Susan Smith Nash


love & madness


Death is an intrinsic and inextricable part of love; and, although they may seem to be immiscible substances, in Shakespeare, one is existentially embedded in the other.  Perhaps this is what gives Shakespearean love its intensity – and its tragic depth.



I see a great many parallels between ROMEO AND JULIET and A MIDSUMMER  NIGHT'S DREAM, and although I realize that one is a comedy and the other is a tragedy, they both seem to have at the core a love that goes to such extremes it is not love at all, but madness.


These similarities occurred to me after I viewed the two movies back-to-back, and then reviewed a few websites and re-read parts of the plays on-line.  I have to say I found the "text and commentary" site for MND very helpful ( ) even though my eyes feel very tired after reading online.  I ordered several books from & I even ordered my own copies of some of the movies.  I like to watch them more than once -- I find this intriguing and relaxing.


Perhaps what I find most inspiring about Shakespeare is that love and madness are very closely related, as are love and death. 


In MND, the "rude mechanicals" perform a play for Theseus and the wedding party.  In it, hilariously inept actors stage


 'A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus

 And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.'


Although this is nice, absurd fun with many malapropisms, the issue is that of forbidden, "outlaw" love (Pyramus and Thisbe are prohibited from marrying because of a tyrannical father) -- the bottom line is that they commit suicide when they are not allowed to marry.  So, the separation required by the patriarch is a separation indead -- forever.  That certainly echoes R+J.  It also echoes the intensity of Helena's love for Demetrius -- she so desperately craves his presence that she pursues him -- although it could be to the death.  Death is a constant undercurrent to love in all of Shakespeare, but in some places more than others.  As the antithesis of unity, death posits existential isolation, and the possibility that a nihilistic universe perhaps exists, where everything can collapse to nothingness if societal strictures are too rigid.  As a matter of fact, rigidity of all sorts leads to collapse and destruction - whether it be in patriarchal roles (Taming of the Shrew) or in the case of gender and gender roles.  Gender absolutes are always suspect -- the "pure woman" is usually not so, and the societally desirable male (rich, powerful, proud) is usually the one person in the play who is rotten to the core.


But, what is "love" in Shakespeare?  In A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, lovers and madmen are closely allied.  If there is any doubt of all of that, Act V, Scene 1 clears it up, when Theseus states that lovers, madmen, and poets all possess "seething brains" and


The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:


But what could be more lunatic than what was presented to Theseus at the beginning of the play?  Egeus, Hermia's father, was asking Theseus to invoke an old law and to put Hermia to death because she refused to marry the man her father had selected for her!


The true madness is in the social order and in the laws of society!  After all, isn’t it absolute madness to announce to your beloved daughter that if she doesn’t marry the person you have selected, you will have her put to death?  This is even more troubling than the Abraham-Isaac story.  At least in that situation, God was asking him to sacrifice his son.  Presumably there was a certain reason for it, besides political and/or economic gain.  If "madness" and "love" disrupt the social order, they are, at least in Shakespeare, very positive.  Love and madness allow people to transform and they make an absurd play of social order.  They allow mistaken identities, bizarre self-delusions, and crazy spells to turn the world upside down, precisely in order to put it aright again.  It’s histrionic at times, and often wildly and bawdily humorous (but only the audience is privy to the raucously funny situations – the unfortunate characters in the plays are moved about like pawns on a great, almost surrealist, almost Borgean chessboard of life.  In the end, Shakespeare’s characters marry, political conflicts are resolved, and enmities mended.  That applies to the comedies, at least.  In the tragedies, such worn-out or unworkable concepts as “honor” and “love at first sight” are played out with all their absurdist ramifications, the resultant being a total meltdown of the ancien regime, and a frightening nullification of the supposed eternal verities.  The end would be nihilist, if the false values weren’t in such need of a razing.  In R+J, the sacrosanct institutions of aristocratic, family-based city-state governments, and the church (most specifically, the Catholic church), are demonstrably flawed, tainted by venality, lust, and a blind, progeny-devouring rage for order and political sway.


"Nature is an unbalancing act," Stephen Greenblatt has remarked of another Shakespearean comedy.  Thankfully, there are ways to break apart the rigid and life-denying political, social, and existential structures.  In Shakespeare, nature complies, primarily with storms, resulting in shipwreck and separation.  At first negative, this ultimately yields positive change.


Love is an even more unbalancing force -- which is good, because the society that is created is unhealthy, rigid, moribund, and unsurvivable.  We see this throughout Romeo and Juliet -- especially in the plague-ridden walled city, and the rigid social order that demands death (honor killings, etc.) to keep it alive.


Lovers and madmen are wonderful at producing discourses of resistance. 


What do I mean by "resistance"?  What is a “discourse of resistance”?  A discourse of resistance is one in which the rigid structures, elitist hierarchies, and/or consumer-culture driven dehumanizations are problematized and put into a different context.  Further, the discourse causes a profound questioning of the values that maintain the status quo -- they unbalance the rigid system, and they introduce disorder and chaos in an overly ordered world. 


A discourse of resistance is, in essence, a discourse of freedom.  For me, that is what lovers and madmen emphasize -- that is what they espouse, and that is what I cherish in literature.