Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest tragedies the English language has ever seen, his comedies still have them rolling in the aisles, and his sonnets stand among our finest memorials to beauty and love. But we’re not here to talk about any of that. We’re here to talk about the important stuff: his romances. His fabulous, tragic, hilarious, achingly beautiful romances. Below, we’ve ranked 10 of his most memorable couplings:
Titania and Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“My mistress with a monster is in love!” reports Puck when he and Oberon succeed in making the Fairy Queen fall in love with enchanted donkey-man Bottom. They, and we, spend the better part of Act Two laughing at the antics of many a fool in love, with Titania and Bottom at the top of the list. However laughable the concept, the pair are memorable precisely because they are not entirely ridiculous. They embody the absurdist extreme of love’s madness. It’s not a mocking satire—Shakespeare shows what it’s like to be in the grip of the kind of intense, if ultimately transient, love we’ve all experienced. Their delusional courtship expresses one of love’s eternal, most comic truths: “Reason and love keep little company together nowadays.”
Hamlet and Ophelia, Hamlet
There are some who would argue H&O should be ranked higher. Ophelia’s slow descent into madness and (probable) suicide, not to mention the brawl at her graveside, when Hamlet declares he “lov’d Ophelia/forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum,” are unforgettable. But while I believe there was love between these characters, something tentative that could have grown into more, life intervened. Their story is a tragedy because of the possibility of love that never really was. And if it is romantic, it’s Romantic, with a tragic capital R. RIP, Hamlet and Ophelia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
“The Bromances” (Prince Hal/Falstaff, Henry IV; Rosalind/Celia, As You Like It; Romeo/Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet/Horatio, Hamlet)
A list of memorable romances must give a shoutout to the platonic love between great friends. Some are famously ambiguous, with one party perhaps down for a little something more (Hamlet/Horatio, Rosalind/Celia). Sometimes they’re friendships where one party fills a role the other desperately needs (Falstaff as Prince Hal’s surrogate ne’er-do-well father). Often, they end tragically, or are never acknowledged as they should be (I get you, Mercutio!). But the deep love between these characters, and how far they go for one another, can never be questioned.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
Okay, stay with me. Yes, they’re memorable, but where is the romance part again? This a pair that murdered and schemed their way to one of the highest body counts in all of Shakespeare, right? Don’t we recognize Lady Macbeth as lit’s most manipulative spouse? Perhaps. But what’s not in doubt is that, ultimately, this is Shakespeare’s best depiction of a couple as a true team. We know each is the less without the other. The game isn’t worth playing without their partner in crime. And not for nothing are we still inspired to watch couples modeled on them today (I see you, House of Cards binge-watchers).
Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra
So, yes, these people are kind of horrible. But hold on. There’s a reason we still tell their story, thousands of years later. It’s Shakespeare’s best depiction of a romance taking place at the center of state politics, constraints that would challenge the survival of any relationship. Sometimes, like the flawed people they are, they work against love. But despite it all, in the end, they each make the choice that life without the other would be worse than nothing. If only these two crazy kids had figured it out sooner.
Paperback $21.38 | $22.75
Kate and Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew
There are two ways you can go on this one. Either Shakespeare really believes the message he’s pushing in Kate’s submissive final monologue (in which case this play should be utterly dismissed as a relic from another era). Or you can read it like I do, as a subversive statement about compromise in marriage, and a private joke between a couple that has come a long way together. The latter interpretation makes it, at long last, a romance. For most of the play, we watch two people unaccustomed to making accommodations for others fight tooth and nail to maintain their independence and dominance. But if the ending means what I think it means, then by the final curtain, they’ve both learned to consider someone else, to swallow their pride and publicly proclaim their love. That’s romance.
Viola/Orsino/Olivia/Sebastian/Antonio, Twelfth Night
I might as well have written “the whole cast, entangled in a love octa/hexa/nonagon.” In this show, even the romances are ensembles. Ostensibly it’s the story of the shipwrecked Viola’s cross-dressing, secret love for the Duke Orsino, who’s in love with the deeply uninterested Lady Olivia. Viola’s attempts to woo Olivia for Orsino result in the one time anybody ever had to warn someone not to fall in love with the messenger. It’s a story about love found in unexpected places, with people (and genders) that take everyone involved by surprise. What’s memorable is how honestly the characters confront that feeling, or pursue it, exploring the boundaries of social expectation and their own notions of sexuality. Of course, the farce is resolved in the end, but the weight of all those possibilities remains.
Rosalind and Orlando, As You Like It
What a dream this play is for an actress, not only because Rosalind is perhaps the strongest of Shakespeare’s heroines, but because it’s an amazing exploration of the process of falling in love. She makes an intellectual game of it, taking advantage of one of those wonderful Shakespearean coincidences to playact the extremes of deep feeling, the sort of feelings we never get to show, lest we lose the object of our affections. She’s allowed the time to evaluate her lover slowly. She’s memorable because she hits the nail on the head, over and over: yes, that’s exactly what it’s like to be in love. Despite the madness, she takes a chance and reveals herself anyway. That is love.
Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
I have a horrible confession to make: There was a time when I thought I was over R+J, too good for that teenaged cliché. I was so wrong. You never really get over Romeo and Juliet. The words of it are a gorgeous thing, filled with agelessly beautiful images and ideas. We can be cynical about it, scoff that they need to wait a few years and try again. But it’s because we care about them—we know what’s coming, and we’re filled with rage at the thought of all that beauty going down the toilet. The critic Marc van Doren once wrote that “few other plays, even by Shakespeare, engage the audience so intimately. The hearts of the hearers, surrendered early, are handled with the greatest care until the end, and with the greatest human respect.” We owe that respect in return to this tale of star-cross’d lovers we can never truly forget.
Beatrice and Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing
No contest. Beatrice and Benedick are absolutely the all-time most memorable Shakespearean romance. They are the basis of most modern will-they-won’t-they romance plots (whether in romcoms or not). Their imitators are legion, and deservedly so. They are Kate and Petruchio with more respect, a version of Rosalind and Orlando who have already taken the plunge without realizing it, bound up with the loves of the ensemble, a la Twelfth Night, and, yes, kept apart by pride and a longstanding battle, as in Romeo and Juliet. They are as lovable separately as they are together, and each of them has the power to turn the other into the best (or worst) version of themselves. Beatrice and Benedick and their “merry war” is the romance that remains romantic every time.
Do you agree with our rankings?