William Shakespeare Love and Romance - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Love and Romance

In Shakespeare's plays, love and romance are often treated in ambiguous ways. Romantic love frequently ends in death, as in the tragedies, but such love may be presented in an idealized manner, shown to be courageous and unconditional. In Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the traditional comic ending featuring one or more marriages is often tempered by a more serious note, which questions the finality of that ending. Additionally, the so-called "romantic" comedies may feature a certain degree of tension between romantic and antiromantic elements. Marriage—typically viewed as the goal of romantic love—is also treated ambiguously by Shakespeare. In many of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, marriages are frequently disrupted by the husband's usually irrational fear of being cuckolded. Despite the taint on marriage by the specter of cuckoldry or by other subversions, marriage nevertheless occupies a central role in Shakespeare's work.

Evelyn Gajowski (1992) examines the qualities shared by Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Desdemona (Othello), and Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), maintaining that all three women give themselves freely to their beloveds without expecting or demanding any reciprocal emotion. Gajowski notes that the women, like the speaker in Shakespeare's sonnets, possess "the courage to love despite awareness of the vicissitudes of human existence." The romantic comedies treat love a bit differently than these tragedies. R. S. White (1981) demonstrates the way in which the finality of comic endings is often questioned in Shakespeare's romantic comedies. In Love's Labour's Lost, for example, the courtships of the couples are postponed when a death is announced; the men are required by their beloveds to undergo a period of self-examination before the relationships may resume. Similarly, Richard A. Levin (1985) observes that in Shakespeare's mature comedies, romantic elements are challenged by "antiromantic" elements. In these works, the conflict between love and fortune is often emphasized, Levin notes. Fortune—as either money or social status—is a "constant temptation" to lovers in these plays. While marriage is usually seen as the happy consummation of romantic love, it is often viewed in less-than-optimistic terms, many critics assert. B. J. Pendlebury (1975) maintains that while the early plays do portray marriage in an optimistic manner, the later plays' treatment of marriage often focuses on the male fear of being deceived by an adulterous wife. Coppélia Kahn (1981) offers a similar assessment, but also notes that even in many of the earlier plays, the threat of cuckoldry "lurks in the wings." Such a fear of cuckoldry stems from a variety of factors, Kahn explains, including the patriarchal marriage itself, where women are viewed as the sexual property of their husbands, and the double standard that permits husbands to have extramarital sex, but makes the perception of the husband's virility dependent on his wife's chastity. Other critics analyze the relevancy of Elizabethan marriage laws and customs to Shakespeare's treatment of matrimony. Ann Jennalie Cook (1991) offers a detailed discussion of Elizabethan betrothal contracts, elopements, annulments, and divorces. Cook highlights the social, legal, and economic punishments exacted for participating in unsanctioned behavior related to betrothals and marriages and then explores Shakespeare's representation of such irregular behavior in his plays. In conclusion, Cook comments that as Shakespeare treats this type of behavior in both negative and positive ways, there is no easy way to assess his own opinions on the matter. Similarly, Margaret Loftus Ranald (1979) demonstrates how Elizabethan issues such as betrothals, contracts, premarital intercourse, impediments to marriage, and the marriage ceremony itself are examined by Shakespeare in many plays in a variety of ways. Ranald observes that marriages form the conclusion to every comedy and typically emphasize social harmony; that marriage is treated both humorously and tragically in Shakespeare's poems; that in the tragedies, the subversion of marital relationships results in some form of disaster; and that in the last plays, Shakespeare places less of an emphasis on the particulars of marital law and instead celebrates "the kind of virtuous love that ends in marriage."

Romantic Comedy

(Shakespearean Criticism)

R. S. White (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Mature Romantic Comedies," in 'Let Wonder Seem Familiar': Endings in Shakespeare's Romance Vision, Humanities Press, Inc., 1985, pp. 35-66.

[In the following essay, White studies the endings of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, maintaining that the playwright experiments with combining the finality of a comic ending with the "endless" nature of a romantic ending.]

Love's Labour's Lost is another attempt by Shakespeare to write the kind of romantic comedy pioneered by Lyly, where the ending is qualified and open. The stroke he uses to solve the problems inherent in the form is daringly simple, for he simply denies the credibility of the conventional happy ending, almost gratuitously going out of his way to provide a complicating factor. The direction of our expectations in the play is clear and conventional. The action seems to be moving towards a declaration of marriage. From the opening, there is little doubt that the sterile vow will crumble before the shattering power of love, and this is what happens. The pageant of the Nine Worthies seems calculated to relax the mood into the festivity of betrothal. Little resistance poses itself to the courtships, since the ladies' coyness is, we find from their conversations, a teasing test of the men rather than a denial of their suits. The vitality lies not in true conflict, nor in the complexity of debate about love but in the fertility of language, and in the energetic release of the men when they fall in love. However, as if it is too easy for the dramatist to satisfy our expectations, and as if love should not be won so easily by men who have denied its existence, resistance is introduced in the form of a chilly message from the outside world:

Enter as messenger. MONSIERU MARCADE.
MARCADE. God save you, madam!
PRINCESS. Welcome, Marcade;
But that thou interruptest our merriment.
MARCADE. I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The King your father—
PRINCESS. Dead, for my life!
MARCADE. Even so; my tale is told.

(V. ii. 703-9)

This strikes a grim note, intruding from a more distressing and succinctly-spoken world into the charm, chatter and hyperbole of the King's curious-knotted garden.1 The King tries to sustain the spirit of gallant courtship, but he is quite roughly rebuffed:

KING. Yet since love's argument was first on foot,
Let not the cloud of sorrow justle it
From what it purpos'd . . .
QUEEN. I understand you not; my griefs are double.

(V. ii. 736-40)

Even after sober declaration of love from the men, the ladies are still not able to treat the proposals except as 'pleasant jest and courtesy, As bombast and as lining to the time.' In Lyly's fashion, a compromise is struck. The ladies will mourn for a year in France, the men are to undergo certain taxing experiences such as living in a hermitage or a hospital, to learn genuine self-denial and understanding of people's problems. After the educative process, the courtship may (or may not) begin afresh.

The play ends with chastened self-awareness on the part of the men and reluctant withdrawal on that of the women:

BEROWNE. Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
KING. Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an' a day
And then 'twill end.
BEROWNE. That's too long for a play.

(V. ii. 862-6)

Berowne's rueful comment is more than just a statement about form, since it points towards a moral lesson which the men ought to have learned during the action. They have throughout treated life as a play and other people as merely objects for their own amusement. After the vow to study has been taken, Berowne asks, "But is there no quick recreation granted?" (I.i.159), and the King replies that Armada the Spaniard will serve their turn:

But I protest I love to hear him lie,
and I will use him for my minstrelsy.


Longaville agrees, adding another human toy to their repertory:

Costard the swain and he shall be our sport;
And so to study three years is but short.


The low-born characters are eventually used mercilessly for the "sport" of the courtly, when their humbly offered entertainment of masque is mocked off the stage in derisive laughter and in a manner which is "not generous, not gentle, not humble" (V.ii.621). To emphasize the point, after this touching line from Holofernes, the shadows lengthen on the world of play: "A light for Monsieur Judas! It grows dark, he may stumble" (V.ii.622). The courtiers have played loose with their oaths, have attempted to play with the lives of the women, have condescendingly played with the low-born characters, and they have played with language, turning every word inside out for a joke. Of course, such things are appropriate to a stage comedy, but a life may not be responsibly led on such a basis. "That's too long for a play" uses the word in at least two senses. By drawing attention to the play as artifice, Shakespeare reminds the audience that it too is about to leave the playful world for one more serious. The hints pointing to the necessity of leaving the golden world for the brazen gather as the end comes in sight. Armado sees his duty for the future through the little hole of discretion, and swears marriage to Jaquenetta, and she too is directed into the future, for she is 'quick, the child brags in her belly already'.2

When the action "doth not end like an old play", it is tempting to see the separation as Shakespeare's rejection of the conventions of literature itself, as if from this point onward he is not writing a work of art but somehow showing us "life" directly. It is worth remembering, however, that he could in fact find many prototypes for such an ending in romance. Apart from Gascoigne's The Adventures of Master F. J. and Lyly's Euphues, which give us saddened retreats, there are more clear-cut analogues. In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Marhaus, Sir Gawain, and Sir Uweyn make an oath to separate from their chosen damsels and to return "that day twelve monthe". "And so they kissed and departed."3 (Gawain's lady is lost and the other two, at the end of the twelve months, effect a permanent separation, which shows that we cannot be so sure of happiness in the world of romance as in comedy.) At the end of The Parliament of Fowls, the female eagle, wooed by three males, asks Nature to allow her to postpone her choice for a year. She advises the lusty suitors:

Beth of good herte, and serveth alle thre.
A yer is nat so longe to endure.


Book I of The Faerie Queene ends with the Redcross Knight leaving his newlywed Una in order to pursue his quest of the Blatand Beast, "The which he shortly did, and Una left to mourne."5 Certainly Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost is exhibiting a general wariness about the authenticity and validity of fictions, yet he is ironically, also drawing on a fictional model in doing so. Romance includes in its vision many separations and reunions, and it is often arbitrary which of the two events will be chosen to end the work. Comedy, on the other hand, characteristically closes with happy harmony. With the arrival of Marcade, a messenger whose forebears lie in Greek tragedy, Shakespeare stops writing comedy and begins to write romance. It seems a paradox in the light of unashamed fictiveness of this genre, but he is also representing something more "realistic" than we find in a comedy where Jack hath Jill and all will be well.

The little songs sung by the Worthies after the action, a timely lightening of the tone, continue the disengagement from the play's golden world. Nothing could be further from the pontifical words of the King at the beginning when declaring the plan for the academe. Instead of lofty abstractions like fame, death, time, honour and eternity, the songs modestly depict rapid vignettes of real life: the sight of flowers and the sounds of birds in spring, physical hardship in winter, evidenced by cold hands, frozen milk and red noses, with their homely, cosy compensations like the prospect of roasted crab-apples sizzling in a pot of ale while greasy Joan keels the pot. The songs accept, without any attempt at evaluation, the contradictions in the seasons: delight and sexual uncertainty in the spring, adversity and warmth in the winter. The repeated syntax, 'When . . . then . . . ' suggests the underlying idea that everything is 'fit in his place and time' (I. i. 98).6 A new attitude towards time's open-endedness, and a new mode of expression (a ballad statement by an uncourtly, rustic voice outside the play world, rather than the dramatic utterance of a character in context), takes us further outside the self-contained fictional world of the play about protected university-types. The direction is appropriate to the overall ideas presented by the play, for the men have discovered that the cloistered attempt to discover truth is barren and offending against the law of nature, because, if they had listened, they would have known that 'it is the simplicity of man to hearken after the flesh'. They must accept the brazen uncertainties of the future before committing themselves to the world-without-end bargain of marriage.

Love's Labour's Lost is Shakespeare's first successful attempt to square up the moral problems raised by the narrative with the necessity for an ending. It is also his first considered attempt to fuse the comic expectation of an ending with the romance tendency towards endlessness. Inconclusive as it is, the play-world is brought to an end with a regretful explanation that the future is too long for a play. The final comment, whatever its authorial sanction, is teasing. 'You that way; we this way' is perhaps the final separation of the play-world (where the characters either go back into their fictional world and visit hospitals, or they take off their play clothes and become people like us) and our own world, as we leave the theatre and walk home, or close the book and prepare supper. Since our own minds must still be partially engaged with the fate of the courtiers, speculating upon whether they will marry or not at the end of a year, endlessness rolls before the worlds of fiction and of fact, despite the attainment of a temporary resting-place in both, the end of the play.

After showing a delicate mastery of the Lylian presentation of romance, ending with a careful compromise that balances and sets against each other the conflicting tensions raised in the action, Shakespeare could conceivably have gone on to remain within such a dramatic world. Instead, he chooses to take a slightly different course. In A Midsummer Night's Dream he partly repeats the experience, but he extends radically an element which is present in Love's Labour's Lost but not emphatically. In the Dream we are faced with the curious sense that the play is functioning fully within the conventional assumptions of romance, and yet also contemplating itself, in a self-conscious way, inviting us to explore the boundaries between romance and the reality outside the work of art. The play achieves such a double perspective by centering around the metaphor of the dream, and by making the ending of the play highly elusive and shifting. Here, we have a new dimension added to the 'endless ending'. Convinced by the illusion, we may remain within the world of the artifice; and yet simultaneously we are encouraged to disengage ourselves from the action, and contemplate it from a more rational distance. With this play, Shakespeare develops a critique of romance expectations, as he did in Love's Labour's Lost, but not yet so drastic a questioning as to imply that he is losing faith in the potency and utility of fictions. A more radical challenge is to be posed in later plays.

The elusiveness of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a whole can be appreciated when we simply try to locate where the actual ending of the play lies, as a point in the action. Aristotle would have some trouble specifying the point 'which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing after it.'7 Does the resolution lie in the awakening of Titania, the awakening of the lovers, the rout of Peter Quince's play or the fairies' benediction pronounced upon the marriage house? In this play which has so many wonderfully overlapping qualities, it is possible to see the inherent tendency of romantic comedy to give a vision of endlessness sustained in one long ending. In his first three scenes, Shakespeare characteristically presents three little societies one by one—the court, the artisans and the fairies—and although unexpected twists will occur, there is never much doubt where each is leading. The need to draw the strings together becomes a matter of urgency as early as III. ii:

My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast.

(III. ii. 378-9)

At the very end the dramatist shows some solicitude for the audience, as he gently allows each society the courtesy of its own farewell, as if acknowledging that we are reluctant to leave his fictional world:

And farewell, friends;
Thus Thisby ends;
Adieu, adieu, adieu.

. . . . .

Lovers, to bed; 'tis almost fairy time

. . . . .

Trip away; make no stay;
Meet me all by break of day.

. . . . .

So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

(V. i. 335-427 passim)

The ripples of farewells move outwards until they wash around the audience. Having seen what, at the time, the audience thought would be the last performance of Peter Brook's production of the play, I can testify to the strange sense of exhilaration, nostalgia and reluctance to leave, inspired in the audience by this rocking, endless ending.

The atmosphere of the play is created largely by the sustained use of the dream metaphor, and the ending is marked by the repeated idea of awakening. Hippolyta's compressed prediction at the beginning sets the direction:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time.

(I. i. 7-8)

So quickly does this happen that the four nights are telescoped into one, and the events packed into that night are 'swift as a shadow, short as any dream' (I. i. 144). There is even a trace of the medieval dream vision of the Roman de la Rose. The lovers, after entering the woods contemplating those doctrines of love that they 'could ever read, Could ever hear by tale of history' are confronted with situations which bring fictional statements to life in such an explicit way that we are reminded of Chaucer falling asleep over 'the Dreem of Scipioun' and dreaming of the parliament of fowls. The ending is made up of a series of awakenings. First is that of the fairy queen:

Oberon. Now, my Titania; wake you, my sweet queen.
Titania. My Oberon ! What visions have I seen!

(IV. i. 72-3)

The wonder of romance is conveyed in the awakening of the four lovers. 'Half sleep, half waking' (IV. i. 146) they tell Theseus that overnight their feelings have changed, and they cannot tell how or why. They are not sure whether they are in the land of the waking or the dreaming:

Demetrius. These things seem small and undistinguishable,
Like far-off mountains turned into clouds.
Hermia. Methinks I see these things with

parted eye,
When everything seems double.

(IV. i. 1-84-7)

It is impossible to be sure grammatically what the repeated 'these things' refers to (the events of the night? the lovers' present condition? Theseus's retinue?), and in the lovers' dazed state of bewilderment, it is unfair to enquire too closely. The experiences of the night and the present happenings of the morning seem unreal, the one displaced and distorted by the perspective of the other. Gradually the lovers mark the limits of what they think to be dream and reality by mentally 'pinching themselves', checking and synchronising the respective versions of the latest fact, the arrival of the Duke. Demetrius concludes:

Why, then, we are awake; let's follow him;
And by the way let us recount our dreams.

(IV. i. 195-6)

They are left not only with hazy recollections of a strange, dream-like ordeal, but with some proof of its occurrence, Demetrius's new-found love for Helena. This identifiable vestige of an intangible experience further confuses the boundary between being awake and being asleep. It should be stressed, however, that the lovers have not been dreaming. We have watched their doings when they were under the sway of fairy power, and we must accept the truth of the events, even if we want to interpret it more as a figurative than literal truth, showing the volatile, dream-like caprice of young love.

Bottom likens his time with the fairy queen in the woods to 'a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was' (IV. i. 204), but in his inimitable way he extends the experience to the status of 'a most rare vision'. His is no idle, deceptive dream, but a vision full of religious significance, as his confusion of Corinthians I, 2, 9 shows:

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was!

(IV. i. 208-11)

The biblical version ends not with 'my dream' but with 'the things which God hath prepared for them that love him'. Bottom's wondering, respectful awe shows that he accepts the episode as a God-given insight into truth. In many ways, his choice of allusion is appropriate in the context of romance. In the biblical version, Paul is justifying faith in the Spirit as a mystery, contrasted with things accessible to mortal reason, which he describes as 'the wisdom of man', and which he subordinates to faith. In echoing this doctrine, Bottom unwittingly casts light on the action of A Midsummer Night's Dream and on the spirit in which we should approach literary romance. 'The wisdom of man' as voiced by Theseus can make nothing of the strange happenings in the forest, and he sees them as 'antique fables' and 'fairy toys' told by infatuated lovers who are as deranged as poets and madmen:

.. . the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

(1 Corinthians, ii, 14)

We, who have witnessed the deeds of Oberon and Puck, have more faith in the mystery. But even for us, there remains the impenetrable and talismanic secret of the magic flowers. The humble love-in-idleness, simultaneously the secret of love and the speckled pansy, challenges us to dismiss it as a 'weak and idle theme', dares us to be so childish as to believe in its magical properties. And love is such a sub-rational affair that we dismiss the flower at our peril. Irrational, improbable and artificial as the events of romance may be, the mode is capable of carrying a 'great constancy' apprehensible by those willing to awaken their faith. At the same time, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a 'self-conscious' romance, since the contrary view, Theseus's voice of reason, finds its place alongside the mysterious motifs of true romance. The ending gives us a 'goodnight' from both Theseus and Puck.

The interlude, 'Pyramus and Thisbe', another story from romance, serves the double function of relaxing the tone into that of a happy wedding feast, and it creates yet another recession into a fictional world. 'It is nothing, nothing in the world' (V. i. 78) protests Philostrate, and indeed the play is 'like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered' (V. i. 124). For that matter, though, the whole of Shakespeare's play is 'nothing' in its elusive insubstantiality. The interlude has all the old romance features: 'A lover that kills himself most gallant for love' (I. ii. 19), a lion (which appears in the Arcadia and Rosalynde), and a lady loved by the hero, moonlight (paralleled in the Arcadia, Montemayor's Diana, Sannazaro's Arcadia, and many other romances), but it has nothing so incredible as fairies or the transformation of a man into an ass. The artistic effect that Peter Quince aims at is close to what the Dream as a whole achieves:

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show;
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.

(V. i. 126-7)

The ending, though hinging upon remorseless death instead of Ovid's metamorphosis of the lovers into the dark red berry of the mulberry tree, retrieves something for the future. Pyramus's soul is in the sky, and in good Romeo and Juliet fashion, 'the wall is down that parted their fathers' (V. i. 342). The differences between 'Pyramus and Thisbe' and the Dream as a whole, lie not in the materials, but in the respective attitudes to artifice. Ignoring such aspects as plausibility of conduct, consistency of atmosphere, truth of human responses and so on, Quince concentrates on matters which Shakespeare leaves to our 'imaginary forces', like bringing the moonlight onto the stage. The artisans make the same mistake as Frolick in The Old Wives ' Tale when, hearing about the 'King or a lord, or a Duke that had a fair daughter', he worries about 'who drest his dinner then?'8 They show unawareness of art as an illusion capable of creating a self-sufficient and convincing world which 'grows to something of great constancy, But howsoever strange and admirable' (V. i. 26-7). Like Theseus, they ignore the call to faith and imagination necessitated by the romance mode, hinted at by Bottom and Saint Paul. Perhaps this is why Theseus enjoys the play, whereas the imaginative Hippolyta is irritated by it.

The courtiers' ridicule of the players is directed mainly at the literal-mindedness of the mechanicals' attempts to create verisimilitude, but they do not realise a quiet irony at their own expense. The play of 'Pyramus and Thisbe', seen as a romance whose dénouement depends on chance, accident, and an unseen force of 'Fate', resembles the events which the lovers have themselves encountered in the woods. When Hermia extends to Helena her wish that 'good luck grant thee thy Demetrius' (I. i. 221), she speaks prophetically: it is good luck, no more, no less. In romance the actual result, death or marriage, is sometimes arbitrary, and these lovers are fortunate that the deities placed in temporary control over their destiny (and the permanent deity, the dramatist), are benevolent, while the 'Fates' ruling the lives of Pyramus and Thisbe are less sympathetic. The lovers have no right to criticise the genre of dramatic romance, and if they had the distance and insight of a Feste, each would admit that 'I was one, sir, in this interlude'.9 Even Theseus cannot complain of the seething brains and shaping fantasies of poets, for without them he would never have existed. Such thoughts are whimsical but, as well as illustrating Shakespeare's apparent lifelong obsession with the sin of ingratitude, they seem to be invited by the play itself Its series of overlapping endings folds the play inwards in a series of receding artifices, until we wonder whether the life which the play relinquishes us to is yet another vision, 'No more yielding but a dream'.

The Merchant of Venice gives a different compromise between the comic ending and the romance desire for endlessness. It is again debateable what we call the ending, for there are two distinct dramatic climaxes, each followed by quieter, anti-climactic sections. The first climax is the scene in which Bassanio chooses the leaden casket and plights his troth to Portia (III. ii). The scene is ceremonial and hushed, full of rapt expressiveness of love and joy:

O love, be moderate, allay thy ecstasy,
In measure rain thy joy, scant this excess!
I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less,
For fear I surfeit.

(III. ii. 111-4)

Bassanio likens his confusion to the effect in a crowd of a prince's speech,

Where every something, being blent together,
Turns to a wild of nothing, save of joy
Express'd and not express'd.

(III. ii. 182-4)

Nerissa happily cries 'Good joy, my lord and lady', and she immediately wins a husband in Gratiano. They begin to discuss the feast which will celebrate the two marriages, and they even joke about who will have the first child. If the prime issue were the marriage of Portia, the play is more or less over at this point, and there are all the trappings, the 'wonder', of the comic ending in the treatment of the scene. The rest of the play is about married love rather than courtship, and even in this context, the course of true love does not run smooth.

The action continues with the news of Antonio's financial ruin. From here on, we build towards the second climax, the confrontation of Portia and Shylock in the courtroom (IV. i). The development might be interpreted in different ways. As many critics have noted,10 the play presents a running debate about value, measured by feelings or by finance. Even Portia is described in monetary terms as the golden fleece, 'nothing undervalu'd To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia' (I. i. 165-6), and many Jasons come in quest of her. Even Bassanio comes as a fortune-hunter. This makes the marriage less crucial than the resolution of the clash between conceptions of value based on money, epitomised most starkly in the actions of Shylock, and conceptions of value based on love and friendship, belonging to Portia in Belmont. Alternatively, we could place Portia herself even closer to the centre, and say that the play shows her developing in character from weary fatalism generated by the mercenary aims of her suitors and the lax, aristocratic boredom of one who cannot 'choose' her destiny ('so is the will of a living daughter curb'd by the will of a dead father' (I. ii. 18-22)), to the point where, after the 'lott'ry' has been settled, she takes her own future into her own hands. With adaptable independence, she takes on the barrister's role and dominates proceedings. It is she also who brings news to Antonio of the successes of his argosies, and as if she has herself become now a representative of powers of providence, she will not disclose 'by what strange accident' she chanced on the letter. (More cynically, however, we might suspect that she has paid the bill herself, with her massive wealth.) No matter what overall structure we choose to find in the play, it is a peculiar comedy in that it keeps going long after the celebration of marriage. Like the romances, it presents a vision of cycles moving from joy to disaster to joy, into the future.

The play keeps going even after the triumph in the courtroom. Act Five, so easily seen as a flat anticlimax after the tenseness of the struggle against Shylock, seems designed to retrieve the ethic of love after the severe challenge made to it, but even so, there are odd tonalities. The lyrical aria between Lorenzo and Jessica as they sit upon the bank watching the moonlight and recalling mythical lovers, strikes a note of idealism, but it thickens in a kind of cloying self-indulgence as the music plays. The poetry seems to mark time, to the point of stagnation, with a waiting expectancy, and 110 lines pass while all that happens is the setting of the moon. Normally, the tempo of a romance or comedy quickens after the climax, but here it moves with a deliberate slowness. There is even a touch of disease in the air. "This night methinks is but the daylight sick." (V. i. 124) Suddenly, however, as Portia is reunited with Bassanio, a cascade of puns on 'light' switches the play into a bantering tone that lasts until the end. Unfortunately, even this climax cannot be seen unequivocally as the joyful festivity of reconciliation, for the jokes hide barbs. The two pairs of lovers have their first quarrel when they discuss 'the rings', and even though we are confident that the women are simply playing a game, there seems to be an element of self-righteous power-domination, in the way they keep the men on edge for so long. Is this Shakespeare's sardonic prediction of the future of their marriages, in their bickering over trivia? For the women, there is an important point at stake, for they are seeking to establish the principle of fidelity in relationships. They indignantly harp on the 'false heart' that will give away a betrothal ring, as if its value is no more than mercenary: "I'll die for't but some woman had the ring." (V. i. 208) There plays about the rings themselves an ambiguity, for they are regarded by the men as mere trinkets, by the women as profoundly significant symbols. Bassanio with shamefaced exasperation splutters that they have given to the lawyers the rings given by Portia and Nerissa:

Sweet Portia,
If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring,
And would conceive for what I gave the ring,
And how unwillingly I left the ring,
When nought would be accepted but the ring,
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.

(V. i. 192-8)

The interchange demonstrates anything but an easy, affectionate exercise of romantic forgiveness, considering that the ring is an ancient motif of recognition from romance. In this play of "struggle",11 even reconciliation between lovers has its distresses. In this case the women, when they admit that they were the lawyers, use the rings to inform the men that they have all shared in the arduous and frightening trial in the courtroom, emphasising the mutuality of suffering in love. The loss of the rings also threatens momentarily the happiness of the two couples, and to this extent the women use the episode to symbolise the trust and fidelity necessary to the shared quality of love. By shaming the men, they also establish some dominance in the relationships. At the same time, Bassanio's refrain 'the ring' brings laughter to a theatre audience, and the laughter sounds a challenge to a convention in which tiny trinkets may somehow embody experiences and relationships. Othello takes the hint past harmless parody. The loss of a handkerchief, an even more mundane object, has disastrous consequences, because of the symbolical value accorded it by one character who pins his faith on the romantic vision of life. In the comic world, the potentially tragic chain of events is arrested by a timely disclosure, and a return to common sense, but there is a lurking suspicion that the happy state may not be permanent.

If The Merchant of Venice gives us an ending distinguished by its capacity to 'keep going' into and through incipient disaster, it also excludes one character from the bonhomie of festivity. Shylock is the clearest example of what Northrop Frye calls the 'scapegoat' figure, upon whose distress the comedy is secured. Compassionate actors and critics have seen Shylock's fate as too harsh for a comedy, but in the moral stresses of the play it is defensible. Shakespeare, by the very direction of his comedy, has played advocate on behalf of love and forgiveness, though he has tested them both thoroughly, and he has placed himself against a devil who respects only the 'compulsion' of the law without recognising any concept of mercy:

My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.

(IV. i. 201-2)

The brazen world of legality and money is directly challenging the ethics of the golden world of feelings. The integrity of the writer forces him to provide a genuine resolution, like Sidney in the Old Arcadia, without evading the terms of the struggle. Portia must attack and defeat Shylock with legalistic arguments, for he respects no others. The Jew has placed himself outside a society based on human values, and he resists all appeals to sympathy and forgiveness:

By my soul I swear
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me.

(IV. i. 235-17)

His implacable ruthlessness is condemned even by the judge, who feels that at law he must uphold the Jew's claim. Having defeated Shylock with his own form of reasoning, by logic-chopping and mercenary legalism, it is not only just but imperative that Portia, on behalf of the forces of love, must extract the full penalty. In fact, Antonio extends to Shylock the 'mercy' of allowing him to live, and giving him the use of half his goods during his lifetime. The deeper irony, of course, is that the defendants themselves are not entirely innocent of Shylock's offences. Portia's suitors have been mercenary, including Bassanio, and Antonio makes his living as a speculative merchant. The crowing rudeness of Gratiano in the courtroom is considerably less than generous. And Shylock himself has explained that his tactics are valid in a world where Jews are few and Christians are many:

O father Abram, what these Christians are,
Whose own hard dealings teaches them suspect
The thoughts of others!

(I. iii. 155-7)

The tenuous answer is, that whereas Shylock is consistently mercenary and revengeful, the Christians are redeemable because of their basic ethics of human value. Bassanio, for all his faults, does learn from the milieu of Belmont, and chooses the leaden casket, instead of consistently seeing human worth in terms of monetary worth. Because of their implication in the Jew's guilt, however, the Christians cannot afford to be complacent. They should see his defeat as an event which exorcises an element in their own society. Shakespeare is trying to establish a principle or concept which is not represented wholly in any one character, and it is the absence of an embodiment of this principle which forces the dramatist to test with vigilance every action and assumption. As a consequence, Antonio is left alone at the end, a minor scapegoat. Because his trade is money, he is given a monetary reward for his generosity, but he must endure the loneliness of a man who does not base his life fully on an ethic of love. The ending of the play must 'keep going' because the basic threats to its world are still at large, just as the Blatant Beast is at large after Book VI of The Faerie Queene, and more aptly, as Mammon is untouched by his encounter with Sir Guyon.

After the three previous comedies which present variations on the 'endless ending', As You Like It returns to a straightforward celebratory ending in the fashion of Robert Greene and Henry the Fifth. Even the play's closely followed source, Lodge's Rosalynde, is not so weightily concluded as the play. The dramatist slows down the tempo of the last action, expanding what was a rushed and relieved summary in the prose work, into a slow, ceremonial occasion, noticeable after the chatty conversationalism and pace of the rest. The two or three pages at the end of Rosalynde, where the interest shifts from love to the national welfare as the Duke triumphantly leads his men back to overthrow the tyrant, are eliminated in the play and replaced by a miraculous conversion of the bad Duke when he enters the skirts of the forest. Even he is brought into the fold, and poses no future threat. There are some anticipations of trouble. Jaques bequeaths to Touchstone 'wrangling; for thy loving voyage Is but for two months victuall'd' (V. iv. 185), recalling for a moment Rosalind's advice that maids are May when they woo, but the sky changes when they are wives. Jaques himself, remembering Euphues, serenely leaves the wedding feast for sober contemplation. His retreat is the 'tremor in the balance' described by Anne Barton, but it is not allowed to cause us distress.12 Nothing really threatens the moment of 'true delights', and the aesthetic finality is as marked as the emotional:

First, in this forest let us do these ends
That here were well begun and well begot.

(V. iv. 164-5)

Shakespeare even pulls the trick of introducing a new character, Hymen, to establish the mystical nature of the marriages. He has no need of this supernatural introduction. In Lodge's work, the capable resourcefulness of 'the amorous Girle-boy'13 holds the situation in firm control after she reaches the forest, and she carefully prepares and effects the coup de théatre in which all she need do is display her true identity, to bring about the happy ending. No supernatural influence is needed. Earlier in the story, the disguised Rosalynde comforts her lover by saying that she has a friend 'that is deeply experienst in Negromancy and Magicke, what art can do shall be acted for thine aduantage',14 but this is simply a reassuring fiction without significance for the plot. Shakespeare is taking up Lodge's hint of magic and he makes the ending seem like a spell. Rosalind decides the time has come to draw the couples to the ark in marriage, after Celia and Oliver have vowed their love. Orlando is showing impatience with the charade, and needs more tangible reassurance:

Rosalind. Why, then, to-morrow I cannot serve your turn for
Orlando. I can live no longer by thinking.
Rosalind. I will weary you, then, no longer with idle talking . . .

(V. ii. 46-8)

This is a curiously intense moment, for both recognise—Orlando with irritation, Rosalind with disappointed pique—that they are no longer playing games of words and disguises, but playing in earnest with their future lives. With businesslike briskness, Ganimede promises to bring together Rosalind and Orlando, Phebe and Silvius, on the morrow when Celia and Oliver are to be married. The claim is that magical power is involved:

Believe then, if you please, that I can do strange things. I have, since I was three year old, convers'd with a magician, most profound in his art and yet not damnable.

(V. ii. 57-60)

The claim is emphasised by repetition:

Orlando. Speak'st thou in sober meanings?
Rosalind. By my life, I do; which I tender dearly, though I say I am a magician.

(V. ii. 64-6)

Although sceptical, Orlando is inclined to believe the story:

I sometimes do believe and sometimes not.

. . . . .

But, my good lord, this boy is forest-born,
And hath been tutor'd in the rudiments
Of many desperate studies by his uncle,
Whom he reports to be a great magician,
Obscured in the circle of this forest.

(V. iv. 3 and V. iv. 30-4)

The repeated emphasis on the supposed magical powers of Ganimede establishes a sense of romance mystery, even if we detect a Puckish joke by Shakespeare that it is he, as dramatist, who is Rosalind's tutor, who can bring about whatever ending he wishes. The several sets of phrases that suddenly break out, take on the force of incantations, as if all the characters are spell-bound: 'And so am I for . . . '; 'I will marry/satisfy/content you . . . to-morrow'; 'You say that you'll . . .' ; 'Keep you your word . . .' (V. ii. 75-101). Rosalind breaks the spell, for it is too early: 'Pray you, no more of this; 'Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon' (V. ii. 103-4). But the spell-like tone is re-established in the final scene. The formality with which Rosalind and Celia are presented in their own persons by Hymen, a divine figure mysteriously produced and accompanied by 'still music', takes us into yet another mode, reminiscent not so much of the magic spell as the neoplatonic axioms of marriage as an earthly analogue of divine harmony:

Then is there mirth in heaven,
When earthly things made even
Atone together.

(V. iv. 102-4)

After the heightened, ceremonial song of Hymen in praise of marriage, there is hushed economy in the interchange, as Rosalind is recognised, and reconciled with her father and lover. The patterned, rocking repetitions are noticeable after the flexible speech rhythms of the dialogue before this final scene:

Rosalind. [To Duke] To you I give myself, for I am yours.
[To Orlando] To you I give myself, for I am yours.
Duke Senior. If there be truth in sight, you are my daughter.
Orlando. If there be truth in sight, you are my Rosalind.
Phebe. If sight and shape be true,
Why then my love adieu!
Rosalind. I'll have no father, if you be not he;
I'll have no husband, if you be not he;
Nor ne'er wed woman, if you be not she.

(V. iv. 110-18)

Only Phebe's plaintive wail (the shift in tone indicated by the different metre), hints that the identity of 'Ganimede', understood by the audience throughout, is now clear also to the characters. The masque-like stasis of the wooing tableau is broken on the entrance of Jaques de Boys, to report the situation outside the woods, and an air of busy activity is resumed with rustic revelry.

Unlike Viola at the end of Twelfth Night, Rosalind retires, takes off her disguise and returns, before the betrothals. Whereas in the prose account, the narrator can simply tell us this, and bring her back without more ado, the dramatist must fill a vacuum while Rosalind changes, and attention falls on the chatter of Touchstone. When she returns, the tone has altered. She is now a limited character, Rosalind the court-dweller, and no longer the forest-born magician. This is one reason why Hymen takes over the role of controlling deity, imposing upon the woman a limited place in the human pattern of betrothals, after her period of freedom in disguise. In fact, she does not say a word after the wedding song sung by Hymen, until the epilogue. The case reverses that of Viola. Rosalind has been liberated by her masculine disguise, able to speak her mind and exuberantly act out her impulses, and when she takes off the disguise, there is inevitably a narrowing of the range of emotions and activities expected from her. Rosalind is literally brought down to earth, and the exercise of destiny which she has held in the forest, must now be yielded up to a more coercive form of providence—social conventions, as represented in the conservatism of the comic ending.

The figure of Hymen may have been suggested to Shakespeare by Lyly's gods, but the dramatic function is different. Hymen does not adjudicate but presides; the character does not influence the plot but indicates the existence of a mystical hierarchy above the human courtship. The marriage is in this case no compromise but an inevitable outcome of expectation. Hymen does not belong to any characterised society like the fairies in the Dream and the gods in Lyly. The best comparison for the scene, I think, is Spenser's Epithalamion. Both are intended as offerings to the socially sanctioned deity of married love, in order to elevate the occasion above individual common experience:

And thou great Iuno, which with awful might
The lawes of wedlock still dost patronize,
And the religion of the faith first plight
With sacred rites hast taught to solemnize:
And eeke for comfort often called art
Of women in their smart,
Eternally bind thou this louely band,
And all thy blessings vnto vs impart.

. . . . .

And thou fayre Hebe, and thou Hymen free,
Grant that it may so be.
Til which we cease your further prayse to sing,
Ne any woods shal answer, nor your Echo ring.


Spenser's poem, of course, is written throughout in this reverential, unhurried way, whereas Shakespeare has to make a radical shift of tone in order to achieve such a plateau in this play. He creates in a new way the sense of endlessness demanded by romance, by lifting the events of the betrothal from the temporal flux into the realm of stable social harmony. The pains of courtship, its bullying, its strategical, testing lies (signalled by Rosalind's disguise), its moments of animal rapacity and its sharp distresses, are all gathered into a moment when the significance of the event is celebrated. For a short time, the ending of As You Like It is an endless monument to the capacity of betrothal to clarify, surpass and consummate a period of time by establishing a form of stability.

Rosalind's epilogue snatches back for a moment the abrasiveness of prose after the ceremoniousness of poetry, as a reminder of what has led up to the betrothals. She speaks now not as a representative of fortune, nor in the figure of Ganimede who had been liberated by disguise to speak about women from the outside. She speaks for the dramatist who has been playing games of invention upon us: 'My way is to conjure you'. As if to emphasise the mischievous element of feigning throughout the play, Rosalind suddenly speaks as a boy-actor: 'If I were a woman . . .' 'If is the language of hypothesis, summing up the conjectured likelihoods of the golden world which are pressed upon us by the conjuring of the dramatist.16

By making us now aware of the strategy he has been employing, Shakespeare takes us a step away from the magical delights of the marriage scene and from the jubilant pastime in the forest of Arden, and allows us to slip back into the world without close.

In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare presents yet another variation on the comic/romance ending. The nature of the experiment might be summed up by saying that he manages to fuse two different kinds of material which are potentially discrepant, and he does so by giving equal attention to two sets of relationships. The "love" between Claudio and Hero comes from the world of romance, although in essence the presentation threatens our belief in romantic sentiment. The love between Beatrice and Benedick mingles aspects of the rough and tumble English comic tradition (Gammer Gurion's Needle and the Taming of a Shrew, supplemented by Shakespeare's own The Shrew) with something we might call a more realistic social observation. Paradoxically, just as the romance plot comes to challenge romance itself, so the "realistic" plot represents a far more solid and trustworthy basis for romantic love between man and woman. The paradoxes emerge partly out of the blend itself, for we are encouraged to compare and contrast the behavior and feelings of the two sets of lovers. The ending introduces new complexities.

Partly it is the strong definition of a total society in Messina which allows Shakespeare to encapsulate the two kinds of material in a single focus. In this little society, with its constant gossiping, eavesdropping, "noting", and suspicion,17 no relationship goes unnoticed. Such prying vigilance eventually exposes weaknesses in the literary, romantic ethic of love based on appearances, while fostering a strong-minded wariness about the...

(The entire section is 20382 words.)

Love Tragedy

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Evelyn Gajowski (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Human Affiliation and the Wedge of Gender," in The Art of Loving: Female Subjectivity and Male Discursive Traditions in Shakespeare's Tragedies, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 120-26.

[In the following essay, Gajowski argues that in Shakespeare's love tragedies, Shakespeare emphasizes the humanity common among male and female characters, despite culturally enforced conceptions of gender roles. Gajowski focuses on the characteristics of the female protagonists in these plays and the nature of their love for the male protagonists.]

Only connect . . .

—E. M. Forster, Howards...

(The entire section is 3210 words.)

Courtship And Marriage

(Shakespearean Criticism)

B. J. Pendlebury (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Happy Ever After: Some Aspects of Marriage in Shakespeare's Plays," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 227, No. 1319, December, 1975, pp. 324-28.

[In the following essay, Pendlebury examines the development of Shakespeare's treatment of marriage in his plays, noting that in the early comedies, the prospect of marriage is of primary significance and is represented in an optimistic manner, whereas in the later plays, Shakespeare's tone regarding marriage shifts to a more pessimistic one.]

Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage! So says Feste in Twelfth Night. Now, clearly we must not...

(The entire section is 32677 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Cheatham, George. "Imagination, Madness, and Magic: The Taming of the Shrew as Romantic Comedy." Iowa State Journal of Research 59, No. 3 (February 1985): 221-32.

Argues that The Taming of the Shrew resembles Shakespeare's later comedies, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, in that it employs the metaphors of role-playing, madness, and magic to examine the transformative power of love.

Kahn, Coppélia. "'The Savage Yoke': Cuckoldry and Marriage." In Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, pp. 119-50. University of California Press, 1981.

Analyzes the theme of the married...

(The entire section is 652 words.)