I have been re-reading Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World. It's one of those books that inspires you to read passages aloud to a half-listening spouse; in fact I've been gushing about it so much that my husband now refers to the author as "your boyfriend, Stephen Greenblatt." (So maybe I have a tiny academic crush.)

What I love about this book is that Greenblatt looks at Shakespeare's life primarily through the prism of his plays. In a fascinating chapter called "Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting," he theorizes about Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway--and in fact his view on marriage in general--by looking at the couples in a number of the plays, in particular the comedies.

Greenblatt reminds us that Shakespeare's characters, even in the lighter comedies such as Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It, voice doubts and even cynicism about marriage. The chapter's title comes from Beatrice's lines in Much Ado, yet she and Benedick marry in the end of the play, "despite the clear-eyed calculation of the consequences," according to Greenblatt. Shakespeare employs common conventions of romantic comedies, but doesn't seem to believe in his own happy endings. However, Greenblatt reminds us that the magic in these plays resides in

"the joy and optimism of each of the couples. . . .The spectators are invited into the charmed circle of love, knowing that it is probably a transitory illusion, but for the moment at least--the moment of the play--not caring."

We can't think too carefully about the fact that Demetrius only loves Helena because a love potion has been sprinkled on his eyes (Midsummer). Or that Duke Orsino is a self-involved jerk who is undeserving of the loyal, loving Viola (Twelfth Night). We might have more hopes for Beatrice and Benedick, but only if we forget that they were tricked into loving each other.

In romance parlance, HEA stands for "happy ever after," but HFN means "happy for now." What Shakespeare knew was that happy forever is an illusion. But happy for now just might be possible.

♥ ♥ ♥