Monday, February 14, 2011

Shakespeare in Love

Whether you love it or loathe it, Valentine’s Day is inescapable when it rolls around every February. And each year we are confronted with endless parades of Hallmark cards, enormous heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, giant bouquets of roses, and a non-stop stream of commercials for sparkly pieces of jewelry. Only through the purchase of one or more of these items, we are told, can a person prove their love and devotion to their significant other. Yet I beg to differ. On this most polarizing of holidays, it might behoove many a befuddled romantic to turn to the Bard when in need of some help. After all, could there be a more perfect combination than Shakespeare and love? Shakespeare has a great deal to say on this subject in almost all its myriad forms: romantic, jealous, unrequited, doomed, puppy, courtly…the list goes on and on. He created many of the most famous romantic pairings in history: Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Katherine and Petruchio, Othello and Desdemona, Jack and Rose (oops – maybe not). Love shows up in some way in every single one of his plays, not to mention his sonnets, which are overflowing with love of the conventional and unconventional sort. According to, the word “love” shows up 1962 times his plays. In short, this was a man who knew what he was talking about. First, however, a brief summary of this celebration of love:

In the beginning…

As with the other holidays I have examined on this blog, to find the origins of Valentine’s Day we must travel back to ancient Rome. This time, the beginning of spring was the cause for celebration among the pagan Romans, in the form of the festival of Lupercalia, a celebration of fertility and birth. And, once again, the early Christian church elected to overlay this holiday with one of their own, leading to a blending of Christian and pagan tradition. At the end of the fifth century A.D., Pope Gelasius declared February 14th to be St. Valentine’s Day. When it comes to the namesake of this holiday, however, the source is a bit of a mystery. At least three different saints by the name of Valentine are recognized by the Catholic Church today, and no one knows which of these, if any, is the patron saint of February 14th. One popular theory is that he was a third century Roman priest who performed secret marriages for young lovers, when it was outlawed for single men required for military service to marry.

Over the centuries, Valentine’s Day continued to grow in prominence and popularity. It was long thought that the first association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love dated to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382), when he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” It’s more likely, however, that this verse refers to a date not in February but in May, honoring the marriage of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. The initial idea was planted, though, and many still associate these lines on lovebirds with February 14th. Just eighteen years later, in 1400, a “High Court of Love” was established on Valentine’s Day in Paris. This “court” dealt solely with love contracts, betrayals, and other romantic matters, and the judges were selected by women based on a contest of poetry reading. Shortly afterward, in 1415, the oldest known Valentine was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife after he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt. By Shakespeare’s day, a tradition was firmly in place for celebrating Valentine’s Day as an occasion for expressing hidden or not-so-hidden affection.

A Renaissance Valentine

During the Renaissance, a common Valentine’s Day activity was for men and women to draw names from a bowl in order to find out who their “Valentine” for the day would be, a tradition dating back to the original Roman festivities. They would then wear the name they had drawn pinned on their sleeve (thus the expression, “to wear your heart on your sleeve”). In Shakespeare’s day, gloves, not flowers or jewelry, were the favored Valentine gift. A lady might approach her gentleman of choice and say, “Good-morrow Valentine, I go today;/ To wear for you, what you must pay;/ A pair of gloves next Easter Day.” The selected fellow was then required to send the lady a pair of gloves, and, if she wore them on Easter, he would know his romantic overtures would be further welcomed. If the lady was the superstitious sort, she might pin five bay leaves to her pillow at bedtime on Valentine’s Day in the belief that she would then dream of her future husband.

Of course, I couldn’t write about Valentine’s Day without including some recipes. Try this Stuart era recipe for Knotts and Gumballs – glazed cookies that can be made in the shape of hearts or, if you’re feeling especially ambitious, Celtic love knots. And as for that Valentine staple, chocolate, it was brought back to Europe from the New World by Spanish Conquistadors in the early sixteenth century, and it caught on quick. Yet its original form was as a drink, not as truffles or bon-bons. As a beverage, chocolate became highly fashionable and was originally a drink reserved for the wealthy. We may find a hint of what was to come, though, in this quote by Captain John Wadswroth, from his 1652 treatise Chocolate: or, an Indian Drinke: “And sometimes they make tablets of the Sugar, and the Chocolate together: which they doe onely to please the Pallats, as the Dames of Mexico doe use it; and they are there sold in shops, and are confected and eaten like other sweet-meats.”

Shakespeare + Valentine’s Day

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

When searching for suitable Shakespearean inspiration on Valentine’s Day, it is probably wise not to turn to his most direct reference to the holiday, spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet:

“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more” (4.5.48-55).

Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo + Juliet.

Given that these lines are sung by a poor girl descending into insanity, they are not the most romantic of sentiments (however close this may be to many a single girl’s state of mind on Valentine’s Day). Luckily, Shakespeare has many more tender things to say on the subject of love. So, why not step away from conventional gifts on Valentine’s Day and return to the power of the word? In Shakespeare we find a compendium of all expressions of love – true, deep sentiments beyond any greeting card limerick. And while you might hesitate “to seek to quench the fire of love with words” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2.7.20), the prudent romantic must also keep in mind that, “The more thou dammest it up, the more it burns” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 2.7.24). Therefore, instead, declare proudly,

“Then let me go, and hinder not my course.
I’ll be as patient as a gentle stream,
And make a pastime of each weary step,
Till the last step have brought me to my love;
And there I’ll rest, as after much turmoil,
A blessed soul doth in Elysium” (The Two Gentlement of Verona, 2.7.33-38).

Natalie A.

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