‘St. Valentine’s is past’, Duke Theseus announces to the two couples he has stumbled across in the woods outside Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. More than four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote that line, we are celebrating this same day as a designated time for romance. In fact, what better way is there to kick off this February 14th than with some thoughts on love, wooing and romance from the Bard himself?
We’re all familiar with Shakespeare’s romantic dialogue, his sonnets and his truisms: after all, are there not hundreds of books with titles like ‘Shakespeare on Love’, ‘Shakespeare and Love’ and ‘Love in Shakespeare? His characters experience desire, lust, desperation, jealousy, satisfaction, hurt and longing all - amongst other emotions - springing from love.
What is striking about Shakespeare’s writing is his treatment of love as a ritual: in particular, a rite of passage for any youth. After all, Jacques categorises falling in love as one of his seven ages in a man’s life journey.
So what exactly does Shakespeare say about the process of wooing? A good play to turn to for advice is the comedy As You Like It. The young and energetic princess Rosalind makes a list of the traits every lover should bear. She says that when a man is in love, he has ‘a lean cheek’, ‘sunken eyes’ and ‘a beard neglected’. She then goes on to state:
[...] your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied and every thing about you demonstrating a careless desolation. (As You Like It, 3.2).
In other words, a lover should look pretty dreadful because he is far too busy pining after, wooing and otherwise desiring the woman of his dreams to worry about his appearance. Rosalind is, of course, mocking a tradition of romanticised wooing.
Romeo exhibits most of Rosalind’s ‘marks of love’ when, at the start of the tragedy, he is preoccupied with the wilfully chaste Rosaline. His parents, his cousin Benvolio and his companion Mercutio, all complain bitterly of Romeo’s anti-social behaviour and his self-neglect. This is all because he is, or thinks he is, in love. Numerous other lovers conduct themselves in this desolate manner: Orsino in Twelfth Night, Silvius in As You Like It and Roderigo in Othello, to name a handful.
In addition to the superficial neglect and attitudes of languor and desolation, the youth-in-love must express his affection appropriately. Serenades and lyrical compositions are especially conventional. Orlando in As You Like It; Ferdinand, Biron, Longeville and Dumaine in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and even the professed bachelor Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing all pen poetry to declare their various passions for their ladies. Let us look at something from Orlando’s oeuvre:
From the east to western Ind,
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no fair be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.
(As You Like It, 3.2).
Naturally, Orlando has other talents that make up for his trite, juvenile verse. The point, however, is that Orlando is undergoing a ritual: he must write poetry because that is the accepted way to woo and express affection. So too must the lads in Love’s Labour’s Lost put on their wooing hats. Like Orlando, not one of their poems is especially skilled, not to mention Ferdinand’s attempt at a sonnet with its extra couplet at the end:
So sweet a kiss the golden sun gives not
To those fresh morning drops upon the rose,
As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote
The night of dew that on my cheeks down flows:
Nor shines the silver moon one half so bright
Through the transparent bosom of the deep,
As doth thy face through tears of mine give light.
Thou shinest in every tear that I do weep.
No drop but as a coach doth carry thee,
So ridest thou triumphing in my woe.
Do but behold the tears that swell in me,
And they thy glory through my grief will show;
But do not love thyself, then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep.
O queen of queens! How far dost thou excel,
No thought can think, nor tongue of mortal tell.
(Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.3).
So bad beards, bad poems and bad dress sense are alleged signs of love in a youth. However, Shakespeare does not make things that simple. These marks are cultural, romanticised conventions not expectations. This is why Shakespeare’s women seem actively to resist such wooing tactics. Both Olivia in Twelfth Night and Rosalind fall in love with un-bearded individuals: Olivia because Cessario is in fact a woman, and Rosalind because Orlando is apparently too young to grow a beard. Beatrice accepts Benedick’s proposal after he shaves his beard off, and Katherine tells Dumaine to grow a beard over the course of a year, suggesting that he wooed her entirely clean-shaven. Moreover, not one of these women is impressed or actively enticed by the poems sent her way. We know that Olivia refuses to read anything penned by Orsino, and mocks at Cessario when he claims to recite verse from the ‘bosom’ of his master. Beatrice only reads Benedick’s sonnet at the end of the play, at which point the audience discovers that she too has been writing verses addressed to him. A woman writing sonnets!
Shakespeare’s plays, especially his comedies, seem to suggest that wooing and love-making are at once ritualistic and absurd. When his characters truly are in love, they do ludicrous things like run away into forests, dress up as the opposite sex and pretend to be someone else, they swoon and pine, versify and pontificate; but ultimately they simply tell one another about their feelings.
In a rare moment of wisdom, Bottom states that ‘reason and love keep little company together’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 31.). Shakespeare’s characters, both comic and tragic, experience great heights of emotions to come to this same conclusion. The purpose, Shakespeare tells us, is to enjoy and learn from this very important rite of passage, because love itself, like school and work, is a kind of education:
From women’s eyes this doctrine I
They are the ground, the books, the academes
From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.
(Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.3).
So St. Valentine will indeed come and pass, as Theseus reminds us at the end of the comedy; but the universality of love will mean that wooing rituals will continue to challenge and mystify us all forever and a day. And because the Bard knows best, he seals the deal with an unequivocal couplet: 'If this be error and upon me proved/ Then I never writ nor no man ever loved' (Sonnet 116). Who can argue with that?!
This blog was originally posted on Cambridge Schools Shakespeare Online in 2014.