Shakespeare’s 7 most notorious couples
From star-struck love affairs to marriages built on murder, Shakespeare has created some unforgettable romantic relationships. Here we round up seven of his most compelling couples, both good and bad...
Benedick and Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing
Two of Shakespeare’s most entertaining comic characters, Benedick and Beatrice have a ‘love-hate’ relationship and their constant bickering lies at Much Ado about Nothing’s comic heart.
The pair are arguably rather unusual romantic leads. They are mature, sharp and confrontational and their unlikely romance is in many ways a subplot, running alongside the more serious story of the troubled young lovers Hero and Claudio.
When we meet Benedick and Beatrice the pair are engaged in “merry war”, exchanging a continual one-upmanship of insults. Shakespeare hints that their mutual hatred stems from a former relationship that ended badly and in the opening scene it is reported “they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them”.
Both Benedick and Beatrice initially scorn the idea of love and romance, vowing never to curse themselves with marriage. However, a trick in which both characters are led to believe that the other secretly loves them brings about a sea change in their feelings for one another. By the final act hate has clearly transformed into romantic love, with Beatrice declaring “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest”. The couple conveniently hijack the wedding of Hero and Claudius and get married themselves.
Over the years some stellar comic pairings have played the bickering couple, including Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (1993), Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker (2007) and David Tennant and Catherine Tate (2011).
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Antony and Cleopatra – Antony and Cleopatra
A Roman general and an Egyptian empress, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra are the power couple of the ancient world. Their relationship is played out on the global stage, dominated by political manoeuvring and international conflict.
In reality it is thought that Mark Antony arrived in Egypt 41 BC and had three children with Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s version of events draws largely on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, cramming a 10-year relationship into the course of five acts.
As the play opens, the couple are enjoying an opulent lifestyle at Cleopatra’s Egyptian court, conducting an intense and impassioned illicit affair. Cleopatra is sexually alluring, dramatic and emotional. We are told “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ her infinite variety… she makes hungry/ where she most satisfies”. These characteristics stand in contrast to those of the Roman Empire from which Antony hails, which is governed by values of reason and logic. Through his affair with Cleopatra Antony is putting his political reputation on the line.
Shakespeare’s depiction of love in Antony and Cleopatra is very different from the bickering affection of Benedick and Beatrice. Instead it is opulent and over-the-top, as the couple exchange declarations of adoration that are almost competitive in their extravagance:
“Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
Antony: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
Cleopatra: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
Antony: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.”
However, political allegiances come between the lovers and their passionate affair falls to pieces. After believing that Cleopatra has deserted him in a naval battle, Antony vows to kill her. A fearful Cleopatra sends word that she has committed suicide, after hearing which Antony stabs himself. The lovers are briefly reunited before his death, after which Cleopatra famously kills herself using the venomous bite of an asp.
Orsino and Viola – Twelfth Night
In Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy Twelfth Night, love is a complicated and confusing affair. As the rom-com unfolds identities are confused and characters prove willing to transfer their affections at the drop of a hat.
After a shipwreck leaves her stranded in an unknown land, the young Viola disguises herself as a man (adopting the male name Cesario) in order to find work. She is taken on as a page at the household of Duke Orsino, where she quickly falls in love with her employer. Ignorant to the fact that his page is actually a woman in disguise, Orsino’s affections lay elsewhere; he admires a local noblewoman named Olivia. A tangled love triangle emerges in which Viola loves Orsino, Orsino loves Olivia and Olivia loves Viola (believing Viola is a man).
In early productions this situation would have been even more confusing because Violet would have been played by a male actor. Elizabethan audiences were expected to keep track of the fact that Viola was a man playing a woman playing a man.
One aspect of the messy romantic situation is solved when Violet’s twin brother, Sebastian, arrives and Olivia’s affections are transferred over to him in a case of mistaken identity. Viola is revealed as a woman and Orsino, realising that he loves her, proposes.
But even this happy ending doesn’t necessarily put the confusion to bed. Even after declaring his love for Viola, Orsino continues to call her by her male name: “Cesario, come/ For so you shall be while you are a man;/ But when in other habits you are seen,/ Orsino’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen”. Some critics have suggested it is unclear whether Orsino really loves the young woman Viola or the young man ‘Cesario’ she was disguised as.
Romeo and Juliet – Romeo and Juliet
The most famous couple in literary history, Romeo and Juliet are the archetypal young lovers. The story of their tragic doomed romance has proven enduringly universal and over the years the “star-crossed lovers” have been seen in many different incarnations. They have been reimagined in ballet, opera, mainstream movies and even an animation featuring garden gnomes.
Originally set in 16th-century Verona, the play follows the story of two teenaged lovers from warring families. Romeo and Juliet’s experience of first love is far from idyllic: although their passion is all-consuming, overpowering all logic, reason and family loyalty, their fragile relationship quickly comes crashing down, ultimately leading to chaos, violence and destruction. Doomed by the bad blood between their feuding families, the couple’s short-lived affair reaches it tragic and seemingly inevitable conclusion with their double suicide, as the lovers kill themselves in order to be together. In the words of the play’s forlorn final lines “For never was a story of more woe/ than this of Juliet and her Romeo”.
Shakespeare appropriated significant elements of the story of Romeo and Juliet from elsewhere, drawing heavily on a poem by Arthur Brooks and the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. However, the romantic language spoken by Shakespeare’s young couple arguably sets apart his adaptation of the classic tale. Immortal lines spoken by the lovers, such as “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”, are recognised as some of the most romantic in not only Shakespearean canon but the English language.
Petruchio and Katherine – The Taming of the Shrew
Locked in a compelling marital power-struggle, The Taming of the Shrew’s Katherine and Petruchio are far from a harmonious couple.
Violent, short-tempered and confrontational, Katherine is dismissed by polite society as an unmarriageable “shrew”. She is today celebrated as one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters, as she is sharp, witty and incredibly clever. Katherine meets her match, however, in the obnoxious, rabble-rousing Petruchio. After shamelessly declaring his intention to marry a rich woman for her fortune, he pursues her for her significant dowry.
Unusually for a Shakespearean comedy, rather than getting married at the end of the play Katherine and Petruchio tie the knot with two acts still to go. Furthermore, it is far from a happy ending. Arriving late, dressed in an outrageous outfit of shabby and mismatched clothes, Petruchio makes a mockery of marriage and humiliates his bride. Things go from bad to worse as at the marriage feast he chauvinistically claims ownership over Katherine, declaring “She is my goods, my chattels… my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything”.
While Petruchio claims he will “kill a wife with kindness,” to 21st-century sensibilities his treatment of Katherine seems anything but kind. After the marriage he subjects his new wife to various forms of deprivations, both emotional and physical, in an attempt to “tame” her. Pertruchio views Katherine not as a bride but a wild animal to be domesticated and subdued, proclaiming “For I am he born to tame you, Kate”.
By the fifth act, Katherine has indeed undergone a dramatic transformation at the hands of her husband. In her final speech she is almost unrecognisable as she espouses the values of mildness and obedience, suggesting that wives should make themselves fully subservient to their husbands. For better or worse, she has been tamed.
The highly misogynistic conclusion to Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship has proved troubling to many modern critics and is today subject to much debate.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – Macbeth
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s relationship is one of Shakespeare’s most corrosive and corrupt, as their shared lust for power leads them to desperate and murderous measures.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of the power-hungry couple is particularly interesting as it inverts gender stereotypes of the early 17th century: Lady Macbeth undoubtedly holds the power in the relationship and is both stronger and more brutal than her hesitant husband. Moving between seductive persuasion and forceful bullying, Lady Macbeth skilfully manipulates Macbeth, pushing him towards murder.
Critics have debated whether what the couple share is genuine romantic love or rather a shared ambition and appetite for power. Macbeth does seem heavily influenced by his wife, who he refers to as “my dearest partner of greatness”. Whether or not she reciprocates any romantic feelings, Lady Macbeth is unafraid to mock, bully and emasculate her husband. She dismisses his hesitation to kill those who stand between him and the Scottish throne as cowardice, telling him “my hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white”.
Rather than uniting them as co-conspirators, the couple’s quest for power eventually rips them apart. After orchestrating the murders of King Duncan, Banquo and Banquo’s young son Fleance, they drift further apart as both become trapped in an isolating descent into madness – Macbeth in his obsessive paranoia, Lady Macbeth in her guilt.
By the time Macbeth hears reports of his wife’s death (in the final act) he barely responds, dismissing the monumental news with the statement that “she should have died hereafter”. Considering the sway Lady Macbeth held over him earlier in the play, this statement serves to demonstrate how far the couple have fallen. Whether romantic love or joint ambition, any relationship they once shared has been consumed by greed and obsession.
Othello and Desdemona – Othello
In Othello, Shakespeare once again employs love as a tragic theme. Othello’s love for Desdemona is a suffocating and destructive force that exposes his weaknesses and finally results in violence and death.
We first meet Othello and Desdemona as infatuated newlyweds who have married in secret. Their relationship faces many obstacles including racial differences [Shakespeare refers to Othello as a ‘Moor’, a racial outsider in Venice, where the play is set], social judgement and the disapproval of Desdemona’s family. However, it is Othello’s jealousy, “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” that proves to be the relationship’s fatal flaw and fuels the play towards its tragic conclusion.
The play’s villain, Iago, corrupts Othello’s judgement, persuading him to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Iago creates a tightly orchestrated web of lies to convince Othello that his wife is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio. In the culmination of his plotting, Iago plants a handkerchief – one of Othello’s first gifts to Desdemona – on Cassio, seemingly confirming Othello’s suspicions.
Seduced by Iago’s lies, Othello is driven mad by distrust and possessiveness. Distraught by Desdemona’s apparent betrayal he vows to “tear her all to pieces” and despite her protestations of innocence he smothers her to death in their bedchamber.
Othello learns of his mistake too late and, consumed with grief at what he has done, kills himself. In his final speech he mourns their tragic relationship, reflecting that he “loved not wisely but too well”.
Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.