In Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, the unnamed princess of France declares “there's no such sport as sport by sport o'erthrown” (5.2.153; all references to Love's Labour's Lost are to G.B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare, The Complete Works: Love's Labor's Lost [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968]).
This somewhat mischievous line may be considered a citation of the predominant theme of subversion throughout this play that acts like a comedy, but ultimately defies, or overthrows, comedic convention. Atypical for New Comedy denouement, which conventionally sees one or more couples happily wed, in Love's Labour's Lost “wooing doth not end like an old play” (5.2.884). In contrast to A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, wherein each boy gets his girl, in Love's Labour's Lost, “Jack hath not Jill” (5.2.885).
Many critics then, esteem this play as a comedic failure, and indeed Berowne, one of the men whose hand is refused at the end (or at least stayed), expresses surprise at the uncoupled ending, saying that if the ladies had complied, it “might well have made our sport a comedy” (5.2.886). Northrop Frye asserts in his essay “Argument for Comedy” that tragedy is, in effect, incomplete comedy (Marvin Felheim, ed., Comedy: Plays, Theory, and Criticism [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962], 237). If comedy requires a happy ending, and a happy ending requires nuptials, does this mean that Love's Labour's Lost would make a more appropriate tragedy-or could it be that, in this instance, the levity lies in the very defiance of code and custom?
Act One of this play opens at the court of Navarre, a territory that used to lie in portions of what are now north-central Spain and Southwestern France. King Ferdinand and Lords Berowne, Longaville and Dumain have all sworn, Berowne skeptically, to live at the court as scholars engaged in serious study and ascetic living for three years. During this term, they will entertain no women; eat one meal a day, as well as fast one day in seven; and sleep only three hours a night. The men agree to these conditions in the hopes that in so living, they might achieve an immortal fame to “grace [them] in the disgrace of death” (1.1.3).
Berowne (whom some have suggested is patterned after Shakespeare himself) reads through the near impossible statutes only to discover that items one and two, regarding the penalties of any women within a mile of the court and any man seen conversing with a member of the fairer sex, will have to be dishonored. The princess of France and her ladies—Rosaline, Maria and Katherine—are coming to Navarre on an embassy for the king regarding the French province of Aquitane.
The men are obliged to break their recently made vows and see the ladies; although they refuse the female entourage entrance beyond the gates. There is some dispute over the payment of a hundred thousand crowns for the rights of Aquitane, and much to the dissatisfaction of the princess who is annoyed by the inhospitality of the king and courtiers, she, as well as her ladies in attendance and her chamberlain Boyet, must remain in Navarre until receipts can be produced. Love, however, is instantaneous for Ferdinand, who falls most suitably for the princess; as well as for Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain, who all serendipitously manage to fall for a different woman, and the game of love is on. Sparks of repartee begin to fly between the teams; however, the women have the obvious advantage because they are not in danger of breaking any oaths.
There are a few subplots at play as well. Don Armado, a fantastical Spaniard with a penchant for overstatement who has also pledged abstinence in Navarre, has fallen in love with Jaquenetta, a country wench already seen consorting with Costard the clown. Armado has broken his vow, but hypocritically censures Costard for doing the same, and then bribes him with clemency to deliver a love letter from himself to Jaquenetta. All the while, Armando attempts to justify his broken promise.
Later, after each has been caught with his own proclamation of love, the courtiers attempt to do the same as they entreat Berowne to conjure “some salve for perjury” to prove [their] loving lawful, and [their] faith not torn” (4.3.289, 285). He does so with convincing finesse, declaiming, “Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, / or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths” (4.3.361-62).
Through the course of the play, Shakespeare ridicules affectation of various sorts. He seems to find humor in the fact that people can become so rapt in their own seeming importance, and so taken in by au courant protocol for anything from courtship to how to behave in public. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, numerous ethical treatises were written, or translations were done of, Aristotle's Ethics, Cicero's De Officiis, Seneca's Moral Essays, and Castiglione's The Courtier, as well as many others that contained accepted moral exempla. Shakespeare seems to condemn excessive conformity to these guidebooks and parodies courtly love, which, much like a game or a sport, has rules; pedantry and rhetoric; artifice and sterile imitations of the classics.
Another minor character in the play, Holofernes, is marked by a narrow, affected concern for book learning and formal rules, and is unmercifully satirized for being so. Love's Labour's Lost contains numerous topicalities, illusions and jokes that are now unintelligible to modern-day audiences; however, the mirthful nature of the play is clear. And, although “the play shares the fate of the courtier's vows” by recanting a conventional comic ending, it must be borne in mind that there truly is “no such sport as sport by sport o'erthrown” (“Joseph Chaney, Promises, Promises 'Love's Labour's Lost and the End of Shakespearean Comedy” Criticism. Volume: 35. Issue:1 [Wayne State University Press, 1993], 41).