The Pitfalls of Shakespearean Love

The pitfalls of Shakespearean love

Love is considered by most to be one of the most beautiful feelings and ideas in existence, so much so that it is nearly inseparable from our language, writings, and experiences. Indeed, a cursory Google search (at the time of this writing) of the word “love” comes back with nearly seven trillion results! Needless to say, we are a culture that has love on the mind; however, we are not the only ones. Love has pervaded the thoughts of great thinkers for centuries, all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Despite this lengthy history of love, there is one thinker, in my opinion, who has shaped our idea of love more than most – William Shakespeare. In particular, his play Romeo and Juliet is particularly illuminating.

You may recognize some of his famous lines about love:

“The course of true love never did run smooth”  (Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2010, 1.1.134).

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.2-3)

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods

Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony (Shakespeare, Loves Labours Lost, 4.3.344)

Based on these lines, a picture of how we should view love begins to form. We may see that is can be turbulent, essential for survival, and so enchanting that it could put the gods to sleep. Further, in line with Romeo and Juliet, love is also portrayed as becoming star struck, enchanted, and insurmountable. In essence, loving one another becomes a need – something that one cannot live without. Pretty romantic, right?

The only problem with this idea is that, if loving someone requires that one needs another person, then not having him or her must result in calamity. While Romeo and Juliet is often portrayed as a love story, in actuality, it is a tragedy. Once Romeo believes that he will no longer be able to be with Juliet, he kills himself (and Juliet does the same once she sees Romeo dead), making this perhaps one of the worst love stories of all time; however, despite its tragic but pervasive nature in our current cultural narratives about love, Romeo and Juliet have a great deal to teach us about it.

Love based on need implies that it is necessary for survival.

By definition, it is no longer choice but something that we are at the mercy of. In reading Romeo and Juliet, we see that they are star-crossed lovers from the beginning, falling head over heels in love with one another at first sight. But there is another option: love grounded in want and desire. When we want or desire something (or someone), we can still have that strong emotional response that comes with a need; however, wanting something gives us a choice in the matter, to both give love and receive it.

Relationships are tough, though.

It’s no wonder that need-based love is such a pervasive notion! We see it consistently in movies, fairy tales, and fictional writing where the knight in shining armor comes to rescue the damsel in distress, and they ride off into the sunset happily ever after. This sounds easy enough, but when we take a look at stories like Romeo and Juliet (which, by the way, are relatable exactly because they are our stories, too), they don’t do so well when the going gets tough; however, this is exactly where want-based relationships get their power. Imagine waking up every day beside the person with whom you are in a relationship, knowing that despite any faults of yours or problems that have occurred, that this person willfully continues to choose you. I honestly couldn’t imagine anything more romantic.

Trey practices psychotherapy in his own counseling service Quandary Peak Counseling. He also teaches Counseling Psychology PhD program in University of Denver, Colorado. He did his mental health training in United Stated Army where he served as mental health specialist for 6 years. He is graduate in Human Services and Leadership from University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He did his masters and doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University of Denver.