The Elizabethans thought of it merely as "a wittie and pleasant comedie" ; Samuel Johnson remarked that "all the editors have concurred to censure [it]" ; and William Hazlitt opined, "If we were to part with any of the author's comedies, it should be this." It was not until well into the twentieth century that Love's Labour's Lost really came into its own, and this fact alone may be enough to make a case for it as Shakespeare's most forward-looking play. It is its ending in particular, an unexpectedly grim conclusion in which nothing is actually concluded, that has appealed to modern sensibilities and made Love's Labour's Lost the Shakespeare play for the twentieth century. Trevor Nunn makes this point emphatically in a recent National Theatre production that presents Love's Labour's Lost as a tale of society's passage out of the nineteenth century in the devastation of World War I. Though neither this idea nor any other aspect of his production is entirely novel, it emerges as possibly the darkest interpretation of the play yet presented, taking the disturbing qualities that have so delighted modern audiences and pressing them to their limits and beyond.
Reading the play now, it seems hard to believe that the unusualness of the ending could have gone apparently unnoticed for so long. With the stage set for the usual comedic ending of multiple marriages, the news of the Princess's father's death comes as a complete shock: Marcadé enters at a moment of such carefree mirth that the Princess playfully chides him, "thou interruptest our merriment" (5.2.712). A moment later, his news is told and the atmosphere of the play has noticeably changed, as Berowne himself acknowledges when he says, "The scene begin...
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...ns. Ultimately, Nunn succeeds in making his dark vision of Love's Labour's Lost convincing, and in using the play to make the usual points (the fleeting nature of happiness and happy endings, the necessity of confronting difficult realities, the inevitability of death) with exceptional force. But these triumphs come at the price of two priceless aspects of Shakespeare's ending: its unanticipated overthrow of audience expectations and its startlingly modern open-endedness.
Gilbert, Miriam. Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare in Performance Series. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Holland, Peter. English Shakespeares. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Peter, John. "Growing Pains," Sunday Times, Feb. 2003, p. 19.
Woudhuysen, H. R., ed. Love's Labour's Lost. 3rd series. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1998.
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