Where is Love’s Labor’s Lost?

I started out to write “Where is Love’s Labor’s Won,” but realized I had to explain about Love’s Labor’s Lost first. Both plays rest on your bookshelf. You have Shakespeare’s collected works, don’t you? — même vous, les francophones ? This piece is to help you find Love’s Labor’s Won, for it is hidden behind some other stuff.

Let me first explain where Love’s Labor’s Lost is. I will try to use real facts and generally accepted ideas, but when there is no mention of a specific source, you’d better assume that the arguments are my own wild-eyed conjectures. Most of the dates are based on scholarly research done by scholars (not me!), but they are all approximate. Concerning Shakespearean dates, nobody knows for sure.

Most scholars believe Shakespeare wrote a play called Love’s Labor’s Won, as it is listed in Francis Meres’ book in 1598, Palladis Tamia:

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage. For Comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s Labor’s Lost, his Love’s Labor’s Won, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet…[1]

Additionally, there is the 1603 list of the bookseller Christopher Hunt which includes among the quartos available for sale, Marchant Of Vennis, Taming Of A Shrew, Loves Labour Lost, Loves Labour Won. (The quartos were the cheap editions of the plays published before they were collected in the expensive 1623 Folio.)[2] No copy of a play named Love’s Labor’s Won has survived. Why not?

Shakespeare's plays: with his life

Shakespeare's plays: with his life
BY William Shakespeare, H. W. Hewet,
Gulian Crommelin Verplanck,
John Payne Collier, Charles Knight
PUBLISHED BY Harper & Brothers, 1847
FROM the New York Public Library

Shakespeare began thinking about writing both Love’s Labor’s plays in or shortly after 1588. A dancing horse that could do math was performing in London, tapping out sums with its hoof;[3] the grand armada of Phillip II had just been defeated; a commedia troupe was performing in England; and in 1589 Elizabeth I sent troops to aid Protestant King Henry of Navarre (the one who later declared “Paris vaut bien une messe”). References to all these events and personalities appear in Love’s Labor’s Lost. One of the characters is the King of Navarre. Another is Don Adriano de Armado, also referred to in the play both as “the magnificent Armado” (not difficult to understand as a reference to the Spanish fleet) and “the braggart” (which makes us think Shakespeare was thinking about the boastful captain of the commedia). The boy page, Moth — whom many scholars compare to the clever servant, Arlecchino, Brighella et al. in the commedia, and to Pseudolus or Palaestrio in Plautus — tells Armado that the dancing horse will do his sums for him.[4]

We have no record of Shakespeare having written any plays by the year 1588, and I think young Shakespeare — he was twenty-four — didn’t even know if he could write plays. He knew that his close friend Christopher Marlowe, the playwright who established iambic pentameter as the standard English dramatic verse form, was a talented, natural playwright. Shakespeare had no idea whether he himself had any ability at all. He remembered his insecurity even in 1600, at the age of thirty-six, when he put a boy named William on stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. William’s mother doubts his scholastic ability, and has him placed under an examination by the Welsh parson, Evans, and is surprised to find that little William actually knows his Latin. Another William also appears in As You Like It, an inarticulate country bumpkin who is chased off by Touchstone and doesn’t get the girl.

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  1. Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury
  2. For information about the Quartos, visit the British Library.
  3. Controversial; the first certain reference to the horse that could count appeared in 1591, but there is a possible reference to another one in 1588. It is an assumption that the horse tapped the answers with its hoof; I suppose it could even have been a talking horse. Horse and owner were, according to Ben Jonson, burned as witches. (The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, ed. Martin Banham)
  4. The stock characters in the commedia are so similar to those in a Roman comedy that everybody would like to be able to find a connection between the two forms…and nobody ever has.

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