Love Concepts in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Love in Elizabethan Literature and Society
2.1 The Petrarchan Love Concept in Elizabethan Poetry
2.2 Marital Conventions in Elizabethan Society

3. Shakespeare’s Depiction of Marriage and Love in his Romantic Comedies

4. Representations of Love and Marriage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“The course of true love never did run smooth”[1] – this statement, made by the male protagonist Lysander in I,1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is arguably one of the most well-known lines from the play. In a nutshell, it represents its: the trials and tribulations of love; the obstacles young love has to overcome, the intrinsic complexities of established love, and the victory of true love in the end.

This paper aims to take a look at the way, how different stages of love and love concepts are represented in AMD. As Shakespeare is said to have written this particular early play between 1594 - 1596[2], a closer look will be taken at the conventions of love poetry in the literature of the Elizabethan age. The influence of the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch’s love poetry concept on Elizabethan love poetry conventions will be of special interest at this point.

Further on, Shakespeare’s very own love concept in his romantic comedies will be compared and contrasted to the love poetry of his age. The late 16th century and early 17th century, from the 1690ies and particularly with the onset of the reign of King James I, brought about a change in the perception and creation of conventional Elizabethan love poetry: from the commonplace Petrarchan conceits to a more individual, realistic yet Puritan depiction of the praised woman[3]. With AMD being conceived in this particular time frame, possible reflections of this literary change of mind in the discussed play will be outlined in the analysis of this play.

Scholars argue, that AMD originally might have been written by Shakespeare for a noble wedding celebration[4], because of its lenght, the marriages at the end of the play and the different aspects of married life the play offers. The aspect of marriage and marital conventions in the Elizabethan age will be another point of analysis in this paper, determining whether Shakespeare stayed true or subverted common assumptions of married life at his age. The final analysis will try to apply the aforementioned theoretical points to AMD and take a look at how marriage, love, and literary love concepts are represented by the respective couples in the play.

2. Love in Elizabethan Literature and Society

2.1 The Petrarchan Love Concept in Elizabethan Poetry

Elizabethan love poetry originated from several sources, among them “Chaucer’s study of courtly love”.[5] The most significant influence, however, can be traced back to the Italian love poetry of the 16th century, most notably the doctrine of the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch. Petrarchism and its religious reverence of love and beauty that existed in 14th century Italy, has its origins in “medieval love poetry”[6]: love of God and the love of a lady were the major themes of medieval Provencal love poetry[7]. In those poems, the worship of the holy virgin was allegorically expressed by the love for a human woman, who was adorned with the pure beauty of nature and worshipped like a saint:”Petrarch effected the first major change in the spiritualization of love and beauty through his insistence upon the spiritual nature of woman’s beauty.”[8] She had to be pure, innocent and resistant to her lover’s laments as consummation would actually ruin the ideal love[9] ; thus, the stereotypical refusal of the subservient, noble lover is a quintessential part of the love poem. Petrarch’s archetypal object of affection, Laura, is “kind in cruelty, quiet in scorn, chaste in anger, proud in humility”[10] ; unapproachable, just as the Virgin Mary, forcing the lover to contain and sublimate his passion and feelings for her. The love for the saint-like woman was for Petrarch nevertheless no way to God, which is shown in Petrarch’s repenting after Laura’s death[11].

Later, this dichotomy of spiritual and mortal love is overcome by the Florentine Neo-Platonist: earthly love was first deemed a reflection of divine love, all the while acknowledging, that earthly love is not an end in itself and is a weakness often to be encountered in the young; eventually, the Neo-Platonist Baldassare Castiglione declared that beauty is sacred, and that love that strives for it, is heading towards divine and thus young sensual love can be forgiven.[12] Hence, the platonic admiration of the beloved as a creature of divine beauty was cemented as the major theme for Petrarchan love poetry.

Petrarch determined the sonnet as the common form of his love poetry, along with investing it with special vocabulary and conceits that referenced images and phenomena of nature[13]. Petrarchism was first adopted and introduced to the Elizabethan court by the English Renaissance poet Sir Thomas Wyatt[14], fusing Petrarchism and Florentine Neo-Platonism in Elizabethan courtly love poetry[15]. The English Petrarchs however exaggerated the embroidering of verses and conceits, until the love sonnets were nothing more than stock conceits of love poetry, showing off the mastery and weakness for superficial appearance of their creators.[16] This tendency eventually led to the effacement of Petrarch’s original pious art and gave way to common way tropes and embellished verses. Wyatt “ignored the beauty of his lady and the setting of Nature”[17], forfeiting originality in the process; the creation of the most exquisite form, the most extraordinary, far-fetched conceits and the most lamentable lover reign supreme in his poems. The 1690ies and the onset of King James I rule in 1603 brought about – among social, economic and religious turmoil - a change from Petrarchism to radical anti-Petrarchism. Whereas Queen Elizabeth strengthened the prestige of women during her reign and strove to make the Petrarchan reverence of woman the predominant attitude towards females among her people[18], King James rejected Petrarchan conventions as flamboyant artificiality[19]. More and more poets turned to his puritan and misogynist views and depicted women as voluptuous, dangerous seductresses[20]. The anger and disgust of the poets at the over - idealization of women and the discrepancy between ideal love and experienced love was due to the emotional turmoil of the sudden end of Elizabeth’s reign[21]. Petrarchan love poetry that praised women, died during King James I’s strict reign.


[1] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. Alexander Burgess et al. Vol 1. Essen: Magnus Verlag, 2003. P. 218 – 42. All quotes from the play will be made following this edition and be referenced by “AMD + Act, Scene,Line”

[2] It is virtually impossible to establish a precise date for the origin of AMD, thus the author has singled out the time span between 1594 – 96 for its date of origin. The following works cite the selected time frame as the possible date of origin: Warren, Roger. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. London: Macmillan, 1983. P.11.; Holland, Peter. The Oxford Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1994. P. 110; Halio, Jay L. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.A Guide to the Play. Westwood: Greenwood Press, 2003. P.13.

[3] Pearson, Emily Lu. Elizabethan Love Conventions.London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966. 233f.

[4] Cf. Holland 111f.; Halio 13ff.

[5] Pearson 298.

[6] Goldstein, Neal L.“Love’s Labour’s Lost and the Renaissance Vision of Love.” Shakespeare Quarterly 25.3 (1974). 335 – 50. P. 336.

[7] Cf. Goldstein 336.

[8] Goldstein 339.

[9] Cf. Goldstein 336.

[10] Pearson 36.

[11] Cf. Goldstein 337.

[12] Cf. Goldstein 337f.

[13] Cf. Pearson 33.

[14] Cf. Pearson 57ff.

[15] Cf. Goldstein 339.

[16] Cf. Pearson 40f.

[17] Pearson 62.

[18] Cf. Pearson 232.

[19] Cf.Pearson 233ff.

[20] Cf. Pearson 235.

[21] Cf. Pearson 202.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Love Concepts in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
University of Würzburg  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Literatur - und Kulturwissenschaft )
HS: Shakespeare's Comedies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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love, concepts, william, shakespeare, midsummer, night, dream
Quote paper
Sema Kara (Author), 2012, Love Concepts in William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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