Love is very much Shakespeare’s theme, and in reflecting on love in Shakespeare one must begin with Romeo and Juliet, for it appears to be the purest description of the phenomenon of love and depiction of its fate in the world. Shakespeare is a middle ground between the ancient poets whose tragedies hardly spoke of love and the Romantic poets whose sad tales concerned only love. Serious writers in antiquity, with the strange exception of Plato, did not present men and women in love as the most serious of beings facing the most serious of problems. The reasons for this should be investigated further, but we may say that it has something to do with the primacy of virtue and reason over the passions in the classical view, whereas the Romantics made love their theme precisely because of their preference for the passions over virtue and reason. Christian Europe, of course, has an ambivalent and ambiguous history so far as love goes, but certainly the official position depreciates erotic love in favor of Christian love or agapé. This is a question that interests Shakespeare greatly.
Two of his tragedies are about couples in love, as their very titles indicate, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, while Troilus and Cressida, if not a tragedy, approaches that status. They are the only plays that have two names in their titles, indicating that shared tragic fates belong above all to lovers. There are no authentic love affairs in the history plays, where politics, seemingly unerotic, is the primary theme. The comedies, of course, are shot through with sexual themes. And this is perfectly classical, treating man’s eroticism as one of the things that make him ridiculous, the angle from which the disproportion between his aspirations and his reality is most evident. The ancients may have relegated love to comedy for reasons of edification, not wanting very ordinary human beings to be encouraged in passions that are most often empty, or for more philosophic reasons, holding that man’s dependency on his body and his being duped by illusions are what love is all about. Shakespeare’s tragedies are less tragic than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and his comedies less comic than those of Aristophanes. The ancients were either all tragedy or all comedy; Socrates at the end of his great discussion about love in the Symposium argues against the tragedian Agathon and the comedian Aristophanes and reproaches them for not being able to mix the genres. Shakespeare relaxes the twin tensions that end in either tears or laughter, taking tragedy a bit less seriously and comedy a bit more seriously than did the ancients. And, just as Plato, love makes its way onto the scene between high political gravity and low sexual levity. Love appears to be a link between the high and low in man, and Shakespeare devotes much of his talent to looking into this. Love is surely not the whole meaning of life for Shakespeare, but it just as surely flatters some of man’s dearest aspirations. What could be more wonderful than uniting one’s most intense pleasure with the highest activity and the most noble and beautiful deeds and works? Such is the promise of love.
– Shakespeare on Love and Friendship