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Shakespeare and the Nature of Love


The best conception of love, Marcus Nordlund contends, and hence the best framework for its literary analysis, must be a fusion of evolutionary, cultural, and historical explanation.  It is within just such a bio-cultural nexus that Nordlund explores Shakespeare’s treatment of different forms of love.  His approach leads to a valuable new perspective on Shakespearean love and, more broadly, on the interaction between our common humanity and our historical contingency as they are reflected, recast, ...

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The best conception of love, Marcus Nordlund contends, and hence the best framework for its literary analysis, must be a fusion of evolutionary, cultural, and historical explanation.  It is within just such a bio-cultural nexus that Nordlund explores Shakespeare’s treatment of different forms of love.  His approach leads to a valuable new perspective on Shakespearean love and, more broadly, on the interaction between our common humanity and our historical contingency as they are reflected, recast, transformed, or even suppressed in literary works.
            After addressing critical issues about love, biology, and culture raised by his method, Nordlund considers four specific forms of love in seven of Shakespeare’s plays.  Examining the vicissitudes of parental love in Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus, he argues that Shakespeare makes a sustained inquiry into the impact of culture and society upon the natural human affections.  King Lear offers insight into the conflicted relationship between love and duty.  In two problem plays about romantic love, Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well that Ends Well, the tension between individual idiosyncrasies and social consensus becomes especially salient.  And finally, in Othello and The Winter’s Tale, Nordlund asks what Shakespeare can tell us about the dark avatar of jealousy.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810124233
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2007
  • Series: Rethinking Theory
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcus Nordlund is an associate professor of English at Göteborg University in Sweden.

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Shakespeare and the Nature of Love
Literature, Culture, Evolution

By Marcus Nordlund
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2007

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2423-3

Chapter One The Nature of Love

Nothing in Man is either worse or better for being shared with the beasts. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 33

In 1957, Erich Fromm declared that any theory of love "must begin with a theory of man, of human existence." Like most accounts of human nature, Fromm's own fusion of existentialism and psychoanalysis has its strengths and weaknesses, but he is certainly right that it is difficult to discuss the nature of love coherently without also discussing the nature of human beings. This holds just as true for those theorists who actively dispute the existence of an identifiable human nature, for what they are really saying is that human nature is extremely plastic and thus defies all forms of generalization. Since there is no getting around the problem of human nature, the first challenge that faces the student of love is to understand the nature of the lover.

This is, however, easier said than done, and sometimes it is made more difficult than it should be. For many years it has been something of a commonplace among students of literature that human identity is a "construct" that is constituted historically, socially, and culturally and that any alternative modes of explanation can be grouped together conveniently under the rubric of "essentialism." Once they have been defined as essentialist, which basically denotes a belief that human nature is fixed and unchanging, these alternative views have typically been associated with a reactionary outlook (in spite of the dubious nature of such inferences) and then assigned to the critical dustbin.

This has been a regrettable development in many ways, not least because it has effectively closed the door on a fascinating array of evidence emerging from biology and the other life sciences. In fact, the irony could hardly be greater, since it was Darwinism that delivered the deathblow to biological, philosophical, and religious essentialism in the nineteenth century by demonstrating that species are not unchanging creations. But if biological or evolutionary explanation entails constraints on cultural explanation, then it is obviously appealing for departments of culture or language to think that biology is irrelevant, that there is no human nature, and that the explanatory power of one's own theoretical framework is almost unlimited.

As Terry Eagleton puts it crisply in a recent book where he abjures some of his earlier post-structuralist leanings, anti-essentialism "is largely the product of philosophical amateurism and ignorance." To be fair, there can be no doubt that the road has been paved with good intentions and that the repeated attacks on human universals by postmodernists have often been motivated by a respect for alternative lifestyles and the integrity of minority groups. It so happens that I share most of these ideals. But this shared ground does not preclude disagreement about how we should best understand human nature, and how such an understanding might best serve our ideals. It is by no means evident that the interests of marginalized groups are best defended by denying the existence of larger regularities, continuities, and even universals in human identity, experience, and values. In order to be consistent, a radical anti-universalist might even have to shelve the universal principle of human rights.

The most fundamental problem with the constructivist and post-structuralist heritage is that it has preserved an outmoded conflict between nature and nurture, now rewritten as a morality play involving a bad angel called Biological Essentialism (or "Biologism" for short) and a good angel called Cultural Constructivism. Time and again, literary critics presume to "deconstruct" the distinction between nature and culture when all they really do is turn nature into a form of culture (thus neatly discarding one half of the notorious dichotomy). This drama is often geared to a grim hermeneutics of suspicion, where love or beauty are described as artificial and unreal because they mask the workings of sinister social mechanisms and processes of subjection.

As Sue Laver and Mette Hjort have explained, the central premise in the social constructivist account of the emotions is a commitment to cultural particularism and diversity. This diversity is then explained sociopolitically rather than psychologically, in that cultural variation is seen as the effect of differing social power structures and conceptual systems. People in different cultures have different emotions because they have internalized different social pressures to have these emotions. It is held that an emotion that exists in one culture can be completely absent from other cultures, or even that there are no universal emotions.

To say that this or that is a "construction" is to make an exceedingly vague statement. It has therefore become a commonplace in the social sciences to distinguish between two different kinds of constructivism. First, there is a weak version that does not dispute the agency of nonlinguistic realities and simply argues that human perceptions, emotions, and identities are shaped by particular languages, conceptual systems, social practices, and so forth. Since even a primal emotion like fear is dependent on cognitive appraisal (what is this thing before me? is it dangerous? should I become afraid?) this is something of a truism. While I have the greatest respect for truisms (they are, after all, the necessary common ground that makes more controversial statements meaningful), they alone cannot make interesting (or even identifiable) theoretical perspectives. This leaves us with a strong constructivism that is usually influenced by post-structuralist theory and that therefore regards conceptual systems as basically self-contained entities. According to this brand, which has usually been at work in literary and cultural studies, emotions are constructed in the sense of being social inventions: "Societies can shape, mold, or construct as many different emotions as are functional with the social system." This sense is what is usually intended when people say that something is "only a cultural construction." As internalized social inventions, emotions are arbitrary and can be expected to disappear if the dominant social and conceptual structure is altered significantly. This betrays the political motivation that often underpins the constructivist edifice: if everything is a social construction, then there is no human nature. If there is no human nature, then all humans are infinitely malleable, which is a good thing for those who think they have better constructions at hand.

It is in such a context that we must understand the distinguished literary theorist Jonathan Culler's claim that "romantic love ... is arguably a massive literary creation." For many literary and cultural theorists, the word "love" has become something of a professional embarrassment. It is true, of course, that earlier generations of Shakespeare critics were a little one-sided in their pursuit of aesthetic unity and timeless truths about the nature of love and spirit, but it is hard to see that the contributions of their recent successors-reared on oppressive "sexual economies," "sex-gender systems," and vaguely paranoid conceptions of language and identity-have really been a major improvement. As Kenan Malik points out, what most post-structuralists and other anti-essentialists have advanced is a sort of positivism-in-reverse that makes "difference" the absolute in human history. How human beings might be characterized by total difference from each other and yet be recognizably human seems difficult to explain.

Fortunately, a critical paradigm never asserts itself at the total expense of all other perspectives-not even within its own discipline, and certainly not outside. In 1975, when literature professors were busy reading the latest works of Derrida, the anathema placed on biological and evolutionary explanations of human behavior was challenged by the publication of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology. Wilson's ideas were provocative and his rhetoric quite uncongenial to the social and human sciences. In a now famous passage, he suggested nothing less than interdisciplinary cannibalism based on evolutionary principles, defining "sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities" as "the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern [Darwinian] Synthesis." The humanities a mere branch of biology? The impact on the media and academia was huge, and the last three decades of the twentieth century saw a fierce debate about the scope and potentials of evolutionary explanation of human affairs. Too often, this debate has been dominated by propagandistic straw men and misrepresentations instead of by a balanced discussion of common ground and irreconcilable differences.

In recent years, the tone in Wilson's writings has mellowed considerably. While he still thinks the social sciences need a major refurbishment to make them more scientific, he is now proposing something that sounds much more respectful with regard to literature. "There is only one way to unite the great branches of learning and end the culture wars. It is to view the boundary between the scientific and literary cultures not as a territorial line but as a broad and mostly unexplored terrain awaiting cooperative entry from both sides." In the second half of the 1990s, a major step forward was taken in this area once a number of literary theorists and critics, most notably Joseph Carroll and Robert Storey, had realized that the only way forward was to attack the current constructivist orthodoxy from the outside. By placing the study of cultural artifacts like literature on a biological and evolutionary foundation, it might be possible to advance literary arguments that were theoretically consistent with the most promising developments in other disciplines.

Given the historically conflicted relation between science and the humanities, it is important to stress that theoretical consistency does not mean subjection to alien methods or modes of inquiry. As Wilson points out, the ideal of conceptual integration between different disciplines is by no means opposed to the need for radically divergent methods and even objectives. Since the humanities operate on a different theoretical level than do the other sciences, they are also in a position to explore issues that are out of reach for biology or even psychology. The philosopher and psychologist Jon Elster even suggests that when it comes to emotions like romantic love, "we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology." Whether or not he is right about this, it seems clear that philosophical and literary students of love have everything to gain from taking a converse interest in scientific explanation. In the words of another philosopher, Irving Singer, whose history of love in the West will figure prominently in this study: "After all the centuries of dispute and disagreement, we may soon be in a position to reconcile the divergent theories about love, to reach conceptions that will be defensible both as philosophy and as science."

Can Love Be Defined?

Before I outline my biocultural perspective on love, it will be useful to specify more closely what is meant by this multifaceted and intriguing phenomenon. In the Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton pointed out that love is "diverse, and varies as the object varies." More recently, Irving Singer has listed some kinds of love that we habitually speak of:

Love of self, of mankind, of nature, of God, of mother and father, of children, of tribe or nation, of sweetheart or spouse or sexual idol, of material possessions, of food or drink, of action and repose, of sports, of hobbies or engrossing pursuits, of justice, of science, of truth, of beauty, and so on endlessly. Each variety of love, involving its special object, has its own phenomenology, its own iridescence within the spectrum that delimits human experience.

To be studied adequately, every type requires a separate analysis. From one to the other, their ingredients will often have little or nothing in common.

It goes without saying that little progress will be made if we employ a concept that lends itself with equal readiness to erotic passion and, say, a special predilection for French fries. The first step must therefore be to narrow it down to "love of persons." This definition is sufficiently inclusive to incorporate parental love, romantic love, or any other strong emotional attachment, but also sufficiently narrow to exclude unrelated phenomena like love of football or material goods. It is also neutral to questions about sexual orientation.

To define love in terms of its object gets us some way toward a manageable definition, but we have of course only come halfway. Few people would probably disagree with the contention that love is an emotion, but when we take a closer look at what this actually means, things become very complicated. One problem is that the emotions are relatively recent objects of systematic study, at least partly because of a long heritage in Western thought that has separated passion from reason and then privileged the latter. As late as 1998, Robert C. Solomon declared that the emotions were "still on the defense in philosophy" and had "come into prominence in psychology in only the last decade or so." As is often the case with a budding area of investigation, our understanding of the emotions may be progressing fast, but it is also fractured across a large number of competing perspectives and research programs: each with its own emphases and definitions of central terms.

For example, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has argued persuasively for a distinction between emotions and feelings, where feelings denote private, conscious mental experiences, and emotions cover a broad collection of bodily responses-some of which may be unconscious and some publicly observable. For anyone who is interested in love this is an intriguing distinction, since the lover is sometimes the last to find out that he or she is in love. What is more, in one of the most constructive and incisive books on the subject to date, What Emotions Really Are (1997), the philosopher Paul Griffiths even suggests that the folk psychological concept of "emotion" is so unsatisfactory that it must be broken down and divided into several discrete categories. This is enough to give anyone pause; if even "emotion" is an impossible concept, then how can we hope to talk meaningfully about love?

Things do not become any easier when we realize that love cannot even be contained within the already impossible category of "emotion." As a number of theorists have realized, it also includes behavioral tendencies or dispositions to act in certain ways. Love is not only about what we feel, but also about what we do, and depending on the quality of the relationship it can involve nurturing, caring, or sexual activity. This point becomes especially salient when we apply it to the study of dramatic works, since it would clearly be a very short study of Shakespearean love that bracketed the behavior of his protagonists and confined itself to direct evidence about their inward states of mind. Finally, according to the Darwinian emotions theorist Paul Ekman, love does not qualify as an emotion because of its duration in time: "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, in which many emotions are felt."


Excerpted from Shakespeare and the Nature of Love by Marcus Nordlund
Copyright © 2007 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................vii
Chapter 1 The Nature of Love....................17
Chapter 2 Parental Love in Two Roman Tragedies....................52
Chapter 3 Filial Love in King Lear....................88
Chapter 4 Romantic Love in Two Problem Plays....................125
Chapter 5 Jealousy in Othello....................163
Works Cited....................229
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