Love’s Labor's Lost is in many ways as different from Shakespeare’s other plays as any of them. It is mostly a romp through all the verbal styles, topics, and set-ups Shakespeare had available to him in, I would say, the mid 1590’s.
No one is certain regarding when it was written. Some think it may first have been written as early as the late 80’s and subsequently revised several times, but it has a breadth of sophistication and gentle self-mockery that feel more mature than that. Annals of English Drama guesses at 1595. To my not-very-sophisticated ear it sounds entirely like something written (or re-written) for its performance before the Queen in 1597.
Love’s Labor's Lost contains next to no physical action; it is all talk, and delightful talk at that—if you are not under time pressure while reading it. It is the stuff of child players (whose ability to memorize such swaths of not-wholly-logic-connected language always amaze me), and a clear example of a confident Shakespeare out-Lylying John Lyly, but in a generally gracious way. Some would see it as an attack on the intellectuals of the day, but it seems to me to be no more than an exuberant playing with their various concerns and styles. Satire, as Bevington suggests in his introduction, would probably not play well with the Queen.
It is comic in form, but I’m not sure form is very important here. Its ending, which I find quite moving, does give every jack his Jill, but with provisos and an option for continuing self-improvement over the following year. This is an almost Rosalind-like freeing of the spirit for further maturation. In Lyly’s plays, the Elizabeth-like queen would end the play untouched and the other characters would re-adjust their sights and resolve their loves neatly. There is no such queen here (and the resolution is touchingly tentative), and toward the end the characters are fully aware of their mortality. Life is like that—a matter of delight, playfulness, invention, and sadness. None can be denied; all must be acknowledged.
I found Anne Barton’s introduction in The Riverside Shakespeare a good one. And anyone reading the play can’t help but notice ties to other Shakespeare works of the period. The play with melancholics (this is a relatively early instance of the word “malcontent,” the subject of my dissertation [the first dramatic use of which comes with Lyly, albeit in a punning way—“If you’re a male-content, then I am a female-content”]) relates to or foreshadows Jaques, Don John, Orsino (compare Armado [I.2.118]), and Hamlet. There is a “Dark Lady”—Rosaline. There are sonnet spoofs a-plenty—none much better than Orlando’s. The play-preparation is full of Midsummer Night's Dream echoes, and Berowne’s attack on fey, overly flowery courtiers (of which group Boyet is relatively likeable member) is something one sees throughout Shakespeare’s plays. There is philosophy regarding the proper aristocratic approach to commoner players (Berowne, 5.2.211) reflective of Theseus. There is Lyly all over the place and, in the presentation of the variously-numbered “Worthies” a lovely example of the “fourteeners” of mid-century dramas.
What to do? If I were teaching this play, I might begin by asking for lists: of the most audacious puns and verbal high jinks, of the various writers and styles imitated, of the differences between clever men and clever women, of the play’s many “commonplaces” (a Gilbert invention, which my students never understand until I tell them that a “Commonplace” is a little truth—about the world, about life—that one can pull out of its context, read to someone totally unfamiliar with that context, and have him/her understand it), of the Shakespeare echoes/foreshadowings (I don’t think one can treat this play fairly without its larger contexts). And, of course, from you in particular, I would like to learn about various productions. I have never seen one; it strikes me as a very challenging directing/cutting job. The only production I have ever seen was an opera version written by the late Alfred Loeffler of the Music Department here. It was a lovely thing, with a melancholy, late-in-the show chorale suggesting the autumnal feelings of the final scene that I especially remember. It never got further than a student production; too bad.