He expresses love in so many ways -- Romeo and Juliet love each other quite differently than Petruchio and Kate, while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth love each other in a way that most of us fortunately will never know.
There are whole books written on this subject, like Alan Bloom's Shakespeare on Love and Friendship.
However, during the research for my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice I came across the question of love in Shakespeare over and over again.
I looked at his plays NOT as literature, but as works of entertainment written in a specific place and time in English history. So, I looked at history to help me understand what Shakespeare wrote about when he wrote about love.
What became very clear was that Shakespeare's plays constantly dealt with the effects of the English Reformation. For example, in The Merchant of Venice he wrote about the changes in the religious and financial character of England.
So, it was quite interesting to look at the meaning of love in the Reformation. Or, to be more precise, it is interesting to look at the meaning of love due to the Reformation.
Before the Reformation, England was one of many Catholic European countries. As an English Catholic you could not divorce your spouse.
King Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon. He sent a letter to the Pope, to request a divorce. Is it just me, or do the red wax seals look like hearts?
|Henry VIII's letter to the Pope|
with 83 red wax seals
The request was denied on 7 March 1530.
Henry then broke with the Catholic Church. He declared that he was the supreme head of England's church -- not the Pope.
That letter was recently revealed by the Vatican -- it had been in their secret vaults for centuries. You should watch this brief video about the letter, it's quite fascinating.
A British historian, David Starkey said in an interview that the divorce of Henry and Catherine and the break from Rome "is an event of enormous magnitude, the most important event in English history. This is the moment at which England ceases to be a normal European Catholic country and goes off on this strange path that leads it to the Atlantic, to the new world, to Protestantism, to Euro-skepticism."
|Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn|
What he is saying is that England went off on a strange path to find itself. England became England.
On that strange path, I think England also found love, true love.
As an English Catholic, before the Reformation, you could never divorce your spouse. If you can not divorce your spouse, and there is no opportunity, no legal or religious allowance to dissolve your marriage, then would you, could you ever know true love?
Put another way, without the possibility of divorce, can there be the possibility of love?
Put in the context of Shakespeare's own life, Shakespeare fell in love with Anne Hathaway and married her. What is almost more important is that he did not divorce her, in a time when he could have.
The fact that he did not divorce her could very well be proof that he did in fact love her, and for all we know, they were in love until the day he died.
John Milton wrote many pamphlets (in the 1640's -- not that long after Shakespeare died in 1616) to legitimize divorce. Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent Will in the World, summarizes Milton: "the longing for deep emotional satisfaction in marriage turned out to depend heavily upon the possibility of divorce."
I like to think that Shakespeare and Anne did in fact have a deep and emotionally satisfying marriage.
|Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare|
What does this mean for Shakespeare and love, in his plays?
I think Shakespeare witnessed many people who were in and out of love. He saw how love can build people up and tear them down. He saw that love could have wonderful and terrible consequences.
He clearly knew people who were forbidden to love, and this inspired Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare was witness to a world that was learning how to love.
This is the reason why his plays feature lovers who are so varied and vibrant.
This is also why Shakespeare's love stories are so important, as far as history is concerned. He was taking many of the greatest love stories in history, like Pyramus and Thisbe, and Dido and Aeneas, and turning them into new stage plays, like Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra.
He was at a turning point in England's history. Playhouses, playwrights and plays had been allowed in England only a few years before Shakespeare started his career.
Plays had taken root in England before Shakespeare started his career, and plays flowered while he lived and wrote his poetry and plays.
So too, love had taken root in England 30 years before Shakespeare was born, with Henry VIII's divorce -- and love flowered while Shakespeare lived and wrote his poetry and plays.
It must have been a terribly exciting time in history, for Shakespeare and the people around them -- they were living in a world that was remarkably unlike the one before them. They enjoyed freedoms that their fathers and mothers had not.
I think that Shakespeare understood quite clearly what was happening around him, and he seized the opportunity to write about love as much and as fully as possible. It is what he wanted to write, and it was what his audience needed to see and hear in order to make sense of their own minds on the subject of love.
We should be very thankful that he captured the spirit of his times in his plays, and he was the perfect artist to communicate the effect that love, lovesickness, unrequited love, jealous love, star-crossed love, etc. was having on England.
David B. Schajer
The Real Romeo and Juliet
Anne and William Shakespeare's Wedding
|Books on Amazon|