As the play opens, the King of Navarre declares to his attendant lords, Longaville, Dumain, and Biron, that
Navarre shall be the wonder of the world;
Our court shall be a little Academe,
Still and contemplative in living art [the art of living]. (12–14)
He reminds his fellows that they have sworn to live in the court for three years as celibate scholars. Longaville and Dumain quickly consent to sign the kings statutes, the former declaring that it should be easy enough to comply for "'tis but a three years' fast," and the latter emphatically asserting that from henceforth he is dead "to love, to wealth, to pomp." Biron, however, finds it difficult to be enthusiastic:
O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep! (47–48)
"I only swore to study with your grace," Biron objects, commencing the play's first witty exchange of dialogue. If the purpose of study is to learn things which otherwise he should not know, Biron argues, then it is only natural that a person should seek just those areas of knowledge which the statutes preclude him from. His gist is based in common sense:
Why, all delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchased, doth inherit pain:
As, painfully to pore upon a book,
To seek the light of truth, while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look. (72–76)
Navarre detects an irony in this resistance to study and "continual plodding," for Biron's rational process itself owes its force to the books he decries; "How well he's read, to reason against reading!" Dumain and Longaville quickly chime in, forcing Biron to submit to the pressure: "I'll keep what I have swore." He requests one last perusal of the written decree to which he is to sign his name, and the king applauds him: "How well this yielding rescues thee from shame!"
Reading the articles aloud, Biron is surprised at the severity of the first (that any woman who comes within a mile of the court shall have her tongue removed), and he comments that it will be impossible for the king to observe the letter of the second (that any man seen talking to a woman shall endure public shame). The King of France's daughter, it seems, is scheduled to visit the court on state business. Embarrassed, Navarre tells the courtiers they will have to "dispense with this decree." Biron furthermore predicts the futility of Navarre's whole idea:
Necessity will make us all forsworn
Three thousand times within this three years' space:
For every man with his affects [passions] is born,
Not by might mastered, but by special grace. (150–53)
The skeptical Biron does finally sign his name to the document, however, asking his lord if there might not be some amusement for them, some "quick recreation" before their three-year dedication gets under way. A Spanish courtier by the name of Armado will serve for entertainment, Navarre promises:
A man in all the world's new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain. . . . (165–66)
The constable (Dull) and a country bumpkin (Costard), who has been detained for consorting with a woman, round out the set of characters in the first scene. The King reads from an absurdly overwritten letter by Armado in which Costard's "crime" is delineated:
King: "There did I see that low-spirited swain,
that base minnow of thy mirth — "
King: "That unlettered small-knowing soul — "
King: "That shallow vassal — "
Costard: Still me!
King: Which, as I remember, hight [is called]
Costard: O me!
Costard admits being acquainted with the proclamation forbidding traffic with women, though he has heard "little of the marking of it." Biron is sure that the oaths and laws will "prove an idle scorn."
Shakespeare begins this ebullient youthful comedy by opposing two worlds with which young people are well-acquainted — that of school tasks and study on the one hand and, on the other, that of physical enjoyment and, in particular, the delights of the opposite sex. From the beginning, it seems clear that Navarre's scheme to establish a "wonder of the world" by instituting an ascetic academic community in his court is doomed to failure. Scarcely moments after Biron has groaned at the prospect of not seeing women, at being restricted to one meal each day, being forced to fast completely one day in seven, and to restrict himself to a mere three hours sleep per night, it turns out that Navarre himself cannot meet all the conditions he has set down. From the start, we know Navarre's plan is crackbrained; the fun will be in watching how it crumbles before the insatiable tugs of human passion, or "affections" to use Shakespeare's word. When Biron says, "I swore [to observe the rules] in jest," we can fully understand what he means; as for the others, their willingness to abjure "the world's delights" strikes a false chord.
Much of the delight in Love's Labour's Lost for a reader or theatergoer is in the pleasant artifice of the language, as sprightly as the characters who utter it. An example from the first scene sets the tone. The exchange has to do with Biron's logic in resisting Navarre's plan:
King: How well he's read, to reason against reading!
Dumain: Proceeded [educated] well,
to stop all good proceeding!
Longaville: He weeds the corn, and
still lets grow the weeding. Biron:
The spring is near, when green geese
Dumain: How follows that?
Biron: Fit in his place and time.
Dumain: In reason nothing.
Biron: Something then in rhyme. (94–101)
Biron short-circuits the teasing banter of his mates with a non sequitur which, he asserts, has its justification in the fact that it rhymes: reading, proceeding, weeding, a-breeding. One can almost hear the horselaughs and raspberries his friends greet that one with. The high spirits are what Shakespeare emphasizes here, and he entertains his audience with the end rhymes, silly as they are, here and throughout the play. Elsewhere, he will use the rhyme for different effects.
Note the conventional separation of character and delineation of mood through variety of language in this scene. Whereas the young nobles speak verse, the entry of the "low' characters, Dull and Costard, is accompanied by a shift to prose. Costard's concluding lament, complete with a clanging malapropism, is typical:
I suffer for the truth, sir, for true it is I was
taken with Jaquenetta, and Jaquenetta is a
true girl. And therefore welcome the sour cup
of prosperity! Affliction may one day smile
again, and till then sit thee down, sorrow! (313–17)
A further contrast of language and character comes through in scene one in the form of the letter from the caricature Spaniard, Armado. Armado is as overly florid in speech as Dull is dull. Shakespeare is drawing lines in Love's Labour's Lost between moderation and extremes, with the norm being defined in terms of the Elizabethan notion of a well-bred gentleman. The academic absurdities of Navarre, it turns out, are just as silly as the self-indulgent rhetoric of Armado: too much learning, too much (false) passion are to give way in the comedy to sensible middle courses of behavior.
Many scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Love's Labour's Lost as a topical satire aimed at contemporary court fashions and behavior, and that he may even be referring to actual people from Elizabeth's court in specific characters (e.g., Sir Walter Raleigh). This may be true and it is enlightening to know something of the particulars of literary, social, and intellectual fashions at the time (the fascination with Platonic theories of love, the delight in extravagant and often convoluted language, etc.), yet the play can be read or, with judicious cutting, be played on stage without the need for mountains of footnotes.