A year after I began… here is a summary of the plot. I began disliking this play very much. I found it very hard to read at first. There is thick satire, intricate wordplay, difficult allusions… it is not easy reading. I was waylaid by other things in my life, but I am glad I had all this time to think about this play. I like it quite a bit now and find it quite light and funny, which was not at all evident to me on first reading.
So, as always, I hope this summary will entice you to read the actual play. There are some wonderfully funny characters here, especially Don Armado and Costard. There are some very funny situations. It is essentially a play about girls versus boys. In this case, the boys are very silly and naive and the girls are more worldly and cynical.
There is very, very little plot to this play, and essentially all the real action happens at the very end. The rest of it is sheer folly (wit and wooing) and words, words, words… or as the introduction in my Penguin edition says, “extravagant excesses of language.”
It makes reading the play a challenge, especially if you take it too seriously! Really, it’s much easier when you do not take too seriously the crazy pig-Latin type lunacy of Holofernes and the over-flowingly flamboyant Armado and the earnest-but-common-sense-lacking King of Navarre. Just go with the flow and enjoy the sexy repartee (when you can understand it).
The ending is very ambiguous… not at all the happily ever after expected in a Shakespearean comedy. No one gets married! Maybe, as some scholars believe, there was a companion play (now lost): Love’s Labour’s Won, that wrapped things up. Or maybe Much Ado About Nothing began in this role and Shakespeare changed his mind. We don’t know. But it’s an intriguing question, because this play ends rather abruptly and with loose ends.
If anyone sees any errors, let me know so I can fix them—this is just based on my casual reading of the text, so I could easily have things out of order or get the details wrong.
Without further ado, here’s… Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The young King of Navarre and the three young lords, Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, all sign an oath to study for three years with no distraction. They agree to eat and sleep sparingly and to give up the company of women for three years(!), so that they can focus on their serious quest for knowledge.
Berowne points out how difficult it will be to keep these oaths, especially because the Princess of France is due any minute on a diplomatic visit that the King of Navarre forgot about. The King decides to make the Princess and her entourage stay in a field so that the oath that no women come to court isn’t broken.
The Princess and the ladies Rosaline, Katherine and Maria indulge in much girly chatter about the boys who they hear are at court in Navarre. They know them from previous social gatherings and are excited to get reacquainted on this visit. Everyone is in love!
The boys are instantly smitten with the girls when they meet in the field. Thus ensues the silly and extravagant wooing in this play, involving the boys visiting disguised as Russians, and the girls mocking and laughing at the boys as they themselves wear masks and trick the boys by switching places.
There are side stories featuring the rustic clown Costard, the dreamy Spaniard Don Armado and his page Moth, the lusty maid Jaquenetta, and the constable Dull, who lives up to his name. These folks along with the schoolmaster Holofernes (he of the silly Latin) and the cleric Nathaniel, put on the ridiculous play within the play about the “Nine Worthies.”
The poor players are mercilessly heckled during The Nine Worthies, and then Costard and Don Armado prepare to fight when Costard oddly breaks into the play to announce that Jaquenetta is pregnant by Armado. The fight is interrupted by the entrance of a messenger from France, who tells the Princess that her father, the King, is dead.
At this news, the Princess decides to return immediately to France, but the King of Navarre professes his love and asks her to stay. She and the other ladies tell the boys they thought the wooing was all in jest and that if they are in earnest, they must all wait a year and a day and come to France if they still feel the same and want to marry.
The play ends with the singing of a song about Spring (the cuckoo) and Winter (the owl) and Don Armado has the oddly poignant last lines: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You, that way: we, this way.” And everyone parts and goes their separate ways. Not the usual celebratory end to a Shakespearean comedy!
The Four Stooges
The play seems so serious at first, as the Earnest (with a capital E!) King of Navarre asks his lords to sign the oaths they have agreed to take in order to focus on their studies and seek Knowledge (with a capital K!). Dumaine and Longaville jump right in, excitedly signing up.
It soon becomes ridiculously apparent that these are impulsive boys and they have agreed to take oaths that will be impossible to keep… even for a day! Berowne, before signing, points out the difficulties of keeping these oaths for three years(!), with the hope that maybe there is some wiggle room. After all, it does not really seem reasonable to get by on one meal a day (with a fast day thrown in each week!), three hours of sleep per night with no napping, and worst of all… to give up the company of all women, who are thereby outlawed from the court.
Giving in to peer pressure (not wanting to appear a wuss), Berowne agrees to sign the oath, but immediately points out that they are going to break it when the Princess of France arrives any minute on her diplomatic mission. Navarre has forgotten about this, and decides that they can break their oath this time “on mere necessity.” Berowne will have none of that, as he says if they do it this time, they will all find a zillion reasons down the road to break the oath “on mere necessity.” So, Navarre decides that if they meet the Princess in the fields outside Navarre, they are not technically breaking the oath.
Three More Stooges
Berowne asks if they will really just study, study, study for three years, with no entertainment, and Navarre points out that the Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado will be around, and he should provide a steady supply of material to mock. Longaville notes that the hayseed Costard will also be around for a good laugh.
Then, the aptly named constable Dull arrives with Costard and a letter from Don Armado tattling on Costard for being caught with the country maid Jaquenetta. Apparently Costard is also supposed to forgo the company of ladies for three years, even though he is not part of the oath. When asked if he knew the new law, he said he’d heard it but didn’t really pay any attention to it. Navarre sentences Costard to a week of fasting under the supervision of Don Armado.
Don Armado converses with his page Moth, who appears to have more common sense than all the other characters combined. Dull delivers Costard to Armado. Armado professes his love to Jaquenetta before Dull takes her away. Moth takes Costard away to “prison,” leaving Armado feeling floridly poetic from his love for Jaquenetta (who you will remember, he just caught in a compromising position with Costard!).
The Princess and her Ladies
The Princess of France and her entourage approach Navarre and send the courtier Boyet ahead for information. He comes back with news of the lords (Berowne, Longaville and Dumain) who are at court with the King of Navarre. This sends the girls all into a flurry of excitement, as they know the boys: Maria has met Longaville, Katherine knows Dumaine, and Rosaline has danced with Berowne. The princess teases them that they are all in love.
Boyet also warns them of the King’s oath and the fact that he intends for them to camp out in the field outside Navarre. Minutes later, the King of Navarre appears and welcomes them to court. The princess rebuffs him for leaving them out in the field. Berowne and Rosaline flirt.
There is very little plot in this play, but perhaps the diplomatic purpose behind the Princess’s visit to Navarre can be considered the plot. Navarre claims that the Princess’s father, the King of France, owes him money. The Princess claims that it is paid and that she can produce the paperwork to prove it. However, Boyet points out that the papers will not actually arrive until the next day… thus requiring the ladies to stay in Navarre, and providing the opportunity for the extensive wooing that ensues.
And then the “courting” begins. Berowne and Rosaline flirt and spar. The boys, like lovesick puppies, take turns asking Boyet about the girls: Dumaine asks about Katherine, Longaville about Maria, Berowne about Rosaline. Then, the girls are all flirting and teasing with Boyet. Boyet tells the Princess that the King is in love with her.
Meanwhile, Armado, who has been writing poetry to Jaquenetta, tells Moth to go get Costard, so he can take the letter to Jaquenetta. There is much punning back and forth between Moth, who stretches every word to its last possible meaning, and Armado, for whom English is a second language, and who has that florid Latin style to his speech.
Don Armado pays Costard to take the letter to Jaquenetta. Costard has a good deal of fun over the word “remuneration” which Armado calls the tip. Costard is then asked by Berowne to take a letter to Rosaline and he flips Costard a coin, which he calls a “guerdon,” leaving Costard to enjoy (verbally) the difference between remuneration and guerdon.
The Thrill of the Hunt
The ladies are out hunting to pass the time. Costard arrives and gives them the wrong letter (Don Armado’s letter intended for Jaquenetta). Boyet reads it (realizing the error immediately) and then there is some rather smutty back and forth between Rosaline and Boyet, with Costard joining in.
Costard and Jaquenetta (who can’t read) take the other letter to Holofernes, the school teacher (also called the Pedant) who reads it and believes since it is from Berowne to Rosaline that it represents treason and should be delivered immediately to the King.
There follows a very comic scene where each of the boys, in turn, enters and thinking themselves alone, declare their undying love for their lady. First Berowne sees the King approach and hides, so he overhears the King say how much he loves the Princess. Then Longaville approaches and the King hides to listen. Then it’s Dumaine’s turn. Longaville calls Dumaine on it (acting all innocent himself). The King comes out of hiding and calls Longaville on it (acting all innocent himself). And Berowne comes out of hiding and calls the King on it (acting all innocent himself).
Costard comes in with the letter Berowne wrote to Rosaline, and so that kind of gives him away, as well. They have all broken their oath to give up women (within hours of making the oath!).
Berowne then eloquently explains that women are actually essential to intellectual achievement, so they all decide it’s fine to break the oath and woo the girls in earnest.
Next is a scene that is truly best not to take too seriously. Holofernes and Nathaniel complain at length about Don Armado’s abuse of the English language (for example, not pronouncing the “l” in calf). And then Costard finds a reason to use the longest word in the English language: honorificabilitudinatatibus. In other words, there is much ado about nothing.
Don Armado finally gets around to asking Holofernes for help planning some evening entertainment for the Princess and the ladies. Holofernes immediately comes up with the idea of presenting a play about the “Nine Worthies” — ancient kings and leaders of note. They decide who will play which parts in the play within the play.
The scene ends with the line that gets the biggest laugh in the play from audiences:
Holofernes: Via, goodman Dull! Thou hast spoken no
word all this while.
Dull: Nor understood none neither, sir.
Favors and Masks
The girls get together to gossip about the gifts and letters they have received from the boys. They make fun of the poetry and the Princess tell them they are wise girls to mock their lovers.
Boyet (who has a knack for warning the Princess about whatever is coming next) arrives to tell the Princess that he was eavesdropping and overheard the boys discuss a plan to disguise themselves as Russians and come visit the ladies. They would recognize which lady to woo based on the favors (gifts of jewels) they had just sent.
The Princess immediately decides they should trick the boys by masking themselves and switching favors so that the boys woo the wrong girls. Rosaline will switch with the Princess, and Katherine will switch Maria. Madcap mayhem ensues!
The men arrive dressed as Russians (Muscovites) and go after the wrong girls, based on the favors. The King goes after Rosaline (thinking she’s the Princess), Berowne after the Princess (thinking she’s Rosaline), Longaville with Katherine (thinking she’s Maria), and of course, Dumaine goes after Maria (thinking she’s Katherine).
The ladies mock the boys. The boys retreat, tails between legs. The girls giggle at the boys’ folly.
Boyet (always the harbinger) tells them that the boys will be back, unmasked. So, the ladies prepare, unmasking themselves and giving the favors back to the rightful owners.
The boys return and ask Boyet to get the girls. Berowne points out that he doesn’t trust Boyet. The girls come out and there is much teasing as it becomes clear that the girls know it was they who were dressed as Muscovites. Rosaline is pretty relentless making fun of them. The boys are humiliated and Dumaine says they should just admit to it.
The King asks the Princess to excuse them for their folly in dressing up. The Princess keeps up the teasing, telling the King he wooed Rosaline and will have to take her now. And telling Berowne all the sweet nothings she heard him say and that now she is his. Berowne blames Boyet for giving the ladies the heads up about the ruse.
The Nine Worthies
Costard arrives and asks if they can now perform the evening’s entertainment: The Nine Worthies. The King worries that the play will be so awful that it will further humiliate them in front of the ladies, however, the Princess intervenes and says she wants to see the play.
Costard comes out in costume as Pompey the Great. Then, Nathaniel does his rendition of Alexander, and is heckled by Boyet. Holofernes portrays Judas Maccabeus, and everyone heckles him. Armado is next, playing Hector, and again he is in the midst of being heckled by the lords and Boyet when Costard interrupts the play to announce that Jaquenetta is two months’ pregnant with Armado’s baby.
Armado challenges Costard, but as they prepare to fight, they are interrupted by the arrival of a messenger from the court of France who tells the Princess that her father, the King of France, is dead.
The Wrap Up with Many Loose Ends
The Princess (now Queen) wants to return to France immediately, but the King of Navarre asks her to stay. She doesn’t understand him and Berowne explains that although they did stupid things, they were serious and are in love with the ladies. The Queen tells them that the girls thought the flirting was all light-hearted pastime and not serious.
The Queen tells Navarre that although she doesn’t trust his oaths (!) that if he is serious, he should become a hermit for a year and if he still feels the same way for her, he can then come to her and she will marry him. Each of the ladies gives her guy a similar put-off for a year… the men are not pleased, but what can they say?
Berowne points out that this is too long for a play. We won’t know if any of them marry (or even see each other again).
Armado enters and says that he has vowed his love to Jaquenetta and will wait three years for her. And then he asks if they would like to hear the song prepared for the end of their play: in praise of the Owl (winter) and Cuckoo (spring). The songs include the bird calls with “cuckoo” sounding like “cuckold” and so not pleasing to married men’s ears. And the owl’s call: “Tu-whit, tu-who!” sounding an awful lot like “To Wit, To Woo” which pretty much sums up the action of this play!
The play then ends with Armado’s parting line: “You, that way: we, this way,” as everyone (including the audience) goes their separate ways.
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