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:

  • “I marvel how the fishes live in the sea…Why, as men do aland: the great ones eat up the little ones.” (Pericles, Prince of Tyre)
  • “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant.” (Measure for Measure)
  • “So looks the pent-up lion o’er the wretch/ That trembles under his devouring paws.” (Henry VI, Part Three)

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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16 responses to “The Power of Love and the Love of Power (Shakespeare: Part II)”

  1. Lenore says:

    I’m confused. Why are we talking about politics? The Bible teaches us about some terrible kings who ruled Gods people. They didn’t slip by God. Not to worry. The leader we all want is coming. Jesus will be here soon and will rule forever. And we won’t even have to go to the polls or listen to debates. Have faith. God has this.

  2. Roy Stafford says:

    Dear Phillip
    I am writing to you in this time of extreme anxiety and fear for all of the world and this nation from the coronovirus. You are one of the people in my life that has had a great influence. I and my wife have read all of your books. We are using one of your books in a bible study group. Since 2016 and the election of this horrible president and his administration it has been one disaster after another in his governance. Now an ultimate peril is engulfing all of our country and the world. My wife and I are so disapointed in the evangelical community that is continuing to support this president, and morality has taken a backseat to greed and egotism. This country is in great peril and we need a leader like Lincoln or FDR and instead we have the polar opposite. This world crisis has stalled the extremly important environmental degradation that threatens all of life on this planet. Now demonstrations by concerned people all over the world are unlikely due to quarantine.
    What is motivating me to write this letter to you is something that has happened to me recently. I have read two columns recently in the Atlantic magazine by Peter Wehner. One is on the failed presidency titled: “The Trump Presidency is Over” dated March 13, 2020. The most recent column is dated: March 17, 2020 and is titled “NIH Director: We’re on an Exponential Curve” it is an interview with Francis Collins eminent scientist and head of the NIH. He relates the status of this pandemic and where we are as a nation in this war with coronovirus. In the second half of this column by Peter Wehner in the Atlantic magazine, Francis Collins talks about his conversion from atheism to becoming a Christian. I found this very moving. To the extent of getting down on my knees at my bedside and asking God to forgive my lack of trust and faith. I am a Christian and I have tried to witness to my faith through my paintings as a lifelong artist. I, as all of us right now are gripped by fear and anxiety from this pandemic engulfing the world. Francis Collins quotes a bible verse that changed his life while he was reading C.S. Lewis. Lewis at one point in his conversion came to see others as angels around him. The verse that changed Francis Collins the imminent scientist, to beleiving in God was: “My grace is sufficient for you, because My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” This brought me to tears as I knew this is what I will need to do now and reach out to everyone I know and say I have found it’s O.K. and my fear is lessened and I know that God’s love will surmount all fears. Be still my soul.
    Phillip, because I so very highly respect all you stand for and all you have said in your writings, I beseech you to confront this lack of love and morality in this country and its elected greed filled, deluded conservatives in the Christian community, and this administration, and most of all this terrible president. Your voice as Peter Wehner’s and Francis Collins’s have shown, will have tremendous weight in this time of fear and anxiety.
    My wife and I are in our 80’s and as of this last week we are in isolation and leaving home only for essential things to live. My greatest hope is voices like yours and others can bring change and hope and faith in our creator back to this country.

  3. Marty Bowie says:

    Masterful recapitulation of a literary master, Philip!

  4. Rev. Bill Evans says:

    You are always a most remarkable writer, Phillip, and I enjoy every time you widen my perspective. This mingling of Shakespeare and our modern situations is done beautifully. Thank you for being a most trusted brother in Jesus.

  5. Jan Lindell says:

    Thank you for your post.
    Watching the US from abroad, I have recently had some serious thoughts on the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:25, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city og house divided against itself will stand.” I sincerely hope and pray that this will not be the fate of your great country, but the present division, distrust and downright hatred are such discouraging features.

  6. David Player says:

    Philip you have penetrating insights, clear vision, and extraordinary articulation. Keep shining the Christ light for our troubled world my dear brother.

  7. virginia youdale says:

    Thank you so much for this! Apart from what we learnt in school I have never studied Shakespeare and you have opened my eyes! One thinks one knows something…. I have so enjoyedm and pondered, this! Thank you again.

  8. eunice joyce james says:

    Amen to the last paragraph Philip, but I doubt we are likely to see it until Jesus reigns on earth. I so much appreciate all your writings. God bless.Joyce

  9. Esti says:

    Well said

  10. Sue Biggers says:

    I long for a candidate to show a different kind of power with humility and mercy. Me too !! It also has to start with me showing compassion and mercy.
    Thank you, Phillip

  11. María Alejandra Rodriguez says:

    Bien día desde.Argentina!!!! Estaba tomando un café y me atrapó la lectura de este breve comentario del libro. Me gustaría saber si está editado.en Castellano.
    Un abrazo a todos. Gracias a Dios por la pluma iluminada de este.hermano que.nos lleva a reflexionar y pensar. Bendiciones!!

  12. Esther Doerksen says:

    An excellent writing! Your closing statement “ I long for a candidate to show us a different kind of power, that of humility and mercy” is thought provoking! Have never read Romeo and Juliet, perhaps I should! Thank you!

  13. Judith Flickinger says:

    Amen and Amen!

  14. Lisa Simmons says:

    I think some people would say President Obama tried “humility and mercy” when he led his “apology tour”. That didn’t work out very well for America. And it swung the pendulum toward the likes of Donald Trump. While I certainly like most of President Trump’s policies, his crass demeanor has caused much angst in my soul. Ultimately, as we as Christians know, there is one person who was/is able to lead with humility and mercy but that also had/has a fierceness unrivaled and that is Jesus.

  15. Denise Moss says:

    “I long for a candidate to show us a different kind of power, that of humility and mercy.“
    Me too, Philip, me too. 🙏

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