2016 Press Releases

Shakespeare and love

12 Feb 2016
Dr Edel Semple, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies, School of English, UCC: The word “love” occurs over 2,000 times in Shakespeare. Photo: Emmet Curtin.

William Shakespeare has long been associated with love. His poem “Venus and Adonis”, about the goddess of love and her ill-fated infatuation with a beautiful youth, was one of the great literary successes of the Tudor era, and the popularity of Romeo and Juliet has helped ‘Romeo’ to become shorthand for a passionate lover or sweetheart. 

Sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” is the most popular Renaissance poem read at weddings. 

Commentaries on love have been extracted from the plays and have entered common usage – Lysander’s remark in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that “The course of true love never did run smooth” will be a familiar quote to many, as will Twelfth Night’s Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on”. 

Love is a perennial preoccupation in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. In fact, the word “love” occurs over 2,000 times in Shakespeare, it appears in each of the thirty-seven plays, and it is the driving force of many of their plots. (In contrast, “hate” appears less than 200 times across the canon – Shakespeare truly is a poet of love.) Unsurprisingly perhaps, “love” appears frequently in the great tragic love story Romeo and Juliet, and in comedies such as As You Like It, Midsummer, and Much Ado About Nothing.

Shakespeare’s lovers spend much time musing on the nature of love and the trials and tribulations of romance. Midsummer’s Hermia observes that suffering and troubles are “As due to love as thoughts, and dreams, and sighs, Wishes, and tears”, while in As You Like It Silvius, whose love is unrequited, tells the audience what it is to love:

It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion, and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all obedience (5.2.84-88)

Some of Shakespeare’s lovers are more level-headed and practical; Rosalind, for instance, educates her beloved so that he becomes a better man and she sensibly reminds him that “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love”. 

For most lovers however, it would seem that conflicting emotions, foolishness,pain, and pleasure are all part and parcel of the experience. Shakespeare’s works also present us with broken-hearted lovers and jaded cynics. In Troilus and Cressida, for example, Pandarus is unimpressed by the genealogy of love: “Is this the generation of love? Hot blood, hot thoughts and hot deeds? Why, they are vipers. Is love a generation of vipers?” Used as a go-between, a pimp, Pandarus will be a bitter man by the close of this play and will bequeath his sexually-transmitted diseases to the audience as a malevolent gift. 

Overall however, Shakespeare’s works don’t present a uniform definition of love or a manifesto on how to win love, rather we are offered us a complex, kaleidoscopic view of love, his works areexplorative forays into the workings of human hearts and minds (and sometimes, loins)  – whether you wish to mock, condemn, or celebrate loveShakespeare offers something for everyone on Valentine’s Day.

As this year marks the quartercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, it is perhaps fitting to consider the enduring passion for Shakespeare. (Interestingly, there is in fact a term for the excessive love or worship of Shakespeare – ‘Bardolatry’.)

In Ireland, Cork in particular has long had a love affair with the works of Shakespeare. The famous Victorian Shakespeare scholar Edward Dowden was born here in 1843 and began his education in Queen’s College Cork; the Cork Shakespearean Company has thrived since it was founded in 1924; and in recent years the Corcadorca theatre company has had much success with its site specific productions of Shakespeare staged around the city.

In the coming months, UCC will host a series of events to celebrate Shakespeare, with public lectures in April and play readings and lectures in the Autumn. Bardolators and lovers of literature will be most welcome!

Dr Edel Semple, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies, School of English, UCC.




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