About Love's Labour's Lost
Most scholars believe that this play was authored by Shakespeare, produced, and then revised and rewritten by Shakespeare for later performances. In one of the earliest references to the play, in the quarto of 1598, we find Love's Labour's Lost being referred to as "a pleasant comedy"; furthermore, we read that it was "presented before her Highness this last Christmas. Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespeare." What we have, then, is, really, a revised version of a play that Shakespeare felt needed additional work. That is, he was not content with it, and he was not merely correcting it as a proofreader might, but he was correcting it as a playwright would, for he was interested in the dramatic dimensions and worth of the play and not in its printed text. This fact is obvious if one studies the folio itself, for it is filled with textual ambiguities. Each editor of a Shakespeare collection has a true task before him when he confronts this play and must decide on a "text" that he considers both accurate and "genuine."
Curiously, Shakespeare apparently used no known source for this play, and thus scholars have concentrated, most often, on various similarities between this play's focus on sonnet writing and the sonnets which Shakespeare was composing at approximately the same time that he wrote this play.
In the eighteenth century, Love's Labour's Lost was perhaps the most unpopular of all of Shakespeare's plays, and even in the nineteenth century, it was held in low esteem. While the play is not one of Shakespeare's most mature comedies, modern audiences who are familiar with Romeo and Juliet can appreciate Shakespeare's irony and satire as he scoffs at lovers "in love with love," rather than in love with a woman. This comedy is filled with duplicity and poseurs — much like the early Romeo, who fancied himself "deathly" in love with Rosaline, a character who never appears in the play — appropriately because her significance is more in Romeo's imagination than in reality.
Shakespeare's satiric sense which he was to use throughout the rest of his life is first evidenced here. Yet, in this early play, one does not feel that the satire is forced or bitter; it is fresh, it has a free and easy quality, and, most of all, it is playful. Some Shakespeare scholars believe that Shakespeare was attacking a certain group of intellectuals who considered themselves elitely studious; the group included Sir Walter Raleigh and the poet Thomas Nashe, among others. If this is true, however, Shakespeare was not "attacking" them; the flavor that flows throughout this comedy is merry, and its plea is for simplicity and common sense. If anything, Shakespeare was satirizing excess — in all its varieties. The quality in human beings which Shakespeare valued highly and which he evokes here is mirth. He places himself at a distance from humankind and invites us to do the same and laugh at our follies.
Shakespeare focuses on two subjects — the folly which lovers fall prey to and the sonnets which they write to their beloveds. Sonnet writing was in fashion when this play was written, and a lighthearted satire on this fad was a sure-fire formula for a light evening's entertainment for the very learned Queen Elizabeth I and her court. There is some historical basis for the sketchy plot, however; Shakespeare did not make up a pretense of a framework on which to hang his satire. In 1578, Catherine de Medici of France (along with her daughter, Marguerite, and a number of ladies-in-waiting) did sail to the court of Henry of Navarre in order to try and arrange for the final sovereignty of the Aquitane to be decided. Shakespeare, however, does not dwell seriously on this framework. He merely uses it as a backdrop against which to present his comedy.
Perhaps it should be noted here that Shakespeare does not use entirely original comic characters in this play, even though he used no known comedy "source." For example, he borrows certain "types" from the Italian commedia dell'arte. He includes the loud braggart (Armado), a type that appears in drama as early as Plautus's stylized miles gloriosus. Then there is also the zany (Moth), the pedant (Holofernes), the parasite (Nathaniel), the stupid rustic (Costard), and the unlearned magistrate (Dull). These were enduring types which also appeared on French and German stages and would eventually find their way into comic operas.