Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: Shakespeare on love

>> Monday, June 27, 2011

And this is it. Our very last day of this series of "Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets" I would like to thank everybody once again for contributing; I feel like these have been excellent questions and, if I'm allowed to say so myself, some pretty good responses.

Our last question is from Jeri, who writes:

Shakespeare says, "Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love."

First, was it really Shakespeare? Second, is it true? And third, does the same apply to women?


First, it was Shakespeare, sort of: the quote is a slightly-mangled version of something Rosalind says in Act IV, scene 1 of As You Like It:

No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicit, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have lived many a fair year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.' But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.


I should say at the outset that As You Like It is a work I am almost wholly unfamiliar with at this point in my life: as someone who is and was very serious about language and fond of Shakespeare and who was a theatre geek and would-be actor from junior high school through college, it is very possible I've read As You Like It or have seen it performed--but at this point I can recall nothing about it at all and had to resort to Wikipedia for a plot summary.

With that disclaimer placed out front, I don't think one needs to be too familiar with the play to see what's happening: Rosalind is rebuffing a would-be paramour, Orlando, with quite a bit of snark. Orlando has just claimed he'd die because Rosalind has just teasingly spurned his advances; Rosalind quite rightly calls bullshit on his melodramatic claim. Citing two romantic legends that were popular subjects of medieval and renaissance romances, the stories of Troilus and Cressida (a matter Shakespeare would himself visit two years after As You Like It was performed) and Hero and Leander, Rosalind points out that the common romantic assertion that Troilus and Leander "died for love" (swoon) is ridiculous: the former died of a head wound in battle and the latter drowned in the Dardanelles. It's hard to argue with.

I think we know this. Ironically, it's actually essential to the romantic ideal of "dying for love" that "dying for love" is, in fact, a euphemism for dying from something more conventionally fatal as a result of doing something (usually something pretty stupid) because one was in love (or thought he or she was). There is something romantic in the Knights Of The Round Table getting themselves killed in assorted ways because they're emotionally wracked over Guinevere, Iseult or any of the various other femme fatales of Arthurian Romance; when a character in a romance dies for no particular reason and then someone says it was caused "by a broken heart" (yes, we're talking about the Star Wars prequels again, dammit), it just seems stupid, it just seems to reflect a certain lack-of-access-to-clues about basic physiology. We can accept that somebody who is in love might take a foolish risk that leads to tragedy, but we all know perfectly well that there's no coroner's report in existence with "Love" written on the "CAUSE OF DEATH" line in place of, oh, I dunno, "Knife Wound To Eye" or whatever.

Panda Bear didn't die of "Broken Heart", she died of "Plot Contrivance". Search your feelings; you know it's true.

Shakespeare talks about men dying from real-causes-of-death-not-love because he's referring to the romantic conventions of his era and anyway it's Rosalind (a woman) thumping Orlando (a dude). (Though As You Like It is one of Shakespeare's cross-cross-dressing plays, with male actors playing female characters who are disguised as men.) There's no reason Rosalind's statement-of-fact doesn't run the other way. What Rosalind is saying for Shakespeare, really, is "cut the crap". It may be a bit hard-nosed on her part, but sometimes it's called for, especially when some creep has just said he'd die without you. ("Sure, and you'll call me in the morning, too, right?")

Don't get me wrong. I like love. I like being in love. Then again, I also like having aged out of all that melodramatic horseshit that afflicts the young, that state of cluelessness in which every hormonal surge, every infatuation, every sweaty surge of horniness is mistaken for lifelong passion more essential to life than the very air itself, etc. and ad nauseum; if you so much as look at anyone else I shall die, my heart is breaking as we speak, blah blah blah, ugh. Passion, sure, but good riddance to the emotional theatrics played large enough to be seen up in the cheap seats.

You know what has killed more men than love? cows.

But these are all lies: men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love. No, they've died for cows. Man, those things are vicious. Stomping on people with those big-ass hooves of theirs, knocking them over and stepping on them. Motherfucking cows. That's why I'm not a vegetarian, Orlando.


Fixed.

Hope that answers your questions!

And thank you once again, everybody. It has been a lot of fun, and I hope everybody had a good time!


11 comments:

vince Monday, June 27, 2011 at 2:14:00 PM EDT  

Not that I want to sound like Bill Clinton, but it really does depend on how you define "dying for love."

There are people who have died sacrificing themselves for someone they loved.

There are people who have committed suicide after the loss of someone they loved.

There is "stress cardiomyopathy" (also known as "broken heart syndrome") where the heart muscle becomes weak after sudden stress such as suddenly losing someone you love, and can, in rare cases, be fatal.

But yes, there's a (huge) difference between love and "...melodramatic horseshit that afflicts the young, that state of cluelessness in which every hormonal surge, every infatuation, every sweaty surge of horniness is mistaken for lifelong passion more essential to life than the very air itself, etc. and ad nauseum; if you so much as look at anyone else I shall die, my heart is breaking as we speak, blah blah blah, ugh."

Eric Monday, June 27, 2011 at 2:47:00 PM EDT  

Ah, Vince, but you perhaps prove too much, proving Rosalind's point for her! Someone who dies sacrificing themselves to save someone they love might be a romantic hero, but they didn't die of love, they died of (insert cause of gruesome death here). The person who commits suicide after the loss of someone they loved is also dying of (insert means of suicide here), not love per se. "Broken heart syndrome" might be the hardest to argue against, but then again Rosalind might stonily say that the victim died of a cardiac defect, not for/of/from love.

Though to be fair, the context is much, if not everything: Orlando doesn't trigger Rosalind's snarky reply by saying he'd run into a burning house to save her if she were in it, that he'd donate a kidney even if doing so risked death on the operating table, or that he has a bad heart and the stress of her loss would probably do him in. He says he'd die if she turns him down the way she's doing, and she calls bullshit on him. Perhaps he's using the wrong approach, and ought to promise that if she fell out of a tower, he'd grab a rope and dive after her in the hope he could catch her--

ORLANDO
And so I would dive, fair Rosalind, flying like the arrow to Gaia's bosom to embrace you and stay your course.

ROSALIND
Sooner should you take a seat than cast your life away. Dost thou not knowst that two varying weights dropped from equal heights must fall at equal pace until both hit the ground as one? You might fall after me forever and never catch me, a fool in ceaseless flight.

ORLANDO
And dost thou not knowst these words are writ no sooner than 1600, and you propound a thing not proposed before 1638, nor observed as of this year.

ROSALIND
Whence comes this hyperlink, dear Orlando, invented 300 years hence!

ORLANDO
I am wounded by the temporal anomaly! And so, must die!

(dies)

ROSALIND
But not of love. PWND.

Mrs. B. Monday, June 27, 2011 at 2:51:00 PM EDT  

"Don't get me wrong. I like love. I like being in love. Then again, I also like having aged out of all that melodramatic horseshit that afflicts the young, that state of cluelessness in which every hormonal surge, every infatuation, every sweaty surge of horniness is mistaken for lifelong passion more essential to life than the very air itself, etc. and ad nauseum; if you so much as look at anyone else I shall die, my heart is breaking as we speak, blah blah blah, ugh. Passion, sure, but good riddance to the emotional theatrics played large enough to be seen up in the cheap seats."

I must say, this is probably better and truer than anything Shakespeare ever wrote.

Although, like you, I can't imagine ever being that angsty/naive/googly-eyed again, don't you sometimes, just a tiny, tiny bit, miss that raw, heartfelt emotion? Sometimes I'd gladly trade my adult tendency to be so analytical for a brief chance to be that completely, irrationally passionate again.

Or maybe I just need therapy.

Eric Monday, June 27, 2011 at 2:56:00 PM EDT  

No, I often miss the rawness and vitality of that angsty, heartfelt emotion, Mrs. B. It made my guitar playing easier and more frequent, for one thing, though the adult, rational me is a little relieved most of the results are lost to the shadows of time.

We feel more when we're younger, though I fear much of it is felt less effectively. One of Time's little jokes on us, I suppose, that we feel best at those ages we feel least, and vice-versa feel most in the years we feel worst. Or something like that.

Jeri Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 12:42:00 AM EDT  

Eric - nicely put. I actually did spend quite a bit of time studying this play in my honors Shakespeare class. In fact, we all had to analyze a play and teach it, and As You Like It was my choice. Still, I claim no special insight, just a general appreciation for Shakespeare's style of screwball comedy.

You mention "lifelong passion more essential to life than the very air itself". That'd be pretty messy - imagine all the oxygen deprivation-like deaths that breakups would cause! I hope the symptoms are more like carbon monoxide poisoning and less like explosive decompression.

Seriously, I've always been fairly cynical and non-romantic, and the last few years have only sharpened that tendency. Sure, there's a tiny little part of me that wishes for white knights and heroic deeds and soulmates and happily ever after, but I keep her thoroughly squelched and completely occupied with risk management plans and financial forecasts.

Practically? If love is even possible at my age, I suspect it's a gradual growth of comfort, peace, joy and commitment. There are no lightning bolts or dizzying falls into altered states. And given my considerable and well-earned fear of loss, I also think that losing love would be equally practical - handing back each other's toothbrushes, agreeing to stay in touch occasionally, and moving on with minimal drama. Well, maybe a little private grief is acceptable on the occasional late, lonely Saturday night.

And death? Not an option for either party, not while living on is a far better torment than a simple, clean demise. :/

filelalaine Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 11:29:00 AM EDT  

search your feelings, you know it's true" ... I know I will overuse this sentence today.

WendyB_09 Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 2:37:00 PM EDT  

Since we're talking about Shakespeare and love and dieing...

There are screens in our elevators that display news tibits, among other things.

Today's tidbit: An anthropolgist has requested permission to exhume the good Bard's body in order to determine exactly how he died AND if he was a frequent marijuana user...

Eric Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 5:43:00 PM EDT  

Well, I was about to call "bullshit" on the availability of cannabis in 16th-Century England, but apparently the idea that Shakespeare might have smoked weed isn't that new after all. Were they smoking the hemp they were growing for sails? Hrm.

Interesting tidbit, Wendy. Thanks!

WendyB_09 Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 10:29:00 PM EDT  

Glad I could add to the day's amusements.

timb111 Wednesday, June 29, 2011 at 9:39:00 AM EDT  

Thinking of smoking hemp, I was wondering who thought up the idea of sticking something burning into their mouths and inhaling the smoke. Seems kind of weird. Apparently (according to Wikipedia, and we know they're never wrong) we've been doing that since about 5,000BCE.

Anyway, that also got me thinking about the bob Newhart sketch about Sir Walter introducing tobacco to England.

Thanks for your answers to our questions. I think some of these answers should be included in the "Best of Standing" book when it is published.

Supplementary question: Have you ever looked at your hands, man? I mean really looked at them?

Eric Wednesday, June 29, 2011 at 9:45:00 AM EDT  

timb111: Seriously, yeah, actually, I have: I started playing guitar when I was 15 or 16 and haven't technically stopped, though I'm embarrassed to say I haven't picked up an axe for more than a minute or two in months. I think all my callouses are gone. But believe me if you don't know for yourself: when you're a self-conscious musician trying to find chords, you spend a lot of time looking at your hands, especially the one(s) you're using to finger. Stupid hands.

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