Love and Courtship in Classic Literature

Courtship is a popular topic among writers of the 16th and 17th century Europe as seen through the poetry and plays of this era. From this, readers can distinguish how men and women court one another. This includes how couples date and treat each other through the concept of chivalry. The idea of chivalry of originates with Knights and the Kings Court. It suggests that a man must romance a woman through promises of love. Love becomes a key element in these works as Knights were expected to woo women by doing good deeds and shows gifts of affection. Poets and dramatist began to glamorize these acts chivalry within their works, some condoning chivalry while others satirizing it.  Women are also depicted as practicing chivalry as an attempt to win over the hearts of men. They did this through promises and pleas of bountiful love and adoration. Classical writers of this time, including Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and Christopher Marlowe, showed no diversity in acts of chivalry, courtship, and love. The treatment of women remains consistent with ideals of courtship through vows and promises to honor love and marriage that is often reciprocated.


Poet Ben Jonson in Song: To Celia, shows a prime example of how men dote on women through chivalry and courtship. The poem demonstrates that chivalry is practiced  whether or not a maidens accepts or rejects these sentiments. If a maiden rejects them, a man will practice chivalry by presenting them with gifts and affection, as well as other good deeds to prove their loyalty.  Although the narrator does not make extra attempts to woo her, the narrator continuous to show interest towards the Lady.  He starts the poem saying: “I will pledge with mine, or leave a kiss but in the cup; and I’ll not look for wine”(2-4).  In this line he shows his devotion by stating he will substitute wine for a kiss. It shows not only devotion but desire as the narrator compares her lips to a cup of wine, but it is her lips that he thirsts after. He promises that even if his soul pleads for thirst he still would not except it because her kiss is a better substitute.  After he makes this promise he sends her the gifts to win her over when he says, “I sent thee late a rosy wreath,”(9).  He did not send her a bouquet of roses, he sent her a wreath signifying a unified circle or rather the symbol of love and marriage that is associated with a wedding ring.  He blatantly admits that “thereon didst only breathe, sent’st it back to me;”(14); meaning that all she did was “breathe” or take a short moment before sending the flowers back.  This makes the reader understand that the narrator is not upset or dismayed. It is observed through the voice of the narrator. Even though he is rejected, he continues his invitation for love. The narrator is not silenced so quickly as he continues to show affection. “Since when it grows and smells, I swear, Not of itself, but thee”(15-16).  From this statement it is understood that even though she has rejected him, his love for her is still strong. Although the reader knows that this is not possible, it gives a clear understanding of his act of chivalry. The narrator is willing to wear his heart on his sleeve and bear his feelings, even at the risk of rejection.


Shakespeare has famously written about love and chivalry through his works. In many cases, women are observed being just as romantic and displaying acts of chivalry as their male counterparts. In these incidents female characters seek out their objects of affections. Some of these women are brazen and bold, unafraid of failure or rejection.  This can be seen in the character Helena, in the comedy Midsummer Night’s Dream. Throughout the play Helena goes unscathed by the fact that her main affection, Demetrius, does not love her. In fact he seems to hate her with every passing moment.  Throughout scene i of act II Demetrius runs from Helena in attempt to elude her.  Despite this, Helena does not submit and continues to swear by love.  After Demetrius tells Helena that he “do[es] not nor cannot love you”(201), Helena exclaims that “even for that I will love you the more”(202).  She goes on to state that “the more you beat me, I will fawn on you”(204). She even begins to “beg in [his] love”(208) by telling him to “use me as your spaniel”(206).  Helena goes on like this throughout Acts I and II desperately pleading for Demetrius’s love.  She appears to have no will or drive contain herself. She puts her integrity on the line by doing this, often appearing desperate or crazed. Her emotionally dramatic appeals and the lengths she goes demonstrates all she is willing to do to make Demetrius love her.  Instead of Demetrius viewing Helena’s love as a proof of her loyalty and devotion, he scorns her and turns her away continuously. He does not succumbing to her passions and is turned away from her because of it.


Shakespeare also demonstrates male chivalry in his works. This can be seen through the promises of love Demetrious made towards another throughout MidSummer’s Night Dream. While turning down Helena and her vows of love, Demetrious swooned after Hermia. Even through Demetrious knows that Hermia does not love him, he attempts to force Hermia into marriage. He uses Athenian law and ties with Hermia’s father to persuade her. Demetrious begs her, “relent, sweet Hermia” so the two can marry.  His actions display chivalry of devotion to his love.  This is seen when he follows Hermia into the woods to keep her from marrying someone else. Knowing that Hermia does not love him, he tries to coerce her despite her unhappiness. It depicts chivalry at this time as being on the edge of madness, the inability to accept no for an answer. The carelessness of love shows a hint of insanity as men go out of their way to win a woman’s heart. The satire of the love affair shows chivalry and courtship in a different light. This includes how people can lose themselves in the name of love.  It represents the lengths that people go to show loyalty, devotion, and determination, in order to have love and marriage with the one’s they love. This is through the acts of coxes and promises.


The poem by Christopher Marlowe further demonstrates how men attempted to capture a lady by material things and special deeds for love.  In the piece entitled, Passionate Shepherd, he bravely tells a Lady “Come live with me and be my love.”(1). The narrator is direct and straight to the point in his statements. He does not ask her to live with him, he simply tells her then attempt to adorn her with specialties. He believes it might bring her to live with him by offering her promises and vows.  He does not offer her jewels or a rich estate. He offers her beauty that only nature can provide. Everything from what they would do in  “that valleys, groves, hills, and fields; woods, or steepy mountain yields”(3-4), he also promises to coat her with the riches of the lands to dress her from head to foot.  The narrator vows to make her everything from “A cap of flowers,”(11) to “Fair lined slippers for the cold”(15).  His vows and what he would do for her love indicates to the reader that nature is riches and his proof of love.  Though he cannot offer her jewelry or fine clothes, the next best thing is the nature around him.  He wants to lull her into his lifestyle of “shallow rivers to whose falls; Melodioous birds sing madrigals”(7-8) to view nature how he does.  What he can create with nature’s beauty is what he would like to share with his maiden.  He wants to appeal her to nature because that is his perception of beauty as well as what he would like to see in a woman.  To get her he promises to merge his two loves, the love of the Maiden and his love for his surrounds.  To encompass the two he wants to make her “a kirtle; Embroidered all with leaves of “myrtle;” and “A gown made of the finest wool”(11-12).  Then after reciting all that he is willing to do for her, he asks, “if these pleasure may thee move,” (19). Simply asking her that if she likes what she hears, if she wants to live with nature with him and embody herself with its beauty. Doing this she can “come with me, and be my love”(20).  So that she can have what he has to offer and live a life with him.


Another comedy written by Shakespeare also displays women’s insistence in the pursuit of love.  In the comedy Twelfth Night, the character, Olivia falls in love at first sight with another character name Cesario.  She is very assertive and direct with her love coming off as a less dramatic character than Helena.  Olivia has less out burst of love and is level headed about the situation.  She appears to be more assertive in her pursuit of Cesario by attempting to chide him with jewels.  First she has her messenger give Cesario a ring in order to bring him back to her palace.  Later when they meet in the garden, she gives him a diamond brooch that contains a picture of herself.  All of these acts are a symbol of her adoration of him.  Olivia giving him riches and jewels also acknowledges her wealth, openly stating to Cesario that he may have more if they “prithee”.  She goes on to admit that she gave Cesario the ring to bring him back.  Putting her pride on the line she curiously asks, “let me hear you speak,”(III, i, 120). After it appears that Cesario is dumbfounded by Olivia’s love and adoration.  Though she does all these things to win Cesario’s affection, the only response he has is “I pity you.”(III, i, 121). While in conversation, Olivia is unable to contain her emotions much longer and releases a passionate declaration of love. She swears “everything, I love thee so, that maugre all thy pride, nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.”(III, i, 146-150)  Despite her spontaneous words of love she is unwanted. Rejected once by Cesario, Olivia does not hesitate to try again later on in Act IV. In this scene she directly asks for his hand in marriage.  This displays the boldness of women in their quest for love.  While most women chose their suitors carefully to ensure she is not married for money, Olivia is willing to share abundant fortune with her “servant”.


Courtship and chivalry is an act that couples do which leads to marriage. Individuals show their love and devotion for a love interest which can end with acceptance or rejection. In the two Shakespeare plays analyzed, loyalty and devotion is used in exchange for love. The characters go to great lengths to show their desires and affections. At then end of Mid Summer Night’s Dream, Helena marries Demetrius, and in Twelfth Night, Olivia marries Cesario’s twin brother -which is somewhat the same.  In the selected poetry, the acts of chivalry end in rejection. As seen in Song: To Celia, the narrator is rejected, but still is in love with the Lady.  This is the same for the poem Passionate Shepherd. In another poem written entitled The Nymph’s Reply, the author, Walter Raleigh, replays to the Passionate Shepherd with a poem of rejection. The poem argues that love is fleeting and often fades away. Just how nature dies when it changes to winter, the Shepherd’s love for her will die to.  It claims that the Shepherd’s words were untrue, comparing it to an infatuation or fling because like seasons change so do human feelings. It is heart breaking to see men and women rejected when they’re so loving and devoted to another.  With this ability to sympathize with the characters of the play and other poems, writes portray aspects of love that a 21st century reader can still relate. The idea of men practicing chivalry is still present today in modern America.  Men practicing chivalry is a practice that has been around for hundreds of years and probably will remain for hundreds more. However, the idea of women doing the same in today’s era is a hard concept to digest.  In movies and shows women starting to be more assertive when it comes to love and choosing a life partner. Even still women are not noticed for chivalry and courtship or for promises of love and devotion. They are noticed for their beauty and sexuality. This makes female chivalry displayed in Shakespeare’s comedy a radical concept for today’s time.


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
This entry was posted in Literature, Social Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s