To soften these harsh January days, where what little savings you had just evaporated and the seasonal encouragement to coat your misery in whiskey, sugar, or retail also just evaporated – this month on What Happens in Shakespeare I give you the sexy, funny, feminist diversion that is Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Swearing off women is harder than it looks.”
What happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost
The king of Navarre and his three friends have bad hangovers. They decide that for the next three years they will do nothing but study. They will fast regularly and only sleep three hours a night. Most importantly, they will swear off the company of women. One friend points out the inherent absurdity, but they all sign the contract. To make this ridiculous plan easier on his bros, the king makes a new law that all women have to stay at least a mile away from the court.
The Princess of France arrives on a diplomatic mission. She is powerfully attractive and so are her three ladies. How inconvenient that the king has just made a vow not to spend time with women. He forces himself to meet with the princess in the interest of state business, but still makes her and her entourage camp a mile away.
There’s a twist. The king falls in love with the princess. Each of the king’s friends falls in love with one of the princess’s ladies. Everybody is now cheating on the contract and wants to dissolve it, but everybody believes everybody else is sticking to it.
Meanwhile, a visitor to the king’s court catches the jester with a local girl. The noble visitor was already lusting this girl. Did I mention the no-ladies contract applies to everyone at court? The jester has to subsist for a week on bran and water. Bran. The highborn bros claim to be fasting, but they’re allowed to eat other food besides bran.
The king and his friends catch each other sending embarrassingly terrible love poems to the attractive women of France. They argue for approximately 4 seconds, then agree to tear up the contract. They slap on some eau-de-taking-a-bath and brainstorm about how to charm women. They settle on dressing up like Russians. Russians infiltrating your seat of government. That’s catnip to the ladies every time.
The attractive women of France, being rather more sophisticated, swap clothes and impersonate each other. The men get an education no 3-hours-of-sleep-a-night university could have offered.
The right women and men eventually find each other.
The princess’s father dies, making her the Queen of France. She and her friends pack up to go home.
The king and the bros quickly try to lock down their respective romantic deals, but the women of France feel the men can still not be trusted. After all, they broke their own vows of celibacy. Cheaters gonna cheat. The women agree to reconsider if the men wait a year and a day.
The attractive women return to France. The men of Navarre contemplate the responsibilities of grownup love.
For actual scholarship, historical context, and a breakdown of why the language in this particular play is so irresistible, read Marjorie Garber’s essay about Love’s Labour’s Lost in her excellent book Shakespeare After All.