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Courtly Love

By Ace C. Pilkington


At the end of the eleventh century, a new net of ideas, a novel path for thoughts, a fresh way to feel, suddenly emerged in France. This cluster of ideals and passions was connected with the Troubadors and later with Eleanor of Aquitaine, among others. It was, according to CS. Lewis, in The Allegory of Love, characterized by “Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love” (Oxford University Press: London, 1938, 2). In part a rebellion against the bartering of marriage partners in arranged marriages and the dehumanization of women as the property first of their fathers and then of their husbands, courtly love rapidly developed its own conventions and even (in writers’ fictions if not in historians’ facts) its own courts. Such courts determined rights and wrongs of lovers’ lives and argued over the disposition of loyalties, balancing hypothetical troubles. Who, they asked, deserved greater truth and trust, the lover or the friend?

Courtly love may perhaps have been the greatest change in Western culture between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance. It put women on pedestals and glorified amorous passion in a way that was anathema both to Classical civilization and Christian salvation. Its doctrines were codified in Tractus de Amore et de Amoris Remedia, nominally by Andreas’. Capellanus but actually dictated by Eleanor’s daughter Marie. In it, as Marion Meade says, “the woman is the dominant figure, the man a pupil who must be instructed until he becomes a fit partner for his lady” (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hawthorne Books, Inc.: New York, 1977, 252-3). Love is all powerful, and a man’s chief obligation is obedience.

By the time of Shakespeare, however, the songs of courtly love had a different burden. The increased emphasis on individualism that came with the Renaissance had altered the nature of marriage, and though many parents still arranged, most of them first consulted their children’s wishes, paying lip service at least (as Baptista does in The Taming of the Shrew) to the notion that love is necessary to a nuptial.

Courtly love was becoming romantic love, prelude to marriage, not a discord after it. As early as 1424, James I of Scotland (then a prisoner in England and about to marry Lady Jane Beaufort, granddaughter of John of Gaunt) advocated romantic, married love in his 379 line poem, The King’s Quair.

Besides, the pedestal had proved an uncomfortable vantage. As Juliet Dusinberre argues: “When Humanists like More and Erasmus attacked medieval romance for deifying women, they saw it, like Christianity, as forging its own fetters for the individual, obliterating the individual woman, who was not a goddess but a rational being, capable of education on the same terms as men” (Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, TheMacmillanPress Ltd.: London, 1975,140).

In addition, courtly love, which had begun as a literary movement, had become a literary convention, ripe for parody, the lover as rich a maker of laughter, as he had previously been a matter for sighs. And like most literary conventions, courtly love was in danger of seeming merely conventional, something learned in the study, not lived in the world, a kind of inky inexperience waiting to be washed away by the tempestuous seas of real emotion.

Shakespeare was completely at home in this thick mixture of possibilities, this tapestry of dashing colors. He turned the cliches of Petrarchan portraiture upside down in Sonnet 130, maintaining that his mistress, though no goddess, was a rare as any of the real women about whom other poets lisped their fantastical lies.

Very much aware of flaws at the heart of even the most seemingly perfect manifestations of reality, Shakespeare is a master of parody by parallel and criticism by juxtaposition. So in The Two Gentlemen of Verona he has Proteus speak of love as an imperfection, “as in the sweetest bud / The eating canker dwells, so eating Love / Inhabits in the finest wits of all” (The Arden Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ed. Clifford Leech, Methuen: London, 1981, 1.1.42-44). The lines are almost identical with a later expression of the same sentiment in Sonnet 35, “Loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud!” Both the sonnet and the play are about two men in love with one woman, both are about the testing of love by friendship, friendship by love, and both concern the problems of living in a real, non-literary world.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, in fact, an elaborate examination of courtly love, romantic love, and the transition from well-tutored innocence to hard-won experience. Proteus, for instance, begins as the true lover, while Valentine is the flouter who ridicules his passion.

But the two exchange places in the kind of patterned dance which was to grace all of Shakespeare’s comedies. Eventually, Proteus proves as changeable as his name suggests, betraying both lover and friend, though maintaining in the process that he is being true to himself. Valentine, in turn, fulfills the prophecy of his name, becoming Silvia’s abject, constant servant.

Nevertheless, Valentine’s relationship with Silvia is not what its surface suggests. True; he is humble enough to follow his lady’s command and happily write love letters to himself, thus preserving Silvia’s modesty while conserving her energy, and fulfilling his duty even as he demonstrates his folly. Silvia appears to be the typical tyrant of courtly love, besieged by many lovers though accepting no one, judging wit combats which Valentine and Thurio stage for her amusement and their abasement, and generally accepting homage as though she were the divinity which Valentine insists she should be called.

Yet the truth is that this is not old-fashioned courtly love at all; it is the newfangled romantic variety, leading to marriage as a form of self-expression. Silvia and Valentine (like many of Shakespeare’s couples—Bianca and Lucentio, Juliet and Romeo, Hermia and Lysander, and Perdita and Florizel) plan a secret wedding–a private, defiant grasping of happiness.

In a similar way, Shakespeare presents Julia as “hard-hearted adamant” who will not read Proteus’s letters, only to scatter that notion as widely to the winds as the bits of the letter which Julia rips up and then wishes she could read. Far from being the unyielding she around whom the magnetized lover must revolve, Julia (like Helena chasing Demetrius through the wood) takes on the burdens of the male lover, and Julia even adopts the male costume. Just as Viola (another woman dressed as a man) does in Twelfth Night, Julia, who should, according to the dictates of courtly love, be served, turns herself instead into Proteus’s servant, wooing (again like Viola) another woman for her “master.” There is a kind of realism in this turnabout, an acknowledgment that women too are people, complete with passions and the capacity for action. Shakespeare’s women are too human to stand quietly in corners on pedestals, like marmoreal monuments.

And his servants are too humorous (and too useful to his parallels) to stay silent. Speed sees the symptoms of heroes (the illness of love) in his master, Valentine, and enumerates them at wonderful length: “You have learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms like a malcontent; to relish a love song, like a robin redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh like a schoolboy that had lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch, like one that fears robbing, to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas” (2.1.17-25).

And even then Speed is not through telling Valentine how thoroughly he has been “metamorphosed with a mistress” and how completely Silvia has been “deformed” by the eye of Valentine’s love. Speed also has the chance to mock at Launce’s proposed wife, who has “more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults” (3.1.344-5). However, perhaps the most entertaining assault on love in the play is not the satire of a caustic tongue, but the parody of domestic wrongs. As Anthony Brennan, former seminar director at the Stratford, Ontario. Shakespeare Festival, points out, Launce’s problem with Crab “throws the dramatic posturing of the lovers into perspective by having Launce feature his dog as the cold, heartless mistress of the courtly-love code” (Onstage and Offstage Worlds in Shakespeare’s Plays, Routledge London, 1969, 26).

Finally, at the end of the forest adventure, Valentine says to the penitent Proteus, “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” (5.4.83). This is the friend and lover controversy returned with a vengeance, usually much to the audience’s annoyance. But it is one more of the conventions of the genre and should be expected as one more literary bramble for the lovers to be scratched by, one more song of innocence that leads on to experience. As Oxford Professor of Poetry Peter Levi notes in his excellent The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, “MacEdward Leach, who edited the late-thirteenth century Amis and Amiloun for the Early English Text Society in 1937, collected eighty-six examples of these ‘two brethren’ stories, and every single one had the same conclusion” (Henry Holt and Company, 1988,125).

In the words of Kathleen Conlin, director of the 1990 Utah Shakespeare Festival production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, “Ultimately, Proteus, Valentine, Silvia, and Julia learn about love and the ethics of love through trial and error–not through the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry” (General Notes to the Designers).

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