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Friday, March 21, 2014

Shakespeare, Love, And ‘Blue Is The Warmest Color’

If one takes 36 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays as any indication of his feelings about love, the conclusion must be dismal.  The women in his Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Romances may be strong, purposeful, and ambitious, but are never besotted, swooning, romantics.  Cleopatra toys with Antony, playfully fishes for him like an idle angler, jokes dismissively about him with her servants, and betrays him in battle.  She cares nothing for him except as a Roman protector and benefactor.

Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola, and many other shrewd, intelligent, and canny women run rings around their puppyish suitors, hoping for more than just a court and a castle, and are always disappointed.  Portia in The Merchant of Venice is obliged by her father’s will to choose her husband through a lottery – which of the many suitors can solve the riddle of the lead, silver, and gold chests?  Portia cattily confides to her lady-in-waiting how ridiculous and pompous she thinks they are, and hopes that none of them will guess correctly.  The man she wants to marry guesses right, but after a series of misadventures, he turns out to be a dope.  She must settle for him, as all the women in Shakespeare’s plays must settle for inferior men, but all’s well that ends well; and although we suspect that she and Bassanio will get divorced after a year, the wedding celebrations are joyful.

Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, grows tired of her pious, ineffectual husband and takes the battlefield against the French in his place.  Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester prods her equally weak husband to assert his rights to the throne.  Constance, mother of Arthur in King John is implacable in her pursuit of the crown for her son.  Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus manipulates and cheats her own son to attain the power that might have been his. None of these women love anyone, and ‘motherly love’ is a very romantic term to describe the she-bear ferocity with which they protect and promote their children.

In the Comedies the men are in love with love, silly with romantic and chivalric notions, but completely befuddled by the complexity and intrigue of women.  They get fooled, taken in, and manipulated as easily as children. In Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and Troilus and Cressida, the men are misogynist fools who rant on about the duplicity and treachery of women.

There are some glimmerings of traditional love – true affection, uncomplicated by political or economic necessity.  The Macbeths seem to care for each other, as do the Julius Caesars and the Brutuses; and the relationship between Kate and Petruchio – despite feminist rhetoric is balanced and well-suited; and Ophelia despite herself loves Hamlet

Only one play – Romeo and Juliet – is about uncomplicated, true, romantic love.  There are no villains, no treachery, no evildoers; and if it hadn’t been for happenstance – a letter which does not arrive on time – they would have lived happily ever after.

What are we to make of a playwright who consistently displays his cynicism about love and marriage, or at least his practical understanding that marriage like everything else in life is a matter of economic contract; and then writes a love story for the ages? Where did this romantic story come from?  Was Shakespeare merely showing off his virtuosity yet again.  “Of course I can write a romantic trifle”, he might well have said, satisfying his critics like Tennessee Williams did when the wrote Period of Adjustment to show that he could write light comedy as well as dark, interior pieces.

I was convinced of that critical theory until I read the Sonnets.  The first 126 are love poems of pure, devoted, unselfish, and surprisingly honest feeling and adoration for ‘The Fair Youth”. The Poet knows that the youth’s sexual destiny is to love women and to fulfill his duty to have children (See Sonnets 1-17, The Procreation Sonnets), but as much as he realizes this, he still becomes jealous.  At the same time he is never demanding, calculating, or vengeful.  He loves the youth with passion, devotion, and what appears to be true, undivided love.

Although the Sonnets may have been yet another display of Shakespeare’s virtuosity, most readers sense that anyone who wrote 127 elegiac love poems must have been in love.

For years before I read the Sonnets, I felt that Shakespeare’s plays were correctly and completely aligned with self-interested human nature and social reality.  Since the beginning of human society, men and women have entered into an economic contract – reproduction for protection, offspring for lineage, labor, or social mobility.  Every other playwright concurs.  Whether O’Neill, Albee, Hellman, Williams, Beckett, Ionesco, or Arthur Miller, love never enters into the picture.  One only has to think of the grand guignol of O’Neill’s early work (Mourning Becomes Electra) or his later, less melodramatic and more depressing mature dramas to appreciate this.  One viewing of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is enough to convince anyone that marriage is no picnic.  Despite an ending which promises hope, it is likely that George and Martha will go back to their savage brutality. Love is an artifact, say these playwrights. Believe in it at your own risk, and trust it at your peril.

Last night I watched Blue is the Warmest Color by French director Abdellatif Kechiche, a story of a young adolescent girl who falls in love with an older woman.  The movie is very French, adult, mature, and intellectual – but all this is context for the passionate, mutual, and respectful love felt by both women.

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) Poster

The movie could have been about the love between a man and a woman, but the single-sex nature of the relationship adds subtlety and dimension.  The young girl is a woman of passionate sexual appetites, and as a girl of only 15 when the film begins, is just beginning to explore who she is. As her relationship with her lover intensifies, she becomes more engaged with her intellectual and artistic friends.  They all are at ease with sexuality whatever its form, talk openly about desire and male-female and same-sex relationships.  It is just what the young Adele needs – an environment of unquestioning, considerate friends who help her to sort out her sexual desires and her professional career.  It is really a film about coming of age, but in a sophisticated, intellectual French environment.

The love of Adele for Emma is intense, innocent, and beautiful.  She is taken with her from the moment she saw her, and is quickly absorbed in her life, art, and society. She loves her intimately and completely with trust and desire.  She is never needy nor childish. She happily cooks for Emma and takes care of her in simple ways.  Emma is strong, self-assured, and talented; and finds the love of the much younger Adele an idyllic respite from her increasingly competitive life.  Emma was never a predator, an exploiter, or selfish.

One night when Emma is busy, Adele goes out with some friends from school and becomes involved with a young male colleague.  Her dance with him is sexually expressive, and her passionate kisses and embraces show that she is still unclear about her own sexuality.  Emma finds out, throws Adele out of the apartment and the affair ends.  Three years pass and Adele has never gotten over Emma, and asks to get back together when they finally meet again.  Emma has moved on, and despite being tempted by he passionate sex that they had together, she does not want to betray her new lover and partner.

The story ends with Adele talking with another young man to whom she has been attracted, perhaps more as a friend than a lover, but the intimacy is clear.  She leaves the party, walks home, and in the last scene, he starts to follow her. 

This is not a movie which demands a sexual resolution – will she fall in love with Samir, go straight, and have the children she wants? Or will she find another woman to love?  Adele is grown up now, tutored by Emma, but beginning to come to her own conclusions about her life, her work, and her sexuality.

The movie, finally, is a love story – as romantic and passionate as Romeo and Juliet and as simple and uncomplicated as the Shakespeare’s sonnets to The Fair Youth.  The relationship between Emma and Adele comes apart because of the most common reasons – jealousy; and even before Emma finds out that Adele has been sleeping with a man, it is clear that she is becoming bored with her.  Adele is a teacher, daughter of very conservative provincial parents, and the sex is beginning to fade.  It is time for her to move on.  Adele is not ready for such real-life disappointment, and clings to the idea of Emma for years.

I was moved by the story of Adele and Emma, and wondered if I had been very wrong in my conclusion about Shakespeare.  Romeo and Juliet and The Sonnets were not the exception but the rule.  Most relationships proceed predictably, but Shakespeare has fun writing about the hijinks, cross-dressing, games, and playful duplicity between men and women in the Comedies.  ‘Love’ is amusing and infinitely varied.  There may be no real love involved in the elaborate mating rituals of his characters, but there is humanity and affection.  At the same time some relationships can be uniquely passionate and intensely personal.  The Poet (Shakespeare) in the Sonnets desperately loved The Fair Youth, and despite his theatrical disclaimers could not imagine life without him.

The relationship is complex – issues of age, class, and sexuality are factors the Poet cannot ignore.  He is at the end of his life, not the beginning like Adele, but is still coming to grips with a passionate love which has consumed him.  Both wonder what is happening to them, why they are so consumed by longing and sexual desire, why their ordinary lives have been so disrupted.

Love exists after all, Shakespeare may have concluded.  I am not so sure, but watching Blue is the Warmest Color nudged me off the fence.

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