Shakespeare and the Notion of Love

It would seem that this is going to be the year for Romeo and Juliet. There’s a new movie coming out (starring the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld) and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre has a production slated for their 2013-2014 season.

I’ve never particularly liked Romeo and Juliet. I feel like I should but I’m always disappointed by productions of it. For this, I blame a professor from my freshman year of undergrad. The reason I’m consistently disappointed by productions of Romeo and Juliet is because I have yet to see a production of it based on his interpretation.

This professor’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet starts with the line Juliet says to Romeo after they have their first kiss – she tells him, “You kiss by the book.”

She’s not speaking metaphorically – she’s referring to an actual book. And she obviously doesn’t think that kissing by it is a good thing.

In Elizabethan England, the second most widely circulated book (after the Bible) was a collection of English translations of troubadour romantic poetry. Troubadour poetry was highly formulaic and this formula defined the Elizabethan ideal of romance, much like rom-coms do for us today (and, like rom-coms today, this book created unrealistic expectations of love and romance in Renaissance English society). With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare lined up every standard trope of troubadour romance…

… and called shenanigans on the entire thing.

In troubadour poetry, a man in love must be love-sick: he’s mopey, depressed and sighing; he stops sleeping; he stops eating; he stops grooming; he eschews the company of his friends. According to the troubadour poets, this is always how you know a man is in love. And it’s a perfect description of Romeo – at the beginning of the play when he’s in love with Rosaline.

After he meets Juliet, though, both Friar Laurence and Mercutio remark how he’s back to his old self, no longer anything like the love-sick man upheld by the troubadour poets:

Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?
Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art
thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature.

Being in love with Juliet makes Romeo happy and brings out the best parts of himself.

Every troubadour love story has a balcony scene. The man comes upon his lady love’s house and calls her out to her balcony (against her better judgment) where he proceeds to serenade, seduce, and cajole her into letting him steal a forbidden kiss. He then begs her to agree to another clandestine meeting.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is already on her balcony waiting for Romeo to show up. She dominates the exchange – she has more lines, she dictates the entire flow of their conversation, she outwits and out-spars him at every turn – and she’s the one who demands to know when their next meeting will be. For that matter, she’s the one who understands exactly why their romance probably can’t work – she’s savvy, strong, and politically aware – far more so than Romeo. It’s a complete inversion of the required dynamic in troubadour poems.

At first, this take on the play seems too revisionist, it smacks a bit too much of post-modern feminism. But the professor went through it scene-by-scene and contrasted it to several troubadour love stories from the same period – the pattern is absolutely consistent. Shakespeare eviscerates every single troubabdourean trope. He clearly had no patience for the Elizabethan ideal of romance.

For further proof, one need only look to Sonnet 130. I imagine it like this:

A group of men sit at the local tavern of an evening, well into their cups. As men are wont to do in each others company once the alcohol has begun to work its wiles upon them, they commence to brag about the women in their lives, each attempting to one-up the other.

The first man describes the beauty of his wife’s eyes, so brightly luminous they outshine the very sun itself.

The second man proclaims that his mistress’ lips are the reddest, most plump, most kissable lips in all the land.

The third man raptures over the porcelain skin of his girlfriend. And so on, around the table.

And then Bill Shakespeare, drunkest of them all, stands up, looks the first man straight in the eye, and says:

“Oh, yeah? Well, my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun!”

He turns to the second man and says, “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.”

To the third man, “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.”

And so on, answering each man at the table.

At first, his friends are nonplussed. What is this? Is he mourning that his mistress is so much worse than theirs? Is he getting maudlin again? But no – this is too fiery to be melancholy, there’s real passion here. Is it anger?

Slowly, they begin to understand – it’s pride. He’s bragging. For all the proclaimed ways in which his mistress lacks, for all the ways she falls short of the ideal of beauty, he truly believes her to be the most worthy woman in the world.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Because Shakespeare knows his friends are lying. Men such as they don’t date supermodels. The women in their lives are just like them – hard-used by life and it shows. Their over-baked proclamations are nothing more than wishful thinking, competitive braggadocio.

Yet men such as they do truly love their women, and they desire them with all the same passion and devotion as ever a troubadour hero desired any aristocratic supermodel. But the love of men such as they is real, it’s of the world, and that’s what makes it important – it’s what helps make the world bearable. Real love such as theirs is a far greater thing than any frilly idealized notion of love.

The troubadours tell stories of love that real men and women can never have, a love that could never survive the trials and tribulations of life.

The love of real people – men and women who exist and breathe together in the harsh light of reality – is a love that can make you strong, that can warm your bed at night, and that lets you face the world with a partner at your side.

Compared to the insipid lust of a troubadour poet for the rarefied beauty of a supermodel, the love of a real person is truly beyond compare.

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