But you know what's even better than a love triangle? A love quadrangle. At least that's what Shakespeare thought, and who am I to argue with him?
Shakespeare never bothered with three lovers when he could have four. In context, it makes perfect sense: his audience would be frustrated if the spurned lover just wandered offstage at the end. But this profusion of lovers and the promise of a happy ending does something very weird to the tension of a love triangle. Gone is the real potential for heartbreak and loss. Instead of waiting with bated breath to see who's chosen and who's rejected, we wait only for the revelation that will sort out the couples as they're clearly supposed to be.
|A Midsummer Night's Dream, Jeff L. Davis|
The complications of the love juice are far more horrifying than we ever quite register, watching the play. Three innocents - Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius - are all brainwashed for spite or for the fun of playing God. At its worst point, the enraged men chase each other through the forest, intent on murdering their rival for a girl who's terrified by them both. On its surface, this is the stuff of horror movies. But it's treated as hilarious in the play, and in the context of the happy ending we know will come. So we laugh, and we accept as "happy" the fact that Demetrius is still brainwashed at the end of the play. Why is it a good thing that his will isn't his own indefinitely, or that Helena winds up married to a man who, in his right mind, doesn't want her? Because that's the way it's supposed to be. Don't think too hard about it; this is how we wanted it to end, right? Hermia and Lysander are happy again, and we liked them. Helena's got what she wanted (although her reasons for wanting Demetrius remain rather obscure). Friendship is restored, marriages are celebrated, and no one's fighting anymore. Just like we knew would happen.
I love Midsummer. But if you think about it for even a minute or two, it's actually horrifying.
Luckily, Twelfth Night isn't so scary. Shakespeare makes it even easier for us in this one.
|Twelfth Night, Fine Line Features|
No matter how much chemistry Viola has with Olivia (and let's be honest, unless your Orsino is ridiculously talented, she's going to have more chemistry with Olivia than with Orsino), it's obvious how this goes. Girl with boy; boy with girl. Because Viola's male masquerade never actually harms anyone, it's a lot easier to laugh at her misadventures. And the play itself is far more self-aware than Midsummer, actually addressing the issues it raises of gender and sexuality. Viola is assertive and in control whether she's in pants or a skirt; Sebastian, on the other hand, is a passive nonentity who, faced with a beautiful stranger hot to marry him, just shrugs and goes with it. It's very clear that the take-charge women will call the shots in their marriages, and the men obviously enjoy being ordered around.
Besides, unlike the lovers of Midsummer, these four are unique, individualized, and sympathetic characters. While the Midsummer lovers do nothing but squabble, the Twelfth Night leads get to know each other, share compelling backstories, and actively engage in running their own damn lives. Even Orsino becomes suddenly impressive in the last scene, when jealousy and his conflicted feelings for his pretty page-boy remind us all why he's someone Antonio fears. These characters are real people, and their depth puts the Midsummer lovers to shame.
Arguably, the only Shakespearean love quadrangle involving real tension is also his worst. The Two Gentlemen of Verona gives us a naive schoolboy, a selfish backstabber, a stalker
|Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus, William Holman Hunt|
The "happy ending" here is as inevitable as ever: Valentine with Silvia, Proteus with Julia. But in this play, you could almost wish for some brainwashing love juice to make it at all palatable. Silvia marries the man she loves, knowing that he cares more about his treacherous friend's happiness than about her own. Proteus settles for second best, having made his future wife privy to his schemes to supplant her. Valentine is as naive as ever, forgiving Proteus with astonishing ease and expecting his life with Silvia to be sunshine and roses. Julia's faith in her fiance is shattered. The tension comes from the escalation of complications, from the way events tangle together to make a reconciliation seem almost impossible. And the falling action is so short and rushed that the ending is deeply unsatisfying, and not very happy.
The underlying problem of the love quadrangle is characterization. Even in triangles, with one less character to manage, the rejected lover is frequently underused in comparison to his or her rival. In Shakespearean quadrangles, there simply isn't enough time to establish all four as fascinating individuals from the get-go. Twelfth Night, by far the most successful, gives Sebastian short shrift and has to shoehorn in a spotlight moment for Orsino. In Midsummer, where the lovers' plot is one of three (and not even the most interesting), it's a miracle that they have as much depth as they do. And even though the love plot is the focus of Two Gentlemen, the lovers get buried in the side characters, subplots, and contrivances, as well as falling victim to the main pitfall of early Shakespeare: the play is more ambitious than skillful. Mid-career Shakespeare would have made a masterpiece of a story about betrayed friendships and forsworn love; in those very early days, he was still learning craft and structure.
A fourth lover is a security blanket. His or her very presence assures us that nothing will be so very catastrophic. No hearts will be irreparably broken; things will work out just like they're meant to; everyone will be suitably happy at the end. It leeches out all the tension that makes a love conflict one of those eternal plots. And it's very much to Shakespeare's credit that he managed to make such a reassuring trope as involving as he did.