PAN-GENERIC THEMES IN SHAKESPEARE

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 absurdity.

 

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.

 

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! If "madness" and "love" disrupt the social order, they are, at least in Shakespeare, very positive. They allow people to transform and to

 

"Nature is an unbalancing act," Stephen Greenblatt has remarked of another Shakespearean comedy. 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"? I mean that they question the status quo -- they unbalance the rigid system, and they introduce disorder and chaos in an overly ordered world. What I like to refer to as 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.