A most excellent reason exists for Kenneth Branagh making the decision to turn William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost into a musical comedy when he adapted it for the screen. (Although critics and the dozen or so people who actually paid to get into a theater to watch it may disagree.) Even without Branagh’s transformation of the play into a 1930s Hollywood-style musical, Love’s Labour’s Lost could quite accurately be termed the Bard’s attempt at writing a Broadway-style musical comedy since a faithful presentation of the intact play with no cuts produces more singing than any other of his plays.
That being said, it is worth pointing out that Branagh’s filmed version of Love’s Labour’s Lost released in 2000 was the first feature film version of the play and not only was the setting updated by several centuries, but roughly two-thirds of the text was cut and additional characters not found in the original. While the film was a flop, that failure is not likely placed on those changes since perhaps more than any Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to be directed toward the specific aesthetic characteristics of Elizabethan courtiers. Very few people then, now or ever have any real ability to relate to the aesthetic demands of those attending Renaissance court. As a result, this very early effort by Shakespeare—perhaps his first attempt at a comedy—has never been particularly popular once production of Shakespeare’s plays moved outside the environs of the aristocracy and into the theater of the people from the Globe to the Cineplex.
Perhaps the lack of relative popularity here is due, at least in part, to another aspect setting it apart from what was to flow from the pen of the Swan of Avon. Love’s Labour’s Lost is the only Shakespeare play for which no previous source material has ever been discovered. Which means it could be an entirely original idea by a young playwright just starting his career…or that the source just has not yet been found. The fact that the narrative tangentially exists within the genre of political allegory indicates that a source for the story will likely never be found. One of those elements that makes Love’s Labour’s Lost especially entertaining for its original if limited audience is the intuitive understanding of how Ferdinand, the play’s King of Navarre parallels the real life Henry IV (of Navarre) and how the King’s madcap merry lords and partners in merriment, Biron and Longaville, are the fictional counterparts of the two closest military advisors of Henry IV.
Further contributing to Love’s Labour’s Lost not exactly achieving the recognition and familiarity of later Shakespeare works is an element that also reveals how the play was clearly written by a beginning writer eager to impress an audience. Doubtlessly, the courtiers for whom the play was presented were impressed by the poetic flights of fancy on subjects covering everything from the value of knowledge to the mysteries of women that tumble forth from the characters Nathaniel, Holofernes and Don Adriano. Audiences just a few decades removed from its premiere performance probably had much the same reaction to the especially anti-realistic wordplay among these guys are modern audiences.
Criticism of Shakespeare’s attempt to impress his contemporaries having the exact opposite effect on modern audiences aside, Love’s Labour’s Lost does come through with flying colors in the case of two other characters. Biron and Rosaline make a strong impact as characters who to a certain extent foreshadow the Bard’s maturation as a writer capable of producing such psychic offspring of these two as Benedict and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. Ultimately, however, that title would be more appropriately applied to the content of Love’s Labour’s Lost if not the story behind the story. The story behind the story is one of an unknown playwright working hard to please a certain type of audience that would stand in direct and very stark contrast to the type of audience that would ultimately elevate him to the status of those whose entire career can be summed using just one of their names.