Oxford University and
Love's Labour's Lost
by Clare Asquith
St. Anne's College, Oxford
AMONG THE MANY IMAGINATIVE PROPOSALS for dealing with "obstinate papists" put forward in 1584 by Lord Burghley was a plan to take their children as hostages "under colour of education."1 Given the problems of enforcing the scheme in a country where so many of the population were Catholic, it is not surprising that the idea was dropped; but it is one indication of Burghley's shrewd grasp of the importance of education in uprooting the old religion and silencing opposition to the new. Many other measures had already been taken to ensure that by the time Shakespeare was beginning to write, it was almost impossible to be educated as a Catholic in England. Catholic teachers were banned from schools; there were stringent fines for employing private Catholic tutors; the families of those studying in Catholic colleges and schools abroad were fined, and the estates of exiles sequestered. Nonetheless, until a child reached the age of sixteen, when he was old enough to take the Oath of Supremacy, Catholic families managed to bring up their children in their own faith at home. For many, the moment of truth arrived with the question of secondary education, for by the 1580s, the universities and the Inns of Court were also slipping out of the reach of those who did not conform to the state religion.
This national issue could well be the missing element required to make sense of one of Shakespeare's earliest and most puzzling plays: Love's Labour's Lost. It is clearly full of topical allusions—but what is the topic? Scholars have been unable to agree on this, and no convincing frame of reference has ever been found. But it looks as if Shakespeare, like Burghley, was well aware of the key importance of