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SecondaryEnglishThe Arts

Shakespeare School – Why you should teach Love’s Labour’s Lost

Give your students a challenging, albeit entertaining linguistic workout with Shakespeare’s witty skewering of manhood, Courtly Love and hack sonnet writing…

Helen Mears
by Helen Mears
Female British Army soldier
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Perhaps the least performed and most underrated of his comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of only two plays with wholly original plots that Shakespeare wrote.

It tells the story of Ferdinand, the young King of Navarre, and his three friends who take a vow to give up all excess and the company of woman for three years in favour of fasting and studying.

Their vow is almost immediately tested by the arrival of the Princess of France and her three ladies in-waiting, the play’s comedy emerging from the young men’s efforts at concealing their love for the women.

When should I teach it?

The play is generally considered to be linguistically difficult, since much of the humour comes from puns and other forms of wordplay. It’s therefore probably better suited to Y9, or even used as a text for the A Level literature comparative study.

It can be an especially interesting text to use in a genre study of comedy, however, as it follows most of the generic conventions of a Shakespearean comedy but doesn’t grant its characters the expected happy endings.

How should I teach it?

The play presents an opportunity to explore of the theme of Courtly Love, with the King and his companions writing sonnets to their unattainable women, their beloveds. The comic tour de force of Act 4 Scene 3 is possibly one of Shakespeare’s most brilliantly constructed comic scenes – the men catch one another reading sonnets they have all written for each of the women they idolise, providing an excellent starting point from which to explore the tradition of sonnet writing.

As in Romeo and Juliet, the play contains embedded sonnets that allow for discussion of the form and an increased level of familiarity with iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes.

Why should I teach it?

If you’re teaching Romeo and Juliet as your GCSE text, Love’s Labour’s Lost could be a good counterpoint to teach in Y9. Likewise, if you teach A Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier in KS3, Love’s Labour’s Lost will provide an interesting contrast.

These three plays were all written around the same year, at a time when Shakespeare appears to have been experimenting with genre. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet both begin following the expectations of a comedy, but neither ends in the traditional way, with Romeo and Juliet taking a dark turn into tragedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with tragic elements – the death threat hanging over Hermia – but resolves as a traditional comedy.

All three link to ideas of Courtly Love and the impulsiveness of young love, which could be useful contextual information for studying Love through the Ages.

How does it link to the rest of the curriculum?

The writing of sonnets and theme of Courtly Love can be linked to practices in the Court of Henry VIII, when the Petrarchan sonnet was introduced into England by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London for allegedly flirting with Anne Boleyn. His sonnet, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’, was believed to have been written about her.

Links could also be made to the gender expectations of the time, with the women in the play exhibiting much more mature behaviour than the men. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost contains a play within a play, which tells us something about staging and audiences in Shakespeare’s time.

How can I watch it?

There are several, very varied options. Dominic Dromgoole’s production for Shakespeare’s Globe is simply joyous, and features Michelle Terry as the Princess of France. The RSC’s 2014 version is meanwhile set in the 1940s, again with Michelle Terry in the cast, only this time playing the feisty Rosaline.

Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 film version cuts much of the dialogue, replacing it with classic 1930s songs, but otherwise sticks to the spirit of the play.

Helen Mears is an English teacher who sits on the education committee of the British Shakespeare Association

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