Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Couples in Shakespeare

There are indications that Shakespeare was a reluctant bridegroom.He was 18 and Anne Hathaway 26 when they got married. He spent most of his married life in London while his children stayed back at his hometown of  Stratford. In Will in the World,  Stephen Greenblatt writes:
In one of his earliest works, the 1 Henry VI, he had a character compare a marriage by compulsion to one made voluntarily:
                   For what is wedlock forced but a hell, 
                   An age of discord and continual strife?
                   Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
                   And is a pattern of celestial peace.
The character is an earl, cynically persuading the king to make what will be a bad match, but the dream of bliss seems valid enough, along with the sense that "wedlock forced" is an almost certain recipe for unhappiness. Perhaps at the time he wrote those lines, in the early 1590s, Shakespeare was reflecting on the source of his own marital unhappiness.
There have been attempts to portray Shakespeare's marriage as ideal but it looks as if the ardour cooled quite quickly. What he did not say seems to suggest that the marriage was not exactly made in heaven. Between the marriage licence and his final will and testament, he did not write a single word about his marital status which was unusual for an eloquent man. He did not mention his wife even once.

In the first draft of his will, he left the bulk of his estate to his eldest daughter, made some some provisions for his sister and numerous friends and relatives but it was as if his wife did not exist. In a revised draft, he mentioned his wife on the last page, leaving her 'my second-best bed and the furnitures'. As Greenblatt says, if this was a compliment, one shudders to think what his insults would have been like.

He does not portray marital bliss. An inevitable story sequence is Beatrice's succinct summary in Much Ado About Nothing - 'wooing, wedding and repenting'. When lovesick Orlando goes around claiming that he'll die if Rosalind won't have him, she points out that "men have died from time to time, and/ worms have eaten them, but not for love".  When Orlando declares that he will love "Rosalind" forever,she says "No, no, Orlando;/ men are April when they woo, December when they wed:/ maids are May when they are maids, but the sky/ changes when they are wives". In other words, Rosalind worries that Orlando will lose interest in her after he's married her.Greenblatt writes:
In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica and Lorenzo may take pleasure together in spending the money they have stolen from her father, Shylock, but their playful banter has a distinctly uneasy tone:
                  In such a night
                  Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
                  And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
                  As far as Belmont.

                  In such a night
                  Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
                  Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
                  And ne'er a true one.
The currents of uneasiness here - mingling together fears of fortune hunting, bad faith, and betrayal - extend to Portia and Bassanio and even to their comic sidekicks Nerissa and Graziano.  And these are newlyweds with blissful prospects compared to Hero and the callow, cruel Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.  Only Beatrice and Benedick, in that play and indeed among all the couples of the principal comedies, seem to hold out the possibility of a sustained intimacy, and then only if the audience discounts their many insults, forgets that they have been tricked into wooing, and assumes, against their own mutual assertions, that they genuinely love each other.
Before Bassanio tried his luck in choosing the right casket in The Merchant of Venice, while he was expressing his love for  Portia, the latter says:
Upon the rack, Bassanio! then confess
What treason there is mingled with your love.
Portia may not have been mistaken. While asking Antonio for money to go to Belmont to marry Portia,a rich heiress, Bassanio pitches it as a business deal:
In my school-days, when I had lost one shaft,
I shot his fellow of the self-same flight
The self-same way with more advised watch,
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both
I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof,
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth,
That which I owe is lost; but if you please
To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt,
As I will watch the aim, or to find both
Or bring your latter hazard back again
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.
All the views of cynicism about marriage are expressed in an airy,humorous fashion and not in a gloomy tone. All the couples in Shakespeare's comedies end up getting married even when they knew that it will not be roses forever. The audience is not given the impression that it will be roses all the way. Stephen Greenblatt writes in Will in the World:
Shakespeare's plays then combine, on the one hand, an overall diffidence in depicting marriages and, on the other hand, the image of a kind of nightmare in the two marriages they do depict with some care.  It is difficult not to read his works in the context of his decision to live for most of a long marriage away from his wife.
It looks as if in Shakespeare's plays, it is the male character who keeps talking about having fallen prey to 'loveria' [You tube link to Bollywood song] while the female character is alive to the possibility that love's labour may be lost. For eg., Hamlet writes to Ophelia:
Doubt thou, the stars are fire,
Doubt, that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
 Ophelia responds by handing the letter over to her father.

In many Bollywood movies also, it is the male character who gets an attack of 'loveria' and there are many songs of budding love and sundered hearts, two of which come to mind. On the other hand in his song, Man Smart Woman Smarter, Harry Belafonte says that it is men who have to be wary of women. Love is not a simple matter that can be settled by just a yes/no answer. A popular old Bollywood song warns of the dangers involved in matters of the heart. As Dorothy Parker  puts it bluntly:
By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying -
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying. 
As is usual with events that happened long ago and for which limited material is available, the two books I read about Shakespeare had different interpretations about the engraving on his grave slab:
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones
In Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt writes that he may have feared that his grave may be opened one day to let in the body of his wife. In A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, James Shapiro writes that the lines indicated that he had no interest in his remains being shifted to Westminster and the company of Chauser and Spenser.

Writers down the ages have pondered over the question of whether they have rambled on a bit beyond the limits of endurance of their readers or whether they can go on for some more time. I have similarly been giving this question considerable attention and have reached the conclusion that you have just about had enough so I will end this here.

PS: What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?

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