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The Ecology of Love’s Labour’s Lost

By Genevieve Dufresne

One of the most compelling conflicts in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost is that between man and nature. Love’s Labor’s Lost concerns the King of Navarre, who, along with his men, disavows the company of women for three years. Humorously, however, the arrival of the Princess of France and her entourage threatens their plan, as the King and his courtiers fall in love with the women. The ecological conflict comes to a climax with the death of the King of France, whose sudden death adds a tragic air to the otherwise comedic play, breaking comedic convention as the men and women do not get married. As Berowne remarks, “Our wooing doth not end like an old play” (Shakespeare 5.2.858). Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost’s tragic shift is used to evaluate humanity’s relationship with nature, demonstrating how mankind can be both threatened and enriched by encounters with the natural world. I argue that the play’s subversive ending is used to criticize anthropocentric perceptions of nature and instead depicts human impotence in the face of the natural world. In this depiction of the relationship between humans and nature, Shakespeare demonstrates the emancipatory potential of returning to the natural world. He therein instates an ecological discourse used to evaluate humanity’s relationship with nature, arguing that not only is humanity subservient to nature, but that it can also benefit from encounters with it.

Through the positioning of animals and humans in a hunt, Shakespeare criticizes anthropocentric violence towards the natural world. Like on a stage, the Princess of France’s hunt of a deer is a performance of violence, instilling in the characters a false image of man’s control of nature. The Princess of France is shown to be reluctant to hunt, not wishing to engage in violence. She says to the forester, “my friend, where is the bush that we must play the murderer in” (Shakespeare 4.1.7-8). The use of the phrase ‘play the murderer’ reflects how violence against the natural world is not just an action, but, like a play—it is put on a stage. In this scene, the Princess of France is cast in the role of a hunter who uses human technology to harm the natural world; thereby, staging a scene in which humanity is made superior to nature. Through this, Shakespeare artfully demonstrates the way in which we come to these warped perceptions of our relationship to the natural world. 

Going further, Shakespeare demonstrates the prestige and honor bestowed on man by our execution of ecological violence. The Princess of France hunts for a reason: to preserve her reputation. Following her entrance into the forest, the forester questions her ability with a bow to which the Princess definitely defends her abilities. She then becomes more determined to prove herself and she responds, saying, “As I for praise alone seek to spill the poor deer’s blood that my heart means no ill” (Shakespeare 4.1.34-35). Like an actor on the stage, she plays her role of the ‘murderer’ of the deer for an audience. She does it for ‘praise alone,’ bemoans her responsibility in the death of the animal. She kills the deer, not out of malice towards the ‘poor deer,’ but to prove herself to the forester who doubted her. Violence towards the natural world is therefore justified when it serves as a means to defend oneselves prowess and ability, demonstrating the nuanced ways in which violence against the natural world is vindicated by the approval of others. Through the interaction between the forester and the princess, Shakespeare produces a critique not only of man’s perception of the subservience of nature, but the ways in which group acceptance shapes our decisions. 

Following the death of the deer, the group of courtiers applauds the Princess in her hunt while simultaneously asserting the inferiority of animals in comparison to mankind to reinforce their anthropocentric worldview. When the King of Navarre’s courtiers enter the scene, they praise the Princess whilst mocking the animal that she slayed. Nathaniel, Dull, and Holofernes debate on the age of the slaughtered deer, discussing the nature of man in comparison to beasts. Nathaniel states, “Sir, he hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book … he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts” (Shakespeare 4.2.22-25). This reflection on the life of the deer diminishes the sensibilities and capabilities of the deer, and thus, the natural world. Their inability to participate in human institutions and structures inhibits their capacity for a complex existence. But the courtiers go further than this, and satirize the death of the deer. Holofernes begins, saying to Sir Nathaniel, “Will you hear an extemporal epitaph on the death of the deer” (Shakespeare 4.2 49-50). Holofernes then proceeds to discuss the hunt, writing that “The preyful princess pierced and pricked a pretty pleasing pricket” (Shakespeare 4.2. 56). The repeated “p” sound creates a sense of both abruptness and finality. In addition, the creation of a binary between the ‘preyful princess’ and the ‘pretty pleasing pricket’ demonstrates the power dynamic between man and prey. Through this, the courtier’s epitaph is used to memorialize the hunt, whilst simultaneously demonstrating humanity’s superiority in the hierarchy of natural creatures. In both the discussion of the deer’s qualities and the epitaph of the hunt, Shakespeare demonstrates the ways in which the natural world is evaluated. 

Shakespeare’s ecological discourse is not only discussed in the hunt of the deer, but rather, through the discussion of natural spaces, most notably the park, he reflects the ways in which outdoor spaces are deemed inferior. Due to the men’s agreement to disavow women for three years, the King of Navarre, Ferdinand, bans all women from coming within a mile of the castle, under punishment of having their tongue removed. As the Princess of France and her ladies arrive for a diplomatic visit, Ferdinand refuses to let the women into the castle and houses them a mile away in a park, where the Princess and her company set up camp. However, as rudimentary as their camp is, they enjoy themselves, and the Princess even tells Ferdinand, “We have had pastime here and pleasant games” (Shakespeare 5.2.361). This illustrates that being immersed into a natural world away from the castle allows the Princess and her ladies to see the value of nature. In the park, the women are able to climb trees, hide in bushes, and explore their environment. However, Ferdinand and his men eventually realize they are in love with the ladies, causing Ferdinand to discourage their encampment in the park. He disapproves of their time in the unsanctioned natural world and wants them to return to civilization. When he visits the women in the camp, he tells the Princess “O, you have lived in desolation here, unseen, unvisited, much to our shame” (Shakespeare 5.2.358-359). The natural world of the park is seen as ‘desolate’ and lacks the refinement of life in the castle. Ferdinand believes that in nature the women lack the entertainment and attention that they would have found in his court, reflecting the imagined superiority of interior spaces to that of the outdoors. In Ferdinand’s disapproval of the lady’s encampment, Shakespeare stages a scene of human conflict with nature, in which civilization and humanity are seen as a worthier force than the natural world.

While the park is deemed as unsuitable for ladies by Ferdinand, Shakespeare’s use of the park demonstrates the emancipatory potential of engaging with the natural world. The physical space of the park, which is a symbol of nature, liberates women from both the domestic home and the societal expectations of behavior. Traditional gender roles asserted the outside world as a largely male sphere. Outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, and riding were often limited to men. Women were largely relegated to the household where they were expected to cook, clean, sew and do other housework (Eibach 12). Women were expected to stay home, and men interacted outside the home. However, in housing the Princess and her ladies in the park, Shakespeare completely reverts these gendered expectations of space. The men stay in the house and the women live in the park. In the park, the women are freed from the expectations of the house and domestic behavior and can express agency and autonomy. This spatial freedom from the domestic sphere helps the women adapt their behaviors. The women in the play express remarkable courage and are strong opponents of Ferdinand and his men. The women ridicule the men’s oaths, debate passionately, and even trick the leading men. Their actions differ from traditional behaviors of women which encourage them to be passive and submit to men’s wishes. Breaking out of the house allows women to behave with more liberty and freedom. In housing the women who live in the park, Shakespeare frees them from the patriarchal control that regulates both the space and behavior of the house and introduces them to the untamed freedom of nature. By freeing them from these domestic spheres, in turn, Shakespeare demonstrates the emancipatory potential of nature, in which natural spaces, like the park, are catalysts for liberation.

Not only does nature free women from domestic expectations, but the natural world of the park also liberates them sexually. The best example of this is Jaquenetta, a dairymaid who is romantically involved with both Costard and Armado. When the lords make their oaths to refuse being in the company of women, Jaquenetta is expected to keep her distance from the men too. As revealed by Dull, Jaquenetta must be kept in the park along with the other women. However, the park serves as a location for sexual rendezvous and liberates Jaquenetta from the sexual taboos inside the court. Jealous of Costard and Jaquenetta’s affair, Armado writes a letter where he reveals Costard’s sexual activities with Jaquenetta to the King. He condemns Costard for “[actions] contrary to thy established edict and consistent canon” (Shakespeare 1.1. 248-249). Armado describes the location of these actions saying, “Now for the ground which-which, I mean, I walked upon: it is ycleped thy park” (Shakespeare 1.1. 232-233). The sexual nature of this affair is implied with dirty jokes and lude suggestions about how Costard and men “hearken after flesh” (Shakespeare 1.1. 212). Whilst the park serves as a place for the Princess and company to be liberated from a domestic sphere, the park serves as a place for Jaquenetta to be liberated from the restricted sexuality of civilization. 

Even though anthropocentric views may give a false sense of control over the natural world and whilst the natural world can liberate marginalized groups, Shakespeare demonstrates artfully that in the end, humanity is powerless to natural forces. This is accomplished by the tragic air of death that clouds the otherwise comedic ending. At the beginning of the play, the King of France is “decrepit, sick and bed rid” (Shakespeare 1.1.135). His life has been halted by the natural force of illness. Even though the King is powerful and civilized, he, like any other animal, is susceptible to illness. Nature finally defeats the King in the final act, showing that although the King of France is a powerful ruler, he is unable to overcome the natural progression of death. The Princess seems to be aware of the fragility of life and the power of nature when she predicts her father’s death. When the messenger arrives at the court, he interrupts the merriment of the happy couples, saying, “I am sorry, madam, for the news I bring is heavy on my tongue. The King your father” (Shakespeare 5.2.709-710). The Princess proceeds to interrupt the messenger, saying, “Dead, for my life!” (Shakespeare 5.2.711). The Princess’s interruption of the messenger demonstrates her awareness of the inevitability of death as she recognized how ill her father was and seems to have been expecting his death. Through this, death is demonstrated to be inevitable and ever-present, with even the most powerful of men being unable to escape it. The death of the King of France reminds the audience that they are mortal and part of the natural world, in which they are powerless to stop illness, death, and other forces of nature. Shakespeare, by changing the course of the traditional comedic plot and killing the King of France therecy demonstrates human powerlessness to nature and its forces, such as death.

The final triumph of nature is expressed in the ending poem, in which owls and cuckoos sing and taunt humans, thereby demonstrating nature’s power over humanity. Following the tragic moment at the end of the play, Armado divides the cast in half to sing the song of the owl and the cuckoo. The song contrasts the spring of the cuckoo bird with the winter of the owl. Both songs present scenic images of nature. In spring there are “daisies pied and violets blue” and winter is a time where “icicles hang by the wall” (Shakespeare 5.2.877, 896). In this pastoral setting humans and the natural world live in harmony, and “shepherds’ pipe on oaten straws” and women like “greasy Joan doth keel the pot” (Shakespeare 5.2. 886, 912). Whilst Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost ends without a traditional comic resolution, the persistence of nature-oriented songs in the face of human tragedy lends an insignificance to the human relative to the monumental force of nature. The birds are not affected by the sorrows of the humans, and they continue to sing through spring and winter. Seasons continue to change, flowers continue to grow, icicles continue to hang, and nature remains unaffected by the human world. 

It is humanity that is influenced by nature, and is mocked and ridiculed by the cuckoo bird in this song. The cuckoo is a small bird indigenous to Western Europe, known as a brood parasite; that is, it leaves its eggs in other birds’ nests for them to raise and feed (Ferber 52). The word cuckold, a man whose wife is unfaithful to him, stems from the “adulterous” nature of the cuckoo bird (Ferber 52). Shakespeare alludes to cuckoldry in the final poem, using the cuckoo to mock the men: “The cuckoo then, on every tree, mocks married men, for thus sings he: Cuckoo!” (Shakespeare 5.2.880-884). The cuckoo is not a victim of human violence like the deer, instead  the cuckoo and its symbolic associations have power over men. The cuckoo ‘mocks married men,’ and its symbol has poetic significance, instilling “a word of fear unpleasing to a married ear” (Shakespeare 5.2. 884-885). The cuckoo’s mockery of men reinforces human inferiority to nature. Humans are victims of the cuckoos’ taunts and are powerless to stop it. Shakespeare, through this ending, reinforces that, whilst humans might think they are superior to nature, they are ultimately powerless against it.

By avoiding the happy ending expected in a comedy, Shakespeare engages with human attitudes towards nature, demonstrating not only our powerlessness to the natural world but also how nature can enrich us. First, humanity creates and asserts anthropocentrism through violence, and Shakespeare artfully uses the example of the Princess’s hunt of a deer. But throughout the play, as the characters interact with the natural world, the emancipatory and immeasurable power of nature are made clear. As we are currently threatened by the degradation of the natural world, it is perhaps even more important to study and critique anthropocentric views about nature. Through pieces like Love’s Labor’s Lost, we can perhaps begin to reevaluate our current conceptualizations of the natural world and recognize our own faults. An ecocritical analysis of Shakespeare is even more pertinent now, and merits further inquiry. Shakespeare’s rejection of a comedic ending creates the space for questions of ecology and nature, revealing nature’s capacity for emancipation, especially of women.

Work Cited

Eibach, Joachim. Routledge History of the Domestic Sphere in Europe: 16th to 19th Century. Routledge, 2022. 

Shakespeare, William. Love’s Labor’s Lost, Ed. Peter Holland. Penguin Books, 2000.

Ferber, Michael. “Cuckoo.” A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017.

About the Author: I’m Genevieve and I’m a U3 history major here at McGill. I love to travel and my favorite book is Watership Down!