The Princess, Katherine, Rosaline, and Maria discuss the way they have been flattered and showered with gifts by the King and his court
The Princess mockingly refers to Navarre's poetry — "as much love in a rhyme/As would be crammed up in a sheet of paper" — and each of the others likewise complains about the excessive verbiage they have been assailed with: "The letter is too long by half a mile." The women comment on the ways of Cupid, deciding it is best to retain "a light heart" in love lest they suffer the fate of Katherine's sister:
He [Cupid] made her melancholy, sad, and heavy;
And so she died. (14–15)
All four wish they could "punish" these courtiers — "wits turned fool" — for their excesses, for not the least one imagines his silliness in vowing to abjure love at the outset of the play. "How I would make him [Biron] fawn and beg and seek. . . ." says Rosaline.
Boyet comes onto the stage with a burst of energy, beside himself with laughter at what he has overheard nearby in the park. The King and his entourage are on their way, elegantly costumed as Russians, preparing to woo the ladies. He observed them planning the courtly masque:
With that, they all did tumble on the ground
With such a zealous laughter, so profound,
That in this spleen [passion] ridiculous appears,
To check their folly, passion's solemn tears. (115–18)
On the spur of the moment, the Princess decides that they should foil the lords in their "mocking merriment" by donning masks to confuse the individual wooers as to whom they are rightly to pursue. "Should we dance?" she is asked.
No, to the death, we will not move a foot,
Nor to their penned speech render we no grace,
But while 'tis spoke each turn away her face. (146–48)
Trumpet fanfare signals the arrival of the disguised courtiers, preceded by Moth, who tries to deliver a formal introductory speech.
He responds to the ladies! calculated rudeness by making impromptu changes in his delivery, much to Biron's consternation.
Moth:"A holy parcel of the fairest dames, [The Ladies turn their backs to him.] That ever turned their — backs — to mortal views!"
Biron: "Their eyes," villain, "their eyes!" (160–62)
As each of the men approaches a lady, he is met with the normal coquettish resistance, but none of them knows that they have been steered to the wrong ladies. Typical of the exchange is the following exchange between the King and Rosaline (whom he takes to be the Princess):
Rosaline: We will not dance.
King: Why take we hands then?
Rosaline: Only to part friends. Curtsy, sweet hearts. And so the measure ends.
King: More measure of this measure. Be not nice.
Rosaline: We can afford no more at such a price.
King: Price you yourselves. What buys your company?
Rosaline: Your absence only. (218–25)
Biron and the Princess, Dumain and Maria, and Longaville and Katherine enact similar scenes, as each couple retires to speak further in private. Boyet enjoys the spectacle:
The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen
As is the razor's edge invisible. . . . (256–57)
He advises the ladies, once the "masquers" have departed, to continue the sport by blowing "like sweet roses in this summer air" when the men return without their costumes. Rosaline picks up the idea, enthusiastically adding:
Let's mock them still, as well known as disguised.
Let us complain to them what fools
were here, Disguised like Muscovites
in shapeless gear. . . . (301–3)
When Boyet acts as the go-between for the ladies to the King, the gentlemen eye him with contempt. He is the one nobleman privy to the ladies' chamber. Biron vents his frustration in Shakespeare's sharpest language:
'A [he: Boyet] can carve too, and lisp. Why this is he
That kissed his hand away in courtesy.
This is the ape of form [decorum], Monsieur the Nice
That, when he plays at tables, chides the dice
In honorable terms. . . .
The stairs, as he treads on them, kiss his feet. (323–30)
With the return of Boyet and the ladies, the "comedy of errors" is exposed, but not before the Princess squeezes her last moments of pleasure from the situation. When the King bids her to follow him to court, she displays false concern for his "sacred vow":
This field shall hold me, and so hold your vow.
Nor God nor I delights in perjured men. (345–46)
Rosaline adds her playful venom by discrediting the "Russian" visitors as boors:
. . . in that hour, my lord,
They did not bless us with one happy word. (369–70)
The ultimate exposure of their folly causes Biron to swear off fancy phrases for plain speech in declaring his love:
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation,
Figures pedantical — these summer flies
Have blown me full of maggot ostentation.
I do forswear them. (406–10)
Each of the gentlemen realizes that he "wooed but the sign" of the lady whom he loved, and so ends this part of the scene.
Costard enters to announce the imminent arrival of the next entertainment, arranged by Armado and Holofernes. Though the King fears for his reputation, both Biron and the Princess insist that the performance take place:
Princess: Nay, my good lord, let me o'errule you now.
That sport best pleases that doth least know how,
Where zeal strives to content, and the contents
Dies in the zeal of that which it presents. (516–19)
Armado is to play Hector of Troy; Costard, Pompey the Great; Nathaniel, Alexander the Great; Moth, Hercules; and Holofernes, Judas Maccabacus. Each of the performers speaks his piece and suffers the mocking interruptions of the audience. The gentlemen enjoy their heckling immensely, happy to transfer their own humiliation onto others. Biron, in passing, even grows fond of Boyet: "Well said, old mocker. I must needs be friends with thee." Holofernes plays his part true to pedantic form, first rationalizing away the casting of tiny Moth as the giant Hercules:
Great Hercules is presented by this imp,
Whose club killed Cerberus, that three-headed canus [dog];
And when he was a babe, a child, a shrimp,
Thus did he strangle serpents in his manus [hand]. (392–95)
When all the nobles descend on him with wisecracks, he skulks off sullenly — "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble" — and evokes the Princess's pity: "Alas, poor Maccabaeus, how hath he been baited!"
The play threatens to break down when Costard, apparently urged on by Biron, accuses Armado the warrior (Hector) that he has got Jaquenetta pregnant. The braggart backs down from a fight: "I will not combat in my shirt."
The mood changes abruptly when the messenger Mercade arrives to tell the Princess news of her father's death. Though he tries, the King cannot persuade her to remain with him. She vows to shut her "woeful self up in a mourning house" for one year, and she tells the King if he can preserve his love for her for one year in "a naked hermitage,/Remote from all the pleasures of the world," she will be his. Each of the other women proposes a similar waiting period to her suitor. Rosaline proposes a penance particularly suited to Biron, a man she calls "replete with mocks."
He is to use his facility of speech to ease the pain of the sick:
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavour of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile. (860–64)
He agrees to "jest a twelvemonth in a hospital," exclaiming for all four suitors:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill. (884–85)
Shakespeare ends the play with an allegorical song performed by the figures of Winter and Spring, singing the song of the Owl and the Cuckoo, compiled by the "learned men" (as Armado informs us) in testament to life's vagaries, the "merry larks" of sunny days and the times when "blood is nipped."
The courtly masque in Shakespeare's day was a combination of entertainment, allegorical story, and generous offering to genteel guests. It typically consisted of songs, dances, and elaborately costumed and designed pageants which were created by professional and amateur artists and in which the audience was meant to participate actively. Normally, at some point in the proceeding, the honored guests and their hosts would join in a dance with the entire costumed troupe. A feature of many masques was a grotesque counter- or anti-masque in which the songs and dances were bizarre, meant to represent negative qualities or evil influences in life, and which were calculated to show the featured "noble" masquers in a better light by contrast. Above all, spectacle dominated the performance.
In Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare plays on the different aspects of masques and masquing. When Biron says to the King that they should allow the "Nine Worthies" to be performed by the sub-plot characters, he notes that it will make their own efforts as "dancing Russians!' seem less ridiculous. Holofernes's main performance is thus a kind of "anti-masque." When the gentlemen dress up as Muscovites and invite their ladies to dance, they are playing out the courtly wooing aspect of the masque, just as the ladies do when they don masks to deceive the men and protract the lovers' ritual. The spirit is one of abandon and hilarity, even though the ladies do their best to confound and embarrass the King and his courtiers. The elaborate plans to "play" with the men's feelings extend the idea of courtly love implicit in the masque tradition.
When Holofernes and his own troupe enter the scene we have a precursor of Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the offering of Pyramus and Thisbe delights the nobility for its well-meaning incompetence. In Love's Labour's Lost, however, the satire is directed at the pomposity of the lead masquers, who have carried their classical learning to pretentious extremes.
Shakespeare broadly comments in this scene on the follies of men in love, as they are each, in turn, seen to have made fools of themselves, even to the point of taking the wrong women aside as objects of their love. In his plays, Shakespeare frequently ponders the frailty of the senses, the tricks which the passions can play. The desire "to be in love" led them, in part, to their silliest moments.
There is something arbitrary about the ending of the play. Love's labors are (temporarily) lost, once the hard reality of life is brought home to them all. The hilarity of the action abruptly stops with the news of the Princess's father's death, and Shakespeare rounds out the play with one of his most beautiful songs. The emotional tone of the ending — juxtaposing Winter and Spring and all they imply — relates to a philosophical acceptance of all aspects of life which one encounters in many of Shakespeare's plays, tragedies and comedies alike.