Days are getting longer and the daylight has us seeing a smidge of light at the end of the dark, cold winter tunnel. To help bring a little much needed light into our lives, we can look forward to Valentines Day, a pleasant little reminder to show our appreciation to others and hope that someone is thinking about us – chocolates, helllloooooo!!!
As we prepare for the sea of endless red hearts and sweet, yet incredibly commercial, hullabaloo, let’s take a step back from our 21st Century, Information Age, increasingly cynical sensibilities to appreciate the significance of love in one of the most important artists throughout the ages.
If you only consider Valentines Day to be simply the commercial construct of big candy and FTD, consider that they aren’t alone, regardless the motivation, in wanting to pay significant tribute to romantic love and our need to have it expressed, even if only once a year!
William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, actor, and fairly unanimously regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist, makes frequent reference to the subject of romantic love.
Shakespeare’s influence on our own cultural thinking about romantic love comes as no surprise when you look at some of his most famous love quotes. The world’s most influential literary mind has deftly defined the experience and character of such topics as war, death, politics and much more – never without the right words to stab at the heart of the the human experience. Shakespeare’s perspective on love is no different in it’s impact.
Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, one of the Bard’s best known and popular lines, conveys the potential depths of romantic love – a man addressing a woman while projecting well into the future, imagining her old and decrepit, to illustrate that this smitten young man sees beyond her youthful beauty, his love timeless.
His sonnet 116, Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments, however, speaks to a love far deeper than simply the romantic. It’s a philosophical dissertation on the substance of love and its eternal quality.
You can’t really talk about Shakespeare and love and not look to Romeo and Juliet as the literary epitome of true, everlasting, if not a tad mis-guided, romantic love. Passion and love, boundless, in two young lovers, though their destiny doomed.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
The beautiful expressions of romantic love in Shakespeare’s various works are innumerable, his plays littered with lovers be they doomed or otherwise. Another favourite from the pages of Romeo and Juliet, the young man, immediately and fatally smitten, conveys his overwhelming and emotional infatuation as he gazes with awe at Juliet at the first sight of her. That she has set his world alight goes without question given his unwavering and devoted admiration.
Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.
While tragic to be sure, I’m not sure there’s a Shakespeare pairing that depicts romantic, passionate love quite like that of Antony and Cleopatra. One of the most complex and fully developed female characters in the playwright’s body of work, the indelible Cleopatra, cannot overcome the challenges beset by her lover’s conflict between love and duty. Passion, power, treachery and, of course, misunderstanding define this doomed relationship.
The epitome of what we ordinary folk would hope to enjoy on any Valentines Day, their infatuation for one another is to the exclusion of all else. In their first scene Cleopatra and Antony ignore everyone around them, despite being surrounded by courtiers and ambassadorial visitors from Rome.
They have eyes only for each other.
If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
I’ll set a born how far to be beloved.
Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new
If this is really love, she says, tell me how much. He replies that love that can be measured is worthless. She tells him that she’ll set a boundary on how far he can love her. Antony responds that she will have to go beyond the boundaries of the known world and seek out unexplored regions of the Earth and also the unknown heavens.
Valentines Day in a tragic nutshell! Flirtation, emotion, hyperbole, sexual attraction and the suggestion that they share something eternal and divine. Whew! And expressed in so few words between them.
The gift of love as per Shakespeare… expressed like no other, before or since!
Despite the controversy and commercialism surrounding this mid-winter holiday, is it really so bad?! This year, let’s just revel in a day of love and look to the wonders of Shakespeare to supply its language.
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