Shakespeare on Love and Marriage

The course of true love never did run smooth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, scene 1, l. 134

As human beings are essentially the same today as they were 400 years ago, William Shakespeare’s insights into relationships are as useful today as they were during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth.  We know very little of Shakespeare’s actual relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway.  However, the plays and poems of the English language’s greatest writer provide a never-ending source of wisdom as to matters of the heart.  In counseling their clients, lawyers apply cool reason.  However, as Nick Bottom correctly noted, “reason and love keep little company together nowadays,” A Midsummers Night’s Dream, Act III, scene 1, l. 138.  Permit this lawyer to delve into an examination of what advice a poet can provide on love and marriage.

A Midsummers Night’s Dream is a rollicking comedy in which we laugh at the foibles of how young people fall in love.  But the play begins on a very ominous note.  In the opening scene, which takes place at the Duke’s palace in Athens, Egeus demands that the Duke of Athens enforce Athenian law.  Specifically, that he stop his daughter from marrying the man she is in love with and instead wed the person that Egeus believes to be a better choice.  Egeus notes that the law is clear as it is strict, that if a young lady does not accede to her father’s wishes she is either to be put to death or condemned to live the rest of her life alone in chastity.  Confronted by this, Egeus’s daughter, Hermia, says to the Duke “I would my father looked but with my eyes” Act I, Scene1, l. 56.  Here, at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare offers some of his most profound advice on love.  In order to have a full and lasting relationship, it is important that people see the world not simply through their own eyes, but that of the other person.  Just as Hermia hopes that her father can see the world as she does, so she and the other lovers over the course of the play must try as best they can in a most confusing world to try to perceive the world through the eyes of their lover.  Whether dealing with the trivial such as where shall we go for dinner tonight, to the more profound, such as where shall we live or how shall we raise our children, being able to see the world through the eyes of another is a way towards what we all hope for, living happily ever after.

Shakespeare also provides some advice on love in another one of his other romantic comedies, The Merchant of Venice.  Lawyers viewing the play often focus on the great trial scene in Act IV and the conflict between law and equity.  Most modern audiences focus on the bigotry of the Venetians towards Jews, women and gays.   But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the play parallels A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an examination of how people fall in love and how love leads to marriage.  Central to the plot is that the play’s heroine, Portia, is bound by the terms of her deceased father’s Will.  She may only marry a suitor who correctly solves the puzzle of the “caskets.”  Specifically, there are three chests, one gold, one silver and one lead, that each suitor must examine.  The suitor who picks the correct box is rewarded the right to marry the very beautiful and wealthy Portia.  However, should a suitor pick the wrong chest, he may never marry.  The golden casket contains the inscription, “who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”  The silver casket contains the promise, “who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”  The third casket made of lead contains the inscription, “who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” 

During the course of the play, various suitors have come and gone incorrectly choosing the gold or silver chest.  Finally, near the middle of the play, Bassanio arrives at Portia’s palace.  The Lady Portia has a crush on this dashing handsome man and in the spirit of the 2019 Houston Astros, hints that he should choose the leaden chest.  Following these egregious hints, Bassanio makes the correct choice and wins the lady.  Bassanio takes to heart the inscription that to gain true love, one must hazard all that he has.  Willing to risk perpetual bachelorhood, Bassanio wins the golden lady in the casket of lead.  Shakespeare makes the point a number of times in his plays and sonnets that to win true love, one must set aside reason and risk everything for only such a complete commitment can lead to happiness ever after.  Perhaps.

Following the form of the times, Shakespeare’s comedies always end in marriage.  What is unclear is whether or not the newlyweds will live happily ever after beyond the ending of the play.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Lady Helena is in love with Demetrius, but Demetrius (Egeus’ choice for his daughter, Hermia) shows no interest in Helena and would rather wed Hermia.  In the course of the night’s confusion in the forest, the fairies use a magical flower that will cause the recipient to fall madly in love with the first person he/she sees upon waking.   While the flower is administered to three of the play’s characters, two eventually receive an antidote that removes the flower’s effect.  The third, Demetrius, is still under the influence of the flower at the play’s end.  Will his marriage to Helena, last longer than that of Hermia and Lysander who were smitten with each other long before the play began?  In The Merchant of Venice, will the marriage of the intellectually gifted Lady Portia to the less than brilliant Bassonio, last?  Will the Jewish daughter of Shylock, Jessica, find everlasting love in the arms of the Christian gentleman, Lorenzo?  Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, makes it clear that there are no easy answers to these questions, leaving it entirely up to the audience by presenting arguments on both sides.  Consider also what eternal bliss will come to the power couple of The Taming of the Shrew.  Remember that this is a play in which the gentleman, Petruchio must proverbially break the wild horse, Kate, the Shrew of the title.  In the last scene of the play, Kate gives a famous speech, shocking the audience with sense of obedience, stating,

                   “Thy husband is thy lord, thy light, thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thy and thy maintenance.”

Will these two strong personalities learn to accommodate each other’s desires and have the blissful marriage no members of the audience could have imagined of them for most of the play?

While the ultimate fates of various lovers in Shakespeare’s plays remain a matter of conjecture, I believe there is one wonderfully romantic sentiment that Shakespeare expresses.  And that is, while all the world is in flux and the future very much an unknown, there is one thing that stands the test of time, true love.  

I close with what I believe to be one of the finest expressions of love’s triumph over the ravages of time, Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand'ring bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me prov'd,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.