Shakespeare's Navarre
Keri Posenauer '04

William Shakespeare incorporated the setting and characters of King Henry of Navarre's court into his play Love's Labour's Lost.  The text parallels this historical figure accurately, with Shakespeare adding a few twists and turns along the way.  Learning why he chose this individual is apparent by the end of the play.  King Henry had all of the qualifications that one would want in a king, and not only that, but his court was full of intrigue.  Deception, adultery, loyalty, gossiping, and countless other characteristics dominated his court and made for some very interesting situations.  It was because of this atmosphere where anything and everything could happen, along with the prosperous region of France, that Shakespeare decided on the setting and characters of his play.

King Henry of Navarre became King Henry of France in August of 1589.  In his fifteen-year reign, he was deemed a protector of the Protestant churches (Baird II: 179), and was considered a courageous, humane, and merciful soldier and king (Baird II: 223). He even set up schools for Protestant children, so they could receive the same education as Catholics (Baird II: 477).  He was one of the greatest kings that France would ever have.  It was even said that posterity never remembered a more deserving French king who was more cherished by his people (Baird II: 489).  It is no wonder, then, why Shakespeare would have modeled the play's main character after this man. 

At this time, King Henry was just the ruler of Navarre, a large region in Southern France.  Henry lived adjacent to the French palace until he found himself out of favor with the court.  He then escaped to the capital city of his kingdom, Nérac.  In August of 1578, the Queen of Navarre, his wife Marguerite, and her mother, the Queen of France, traveled to Navarre with each of their courts containing over 300 men and women each (Chamberlin 202).  However, it was not until two months later, in early October, that this magnificent procession finally reached its destination (Chamberlin 203).  Henry refused to see Marguerite at first, but at last consented at the advice of his counselors and friends (Pearson 27).  He knew that much could be accomplished if they did meet and discuss the question of Marguerite's dowry lands and their private affairs concerning the public (Baird I: 186).  Henry greeted his wife enthusiastically as his court looked on, and acted as if they had come just for his enjoyment (Chamberlin 204).  Marguerite wanted a secure hold of her dowry lands, which were finally given to her by Henry.  A mutual agreement was also made between them concerning their romantic affairs; they would ignore the other's, so long as Marguerite kept her’s discrete and away from the public (Pearson 27).

In Love's Labour's Lost, the Princess announces that she wants a conference with King Ferdinand upon her arrival in Navarre, as she comes to him on business of the state (Shakespeare 2.1.32, Huston 39).  The French ladies seem to be annoyed at the fact that they have come all this way to reach an agreement about the settlement of land, and they are not even allowed to enter the court because of the vows (Ornstein 36).  Just as King Henry contemplated over whether or not to see the French princess when she arrived, so does King Ferdinand.  His friends urge him to see the princess, trying to justify the meeting by any means possible, as they have just taken vows forbidding the king to do so.  After finally agreeing to meet with her, King Ferdinand and the Princess discuss a land matter in France, as Henry and Marguerite did in actuality. 

When Marguerite visited King Henry, it was said that Nérac "...was given up to one long, romantic dalliance" (Chamberlin 205).  Navarre's King and Queen had their own romantic affairs, and their courtiers followed suit (Chamberlin 206).  The entire two years or more that the queen was in Navarre, the court was composed of nothing but lovesick courtiers and romantic mistresses.  King Henry was especially said to be "fickle in love" and would keep numerous mistresses at one time (Baird II: 491).  This alone might shed some insight into Love's Labour's Lost, as Ferdinand was modeled after King Henry.  This could mean that the French princess was correct in claiming that the men would woo anyone, as it was apparent in the scene where they switched places on the men and they did not realize it.  Maybe the couples needed to have a year to collect their thoughts about each other.  This way, they would know that their relationships were not just of the moment, and they would not be fickle about their love for one another.

In Shakespeare's Navarre, passion triumphs over promises, as its inhabitants cannot deny the flesh (Ornstein 36).   The men make vows that are quickly thrown aside with the arrival of the French ladies.  This makes one think about how quickly the promises to the ladies might be thrown aside with the arrival of other women after they leave and go back to France. The women were not treated as individuals, but just as objects to be won in love (Huston 55).  King Henry did this often, as he used women and then cast them aside when he tired of them.  It is possible that the men in the play are doing the same things with the ladies of France.  For example, King Ferdinand and his men did not get to spend any time alone with the ladies and the couples did not get to know each other very well, yet they still professed their undying love.  This does not make much sense except if one looks at the fact that they are probably not in love like they say and are just trying manipulate the women to get what they want.

Navarre's academy in Love's Labour's Lost was a noble idea for the moment, but was discarded due to the fact that it was a hindrance to the couples getting together.  According to the text, it was King Ferdinand who wanted to make Navarre a "...wonder of the world" of which the French ladies became the teachers (Shakespeare 1.1.12, 4.3.349-50).  However, history maintains that it was actually Marguerite, and not King Henry who made the palace at Nérac remarkable.  She planted beautiful gardens, assembled a library, encouraged the fine arts, and created a truly intellectual atmosphere (Chamberlin 209).  This atmosphere was probably the reason that Shakespeare chose Navarre for the setting of his philosophical academy. 

Not only are the two kings parallel to each other, but also even more so are the similarities of the two princesses.  Both Marguerite and the Princess were French royalty and both were said to be "dazzlingly beautiful, [and] witty" (Chamberlin 209).  Shakespeare describes the Princess as being a lady of grace and majesty, which are almost the exact words in which a courtier described his queen, Marguerite (Shakespeare 1.1.134).  Just as the Princess came with her ladies-in-waiting, so did the Queen of Navarre.  She called them her "Flying Squadron" and it was composed of attractive, charming, and yet often deceptive and seductive women, whose reputations of being wellborn and proper were known all throughout Europe (Chamberlin 210).  This may shed some light on the ladies with whom the French princess was traveling.  They all seemed attractive and charming, but one wonders if the other traits would have soon become evident if the French assembly were not forced to leave so abruptly.

Biron is yet another one of the characters who corresponds to an actual historical figure.  He was Marshal of the Artillery and was said to be one of the best officers in all of France (Pearson 38), though he had to be bribed into loyal to Henry (Pearson 60). King Henry and Biron fought side by side in almost every battle and were usually victorious in the end, but Biron's loyalty was still questioned throughout his service in the military (Pearson 62).  One might notice that in Shakespeare's text it is Biron who is the most hesitant to sign and vow to study at the academy.  Knowing the issue of loyalty was a problem for the real Marshal could possibly make one take a closer look at King Ferdinand's Biron.  It may be that Shakespeare needed someone to question the academy and all of the rules that went along with it, or maybe he wanted a character that would stand out among King Ferdinand's men.  Whatever the case, Biron is set apart as being more reluctant to conform to everyone else. 

I have learned much about Love's Labour's Lost through my research of the actual historical figures on which the play is modeled after.  One can see that not only did he choose the historical setting of Navarre due to its beauty and magnificence, but also because the events that actually took place there were fascinating to those in Elizabethan England.  Navarre's court was intriguing with all of its irresistible and attractive courtiers.  Shakespeare's court of Navarre became this way as well upon the arrival of the French ladies. Knowing about these historical figures has greatly increased my ability to understand the play and what Shakespeare was trying to accomplish by putting it in the setting that he did.  Shakespeare created such a resemblance between the characters and events in Love's Labour's Lost and those in King Henry's court of Navarre that knowing what happened in one court is like knowing what happened in the other.


Works Cited


Baird, Henry M. The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre. Vol. I. New York: Charles

            Scribner’s Sons, 1903.

Baird, Henry M. The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre. Vol. II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903.

Chamberlin, E.R. Marguerite of Navarre. New York: Dial Press, 1974.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare.  Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York:

             W. W. Norton, 1997.

Huston, J. Dennis. Shakespeare’s Comedies of Play. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.

Ornstein, Robert. Shakespeare’s Comedies. Newark: University of Delaware, 1986.

Pearson, Hesketh. Henry of Navarre: The King Who Dared. New York: Harper, 1963.