Shakespeare on Love: A Love for Modern Times?

For one often hailed as the Bard of love stories, Shakespeare sure has a weird way of showing/telling it. Even his most famous tale of romance, Romeo and Juliet, is a little…off…in the love department, at least for modern times.

Romeo and Juliet isn’t the only Shakespeare work that is little bit strange; in fact a pretty large number of his works depict love in ways that are off-putting. Even the most dedicated Shakespeare fan has to acknowledge that the fairy shenanigans in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the sheer wickedness of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew are a little less than appealing to one who loves love.

One could make the claim that Shakespeare distorts his love stories as a way of connecting with the audience by saying that love is a little crazy and so stories about it ought to be a little crazy. Another school of thought is a little more depressing, but historically viable—back in the 16th/17th centuries a lot of marrying was happening due to financial security and familial alliances, and less due to actual feelings of affection for one another. It’s cynical to say that maybe Shakespeare wrote about love in the way that he did because he genuinely didn’t understand it in a lasting sense (no, unfortunately the movie “Shakespeare in Love” is not based on a true story, much as we would all love to believe in Will and Viola’s love affair).

Whatever the reasons for distortion may be, here are a few of Shakespeare’s more celebrated love stories and what may be considered a little unusual about them. Feel free of course to draw whatever conclusion about them that makes sense to you.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream


This story is a bit of a rollercoaster from start to finish, opening with the mismatched loves of Demetrius, who loves Hermia, who loves Lysander—and don’t forget Helena…she’s in love with Demetrius. Then, in a side story, there are Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies. Oberon decides to use magically induced love as a way of exploiting his wife into sacrificing her pageboy to be his slave. In his madness to make Titania love a random woodland creature, Oberon sends his ward, Puck, to put the magic petals on his wife’s eyelids. He also tells him to enchant Demetrius into falling in love with Helena so that she may be happy and Hermia can be free to be with Lysander.

Already we’re looking at some pretty warped views on love; first of all, the only characters in a healthy relationship (from what it sounds like) are Hermia and Lysander—and they’re the two that aren’t allowed to be together. Demetrius is hung up on a woman who’s just not that into him, Helena is hung up on a man who’s just not that into her, and Oberon and Titania clearly have issues with communication. After a whole lot of hullabaloo, including Titania’s brief romance with a man/donkey, Oberon removes the love charms from everyone except Demetrius. So what are we left with? A happy Hermia and Lysander (yay!), a happy Helena with her hoodwinked Demetrius, and a probably still unhappy marriage of the fairy monarchs. I guess we have to hope that Demetrius never snaps out of it and that Helena can be happy with a man who doesn’t actually love her, but instead is forced to think that he does. See, that just sounds sad.

2. Romeo and Juliet


This story, though revered and quoted by many a scholar, is really quite bizarre. It’s a classic tale of love, and it is truly heart-wrenching, but it gets weird real fast when you consider that: a) the whole thing goes down in about 48 hours, and b) these lovers are between the ages of 13 and 16(!). Today people experience love at that age with butterflies and terror induced by smiling at one another over peanut-butter sandwiches.

Two people, hardly more than kids, fall in “love” before knowing a thing about one another (“how do you like your mutton, Romeo?”), get married in secret, and die for one another in an old tomb, surrounded by Juliet’s dead relatives. What’s that all about? The dying for one another after a two-day whirlwind romance? The story in general, though, is quite beautiful; if you take away all of the specifics about Romeo and Juliet as characters and ignore the haste with which they move from meeting to death, there is some powerful emotion that does suggest what true love is all about. Loving one another in spite of the feud between their families and defying the odds to be with one another is genuine, sad, and wonderful all at once. But Shakespeare makes it weird (for us in 2016 at least) when he puts kids in these very adult situations. It’s true, people married young back in the day, but usually when they married this young, it was an arrangement over money or a dowry cow, or something—not because the two would risk their lives to be together.

3. The Taming of the Shrew


So here’s a really weird one. Anyone familiar with the popular (and excellent) 90s movie 10 Things I Hate About You will already know the basic story—the beautiful and desirable Bianca can’t date/marry (depending on which text) until her nasty older sister, Katherina, does. In response, a foolish but wealthy suitor (Josh/Hortencio) pays a resident jerk (perceived or genuinely jerky also depending on text) to marry Katherina so Bianca will be free to do the same. While all this is going on, the not-so-wealthy other man (Cameron/Luciento) dates/marries Bianca in secret.

In the film adaptation, Petruchio is actually a hidden sweetheart. You find this out along with Kat, and everyone may or may not live happily ever after. But in Shakespeare’s version, Petruchio really sucks. He tricks Katherina into thinking he’s this good guy who understands why she’s so bitter and awful and loves her in spite of all that. As it turns out, Katherina actually starts even being kind of nice! But all of that falls apart after the two of them marry because once the papers are signed and sealed, Petruchio starts on a rampage of what we’d now call emotional abuse, belittling, and undermining the poor woman until she’s brainwashed and sick with enough Stockholm Syndrome to act as a “proper” housewife. And if that isn’t enough, at the very end, all of Petruchio’s buddies basically clap him on the back like, “good job buddy, you tamed that shrew.” Right.

Alternatively, Bianca marries the love of her life and is quite happy…so, good for her.

4. The Winter’s Tale


In yet another case of confusion and miscommunication (with a healthy dollop of jealousy-based insecurity) we have the marriage of Hermione and King Leontes. Everything starts out pretty jovial with an enormous dinner party hosted by Leontes and his childhood friend Polixenes (a king of another land). Where we go wrong is when Hermione agrees with her husband that Polixenes should stay a few more days. You may wonder how this is a bad thing—after all, Hermione is agreeing with her husband and trying to help him out. It seems that Leontes is an insecure man. He, seemingly out of nowhere, becomes convinced that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair (pro tip: they’re really not). Leontes demands Hermione be sent to bed and tells his confidant to poison Polixenes. The confidant decides instead to warn Polixenes, and the two flee Sicilia.

Again, Leontes misinterprets this one to mean that Hermione must have warned her lover to spare his life (she wasn’t even there when you gave the order, Leontes). But, not one for the facts or minute evidence, Leontes has his wife locked away and declares that her unborn child must have been conceived in infidelity. When the poor little girl is born, instead of falling in love with what must have been a cute ‘n’ smushy baby face, he orders the little thing be abandoned and left for dead somewhere far away. This guy is the worst. The Oracle of Delphi is called upon to give her two cents on all of this, and she says that for sacrificing so much of his family Leontes will be doomed to no heirs until his freshly abandoned daughter is found. Shortly after, a messenger reveals that the son of Leontes and Hermione, Mamillius, is dead. Shortly after that (and Hermione’s resulting faint) it is reported to the King that his wife is dead too. NOW he feels pretty bad.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to this story, but most of it has little to do with our all-stars from Act One and is less eventful than Leontes and his inadvertent killing spree.

Of course, Shakespeare had a lot of sonnets and poems with absolutely gorgeous depictions of love, so it’s hard to make the claim that Shakespeare had never experienced it himself. Maybe he just liked making stories that were a little twisted. It’s really all up for your interpretation where the Bard’s inspiration came from, but it’s interesting to think that one of our most influential writers made love even scarier and more messed up than it already is. Love is weird.