What Did Shakespeare Really Say About Love?
(Three Ways We Experience Love)
The name Shakespeare has become ubiquitous with love, so much so that the very mention of one of his plays, Romeo and Juliet, invokes timeless visions of eternal and romantic love. While that notion is poetic, I’m afraid to say, it is just a fairytale. Shakespeare enacted love in many complex forms throughout his writing and legacy. He commented on nature, affluence, society, mortality, and much more. While the oversimplification of Shakespeare’s words on love is inaccurate, their timeless quality is true. Don’t be deterred by the language or the format; his words are accessible and applicable, even today. Here are three ways we experience love, according to the bard.
The young lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are depicted as interchangeable. This is established through the sameness of their names: Helena and Hermia. The couples are mixed up in comedic chaos throughout the play. This action mirrors their blind and foolish love, a byproduct of intoxication. The mischievous Puck, an elf jester, casts spells carelessly upon the group of young lovers, who happen to belong to the upper echelons of society. Their social status is essential; it is what gives them the freedom to practice this kind of love. In their cushioned world, love itself is a play and a privilege.
Their families’ power is contrasted by the powerlessness of their lovestruck eyes. Shakespeare writes, “And the youth, mistook by me, / Pleading for a lover’s fee. / Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord what fools this mortals be!” Their love is like theater, existing in a gap between reality and a dream.
Another game of love is played in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare poses two questions: who do you love vs. who do you want to love? The riddle exposes hidden dynamics in love, gender, and sexual identity. Viola falls in love with Orsino while she is disguised as a man. At the very end of the play, when she switches back to a woman, he accepts her new identity and expresses his devotion. The immediacy hints that he might have also fallen in love with her while she was a man.
Olivia falls in love with a woman, Viola, while she is disguised as Cesario. Olivia remains in love when Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) takes Viola’s place. Above this seemingly normal choice lingers a truth: Olivia loved a woman.
Costume and custom make choices in love concrete. But, according to Shakespeare, the deepest bonds may have nothing to do with gender at all. Suddenly, love, and its perceived dependency on sexual identity, is exposed as problematic. If we follow the pattern in which these characters fall in love, we see Shakespeare portray the bonds of love as thriving deep within the understanding between men and men, and women and women. Differences between men and women make up most of the narrative. The end, however, changes course; it is marked by an interchangeable paring of partners and suspiciously sudden acceptance, reflecting the frivolousness of socially constructed love.
Shakespeare’s criticism of young love in the comedies is based on social context. The couples were privileged and free, lost within their rendition of love. But a different kind of love exists in the tragedy Othello: a love of truth. Shakespeare shows us that society can deny a pure love. In that time, just as today, institutions could refuse to make room for a love of faith, or an honest approach to sexuality. In Othello, love has not been blistered or blurred by drunkenness. No tricks were used to conjure the love; no games brought the couple together. When an outside source does meddle, infiltrating and breaking the bond, the troubling elements of a destructive society are revealed.
In the comedies, disguises and spells simulated love, but the conductors were not accused. Othello behaves quite the opposite; he has a clear conscience and a sober heart. Shakespeare writes, “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them, / This only is the witchcraft I have us’d. / Here comes the lady; let her witness it.” He is innocent, but wrongly accused of black magic and seduction. The love between Othello, a black man, and Desdemona, a white woman, is based on truth, without the intention of seduction. Their sexual relationship blooms directly out of their love. This contrasts the frivolous love of the comedies. That love was allowed to live, but the love of Othello and Desdemona was denied.
Desdemona’s approach to desire is innocent, honest and framed in marriage. She would like to please her partner, saying to Othello, “Even to the very quality of my lord.” Their love, built naturally in its sexual honesty, also happens to abide by the social expectations of marriage. The “perfection” of their love, in its essence and foundation, underscores their tragic formula: corruption implements racism, thus their love is shattered.
Shakespeare shows us that idealized loves, and deep forms of sexual union, are infiltrated by those against them and often drowned by regulations. Meanwhile, surface loves, those of sight and swap, are allowed. Class, utility, or gender, may determine these relationships. But, in the end, when society rejects the love of colorless communication, we are faced with the tragedy of truth.
Shakespeare introduces the third version of love in Twelfth Night when the old and unloved characters get drunk and listen to the fool’s song of young love. They listen to forget their truth, and they drink to forget the words of the song. In the same play, Orsino and Viola (dressed as a man) come closest to intimacy when they face mortality. Their sudden urge to kiss is their desperation for love. The presence of death causes that urge, which is, ultimately, an urge to escape.
Shakespeare is expressing that love and sex are the antithesis of death. Music is used as a tool to explore that idea; it is a gateway to communicating the seemingly inexplicable. Twelfth Night ends with a song that articulates the bittersweet truth of love and morality, “With toss-pots still had drunken heads, / For the rain, etc. / A great while ago the world begun, / [With] hey ho, etc, / But that’s all one, our play is done, /And we’ll strive to please you every day.” When the song is over, and the characters disappear, the spell of the theater is broken; we, the audience, go back to the reality of living, which is the inevitability of death. Shakespeare’s lovers somehow escaped death. We attempt the same by witnessing their tales. Shakespeare distracted us from mortality through the illusion of theater, by simultaneously enacting the escape we pursued.
Beyond the theater, we indulge in escape through the intoxication of a melody, the sweetness of an orgasm, or the spiral of sumptuous love. Shakespeare celebrates the complexity of these urges while uncovering the humanity behind them. In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica and her lover listen as music plays. When her lover relates the song to the stars and the heavens, Jessica cannot connect. She feels far from those images and far from God. She says, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” Neither music nor love could soothe her. Nothing could distract her from her mortal truth. In this moment, Jessica feels most human.
As the young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream run to make love, and possibly procreate, the haze of sex and regeneration encompasses them. In these moments, sex is a distraction; orgasm is a simulated death followed by resurrection. Shakespeare likens these experiences to the memory loss of a drunken night, an amusing deception, or the loss of time in a dream. This is when the virtual and the actual blur beautifully.
Shakespeare explores the superhuman sensations of a pleasurably altered mind throughout his work. But, the come down is just as important as the high. When the peak of orgasm subsides, bodies separate, euphoria fades, and we sober up to the sound of the ticking clock overtaking masquerades of music, we are alone with reality. Thus, humans continue to resort to the antithesis of death: comedy, escape, orgasm, and love.
The Final Act
Shakespeare tells us stories of hazy love without truth, honest love destroyed by society, and love as escape. These stories took place in the courts of another time, but today they still thrive. People had the same desires then that they do now. The same need for escape is found in every aspect of humans pursuits. Shakespeare fulfilled our needs in his work, and he captured our essence in a way that was so universal, we read it and lose ourselves in it, again and again. The love that you and I pursue, the true, the blind, or the love that we cannot explain, exists in endless acts, in endless plays, and in the bittersweet humanity all around us. Shakespeare pursued love too, in all its forms. The proof lives right in front of us, on pages, in theaters, and through a legacy of love.