February 14th is a very special day for us in Western culture: St Valentine’s Day – a day when we pull out all the stops to express our love for the one with whom we’re romantically involved, with flowers, chocolates, special treats and words of love.
We often think about Shakespeare at this time, because he’s a kind of spokesman for our culture on the subject of romantic love. If you look at some of Shakespeare’s most famous love quotes you’ll get an idea of how central he is to our cultural thinking about romantic love. Shakespeare is a spokesman for so many things – defining the character of such areas as war, death, politics and much more – always finding the right words and going to the heart of those aspects of life, and Shakespeare’s take on love is no different in its influence.
His sonnet 116, Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments, is about far deeper love than romantic love. It’s a philosophical dissertation on the substance of love and its eternal quality. Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? comes closer to romantic love – a man addressing a particular woman, although here, too, he projects the beautiful young woman into the future and imagines her old and wrinkled, but sees beyond that: the young man’s love is not dependent on her youthful beauty.
Apart from the innumerable beautiful expressions of romantic love we find in Shakespeare’s plays, which are crammed with lovers, there are some feet-on-the-ground reality checks such as ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But my favorite, almost tear invoking image of romantic love, is the young Romeo’s overwhelmed emotions as he gazes with awe at Juliet when he first lays eyes on her:
Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.
Juliet lights the world up for him as she comes into his consciousness like a bright light.
But more in line with the Valentine’s Day idea of two lovers immersed in each other we have the middle-aged Antony and Cleopatra who wallow in the wonder of sexual attraction. In their first scene they ignore everyone around them, even though they’re surrounded by courtiers and ambassadorial visitors from Rome: their eyes are only on each other. If this is really love, she says, tell me how much. He replies that love that can be measured is worthless. She tells him that she’ll set a boundary on how far he can love her. His response is that in that case she will have to go beyond the boundaries of the known world and seek out unexplored regions of the Earth and also the unknown heavens.
To me that’s wonderful. There’s flirtation, excessive expression, real attraction and the suggestion of something eternal, divine, and all the things that Shakespeare can get into a few words. But here we have two people in love, the mutual emotion sketched by Shakespeare in this short exchange, expressed in a way that no other poet has ever been able to surpass.
In recent times we have made a big thing of St Valentine’s Day, and it has become an opportunity for commercial enterprises to sell cards and gifts. Restaurants are booked up on St Valentine’s evenings and it’s a way for young men and women in love and newly-weds to mark their sentiments. But Shakespeare could not have had anything special going on his mind when it came to 14th February. Indeed, Valentine’s Day is mentioned only once in his plays. It’s part of the ravings of the mad Ophelia in Hamlet once she’s lost the ability to communicate and shortly before her suicide. She’s complaining about having given herself to Hamlet only to be discarded by him. It’s impossible from that reference to see how St Valentine’s Day impinged on Shakespeare’s general outlook. It’s a dark moment in Shakespeare.
But where does this concept of St Valentine’s Day come from? The answer is that no-one knows: it’s like so many things that have survived to modern times but whose origins are shrouded in obscurity. At least three St Valentines have been dug up by scholars looking for him – all martyrs. It seems that one of them wrote a letter to his beloved from prison and that’s perhaps the origin of St Valentine’s Day as we know it. But we will never know. Let us just enjoy it and keep looking to Shakespeare to supply its language.