The Quality of Love

When King Lear begins, in the play bearing his name, to realize the truth of his daughters’ love, he exclaims, “Ingratitude! Thou marble-hearted fiend!” Lear rated his daughters repeatedly for their lack of gratitude. He never understood that the quality of his love did not merit any gratitude from his children.

The play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. Before making the partition, he asks which of them love him most, so that he may give her the greatest part of the kingdom. The older daughters oblige him with hyperbolic speeches. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, tells her father that she does love him, but will give half her love to her husband, and will not “love my father all.” For this response, Lear disowns and disinherits her.

In this one scene, Lear pits his children against each other, to compete for his gifts; extracts professions of love by dangling rewards; and punishes the one child who would not flatter him.

Having driven out one daughter, and given his kingdom to the remaining two, Lear sets the program for the rest of his life: to live with each older daughter a month at a time, bringing with him one hundred knights as his attendants. This went as well as any reasonable person would expect. Goneril, the eldest daughter, is soon complaining to her father of his behavior, and his attendants’ behavior, in her house: “You strike my people; and your disordr’d rabble / Make servants of their betters.” She asks him to reduce his attendants to fifty.

Lear—beginning and ending with a denunciation of his daughter’s ingratitude—calls down vivid curses upon her. He leaves in a rage and goes to Regan, the second daughter. Regan greets him: “I am glad to see your highness.” Lear answers, “If thou shouldst not be glad / I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, / Sepulchring an adultress.” In this, we see another method of Lear’s management of his children—threatened rejection, with insult or injury to another member of the family as well.

When Goneril arrives, a sort of family conference develops. The sisters close ranks—Regan telling Lear that he may stay with her with twenty-five attendants, and Goneril asking him why he needs even five. Lear erupts into incoherent threats: “No, you unnatural hags, / I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world–I will do such things– / What they are, yet I know not;–but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.” And again he storms out, and no one would imagine that either sister regretted it.

Lear memorably declared that he was a man more sinned against than sinning. There is no doubt that the narrative agrees with him. One senses here a cultural mist. In Shakespeare’s day, the idea of duty or honor owed to a father—and even more to a king—was far more powerful than it is today. Even so, I would not disagree with Lear’s conviction that his daughters had sinned against him. But what is striking is Lear’s conviction of his own guiltlessness.

In truth, Lear’s sins were returning to him. He had attempted to compel his daughters’ love by threats and promises. Naturally, he had compelled only a pretense of love, and that pretense faded as soon as he resigned his power to punish and to reward. His daughters were selfish, but so was the man who had raised them.

Lear called his daughters unnatural because they did not act with what used to be called “natural love.” But Lear was not lovable, and it is not unnatural that his daughters should not love him. You cannot demand, by right or nature, a love that you have never shown.

The Decision of Meaning

The happiest person in Romeo and Juliet is Rosaline, who had the good sense to be uninvolved. Romeo spent his initial scenes declaring her matchless beauty, his undying love, that there would never be another woman for him, etc., up until he met Juliet and immediately began saying all those things about her instead. Romeo needed some sort of productive occupation. I would like to think that Shakespeare presaged Juliet with Rosaline as an ironic comment on the transitory nature of even passionate feeling. More likely he included Rosaline simply because the 1562 poem Romeus and Juliet did.

I take Rosaline to be the inheritance of an older source, thoughtlessly carried over, because she is out of place within the new work. Romeo and Juliet is not ironic in its tone. It takes itself and its lovers seriously. That Romeo replaces Rosaline as casually as people replace light bulbs undermines the love story. None of his dramatic declarations of undying love were true. He believed them, but they weren’t true. That they become true when he starts spouting them about Juliet can only be taken on faith, and some of us are skeptics. Yet I don’t think, given the tenor of the play, that we are meant to doubt.

I also think that, whether Shakespeare intended it or not, Romeo’s histrionics over Rosaline add a grain of salt to his histrionics over Juliet. The war over authorial intent has been waged and, for the moment, decided. A story’s interpretation is not presumed to be dictated by the author’s intentions. As much as I approve, I willingly admit the merits of the defeated idea. There is a kind of fairness in giving the creator the decision in the meaning of the work. And literary interpretation could do with more objectivity. That is the inescapable conclusion of sitting in college literature courses, listening to people give suspiciously faddish interpretations of books you suspect they merely skimmed.

But although it would be the well-deserved death of a thousand lazy essays, I can’t give the decision of meaning to creators. They’re interpreting, too. The literary evolution of Romeo and Juliet proves the point. Shakespeare based his play on Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet. The story is essentially the same in both works; Shakespeare repeated Brooke in every event of importance. Yet if Shakespeare took it for a love story, Brooke took it for a morality tale. Brooke, who probably did not suffer fools, advised his readers that the “most unhappy death” of Romeus and Juliet stood as an example to them of what comes of “unhonest desire”, neglecting the authority of parents, and getting your advice from drunken gossips and superstitious friars (“the naturally fit instruments of unchastity”). (Perhaps Brooke was harsh toward superstitious friars. Nevertheless, I give him credit for hating Friar Lawrence.)

We are all interpreters of stories, the storytellers as much as the rest of us. The special power of creators is in deciding what will be interpreted, not how it should be. Readers sometimes work out a story to its implications farther and more clearly than the author himself. A story stands as it was created. It is not, in the end, what the author meant but what he said, and that anyone can know.

That requires, however, reading the book. It’s only fair.

The Crux of the Tragedy

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. I know because everyone says so. Like most of you, I was compelled to experience his greatness in school, and I did not particularly enjoy it. (It was Othello. I could not work out the math by which the Great Handkerchief Scandal resulted in murder.) Earlier this year, I decided to give Shakespeare another go. I browsed Amazon for options and, scrupulously applying my principles, chose the most cost-efficient: the complete works of Shakespeare, bound into one enormous volume that could probably be used as a murder weapon but cost, used, $10.

The table of contents covers well over two thousand pages. I searched it for a place to begin and, intimidated, settled on the beginning. I proceeded on this direct approach only to be confronted by Romeo and Juliet. All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet. But it was the next story in the collection and so, for a sense of completeness, I read it. The play has four centuries of hype to live up to and, as you would expect, it doesn’t.

It has its points, of course. My experience of Shakespeare is limited – Romeo and Juliet is only fourth in the book – but he seems to have been the kind of writer whose work is often uneven but never meritless. There is wit and gorgeous verse in Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic irony is interesting. The graveyard denouement, and Juliet’s living burial with her dead relatives, are evocatively horrible. And although Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, it is kind of funny to watch Romeo drama-queen all over the stage.

And yet, as a love story, Romeo and Juliet is hasty and shallow. The two meet at a party and marry the next day. By the time they commit suicide, they have known each other perhaps a week. Granted, it was a jam-packed week, mostly with murders, but still. I know they were passionate to the point of hysteria. I know they gave some pretty speeches. I hold, nonetheless, to the principle that one of the requirements of a grand love affair is that it outlive milk.

If not a grand love story, Romeo and Juliet is a great tragedy – needless and self-inflicted, unredeemed by nobility. Neither hero nor heroine was courageous when it might have helped. Both, once they discovered each other, became cruel to everyone else – whether it was Juliet declaring her cousin’s death a good thing or Romeo skewering poor Paris. When the apothecary protested that he could be executed for selling the poison, Romeo goaded him into it by scorning his hunger and poverty. He put the man’s life at risk and pressed him into the guilt of complicity with another’s self-destruction. These are great moral crimes.

Mostly, Romeo and Juliet distinguish themselves by their absolute lack of wisdom and good sense. They were not star-crossed lovers. They were simply and inexcusably wrong about everything. Their secret marriage was a disaster in the wings from I do. That was so exceedingly obvious even they should have seen it. The only question was whether the crisis would be forced when Juliet got pregnant or when her parents chose a husband for her. Romeo and Juliet might have at least tried the honest approach. Rejecting that, they might have run away together. Either brave frankness or open rebellion could have saved them. But they would literally have rather killed themselves.

The only sensible reaction to Romeo and Juliet is Children, you are really very stupid. And that is the crux of this tragedy – that they were little more than children in need of adult supervision, and nobody was it: not the Nurse, not Friar Lawrence, not their awful parents. Romeo and Juliet got drunk on their first sip of sexual love and ruined everything. That is not a beautiful love story, nor an ennobling tragedy, but it is piercingly poignant.