What’s Love Got To Do With it? Lessons in Love from William Shakespeare

The sobering lesson of Romeo and Juliet falls today on deaf modern ears

Oh what’s love got to do, got to do with it,
What’s love but a second-hand emotion;
What’s love got to do, got to do with it,
Who needs a heart
When a heart can be broken.

— Tina Turner

Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs;
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with loving tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet…
I have lost myself; I am not here:
This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.

— Romeo

… if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black …
Come, night; come, Romeo …
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

— Juliet

What is love? For Tina Turner it’s an emotion, second-hand and second-rate. For Romeo, it’s mere madness; something sweet and bitter on which we choke; something that makes us lose ourselves and our senses. For Juliet it’s a blindness that makes us prefer the darkness to the light.

For John Lennon, it’s all we need…. 

All we need is love, love, love is all we need; all we need is tawdry emotion and the bitter-sweet madness that makes us blind to everything except the darkness of the Night. If this is love, it can go to Hell. Indeed, if this is love it’s already going there.

But is this love?

For St. Paul, love is the greatest of all the virtues. For Christ, the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. On the deepest theological level, God is love. God and Love are One. It is ironic, therefore, that Jesus Christ and John Lennon are in apparent agreement. Love is all we need.

The problem is that John Lennon does not mean the same thing as Jesus Christ when he speaks of love. For Lennon and his legion of admirers, love is about doing our own thing; it’s about marching to our own drum. In other words, it’s ultimately self-centered. It’s about me and not the other. For Christ, love is about laying down our lives for our friends—and for our enemies. It’s ultimately selfless and self-sacrificial. It’s about the other and not me. In short, and to put the matter bluntly, the “love” that Lennon espouses is the very opposite of the love that Christ practices and preaches.

This primal difference between the two loves—one true, the other false—is at the heart of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The play satirizes the false understanding of love, lampooning the language of the Petrarchan love sonnets and the adulterous finesse of amour courtois. On a deeper level it highlights the dangers of seeing love as rooted in feeling or emotion. For a Christian, and let’s not forget that Shakespeare was a believing Catholic, love is not a feeling but an act of the will in obedience to a Commandment. It is freely choosing to sacrifice our own interests for the good of the other. False love, being a slave to feeling and passion, is essentially irrational; true love, being a free choice in obedience to a perceived truth, is essentially rational.

Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare connects passionate or libidinous love, rooted in feeling, with the “gossip Venus” and “her purblind son,” Cupid (Eros). It is from Venus that we get the adjective venereal, as it is from Eros that we get the adjective erotic. Romeo’s “love” for Juliet is both venereal and erotic—it is a servant of his libido. Thus, in the opening lines of the famous balcony scene, Romeo proclaims that Juliet is the sun, the light by which he sees, eclipsing all other perspectives. This “sun” is at war with the “envious” moon, equated with Diane, the goddess of chastity: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.”  Romeo desires that Juliet should kill chastity and cast off her robes of virginity, her “vestal livery”, which “none but fools do wear”. His description of Juliet’s livery as “vestal” connects her to the goddess, Vesta, to whom the vestal virgins consecrated their virginity. In the Christian culture in which Shakespeare was writing, the adjective vestal was applied to any woman of spotless chastity. In stating that only fools live chastely and in his hopes that Juliet will “kill” chastity and “cast it [her virginity] off”, Romeo is showing his disdain for traditional Christian virtue. The same contempt for Christianity was evident in his desire to have the “sin” transmitted by his and Juliet’s first kiss: “Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! / Give me my sin again.”

A telling judgment on the nature of Romeo’s love is given by the Chorus, a neutral and therefore objective voice, which might be seen as the narrative voice of the playwright himself:

Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie,
And young affection gapes to be his heir;
That fair for which love groan’d for and would die,
With tender Juliet match’d, is now not fair.
Now Romeo is belov’d and loves again,
Alike bewitched by the charm of looks.

 According to the authoritative judgment of the Chorus, there is no difference in Romeo’s love for Juliet than with his earlier love, his “old desire”, for Rosaline. He is “belov’d and loves again, / Alike bewitched by the charm of looks”. The use of the words “bewitched” and “charm” are palpably significant. There is nothing healthy in Romeo’s obsessive infatuation for Juliet, anymore than there had been in the earlier infatuation with Rosaline. In both cases, he is bewitched “alike,” possessed by “the charm of looks,” the vanity of the eyes. The only difference is that now he not only “loves again,” i.e., in the same manner in which he had loved before, but is “belov’d.” In other words, whereas Rosaline had spurned his amorous advances, Juliet had succumbed. The difference is not in the “love” that Romeo offers, which is as false in both cases, but in the response of the object of his desire. Rosaline retains her chastity; Juliet casts it off.

Once one understands the erotic nature of the love that Romeo and Juliet have for each other, the tragic consequences seem almost inevitable. The real heart of the tragedy, the ironic and paradoxical twist, is that Romeo and Juliet are possessed by the devil that hides in their possessiveness of each other. Romeo’s madness and Juliet’s blindness are caused by an obsessive and possessive “love” that excludes any other love and which exorcises both God and neighbor from their affections. They are doing their own thing, marching to their own drum, following their feelings, and to hell with everyone else.

The sobering lesson that Romeo and Juliet teaches is that the thing possessed possesses the possessor. This is evident in Romeo’s blasphemous remark in which he exclaims that “heaven is here / Where Juliet lives.” Juliet is Romeo’s alpha and omega, his beginning and his end. She is the goddess to which he owes the sum of all his worship. It is for this reason that he chooses this “heaven” even when it becomes his hell. Lovers of literature will be reminded of how the love between Romeo and Juliet parallels that between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Compare Romeo’s remark with the words of Catherine about Heathcliff:

If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it … Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks … a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but, as my own being—so, don’t talk of our separation again.

Catherine is possessed by Heathcliff who is the eternal rock upon which she builds her church. It is, therefore, not surprising that she confesses to Nelly that she would be “extremely miserable” in heaven. Her “heaven” is where Heathcliff is and nothing will separate her from the “love” of her god, not even the love of God. In similar vein, the “love” of Paolo and Francesca, Dante’s adulterous lovers, also parallels the love of Romeo and Juliet. Dante’s lovers are as inseparable in hell as they had been in their lives, making their lustful “heaven” in each other’s arms, blown hither and thither for all eternity by the winds of heedless and unsatisfying passion.

In Dante’s Inferno the lustful are described as “those who make reason slave to appetite” or as those who let their erotic passions “master reason and good sense.” Like Paolo and Francesca, Shakespeare’s lovers have overthrown reason in pursuit of passion. Embracing their madness and blindness, their “love” has surrendered to the force of feeling. Succumbing to the sway of emotion, they have willfully abandoned reason to satisfy their irrational appetite. Their love is headless and therefore heedless of the bad consequences of the bad choices being made. Shakespeare and Dante, both believing Catholics, are well aware of the danger of separating love from reason. Love, like faith, must be subject to reason; a love that denies or defies reason is illicit and is not really love at all.

In some ways, Romeo and Juliet can be seen as a cautionary commentary on the two great commandments of Christ that we love the Lord our God and that we love our neighbor. The two lovers deny the love of God in their deification of each other, with disastrous consequences, and their respective families deny the love of neighbor in their vengeful feuding. It could be said that the venereal and vengeful passions of Verona represent the culture of death in microcosm. A society that turns its back on Christ and His commandments is on the path to self-annihilation. If the lessons are not learned and the warnings heeded, the sinful society will be doomed to be damned. 

The lessons are learned by the Capulets and Montagues at the end of Shakespeare’s play, which bestows a happy or at least a hopeful ending to the story of the star-crossed lovers. It remains to be seen whether the culture of death in which we are living will heed the warnings and learn the lessons.     

Let’s end as we began with the questions posed by Tina Turner: What’s love got to do with it, and who needs a heart if a heart can be broken? 

On the one hand, the love of Romeo and Juliet has nothing to do with love in the true sense. On the other, it has everything to do with love because it shows what happens when false loves take the place of true love. The lesson that Shakespeare teaches is that true love is necessary. It is like oxygen. Its absence is deadly.

And who needs a heart if a heart can be broken? The answer to this is simple, though seemingly unknown to the world in which we live: We all need a heart and we all need it to be broken! As Oscar Wilde reminds us in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, “God’s eternal Laws are kind / And break the heart of stone.”

Oscar Wilde knew more than most about the blindness and madness of pursuing illicit passions. He hardened his heart in pursuit of a false “love” that he later called pathological. As one who embraced the culture of death and then recoiled in horror from it into the arms of Mother Church, the last words should be his:

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

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About Joseph Pearce 35 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome and Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays, as well as several biographies and works of history and literary criticism. His most recent books include Faith of Our Fathers: A History of 'True' England and The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: A History in Three Dimensions. Other works include Literary Converts, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, and literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.