I hope to write something about Arthur Miller, a playwright I like a lot, next week. Today is Valentine’s day, and I want to talk about love.
What is this craving, this yearning, that we call love? Well, let’s look to literature for answers. In the works of William Shakespeare, love is a life-defining event, a sudden all-consuming passion, a realization of adulthood, and also a tragic miasma from which many will never return. In Shakespeare’s world, love was not safe. Romeo and Juliet did not survive it; neither did Hamlet or Ophelia, nor Lord and Lady Macbeth, nor Othello and Desdemona.
These were Shakespeare’s most powerful and memorable characters, all of them doomed. But Shakespeare also wrote comedies, in which he generally allowed his characters to live. My favorite is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a vast and perfect riot of romance and human error.
This play is set in Athens, Greece at a pagan festival celebrating the summer solstice (an ancient tradition echoed in a variety of other artistic and cultural forms, from the “Walpurgis Night” scenes in Goethe’s “Faust” to today’s Burning Man). The entire city is caught up in the excitement of the coming festival, including a royal family, a comical troupe of unprofessional actors attempting to put on a play, and four young lovers who run into a dark forest and get lost (predating “The Blair Witch Project” by 400 years).
What these mortals don’t know is that the summer solstice has also filled the forest with mischievous spirits, super-beings, fairies and magical creatures of various types. The spirit-creatures are mostly oblivious to the mortals, but the fairy king Oberon and his assistant Puck conjure up a scheme that crosses into the other world. Potions and spells abound, most of them missing their intended targets, and complete chaos breaks out in the middle of the night. The four young lovers become tragically confused about who loves who, while a dull-minded and unimpressive actor gets turned into a donkey and somehow ends up making love with the fairy queen Titania, all the while attended by forest pixies with names like Mustard Seed, Cobweb, Peas-Blossom and Moth, in what is certainly the most luxurious moment of his life.
By morning, it’s all forgotten, and the festival goes on. We are made to understand the vulnerability of all human beings — from humble townspeople to vapid young lovers to grand rulers of the spirit world — to the mysteries of the dark night. Love carries no death sentence here, and the moral of the play is that we do best to simply succumb to our urges and inner spells when they hit us. As if we ever had a choice.
Both Shakespeare’s tragedies and his comedies reflect the awesome scale of love, the way it blooms hugely in the human soul. I guess I know a little about this because, a few years ago, I skeptically found myself falling in love with a person whose charms managed to knock out all my defenses. I’m not scared of much in this world, but I’m smart enough to be scared of love, because I know how much power it holds. As in Shakespeare’s forest, for me love remains a magical spell, a mysterious opening into a world of pure emotion and no logic, a realm of intoxicating confusion that is as delicious as it is dizzying.
So, even though I usually try to avoid hokey holidays, I need to send a shout-out today to that special someone who is out there, lost with me in the Athenian woods.
And I’d like to ask you: what writer, book, poem, play or quote best represents the meaning of love in your life, and in your world?
flower of this purple dye,
hit with cupid’s archery,
sink in apple of his eye
when his love he doth espy
let her shine as gloriously
as the venus of the sky
when thou wakest, if she be by,
beg of her for remedy
captain of our fairy band,
helena is here at hand;
and the youth, mistook by me,
pleading for a lover’s fee,
shall we their fond pageant see?
lord, what fools these mortals be