Close this search box.
Close this search box.

How Does Shakespeare Define Love?

How Does Shakespeare Define Love?

Davis, Frederick William; ‘As You Like It’, Act III, Scene 2; Warwick Shire Hall;

Francesco Petrarca, a fourteenth-century Italian poet, conceptualized love in his poems to his romantic interest, Laura. To his disappointment, the married Laura did not reciprocate. Petrarchan love is therefore characterized as male suffering due to unrequited affection for a woman. Love is similarly a central theme in William Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It.

The play focuses on the romantic pursuits of the characters, and ends in four marriages. Rosalind, one of the main characters, opposes the Petrarchan view of love. She prefers a practical approach to romantic relationships, as demonstrated by her use of rational thinking to conquer her love interest and help others accomplish the same feat. However, not all of the characters share Rosalind’s pragmatic thoughts on love. For example, Touchstone, the court-appointed fool, temporarily abandons his post to pursue a meaningless physical relationship. Though Rosalind is distracted by her love for Orlando, Shakespeare uses her ability to prevail and replace Touchstone to satirize Petrarchan love. 

Rosalind believes that love is an inevitable disease, and therefore resorts to a pragmatic approach in her romantic life. Rosalind is romantically obsessed with Orlando, and after speaking with him, she tells Celia, “That thou / didst know how many fathom deep I am in love. But / it cannot be sounded; my affection hath / an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal” (IV.i.218-221).

Rosalind’s comparison of her love for Orlando to a body of water more profound than “the Bay of Portugal,” a very deep sea, underscores how enamored she is. She even makes explicit the unimaginable depth of her love by telling Celia, “That thou / didst know how many fathom deep I am in love.” Disguised as Ganymede the nonexistent countryman, Rosalind later tells Orlando, “Love is merely a madness, / and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a / whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are / not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so / ordinary that the whippers are in love too” (III.ii.407-411). Despite her pursuit of Orlando, Rosalind opines on love’s absurdity.

Though she does liken love to a mental illness, she also acknowledges the irony of her claim by admitting that “the whippers are in love too.” In this situation, Orlando’s love for Rosalind makes him “madm[a]n,” and Rosalind chastising him makes her a “whipper.” Rosalind’s personal beliefs and romantic life are juxtaposed: she ridicules the laments of lovers, but suffers from the same affliction. In an attempt to use her disguise to her benefit, she instructs Orlando to pretend that she is Rosalind and court her every day. Rather than continuing to mope, she takes matters into her own hands and begins to enact a plan to marry Orlando. 

Rosalind’s practical approach to love’s difficulties ultimately leads her to replace Touchstone as fool.
Robert Smirke – The Seven Ages of Man- The Infant, ‘As You Like It,’ II, vii – Google Art Project

Fools are key to Shakesperian plays because their isolation from the court chain of command allows them to make intelligent and often necessary remarks without being affected by political pressure.

Touchstone neglects his court duties in an attempt to marry Audrey, a goat keeper in the country. He has no emotional or intellectual chemistry with Audrey and even makes fun of her, demonstrating his lack of romantic decision-making abilities. After Audrey asks him “what features” he has, Touchstone replies that he is “here with [her] and [her] goats, as the / most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the / Goths” (III.iii.4-8). Touchstone metaphorically lauds himself with the adjectives “capricious” and “honest.” In contrast, he compares Audrey’s company to that of the vicious Goths, implying that he does not enjoy spending time with her. Touchstone also reminds Audrey that “Thou swear’st to me thou / art honest” (III.iii.24-25). When describing women, Shakespeare often uses “honest” to refer to their virginity.

Touchstone wants to be sure that Audrey is a virgin, revealing that he is primarily interested in Audrey’s physical qualities. Later in the play, Touchstone is busy harassing William, a rival suitor for Audrey. In the meantime, Rosalind orchestrates a complicated scheme. She first tells Orlando to keep his word and marry Rosalind, then informs Phoebe and Silvius that if Phoebe refuses Ganymede, she must marry Silvius instead. Rosalind’s use of “keep you your word” as well as her threatening “or else” emphasizes her ability to speak freely and control the situation, indicating that she has assumed the role of fool (V.iv.22-23). Furthemore, Rosalind is a successful fool: her solution-based approach to love enables Rosalind, Orlando, Silvius, and Phoebe to achieve marital status, the end goal of Shakespearian comedies.

Rosalind’s continued role as fool, particularly her intervention in Silvius and Phoebe’s affairs, allow Shakespeare to satirize Petrarchan love.
Robert Smirke – The Seven Ages of Man- The Soldier, ‘As You Like It,’ II, vii – Google Art Project

Silvius’s obsession with Phoebe is a paragon of Petrarchan love: he tells her, “Do not, Phoebe. / Say that you love me not, but say not so / In bitterness.

The common executioner … first begs pardon. Will you sterner be / Than he that dies and lives by bloody drops?” (III.v.1-8). Silvius underscores the pain he suffers due to his love for Phoebe, even comparing it to the pain of being executed and begging Phoebe to not “sterner be” than an executioner. Rosalind, disguised as Ganymede, interrupts Silvius’ moping to present her rational view of the situation, telling Phoebe, “I see no more in you than in the ordinary / of nature’s sale-work” (III.v.47-48).

Later, Rosalind further insults Phoebe, suggesting “Sell when you can; you are not for all markets” (III.v.65). Rosalind degrades Phoebe’s romantic value by calling her “ordinary” and telling her to settle for Silvius because she cannot do any better in the romantic market. In doing so, Rosalind mocks both Phoebe and Silvius’ involvement in a Petrarchan love affair. According to Rosalind, Phoebe’s treatment of Silvius is deplorable, and Phoebe’s mediocrity makes Silvius’ mindless pursuit of her all the more desperate. Once “Ganymede” leaves, Phoebe admits her love for Ganymede to Silvius, telling him, “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might: / Who ever loved that loved not at first sight” (III.v.86-87).

Nonetheless, when Phoebe asks Silvius to deliver a letter to Ganymede, Silvius replies “Phoebe, with all my heart” (III.v.146). Silvius’s affectionate willingness to suffer for a woman who does not love him back again demonstrates that he is a classic Petrarchan lover. Instead of focusing on the mental toll that rejection causes Silvius, though, Shakespeare centers Silvius’ comedic servitude of Phoebe, making him an easy target for audience laughter. Thus, Phoebe and Silvius’ interactions, heavily influenced by Rosalind, allows Shakespeare to satirize the depressed and subservient emotional state caused by Petrarchan love. 

Despite being bitten by the proverbial love bug, Rosalind’s pragmatism allows her to replace Touchstone and gives Shakespeare an instrument through which to parody Petrarch, his posthumous competitor. A number of Shakespeare’s other works mirror his disdain for Petrarch’s thoughts on love. Petrarch wrote many blazons, poems lauding physical features of his love Laura, using literary tools such as similes and metaphors.

In contrast, Shakespeare wrote an anti-blazon, titled “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” in which he unfavorably compares a woman to nature. For example, he writes “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun,” underscoring his opposition to the Petrarchan way of demonstrating affection (2-3). Shakespeare continues, stating, “I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare” (13-14). Shakespeare subtly insults Petrarch, asserting that his love interest is as special as any woman who has been lauded with “false compar[isons]” by past poets. Shakespeare doesn’t close the door on love itself, though, and calls his mistress “rare.” Much like Rosalind, Shakespeare acknowledges the absurdity of romance while being in love himself, and compromises by pursuing his mistress pragmatically. 

Written by Lorenzo Lizzeri

Back To News

Eric Foner on the Civil War : Pulitzer Prize Winning Columbia History Professor on the Civil War

How Does Shakespeare Define Love?