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Love's Labour's Lost

Creation of the play

Love’s Labour’s Lost is dated to 1594-1595. The play cannot be later than 1598, when it was mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia and published in the first surviving quarto. There is little other evidence with which to date it. Although there is apparently a relationship between Love’s Labour’s Lost and the revels at Gray’s Inn between December 1594 and March 1595, it is impossible to prove that Shakespeare borrowed from these entertainments. The play’s style links it to Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which are usually dated to this period.

Early performances

The title-page of the first quarto states that Love’s Labour’s Lost was ‘presented before her Highnes this last Christmas’. The play may have been performed at court during the Christmas season 1597-1598 or even earlier. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are first known to have performed at court on 26 and 27 December 1594. However, the play could also have been played initially in the public theatre rather than at court. Love’s Labour’s Lost is listed as one of the plays given during the Christmas season of 1604-1605, when it may have been performed either at Robert Cecil’s house in the Strand or at Southampton House (the London residence of Shakespeare’s patron) during January 1605. The title-page of the second quarto of 1631 declares that the play was ‘acted by his Maiesties Seruants at the Blacke-Friers and the Globe’. This suggests that Love’s Labour’s Lost was performed after 1608, when the King’s Men acquired their indoor theatre at Blackfriars, and that the play continued to be performed into the reign of Charles I. It has been suggested that the comedian William Kemp first played the role of Costard.

Publication in quarto and folio

Love’s Labour’s Lost appeared in four editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1598. The first of Shakespeare’s published works to have his name on the title-page. The text is described on the title-page as ‘Newly corrected and augmented’, and it is believed that there was an earlier quarto of the play which does not survive. It is thought that the first quarto was printed from this predecessor, which itself was printed from a manuscript originating with Shakespeare.
  • First folio, 1623. Printed from the first quarto. Variations between the folio and quarto texts suggest that a theatrical manuscript of some sort was also consulted for the folio.
  • Second quarto, 1631. Printed from the first folio.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

The first quarto was printed in 1598 by William White for Cuthbert Burby. Although there was no initial entry in the Stationers’ Register, this does record the transfer of Love’s Labour’s Lost from Burby to Nicholas Ling on 22 January 1607. Less than a year later, on 19 November 1607, the play was transferred from Ling to John Smethwick. The second quarto was printed by William Stansby for John Smethwick in 1631.

British Library copies of Love's Labour's Lost contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare apparently used no specific sources for Love’s Labour’s Lost. General influences on the play and its language include the works of Sir Philip Sidney and John Lyly. There may also be links to entertainments such as the 1594-1595 revels at Gray’s Inn. The French wars of religion, and particularly events surrounding Henri de Navarre (later King Henry IV of France) and his first wife Marguerite de Valois, have been investigated by scholars. The cultural life of the English court, including the School of Night and its opponents, have also been explored. However, neither French politics nor English literary and philosophical debate seem to have more than tangential relationships to the play. Love’s Labour’s Lost can be related to Shakespeare’s other works of around the same time, including Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

April. Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender
April, with a scene of ladies in the countryside. Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, 1579. British Library, G.11532, f. 11v. Larger image

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is set in the kingdom of Navarre.

(Act 1) Ferdinand, King of Navarre, and his companions Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine swear to devote themselves to study for three years. They vow to see no women during that time. The clown Costard is brought before the King for breaking his decree forbidding women to come near the court. Costard has been found with the dairymaid Jacquenetta. The Spanish knight Armado arrives. He is in love with Jacquenetta.

(Act 2) The Princess of France arrives on an embassy to the King of Navarre, with her ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katherine. They are granted an audience with King Ferdinand and his companions.

(Act 3) Armado employs Costard to send a love-letter to Jacquenetta. Berowne gives Costard a love-letter for Rosaline.

(Act 4) By mistake, Costard delivers Armado’s letter to the Princess and her ladies. He admits that he was to deliver a letter from Berowne to Rosaline. Still confused, Costard delivers Berowne’s letter to Jacquenetta. Berowne enters, alone, and confesses he is in love with Rosaline. He hides as King Ferdinand enters reading a love-poem for the Princess. The King hides in his turn, as Longaville arrives with a love-sonnet to Maria. Then Longaville hides as Dumaine enters declaring his love for Katherine. Each lord is revealed as having broken his oath against women. Berowne finally comes forward, protesting his own innocence until Jacquenetta and Costard arrive with his letter to Rosaline. All four men resolve to forget their vows and woo their ladies.

(Act 5) The King and his companions, disguised, visit the Princess and her ladies. The women see through their disguise and make fun of them. When the men return, having shed their disguise, they are forced to admit they are in love. Armado, Costard, and other locals put on a pageant of the nine worthies to entertain the King, the Princess and their followers. Before the pageant is over, a messenger arrives with news of the death of the King of France. The Princess, now Queen, and her ladies must return home. She decrees a year of mourning and sets a year’s penance for the King before she will see him again and think of marrying him. Similar responses are made by Katherine to Dumaine, Maria to Longaville, and Rosaline to Berowne. The King and his companions, and the Princess and her ladies, part.


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