I will start on Love's Labor's Lost by sending some opening reactions of my own, then in a separate discussion, I will think about Ernst's insights and some of Randall's questions:
The dedication to the study of virtue, with which Love's Labor's Lost begins, is identical to the brief, then forgotten, declaration which Lucentio makes at the beginning of Shrew. It is couched in poetry so luxuriant that it could earn the label "hot house" which I usually reserve for Serapion's opening lines in John Dryden's All for Love. Then, again, the heady theorizing which one gets at the beginning is the way The Misanthrope opens. Such a structure works against plot, or at least against dramatic artifice presenting audience with mystery or tension.
Still as soon as the King and his men swear against love, feast, and sleep, against the nature of youth, they are comically doomed because denial of Dionysus (I may be remembering one of my mentors, Cyrus Hoy) or Carnival (I'm probably thinking of Leo Salinger here) is a challenge to the comic gods. Like Lucentio's vow, it is given over so fast the audience does not see the struggle or the suspense. So, as much of the rest of the plot insists on the dilemma of the wits forsworn, referred to again and again, it is a pity the attempt to practice the oath gets so little space. We noted relative to Egeon's death sentence in The Comedy of Errors that Shakespeare comedy often begins with the most serious of laws or vows--Hermia's doom in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Olivia's excessive period of mourning in Twelfth Night are other examples--and the rejection by young men of wine, women, song, sleep, and, did I mention, women is a violation of Natural Law. At least Berowne states the natural argument: the three years abstinence is inappropriate to the season of youth. [Mike and Randall--beware assigning this scene, in that it will give your students some pretty good quotations against study itself.]
Once the ladies arrive, the play becomes instead a play about wit. Shakespeare satirizes the affected elegance of Lyly, as Ernst notes [I have not read Euphues since I was in grad school, and it only remains in my head from a lifetime of trying to keep euphuism--'affectedly periphrastic'--separate from euphemism--'less distasteful substitution'], and of Sydney and Marlowe here. Certainly there is a plethora of word wit, great contests and double examples. Armado's "mint of phrases" new fashioned in his brain; Costard's rustic simplicity which tries puns "in the manner and form following" (he laid Jaquenetta on the form (bench) in the manor, then followed her into the park), but later simply simple (Pompion the Big (V.ii.502)--we ought not to resist a joint publication about classical roots for Charles Shultz's Great Pumpkin); Nathaniel and Holofernes's dispute in Latin; and Moth's twisting language in formal debate to prove his master a goose and an ass.
Verbal wit, consciously explored and focused, provides more exercise than archery or dancing among the gentles, from Boyet, Rosalind and Maria on pricking deer to girls' debates on fair and light to Berowne's reputation, much talked of, seldom demonstrated, as wit. [Hard to resist asking 'what can Berowne do for you?'] Unlike Restoration comedies of manners, there is little action in this play. It is all talk, and without action the social energy of wit seems disengaged. I don't find that Shakespeare follows through consistently on this panoply of comic characters, and I will probably come back to this when I focus on Ernst's and Randall's starters. What becomes of Dull, the malapropist? Maybe a glance at Holofernes as farce???
The play ends, consciously, in trial "remote from all the pleasures of the world." Berowne gets the appropriate last words: "Our wooing doth not end like an old play;/ Jack hath not Gill. These ladies' courtesy/ Might well have made our sport a comedy." Because the play begins with the rich, unnatural vow of youth against life ("Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep")--self-denial for self-denial sake--the trial at the end, sacrifice for love, seems like an appropriate, if not happy ending. However, the happy-ending convention of comedy usually represents a new order, and such a new order of being worthy for marriage is established over the silly vows that cause discord at the play's beginning. Yet there is a second trial put to Berowne by Rosaline. He must not only keep his oath of love, he must, in a twelvemonth in a hospital, rid himself of wit. That quality in a social world, which raises Dorimant (Man of Mode) or Mirabelle (The Way of the World) above the rest, here is a quality the witty ladies would suppress, in their romantic world.
Happy ending? The implication is, of course, that the Princess will fulfill her year of social/natural mourning, unlike Twelfth Night's Olivia, whose seven-year vow of mourning is an offense against nature, and the boys from Navarre will pass their trials, but there is no guarantee. They haven't given any evidence of talent for oath keeping, and Berowne goes off, redefining his challenge as "I'll jest a twelvemonth in a hospital," truer to "his eye begets occasion for his wit,/ For every object that the one doth catch/ The other turns to a mirth-moving jest" (II.i.69-71) than to Rosaline's "A jest's prosperity lies in the ear/ Of him that hears it, never in the tongue/ Of him that makes it" (V.ii.861-63).