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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The courtly love theme in Shakespeare's plays Cherry, Douglas Henry


Shakespeare reveals his interest in the popular theme of courtly love, which came to him as an established tradition, in a number of his plays. This tradition can be traced back to the troubadours of Provence who, during the Crusades, appeared as a class of knights whose chief values were valor, courtesy, and knightly worth. From the troubadours came the idea of love service: every knight must have a lady whose relationship to him was parallel to that between him as a vassal and his lord. This love service came.to be looked upon as leading to moral dignity and true chivalry and it was performed by the knight for another 's wife. An elaborate set of rules grew up describing the nature of courtly love and the attitudes and responses of both the knight and the lady. From Provence courtly love spread to Italy where it was endowed with spiritual and philosophical aspects by Cardinal Bembo, Dante, and Petrarch, for example. By the time that the tradition reached England it had been modified, added to, and conventionalized in its passage through Italian and Northern French literature. A number of Shakespeare's predecessors made important contributions to the courtly theme: Chaucer suggested its evil consequences, Castiglione established the rules to guide the perfect courtier and the lady, and emphasized marriage as the only acceptable end of courtly love, Sidney combined the medieval chivalric and the classical pastoral traditions in an imaginary setting where chivalric ideals always triumphed over evil, and Spenser added a strong moral note, recognizing the physical as well as the spiritual aspects of love in his emphasis on virtue and constancy. By the time that Shakespeare began to deal with courtly love, courtesy meant more than the medieval idea of a willingness to undertake love-service. It meant gentlemanly conduct, refined manners, intellect, and a high moral purpose. When Shakespeare took up the courtly theme, it had been refined considerably. In an early treatment of the theme, Shakespeare satirizes the folly connected with courtly love and the courtly ideal. This is seen in Love's Labour's Lost where the ladies only toy with the men and where love is not triumphant. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona the satirical vein is continued and the weaknesses inherent in courtly love are exposed in the struggle between love and friendship. As You Like It is another play in this group where courtly love is satirized. Rosalind becomes the spokesman for sincerity and faithfulness in love and condemns artificiality and sham. In a group of plays which treats the courtly theme as comedy (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Henry IV (Part I), and Henry V) Shakespeare is more fun-loving and gentler in his presentation than he was in the plays where courtly love was treated satirically. No serious issue mars the comic atmosphere as we see the humorous side of love in each of these plays. In another group, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline, we see the strength derived from romantic love which is presented as a genuine passion leading to permanence. Such love gives strength in adversity and though love ends tragically in Romeo and Juliet and nearly ends tragically in the other two plays, we see that it enables the lovers to meet their fate, even when it is death. Shakespeare reverses the theme in the following plays: All's Well that Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing, Measure for Measure, and Richard II. In the first three the lady uses a trick to win her man, and in Richard II she pleads for love but is rebuffed. The scheming and trickery of the first three plays in this group brings the theme close to unpleasantness and degrades the courtly lover. Shakespeare here probes the realistic aspects of the theme and shows men and women as they really are. This treatment is followed through in the tragedies Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, and Othello, where the unpleasant, realistic aspects of courtly love lead naturally to tragedy. In these tragedies the gaiety and idealism of the conventions of courtly love have disappeared completely and the true possibilities have been exposed. After these plays, courtly love no longer could supply a valid pattern for loving and living. In The Tempest the theme is subverted and love is seen as the force of renewal in the world. The lovers are no longer of interest as courtly lovers but appear as mature people whose marriage becomes the hope of a better world. The conventional suffering for love is gone and in its place is a mature, reasoned attitude to the most basic of man's emotions. With this play Shakespeare has come all the way from artificiality and sham to a lasting, satisfying type of love.

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