William Shakespeare knew love, and also its complications. At the age of eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior. Six months after the wedding, Anne gave birth to a child, which no doubt sparked local gossip. Later, he wrote love sonnets to a man—Was the playwright a closet homosexual?—and then composed 26 sonnets to a married woman known only as the Dark Lady.
His plays give words to the stirrings that every romantic feels. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lord Berowne cries “O, but for my love, day would turn to night!” Berowne and two companions had taken an oath to avoid the company of women during three years of study. Indeed, the king decreed that no woman should come within a mile of the court. As the plot twists, all three young nobles, plus the king, succumb to love. In Shakespeare’s plays, women often outwit love-bedazzled men.
Yet in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a woman is the one who swoons like a teenager. “His looks are my soul’s food,” Julia tells her maid, even as the aptly-named Proteus chases after a rival. Julia is helpless before love’s power: “Thou wouldst as soon go kindle fire with snow/ As seek to quench the fire of love with words,” she says, then adds, “The more thou damm’st it up, the more it burns.”
Although we know little about Shakespeare’s life history, his plays give clues that he understood love’s caprice as well as its power. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” he wrote, a truth echoed in TV reality shows and much country music today. Perhaps Shakespeare himself experienced the unrequited love his plays describe so poignantly. As Julia puts it,
She dreams on him that has forgot her love;
You dote on her that cares not for your love.
’Tis pity love should be so contrary.
Proteus, the object of her infatuation, agrees:
O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away!
Everything works out neatly by the play’s end, which is typical in Shakespeare’s comedies—though not necessarily in real life.
With Romeo and Juliet, the bard invented a new genre, the romantic tragedy. Until then, romance had been considered an unworthy topic for tragedy. By casting his lovers from two feuding families, Shakespeare explored the problems common to lovers drawn together from different races, cultures, or social classes.
Romeo describes the dilemma in which he finds himself:
Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs…
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.
Yet he cannot deny the tug of desire:
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
The tragedy of Romeo’s and Juliet’s suicides brings about a reconciliation between their families. The play became one of Shakespeare’s most performed, and has inspired two dozen operas as well as ballets and musicals such as West Side Story.
Love can overcome deep differences, Shakespeare seems to tell us—a lesson worth contemplating in a society riven by divisions over race, gender, class, and politics.
If the power of love leads to complications, the love of power proves downright dangerous. Especially in an election year, we also have much to learn from Shakespeare’s view of power.
The playwright lived in a time when nations were ruled by kings and queens, not democratically elected officials. Yet these words from King Lear sound like commentators describing the divisive modern world: “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies, in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked twixt son and father.” In our own day, authoritarians still dominate in places like Russia, China, and Iran. Meanwhile, as candidates vie for power in a democracy, like ours, the campaigns and debates resemble a Pro-Wrestling SmackDown event.
Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear—Shakespeare’s tragedies demonstrate what happens when those in power abuse it. Though he wrote about powerful rulers, he did so in a way to satisfy the groundlings who stood closest to the stage. Lines such as these gave voice to their sense of powerlessness:
History shows that power corrupts, and Shakespeare’s tragedies reveal how. “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” brags Lady Macbeth. Though she gets her ruthless way for a time, Lady Macbeth begins a slow slide into madness. In Shakespeare’s plays, those who abuse power inevitably suffer the consequences.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” laments Henry IV, probably regretting that he seized the throne. Later, his grandson Henry VI had his own melancholy thoughts:
My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.
Both kings lived in a time of endless wars. “O God, seest Thou this, and bearest so long?” Henry VI cries out. For Shakespeare, history involved more than the rise and fall of rulers and nations; the turmoil in nations signified God’s judgment on injustice. This is a hard message, one I seldom hear on CNN or FOX. Republicans blame Democrats for society’s ills while Democrats blame a Republican administration—or vice versa, depending on the decade.
Shakespeare’s characters are as likely to appeal to God for justice. In Henry VI the Earl of Warwick prays, “…ere my knee rise from the earth’s cold face, I throw my hands, mine eyes, my heart to Thee, Thou setter-up and plucker-down of kings…” Modern leaders could use a dose of such humility.
For Shakespeare, gentleness and compassion express a kind of “soft power” that has more effect than brute force. The Merchant of Venice presents this contrasting view:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
What would mercy and gentleness look like in the adversary sport of national politics, so often a stage for pompous boasts, personal attacks, and raw ambition? I long for a candidate to show us a different kind of power, that of humility and mercy.
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