Love Lives (and Dies) by Excitement

Shakespeare on how thrills threaten, and strengthen, romantic relationships.

Posted Sep 18, 2018

I’m writing a book called Shakespeare and the Art of Love. My basic premise for it—and for Shakespeare’s Love Lessons—is this: if you have questions about love, literature has answers. Many authors offer these answers, and some of the best ones come from Shakespeare.

Nearly all popular books on love refer to Shakespeare as an authority, yet none look at Shakespeare—or any other literature—in much depth. Here, we’ll do this, looking at how books not only bring psychology’s latest insights to life, but also offer insights all their own. I’ll begin with Shakespeare, but we’ll also explore several other authors, from Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert to Graham Greene and Zora Neale Hurston.

For this first post, I’d like to begin with a fairly early play and with two very young lovers: Romeo and Juliet. And I’d like to begin at the beginning, when they first meet. In a recent article for The Conversation, I looked at certain aspects of that first meeting. These two don’t just “hit it off” or “click” when they first speak. When Romeo and Juliet speak, they share a sonnet.

That two strangers can share a poem in speech means that they already share a deep connection and are incredibly responsive to each other. That they are, I argued, means that Shakespeare, at least, thinks we should take love at first sight (known as LAFS to its detractors) pretty seriously.

Here I’d like to think about another aspect—even more important, to me—of that first meeting, one that I couldn’t touch on in the earlier article: the fact that Romeo and Juliet interact in an inventive, exciting way.

Whether or not we deem love at first sight real, we can learn from how exciting and inventive that first exchange is. We don't learn, of course, how to practice inventing sonnets as we speak to each other. Readers of Shakespeare aren’t meant to leave this scene and say to their partners (real or prospective), "Hey, let’s read literature so we can try out some rhyme schemes and see what happens."

We are, though, meant to reflect on whether we are being inventive enough in love. We are even meant to admit that love requires that we be inventive. If we don’t meet that requirement, Shakespeare seems to say, maybe we’re not being loving enough. Maybe we need to introduce more excitement into our relationships.

It’s just as well that love inspires them—and, if we’re lucky, us—to be inventive. After all, studies tell us that if love didn’t do that, we might not get or stay together in the first place. In Why We Love, Helen Fisher points out that novelty elevates the brain’s levels of dopamine, one of the primary chemicals involved in romantic passion. Studies suggest that pairs who do novel, exciting things together are more likely both to form a relationship to begin with, and to be satisfied once they are together.[1]

To make her point about excitement’s importance, Fisher looks at a couple of studies, both of which hold interest in the context of Romeo and Juliet. In the first, nearly thirty couples completed some questionnaires, did an activity together, then completed more questionnaires. Some couples did an exciting activity, while others did something dull. Those who did the exciting activity—which, by the way, only lasted seven minutes—felt both more satisfied with their relationship and more romantically attached.   

The second study is an older, classic one, involving the famous “creaky bridge experiment.” Here, two groups of thirty-two men were asked to cross different bridges: a high, wobbly suspension bridge for one group, and a low, solid bridge for the other. On each bridge, there stood a beautiful woman who had the participants complete a questionnaire. Once they finished, the woman gave the men her telephone number and told them they could call, should they have further questions about the study. None of these men knew that this, too, was part of the experiment.

Guess which group of men called the woman with much greater frequency? The very title of the study tells us: “Some Evidence for Heightened Sexual Attraction Under Conditions of High Anxiety.”  

Do Romeo and Juliet provide some more evidence of this sort? We call the love of these two illegitimate for lots of reasons. They’re too young. They don’t know each other.  They both (spoiler alert) kill themselves for each other. Another way we might dismiss them would be by saying that they’re attracted to each other mainly because of the anxiety that surrounds their relationship: because they meet, in a sense, on a creaky bridge.

He’s a Montague, she’s a Capulet, and there’s a feud between their houses. They marry in secret, only for Romeo to kill Tybalt and get exiled. Then Friar Laurence makes their bridge even creakier by having Juliet feign her own death, so that she and Romeo can be together again.

We know how that ends.   

In this way, Romeo and Juliet reminds us of one thing to watch out for in relationships: what psychologists call “misattribution of arousal.” If your relationship feeds off of danger or instability, maybe it’s time to reconsider that relationship—as we see not just in Shakespeare’s play, but also in “Ron & Tammy: Part Two,” a well-known episode of Parks and Recreation.

In that episode, Ron Swanson, director of the Pawnee Department of Parks and Recreation, rekindles a dangerous relationship with one of his ex-wives, known as “Tammy II,” and he does so by way of drunken sex and mayhem that ends with them remarried and imprisoned. Ron’s friends and family stage an intervention, and by episode’s end, Ron is restored. Romeo and Juliet aren’t. Friar Laurence tries to intervene for them, to no avail.  

I could stop here. But as someone who sees in Shakespeare as many examples of what to do as of what not to do, I’m even more interested in how we can view the play, in conjunction with the study, as illustrating how excitement can genuinely strengthen relationships, not just yield artificial affection.

Romeo and Juliet is not just a play about how excitement can be dangerous, or about how danger is exciting. It’s also a play about where to draw the line that separates dangerous kinds of excitement from more healthy kinds. Shakespeare holds up the dynamic back-and-forth of their sonnet as an example that we all ought to emulate. He presents the excitement that Romeo feels in the Capulet tomb—when he sees Juliet looking as though she still lives, but ends his own life anyway—as what we all ought to avoid.

How might we describe the difference? Perhaps it’s the difference between excitement that creates and excitement that destroys, that adds to the world and that takes away from it. However we might describe that difference, though, we’re hard-pressed to forget such vivid scenes.

Indeed, literature amplifies psychology’s insights partly by just this: by giving us memorable images of what psychology describes. A study that suggests the positive impact of doing novel, exciting activities is one (incredibly important) thing. Shakespearean characters embodying such an insight is another (also important) thing. I love reading psychological studies, but even the most vivid of them—like the one involving the creaky bridge experiment—tend to fade from memory relatively quickly.

The best literature works otherwise. How could we forget when Romeo and Juliet speak a sonnet together? How could we forget when Orlando courts Rosalind while she’s pretending to be someone else in As You Like It, or when Othello meets Desdemona after their separation at sea? I certainly can’t.

In Plato’s Symposium, one of the speakers, Agathon, remarks on love’s poetic capacity, on how it can excite us and inspire us to excite others. He says that, “Love is himself so divine a poet that he can kindle in the souls of others the poetic fire, for no matter what dull clay we seemed to be before, we are every one of us a poet when we are in love.”[2] Certainly this is true for Romeo and Juliet. May it be true of us, too—even if we don’t speak in sonnets.  

References

[1] Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, 192-3.

[2] See The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon, 1963).