Unrequited love is among the most fruitful of all literary themes, and not surprisingly, Shakespeare gives the subject extensive attention. Many of his comedies, from ‘Much Ado’ to ‘All’s Well’, are constructed around versions of this convention, and many of his best-known characters, from Malvolio to Romeo, are familiar with its agonies. Moreover, the theme is not confined to his plays alone, but emerges as one of the more prominent themes of his poems: both ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593 – 4) and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ (published 1609) depict young women whose craving for the company of a particular young man is frustrated, while in a similar vein, the Sonnets (published 1609) present a speaker abandoned first by the ‘fair youth’, then by the ‘dark lady’, and ultimately doomed to soul-searching and frustration.
The theme is explored in his plays in ways that range from comical to tragic. Malvolio’s desire for the affections of his mistress Olivia in ‘Twelfth Night’ belongs to the former type: a servant of limited personal attractiveness, he’s persuaded to believe he’s caught Olivia’s eye by the interpretation he puts on a letter devised as a practical joke by his riotous tormentors, led by Maria. Suffice to say that he falls for the prank more completely than Olivia falls for him, and the result is a somewhat heartless take on his misery, closing on the news that Olivia is newly married to Sebastian.
More serious treatment of the trope emerges in the late play ‘Cymbeline’. Here Cloten discovers the challenges of unrequited love when he falls for Imogen, his mother’s husband’s daughter, effectively his step-sister. But Imogen is already spoken for, and the unappealing Cloten meets his end far from home if no nearer to achieving his desires. Cloten is deliberately cast as an unattractive oaf, no more worthy of Imogen than Malvolio of Olivia, and the audience does not pause to concern themselves with any feelings of despair he may harbour. But unrequited love in Shakespeare is not always so easy to dismiss.
Take the example of Queen Katharine in ‘Henry VIII’, abandoned by her husband but bewildered as to the exact nature of her crime: ‘Alas, sir’, she begs the King, ‘In what have I offended you?’ and she proceeds to plead her innocence: ‘I have been to you a true and humble wife’, she notes, ‘At all times to your will conformable; / Ever in fear to kindle your dislike’. To no avail: the play proceeds to depict Katharine’s increasing isolation and eventual death. If this is unrequited love, it is of a different order to the fantasies of Malvolio and Cloten.
If Katharine is a tragic figure, at least in the colloquial sense, the case of Falstaff belongs to the opposite type. But perhaps we should describe his fate in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ as unrequited lust. His activities in pursuit of his appetite for extra-marital entertainment with Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are plainly fated from the beginning – though their husbands take some persuading of their innocence. In the end Falstaff’s fate in this play is not so different from what awaits him at the end of ‘Henry IV Part Two’, when Prince Hal, now King, disowns him with the cruellest line in Shakespeare: ‘I know thee not, old man’.
A worthy companion of Falstaff in the ‘unrequited lust’ category is Edward III, central character of the opening two acts of the play that bears his name. Here Edward is drawn to the charms of Countess Salisbury while her husband is away at the front, fighting the French on the King’s behalf. The Countess is resilient enough to reject his advances in scenes that are deliberately comic: a further reminder that there is more than one way of conveying the essential pathos of this trope.
If Falstaff (like Cloten) is to be cursed with unrequited lust, perhaps we may describe what happens to Romeo as unrequited love displaced. At first Romeo is a morose and secretive figure, avoiding human contact and enigmatically isolated, but the truth emerges soon enough: he is ‘Out of her favour where I am in love’ because Rosaline, the object of his affection, ‘hath forsworn to love’. Happily for Romeo, he chances to go to the Capulets’ party and chances to meet Juliet there. By a further chance, Capulet chooses to reject Tybalt’s advice to eject Romeo from a party he has effectively gate-crashed, and his unrequited love for Rosaline can be displaced onto Juliet.
The example of Malvolio is a reminder that some of Shakespeare’s plays explore the matter of unrequited love from more than one angle: ‘Twelfth Night’ opens with Orsino’s love for Olivia – an attraction that contrasts with Malvolio’s in that it is at least realistic. Similarly, as Romeo craves Rosaline in the early scenes, so Paris desires Juliet with an attraction as hopeless as Malvolio’s. A similar parallel emerges in ‘Othello’: Roderigo is love-sick for Desdemona, and is vulnerable to Iago’s manipulation as a result. But Iago also desires Desdemona (‘I do love her too’, he concedes in Act Two Scene One), with motives as confused as Roderigo’s are naïve.
But if unrequited love belongs to any particular genre of Shakespeare’s work, it is to the comedies. This is the key theme of ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’, in which the middle-class Helena, talented and virtuous, is rejected as too low-born by the aristocratic man she loves, the vacuous Bertram. Alone in the opening scene, Helena curses her luck that she ‘should love a particular star / And think to wed it, [when] he is so above me’. But despite her sense of inferiority, she follows Bertram to Florence where she replaces Diana in his bed before revealing her subterfuge and finalising her marriage to him. Her methods are unorthodox but her determination is fuelled by the pain she felt at her rejection.
A similar plot unfolds in ‘Measure for Measure’. Here again, unrequited love is the spur. Mariana was once engaged to be married to Angelo, but her dowery did not measure up – in Angelo’s phrase, ‘her promised proportions / Came short of composition’. Now when he abuses his position as acting governor of Vienna to bed (as he supposes) the irresistible Isabella, Mariana clandestinely takes her place and recovers her position as Angelo’s fiancée. Her ‘five years’ of unrequited love for the man she now calls ‘thou cruel Angelo’ are put behind her as her long-awaited marriage is finally agreed.
Beatrice and Benedick in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ are a further reminder that (in Lysander’s words in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’) the ‘course of true love never did run smooth’. Their attraction for one another has been long concealed – and would have stayed that way, one imagines, were it not for a deceit played on them in which they’re fooled into believing that the conversations they’re overhearing are genuine. But now both ‘discover’ how much each means to the other, and their mutual stand-off dissolves in an agreement to marry.
Lysander’s thoughts on true love anticipate aspects of his future experience in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, where his romance with Hermia is finally allowed to blossom in spite of all kinds of obstacles. The common ground in all these comedies is that after the long years (in some cases) of unhappiness and isolation, there falls an avalanche of nuptials to bring down the final curtain. So perhaps it is stretching a point to speak of these love affairs as ‘unrequited’ in the sense that Malvolio would recognise the description. But they serve as reminders that the route to marital bliss in Shakespeare is paved with yearning, confusion, misunderstanding and self-denial. There again, all’s well that ends well.
During the plague of 1593 – 4, the theatres were shut and Shakespeare turned his hand to poetry. Among other achievements, he produced ‘Venus and Adonis’, a long poem which left him the most famous (and possibly the richest) poet in England. The theme of the poem, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, is unrequited love, the desire of Venus for Adonis, and the prospect that, because the beautiful boy is killed in a hunting accident, the sense of loss is permanent. At around the same time, Shakespeare wrote ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, a play in which four young men fall in love with four young women of comparable status, who are then called away to France to mourn the death of the King. They will be gone a year, they say, but they’ll return. Did Shakespeare put the four young men out of their misery, and write the sequel? It seems that he did. We know that a play called ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’ was written in the late sixteenth century and published early in the new reign, and attributed to Shakespeare. Alas, the play is lost, and the love of the four young men for the four young women at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ will remain (barring a miracle) unrequited.