Love in Literature: Drama Queens, Dorks, and the Evolution of Passion
The theme of passionate love has fascinated artists, writers, and poets throughout the ages. From before the age of the bible, love has been the focus of many muses and what is considered prized characteristics in a mate has evolved not just in the ideal image of personal beauty but also in how the characters behave. The passionate nature, the youth that burns bright then ends in a ball of burning fury as it crashes, once signified the perfect love story.
Today, we are fascinated with geeks, freaks, and even the slightly autistic. Television features heroes like Sheldon Cooper, the Asperger’s-socially awkward scientist, rather than Romeo. House, with his drug addiction and refusal to comply with social niceties, makes girls hearts flutter. Even Elementary, a show based on the famous Doctor Sherlock Holmes, is dedicated to the passionless hero who shows his devotion with his lack of romantic declarations instead of being the Byron-type hero. How did romance evolve from men who would fall to their knees weeping at the loss of their ladyloves to men who are so blank faced, we can only guess at their desires?
In the days of Greek drama, heroes like Achilles lived lives of high drama. In today’s age, we would call him a drama queen. When his wife is taken from him, he hides in his home from the battle and refuses to play in the war. He wails to his mother, crashing his fists in the sea and howling his displeasure until his side of the fight is fated to lose by the gods. Although today we would never consider a man like this to be sexually appealing, in his era, this man was the ideal. He was passionate. He showed his feelings and by showing them, proved what a fiery nature he possessed. Self-possession, now a prized trait, was exactly the opposite in days gone by.
Medea, wife of Jason, chopped her brother into bits and left his body to ride the waves of sea foam in order to distract her father from pursuit. Although she displayed this obvious lack of respect for human life, Jason married her. He then attempted to cast her aside in favor of his own social climbing and seems truly shocked and appalled when she not only murders his intended bride but also her father and their children. Poison, a lady’s weapon, is used to kill the home wrecker and her dad but she uses her own hands on when killing her children. Sociopath? Probably, but she still could be labeled an epic hero—just like Achilles. Neither put their loves desires first and hoped that if they lost them, at least they’re happy now. The determination to take care of self, rather than others, seems an obvious theme of great literature.
Moreover, the idea of passionate natures being desirable transcended Greek literature to influence authors in the biblical age as well. Dante, although very religious, states that his love, Beatrice, herself moved the powers of heaven to send him a guide through the darkness and, eventually, meet him in heaven. His travels through the pits of hell, riddled with moral lessons, also focused on various short stories that told of the perils of love. One couple, found by an angry husband, was killed on sight. Now being torn at by constant winds, they damn her husband to the lowest pit of hell, Cainus, for those who betrayed family and kin. Rather than taking responsibility for their own lusty mistake, they blame the cuckolded husband for his crime of passion.
The French were equally fascinated with romance and it’s most elemental needs and Chaucer focuses on this in his Canterbury Tales. From the wife of Bath, a woman who got married repeatedly and used her husbands for her own designs, to the knightly idea of romance, Chaucer tells us stories riddled with those who were fools for love. One tale in particular underlines the idea of passion overruling reason and is told by a drunken miller. The miller tells the story of a carpenter who married a younger woman. She then cheats on him, tempting both a scholar and a poet, and helps to fool her husband into believing a flood of biblical proportion threatens their town. Tying tubs to the roof, the two leave the husband sleeping and dangling above their home so that they may engage in lusty mayhem in the bedroom below. A kissed ass, a burnt one and the ensuing screams for water send her husband bouncing on the cobblestones below and yet the moral seems more about the silliness of the carpenter for trusting her rather than the lack of good sense in his wife.
Hamlet, too, focuses on the folly, showing a man so driven by his own passions that the play ends in everyone’s death. He is also what we would today call a drama queen, not desirable at all to modern ideas of love and passion, but in his day the epic romantic hero.
So how did we sway so far from what, for centuries, was the idea of love to a world where not showing your feelings is desirable? In the past, mortality was a constant concern. Knowing you would likely be dead by thirty five, regardless of your health practices, encouraged people to act in high drama. If a man might only love once in a lifetime, shouldn’t that love be one for the ages? One time itself would stand still for? But in today’s day, when a man might live to see his hundredth birthday, he might love repeatedly. A woman who cheated on him, or showed sociopathic behaviors, might be cast aside in favor of one more akin with his own interests.
The lack of societal religion also changed the way we look at love. In ages before ours, religion brought people together and created bonds that would be useful in not only in spiritual needs but also political and financial ones. Rather than believing religion was a personal choice, it was one that could change all aspects of your life if you chose unwisely. People were not just excommunicated from the church they offended but also the community or even country. Today, worries about religious choices have no such life altering ramifications. Therefore, love reflects that. Again, the social repercussions for choosing unwisely are few. Morals, fed to us in religion and literature, are shrugged off as unimportant in favor of the latest movie or shopping trend.
These changes brought about the broody hero. Rather than falling to his knees in agony, like Raul in the Phantom of the Opera or Achilles in the Greek plays, a hero is expected to be able to carry the weight of the world without complaint, like Atlas. He is expected to hide his feelings, giving only brief peeks into his thought processes if the reader or viewer is paying very close attention. This new hero, the stoic one, was born in the old west and has grown to dominate media. He is brave but self-sacrificing. If someone cries in his viewing, he will either comfort or condemn the person showing too much emotion. This lack of emotive hero, born in the age of tumbleweed and sheriff’s badges, has translated himself most recently into the geek. The geek is smart, sometimes socially inappropriate, but never overly emotional. He loses some of his attractiveness if he does show his hand too soon. He might be brilliant in his ability to solve crimes, complex mathematical or medical problems, or even his heroine’s moral concerns, but he is inept when it comes to the vagaries of romance.
The polar opposite of the romantic hero of bygone days, this hero was not forged of muscle and manly sweat; rather he is created in a lab, born in a classroom, and torn from the pages of a book. He dares not show his feelings because if he did, his heroine would likely scoff at him and turn away.
The heroine has equally evolved, trading in her wide, childbearing hips and ample breasts ready to nurture, for skinny jeans and an almost masculine disregard for her own passionate nature. She is strong, she is independent and if she loves the hero, it’s because she chose it rather than having any decision put upon her by society.
When these two meet, a complex dance ensues. No wailing for the modern heroine. No fainting for the modern hero. Instead they share a glance across a room or perhaps save a kitten together. If Achilles were alive today, he would be a figure of ridicule rather than one of epic proportions in his masculinity. Medea would be slapped stupid by a modern hero—and she might even like it. Society’s changes brought about a complete transformation in romance, much like characters changed in Ovid. Rather than declare their passionate love and be damned for it, characters in modern media chose to hide their love, maybe never even telling the person they’re pining for of their devotion and drawing audiences with this lack of passion instead.
Romance, by definition, is expressive display of emotional attraction to another person. In times when life could change in an instant with plague, meddling gods, or one god who can cast you into a frozen pit of hell to dine on your own fecal matter—love could be shown best with an overly emotive display of passionate declarations and death defying desire. Today, we’re an age of instant gratification with limitless possibility. Expressive? No longer. Now, the strange, the unusual, the somewhat secretive wins the race of love.
In conclusion, love changed because people changed. Does it make the stories of the past have any less resonance with modern audiences than it did at their inception when the world was new? No, because modern readers can look back at those bygone ages when heroes would weep and heroines could be dastardly and wonder at the motivations, the excesses, that led to their behaviors. Are the epic poets not fit for today’s world? Today’s world is one of hidden feelings, pretended devotions and lives changing as technology changes how we communicate. Our view of the world may have changed dramatically but the beauty of the words, the poetry of verse, can still move readers if they’re willing to step back from their modern shoes made of rubber and exchange them for verse that makes them wonder. Wonder is something that will never die and the gruesome death of an epic hero on the field of war is something that readers can still find resonance with even today. Can we suspend our belief long enough to travel with Dante through circles of hell and finally to the arms of the woman who moved heaven and earth to help him get to her side? Yes. Because love changes our view of the world and so can literature if we’re willing to allow the poetry on the page to harness our cynical minds for a moment to travel in with an epic hero as he slays dragons for his one true ladylove.