As Valentine’s Day draws near, many people will be turning to Shakespeare to find that perfect expression of love with which to woo the object of their affection. But Shakespeare has more to offer than just pretty phrases—indeed, his plays provide us with a wealth of examples of wooing and wedding (though not always happily).
When Shakespeare was writing, England was undergoing a cultural shift regarding attitudes towards love and marriage. While money, class, and political considerations still held an important place in negotiating unions, particularly in the upper classes, changes in religion and the modernization that accompanied the Renaissance led to more emphasis being placed on mutual affection. It’s no surprise, then, that many of Shakespeare’s plots are driven by early versions of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets girl trope that dictates so many modern romantic comedies—though, granted, with a lot more girl-dresses-as-boy or boy-kills-girl thrown in.
So what are some of the do’s and don’ts of dating that can be learned from Shakespeare’s plays? Well, to start, it helps to be realistic about Shakespeare’s couples. We actually see very few happy, stable romances in Shakespeare while at the same time finding quite a number of pitfalls to be avoided. For example, some obvious examples of what not to do include:
- Don’t marry someone you’ve only just met
- Don’t fake your own death
- Don’t kill yourself
And, since all of the above examples come from Romeo and Juliet, we might also add “don’t be 14” to the list. Which brings us to another little note about early modern courtship: while betrothals among young children were not uncommon at the top levels of society (think: the royals), humbler marriages often occurred at ages more in keeping with modern times. Granted, Shakespeare was 18 when he wed Anne Hathaway, but she was 26. His elder daughter Susanna was 24 when she married John Hall, and his second daughter Judith was 31 when she tied the knot with the disreputable Thomas Quiney.
Early moderns: they’re just like us!
Returning to the plays, while there are many don’ts (don’t suspect your wife of cheating just because she lost a handkerchief; don’t try to further your partner’s career with witchcraft; don’t drug your partner so they sleep with a magically transformed stranger….), we can find a few examples of “do’s.”
One of the best comes from Much Ado About Nothing, and that is know your partner. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s comedic couples, Beatrice and Benedick clearly have a past history. Before he arrives onstage, Beatrice shows familiarity with him and a later exchange between her and Don Pedro strongly implies a past relationship:
PRINCE Come, lady, come, you have lost
the heart of Signior Benedick.
BEATRICE Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I
gave him use for it, a double heart for his single
one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false
dice. Therefore your Grace may well say I have lost
This familiarity leads to Beatrice and Benedick having a shared rapport that is among the most delightful and flirtatious in Shakespeare. They both revel in wordplay. Moreover, Benedick is clearly attuned to Beatrice’s love language, acts of service. When her cousin is disgraced, Benedick attempts to comfort her. Professing his love, he then seeks to prove it:
BENEDICK Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Beatrice immediately does. Unfortunately, the task she devises for him is to….well, kill Claudio.
… As I said, there are a lot of don’ts.
However, Beatrice’s request does offer another pro-tip, and that is to communicate with your partner. While problematic, Beatrice’s “Kill Claudio” is striking in its directness. There is no question about what she wants. In fact, the reason Claudio should start looking over his shoulder comes from the fact that he didn’t communicate with Hero about his suspicions or allow her to address them. Similarly, had Romeo and Juliet been able to share their plans with one another, we would have a much different story. Ditto Othello and Desdemona. Honesty, openness, and trust will always serve you well in the end.
So this Valentine’s Day, take a cue from Shakespeare and really think about talking to your partner, learning their love language, and not asking them to murder their best friend.
And if you need a good quote for a card? There’s always the sonnets.