Influences for Love’s Labor’s Lost: Contemporary texts and historical figures

Love’s Labor’s Lost is one of three Shakespeare plays without a primary source (the others being A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest), but that doesn’t mean it was created in a vacuum. Using four items from the Folger collection, we explore some of the contemporary influences Shakespeare might have drawn on when writing this romantic comedy of scholarly pursuits upended by affairs of the heart.

The King of Navarre and his companions in Love's Labor's Lost
The King of Navarre and his companions vow to focus on scholarly pursuits in Love’s Labor’s Lost, Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

The French academie: A guide by Peter de la Primaudaye

One of these is the The French academie, originally written in 1577 by Peter de la Primaudaye and later published in multiple English editions.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between this guide to ideal scholarly behavior, set in the form of a dialogue between four young gentleman, and Navarre’s “little academe.” Consider how The French academie recommends “sobrietie and frugalitie” as “We can not well vse our spirite . . . when we are stuffed with meate. Neither must we gratifie the belly and intrailes only, but also the honest ioy of the mind. For that which is contained in the other parts, pe∣risheth: but the soule separated from the body, abideth for euer.” This is echoed in Love’s Labor’s Lost when the men swear to “one day in a week to touch no food, / And but one meal on every day besides.”

The noble art of venerie or hunting: A guide by George Gascoigne

Act 4, Scene 1 of Love’s Labor’s Lost features the Princess and her ladies setting out on a hunt, which provides ample opportunity for jesting based around the hunter/prey relationship common to both shooting and wooing. Another royal, Queen Elizabeth I, was also fond of hunting and is depicted in illustrations from George Gascoigne’s 1575 guide to the sport (though her figure was changed for James by the time the 1611 edition was printed – see images below of the same page from multiple editions, with Elizabeth on the left and James on the right).

Alongside a catalogue of animals that can be hunted, Gascoigne’s guide also contains musical bugle calls, advice for the veterinary care of hunting dogs, and recommendations for how nobility should be entertained during such exercises, as is shown in a section entitled “Of the place where and howe an assembly should be made, in the presence of a Prince, or some honorable person.” The Folger owns multiple copies of this volume… including one specially bound in fur!

The King of Navarre and Antonio Pérez

In addition to drawing from contemporary texts, Shakespeare is thought to have based a number of the characters on historical figures. There was a real King of Navarre (a region between Spain and France), Henry, who would later become France’s King Henry IV. He and the French courtiers Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron; Charles, duc de Mayenne; and Henri I d’Orleans, duc de Longueville are likely reimagined as Ferdinand and friends in Shakespeare’s play.

Moreover, in the letter shown here, Robert Devereux (the Earl of Essex and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I until she had him beheaded for treason) seeks to introduce Antonio Pérez to Prince Maurice of Nassau. Pérez was a flamboyant courtier and secretary to King Philip II of Spain. However, Pérez was forced to flee Spain in 1591 due to his involvement in the murder of Juan de Escobedo, a double-crossing court spy. In 1593 he came to England, where he joined Essex’s circle, and it is thought that he is the contemporary inspiration for the character of Don Armado in Love’s Labor’s Lost.

1594 letter from the Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1565-1601). Autograph letter signed to Prince Maurice of Nassau. 1594 Sept 19. Folger call number: V.b.391

Catherine de Medici

Finally, some scholars speculate that the arrival of the Princess and her women (and what follows) was inspired by diplomatic missions undertaken by Catherine de Medici. The first of these occurred in 1578, when France’s then-Queen-Mother met with Henry to negotiate issues regarding the dowry of her daughter, Marguerite de Valois, whom Henry had married in 1572. Catherine was accompanied by Marguerite and the court’s “flying squadron,” a group of about 80 beautiful women whose charms were deployed for political ends. While the negotiations were eventually unsuccessful (Catherine would try to negotiate again in 1586), the entertainments of this meeting were lavish and likely known to the English through pamphlet literature.

While not directly related to the aforementioned ambassadorial trip, this letter, thought to be written by Catherine to her “good cousin” Margherita Paleologa, comes from a collection of Margherita’s papers related to her own dealings with important French political players, including the King of Navarre.

Letter from Catherine de Medici
Catherine de Medici (1519-1589). Autograph letter signed to Margherita Paleologa, Marchioness of Monferrato. 1559-1562. Folger call number: X.d.681.

As with many questions concerning Shakespeare’s creative process, there are no definitive answers. While it’s certainly possible and even likely that he drew on some of the materials listed here, we lack that tantalizing journal entry in his hand:

“Dear Diary, Today I read a great new book by Peter de la Primaudaye and it gave me a great idea for a play….”

However, thanks to the care Henry and Emily Folger showed in curating their collection, we can get a better idea of the world in which these plays were created and appreciate the contemporary influences that brought us this charming comedy.