The title is normally given as Love's Labour's Lost. The use of apostrophes varies in early editions. In its first 1598 quarto publication it appears as Loues Labors Lost. In the 1623 First Folio it is Loues Labour's Lost and in the 1631 edition it is Loues Labours Lost. In the Third Folio it appears for the first time with the modern punctuation and spelling as Love's Labour's Lost. Critic John Hale wrote that the title could be read as "love's labour is lost" or "the lost labours of love" depending on punctuation. Hale suggests that the witty alliteration of the title is in keeping with the pedantic nature of the play. In 1935 Frances Yates asserted that the title derived from a line in John Florio's His firste Fruites (1578): "We neede not speak so much of loue, al books are ful of lou, with so many authours, that it were labour lost to speake of Loue", a source from which Shakespeare also took the untranslated Venetian proverb Venetia, Venetia/Chi non ti vede non ti pretia (LLL 4.2.92-93) ("Venice, Venice, Who does not see you cannot praise you").
Love's Labour's Lost abounds in sophisticated wordplay, puns, and literary allusions and is filled with clever pastiches of contemporary poetic forms. Critic and historian John Pendergast states that "perhaps more than any other Shakespearean play, it explores the power and limitations of language, and this blatant concern for language led many early critics to believe that it was the work of a playwright just learning his art." It is often assumed that the play was written for performance at the Inns of Court, whose students would have been most likely to appreciate its style. It has never been among Shakespeare's most popular plays, probably because its pedantic humour and linguistic density are extremely demanding of contemporary theatregoers. The satirical allusions of Navarre's court are likewise inaccessible, "having been principally directed to fashions of language that have long passed away, and [are] consequently little understood, rather than in any great deficiency of invention."
Masculine desire structures the play and helps to shape its action. The men's sexual appetite manifests in their desire for fame and honour; the notion of women as dangerous to masculinity and intellect is established early on. The King and his Lords' desires for their idealized women are deferred, confused, and ridiculed throughout the play. As the play comes to a close, their desire is deferred yet again, resulting in an increased exaltation of the women.
Critic Mark Breitenberg commented that the use of idealistic poetry, popularized by Petrarch, effectively becomes the textualized form of the male gaze. In describing and idealizing the ladies, the King and his Lords exercise a form of control over women they love. Don Armado also represents masculine desire through his relentless pursuit of Jacquenetta. The theme of desire is heightened by the concern of increasing female sexuality throughout the Renaissance period and the subsequent threat of cuckoldry. Politics of love, marriage, and power are equally forceful in shaping the thread of masculine desire that drives the plot.
Reckoning and rationalization
The term 'reckoning' is used in its multiple meanings throughout the Shakespeare canon. In Love's Labour's Lost in particular, it is often used to signify a moral judgement; most notably, the idea of a final reckoning as it relates to death. Though the play entwines fantasy and reality, the arrival of the messenger to announce the death of the Princess's father ultimately brings this notion to a head. Scholar Cynthia Lewis suggested that the appearance of the final reckoning is necessary in reminding the lovers of the seriousness of marriage. The need to settle the disagreement between Navarre and France likewise suggests an instance of reckoning, though this particular reckoning is settled offstage. This is presented in stark contrast to the final scene, in which the act of reckoning cannot be avoided. In acknowledging the consequences of his actions, Don Armado is the only one to deal with his reckoning in a noble manner. The Lords and the King effectively pass judgement on themselves, revealing their true moral character when mocking the players during the representation of the Nine Worthies.
Similar to reckoning is the notion of rationalization, which provides the basis for the swift change in the ladies' feelings for the men. The ladies are able to talk themselves into falling in love with the men due to the rationalization of the men's purported flaws. Lewis concluded that "the proclivity to rationalize a position, a like, or a dislike, is linked in Love's Labour's Lost with the difficulty of reckoning absolute value, whose slipperiness is indicated throughout the play."
Reality versus fantasy
Critic Joseph Westlund wrote that Love's Labour's Lost functions as a "prelude to the more extensive commentary on imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream." There are several plot points driven by fantasy and imagination throughout the play. The Lords and the King's declaration of abstinence is a fancy that falls short of achievement. This fantasy rests on the men's idea that the resulting fame will allow them to circumvent death and oblivion, a fantastical notion itself. Within moments of swearing their oath, it becomes clear that their fantastical goal is unachievable given the reality of the world, the unnatural state of abstinence itself, and the arrival of the Princess and her ladies. This juxtaposition ultimately lends itself to the irony and humour in the play.
The commoners represent the theme of reality and achievement versus fantasy via their production regarding the Nine Worthies. Like the men's fantastical pursuit of fame, the play within a play represents the commoners' concern with fame. The relationship between the fantasy of love and the reality of worthwhile achievement, a popular Renaissance topic, is also utilized throughout the play. Don Armado attempts to reconcile these opposite desires using Worthies who fell in love as model examples. Time is suspended throughout the play and is of little substance to the plot. The Princess, though originally "craving quick dispatch," quickly falls under the spell of love and abandons her urgent business. This suggests that the majority of the action takes place within a fantasy world. Only with the news of the Princess's father's death are time and reality reawakened.
Unlike many of Shakespeare’s plays, music plays a role only in the final scene of Love's Labour's Lost. The songs of spring and winter, titled "Ver and Hiems" and "The Cuckoo and the Owl", respectively, occur near the end of the play. Given the critical controversy regarding the exact dating of Love's Labour's Lost, there is some indication that "the songs belong to the 1597 additions."
Different interpretations of the meaning of these songs include: optimistic commentary for the future, bleak commentary regarding the recent announcement of death, or an ironic device by which to direct the King and his Lords towards a new outlook on love and life. In keeping with the theme of time as it relates to reality and fantasy, these are seasonal songs that restore the sense of time to the play. Due to the opposing nature of the two songs, they can be viewed as a debate on the opposing attitudes on love found throughout the play. Catherine McLay comments that the songs are functional in their interpretation of the central themes in Love's Labour's Lost. McLay also suggests that the songs negate what many consider to be a "heretical" ending for a comedy. The songs, a product of traditional comedic structure, are a method by which the play can be "[brought] within the periphery of the usual comic definition."
Critic Thomas Berger states that, regardless of the meaning of these final songs, they are important in their contrast with the lack of song throughout the rest of the play. In cutting themselves off from women and the possibility of love, the King and his Lords have effectively cut themselves off from song. Song is allowed into the world of the play at the beginning of Act III, after the Princess and her ladies have been introduced and the men begin to fall in love. Moth’s song "Concolinel" indicates that the vows will be broken. In Act I, Scene II, Moth recites a poem but fails to sing it. Don Armado insists that Moth sing it twice, but he does not. Berger infers that a song was intended to be inserted at this point, but was never written. Had a song been inserted at this point of the play, it would have followed dramatic convention of the time, which often called for music between scenes.