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.

William Shakespeare. Digital ID: 1630421. New York Public Library

William Shakespeare (1901-1915)
BY L.J. Binns caricatures
The New York Public Library
Digital Gallery

But by 1592, despite his supposed lack of self-confidence, Shakespeare had written the three parts of Henry VI. And they were successful, so he knew that that he could somehow manage to cobble something together.[5] He was likely under pressure to do so: the Henry VI plays were very popular, and theater managers wanted more from him. Sometime around 1592, he began to write the Love’s Labor’s plays. He finished them a year or two later, and they began to be performed. These were the original versions of the plays, those that appear in Hunt’s list.

Apparently, Shakespeare did not care about publishing his plays, and from the evidence, did not superintend the process. He regarded the plays as popular entertainment, not literature, no more than we would regard as literature the collected scripts for Mork & Mindy. We do not have a full copy of the first version of Love’s Labor’s Lost, but — probably because of Shakespeare’s lack of interest in publishing — we have small pieces of the original, fossils accidentally embedded in the rewritten version. Maybe whoever prepared the quarto sometimes did not cross out the deletions with a thick enough stroke, and some parts meant to be deleted got printed instead. Here is a speech of Costard:

COSTARD: By my soul, a swain! a most simple clown!
Lord, Lord, how the ladies and I have put him down!
O’ my troth, most sweet jests! most incony[6] vulgar wit;
When it comes so smoothly off, so obscenely[7] as it were, so fit.
Armado to th’one side, O! a most dainty man,
To see him walk before a lady, and to bear her fan!


Costard is describing a scene that never occurs in the rewritten version (the one we have today), but this does give us clues about the original. In 1594, Armado was the long-winded braggart that lords had hoped for to enliven their monastic existence, and a dandy, too. The Armado we have now would never carry a lady’s fan. He is indifferent to women, until he meets Jaquenetta.

In the original, as in the version we have, women invade the lords’ austere and studious life. They flirt with the men, and poke fun at their ridiculous aspirations. Here are two versions of Berowne’s encounter with Rosaline:

1594 1599
BEROWNE: Lady, I will commend you to mine own heart.
ROSALINE: Pray you, do my commendations;
I would be glad to see it.
BEROWNE: I would you heard it groan.
ROSALINE: Is the fool sick?
BEROWNE: Sick at the heart.
ROSALINE: Alack, let it blood.
BEROWNE: Would that do it good?
ROSALINE: My physic says “ay.”
BEROWNE: Will you prick’t with your eye?
ROSALINE: No point, with my knife.
BEROWNE: Now, God save thy life!
ROSALINE: And yours from long living!
BEROWNE (retiring): I cannot stay thanksgiving.
BEROWNE: Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
ROSALINE: Did not I dance with you in Brabant once?
BEROWNE: I know you did.
ROSALINE: How needless was it then to ask the question.
BEROWNE: You must not be so quick.
ROSALINE: ‘Tis long of you that spur me with such questions.
BEROWNE: Your wit’s too hot, it speeds too fast, ‘twill tire.
ROSALINE: Not till it leave the rider in the mire.
BEROWNE: What time o’ day?
ROSALINE: The hour that fools should ask.
BEROWNE: Now fair befall your mask!
ROSALINE: Fair fall the face it covers!
BEROWNE: And send you many lovers!
ROSALINE: Amen, so you be none.
BEROWNE (retiring): Nay, then will I be gone.

If you accept my (unprovable) theory that the version on the right is the newer, you can see that the first version — on the left — is less skillful, less comic and more brittle. Rosaline’s scorn goes beyond ridicule into viciousness, when she proposes to cure Berowne’s heart with her knife, ouch.

Why is Rosaline so unsympathetic in the first version? It is because at this point in his life, Shakespeare was himself not attracted to women (or so he thought). He could be sympathetic to them (see The Taming of the Shrew), or covertly hostile (as he is to the manipulative Portia in The Merchant of Venice). He apparently viewed himself as a homosexual; “sodomite” is the Elizabethan term. His friend and fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe was a homosexual.[8] In Sonnets 1 to 126, the beloved is male. In Sonnet 20, there is an anatomical reference that should calm any discussion, when the speaker tells the subject:

But since she [Nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Love's Labor's Lost

LAYOUT & ARTWORK BY Merrilee McCommas
(1996 Production, Love's Labor's Lost)

Sometime between 1590 and 1596, Shakespeare discovered — to his horror — that he was after all attracted to women. In Sonnet 127, Shakespeare begins to write about a woman or women, using “her.” You probably know Sonnet 130, which begins with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”[9] I say “to his horror,” because Shakespeare’s mother was a very tough cookie, like the mothers of Richard III and Coriolanus, like little William’s mother in Merry Wives, who doubts that her son has any intellectual ability. From his experience with Mom, Shakespeare feared the whole sex. When he became aware of his female attraction, he was horrified, and proceeded to attach this horror to his characters.[10] For example, here is Berowne’s reaction when he finds himself falling for Rosaline in Love’s Labor’s Lost:

What? I love, I sue, I seek a wife?
A woman! — that is like a German clock …[11]


And of course, you are familiar with Hamlet’s ambivalent feelings about Ophelia. He tries simultaneously to seize her and to get as far away from her as possible. Ophelia describes it:

He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm …


When Shakespeare realized he liked women, the character of the brittle, knife-wielding Rosaline no longer satisfied him, and he began thinking about rewriting Love’s Labor’s Lost. There was no hurry. The original play was both a commercial and critical success. Meres had praised it (which I take for critical success), and it was printed in Quarto (ordinary people would pay real money to own it). Shakespeare’s only reason to revise it was that he himself was no longer satisfied with it. But he was very busy. Theaters in general and his plays in particular were hugely popular then. Between 1593 and 1599, scholars guess that he wrote Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado about Nothing and Henry V — not necessarily in that order. On top of these plays, he was plotting Hamlet.

Life went on, too, or in some cases, ended. On May 30, 1593, Shakespeare’s friend and fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe was murdered. Shakespeare wanted to write some sort of tribute to him. Yet in August 1596, Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, Hamnet died of the plague. To know whether Shakespeare grieved for his child, please read Constance’s speech in King John (1596-7):

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.


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

Marlowe’s memorial had to wait.

In Love’s Labor’s Lost — as we have it on our bookshelf — the King of Navarre has established in the country an academe: a study group, a kind of secular monastery, to last for three years. One of the rules for the group is that the members must swear they will have nothing to do with women. When the beautiful Princess of France and her lovely ladies-in-waiting, Rosaline, Katharine and Maria show up on their diplomatic mission, the King and his court, Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine, fall in love with the ladies at first sight. Scruples about their oaths and their own juvenile behavior prevent them from courting the willing ladies until it is too late. The French royalty and her court, forbidden from the house, are lodged, horrors, in a tent! — and they determine to take revenge on what they consider the lords’ pomposity. When the lords abandon their oaths and begin to woo the ladies, and even propose marriage, the ladies regard their efforts as an attempt to mock them, as “courtship, pleasant jest and courtesy, as bombast.” Circumstances bring the play to a close without a happy ending. The ladies send the lords away for a year’s time, on a year-long spiritual quest to test the lords’ resolve, promising that they will reconsider the marriage proposals at the end of the year.

I hope you can see from this very brief synopsis that the characters lose their love-labors because they are constantly making mistakes: the lords ruled women off the property, having forgotten that the Princess of France had already arranged a rendez-vous. Berowne finally convinces the other lords that it was a mistake to think they could gain knowledge without studying women. When the lords do woo the ladies, the slighted ladies disguise themselves so that each man mistakenly woos the wrong woman.

Besides these major mistakes, there are a myriad of minor ones: when the King sets up his girl-free academe, he forgets that the beautiful dairy-maid, Jaquenetta, is already on the premises.[12] When Berowne and Armado send love letters to Rosaline and Jaquenetta, using Costard as messenger, Costard immediately confuses the letters, and delivers to each girl the other girl’s letter. Characters also make mistakes in English (“Consider who the king your father sends,” II.1.2), in Latin (“Laus Deo, bone intelligo,”V.1.26), and in Italian (“Vemchie, Vencha, que non le unde, que non le perreche,” IV.2.93). Asked to do math, they are hopelessly lost, especially if the number three is involved.

MOTH: Then, I am sure, you know how much the gross sum
of deuce-ace amounts to.
ARMADO: It doth amount — to one more than two.
MOTH: Which the base vulgar do call three.

(LLL I.2.45-9)

The dancing horse would do better at math than the characters in this play, as Moth points out.

Aquitaine is the subject of the Princess’s diplomatic embassy, and he happens to be one of the places where courtly love had its origins at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Courtly love is a huge subject; some of its features are: the knight fell in love with a lady (somebody else’s wife, never his own). The lady was supposed to be unobtainable, but if she admired or pitied some small part of the knight’s adoration, she might give him a favor, something of hers to take on his quests and combats. Look at this:

PRINCESS: But, Katharine, what was sent to you from fair Dumain?
KATHARINE: Madam, this glove.


And later:

BEROWNE (taking Rosaline’s hand): … I here protest,
By this white glove — how white the hand, God knows!


Shakespeare has Longaville send Katharine gloves, and has Rosaline (as well as all the ladies) wearing gloves in the last scene: he wanted each lady to be able to give a glove to her knight when she sent him on his year-long quest to win her love.[13]

Here are some other elements of the play, starting with apples: “costard” means a kind of apple; the song tells of “roasted crabs” meaning roasted crabapples; and Holofernes mentions the “pomewater” apple. Berowne has to climb up somewhere high to spy on the other lords as they recite their sonnets, so why should he not climb a tree, and an apple tree at that? In his justification of the lords’ perjury, he compares love to “a Hercules, / Still climbing trees in the Hesperides” (IV.3.315), and though Berowne has blundered again (Hercules didn’t climb the tree, he sent Atlas), the golden apples were the object of Hercules’ quest.

The play has some distinct Old Testament references.[14] Holofernes (from the Book of Judith) is the name of a character. Holofernes acts the part of Judas Maccabeus (in the pageant of the Nine Worthies). Armado refers to Jaquenetta as “a child of our grandmother Eve.” As for the number three, which gives characters such trouble, it is the number of the Holy Trinity, which of course does not figure at all in the Old Testament.

There is something in the play that seems like a mistake by Shakespeare, and is not. The action of the play takes place in only two days. Yet, during those two days, Armado falls in love with Jaquenetta, and by the end of the play, she is two months pregnant.

There is only one place in human history where Jaquenetta’s speeded-up pregnancy is not impossible, and where all the other elements of the play, like the apples, fit in neatly — you may have guessed that it is the Garden of Eden. When Shakespeare wanted a play to have an Eden-like environment of beauty and graciousness, he set the play in France: Love’s Labor’s Lost in French Navarre, As You Like It in the Ardennes, and All’s Well That Ends Well in Roussillon. In Henry V, France is blasphemously referred to as “the world’s best garden.”

Here is the only encounter Shakespeare shows us between Armado and Jaquenetta:

ARMADO: I do betray myself with blushing. Maid!
ARMADO: I will visit thee at the lodge.
JAQUENETTA: That’s hereby.
ARMADO: I know where it is situate.
JAQUENETTA: Lord, how wise you are!
ARMADO: I will tell thee wonders.
JAQUENETTA: With that face?
ARMADO: I love thee.
JAQUENETTA: So I heard you say.
ARMADO: And so, farewell.
JAQUENETTA: Fair weather after you!


Jaquenetta starts out as smart-alecky as Rosaline, but softens immediately when Armado says “I love you.” (Berowne never says “I love you” to Rosaline. He mentions love in his sonnet to her but of course that sonnet is never delivered. He tears it up at IV.3.197.)

I assume that Jaquenetta has just picked an apple from the tree, which I imagine is onstage, and at the end of their scene, I assume she hands it to Armado as a love-gift.[15] Shakespeare intended us to see this as a re-enactment of what happened between Adam (whose name is mixed up in Armado’s) and Eve (Jaquenetta’s grandmother, according to Armado).

The play is a compendium of human errors and failings, founded on the first and greatest error humans ever made, when our great-grandmother Eve offered to share that apple with Adam. But Shakespeare has made that sin a virtue. Jaquenetta gives the apple to Armado, as the token of their love. Their embracing of love (and each other, to be sure) saves them. At the end of the play, the four other couples, who have not pursued love, unsuccessful and unhappy, are turned out of the garden by Armado. He brandishes the sword he wore as Hector, which stands for the flaming sword that has barred us from the Garden ever since, as he points the royals and their courts towards the gate, “You that way; we this way.” And by “we,” he means himself and Jaquenetta, the only couple who get to stay inside.[16]

Allow me to give the final word to Shakespeare, via Costard. In delivering his letter to Jaquenetta, Armado gives Costard three farthings (i.e. a penny and a half), and Berowne, when delivering his letter to Rosaline, gives Costard a shilling (i.e. twelve pence), telling him, “There’s thy guerdon; go.”[17]

COSTARD (looking at the coin): Gardon, O sweet gardon! Better than remuneration; a ‘leven-pence farthing better! Most sweet gardon! I will do it, sir, in print! (COSTARD holds out a coin in each hand and compares them. Lovingly) Gardon! (scornfully) Remuneration!

Indeed, it was much sweeter for us when we were in the Garden than when we received remuneration for our sins.

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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.
  1. We know that Shakespeare had written the Henry VI plays by this date because Robert Greene, dying from having eaten some bad herring, wrote a diatribe against uppity actors who wanted to become playwrights. In fact, he had one particular one in mind, whom he singled out as a “Shake-scene,” and he paraphrased a line from Henry VI Part 3.
  2. Incony: nobody knows. Uncanny is one guess.
  3. Obscenely is certainly the correct word for the conversation that has preceded this, but Costard, who frequently mispronounces, is probably searching for a less apt word.
  1. This is widely accepted but unproven; the central relationship in Marlowe’s Edward II is, however, Edward’s self-destructive love for Gaveston.
  2. Nobody has been able to date the sonnets, or even prove that they were written in the numerical order we have. I feel like the minister who wrote a note to himself in the margin of his sermon: “Argument weak here. Yell like hell.”
  3. An alert reader will rightly object that this paragraph is blarney. I can offer in evidence the fact that Shakespeare, after 1595, wrote two plays in which characters move from same-sex to opposite-sex relationships. Celia, in As You Like It, says that she and Rosaline have always slept together. (AYL, I.3.69). Beatrice, in Much Ado about Nothing, says that she has been Hero’s bedfellow for a year (Ado, IV.1.47-8). All these women wind up in what promise to be happy marriages.
  4. The italics, exclamation point and dash are mine.
  1. “Beautiful” is director’s conjecture, based on the fact that Costard, Holofernes and Armado are all attracted to her.
  1. Anybody interested in courtly love should look at L’Amour et l’Occident by Denis de Rougemont, translated into English as Love in the Western World…
  2. Properly these are characters from the Apocrypha, but they are certainly not New Testament.
  1. That these are assumptions is pointed out in a desperate attempt to maintain the fig-leaf that I am not a snake-oil salesman.
  2. See Genesis 3.24.
  3. A “guerdon” is a reward or recompense.

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