Love in the problem plays of Shakespeare
In the fifteenth century three love philosophies converged: Platonic love, courtly love, and Christian love. The city of their convergence was Florence, and a Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino, was the first to attempt a philosophical synthesis of them all. 1 The fundamental step in his synthesis is the substitution of the Christian God for the Platonic Idea of the Good and Beautiful or the neo-Platonic mystical concept of the All as the Divinity with which man, after spiritual purification through love, might be united. Love, according to Ficino, is the only means of attaining unification with the Divine, amid the reason he gives for this is that everything is in God; God loves Himself; therefore everything loves God. But man cannot love God immediately and directly; he must learn to know and love Him by learning to know and love the Good and Beautiful on earth, and to do this he must make use of the medium of the senses. The soul and the body are inseparable and must co-operate to attain the ultimate goal. In the Christian Platonism of Marsilio Ficino and his disciples can be seen the elemental idea of the purity of physical desires, which in transition to the poets and dramatists of France, Germany, and England became an interest in human love, particularly between man and woman. The theme of mutual passion between the sexes had never before been thoroughly exploited in literature. When it came to be adopted, every possible form of such passion was dramatically explored. Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, presented the purity and vulnerability of young love; in The Taming of the Shrew, an underlying attraction which appears as “the battle of the sexes" in Antony and Cleopatra, the grandeur and the destructiveness of illicit passion; in JuIius Caesar, the power of marital affection; and various minor variations on the theme of love appear throughout his other plays. The problem plays, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure, appear to me to incorporate Shakespeare's mature consideration of the best which is attainable in human love and the role of such love in society. 1. Sears Reynold Jayne, Introduction to Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, (Columbia, 1944), pp 13-33.