Loves Labours Lost, a play first "presented at Christmas", is perhaps the most disruptive and bittersweet of all Shakespeare's comedies. As a text centred on language itself - especially the "lover's discourse" of Elizabethan romantic rhetoric - the earlier scenes burst with comic brio as the conventional hyperboles of the four amorous would-be sonneteers (as well as the suspect gender politics their words enshrine) are pulled apart and parodied by their female counterparts.The pantomimish minor characters such as Don Armado "the braggart" and Holofernes "the pedant" are equally abusers of language who contort English into scarcely-intelligible but nonetheless amusing opacity (Shakespeare here joins the tradition of "mock-learned wit" ie. Rabelais, Swift, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov).
But the final scene is the play's master-stroke, undercutting and undoing all the erotic intertwinings that have developed before. The abrupt incursion of news of the Princess's father's death means the comedic resolution of the play will have to be deferred, and the tone suddenly veers from anticipated accord towards something more muted and provisional, something more perhaps like the disappointments and postponements of real life.
The two ambivalent final songs of the Cuckoo and the Owl - seeming to question spring's promise of fulfilled desire in favour of the necessary acceptance of winter - modulate this tone into a beautiful wavering between loss and gain, tragedy and what's left of comedy. As one critic put it ( and with obvious resonance at this post-festive juncture, which is possibly how Shakespeare actually meant it): "It is a teasing thought, yet appropriate; perhaps the ending of Love's Labour's Lost is the more genuinely warm because it is more wintry, more real than the easier resolution that a fuller comic pact would have allowed."
The play's closing words, again equivocal in their meaning, are spoken by Armado: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo". Is Shakespeare saying that Apollonian poetry (eg. the elevated rhetoric of sonnets) always needs its counterpoint in the language of witty, subversive mischief? Or - more plaintively, and in keeping with all of Shakespeare's plays- that the ideals embodied in lofty poetry must always be brought down to earth by the "harsh" reality of what the two final, mercurial songs speak of?