One doesn't get the idea from Shakespeare's plays that he thinks of love as an ultimately fulfillable, satisying dream.  He seems to see it as more like a frustrating and delusional curse.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 7, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Shakespeare in Love

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline in 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.One doesn't get the idea from Shakespeare's plays that he thinks of love as an ultimately fulfillable, satisying dream. He seems to regard it as more akin to a frustrating and delusional curse.

So you Shakespeare fans - gather around once again. Previously, we discussed love in Romeo and Juliet. I know some of you were upset by my pointing out that - since both lovers commit suicide - theirs was not an ideal romance.

But Shakespeare's treatment of love in his comedies also seems to indicate that the Bard is a cynic about romantic entanglements. Many of his comedies revolve around mistaken and reversed identities and strange fixations on inappropriate objects. Remember, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Puck puts that potion on lovers' eyelids while they're sleeping so that they fall in love with the next object they see - including Bottom, whom Puck playfully gives an ass's head.

The topic for today is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which refers to the 12th night of Christmas, during which things turn upside down. What makes Night so modern is its inversion of sexual identities. The protagonist, Viola, pretends she is a man throughout the play. This prevents her from consummating her love for her boss, Orsino, while Olivia, the other female lead, falls for her.

Where is this one going? Well, Viola's brother shows up (no one can tell the two apart!), Olivia gets him, and Orsino is okay now with his feelings for Viola - which have bordered on the homoerotic throughout the play. But Orsino keeps calling Viola by her fake male name even as they exit the stage at the end of the play!

That Shakespeare was sure before his time.

More to the point, during all these identity mix-ups, love is portrayed as irrational, compulsive, and painful. As Viola (note how similar all the names are) avoids lesbian kisses from Olivia, Olivia calls love a "plague" that brings her only misery. At the same time that Olivia is pursuing the male version of Viola, she is rejecting Orsino's advances, causing him to pine over his unrequited passion for her.

This play is not a tragedy because the main characters end up marrying one another (although several minor characters are left out in the cold). All of the characters experience love as a sudden lightning bolt - like a curse - from the gods. While Orsino is futilely courting Olivia - until he turns his ardor on Viola when he finds out she's female - he calls love an "appetite" and his desires "cruel hounds."

I wonder what Shakespeare's love life was like? You remember, class, that he married his Stratford sweetheart, Anne Hathaway (not that one), and had three children with her. Anne was older than he. Shakespeare then departed to London for several decades, becoming a famous playwright and doing Lord knows what else, before returning to Stratford and dying at age 52.

Somehow, I don't think this all adds up to Shakespeare having a one-true-love view of the universe. I just don't see it in his work.

Picture: Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline in 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.