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Love's Labour's Lost

William Shakespeare

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Summary

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Shakespeare's plays can be divided into three major categories: comedies, tragedies, and histories. The comedies, like As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, were written mainly towards the early part of Shakespeare's career. These plays have a lighter tone and usually concern love, almost always ending with a marriage. The tragedies include some of Shakespeare's most famous plays, like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear. These plays mostly came later in Shakespeare's career and end unhappily, usually with the deaths of many or all of the main characters. The history plays, like the Henry and Richard plays, are Shakespeare's fictionalization of the lives of actual English rulers. These plays are often longer and more complex than the comedies. Some scholars also define another category of plays, called the romances, which include several of Shakespeare's later plays like The Tempest and The Winter's Tale.

Love's Labour's Lost is one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, published in 1598 and probably written in 1594-5. It was included as a comedy in Shakespeare's First Folio. The play concerns the subject of love, includes lots of rhetoric and witty exchanges by the characters, and has a happy ending, although it does not end with a marriage. If this play were a typical Shakespearean comedy, all four (or five) couples would marry at the end of the play. The characters in this play note the way that it differs from the norm. When the Princess and her attendants depart, Berowne says, "Our wooing doth not end like an old play;/ Jack hath not Jill: these ladies' courtesy/ Might well have made our sport a comedy" (V.ii.867-9). Here Berowne suggests that the play cannot be a comedy since it does not conclude with marriage.

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