Forget Snapchat as a romantic gesture. Handwritten notes are where it’s at. We look at three instances of love letters in Shakespeare’s plays: Orlando’s love poems to Rosalind in As You Like It, Hamlet’s passionate missive to Ophelia in Hamlet, and Proteus’s romantic letter to Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
As You Like It
Orlando has been writing poems to his beloved Rosalind and hanging them on trees around the Forest of Arden. Ok, so they’re not love letters per se, but Rosalind (disguised as a man named Ganymede) does discover them and reads one aloud:
From the east to western Ind
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no face be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind. (3.2.88)
Oh, that’s rough going. Work on your rhymes, Orlando. It’s a good thing that Rosalind has already fallen for him.
Hamlet is no novice when it comes to passionate language, as he proves in the love letter he writes to Ophelia. In this scene, Polonius is reading it aloud to Claudius and Gertrude.
(That’s right. Ophelia has received a love letter from her boyfriend, and now her dad is reading that letter aloud to her boyfriend’s mother and uncle. How mortifying.)
I have a daughter (have while she is mine)
Who, in her duty and obedience, mark,
Hath given me this. Now gather and surmise.
[He reads.] To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the
most beautified Ophelia—
That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; “beautified” is a
vile phrase. But you shall hear. Thus: [He reads.]
In her excellent white bosom, these, etc.—
QUEEN Came this from Hamlet to her?
Good madam, stay awhile. I will be faithful.
[He reads the letter.]
Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not
art to reckon my groans, but that I love thee best, O
most best, believe it. Adieu.
Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, Hamlet.
Those are strong words of love from Hamlet. But does he back them up with his actions? Hmmm.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Let’s set the scene. Lucetta delivers a letter to her mistress, Julia, from an admirer, Proteus. Julia pretends that she doesn’t want to read the letter and rips it up. However, once Lucetta leaves, Julia scrambles to reassemble the letter and divine its contents.
O hateful hands, to tear such loving words!
Injurious wasps, to feed on such sweet honey
And kill the bees that yield it with your stings!
I’ll kiss each several paper for amends.
[She picks up some pieces.]
Look, here is writ “kind Julia.” Unkind Julia,
As in revenge of thy ingratitude,
I throw thy name against the bruising stones,
Trampling contemptuously on thy disdain.
And here is writ “love-wounded Proteus.”
Poor wounded name, my bosom as a bed
Shall lodge thee till thy wound be throughly healed,
And thus I search it with a sovereign kiss.
But twice or thrice was “Proteus” written down.
Be calm, good wind. Blow not a word away
Till I have found each letter in the letter
Except mine own name. That some whirlwind bear
Unto a ragged, fearful, hanging rock
And throw it thence into the raging sea.
Lo, here in one line is his name twice writ:
“Poor forlorn Proteus, passionate Proteus,
To the sweet Julia.” That I’ll tear away—
And yet I will not, sith so prettily
He couples it to his complaining names. (1.2.112-134)
What other love letters can we find in Shakespeare’s plays?