Who Wrote ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’? (or Whatever Happened to ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’?)

Could ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ reveal the secret identity of the ‘real’ William Shakespeare?

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play of courtly love – a witty, esoteric play in which four noblemen court four noblewomen while on the one hand a lovesick braggart woos a country girl and on the other a pedantic scholar stages a comic tableau. The critical fortunes of Love’s Labour’s Lost have waxed and waned through the ages, but this is probably Shakespeare’s most sophisticated comedy.

While Love’s Labour’s Lost treats of love and desire and there is a great deal of talk on these subjects, it yet comes across as so stylised as to be neither romantic nor passionate. In the past critics have deplored Love’s Labour’s Lost as ‘a beginner’s clumsy effort, full of stilted rhyming couplets and over-elaborate puns, the characters unlifelike and the action constantly held up for skirmishes’. However, more recent critics have had a change of heart. One calls it ‘the first work of Shakespeare’s genius,’ while another believes that ‘no play of Shakespeare is more distinct, has more character and “aura” of its own and in few is the spell of personality so strong.’

Nonetheless, while the play itself has generated little interest as a work of literature, it does present a very interesting insight into the whole Shakespearean authorship question. My own impression of the play is that it lacks the very humanity for which Shakespeare is most celebrated. So if this play does so strongly reflect its author’s personality, whose personality does it reflect? In other words, who wrote Love’s Labour’s Lost?

While we are interrogating the play, we might also ask: What are its sources? Who was it written for and when? Why the open-ended ending? And finally: whatever happened to Love’s Labour’s Won?


The play is set in the court of Navarre where the young King Ferdinand has decreed that his court shall be a place of learning and monastic self-discipline. He persuades three of his courtiers, Berowne, Longaville and Dumain, to sign a pledge in which they swear to devote themselves to study for three years and foreswearing any contact with women. However, no sooner have the pledges been signed that the King learns that on the following day the Princess of France is expected to arrive on an embassy from her father. So as not to break his oath, the King agrees to meet her, but will not let her or her party lodge within his palace.

For his own entertainment, the King maintains as a guest in his household a Spaniard, Don Adriano de Armado, a loquacious fool. Don Armado is in love with Jacquenetta, a country girl, who is walking out with the King’s servant Costard. Also a member of the King’s household is a pedantic schoolmaster, Holofernes, who is very proud of his obtuse Latinate wit and very disparaging of anyone else’s.

The Princess of France arrives with her three beautiful and witty ladies-in-waiting, Rosaline, Maria and Katherine, none of whom has a very high opinion of men. Neither is the Princess pleased to learn that she and her party will be housed in tents in a field outside the palace. The Princess, therefore, is rather hostile towards the King when he comes to meet her accompanied by his three courtiers. While the ladies are not at all impressed with the gentlemen, they have left a strong impression on the men. The King falls in love with the Princess, while each of his courtiers falls in love with one of her ladies.

The courtiers decide to win their ladies’ love by entertaining them, sending them gifts and wooing them in disguise. The ladies receive their gifts and love-letters with ridicule and when the gentlemen’s plan to visit and woo them disguised as Muscovites is revealed to them, they decide to thwart them by exchanging gifts and receiving their visitors heavily veiled thus fooling them into wooing the wrong woman.

Just as the ladies reveal to the courtiers the trick they played on them, they are invited to an entertainment: ‘The Nine Worthies’, a tableau depicting the exploits of great men of the past which Don Armado has organised with the help of Holofernes and his friends and servants.

The courtiers graciously agree to watch the entertainment, but cruelly heckle the rather inept performance, which is disrupted when Costard confronts Don Armado with Jacquenetta’s pregnancy and demands that he marry her, much to the audience’s delight. However, the jollity is stopped dead by the arrival of a messenger with news that the King of France, the Princess’s father, has died.

Suddenly sober the Princess says she must immediately go home. When the King again declares his love for her, the Princess still does not believe him, so she sets a task for him to truly live as a hermit for a year and a day. When her mourning is lifted at the end of that time, he must come to her and if he has fulfilled his task and still loves her, she might believe him. The other ladies set similar tasks for their swains.

The play ends with the singing of songs to Spring and Winter.


Shakespeare is known to have derived most of his plots from literary sources. However, no one literary source has been found for Love’s Labour’s Lost, although some have been found which might have had some influence. The plotline of four young noblemen pledging to study and eschew society may have been derived from Pierre de la Primaudaye’s L’Academie française, an essay in which a model academy is described composed of four young idealists. It was first translated into English in 1584. A hunting scene may be based on Queen’s Entertainment at Cowdray, published in 1591.

The scene in which the courtiers disguise themselves as Muscovites may have been influenced by the close trade and diplomatic ties between the court of Elizabeth and Ivan the Terrible who, it was rumoured, had sent Elizabeth, through his ambassadors to England, a proposal of marriage.

Other influences detected are John Lyly’s early plays such as Endymion and Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. The influence of Commedia dell’Arte can be seen on the comic characters and is evident in the generic character tags found in parts of the text (see more below).

However, the strongest influence on the main plot seems to have come from incidents in France’s recent history. The Kingdom of Navarre occupied the south-west corner of modern-day France and stretched into northern Spain. Its King was a much-respected figure for the English at that time (although his real name was Henry rather than Ferdinand as he is named in the text). A Protestant prince who had recently won the French crown from the Catholic King Henri III, he was being supported by English troops who at one point were led by the Earl of Essex. He was known to be a patron of an academy at his court and received two embassies from the French King, one in 1578 led by the Princess of France, Margaret of Valois, and another in 1586 led by the Queen, Catherine de Medici. (It is interesting to note that in the text the Princess is sometimes referred to as the Queen.) In both cases the parties included ladies-in-waiting known as ‘l’escadron volant’ for their grace and flightiness. These events were later described in Margaret of Valois’s memoires, but these were not published until 1626.


As Love’s Labour’s Lost was published in quarto under Shakespeare’s name and again in the First Folio, there is little doubt in the orthodox academy that the play was written entirely by him. Scholars see distinct parallels between the play and Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poetry in particular the Sonnets and The Rape of Lucrece. They also see in the play’s characters the beginnings of Shakespeare’s later, greater characters such as his heroines Portia, Nerissa, Beatrice and Rosalind and clowns such as Dogberry, Bottom and Falstaff.

However, scholars also claim that the play betrays an aristocratic sensibility and a concern with matters of the court and esoteric scholarship which would have been unfamiliar to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, the writer of plays for the public playhouse. In fact, as we saw in an earlier essay (see The Authorship Contenders), the case for the Earl of Derby as the real Shakespeare rests largely on this play.

William Stanley, Earl of Derby

Portrait of William Stanley, Earl of Derby
William Stanley

William Stanley became the sixth Earl of Derby in 1594 after the sudden death of his elder brother Ferdinando who had only held the title for a few months. For most of his adult life, Ferdinando Stanley bore the title of Lord Strange and was the patron of his own playing company to which William Shakespeare may have belonged for a while. (See The Elizabethan Playing Companies) The Stanleys were amongst the richest and most powerful families in England with a long history of faithful service to the crown. Many of their number are favourably depicted in Shakespeare’s history plays.

On their mother’s side Ferdinando and William were descended from Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister, and so were considered contenders for the throne. As their estates were in Lancashire and Cheshire where the Catholic cause was still strong, they were much favoured by Catholics. Though tolerant of Catholicism, the Stanleys were always careful to present themselves as staunch Protestants.

The Stanley’s were also patrons of the theatre. The Derby Household Books of 1587-90 record many and prolonged visits to the family residences by the major playing companies of the age. Among those companies would have been the precursor to Ferdinando’s company, the Earl of Derby’s Men, established by his father, Henry, the fourth Earl of Derby.

As a younger son, William Stanley had not expected to succeed to the title and after attending Oxford University, in 1582, he set off for Europe with his Welsh tutor Richard Lloyd and was not to return for five years. After his return he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, but according to a Catholic spy’s report, he was most often ‘busied in penning comedies for the common players.’ While no plays were ever recorded as being performed or published under William Stanley’s name, Lord Strange’s Men had several anonymous plays in their repertoire, among them Sir John Mandeville, now lost. The play was most likely based on a rather fantastical 14th century travelogue, and may have reflected William Stanley’s own extensive travels.

Despite their prominent position, the Stanley family was neither a peaceful nor a happy one. Already financially stretched after bearing the costs of overseas diplomacy in the Queen’s service, Henry, the fourth Earl, could not tolerate his wife’s compulsive extravagance and they separated early in their marriage, after which Henry began a new illegitimate family. It is suspected that Ferdinando was poisoned by Catholic rebels to whom he had refused his support. After succeeding his brother, William spent many years in legal dispute with his sister-in-law over his brother’s estate. His own marriage to Elizabeth de Vere, the daughter of the 17th Earl of Oxford, was plagued by mutual jealousies. His son James, the seventh Earl, was executed under Cromwell and the family home, Lathom House, was burnt down in the Civil War and with it went any of William Stanley’s personal papers.

Suspicions that ‘William Shakespeare’ might in fact be the aristocratic William Stanley date back to 1891, but his most persuasive advocate was Abel Lefranc of the Collège de France, a renowned authority on French and English Renaissance literature. The first of his two volume study Sous le Masque de ‘William Shakespeare’ appeared in 1918. Arguing that all writers left traces of their own personality in their writings, Lefranc could see no correspondence between the life and character of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon and the author of the canon.

The true author, he argued, was familiar with court life in England and France, spoke both cultured and colloquial French and was intimate with the Court of Navarre. The final piece in the jigsaw was Spenser’s 1594 poem Colin Clouts come home againe where he found a disguised reference to Ferdinando Stanley’s recent death which also identified his younger brother as a poet ‘full of high thoughts and invention.’ And furthermore, Lefranc saw some very concrete connections between Love’s Labour’s Lost in particular and William Stanley.

William Stanley’s travels brought him a wide range of encounters and adventures which could have contributed to Love’s Labour’s Lost. In Paris, where his father had acted as ambassador for the Queen, he was received at court with a splendid reception, after which he travelled south to the Spanish court where he fought a duel, killed a man and had to escape dressed as a friar. After that his adventures descend into legend according to which he travelled through Italy and Greece and even further afield around the Mediterranean, the Middle East and as far away as Russia. On his journey between Paris and Spain, he would have passed through the Kingdom of Navarre.

The entertainment presented to the King and his court in Love’s Labour’s Lost closely resembles the Chester Christmas pageant which the Stanleys attended regularly, in which ‘the Four Seasons concludes the representation of The Nine Worthies.’ Richard Lloyd, Stanley’s tutor, published his own version of The Nine Worthies and, like Holofernes, was known to express himself in English ‘interspersed here and there with Latin.’ As one of the great houses of England, Lathom House would more than once have entertained Queen Elizabeth and her court, just as the Princess of France is entertained in the play. And lastly, in the play’s text the King is called Ferdinand, as was William Stanley’s brother, rather than by his actual name of Henry.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and History

The plot and characters of Love’s Labour’s Lost may closely resemble incidents and characters in recent French history, but these incidents were only a small part of a much larger picture. Although Henry of Navarre had established his court as a centre of learning and culture, at the time he was involved in a prolonged religious war with France, and while the names of the King’s courtiers are those of real people, none of them would have been members of such an academy, nor all of them friends of the King.

In actual fact Henry, the Protestant King of Navarre, was married to Margaret of Valois, the Catholic Princess of France, in 1572 and their wedding was the occasion for the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants by Catholics, which precipitated another phase of the Wars of Religion which tore France apart for decades. Up until the time this play was written, Henry and Margaret had spent very little of their married life together, and while Margaret and her circle were renowned for their seductive wiles, any meetings between husband and wife would have been more tense than flirtatious.

It is interesting to note that at around the same time Christopher Marlowe was writing The Massacre of Paris about the same characters and events but from a much more realistic standpoint. (See The Plays of Christopher Marlowe) If Love’s Labour’s Lost is based on history, it is fantastical, escapist history.

However, past scholars have looked beyond the play’s frivolous surface and seen a ‘coherent intention’, something almost indefinable which must lie ‘deeper than the superficial import of the words, often vapid and sometimes completely senseless’, passages which are so obtuse that they could only ‘embody some contemporary joke now lost to us.’ Although such theories have been rejected by more recent scholars, these earlier critics saw in the text obscure references to the rivalries between the Essex and Raleigh factions at court and the scholarly battles between Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey in the aftermath of the Marprelate controversy. (See The Theatre of a Propaganda War: The Playhouse in the Marprelate Controversy)

Publishing history

The first existing Quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost was published in 1598 by Cuthbert Burby and endorsed ‘As it was presented before her Highness this last Christmas,’ and ‘Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespeare.’ It was never entered in the Stationer’s Register.

That the Quarto is endorsed ‘newly corrected and augmented’ suggests that this edition may actually be a correction of an earlier bad quarto of which no copy has survived. However, the surviving Quarto, while riddled with typos that suggest an inexperienced printer, seems more likely to have been printed from an original manuscript than from an amended bad quarto. While correcting many of the Quarto’s typos, the text of the First Folio preserves enough of the original errors to suggest it was printed directly from the Quarto.

Date and manner of composition

While the Quarto states that Love’s Labour’s Lost was performed during the 1597/1598 Christmas season, internal evidence suggests the play was written much earlier.

Henry of Navarre was popular with the court from 1591 when England first went to war on his behalf, but he fell out of favour in July 1593 when he converted to Catholicism in order to be crowned King of France, famously quipping ‘Paris is well worth a Mass.’ Many of the references to the courtly and scholarly rivalries cited above also reflect events in 1592-1593. It is therefore most likely that the majority of the play was written between those dates.

However, the scene in Act V in which the King and his courtiers woo the ladies disguised as Muscovites bears a striking resemblance to events described in the Gesta Grayorum, an account of the Christmas revels by the law students at Gray’s Inn on Innocents Day 1594, which has led many scholars to either date Love’s Labour’s Lost to 1595, or speculate on a later revision of an earlier play.

The text itself is also riddled with errors and inconsistencies which argue for extensive or continuous revision of the play over time.

  • There are several examples of two versions of a speech, most often one shorter than the other, printed side by side. On one occasion in Act II Berowne seems to be wooing the wrong lady. The final cast of The Nine Worthies is not the same as the one listed when the presentation is first discussed. And in Act IV, Costard refers at length to a scene between Armado and a lady which we do not see.
  • The character tags waver between the name of the character and his Commedia dell’Arte generic title and this happens more often in the second half of the play than the first.
  • There is evidence of major changes to the ending of the play. As she makes her farewells, the Princess refers to ‘my great suit so easily obtained’, yet there is nothing else in the text that suggests the Princess’s embassy was concluded. In fact it was left open and waiting on the arrival of documents that would support her case. This has led to speculation that the message the Princess originally received was not that of her father’s death, but the document in question.
  • I also find it incongruous that after the Princess has declared that she must return home because of her father’s death, the King does not offer her comforting words of condolence, but presses his suit even more forcefully.

The play’s structure of a play-within-a-play has led critics to describe Love’s Labour’s Lost as a play ‘preoccupied with the making of plays’ that helped Shakespeare ‘come to terms with his art.’ However, the play shows evidence of several separate plot lines:

  • The wooing of the four ladies by the four lords
  • The wooing of Jacquenetta by Armado
  • The rehearsal and performance of the Nine Worthies
  • The discomforting of Holofernes

The play-within-a-play structure can also be seen as an effective method for combining these disparate elements, perhaps even separate short plays, into one longer play.

Whatever happened to ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’?

If there was ever a play that screamed for a sequel it is Love’s Labour’s Lost which ends with the romances unresolved and promises that the lovers will meet again. There is evidence that a play with the title Love’s Labour’s Won did indeed exist. In 1598, in his Pallidas Tamia, Francis Meres listed ‘Loue labours wonne’ as one of Shakespeare’s ‘excellent’ comedies. In 1953 a stationer’s packing slip dating from 1603 was discovered which listed several Shakespeare comedies including ‘loves labor won’.

Scholars have disagreed as to whether this play, if it existed at all, was a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, another totally unrelated lost play, or an alternative name for an existing play. However, given Love’s Labour’s Lost’s deliberately open ending, the most likely explanation is that it was a sequel that has since been lost. If that is the case, whatever happened to it? The answer may lie in our current version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

As we have seen, Love’s Labour’s Lost shows evidence of extensive revision over time.

  • Love’s Labour’s Lost requires six boys – the four ladies, Jacquenetta and a boy servant – which is a lot more than most playing companies could muster. The scene in which Berowne is seen to be wooing the wrong lady may be the residue of a cut down version for two or three couples. Cutting down the size of the company might also account for the changes to the cast of The Nine Worthies.
  • The use of the characters’ generic titles instead of their names in some of the revisions suggests that these passages were written sometime after the play was originally composed so that the author has forgotten their names. They also occur mostly in the second half of the play. This could also suggest that these passages are actually the remains of the sequel, Love’s Labour’s Won, which was written sometime after Love’s Labour’s Lost and without access to the original text.
  • Longer speeches have been cut down and some sequences have been cut out. This would suggest a shortened version of the play was required. This could have been to create a cut down version of Love’s Labour’s Lost for touring purposes, or as a way of shortening both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won so as to accommodate the amalgamation of the two plays.
  • The confusion in the ending of the play may be evidence of two different endings being combined into one. Introducing the death of the King may have been a way of resolving the problems thus created.

That the existing version has four lords and four ladies suggests that the full complement may have been reinstated when the play was revised to be played at court during the 1597/98 Christmas season. The original Quarto may have been derived from the first amalgamated version of the plays, while the ‘corrected’ version was based on the second revised version presented at court.

The Ending

Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost ends with songs. This may have been a way of accommodating an ending played out as a dance sequence, perhaps an adaptation of the traditional jig that ended the day’s performance, in which the four ladies and the four lords pair off and leave the stage together.

While we cannot know for sure how Love’s Labour’s Won might have ended, the title would suggest that the courtiers are successful in their wooing, while the first play, Love’s Labour’s Lost would have had an open ending to accommodate a sequel. However, if the play we have now is an amalgam of the two plays, why did the author stay with the open-ended ending?

One scenario might be that in amalgamating the plays, the author sought to retain the best passages and so kept most of the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost in which the lords are challenged by their ladies to prove their love. The announcement of the King’s death might have been a way of bringing about a quick ending to the action.

However, as we have seen, this final version of the play is most likely the version played at court. Could the ending have been designed with the Virgin Queen in mind? It was well known that Elizabeth’s attitude to marriage was ambivalent at best, hostile at worst. Perhaps an ending where the women, particularly the now fatherless Princess, remain unmarried and in control of the situation might have been retained or adopted to please and honour her.

The Writing Process

So how was Love’s Labour’s Lost written? When, by whom, and for whom?

I would suggest the writing process went something like this:

Having met William Shakespeare when he was a member of his brother, Lord Strange’s Men, in 1592 William Stanley puts together several short masques he has written for his family’s entertainment and gives the resulting play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, to Shakespeare to be performed by the newly formed company, Lord Pembroke’s Men. (See The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 3) However, the play requires six boys, which Lord Pembroke’s Men cannot provide, so Shakespeare revises it for two or three couples, thus cutting down the requirements for boys.

Sometime later, by popular demand, William Stanley writes Love’s Labour’s Won as a sequel. It includes a sequence in which the lords decide to test their ladies’ fidelity by disguising themselves as Muscovites. This proves so popular that the theme is taken up by Gray’s Inn and incorporated into their revels on Innocents Day 1594.

When plague hits London and Lord Pembroke’s Men are forced to go on tour, William Shakespeare again revises both plays and amalgamates them. When the company returns broke to London, both of the original plays are published anonymously, but no copies of either play have survived. A quarto of the first amalgamated version was also published, but did not survive either.

When the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are required to present a play to the court in the Christmas Season of 1597/98, Shakespeare brushes off the amalgamated version and with William Stanley’s help revises it for the court, in so doing they reinstate the four lords and ladies and add some topical allusions. This revised version is later published in Quarto as Love’s Labour’s Lost and, since it is the version later used as the basis for the First Folio version, manages to survive.

Since William Shakespeare had a hand in the play’s many revisions, his editors feel justified in including it in the First Folio.

© Pauline Montagna 2022



David, Richard (edited by) Love’s Labour’s Lost, Arden Shakespeare, Methuen (1956)

Michell, John, Who Wrote Shakespeare? Thames & Hudson (1996)

Rathiel, John, The Other W.S., William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby, The Oxfordian (Volume XI, 2009)


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