I attended my last undergraduate class. Fortunately, it was a sweet one: Shakespeare. I waited to take Shakespeare until my last semester of college because I thought it would be an apropos swan song. As my Shakespeare professor, a delightful old man, likes to quip, “Shakespeare and the Bible: what more do you need in life?” I concur.
Of all the classes I have taken, three stand out: Abnormal Psychology, Culture and Psychopathology, and, yes, Shakespeare.
In honor of my last undergraduate class, I will share with you an excerpt from an essay I wrote for my Shakespeare class.
“Love and Marriage Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage”
Shakespeare deviates from the conventions of comedies and creates more complex and ambiguous romantic comedies than Hollywood. Shakespeare seeks to tell a more truthful love story by including both the ups and downs of falling in love. He lauds and denounces love in the same voice, as demonstrated in As You Like It by Rosalind, who simultaneously extols love and acknowledges that love is a “madness” (3.2.391). She brings her beloved Orlando back down to reality by reminding him that “men have died from time to time […] but not for love” (4.1.101-2).
Shakespeare endeavors to show that love is far more complex than Hollywood portrays it to be. Making two people into one is extremely difficult because people are separate individuals who change and do not always agree. Rosalind advises Orlando against making promises that he will not be able to keep. He may currently think he will be with her “forever and a day,” but “men are April when they woo, December when they wed,” and “Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives” (4.1.138-143). Shakespeare deviates from Hollywood’s romantic comedies by proclaiming the truth that marriage does not guarantee a happy ending. People change, and life after marriage requires compromise, hard work, and a deeper love capable of forgiving mistakes and flaws.
As well as revealing the complexity of love, Shakespeare’s comedies demonstrate that marriage has a dark side. In As You Like It, Rosalind tricks Phoebe into marrying Silvias, a man she does not love, in order to fulfill the convention of comedies ending in marriage. Forced to marry Silvias, Phoebe responds ambiguously, “I will not eat my words, now thou art mine” (5.4.148-9). These are not the typical words of a bride on her wedding day, which hints at a darker truth about marriage: it is not always good, and it is not always desired. Moreover, Jacques presents a cynical view on marriage, predicting that Touchstone and Audrey’s “wrangling” will only last for “two months” before their marriage crumbles (5.4.191-193). With these darker portrayals of marriage, Shakespeare reminds us that marriage is not a panacea for all ailments. Contrary to what Hollywood romantic comedies lead us to believe, Shakespeare shows that marriage is not always happy.
Perhaps the answer to the uncertainty of marriage is “If.” Shakespeare extols “If” as mankind’s “peacemaker,” proclaiming that there is “much virtue in If” (5.4.102-3). Marriage can fail, ending in despair, if husband and wife do not give each other abundant love, kindness, and forgiveness. On the other hand, marriage can lead to immense happiness if husband and wife promise to love one another for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. Shakespeare sticks with tradition by ending his comedy with marriage, but deviates from tradition by showing that marriage does not always end in happiness. Marriage can result in happiness if husband and wife acknowledge love’s complexity and choose to show each other lifelong loving grace.
As a future wife, I will remember Shakespeare’s reflections on love and marriage. After all: “Shakespeare and the Bible: what more do you need in life?”