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Shakespeares darker side of love

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3434 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Similarly, in a complex plot, Shakespeare is also successful in exploring two sides of love in his early sixteenth century tragedy, ‘Othello’. From its perfection in the strength of the bond between Desdemona and Othello at the start of the play, to the way in which it leads to the complete disintegration of sanity in the tragic hero, a dark form of love, entwined with jealousy, is the overwhelming force driving the progress of the play.

Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel ‘Enduring Love’ shows that dark love in literature has survived. Just like Shakespeare and the Gawain poet, McEwan demonstrates that love can lead to the mental destruction of usually rational character, Joe Rose, in a surprising parallel to Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, despite otherwise contrasting storylines.

In ‘Othello’, the storyline revolves around jealousy, an important darker aspect of love. Shakespeare writes “It mocks the meat that it feeds on”. This tells the audience that jealousy leads to jealousy – it supports itself, meaning that Iago only has to plant a tiny seed of doubt in Othello’s mind for it to grow into a huge amount of distrust, without need of further input.

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Iago himself could be motivated by jealousy of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona; he famously exclaims in Act I Scene 2: “I do love her too”. This leads some to believe that Iago has lustful feelings for Desdemona. However, I feel that more feasible interpretation is that desire for domination over Othello’s wife is more a symbol of Iago’s struggle for power over Othello – the darker side of Iago’s love for Desdemona is that it is not romantic; it is for control over Othello. This is consistent with the views of Ania Loomba in her essay, in ‘Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Othello’, where she writes that Othello’s love for Desdemona is a “property relationship” and that “he must defend it or it will be snatched from him”. People love others for different reasons, and Iago’s motives seem unconventional, and not simply because he desires a sexual relationship with her.

Iago’s jealousy of Othello can be compared to Jed’s jealousy of Clarissa in ‘Enduring Love’, in that both have unrequited love for another character, and resent their love target’s real partner for the time they spend together. In chapter eleven, the first of Jed’s two letters which the audience reads, Jed writes “And you, constrained as you are… by your sensitivity to Clarissa’s feelings”. This image of constraint shows that Parry feels Joe is held back by his love for Clarissa, and resents Joe and Clarissa’s love. McEwan uses this jealousy to portray the darker side of love – Jed’s love for Joe is not perfect – it is tragic, unrequited, and obsessive. Jed’s jealous motives are however a little different from Iago’s; Iago is jealous of power, whereas Jed seems only jealous of the romantic aspect of Joe’s relationship.

The theme of unrequited love itself runs arguably strongly throughout all 3 texts. Apart from Iago’s apparent love for Desdemona, there are other obvious cases, such as Roderigo’s love for Desdemona, and fundamentally in ‘Enduring Love’, Jed’s obsession with Joe Rose, or even the apparent unrequited love Lady Bertilak has for Gawain, although this is just a façade to test him.

The tragedy and sadness of unrequited love is apparent in the opening lines of ‘Othello’, as Roderigo says “thou [Iago] who hast had my purse…” This tells the audience that Roderigo has been paying Iago in the belief that he can bring Roderigo reciprocated love. Likewise, the unhappiness and madness caused by unrequited love is felt equally strongly by the reader in ‘Enduring Love’. In chapter 22, page 212, Jed says “if you wouldn’t return my love, I thought I’d rather have you dead”. Again, this is an extreme example of what the characters in these texts will do if their love is unreciprocated.

Unrequited love in ‘Sir Gawain…’ is a little different, in that the type of love portrayed is not true love; it is merely a test for Gawain. Additionally, Fitt 3 demonstrates how unrequited love can be turned into mutual love, as Lady Bertilak appears to grow on Gawain. Initially, Gawain replies to the lady “I hardly deserve to receive such respect, whereas you are genuinely joyful and generous”. This modesty may be Gawain rejecting her in general. However, the compliment he pays her at the end implies that actually, Gawain does feel attraction towards her, but he is empowered to ignore it because of his Christian morals. Yet the Gawain poet shows that Gawain’s feelings do change; by line 1761, the poet writes “her complexion so fine, a passionate heat takes hold in his heart”. This tells the reader that Gawain is human, and persuaded by such a display, but it is also an example of how unrequited love becomes more mutual, exemplifying the darker powers of seductive love.

Extended narrative is a chosen technique of the Gawain poet to make Bertilak’s wife seem so desirable. At line 1187, Armitage’s rendition of the poem reads “It was she, the lady, looking her loveliest”. Repeatedly using this type of language when talking about Bertilak’s wife paints a voluptuous image of the lady, and leads to Gawain’s curiosity and temptation – “I should ask openly what her actions imply”. This demonstrates that Gawain feels enticed by her actions. However, this situation poses a moral dilemma; the chivalric code suggests that Gawain should do whatever the lady asks, yet his knightly duties command loyalty to his host, and therefore not taking advantage of Bertilak’s wife whilst in his hospitality – this loyalty is mentioned earlier in the text as one of the qualities symbolised by Gawain’s pentangle. Here is yet another darker side of love – its different aspects, in terms of raw, instinctive sexual desire, as well as moral obligations, provide Gawain with a difficult moral situation. This is, as put by Armitage himself, “a test of courage and a test of his heart”.

In ‘Othello’, Cassio finds himself in a similar position to Gawain. At the end of 3.IV, Bianca, like Lady Bertilak, throws herself at Cassio, saying “What? Keep a week away… And lovers’ absent hours more tedious than the dial…” Bianca is trying to seduce Cassio, and in some ways make him feel guilty that they will spend time apart. Initially, Cassio responded pleasantly to Bianca, but by abruptly changing his attitude from interest to spurn, Cassio too suggests, like Gawain, that despite the strength of dark, seductive love, male characters seem to be able to overcome it, implying that it is males that control relationships in these texts, despite the obvious power of a seductive lady.

Othello also has to deal with temptation in 3.III; a scene often referred to as ‘the temptation scene’, for example, by A.C. Bradley in his criticism ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’. This is because Iago’s temptation causes Othello’s degradation from a “calm, unquestioned military leader to a distrustful and crazed husband thirsting for his wife’s violent death”, as put by Dr William Long in his criticism, although I disagree with the interpretation that he thirsts Desdemona’s death. Instead, I feel more that Othello kills her out of mercy, to save her from society’s scorn for her alleged actions. However, this action comes out of a dark, jealous love for his own wife – Othello says “it speaks against her with the other proofs.” This suggests to the audience another darker side of love – Othello’s fear of disloyalty of Desdemona, out of love for her. Yet this is not a logical fear, as there are no “other proofs” as Othello himself suggests. This also highlights the darker side of platonic love, in that Othello, to an extent, loves and trust ‘honest Iago’ as a friend, yet Iago simply manipulates this for personal gain.

A lack of logic and rationale is what leads to Othello’s temptation, and is also an important theme in McEwan’s novel. McEwan develops Joe as a rational character, yet in a comparable mechanism to that in ‘Othello’, the reader of the novel experiences the degradation of the rationale of Joe Rose. On page 83, McEwan writes “that’s why she chose rational Joe”. This clearly outlines to the reader that Joe’s rational mind was one reason that she chose him. But McEwan demonstrates how destructive Parry’s love is by using decreasing rationale as an indicator, such as when he says, as the narrator: “Parry was all around me”. This statement shows that Joe now lives in fear, and feels irrationally enclosed by somebody who has been obsessively in love with him for a prolonged period, demonstrating Joe’s obsession with Parry’s obsession. This once again illustrates that the sheer power of love is not always used or felt in a positive fashion. The idea that the events of this novel lead to a set of characters lacking in rationale is summed up well in the views of Adam Mars-Jones, who writes “Rationality is a precious and precarious construct in the novel, not an instinct but an achievement.” In my opinion, this is a valid appraisal of the characters by the end of the novel, but I do not believe it sums up Joe at the beginning, who is initially portrayed as a very capable rational thinker.

The character who appears to deteriorate least as a result of their encounter with the darker side of love is Gawain, in ‘Sir Gawain…’ In my opinion, it is Gawain who is most conscious of the troubles he has been caused. Gawain says “I was tainted by untruth and this, [girdle] its token, I will drape across my chest till the day I die”. This shows that Gawain, more than the other primary characters, is aware of what he has done, and feels duty-bound to acknowledge and better himself by it. Othello and Joe do not make the same acknowledgement until it is too late; after the murder of Desdemona, and the shooting of Jed Parry respectively.

Such emphatic actions show how the degradation of characters can add to their unpredictability. As such, unpredictability becomes another device by which the writers of these texts can portray the darker side of love. The writers make use of farfetched and extreme comments and actions by characters to imply things about their relationships. For example, in 4.III, Emilia says “who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” In my opinion, this definitely suggests a darker side to her love for Iago – their relationship is not a loyal, romantic, and wholly truthful relationship, as suggested about Othello and Desdemona before Iago initiates his plan; instead this implies their love is about deceit, and ensuring that by whatever means, their partner will gain, even if this means being unfaithful.

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Similar, uncharacteristic speech and behaviour in the other texts also draws our attention to love’s darker side. For example, as Clarissa and Joe’s relationship begins to deteriorate and they communicate less, and their trust decreases. This breakdown is visible when Joe raids Clarissa’s study, searching for evidence of an affair. Whilst searching, Joe says “I would save Clarissa from herself and myself from Parry”. Again, this shows how Joe’s logic has deteriorated, but also, it shows how the changes in his character have led to a change in how he trusts Clarissa, highlighting trust as a darker side of love. This part of the novel shows that when trust ends, the relationship is threatened. Maybe Joe feels that because he no longer trusts Clarissa, he is no longer aware of what she is doing in every aspect of her life, which may make him feel as if he has lost an element of control over Clarissa.

Power and dominance through love is a darker side to love which is explored in different ways throughout the texts. As already mentioned, Iago may feel that love for another man’s wife will give him power over that man – Othello. Interestingly, the character of Jed Parry seems to imply a similar relationship between power and love, in ‘Enduring Love’. In chapter 7, Parry says “You’re very cruel… but you’ve got all the power…You love me, and there’s nothing I can do but return your love”. From this speech, Parry seems to agree with Iago that having a requited love for somebody does give you power over them.

This idea of Parry’s also has similarities to the storyline in ‘Sir Gawain’. In Fitt 3, Lady Bertilak (and indirectly the Green Knight with Morgan le Fay) also appears to have a degree of power over Gawain because Lady Bertilak appears to ‘love’ Gawain, and he feels compelled to return it. Armitage’s rendition of the poem reads “I wish I had here… a present for your sweetness… you deserve… the highest prize I could hope to offer.” This shows how Gawain feels, and in some ways succumbs to, the power of Lady Bertilak’s lure. However, in contrast with the other two texts, the power balance seems a little more even, as the poem reads “a man like you has the means of his muscles”. This reminds the reader that although Lady Bertilak may have the psychological upper hand, Gawain is physically stronger. This intricate scenario appears to equate Gawain’s physical power, and Lady Bertilak’s sexual appeal, and implies that the darker powers of love can be strong enough to overpower physical might.

Gawain’s temptation can be attributed to natural, primitive instincts, which themselves play an important role in all 3 texts. However, the definition of ‘nature’ appears to differ between the texts. When Othello talks about “Nature erring from itself…” he refers to the fact that his marriage is contrary to traditional social expectations. However, the Gawain poet’s references to nature throughout the poem, such as the green colour of the knight and his chapel, the hollen sprig that he holds, and the bestial instinct described in the hunting scenes, imply that nature is instead the hidden driving force of all of the events in the story. In this sense, Sir Gawain and Othello are very similar, because their respective texts both portray them as overcoming the darker side of love in nature itself. However, they also differ greatly, as in doing so, they move in opposite directions. In ‘Othello’, overcoming ‘nature’ or society’s barriers facilitates the love between Othello and Desdemona. However, in ‘Sir Gawain…’, overcoming nature means overcoming the primitive and natural desire to succumb to Lady Bertilak.

By overcoming this dark and seductive love, and therefore overcoming deep natural instincts, I believe that Sir Gawain displays great personal strength. Medieval scholar Alan Markman goes one step further, suggesting that Gawain acts has he does “to stand as the champion of the human race… to demonstrate human capabilities for good or bad action”, and therefore implying that Gawain represents human nature in general. I agree that Gawain is there to represent human nature, although I view him more as an ‘everyman’ that others can relate to with their own problems, as well as a positive example of human nature, than a “champion” as Markman puts it.

In contrast, ‘Enduring Love’ portrays man as unable to overcome nature and instinct, particularly with regard to letting go of the balloon. Peter Childs writes in ‘Enduring Love – The Routeledge Guide’: “Joe explains that, for a social animal, persuading others of one’s own needs is best achieved by convincing oneself ¬rst: ‘The kind of self-deluding individuals who tended to do this ¬‚ourished, as did their genes’ (Ch. 12, p. 104). He argues therefore that human intelligence is always based on ‘special pleading and selective blindness’ (Ch. 12, p. 104), and this inevitably throws light on Joe himself for the reader”. I agree with this interpretation, as it suggests that human nature provides reasons for letting go of the balloon; each of them had persuaded themselves that selfish love of their own life was more valuable than the risk involved saving this boy, and indeed Logan.

Despite being a shining example of honour, Gawain is still not perfect. Even though in general he did overcome nature, a selfish darker love for his own life led him to take the girdle from Lady Bertilak, in a similar way to the characters letting go of the balloon in ‘Enduring Love’. The Green Knight says “It was loyalty that you lacked… you loved your own life”. It is because of this that this text has similarities to the overcoming of ‘natural’ barriers in ‘Othello’, but also the selfish self-love seen in the early parts of ‘Enduring Love’.

Spiritual belief is an aspect which seems to have an impact on relationships formed in all 3 texts. Undoubtedly, spiritual belief would have played a greater role in society at the time of writing of ‘Sir Gawain…’ and in the time of ‘Othello’. This is evident in Brabantio’s attitudes towards Othello in 1.III, where he suggests “with some mixtures, powerful o’er the blood… he wrought upon her”. Brabantio’s accusation of witchcraft shows the playwright’s intentions to imply spirituality as the dark force when forming unconventional relationships. Likewise, in McEwan’s novel, Jed insists that it is God’s love that causes him to love Joe. McEwan writes as Jed in Chapter 16 “my love – which is also God’s love – is your fate”. This adds a spiritual cause to Jed’s love, although in a more modern social context, and with Joe presented as a member of the scientific community, who may be viewed as trying to disprove God’s existence, perhaps this factor has a lesser significance to Joe, or indeed to a modern audience as a justification and source for love.

In contrast, religion, as a spiritual belief in ‘Sir Gawain…’ is not a force which helps construct a relationship, but instead it holds Gawain back. Near the start of the poem, Gawain’s qualities are described through the pentangle symbol on his shield. The poem reads “his faith was founded in the five wounds Christ received on the cross…” informing the reader that Gawain is religious, and it is these values which prevent him from fornicating with his host’s married wife in Fitt 3. In the other two texts, religion and spirituality can be seen as the force pulling two characters together.

Bearing in mind all of the points discussed, there are clearly a great set of powerful elements of love which help fully portray its darker side. But in my opinion, the strongest is a combination of unrequited love and jealousy. For example, it is unrequited love, and a jealousy of Clarissa, which leads to Jed Parry murdering an innocent man, and attempting to murder Joe; somebody that does not love him back. Furthermore, it is arguable that it is Iago’s unrequired love of Desdemona, and his jealousy of Cassio’s position, which are his motives for his planned destruction of the tragic hero. But most strikingly, the changes that the reader witnesses in Gawain in ‘Sir Gawain…’ highlight the power of seductive unrequited love to change the opinions of a noble man, and his jealousy of the seducer’s seeming ability to save his life further contributes to his downfall. Together, these three highlight how love is at its darkest and most powerful when it is not mutual.

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