Love is Madness

by: Mark Baker

Law or love?  These two themes produce more conflict than two schoolboys chasing after the same toy. Man loves woman; law forbids consummation of love. “Love has no reason,” shouts the enraged father. “Love needs no reason,” cries the heartbroken lover.

This dichotomy is illustrated beautifully by the romping antics of four lovers in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Athenian law requires arranged marriages, and poor Hermia wishes to marry Lysander but is lawfully betrothed to Demetrius.

Against the wishes of father and law, Hermia and Lysander run into the forest to marry in secret. As the star-crossed lovers flee Athens, they leave the realm of the law and enter the realm of love. Simple solution, right?—they live happily ever after, because love is what makes the world go ‘round. Wrong. It becomes clear that the realm of the wood is not just the realm of love but also the realm of madness. Throw in a love potion, two other discontent lovers, some fairies, and a man-turned-donkey, and it becomes clear that Shakespeare is telling us that love is madness.

For Shakespeare, love is void of reason. Just take a look at the latest middle school romance. Love has no reason; there are no syllogistic formulas for why a boy prefers one girl over another. Love cannot be controlled by reason—love is madness.

Law seeks to control the irrationality of love. Love seeks to correct the dryness of law. Which should we choose? Shakespeare’s answer adds a redemptive twist. At the end of the play, Theseus, Duke of Athens, draws a connection between the lunatic, the lover, and the poet:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

The madman sees invisible things; he sees a devil behind every bush. The lover sees invisible things too; his beloved has beauty that is not apparent to everyone. The poet also has an eye for the invisible. The poet’s pen embodies invisible realities.

It is this progression that gives us the answer to Shakespeare’s question. The lunatic might need a straight jacket and a white-padded room, but don’t put the poet there. Give the poet a pen and he will write beautiful mysteries. Give him a stage and he will embody invisible reality. Give him a melody and he will sing heavenly notes. 

So where does this leave the lover? Is he the lunatic or the poet? Well, it depends. Yes, love is madness. It must be contained by law, but law cannot eclipse love; rather, it must enhance it. Love without law is lust. Law without love is dryness, even death. The final solution comes from the context of Theseus’ speech: he delivers these words at his own wedding! Law and love must wed.

The gospel provides a redemptive view for Shakespeare’s marriage of law and love. Let us see the madness of love in the bloody cross and the borrowed tomb and the risen Christ. Let us see the madness of love that the Lord of the universe would look at a wretch and see a bride. Let us see the marriage of law and love in the gospel of Christ, and let us wonder.