William Shakespeare’s early feminist perspective in several of his works placed him far ahead of his time as a playwright. Twelfth Night is commonly the play which is thought of when referencing feminism in Shakespearean works, for in Viola’s success at disguising herself as a man, she is portrayed as a strong, independent, and determined young woman. This allows the audience to draw a feminist interpretation out of the work. However, Viola having to disguise herself as a male to provide herself with opportunity and success takes away from the play’s otherwise apparent theme of female empowerment. In comparison, an even earlier work of Shakespeare’s, Love’s Labor’s Lost, offers a similar, if not stronger glimpse of Shakespeare’s feminist perspective, displayed through the strong roles the Princess and her ladies assume as the play progresses.
Love’s Labor’s Lost begins with a scene during which the King of Navarre and his three lords swear off any relations with women so that they may focus entirely on their studies. This apparent dedication to bettering themselves and their studies makes these men come across as scholarly and intelligent. However, almost immediately after this oath, the Princess of France arrives with her three ladies to negotiate with the King about her father’s kingdom. While the King and his lords, particularly Berowne, take pleasure in using wit and wordplay as a symbol of their status, the Princess and her ladies are elegant and well-spoken, but also capable of returning any mockery the men attempt. As expected, once these women arrive each man almost immediately becomes infatuated with one of the ladies, and eventually each declare their love for them. Already, the strength and willpower of the men in the play has been undermined, allowing the women to begin assuming positions of power over the men.
The Princess and her ladies further display how witty and intelligent they are after hearing of the King and his lords plan to come to them in disguise. After Boyet reports to the Princess that the men are coming dressed as Russians, she devises her own plan, instructing, “ladies, we shall every one be masked, and not a man of them shall have the grace, despite of suit, to see a lady’s face. Hold, Rosaline, this favor thou shalt wear, and then the king will court thee for his dear (LLL, V.ii.127-131).” When the men arrive, each lady is wearing the wrong token of love which they were all sent. The King and his men are completely unaware that they themselves are the ones being tricked, and converse with each of whom they believe to be their loves. Even in these conversations, the ladies are outwitting the men, displaying once again their superiority over what these men believe themselves to be exceptional at. Berowne especially takes pleasure in his wittiness and wordplay, but becomes flustered and upset when the Princess seems to be better at it than him: “Berowne: “White-handed mistress, one sweet word with thee.” Princess: Honey, milk, and sugar- there is three.” (LLL V.ii.230-231).” It seems to be hard for Berowne or any of the men to accept that these women are at the same level of intelligence as them, for they are only interested in incessantly confessing their love for them and attempting to convince the women to return their love.
Eventually, Rosaline reveals to the men that they knew of their disguises the entire time they were conversing, leading to their returned disguises and mockery of the men. The King is devastated, exclaiming “We are descried. They’ll mock us now downright. (LLL V.ii.389).” The Princess returns with “Amazed, my lord? Why looks your highness sad? (LLL V.ii.391)” Not only are the women successful in making fools of the men, but they also continue to taunt them afterwards, paying no mind to the men’s immediate remorse and plea for forgiveness. The Princess and her ladies have just outsmarted the King and his lords, showing once again how strong and independent they are. Not once do any of the ladies give in and blindly accept any of the men’s proclamations of love. This strong will and skepticism the women show towards the men empowers them, almost giving them control over them.
At the conclusion of the play, the Princess learns that her father has just passed away, and declares that she must immediately leave and begin her grieving. The King and his lords begin frantically reiterating how strongly they love each woman, asking for them to stay and take their hands in marriage. Each woman tells her love-interest that they feel their love is more of a jest than true love, declining the proposals of marriage. Instead, in exercising her power over the King, the Princess instructs him to “go with speed to some forlorn and naked hermitage, remote from all the pleasures of the world; there stay until the twelve celestial signs have brought about the annual reckoning (LLL V. ii789-793).” Katherine and Maria follow suit, each telling Longaville and Dumaine to complete similar tasks before they will consider marriage. Rosaline’s request is slightly different, telling him that “you shall this twelvemonth term from day to day visit the speechless sick, and still converse with groaning wretches; and your task shall be with all the fierce endeavor of your wit to enforce the pained impotent to smile. (LLL V. ii 839-843).” All the men immediately and without question agree to the terms these women have set forth.
In the end, it is almost as if the women have defeated the King and his lords. They have pushed away their love while forcing them to do good in the meantime. Unlike a typical Shakespearean comedy, Love’s Labor’s Lost does not end with happy relationships or marriages. Instead, it ends with four strong, smart, and sophisticated women remaining to be independent. There is no doubt that the characters of the Princess and her ladies in Love’s Labor’s Lost were written to advocate for Shakespeare’s apparent feminist attitude and beliefs, for they were equal if not ahead of the King and his men in their intelligence and demeanors.