‘Saint Valentine is past:/ Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 4.1.138-9). Love makes Shakespeare’s world go round. This Valentine’s Day, we take a brief look at three of the playwright’s most celebrated couples: Rosalind and Orlando from As You Like It, the eponymous hero and heroine of Romeo and Juliet, and Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing.
As You Like It
As You Like It is ostensibly a play set in the world of romance: we encounter sensitive heirs, beautiful heiresses, villainous aristocrats, noble peasants, all in a merry forest scene where ‘many young men flock […] and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’ (1.1.111-13). We expect a register of standard courtly love from Rosalind and Orlando, who fall in love at first sight: she is his ‘fair princess’ (1.1.162), he is her ‘excellent young man’ (1.1.204). Orlando is ‘overthrown’ by love (1.1.248), and, whilst so is Rosalind, at first, the play begins to subvert our expectations of the language of romance.
Rosalind mocks the poor love poetry she finds pinned to the trees in the Forest of Arden, unaware it was penned by her beloved, as the fool Touchstone gives Orlando’s verses a bawdy turn: ‘He that sweetest rose will find / Must find love’s prick – and Rosalind’ (3.2.108-9). Rosalind, disguised as the young man Ganymede, decides to teach an unwitting Orlando the ways of love that will best please her as his future bride, as she ‘speak[s] to him like a saucy lackey and under that habit play[s] the knave with him’ (3.2.287-8). She refutes his claim that he will ‘die’ (4.1.85) without the love of Rosalind, bringing his idealistic, chivalric love down to earth: ‘Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love’ (4.1.97-99).
Their witty banter from Act 3 onwards does not follow the rhetorical courtly love we have come to expect from the play’s opening; but for Rosalind and Orlando, its witty, sexual content suggests a happy companionship with roots in more than just Petrarchan idealization.
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet explores the language of love with its constant return to the sonnet form: the play’s famous Prologue (‘Two households, fair alike in dignity,/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…’) in fact opens the play with a sonnet. Mercutio mocks Romeo’s adherence to amorous discourse:
Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in. Laura to his lady was a kitchen wench – marry, she had a better love to berhyme her – Dido a dowdy, Cleopatra a gypsy, Helen and Hero hildings and harlots, Thisbe a grey eye or so. (2.4.38-42)
He aligns Romeo with the tradition of Petrarchan sonneteering which preceded the craze for English sonnet-writing that swept poetic circles in the 1590s, following the circulation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella. As with Orlando, however, Shakespeare does not allow Romeo to fall too deeply into the stereotypical role of mooning lover. The Petrarchan sonnet tradition is subverted with the young lovers’ first dialogue: the female is not objectified – spoken at rather than to – but, instead, she shares in the passionate, lyrical enjoyment of love at first sight, as the two each speak a quatrain, share a third, and finish the 14-line sonnet by sharing a rhyming couplet and a kiss.
ROMEO If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO Have not saints lips and holy palmers too?
JULIET Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do –
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. (1.5.92-105)
Much Ado About Nothing
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare subverts all of our expectations for the ‘proper’ course of true love by presenting us with a pair of lovers who initially hate each other, but over the course of the play are transformed from sworn enemies into swooning lovers. When the play opens, Benedick and Beatrice are engaged in a very “merry war” (I.i.56), firing acerbic digs and scornful aphorisms on love and marriage at each other and swearing never to love anyone, let alone each other.
BENEDICK What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
BEATRICE Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come into her presence.
BENEDICK Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you
excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
BEATRICE A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me. (I.i.109-22)
The other characters in the play trick the pair into believing that that one is secretly in love with the other, but as the trick goes on a true romance blossoms, and their feelings remain after the foolery has been revealed. By the end of play Benedick is proclaiming “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes” (V.II.94-5) to his so-called “Lady Disdain”, whilst Beatrice cannot even verbalise her love for her once-foe because “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest”(IV.i.285).
Shakespeare presents the wit and cynicism of Beatrice and Benedick in contrast to the gentler, more conventional romance of the young lovers Claudio and Hero. Where Claudio romantically eulogises the beauty of his love, Hero – “in mine eye she is the sweetest lady that I ever looked on” (I.i.174-5) – Beatrice readily quips to Benedick that “scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were” (I.i.126-7). Benedick invites the audience to share in his frustration at the transparency and pomposity of Claudio’s Petrarchan rhetoric: “He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier … His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes” (II.iii.18–19). Both couples are wed in the final scene of the play, yet it is Claudio and Hero, the ‘ideal’ romantic couple, that struggle through betrayal and humiliation to reach this resolution. Benedick and Beatrice’s unromantic backbiting and brutal honesty gives way to a love that is believable and enduring.
Be it love at first sight, or love at first spite, Shakespeare never fails to recognise both the transformative power of love and its trials and tribulations. “The course of true love never did run smooth” (I.i.134), Lysander laments in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and indeed love in the comedies always comes with difficulty or complication from outside circumstances. But its strength and success is ultimately ensured, or thwarted, by the lovers themselves.
Do you recognise your relationship in these representations?
-Written by Lizzie and Sophie, Research Team