In Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598), playwright William Shakespeare suggests that women hold just as much power and significance in society as men. Shakespeare utilizes both situational and dramatic irony as well as diction in an attempt to highlight the respective ineptitude and competence of the men and women. Shakespeare develops strong female characters in order to assert that the societal view of women as weak is entirely inaccurate. Shakespeare targets society at large; the patriarchy of historical and modern culture creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which oppresses and exploits women. Ultimately, Shakespeare utilizes an assortment of rhetorical devices in order to build up the women of his text; in turn, these strategies allow Shakespeare to question patriarchy as a whole.
To begin, Shakespeare employs situational irony to demonstrate the power the women have over the men. In the play’s first scene, the King and his men make a solemn vow not to see women and to dedicate themselves to academic study (LLL.I.i.48). Of course, after spending a majority of the play pursuing their love interests, the men finally formally cancel their oaths. Berowne says, “Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves” (LLL.IV.iii.337). Shakespeare reveals his irony when the women decide they must go back to France to tend to the death of the King (of France). As the men beg the women to stay and develop their relationships, the women demand the men spend time away before they can come back and begin their courtship. When the Princess proposes that the King spend a year in a monastery, he responds “If this, or more than this, I would deny/ To flatter up these powers of mine with rest/ The sudden hand of death close up mine eye/ Hence ever then – my heart is in thy breast” (LLL.V.ii.808-811). In this passage, Shakespeare fully demonstrates the power the Princess has over the King. Having begun the play with an oath not the see women, the King ends pledging himself to the Princess. Shakespeare uses the irony of the situation to highlight the degree of power women hold over men. Shakespeare creates profound symbolism; a King lowers himself to the status of a monk for a woman he has just met. Women, the writer indicates, have the ability to make men do things they would otherwise not.
In addition to situational irony, Shakespeare employs dramatic irony to help this audience connect with his female characters. When the King and his men plot to dress as Russians and visit the women, Boyet informs the Princess of their plan. Boyet says, “Like Muscovites or Russians, as I guess/ Their purpose is to parley, court, and dance/ And every one his love-suit will advance/ Unto his several mistress” (LLL.V.ii.121-124). In order to beat the men at their own game, the women resolve to wear masks so the men do not know who they are speaking to (LLL.V.ii.127). Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to alienate the men and highlight the women. In this case, the audience knows something that the men do not – readers are naturally and subtly pushed to the side of the Princess. The women outwit the men, and thus, are the driving force of the scene; their credibility grows as that of the men dissipates.
Finally, Shakespeare utilizes diction to highlight the strength of women. Specifically, the author uses words traditionally associated with masculinity when the Princess goes on the hunt. As the Princess travels through the woods, she describes her plans to the forester; “But come, the bow! Now mercy goes to kill/ And shooting well is then accounted ill/ Thus I will save my credit in the shoot/Not wounding, pity would not let me do’t/ If wounding, then it was to show my skill/ That more for praise than purpose meant to kill” (LLL.IV.i.24-29). In this passage, the Princess uses words such as “shooting,” “wounding,” and “kill” in reference to her intentions with the deer. Shakespeare uses words that evoke images of masculinity and strength in order to highlight that women are just a capable as men. Additionally, the entire scenario of a princess hunting in the woods is completely unexpected and counter-cultural. In Shakespeare’s mind, gender roles and stereotypes are inherently limiting to women; thus, he uses the Princess’ hunting ability to break down traditional views of women and question their existence as a whole.
A playwright most associated with romance and tragedy, William Shakespeare offers Love’s Labour’s Lost as a unique tale that characterizes women as strong and independent. Shakespeare’s work has enduring significance as the tremendous social upheaval in the centuries following his death have brought about questions regarding traditional gender roles. Today, as women climb further up the professional ladder and into premier roles in industry, the strength, wit, and intelligence of Shakespeare’s female characters could not be more relevant.