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Argument of the Play
OVES LABOUR'S LOST' is slight and pleasin texture —a drama of dialogue and kindly cynicism. It deals with the overturning of ill-considered oaths for love, and the futility of love when begun in awkward fashion.
Ferdinand, King of Navarre, and three of his lords forswear the society of women and agree to lead secluded lives devoted to study for three years - this despite the fact that the Princess of France is on her way to the court of Navarre, where the king should receive her. The court is nevertheless barred to women; and so stringent is the edict that a clown caught making love is sentenced to a week's imprison
Act II introduces the French princess and her ladies, who are entertained in pavilions erected for them outside the royal gates. The king and his three gentlemen visit the ladies, whom they find so attractive as to cause them to regret their oath.
Act III is concerned with the progress of their several passions, also with the further adventures of Costard the clown, now released from imprisonment and employed as the bearer of love-missives.
Costard gets his messages confused, in Act IV, much to the amusement of the princess's company. The four gentlemen are by this time hopelessly enamoured of the princess and her three principal companions-so much so, that each in turn is surprised in an avowal. Their vows being jointly broken, none is left to jeer; and all unite in plans to woo their visitors.
Act V shows the change in tactics and the profusion of love-tokens now showered upon the ladies, to their great merriment. The gentlemen purpose visiting them in disguise. The ladies get wind of the plan and also mask themselves, greatly to the confusion of their wooers. The gentlemen acknowledge themselves beaten, and each sues openly for his lady's hand. But the four ladies, in quiet revenge, put their suitors upon a year's probation.
The plot has not been traced to any earlier story, and is now believed to be original with Shakespeare. Besides being a comedy of character, it also reveals a slight historical frame-work and a reference to at least six passing events.
(1) One of the chief references is that of the 'Achademe,' and the king's project to study for three years, which bears close resemblance to the educational plans of Elizabeth's reign.
(2) The choice of a King of Navarre for hero bears reference to the long-contested succession to the throne of France by Henry of Navarre, whose cause was then quite popular in England. Henry's generals appear in the play under slightly changed names. The Maréchal de Biron and the Duc de Longueville fought promi
nently on Navarre's side. The Duc de Mayenne, however, was of the opposite party, though now reduced to submission. Biron's name was well known in England. Chapman made him the hero of two plays.
(3) The meeting of the King of Navarre with the Princess of France suggests the meeting of the king with Catherine de' Medici in 1586, to agree upon disputed territories. Navarre and France once made a bargain, similar to that outlined by Shakespeare, concerning the cession of Aquitaine.
(4) The reference to the Russian masquerade in the last act is supposedly an allusion to an actual embassy on the part of the Russian czar, Ivan the Terrible, to the English queen, suing for her hand or that of her niece, Lady Mary Hastings.
(5) The ridicule of blundering constables and pompous schoolmasters may easily have referred to these weak sides of rural life in Shakespeare's day. Sir Philip Sidney had also introduced the figure of a conceited pedant in a play of his, presented in 1578, which, in his use of foreign phrases, has a little resemblance to Shakespeare's Holofernes.
(6) Affectations in speech and dress, as exemplified especially by Armado, the fantastic Spaniard, were characteristic of the day. Armado shows likeness to Don Quixote, Cervantes's immortal creation of a later year. But it is noteworthy that Armado was drawn from the life. His death was commemorated by Thomas Churchyard in 1580, in a poem entitled The Phantasticall Monarckes Epitaphe.'
It should be noted, also, that the pageant of the Nine Worthies' was a frequent subject of exhibition in English country towns of Shakespeare's day.
DURATION OF THE ACTION
The action is comprised in two days. The princess apparently arrives on the same day the action begins, and a settlement of her mission is promised for to-morrow.' Act III seems to take place on the morning of the second day, and in Act IV the princess speaks of the day as being that when she shall receive her state papers. The hunt seems to take place that afternoon, and the masque immediately afterward.
The time of action, as has been seen, was coincident with the presentation of the play.
DATE OF COMPOSITION
The title-page of the Quarto edition of 'Loves Labour's Lost' shows that the play was revised before the end of 1597. The indirect allusions to the French civil war of 1591, and the reference to the plague (V. ii. 466-70) which raged in London in 1592, place it somewhere between 1592 and 1597.
The external evidence is confined to two sources. In 1598 Meres, in his Palladis Tamia,' mentions it with Midsommer Nights Dreame' and other plays as then being known to the public. In the same year Robert Tofte, in a poem entitled Alba,' alludes to this as a play he once did see.' But these two bits of testimony do not go back of our Quarto date of 1597. Internally the play bears evidence of being written in the first, or rhyming, period, and revised in maturer years. It is probably the earliest of the comedies, as is shown by its poetic rather than its dramatic qualities, its balancing of characters, and its sketchy characterization. Biron and Rosaline are rough drafts of Benedick and Beatrice, while Armado and Jaquenetta pre