“It is this foppery of delicate language, this fashionable plaything of his time, with which Shakespeare is occupied in Love’s Labours Lost.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Critical History

By Dennis Abrams


Since I gave you an extra couple of days to read Act 4, I thought I’d get into a brief discussion of the play’s critical history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, until the 19th century, very few critics had much good to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost which, perhaps because of a relative closeness to the era, was thought to represent Shakespeare at his most word-indulgent as well as his most datedly Elizabethan.  (For me, it’s that very aspect that I find particularly interesting and charming in the play.)

Francis Gentleman, relegated the play to the eighth volume of Bell’s edition in 1774, calling it “one of Shakespeare’s weakest compositions…he certainly wrote more to pleas himself than to divert or inform his readers or auditors.’  And while enthusiasm grew over the following century, it was often highly qualified.  William Hazlitt, while conceding that the play had its charms, found it pedantic, and while admitting his love for certain characters, began his essay by saying, “If we were to part with any of the author’s comedies, it should be this,” while Coleridge enjoyed the play primarily as an intelligent game at the expense of Renaissance humanism.  On the other hand,  Samuel Johnson more or less dismissed it by saying,

‘In this play, which all the editors have concurred to censure and some have rejected as unworthy of our poet, it must be confessed that there are many passages mean, childish, and vulgar, and some which out not to have been exhibited, as we are told they were, to a maiden queen.  But there are scattered through the whole many sparks of genius; nor is there any play that has more evident marks of the hand of Shakespeare.’

Victor Hugo initiated a new line of thinking about the play in his introduction to his own translation of the play, when he attempted to show that it was a specific satire on Elizabeth’s court, directly inspired by the relationship between the Earl of Southampton (according to Hugo, the original for Berowne, as well as for the ‘Fair Youth’ of the Sonnets) with Elizabeth Vernon.  (That quest for topical or even allegorical significance in the play has been pursued more recently by Francis Yates and her followers.  And I, for one, don’t buy it.  I’m more inclined to go along with Goddard who writes, “Love’s Labour’s Lost, more than any other play of Shakespeare’s, even Troilus and Cressida, bears the marks of having been written for a special audience, an audience such as would be found not in the public theater but at court or in the house of such nobleman.”  Given that, it seems unlikely that he would take the opportunity, especially so early in his career to “bite the hand that feeds him” so to speak.)

The play only really came into its own critically with the dawning of the aesthetic movement at the end of the century, when commentators such as Walter Pater and Algernon Charles Swinburne began to celebrate the play’s artfully studied artifice and pose of insubstantiality instead of lamenting it.  Since then critics have, also looked for sterner things in the play (noticeably in the play’s non-comedic ending), its alleged attempt to beat the so-called University Wits at their own game, its views of language, identity and social hierarchy, or its understanding of the pastoral and the festive.


And such, for your enjoyment…

From Swinburne:

“The example afforded by the Comedy of Errors would suffice to show that rhyme, however inadequate for tragic use, is by no means a bad instrument for romantic comedy.  In another of Shakespeare’s earliest works, which might almost be described as a lyrical farce, rhyme plays also a great part; but the finest passage, the real crown and flower of Love’s Labour’s Lost, is the praise or apology of love spoken by Biron in blank verse.  This is worthy of Marlowe for dignity and sweetness, but has also the grace of a light and radiant fancy enamoured of itself, begotten between thought and mirth, a child-god with grave lips and laughing eyes, whose inspiration is nothing akin to Marlowe’s.  In this as in the overture of the play and in its closing scene… the spirit which informs the speech of the poet is finer of touch and deeper of tone than in the sweetest of the serious interludes of the Comedy of Errors.  The play is in the main a yet lighter thing, and more wayward and capricious in build, more formless and fantastic in plot, more incomposite altogether than that first heir of Shakespeare’s comic invention, which on its own ground is perfect in its consistency, blameless in composition and coherence; while in Love’s Labour’s Lost the fancy for the most part runs wild as the wind, and the structure of the story is as that of a house of clouds which the wind builds and unbuilds at pleasure.  Here we find a very riot of rhymes, wild and wanton in their half-grown grace as a troop of “young satyrs, tender-hoofed and ruddy-horned”; during certain scenes we seem almost to stand again by the cradle of new-born comedy, and hear the first lisping and laughing accents run over from her baby lips in bubbling rhyme; but when the note changes we recognise the speech of gods.  For the first time in our literature the higher key of poetic or romantic comedy is finely touched to a fine issue.  The divine instrument fashioned by Marlowe for tragic purposes alone has found at once its new sweet use in the hands of Shakespeare.  The way is prepared for As You Like It and the Tempest; the language is discovered which will befit the lips of Rosalind and Miranda.”

And from Walter Pater:

Love’s Labours Lost is one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s dramas, and has many of the peculiarities of his poems, which are also the work of his earlier life. The opening speech of the king on the immortality of fame–on the triumph of fame over death–and the nobler parts of Biron, display something of the monumental style of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and are not without their concerts of thought and expression. This connexion of Love’s Labours Lost with Shakespeare’s poems is further enforced by the actual insertion in it of three sonnets and a faultless song; which, in accordance with his practice in other plays, are inwoven into the argument of the piece and, like the golden ornaments of a fair woman, give it a peculiar air of distinction. There is merriment in it also, with choice illustrations of both wit and humour; a laughter, often exquisite, ringing, if faintly, yet as genuine laughter still, though sometimes sinking into mere burlesque, which has not lasted quite so well. And Shakespeare brings a serious effect out of the trifling of his characters. A dainty love-making is interchanged with the more cumbrous play: below the many artifices of Biron’s amorous speeches we may trace sometimes the “unutterable longing;” and the lines in which Katherine describes the blighting through love of her younger sister are one of the most touching things in older literature. [1] Again, how many echoes seem awakened by those strange words, actually said in jest! “The sweet war-man (Hector of Troy) is dead and rotten; sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried: when he breathed, he was a man!”–words which may remind us of Shakespeare’s own epitaph. In the last scene, an ingenious turn is given to the action, so that the piece does not conclude after the manner of other comedies.–
Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill:
1. Act V. Scene II.]
and Shakespeare strikes a passionate note across it at last, in the entrance of the messenger, who announces to the princess that the king her father is suddenly dead.

The merely dramatic interest of the piece is slight enough; only just sufficient, indeed, to form the vehicle of its wit and poetry. The scene–a park of the King of Navarre–is unaltered throughout; and the unity of the play is not so much the unity of a drama as that of a series of pictorial groups, in which the same figures reappear, in different combinations but on the same background. It is as if Shakespeare had intended to bind together, by some inventive conceit, the devices of an ancient tapestry, and give voices to its figures. On one side, a fair palace; on the other, the tents of the Princess of France, who has come on an embassy from her father to the King of Navarre; in the midst, a wide space of smooth grass.

The same personages are combined over and over again into a series of gallant scenes–the princess, the three masked ladies, the quaint, pedantic king; one of those amiable kings men have never loved enough, whose serious occupation with the things of the mind seems, by contrast with the more usual forms of kingship, like frivolity or play. Some of the figures are grotesque merely, and all the male ones at least, a little fantastic. Certain objects reappearing from scene to scene–love-letters crammed with verses to the margin, and lovers’ toys–hint obscurely at some story of intrigue. Between these groups, on a smaller scale, come the slighter and more homely episodes, with Sir Nathaniel the curate, the country-maid Jaquenetta, Moth or Mote the elfin-page, with Hiems and Ver, who recite “the dialogue that the two learned men have compiled in praise of the owl and the cuckoo.” The ladies are lodged in tents, because the king, like the princess of the modern poet’s fancy, has taken a vow

to make his court a little Academe,

and for three years’ space no woman may come within a mile of it; and the play shows how this artificial attempt was broken through. For the king and his three fellow-scholars are of course soon forsworn, and turn to writing sonnets, each to his chosen lady. These fellow-scholars of the king–“quaint votaries of science” at first, afterwards “affection’s men-at-arms”–three youthful knights, gallant, amorous, chivalrous, but also a little affected, sporting always a curious foppery of language, are, throughout, the leading figures in the foreground; one of them, in particular, being more carefully depicted than the others, and in himself very noticeable–a portrait with somewhat puzzling manner and expression, which at once catches the eye irresistibly and keeps it fixed.

Play is often that about which people are most serious; and the humourist may observe how, under all love of playthings, there is almost always hidden an appreciation of something really engaging and delightful. This is true always of the toys of children: it is often true of the playthings of grown-up people, their vanities, their fopperies even, their lighter loves; the cynic would add their pursuit of fame. Certainly, this is true without exception of the playthings of a past age, which to those who succeed it are always full of a pensive interest–old manners, old dresses, old houses. For what is called fashion in these matters occupies, in each age, much of the care of many of the most discerning people, furnishing them with a kind of mirror of their real inward refinements, and their capacity for selection. Such modes or fashions are, at their best, an example of the artistic predominance of form over matter; of the manner of the doing of it over the thing done; and have a beauty of their own. It is so with that old euphuism of the Elizabethan age–that pride of dainty language and curious expression, which it is very easy to ridicule, which often made itself ridiculous, but which had below it a real sense of fitness and nicety; and which, as we see in this very play, and still more clearly in the Sonnets, had some fascination for the young Shakespeare himself. It is this foppery of delicate language, this fashionable plaything of his time, with which Shakespeare is occupied in Love’s Labours Lost. He shows us the manner in all its stages; passing from the grotesque and vulgar pedantry of Holofernes, through the extravagant but polished caricature of Armado, to become the peculiar characteristic of a real though still quaint poetry in Biron himself, who is still chargeable even at his best with just a little affectation. As Shakespeare laughs broadly at it in Holofernes or Armado, so he is the analyst of its curious charm in Biron; and this analysis involves a delicate raillery by Shakespeare himself at his own chosen manner.

This “foppery” of Shakespeare’s day had, then, its really delightful side, a quality in no sense “affected,” by which it satisfies a real instinct in our minds–the fancy so many of us have for an exquisite and curious skill in the use of words. Biron is the perfect flower of this manner:

A man of fire-new words, fashion’s own knight:

–as he describes Armado, in terms which are really applicable to himself. In him this manner blends with a true gallantry of nature, and an affectionate complaisance and grace. He has at times some of its extravagance or caricature also, but the shades of expression by which he passes from this to the “golden cadence” of Shakespeare’s own most characteristic verse, are so fine, that it is sometimes difficult to trace them. What is a vulgarity in Holofernes, and a caricature in Armado, refines itself with him into the expression of a nature truly and inwardly bent upon a form of delicate perfection, and is accompanied by a real insight into the laws which determine what is exquisite in language, and their root in the nature of things. He can appreciate quite the opposite style–

In russet yeas, and honest kersey noes;

he knows the first law of pathos, that

Honest plain words best suit the ear of grief.

He delights in his own rapidity of intuition; and, in harmony with the half-sensuous philosophy of the Sonnets, exalts, a little scornfully, in many memorable expressions, the judgment of the senses, above all slower, more toilsome means of knowledge, scorning some who fail to see things only because they are so clear:
So here you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes:–
as with some German commentators on Shakespeare. Appealing always to actual sensation from men’s affected theories, he might seem to despise learning; as, indeed, he has taken up his deep studies partly in sport, and demands always the profit of learning in renewed enjoyment. Yet he surprises us from time to time by intuitions which could come only from a deep experience and power of observation; and men listen to him, old and young, in spite of themselves. He is quickly impressible to the slightest clouding of the spirits in social intercourse, and has his moments of extreme seriousness: his trial-task may well be, as Rosaline puts it–

To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

But still, through all, he is true to his chosen manner: that gloss of dainty language is a second nature with him: even at his best he is not without a certain artifice: the trick of playing on words never deserts him; and Shakespeare, in whose own genius there is an element of this very quality, shows us in this graceful, and, as it seems, studied, portrait, his enjoyment of it.

As happens with every true dramatist, Shakespeare is for the most part hidden behind the persons of his creation. Yet there are certain of his characters in which we feel that there is something of self-portraiture. And it is not so much in his grander, more subtle and ingenious creations that we feel this–in Hamlet and King Lear–as in those slighter and more spontaneously developed figures, who, while far from playing principal parts, are yet distinguished by a peculiar happiness and delicate ease in the drawing of them; figures which possess, above all, that winning attractiveness which there is no man but would willingly exercise, and which resemble those works of art which, though not meant to be very great or imposing, are yet wrought of the choicest material. Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet, belongs to this group of Shakespeare’s characters–versatile, mercurial people, such as make good actors, and in whom the

nimble spirits of the arteries,

the finer but still merely animal elements of great wit, predominate. A careful delineation of minor, yet expressive traits seems to mark them out as the characters of his predilection; and it is hard not to identify him with these more than with others. Biron, in Love’s Labours Lost, is perhaps the most striking member of this group. In this character, which is never quite in touch, never quite on a perfect level of understanding, with the other persons of the play, we see, perhaps, a reflex of Shakespeare himself, when he has just become able to stand aside from and estimate the first period of his poetry.



My next post will be Sunday evening – Act Four of Love’s Labour’s Lost

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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