What’s Love Got To Do With It? Quite a lot, actually, when it comes to the key characters of Hamlet. Jeffrey R. Wilson throws light on Shakespeare’s fascinating foray into perhaps the most complex emotion of all.

What is Shakespeare’s Hamlet about? It’s a deceptively difficult question, and will elicit no consensus. Even though Hamlet is the most frequently assigned Shakespearean text in schools, and the most frequently written about in academic Shakespeare studies—or, probably, because of those facts—we have difficulty agreeing on its basic concerns. According to SparkNotes, the study aid that thousands of students turn to every day, the themes of Hamlet are “the impossibility of certainty,” “the complexity of action,” “the mystery of death,” “the nation as a diseased body,” “performance,” “madness,” and “doubt.” But what if we take ourselves—and our cliched interpretations—out of this question? What if we listen to the text itself? What if we start with some data?

The word “love” appears 84 times in the Folger edition of Hamlet. By comparison, “Father” only appears 73 times, “play” 60, “think” 55, “mother” 46, “mad” 44, “soul” 40, “God” 39, “death” 38, “act” 35, “life” 34, “nothing” 28, “son” 26, “act” 23, “honor” 21, “spirit” 19, “kill” 18, “revenge” 14, “doubt” 14, and “action” 12. Love isn’t the first theme that comes to mind when we think about Hamlet, but is surprisingly prominent. Hamlet is a play about love.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Prince Hamlet loves his father and mother. Claudius loves Gertrude. She loves him and her son. Hamlet loves Ophelia, as does Laertes. So what does Hamlet say about love?

Love is a many-splendored thing. It is blind. It is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, etc. Love conquers all. But, baby, sometimes love just ain’t enough. To quote another 90s jam—what is love? (Hamlet, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more). Or from the 80s—I want to know what love is; I want Hamlet to show me. Love – emotional investment in another – involves feeling for, caring for, respect, admiration; duty, obligation to; willingness to serve; confidence in; dedication to; affection for.

But love is tragic in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The bloody catastrophe at the end of the play is principally driven not by hatred or a longing for revenge, but by love. And, I’m going to suggest, that creates a significant relationship between love and one of the few substantive words that appears even more frequently in the play, “king.” What’s the relationship between love, monarchy, and tragedy? To go back again to the 80s, what’s love got to do with it?

Three kinds of love appear in Hamlet. First, there is what the ancient Greeks called philia—friendship—in the service Prince Hamlet and his friends offer each other, which they repeatedly call “love.” Hamlet’s first love, as it were, is Horatio, along with Marcellus and Barnardo, but Hamlet also refers to his relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “love.”

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Second, we see romantic love—what the Greeks called eros—in the “hot love” of Hamlet and Ophelia (yes, that’s an actual phrase from the play). Eros also appears in Gertrude’s marriages—first to King Hamlet, then to Claudius – which are reflected upon in the extended discourse on love between the Player King and Player Queen during the play-within-the-play.

Third, we encounter familial love, which the Greeks called storge. “If thou didst ever thy dear father love,” the Ghost tells Prince Hamlet, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” This form of love also appears in the Fortinbras family and the Polonius family. Hamlet even pits his eros for Ophelia against Laertes’s storge: “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum.” Similarly, Gertrude and Claudius’s eros challenges Gertrude and Prince Hamlet’s storge.

These three forms of love each undergo the three vicissitudes of love identified in the play. First, fortune leads love. As the play-within-the-play asks, “For ’tis a question left us yet to prove, / Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.” Did Claudius’s love for Gertrude lead him to murder his brother, or did the death of King Hamlet lead to Gertrude and Claudius’s love? Hamlet says his mother’s “lust, though to a radiant angel link’d, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed, / And prey on garbage.”

Second, love hurts. This is what Polonius refers to as “the pangs of despised love.” Ophelia’s love for Hamlet is not returned (she feels); Hamlet’s love for Gertrude is not returned (he feels). “Truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love,” Polonius says.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Third, there is love’s ecstasy. It makes us do crazy things, as Polonius says of Hamlet’s madness:

This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures.

Love turns us from cold calculating machines into living beings who make decisions based not entirely on reason but instead on emotion. Love makes us happy, but also causes us to make mistakes when emotion exerts more of a pull upon decision-making than reason. Claudius’s “shameful lust” for Gertrude motivated his political crime. Hamlet becomes “passion’s slave” after the death of his father. After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet attacks her brother’s love: “Why I will fight with him upon this theme / Until my eyelids will no longer wag.”

After King Hamlet dies, succession transfers through romantic love, not familial love. Laertes warns Ophelia that love for Hamlet must be political, not personal. Hamlet’s love for his father is the basis for his revenge. Polonius and Laertes’s love for Ophelia is the basis of their misogyny. Hamlet gets caught between his love for his father and his love for Ophelia. Ophelia’s love for Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes is the source of her tragedy. Gertrude’s love for Claudius is the source of hers. The centerpiece of Hamlet, the play-within-the-play, is all about the inconstancy of love.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

Shakespeare was not saying that we should not love others. He was not a Buddhist asking us to detach ourselves from worldly cares. In our everyday lives, we all love all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, and it doesn’t end in tragedy. Love is a source of joy, a feeling of togetherness, a sense of belonging. Shakespeare wrote many comedies about the joys of love working out in the end. He also wrote Romeo and Juliet, where love is not the source of tragedy as much as the sacrificial calf: love actually doesn’t conquer all.

But, in Hamlet, love causes tragedy to happen. Why? What does it mean to say that the tragedy in Hamlet happens because of love? And why would Shakespeare see love as tragic? What are the circumstances in which love is tragic?

Love is tragic in Hamlet because the governmental system in place forces family dynamics to spill over into politics: in a dynastic monarchy, small-scale family drama has large-scale social consequences. Dynastic monarchy brings the emotion that usually characterizes family drama into government, which is supposed to run on reason rather than emotion. That’s because love personalizes and makes passionate decisions that social institutions try to render impersonal and objective. Hamlet shows what happens when the dynamics that govern our private lives come to have consequences for public policy.

To say that love is tragic in Hamlet is to suggest that monarchy is doomed to collapse. To view Hamlet as a tragedy of love is to observe that the themes usually seen as central to the play—revenge, uncertainty, madness, loss, despair—do not come into existence without the precondition of love. Hamlet never seeks revenge if he doesn’t love his father so much. Ophelia never loses her mind if she doesn’t love hers so much. But these love stories only have massive social consequences because the form of government in place is heavily contingent on who and how the ruling family loves, whether it’s philiaeros, or storge.

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[Photo: Johan Persson]

This tragedy of love—where emotion and intimacy short circuit the workings of government—appears in examples ranging from the succession crisis of Elizabeth I to the pseudo-dynastic administration of Donald Trump. One would think that, if love is tragic only in the context of monarchy, then most people in the twenty-first century need not worry. Yet the tensions love creates in the petty kingdoms of our families and friends often feel like tragic love. If, as Arthur Miller insisted, contra Aristotle, there can be a tragedy of the common person—if tragedy is not exclusive to the upper echelon of society—then tragic love survives on the smaller scale of the communities, not kingdoms, we inhabit. Whenever a parent disapproves of a boyfriend, or two people grieve the loss of a loved one in different ways, tragic love is possible.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the “Why Shakespeare?” section of the university’s first-year writing course. He is the author of two books, Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones. This piece comes from the Essays on Hamlet project, which asks big conceptual questions about the play with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover, and answers them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. His work has appeared in journals such as Modern Language Quarterly, Genre, and College Literature, and been featured in public venues including National Public Radio, Literary Hub, Zocalo Public Square, and MLA’s Profession. Find him on Twitter: @DrJeffreyWilson.

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