of old. This is pure Shakespeare, and that means he can write himself in if he wants to.

For some reason, Navarre believes that women will somehow pose a danger to his educational pursuits. Although Berowne signs the oath, it can be said that he doesn’t quite agree.

In any case, the oath is sworn. But wait! The Princess of France is on her way to settle matters regarding Aquitaine – and she brings her three sharp-tongued ladies with her. If you haven’t read this play, you may be smugly thinking to yourself that you already know how it will end. But I’d hold your horses if I were you.

As the Princess makes her way to court, we find out that her ladies know the King’s men – Maria speaks of Longaville, Katherine recalls the last time she saw Dumaine, and Rosaline remembers Berowne. Shakespeare leaves us no room for guessing: here are our three couples. The Princess and the King make four!

Because the King is determined to keep his oath, he refuses to receive the Princess and her ladies. Instead, he forces them to stay in tents out in the field.

Fair Princess, welcome to the court of Navarre.

“Fair” I give you back again, and “welcome” I have not yet. The roof of this court is too high to be yours, and welcome to the wide fields too base to be mine.

You shall be welcome, madam, to my court.

I will be welcome, then. Conduct me thither.

Hear me, dear lady. I have sworn an oath.

Our Lady help my lord! He’ll be forsworn.

As it turns out, the Princess is as sharp as a tack. Her quick wit has Navarre in the palm of her hand almost immediately – but an oath is an oath. It’ll take a bit more for him to break out of his self-inflicted shackles. While the King handles the Princess’ business, Berowne approaches Rosaline (who, I’d argue, has the sharpest tongue of them all):

Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?

Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?

I know you did.

How needless was it then
To ask the question.

Berowne tells her not to be so abrasive, but you can tell he’s already smitten. The men descend on Boyet, the Princess’ attendant, asking after each of the ladies. Boyet, who is incredibly amused throughout this entire play, supplies them with what they need to know. And as they leave for their tents, he tells the Princess that he believes Navarre is in love. The Princess laughs and says that Boyet seems to be in a joking mood.

Meanwhile, in the background, Costard the clown seems to have gotten himself into a spot of trouble: he was caught fraternizing with Jaquenetta. Luckily for him, his warden Armado – an over-the-top, dramatic figure – finds himself in love with Jaquenetta, and frees Costard from his prison – but only if he’ll deliver a letter. As Costard leaves to carry out his task, he is stopped by Berowne.

Stay, slave, I must employ thee.
As thou wilt win my favor, good my knave,
Do one thing for me that I shall entreat.

When would you have it done, sir?

This afternoon.

Well, I will do it, sir. Fare you well.

Thou knowest not what it is.

I shall know, sir, when I have done it.

Berowne finally manages to convince Costard to deliver a letter to Rosaline. Tsk, tsk! Breaking the oath already, I see. With two letters in hand, Costard is doomed to mess up. This is a comedy, after all.

Costard delivers Armado’s letter to the Princess – who gleefully makes fun of it. Berowne’s oath-breaking letter finds its way into the hands of Jaquenetta, who gives it to the Pedant Holofernes. Both Holofernes and Nathaniel the Curate catch on quite quickly that the words in this letter – addressed to Rosaline, of course – are against the King’s new rules. So they tell Jaquenetta and Costard to deliver the letter to the King.

This leads us into 4.3, my favorite act in this entire play. I was incredibly charmed and delighted while reading it. It’s genuinely hilarious, too. Berowne is dramatically lamenting the fact that he’s in love. Just as he wishes aloud that the others were in his situation, the King enters with a piece of paper. Berowne hides out of sight.

The King, believing he is alone, confesses that he is in love with the Princess. When Longaville enters to declare his love for Maria, the King hides. Longaville finds himself pressed to find a hiding spot when – you guessed it! – Dumaine comes in confessing his love.

As the men find each other out, they begin to bicker. Realizing that they’re in quite the pickle, the King exclaims:

[…] What will Berowne say when he that shall hear
Faith infringed, which such zeal did swear?
How will he scorn, how will he spend his wit!
How will he triumph, leap, and laugh at it!
For all the wealth that ever I did see,
I would not have him know so much by me.

Berowne, sensing an opportunity to mock his friends, immediately makes his presence known. He hilariously pretends to be betrayed – until Jaquenetta and Costard arrive to hand his letter to the King.

I beseech your Grace, let this letter be read.
Our person misdoubts it. ‘Twas treason, he said.

Berowne, read it over.
[To Jaquenetta.] Where hadst thou it?

Of Costard.

[To Costard.] Where hadst thou it?

Of Dun Aramadio, Dun Adramadio.

[Berowne tears the paper.]

Berowne tearing the letter up had me in absolute tears. He is found out almost immediately, and together they all make a pact to woo their lady loves.

The fifth act is the longest in the play – and it makes the flow seem a little strange. Each lady has received a favor, and upon hearing that the men are coming to greet them disguised as Russians, they trade favors, don masks, and make a huge game of it. They do not take the men seriously at all – and why should they? The men have not been pursuing them seriously. Everything has been one big game.

The men then later return dressed as themselves, and the ladies mock them once again (to my utter delight, of course). Rosaline innocently asks Berowne which of the masks it was that he wore when he was pretending to be a Russian:

Where? When? What vizard? Why demand you this?

There; then; that vizard; that superfluous case
That hid the worse and showed the better face.

KING, [aside to Dumaine.]
They’ll mock us now downright.

DUMAINE, [aside, to King.]
Let us confess and turn it to a jest.

PRINCESS, [to King.]
Amazed, my lord? Why looks your Highness sad?

The men just can’t win. They still insist that they’re in love – but the Princess and her ladies are not so easily won.

Everything continues to be fun and games until sombre news arrives: the King of France is dead. The Princess means to leave immediately – but the King loves her. A deal is struck: if the King is still passionately in love after a year has passed, then he is welcome to the Princess, who will be mourning in the meantime. Rosaline strikes a similar deal with Berowne: he is to go to a hospital for a year and use his wit to make the sick laugh. After the passing of one year, he is welcome to come to Rosaline again.

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

Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day,
And then ’twill end.

That’s too long for a play.

The play ends on this rather depressing note – the consequences of the King of France’s death cannot be avoided. I will say that despite scoffing at the plot initially, I was a bit sad that the play didn’t end on a cliche note. I wanted everybody to get married! Especially Berowne and Rosaline – those two were very clearly made for one another.

It goes without saying that something was going on with Shakespeare. Love’s Labor’s Lost was intended to be a typical Shakespearean comedy. Unsurprisingly, it was initially titled Love’s Labor’s Won – and it ended with a series of happy weddings. A handful of scholars believe that Shakespeare underwent a personal change – one that resulted in him changing the ending and title of his play. And we can blame this change on Sonnet 130’s Dark Lady. Who was she? Why did she inspire Shakespeare to change the ending of this play? What was it about her that forced Shakespeare to undergo something of an awakening? We just don’t know – and yes, I know, that’s frustrating, but that’s the way it is. I will say, though, that if Berowne is Shakespeare, perhaps Rosaline was based off of this Dark Lady. And if she was, well, I love her already.

To round off this whimsical and strangely sad journey, I watched Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 adaptation of Love’s Labor’s Lost. The film was set in the 1930s, and was essentially a musical. I’m something of a Shakespeare purist – I love seeing plays and films littered with the correct costumes and backdrops. So I was surprised to find myself laughing while watching this movie – it wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t too terrible. I think I’m too much in love with this play right now to hate anything based off of it. But I’d definitely jump at the opportunity to see it live one day.

Richard II is my next play for this month. Fortunately, Love’s Labor’s Lost has helped me overcome my reader’s block, and I’m excited to keep moving forward. I’ll see you next time, and we’ll sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…

11:45PM on a Saturday night edit: where is my romantic comedy continuation of Love’s Labor’s Lost? Is somebody writing it? If not, can somebody please get started?