The Recurrent Theme of Love in Shakespeare's Plays

Red Rose on Shakespeare's open book

mitza/Getty Images 

Love in Shakespeare is a recurrent theme. The treatment of love in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets is remarkable for the time: the Bard mixes courtly love, unrequited love, compassionate love and sexual love with skill and heart.

Shakespeare does not revert to the two-dimensional representations of love typical of the time but rather explores love as a non-perfect part of the human condition.

Love in Shakespeare is a force of nature, earthy and sometimes uneasy. Here are some key resources on love in Shakespeare.

Love in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting Embracing
Leonard Whiting plays Romeo Montague and Olivia Hussey plays Juliet Capulet in the 1968 production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

"​Romeo and Juliet"​ is widely regarded as the most famous love story ever written. Shakespeare’s treatment of love in this play is masterful, balancing different representations and burying them at the heart of the play. For example, when we first meet Romeo he is a love-sick puppy experiencing infatuation. It is not until he meets Juliet that he really understands the meaning of love. Similarly, Juliet is engaged to marry Paris, but this love is bound by tradition, not passion. She also discovers that passion when she first meets Romeo. Fickle love collapses in the face of romantic love, yet even this we are urged to question: Romeo and Juliet are young, passionate and heady … but are they also immature?

Love in 'As You Like It'

Katharine Hepburn and William Prince
Katharine Hepburn and William Prince as Rosalind and Orlando in a Broadway production of Shakespeare's As You Like It at the Cort Theater.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

"As You Like It" is another Shakespeare play that positions love as a central theme. Effectively, this play pits different types of love against each other: romantic courtly love versus bawdy sexual love. Shakespeare seems to come down on the side of bawdy love, presenting it as more real and obtainable. For example, Rosalind and Orlando quickly fall in love and poetry is used to convey it, but Touchstone soon undermines it with the line, “the truest poetry is the most feigning”. (Act 3, Scene 2). Love is also used to distinguish social class, the courtly love belonging to the nobles and the bawdy love belonging to the lower class characters.

Love in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Much Ado About Nothing
Janie Dee (as Beatrice) and Aden Gillett (as Benedick) in the Peter Hall Company production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Corbis/Getty Images

In "Much Ado About Nothing," Shakespeare once again pokes fun at the conventions of courtly love. In a similar device employed in As You Like It, Shakespeare pits two different types of lovers against each other. Claudio and Hero’s rather uninteresting courtly love is undermined by the backbiting of Benedick and Beatrice. Their love is presented as more enduring, but less romantic – where we are led to doubt if Claudio and Hero will be happy in the long term. Shakespeare manages to capture the hollowness of the romantic love rhetoric – something that Benedick becomes frustrated with during the play.

Love in 'Sonnet 18': Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?

Plays of Shakespeare
Getty Images/duncan1890

Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? is widely considered to be the greatest love poem ever written. This reputation is well deserved because of Shakespeare’s ability to capture the essence of love so cleanly and succinctly in only 14 lines. He compares his lover to a beautiful summer’s day and realizes that while summer days may fade and fall into Autumn, his love is eternal. It will last all year round – year in, year out – hence the famous opening lines of the poem: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date: (...) But thy eternal summer shall not fade.”

Shakespeare Love Quotes

famous quote
KatSnowden / Getty Images

As the world’s most romantic poet and dramatist, Shakespeare’s words on love have seeped into popular culture. When we think of love, a Shakespeare quote instantly springs to mind. “If music be the food of love play on!”

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Jamieson, Lee. "The Recurrent Theme of Love in Shakespeare's Plays." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). The Recurrent Theme of Love in Shakespeare's Plays. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "The Recurrent Theme of Love in Shakespeare's Plays." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).