The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy

‘Tragedy of love’ is to some extent a contradiction in terms. For love is the great force that unites and binds. It is what prompts a man to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. Celebrated traditionally in romantic comedy, love is the divine bond which leads to marriage and the creation of a new family.

In forming the basic building block of the social group, love is not only a beneficial but a fundamentally creative force and as such it is opposed to all the forces of destruction.

Love not only creates society, moreover, but seeks to preserve what it has made. It is therefore the great civilizing force, the energy that counters anarchy and chaos with order and degree (in primitive societies, marriage is always the first law). Love makes for civil conversation, courtesy, and good manners.

It oils the wheels of social functioning and mitigates aggression and selfishness. When, in literature, love does encounter the forces of destruction it is generally in order to meet them head on and reverse them in a glorious moment of redemption. When Hero appears to die in Much Ado About Nothing, for example, or Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, their later appearance alive, well, and still loving is made all the more poignant for our fear that they have been lost.

Tragedy is averted as love’s redemptive force wins out. Strictly speaking, the sleeping potion that Juliet takes in order to feign death should fall into this category too.


Catherine Bates