What's in writing(s)? A Study of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost

Par Jean Dumonteil
Publication en ligne le 22 mars 2016


This study of William Shakespeare's comedy, Love's Labour's Lost, deals with the importance of writing(s) in the play. From the love of study to true love (towards the other or oneself), the notion of writing(s) is at the core of the play, in such a way that one would wonder “What's in writing(s)”, paraphrasing Juliet's famous words. It will show how the different facets of writing(s) function as both dramatic and comic catalysts, and means of identifying, revealing, denouncing one or several characters. These characters progressively turn into true actors, staging their writings in a movement towards self-staging and mise en abyme of the play. Finally, through this game on/of writing(s), for example between the writing of love and love writings, this paper will linger on the writing of the play itself and its transmission, along with the link between writing and performance.

Cette étude de la comédie de William Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost s'intéresse à la place de l'écriture (ou des écritures) et des écrits dans la pièce. Entre amour de l'étude et amour véritable, pour l'autre ou pour soi, la notion d'écriture(s) et les écrits sont au cœur de la pièce, à tel point que l'on se demande, en reprenant les paroles célèbres de Juliet : « What's in writing(s) ». Nous montrerons de quelle manière les différentes formes d'écritures et les écrits produits par les personnages sont, tout à la fois, des catalyseurs de la comédie, des ressorts dramatiques et des moyens d'identifier, de révéler, de dénoncer un ou plusieurs personnages. Ces derniers deviennent de véritables acteurs de leurs écrits dans un mouvement de mise en scène de soi et de mise en abîme de la pièce. Enfin, ce jeu sur l'écriture/les écritures – l'écriture de l'amour et les poèmes d'amour par exemple – nous fera nous interroger sur l'écriture de la pièce et sa transmission, ainsi que sur le lien entre écriture et mise en scène / représentation.


Texte intégral

1Love's Labour's Lost is one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays. It was first performed around 1594-1595. On the title page of the 1598 Quarto edition of the play, one could read:

Conceited Comedie
Loues Labors lost.
As it vvas presented before her Highnes
this last Christmas.
Newly corrected and augmented
By W.Shakespere1.

2It was the first time that Shakespeare's name appeared written on the title page of one of his plays. This fact is even more significant given the importance of the written word in the play. It is indeed a comedy about the practice(s) and the use(s) of writing: the King of Navarre and his lords make an oath, that of study during three years. Gradually, with the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies, the notion of writing emerges in the play and disturbs the lords' enterprise of learning, turning it into an enterprise of seduction through the writing of love sonnets.

3 In this multifaceted play, the idea of writing(s) bears multiple meanings, as the plural form suggests: it refers to “the activity or skill of writing2”, that is a practice which the lords indulges in when they write their love sonnets, but also to the result of this process, “the written work, especially with regard to its syle or quality”, the numerous love poems that are miscarried, read aloud, performed and commented upon throughout the play. It finally means the “sequence of letters or symbols forming coherent words”, namely the handwriting, which has an important dramatic dimension in the comedy, as a way of revealing the characters' identity. The term “writing” also points to the play itself and its generic dimension: it might be defined as a comedy, even if it “doth not end like an old play” (V.2.842)3, as Berowne remarks. As it is stated on the 1598 Quarto title page, the play was performed “this last Christmas”, the period of the revels, in which everything might happen, especially on stage, in a world of illusion, before order is restored at the end of the play. Berowne himself alludes to the genre of the comedy – “like a Christmas comedy” (V.2.462).

4 The play is thus replete with writings under various forms. The playwright mixes up drama and poetry in the play, which is written in iambic pentameters, as it deals with the four lords of Navarre indulging in writing love sonnets in order to woo the ladies of France. The notion of writing(s) is thus at the core of the play, which is, as Moth says, “a great feast of languages” (V.1.32) – it is to note that Moth's name may be read as the French word mot, emphasizing once again the importance of the written word and the self-reflexivity of the play. This paper will analyse the unfolding of the notion of writing(s) throughout the play and its purposes, in order to disclose “what's in writing(s)”, paraphrasing Juliet's famous words4.

5 As the King of Navarre wants to create “a little academe” (I.1.13), the act of writing is deeply linked to the values of study and learning. But, as we gradually switch from law affairs to love affairs, the notion of writing turns into a metaphor of love, as it becomes the major purpose of the lords' writings, that is the seduction of the ladies through writings as a performance. Finally, as the play unfolds, the writings and language itself get more and more manipulated, illustrating the passage from writing to speech, from the written letters to the oral performance, along with the dramatic, and even more comic, function of writings.

Writing(s) and the values of study

“I'll write my name” (I.1.117): writing and oath-making processes

6 The King of Navarre's purpose is to turn his kingdom into “the wonder of the world” and his court into “a little academe / Still and contemplative in living art” (I.1.12-14). He wants to create a very rigorous world in which the lords have to restrain themselves (in terms of food, relationships with women, activities). To do so, he asks his lords to make an oath. This process of oath-making goes together with an act of writing one's name: writing becomes an instrumentalized process which seals the destiny of the lords into Navarre's hubristic project – hence Berowne's lines: “Give me the paper, let me read the same, / And to the strictest decrees I'll write my name” (I.1.116-117). From the beginning, the act of writing is not an artistic one (telling stories), but a symbol of imprisonment for the lords, which is echoed by the adjective “still” at the beginning of the line (I.1.14): the lords are deprived of their creative liberty, as Faustus was when he made his contract with the devil5. This comparison gives to the King of Navarre a devilish dimension when he asks them to write their names: “Your oaths are passed, and now subscribe your names” (I.1.19).

7 Indeed, the King and his project give a hubristic dimension to writing. He and his lords want to study to get a decent epitaph, one which will become a-temporal, engraved in their “brazen tombs” (I.1.2) and show their “fame” (I.1.1) to mankind. The King's hubris thus consists in going against the rules of time and challenging the “cormorant devouring time” (I.1.4), becoming as a result “heirs of all eternity” (I.1.7). He creates his own rules of transmission of the written word: he wants to transcend time (he is the one who makes the rules and controls the passage of time, or so he thinks). By wanting to be remembered for his fame and the grandeur of his kingdom, the King of Navarre forgets the original values of study (knowledge and self-discovery, not fame and self-approval). But this apparently solemn act of writing one's name is gradually turned upside down as the lords, especially Berowne, realize that these rules are too much for them: Berowne first talks about these “barren tasks” (I.1.47) and judiciously asks the King, “What is the end of study, let me know?” (I.1.55), as he becomes aware of the King's somewhat illusory project. After the sonnet-reading scene in which all the lords are exposed to one another, Berowne finally rejects the rules he previously accepted as he utters this universal statement (for him): “Young blood doth not obey an old decree” (IV.3.208), opposing the adjectives “young” and “old”, the vitality of the young men and the rigor of Navarre's law.

8 Writing, as an official act, is gradually rejected as the lords break their oaths, which means that the written laws of Navarre do not work efficiently, they are disturbed by the visit of the ladies of France and the love feelings they make surge in the lords' hearts.

“Navarre and his bookmen” (II.1.223) without books

9 The King of Navarre and his lords are often depicted as men who study (as it was supposed to be their purpose at the beginning of the play): the Princess ironically calls them “Navarre and his bookmen” (II.1.223), Boyet talks about “the prince and his book-mates” (IV.1.93). These two mentions are highly ironical since neither the King or the lords are ever to be found reading a book6, or studying in general. They are “bookmen” without books, which reinforces the idea that the King's true purpose was not to increase his knowledge, but to pursue eternal fame – “Let fame, […] / Live registered upon our brazen tombs” (I.1.2). They are only interested in famous epitaphs, which would make them look like heroes, comforting them in their self-centeredness. That is the reason why they will not be able to write true love sonnets: instead of praising the ladies they supposedly love, they will only praise themselves through a grandiloquent style and use of language. They will project their desire for self-recognition and eternal acknowledgement unto their writings (beneath the surface, their love sonnets are like mini epitaphs dedicated to themselves).

10 On the other hand, some books are to be found in the play: Dull calls Nathaniel and Holofernes “book-men” (IV.2.31), but again his statement is ironical for the audience of the play as both characters are ridiculed. Indeed, Holofernes is described throughout the play as “a pedantic schoolmaster” (a description given in the list of characters) who cannot help showing his overabundant knowledge and his pompous use of language and foreign words (another example is the mention of the “hornbook” with which Holofernes teaches reading and spelling to young boys, but he finally ends up teaching Moth how to speak properly, V.1.40). The “hornbook” refers to necessary writings, just as the Holy Scriptures. But, they are misused in the play: they are embodied by two ridiculous characters, the pedant Holofernes and the priest Nathaniel. Hence Shakespeare points out the necessity of such writings and their reliance on transmitters and readers (Holofernes and Nathaniel have replaced the true value of the transmission of knowledge, just like the King, by the sterile showing off of their knowledge). Both characters turn knowledge into a performance of which they play the main parts, making a show of what they know.

11 As for Nathaniel, he compares study and learning to an act of consumption: “Sir, he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book. He hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink. His intellect is not replenished” (IV.2.21-23). The homophony between “bred” (the verb “to breed”) and “bread” is particularly consistent here in Nathaniel's lines: Dull's spirit has not been nurtured, that is the character has never learned anything out of a book, he has never eaten the “bread” of knowledge, he is “unlettered7” as Holofernes says – ironically, Holofernes's discourse is literally saturated with letters, showing both his knowledge and his lack of self-restraint: “[…] his undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest unconfirmed fashion […]” (IV.2.15-16). The effect of saturation comes from the never-ending list of synonyms, the repetition of the negative prefix “un-”, and the use of the unexpected superlative form (“ratherest”), which contribute to make his discourse rather ineffective.

12 The idea of knowledge as nurture is also voiced by Longaville at the very beginning of the play: “The mind shall banquet, though the body pine” (I.1.25)8. Nonetheless Longaville hints at the dangers of starvation (“pine”), one of the rules of the academe, which will later be expressed by Berowne (“And one day in a week to touch no food, / And but one meal on every day beside”, I.1.39-40). The use of the anaphora (repetition of the conjunction “And” at the beginning of the lines) paradoxically emphasizes the lack of food through an overabundant language. From the beginning, Berowne suggests that an abundant knowledge cannot replace what the King calls “the world's desires” (I.1.10), or at least in the way the Kings conceives them. Once again, the values of study, as they are embodied by ridiculous characters, are hyperbolized in the play. We are presented with either dull characters or with characters that instrumentalize knowledge to get fame or self-appraisal.

From law affairs to love affairs: Berowne's “painted rhetoric” (IV.3.230)

13 With the arrival of the ladies of France, the lords' attention absolutely derives from study to love, and thus the act of writing switches from the realm of the law affairs (Berowne: “So to the laws at large I write my name”, I.1.153) to the one of the love affairs. This passage from study to love is illustrated by Berowne at the end of act IV when he acknowledges that they are “barren practicers” (of “barren tasks”, I.1.47):

O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books;

But love, first learned in a lady's eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain,
But with the motion of all elements […]. (IV.3.287-298)

14 Step by step, writing and love start to intertwine. The lords' false rhetoric of study turns into a rhetoric of love: it is Boyet who first employs the term to signify the King's love to the Princess of France (“By the heart's still rhetoric disclosed with eyes”, II.1.225), before the lovers themselves use it (Armado describes his battle-of-wit with Moth as a “[s]weet smoke of rhetoric”, III.1.52), especially Berowne with his “painted rhetoric” (IV.3.230), after the lords' exposure, which means that their written words are vain.

15 The first words of Navarre confirm that study is not the main concern of the lords: it is “fame” for the King at the beginning, and finally love for all the lords at the end. They gradually turn into melancholy lovers who use writing as a way to prove their love to the ladies of France, and to soothe their melancholy. As they are supposed to be learners of the “academe”, they try to write their love for the ladies (the connection between writing and love appears when Berowne gives Costard his letter to Rosaline: “I will do it, sir, in print […]” (III.1.150), Costard says, “And I, forsooth, in love!” (III.1.151), Berowne says, making a parallel between “print” and “love”, showing the passage from the concealed feelings of the lovers to the materiality of the writings). Hence the passage from the act of writing as an official act to the writing(s) of love.

“Well, I will love, write, sigh” (III.1.181): love writings and the writing of love

“I shall turn sonnet. Devise, wit; write, pen” (I.2.149-150): poetry writing

16 Love makes the lovers write their feelings in order to seduce the ladies, and turns the writings into instruments of seduction, a mere decoy to catch the ladies' attention, whereas ironically to be a student in the “academe” of Navarre did not make the lords write anything, except their own names, before the visit of the ladies of France. Thanks to love, the act of writing is staged in the play through the lovers: “Well, I will love, write, sigh9”, Berowne says (III.1.181), using only monosyllables (each verb corresponds to a stressed syllable, emphasizing the character's melancholy with the succession of spondees10 and the staccato rhythm), and again in IV.3.9-10: “By heaven, I do love, and it hath taught me to rhyme, and to be melancholy”; contrary to Berowne's straightforward discourse, don Armado dramatizes his love even more when he says: “[...] for your manager is in love. Yea, he loveth. Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme, for I am sure I shall turn sonnet. Devise, wit; write, pen; for I am for whole volumes in folio” (I.1.148-151). In his hyperbolized style, Armado makes the act of writing a mythological, even heroic, one (he invokes Cupid, the “god of rhyme”, or the “[r]egent of love-rhymes”, as Berowne says in III.1.158, along with other mythological or biblical figures such as Samsom, Solomon and Cupid). Through these references, love writing acquires an intertextual dimension. Writing thus means, for the lords, being in love.

17 Indeed, love and writing tend to confound themselves: “Never durst a poet touch a pen to write / Until his ink were tempered with Love's sighs” (IV.3.315-316), Berowne says. Love is what leads Berowne to break his oath:

For wisdom's sake, a word that all men love,
Or for Love's sake, a word that loves all men,
Or for men's sake, the authors of these women,
Or women's sake, by whom we men are men,
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths. (IV.3.326-331)

18As Berowne suggests, writing one's feelings is like writing who you are, to disclose one part of your identity to the lady you love (“to find ourselves”). The notion of writing is carried as further as to metaphorically describe the body of the character itself (from the written body to the textual body), as Berowne claims about the ladies: “They are the books, the arts, the academes, / That show, contain, and nourish all the world” (IV.3.321-322). As a consequence of the passage from study to love, it is no longer knowledge that nurtures the lords' spirits, but the ladies and the love feelings they create in the lords' hearts (“nourish”).

Textual bodies and minds

19 In Petrarchan poetry, the description of the lady's body is a literary topos, whose technique of representation is called the blazon: it consists in praising the different parts of the female body. In the sonnet-reading scene, Berowne criticizes the sonnets written by the other lords, who indulge in Petrarchan poetry, whereas at the same time he uses the same techniques, especially the blazon one:

[…] When shall you hear that I
Will praise a hand, a foot, a face, an eye,
A gait, a state, a brow, a breast, a waist,
A leg, a limb – (IV.3.175-178)

20Indeed, it is Nathaniel who unravels the content of Berowne's sonnet: “Study his bias leaves and makes his books thine eyes, […] / Which is to me some praise, that I thy parts admire. / Thy eye Jove's lightning bears, thy voice his dreadful thunder” (IV.2.97-103). The melancholy lovers turn the beloved female body into a textual object, putting it down on the page.

21 The representation of the body on the page is reversed in the play and turned into the representation of the body as a page; and the women are turned into books of which the lords are the authors, as Berowne underlines – “the authors of these women” (IV.3.328)11. First, Berowne alludes to the Bible when he evokes Rosaline's beauty:

O, who can give an oath? Where is a book,
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack
If that she learn not of her eye to look? (IV.3.241-243)

22He is ready to make an oath to persuade her of his love, even if he will be proved to be an oath-breaker at the end. Boyet compares the King's face to a page in a book when he exposes his love to the Princess: “His face's own margin did quote such amazes / That all eyes saw his eyes enchanted with gazes” (II.1.242-243). The King's feelings are as easily read as a page in a book. His love permeates his own body as it pervades his sonnet. Each sonnet thus embodies the lords' love for the ladies. The Princess describes the paper on which the King's sonnet was written:

[…] Yes, as much love in rhyme
As would be crammed up in a sheet of paper,
Writ o'both sides the leaf, margin and all,
That he was fain to seal on Cupid's name (V.2.6-9);

23the other ladies have their corresponding sonnets in hand too: “I have verses too” (V.2.34), said Rosaline. When Rosaline praises the handwriting, meaning the way the letters are formed on the page, her description gradually derives on a description of the Princess's face:

Princess     Beauteous as ink: a good conclusion.
Katherine     Fair as a text B in a copy-book.
Rosaline     […]
O, that your face were not so full of O's!
Princess     A pox of that jest, and I beshrew all shrows. (V.2.41-46)

24The Princess's face is like a page full of letters, an open book, but the “O's” may also refer to the pox disease she had suffered and the marks it left on her face (the lady's face is here not idealized anymore as it was the case in the sonnets).

25 Boyet had already alluded to the image of the face as an open book12 when he evokes “the heart's still rhetoric disclosed with eyes” (II.1.225): the King's feelings and intentions are easily read in his eyes (and what is to be read is not convincing as it is “still”, meaning a bad type of rhetoric). Finally, Holofernes's mind is described as an open book, once again in order to make the character's ostentatious use of language and knowledge more ridiculed: “This is a gift that I have, simple, simple – a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions” (IV.2.59-61). The audience clearly understands throughout the play that some types of writing(s) are mocked and satirized.

Mocking hypocritical writings

26 Throughout the play, Shakespeare mocks the overabundant use of refined language (the Latinate words used by Holofernes for example), the imitation of Petrarchan poetry by the lords – what Berowne sums up by saying “Pure, pure idolatry” (IV.3.67), even though he indulges in it too – and the hypocrisy of the sonneteers who are disconnected from reality and the ladies they want to seduce. They finally fail in their entreprise of wooing the ladies as they do not pay much attention to the ladies than to the writing of their sonnets, which are imitations of Petrarchan poetry rather than true creations. Besides, Holofernes stands for this criticism of imitation: “Imitari is nothing” (IV.2.112)13. Holofernes reminds us that poetry comes from the Greek verb poeien which means “to create”. Writing poetry in the play stands for hypocrisy and narcissism – Katherine describes Dumaine's sonnet as “[a] huge translation of hypocrisy, / Vilely compiled, profound simplicity” (V.2.51-52) –, that is why the ladies of France are not involved in any kind of writing(s). They expose the hypocrisy of the lords. Berowne finally understands it and derives a lesson from what happened (“From women's eyes this doctrine I derive”, IV.3.319): he compares his sonnet to “[t]affeta phrases” (V.2.406), which highlights the rhetorical aspect of his sonnet, but also refers to the image of the text as a textile made of threads that the writer weaves together14. It is interesting to note that Boyet compares the ladies' beauty to “rich taffeta” (V.2.159), as if to suggest that the ladies might be self-centered too, or at least ambivalent characters, which seem to take pleasure in mocking the lords and their childish attitudes. The reference to clothing and threads also evokes the idea that the ladies are the subjects of the lords' sonnets (they are the threads the lords try to weave in their poetry), but the ladies make them realize that they failed in doing so.

27 Through the notion of love, the active process of writing and the results – the sonnets – are theatricalised in the play15. The pursuit of love is what makes the lords write, but they fail and prove to be good learners, in the sense of imitators, and bad writers and lovers as they have forgotten the object of their desires and of their writings. These writings are even more dramatized as they are miscarried and misinterpreted all along the play16. The written words are performed by the lords who turn into actors in a mise-en-abîme of the play.

The manipulations of writing(s)

Transmissions and miscarriages

28 The lords' sonnets are exchanged throughout the play, as the stage directions indicate it to the readers. Writing and the writings are manipulated. Indeed, the term “manipulation” comes from the Latin root word manus, which means the hand. In the play, the writings pass from hands to hands. There is the hand of the writer (Shakespeare who writes the play, the lover who writes his love sonnet) who manipulates language on the page, the hand of the character who miscarries the letter (Costard in particular, Jaquenetta also at the end when she reveals in spite of herself Berowne's hypocrisy) and the hand of the character who exposes the content of the letter. Berowne both writes a sonnet to Rosaline and, at the end, he receives his own sonnet from the hands of Jaquenetta, since Costard miscarried it (and then the King asks him to read it aloud). After he tore it to pieces, his writing exposes him (writing referring here to his own way of writing, of forming the letters on the page, his handwriting) and it is Dumaine who discloses it to everyone: “It is Berowne's writing and here is his name” (IV.3.194). It is finally the act of writing his own name, which he did at the beginning of the play as an evidence of his allegiance to the King's project, that finally betrays and exposes him. As for Boyet, he embodies a form of oral transmission of the information, as Berowne calls him a “carry-tale” (V.2.46)17. These miscarriages and misinterpretations create a narrative dynamics throughout the play and convey a comic dimension18.

From writing to performing

29 If the play is full of writings, it is also full of scenes of reading and hearing. Indeed, the written texts are read aloud so that the characters and the audience become aware of their content. It is also a way of exposing the character's mind and intentions. Thus the writings are literally performed by the lovers-actors in a mise-en-abîme of the play. This idea of a play-within-the-play is perfectly illustrated by the sonnet-reading scene in act IV, when the lords read their sonnets in turn, eavesdropped by a hidden Berowne, who is in the position of a “demi-god” (IV.3.71), before his own exposure: the King reads his own sonnet first, then Longaville (Berowne says: “What, Longaville, and reading? Listen, ear”, IV.3.37) and finally Dumaine (“Once more I'll read the ode that I have writ”, IV.3.91). Each lord reads what he has written: they are thus staging their own words, in front of a half-hidden audience (the lords) and in front of the true audience of the theatre (mise-en-abîme). Each poem becomes a sort of theatre in miniature19, a stage in which each lord plays the main part and stages himself. The real audience is integrated in the lords' game: each one of them shows to the audience the piece of poetry he has written – Berowne presents another poem, as he thinks Rosaline has the first one: “[…] and here is part of my rhyme, and here my melancholy” (IV.3.11), before announcing the arrival of the King on stage with his sonnet: “Here comes one with a paper” (IV.3.15). Berowne is both like a stage direction and a stage director in this scene (he comments upon the action on stage while he is half behind the stage).

30 Don Armado's letter is also read at the beginning of the play by the King of Navarre (I.1.221-234). It is in this letter that he first uses the metaphor of the pen and ink. Armado is thus heard before being seen by the characters and the audience20. His letter has a programmatic value, since it announces the arrival of the character. The King of Navarre also stages Armado's words and, as a result, he becomes a kind of ventriloquist21, performing Armado's words, just as Boyet does when he reads aloud Armado's love letter for Jaquenetta (IV.1.58-86). Ventriloquism emphasizes the theatrical dimension of the reading of the sonnets. The scene is both highly theatrical and comical: Armado's pompous words cannot be taken seriously anymore as they are spoken by those characters, without him being present on stage. Both Boyet and the Princess comment upon Armado's letter as they are, with Costard who miscarried it, the audience of Armado's love – “What plume of feathers is he that indited this letter?”, the Princess says (IV.1.87). For the lords to be sure that their writings are carried to the right audience, they have to perform it. Theatricality is thus everywhere in the play, even in poetry.

The writing of the play: the metadramatic dimension

31 Indeed, the play is full of theatrical references which evoke the writing of the play. The writings, in the play, function as narrative catalysts: the play unfolds itself through the successive miscarriages, misinterpretations and performances of the writings. The final scene is full of metadramatic references which both announce the end of the play and allude to its writing: Berowne evokes “a Christmas comedy” (V.2.462). Besides, he finally comments on the genre of the play itself while he comments upon what has happened to the lords and himself, that is the plot of the play:

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.2.842-844).

32He concludes: “That's too long for a play” (V.2.846). Berowne is the one who seems to have learned something from his experiences throughout the play as he becomes aware of his errors in terms of writing, and because he is the one who emphasizes the problematic genre of the play itself.

33 Whether it be the act of writing itself, the way a character writes words on a letter or the writings they produce, the notion of writing(s) permeates the whole play. When confronted to notions such as study, love or performance, the reader understands that the main plot of the play revolves around such writing(s). They are used by the playwright to criticize the hypocrisy of the King's hubristic project, of the lovers' imitation of Petrarchan poetry, along with the self-centeredness of many of the characters who indulge in writing. The ladies of France finally seem to be free from such criticisms, as they are involved in the processes of exposure of the lords' intentions and attitudes. From a metafictional perspective, the writing of the play itself is alluded to in the play, making it even more complex to the reader in terms of its genericity and its hybridity22 (it is a problematic comedy which mixes drama and poetry).

34 Besides, it is to notice that this comedy was famous for its numerous sonnets: three of them (Berowne's, Longaville's and Dumaine's poems) were reprinted in collections of poems afterwards, among which The Passionate Pilgrim (1599 and 1613) and England's Helicon (1600). In doing so, they were decontextualized: they were not part of the context of the play anymore, that is they had lost their ironical quality, the fact that they are mocked by Berowne in the sonnet-reading scene and also that Berowne's sonnet is read by Nathaniel in front of a different audience23. These poems also acquire a hybrid dimension: they were mocked in the play as bad imitations of Petrarchan poetry, but they then became very fashionable, showing Shakespeare's skills at writing poetry. If, in the play, the labours of love are lost, posterity has shown that the sonnets and, above all, the play are not. Thanks to writing, the play got transmitted, contrary to another probable play, Love's Labour's Won24, paradoxically lost.


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Elam Keir, Shakespeare’s Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies, Cambridge, CUP, 1984.

Lemonnier-Texier Delphine, Winter Guillaume (dir.), Lectures de Love’s Labour’s Lost de William Shakespeare, Rennes, PUR, 2014.

Shakespeare William, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Edited by William C. Carroll, Cambridge, CUP, 2009.

Shakespeare William, , Romeo and Juliet, Edited by Brian Gibbons & Harold F. Brooks, London, Methuen, 1994.

Shakespeare William, Much Ado About Nothing, Edited by Roma Gill, Oxford, OUP, 2010.

Soanes Catherine, Stevenson Angus (eds.), Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th Edition, Oxford, OUP, 2008.


1 See William C. Carroll's very precise “Introduction” and his thorough analyses of the play in his edition of the play (William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Edited by William C. Carroll, Cambridge, CUP, 2009, p. 1-54), and his reproduction of the 1598 Quarto title page (ibid., p. 181-182).

2 Catherine Soanes, Angus Stevenson (eds.), Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th Edition, Oxford, OUP, 2008, p. 1666.

3 William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, op. cit., p. 175. Throughout this paper, the quotes from the play come from Carroll's edition of Love's Labour's Lost.

4 Juliet questions the ontological quality of names and naming: “What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot / Nor arm nor face nor any other part / Belonging to a man. O be some other name. / What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself”, II.2.40-49, William Shakespeare, Brian Gibbons, Harold F. Brooks (eds.), Romeo and Juliet, London, Methuen, 1994, p. 129. My emphasis.

5 On the King's hubristic oath as a parody of Faustus's contract, see Pascale Drouet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Neuilly, Atlande, 2014, p. 158-160.

6 Sophie Chiari also describes the lords “[…] whom spectators never see reading any book” (Sophie Chiari, Love’s Labour’s Lost: Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Wit, Paris, PUF CNED, 2014, p. 75).

7 Both Dull and Costard (I.1.236) are judged as “unlettered”. This adjective also refers to the low level of literacy of Shakespeare's audience at the time.

8 In Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick says that Claudio “[…] turned orthography. His words are a very fantastical banquet” (II.3.19-20, William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Edited by Roma Gill, Oxford, OUP, 2010, p. 32. This passage is quoted by William C. Carroll in his study of the play (William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in Love's Labour's Lost, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 11).

9 This enumeration of verbs expressing Berowne's love feelings is highly conventional as William C. Carroll highlights: “[…] his list of verbs could have been lifted directly from any Renaissance handbook of love” (ibid., p. 128).

10 We are deeply indebted to Pascale Drouet's thorough analysis of this line: “[l]e rythme du pentamètre iambique est rompu, comme affecté par la turbulence sentimentale que traverse Berowne, laissant place au sprung rhythm (succession de syllabes accentuées, ici de spondées) qui traduit le changement de tempo qu'éprouve en son intimité le personnage, la palpitation accélérée de son cœur” (Pascale Drouet, Love's Labour's Lost, op. cit., p. 162).

11 Pascale Drouet quotes this fragment in her analysis and very interestingly adds that “[l]a femme aimée est inaccessible, certes, mais son image, elle, est enclose dans l'écrin textuel formé par l'ode ou le sonnet. Aussi n'est-il pas impensable que la forme close du poème satisfasse le fantasme de la domination du masculin sur le féminin, ou, du moins, qu'elle apaise temporairement l'anxiété masculine” (Pascale Drouet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, op. cit., p. 64).

12 Lady Capulet describes young Paris' face as an open book, praising him in front of Juliet: “Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face / And find delight writ there with beauty's pen. / […] And what obscur'd in this fair volume lies, / Find written in the margent of his eyes. / This precious book of love, this unbound lover, / To beautify him only lacks a cover” (I.4.81-88). See William C. Carroll's reference to this passage and his study of the metaphor of the face as an open book (William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in Love's Labour's Lost, op. cit., p. 105-106).

13 As William C. Carroll puts it, “[…] poetry is something to be learned from rhetoricians” (ibid., p. 121) according to Holofernes (what Berowne somewhat warns against when he says: “Save base authority from others' books”, I.1.87).

14 The metaphor is borrowed from Roland Barthes who wrote that “[t]exte veut dire Tissu ; [...] le texte se fait, se travaille à travers un entrelacs perpétuel ; perdu dans ce tissu – cette texture – le sujet s'y défait” (Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte, Paris, Seuil, 1973, p. 85, the italics are the author's).

15 Sophie Chiari points out the idea that “wooing, writing, mocking, teaching and revelling are not part of ordinary life but get theatricalised and placed at the core of extravagant spectacles” (Sophie Chiari, Love’s Labour’s Lost: Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Wit, op. cit., p. 20-21).

16 As Delphine Lemonnier-Texier remarks, “[l]a rédaction et la circulation de textes dans la pièce est importante dans Love's Labour's Lost, comme l'a souligné Keir Elam. Ce qu'elle révèle de l'attitude de ces personnages masculins à l'endroit de la langue est crucial : fixées sur un support matériel, les paroles devenues substances courent le risque de rater leur destinataire, voire d'être données par erreur à la mauvaise personne” (Delphine Lemonnier-Texier, “Parole vive et école de la comédie dans Love's Labour's Lost”, in Delphine Lemonnier-Texier, Guillaume Winter (dir.), Lectures de Love’s Labour’s Lost de William Shakespeare, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014, p. 13). She refers to Keir Elam, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse. Language-Games in the Comedies, Cambridge, CUP, 1984, p. 26.

17 Berowne also calls him a “wit's pedlar” (V.2.317) which, as Pascale Drouet argues, relates Boyet to an illicit form of transmission of the information, to peddling (“[…] colportage, […] circulation illicite, […] divulgation de l'information”,  Pascale Drouet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, op. cit., p. 66).

18 On the writing of love poetry and its failed reception in the play, see Pascale Drouet's thorough analysis (ibid., p. 92-101).

19 We borrow this image from Pascale Drouet who talks about “[…] le petit théâtre que figure la forme close du poème” (ibid., p. 124).

20 Or, as Ifig Cocoual nicely puts it, “[…] we hear/read [Armado's letter] before we see its embodied book of an author” (Ifig Cocoual, “Linguistic Capital and Carnivalesque Languages in Love's Labour's Lost”, in Delphine Lemonnier-Texier, Guillaume Winter (dir.), Lectures de Love's Labour's Lost, op. cit., p. 147).

21 We apply here the notion of ventriloquism, as Mikhail Bakhtin defines it in relation to heteroglossia and polyphony in literature (the word “author” can be replaced by “character” in the following quote to apply to the play): “[t]he author does not speak in a given language (from which he distances himself to a greater or lesser degree), but he speaks, as it were, through language, a language that has somehow more or less materialized, become objectivized, that he merely ventriloquates” (Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1982, p. 299). In the play, the King of Navarre and Boyet both read aloud one of Armado's letters. They thus voice Armado's written words, as if the audience was hearing Armado's voice through the King and Boyet. Armado's language has indeed “materialized” on stage and “become objectivized” as part of a performance. Sophie Chiari also sheds light on the idea that “[…] words read aloud become materialized on stage. As a consequence, letters become important stage props” (Sophie Chiari, Love’s Labour’s Lost: Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Wit, op. cit., p. 92).

22 William C. Carroll concludes that “[…] though the form of the ‘old play’ is shattered, something entirely new, both strange and admirable, has come to life” (William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in Love's Labour's Lost, op. cit., p. 96).

23 “It is a high irony that anthology editors overlooked the context and took the poems perfectly seriously” (ibid., p.  128-129).

24 On Love's Labour's Won and the collections of poetry in which the sonnets were integrated, see William C. Carroll's “Introduction” to the play (William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, op. cit., p. 39-42).

Pour citer ce document

Par Jean Dumonteil, «What's in writing(s)? A Study of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°10 - 2016, Varia, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=961.

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Jean Dumonteil est actuellement agrégatif externe, inscrit à l'Université de Limoges. Diplômé d'un Master Langues Littératures et Civilisations Étrangères, mention Anglais, il a obtenu la mention Très Bien pour son mémoire en littérature africaine-américaine, intitulé « (Re)trouver ses racines : identité et création dans The Bluest Eye (1970) et Sula (1973) de Toni Morrison ». Ses champs de recherche sont la littérature africaine-américaine en particulier, et américaine en général, ainsi que les ...