Shakespeare: The Physiology of Love

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One of the most prolific writers throughout history, William Shakespeare is responsible for introducing hundreds of phrases into the English language. The playwright and poet has influenced writers, philosophers, and scientists for centuries, including the likes of John Keats, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, and the writers of the King James Bible.  His words are still interpreted and his plays are possibly more commonplace today than they were in his time. In 2011, David Schalkwyk authored a piece analyzing Shakespeare’s depiction of love in the Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra. Schalkwyk utilizes these plays to illustrate his opinion on the existence and technicality of love as an emotion.

Depending on the origin of the writing, Schalkwyn notes that, although the theoretical framework has changed regarding emotions, their basis in physiology and the ability to identify emotion through the presence of chemical response. If this is the case, the question is posed, is love an emotion? Can love be diagnosed much like an illness, by physiological factors? At the root of his theory, Schalkwyk hypothesizes that Shakespeare himself has proved through his works that love is not an emotion that can be defined as the calm, happy, contented feeling that one might associate with it linguistically. 

Instead, love is a concept much too complex to be identified through physiological methods and does not exist as a singular emotion, but as a context in which emotion is felt. In Love’s Labours Lost Shakespeare point this out, with Biron lamenting “but love, first learned in a lady’s eyes, lives no alone immured in the brain; but, with the motion of the elements, courses as swift as thought in every power, and gives to every power a double power, above their functions and their offices” (4.3 330-5).

The Biology of Emotions

Early scientists believed that emotion could be linked to the evolution of humans and their ability to adapt to their environment for survival. The basic concept of pleasure versus pain or good versus equal can explain the emotional context of any situation. Pleasure and good representing basic human emotions, of which people possess instinctually, such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust, whereas the second group of emotions includes shame, sympathy, indignation, contempt, admiration, guilt, jealousy, envy, and embarrassment are all modification of basic emotion (Elkman).  

The basis is that all emotions stem from the basic, or root, emotions and each are modified through interactions, creating the second, or social category. As an example, disgust is natural responses, however, the development of contempt based on disgust is a social reaction. These are all examples of human physiology, as Damasio suggests, feelings are simply an extension of the evolutionary, instinctive emotional reactions to an event. One typically hears love grouped in these categories, either as a basic human emotion or as a modification of happiness. Contrary to this belief, Paul Elkman proposes that instead, love is not an emotion at all, noting, “emotions come and go in a matter of seconds or minutes. Parental love or romantic love are not so transitory, and clearly different from momentary emotions. Love is an affective commitment and attachment to a particular person” (211-212).

The ability of love to impact emotions is uncontested, however, the feeling of love as a true emotion is strongly disputed. agrees with Elkman, believing that instead love is a behavior or state of mind. The theory remains nearly untestable as any attempt to scientifically prove the biological nature of love would need a control for comparison. If a control can be assumed then the experiment is pointless as the assumption for what love is, or is not, must have already been made. It is because of this impossible cycle of identification that Schalkwyn points to Shakespeare as the proof of his claim. Utilizing the typology of Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, several other plays will be examined to determine whether or not theory is further supported by additional evidence within Shakespeare’s collection.

King Lear

The very idea of seeking love is the beginning of the end for King Lear and his kingdom. As he is coming to terms with his age, King Lear asks each of his daughters to prove their love to him in order to gain their share of his wealth, property, and the crown. His elder two daughters, shower him with sweet nothings, praise, and soothing words of worship and admiration. In return, Lear gives them each a portion of his estate. When it comes time for his youngest daughter, Cordelia, to speak she refuses, saying that no words could possibly express the depth of her affection for him. Lear regards her silence as insolence and disinherits her completely. Lear resolves to live with each of his older daughters, as they’ve professed their love and care for their aging father. Cordelia flees, marrying the King of France, only to return when it is revealed that her sisters were greedy, and didn’t love Lear at all, mocking his age and incompetence without the crown. 

In this truth is revealed the nature of love, despite unhappiness, disappointment, surprise, jealousy, anger, resentment and a multitude of other emotions, Cordelia loves Lear and that is a commitment, not a feeling from where things can change. The love that she shows goes beyond the sadness and fear she must have felt when her beloved father banished her from his life in exchange for her ungrateful sisters. In Lear’s eyes, it was not until Cordelia came to his rescue did he realize his mistake, but it was too late. She is killed at the request of her sister and although Lear escapes with his life, he promptly dies of a broken heart. 

Antony and Cleopatra

 In the opening scene of the play, Cleopatra is challenging Antony to prove his love to her, much like the demands of Lear to his daughters. As did Cordelia to Lear, Antony claims his love is indescribable as he references the heavens and earth. When Antony’s attention is directed to a messenger, he forsakes the news, even at the insistence of his wife, forcing her to confront not only his words but his actions in refusing all others to show her his love. However, this commitment is challenged as Antony is confused by the feelings invoked by his wife’s death. Cleopatra and Antony continue to torture each other in form, function, and verse until feelings of joyfulness are replaced by hate, resentment, anger, and jealousy. However, they continue to proclaim their love for one another until their untimely deaths, although none of the feelings that can be identified as chemical reactions in the brain are a part of that love in the end. According to Schalkwyn “what the unfolding of the dialogue between Antony and Cleopatra reveals is love as a disposition that unfolds over time, and moreover, that is intrinsically bound up with a performative and dialogical navigation of effects, affects, and meanings” (119).

Romeo and Juliet

Regarded and remade as a classic, yet tragic, love story, Romeo and Juliet is the obvious place to look for evidence of love as an emotion. Ironically, love’s shifting form throughout the play proves just the opposite. Instead, love is simply a word. The changing meaning of love within the context of the scenes is additional evidence that love cannot be a simple emotion, reduced to a bodily reaction or identified by the presence of biological function. This is also seen in the initial quote from Romeo regarding the extremes of love in both pain and joy. 

In the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare’s opinion on love is seemingly clear as Romeo proclaims:

Such is love’s transgression. Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast, which thou wilt propagate, to have it prest with more of thine: this love that  more grief to too much of mine own. Love is the fume of sighs; purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;  sea with lover’s tears: what is it else? A madness most discreet, a choking gall and a preserving sweet. (1.1 180)

In contrast to an emotion such as happiness, which can be described fairly consistently by those experiencing it and can also be linked to certain chemical changes in the brain, love in terms of Romeo and Juliet is described as a means of revenge and of forgiveness. “Love is always death and life, joy and sorrow, bitterness and sweetness, madness and discretion, heaven and hell, angel and daemon, immortality and mortality together; it is always similitude and difference at the same time” (Aliakbari and Abjadian 20-1).  

State of Mind or State of Being?

Evaluating the information regarding the identification of love as an emotion it would seem that Schalkwyn is correct in his assertion. Although the word love may conjure pictures of smiles and bliss, giving the feeling of calm and security, those things are functions of chemistry. As has been illustrated, likening love to positive emotions is quite optimistic as it has been shown that those emotions exist before and after the state of love is present. However, the secondary, or social emotions, those feelings of jealousy, envy, resentment, and contempt are typically present when one is feeling a sense of attachment, such as love. This shows that indeed love is not an emotion, but a state of being in which emotions are exponentially heightened. The desire for this heightened emotional state is the downfall of love. As Freud would say, it is the perpetual pursuit of the unattainable, love which has been romanticized in all its splendid glory despite never existing in that form (Edmundson). 

Shakespeare obviously agreed with the concept of love as a state of being to be pursued by some or experienced despite the unwillingness of others. However, there are glimmers of an eternal optimist in Shakespeare, shown through verse. The story of Rosalind, in As You Like It, is an example of this hope, the potential that there is a way to avoid the highs and lows of love without forsaking it altogether (Edmundson). As she pursued her love, she realized that the initial moments of passion and euphoria that people associate with love are fleeting and give way to feelings of jealousy and anger long before one is ready. Her solution was simple, in order to outwit love, she would simply acknowledge that the kind of love she sought was a fantasy and play it out as one to be enjoyed.

Although science has evolved since the days of Shakespeare, it seems that it is no closer to identifying the physiological chemistry of love. Through this analysis, it is clear to see the reason for this inability to find the root of love as a feeling or emotion is because it doesn’t exist in that realm. Although the initial feelings of lust, happiness, and passion can be linked to neural activity, the truth is that love beyond these initial chemistries seems to be a choice. Love as Shakespeare represents it can be painful and even deadly in some cases. The highs of lovers are seen, as are the lows, and there is no consistency in love as an emotion. It seems the only thing that is consistent about love is its inconsistency and the constant commitment of those who claim it to follow it to the end despite the sometimes tragic consequences.

Works Cited

Aliakbari, H and A Abjadian. "'What Is It Else?' Love's (Con-)Text In Romeo And Juliet"[email protected] 14.1 (2012): 1-42. Web. 27 May 2016. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/89800487/what-else-loves-con-text-romeo-juliet

Damasio, Antonio R. Looking For Spinoza. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2003. Print.

Edmundson, Mark. "Freud And Shakespeare On Love". Raritan 24.1 (2004): 51-75. Print.

Ekman, Paul. "An Argument For Basic Emotions". Cognition & Emotion 6.3 (1992): 169-200. Web. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699939208411068#.V2I5-_krLIU

Schalkwyn, David. "Is Love An Emotion? Shakespeare's Twelfth Night And Antony And Cleopatra". Symploke 18.1/2 (2011): 99-132. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Antony And Cleopatra. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Floating Press, 2010. Print.

---. As You Like It. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1977. Print.

---. King Lear. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. Print.

---. Love's Labour Lost, Romeo Juliet, The Merchant Of Venice, Othello. London: Batsford, 1963. Print.

---. Shakespeare's Tragedy Of Romeo And Juliet. New York: Harper, 1879. Print.

---. Twelfth Night. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1997. Print.