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."