The Irony of Social Classes

Author: Michael Hirsch

In his comedy, “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” William Shakespeare offers his own perspective on the potential foolishness of established names and social classes. Throughout the play, Shakespeare offers his view on the futility of being in a high social class, and that this does not always work in your favor. Additionally, Shakespeare ironically names many of his characters, such as Dull and Costard, to display negative traits about them, when in fact he wants to illustrate to us that they might be better people. Shakespeare dedicates much of his comedy to criticizing the upper-class people in favor of those who are deemed by society to be lower-class, who seem to live better lives despite their label.


In most societies, there is typically one male who the rest of the people can emulate, but such a person does not exist in “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” Shakespeare intentionally does not include someone of this persona to highlight the flaws of the class system of his time, and how men did not strive enough to become their role-models. At the beginning of the play, the king seems to be worried about his

Weimar03 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
fame and legacy, so he draws up a study program for him and his three lords, Dumaine, Longaville, and Berowne, which entails no women with limited food and sleep for three years. When the Princess and her three ladies first hear of this oath, they become fascinated, but realize soon after meeting the men that the oath is impractical, as the Princess tells the king, “Tis deadly sin to keep that oath my lord.” The life that the lords desire to live by keeping their oath is not an admirable life, as the ladies quickly realize, so it is not appropriate to look up to the King and his lords as admirable, noble men.


Another example of the lack of admirable upper-class men is apparent with Don Armado. Armado, like the king and the three men, is practicing the same oath for three years, but falls in love with Jaquenetta soon after pledging himself to the oath. Rather than trying to follow the vow and subdue his feelings for Jaquenetta, he simply looks for consolation, saying to his Page, “Comfort me boy, what great men have been in love.” After the Page responds with Hercules as an example, Armado stills looks for more examples of great men he can compare himself to, continuing, “name more; and sweet child let them be men of good repute and carriage.” Rather than following his oath and morals to become a more educated, admirable man, he looks for examples of famous men falling in love, so that he can convince himself that his improper behavior is acceptable. The lack of a true role model in this play also demonstrates the drastic effects this could have on society. These young men have no worthy male to follow by example and simply want to develop into successful, heroic men, so they embark on this three-year study without realizing the silliness of it.


Shakespeare also ironically constructs the play so that the lower-class citizens actually have more intellect than the upper-class citizens, even though people of higher status have far more education. In the first scene where the king finalizes the oath with his three lords, Berowne is the only one of them to even go as far as to question the oath, concluding after a lengthy rant, “O these are barren tasks, too hard to keep, not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep.” Berowne’s use of reasoning only lasts a little longer though, as soon after complaining about the tasks required by the oath, he swears himself to study with the king and the other lords. To most lower-class citizens and audiences such as us, this plan seems quite ill-advised, but the upper-class men are too driven by the honor of adhering to their oath to propose a more useful plan. It seems very outrageous to us that none of the other lords even question the legitimacy of the oath. By beginning the play like this, Shakespeare immediately establishes the naivety and excessive pride of the upper class, since none of them seriously question what “barren tasks” they are subjecting themselves too. They merely think of the honor of following a code, as the only reason Longaville gives to Berowne is that he “swore to that… and to the rest” of the oath. Based on this first scene, members of the upper class do not seem to be truly intellectual.


Throughout the course of the play, the characters who are portrayed as lower-class citizens gradually realize that studying is not the most optimal way to achieve success. One instance of this is when Costard is speaking of the wittiness of the other characters present, and he concludes, “Ah heavens, it is a most pathetical nit.” Costard is developed to be a source of amusement to the rest of the characters. His frequent mistakes and misunderstandings, such as his accidental switching of the love letters, portrays Costard as similar to a clown. The fact that a lower-class clown is able to reason that aristocratic status does not make a good person is shocking, but it supports Shakespeare’s idea that the upper class is not necessarily admirable. Another example of this is with Dull, who is very representative of his name—uninteresting—as well as uneducated and simple. This impression is formed when we first meet Dull, and he fumbles over the pronunciation of Armado’s name, saying “Senor Arme-, Arma” when delivering Armado’s letter to the king. Even as an uninteresting, uneducated fool, Dull is still able to later point out the artificiality of Nathaniel and Holofernes, saying to them “You two are book-men.” Dull is able to tell that Nathaniel and Holofernes are merely book smart, with very little common sense to go along with it. The fact that lower-class individuals such as Costard and Dull are able to recognize this shows that they might in fact have more intellect and success, and thus be happier with their lives.


Nathaniel and Holofernes are also examples of the irony of social classes. Nathaniel and Holofernes are obviously well-educated, as they have conversations with each other in many different languages, and are even keen enough to point out the mistakes of the much less-educated Costard, saying “Oh I smell false Latin.” Although these two men are very-well educated, they seem to have trouble interacting with other members of society since they constantly use their extravagant speech, often in other languages. Nathaniel and Holofernes had many years of study, but still have little ability to converse and fit in with society, further illustrating that high social class does not necessarily imply success.


By constructing the social classes in “Love’s Labor’s Lost” this way, Shakespeare conveys to the audience that rather than using high social class or rich education to become successful, success is better achieved by people like who interact with others on a daily basis. Shakespeare embellished this idea through his characterization of Armado’s Page. Even though the Page is just a boy, he seems to have achieved higher intellect by conversing with people every day, as opposed to characters like Nathaniel and Holofernes, who have extensive education, but little ability to fit it. Shakespeare uses the irrationality of the upper class in his comedy to criticize the social class system of 16th century England.