Love Is A Dagger – In which we ponder whether for Shakespeare love is mere words, or an altogether more penetrating object.

“Love is a fire, and it’s ragin’ out of control” Genya Ravan moans through a scene in the 1979 Walter Hill film, The Warriors, “Love is a fire, and it’s burnin’ up my soul.” While the song plays our group of young bravos, pursued in their journey home through the dangerous night think they have found respite at the invitation of a gang of young women, like Odysseus’s men in sorceress Circe’s halls, they in ego and admiration imagine in parallel a reciprocity, in reciprocity a reward, and surrendering, become sate, unguarded, intoxicated, seduced. In the midst of the ensuing dance, The Lizzies draw knives and turn on the deluded Warriors; in its throes seduction becomes battle, passion, in reversal, another desperate struggle for survival.

For Shakespeare, like the ancients, Love is both feast and flame;

Oh, knows’t thou not his looks are my soul’s food?

Pity the dearth that I have pinèd in

By longing for that food so long a time.

Didst though but know the inly touch of love,

Though wouldst as soon go kindle fire with snow

As seek to quench the fire of love with words.

(Two Gentleman Of Verona, 2.7.15-20)

It has been suggested that, for Shakespeare, the medium of Love is words, and thus the organ of Love is the poet’s mind, or sometimes, more picaresquely, the tongue. Simply observe how Romeo and Juliet’s first ardent fumblings are enacted between them in the creation of an elaborate, metaphoric narrative. But of course Love is not only constructed in its first flame, but in pursuit, and thence conclusion. To know in which organ Love resides, first we need to ask (along with Hannibal Lecter, advising Starling, and paraphrasing Marcus Aurelius), “First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?” (Harris 2018 Ch. 35) For Shakespeare Love is both sustenance, and burning “above the bounds of reason” (Two Gentleman Of Verona, 2.7.23) a raging fire, and also, a river that needs must be freed;

The more thou damm’st it up, the more it burns!

The current that with gentle murmur glides,

Thou knows, being stopped, impatiently doth rage.

(Two Gentleman Of Verona, 2.7.24-26)

Whether it turns us insensate into beasts fit only for the slaughter is another question. Desire may be the “hunger, the fire I breathe/Love the banquet on which we feed” (Patti Smith Group 1978), but to determine exactly where it resides we must first establish what it is. A more rational approach might define it merely as the psychodynamic confluence of biological imperatives, physico-sensual desires, conscious and unconscious biological urges, liminal and subliminal socialisations and conditioning. This, however, is a consideration of the poetry of Love (the big “L” used here to distinguish it from the the homo- and heterosocial, the filial and familial, the theophilial and philosophical, and all the lesser prosaic attachments and affiliations by which we construct the complexes of our quotidian necessity). Love is, therefore, both a sustenance and a fire, a liquid and the vessels and passages in which it is held and through which it flows. Think of it then as an efflorescence, an effluvium, not in the sense of “an unpleasant or harmful odour or discharge” as defined by Oxford, but as in the original Latin, “effluere” a flowering, a flowing out.

The heart as the vessel from which Love is harboured or outpours, is, these days, ubiquitous. It adorns every Valentine, besports every Cupid, gives form to both chocolates and chocolate boxes, signifies in innumerable tweets, posts, texts and messages in a way that is both reductive and ad nauseam. From what is hailed as the centre of us, our greatest treasure, our greatest gift, that which makes us human, we have made something vacant, saccharine, plastic; a kitsch object, which, as Baudrillard says, through mass production and reproduction debases and vulgarises the original experiences and objects from which it takes form and meaning (1998: 110-11).

Was Shakespeare’s heart similarly debased? As Levenson points out, Shakespeare’s images invoke “the familiar conceits…[and] customary devices” (2017: 232) of the Petrarchan sonnet. A milieu with its own shorthand of tropes and conventions attached to the idea of love and the lover; “predawn secret wanderings, the restlessness, solitude, sleeplessness, tears and sighs” are brought to bear through contrasting or hyperbolic images of clouds, dew, sun/moon, day/night, darkness/dawn, imprisonment, boats (both unmoored and steered) Cupid, madness, myth, sainthood, martyrdom, and even military assault (Levenson 2017: 232-34). Yet amongst all the ready made and kitsch iconography, the heart, in the sense of the organ in which Love resides, is seldom invoked. One of the few consistent images that obliquely recalls the heart is that of disease and infection, the grub in the apple, “As is the bud bit with the envious worm” (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.146).

Here rather than an outflowing, buoyant Love, is its antithesis, a self-consuming and poisonous fruit that will undoubtedly die on the vine before it can ever ripen and flower. Which is not to say that heart is not used by Shakespeare as a receptacle of emotions. Indeed heart, hearts and heart’s occur over two-thousand times across the plays and sonnets, with meanings invariably recalling the idea of the centre of being, spirit, will, truth, or, more often than not, like the “canker,” imbued with negative emotions; “But here’s a vengeful sword, rusted with ease/That shall be scoured in his rancorous heart” (Henry the Sixth Part II 3.1.198-99), “What of his heart perceive you in his face/By any likelihood he showed today?” (Richard The Third 3.4.59-60) “—God pardon; I do with all my heart,/And yet no man like he doth grieve my heart.” (Romeo and Juliet 3.5.82-83)

For Shakespeare, the heart is only full when Love is grieved, wounded, lost, betrayed, deceived, absent. With Romeo, as pointed out by Friar Laurence;

Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,

So soon forsook? Lo, young men’s love, then, lies

Not truly in their hearts but in their eyes.

(Romeo and Juliet 1.6.61-63)

we must seek elsewhere.

Beauty, according to the idiom, may be in the eye of the beholder, but is the object transacted in our appreciation the indwelling, outflowing, efflorescing Love, or merely a moment’s enrapture in spectacle?

As Maus (75: 2015) argues, in Shakespeare, “Again and again…in love, there is no accounting for taste,” evidenced with such lines as;

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,

And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

(A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream 1.1.34-35)

And yet, “In A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, the fairies interfere with the attachments between the human lovers by treating their eyes with juice squeezed from a flower obtained by supernatural means from the other side of the globe” (Maus 75: 2015); not only is Love that enters through and is held within the eye a deception, it must be both blind, and yet intently focused;

Alas that love, whose view is muffled still,

Should without eyes see pathways to his will!

(Romeo and Juliet 1.6.169-70)

While eyes that see beauty with the softness of Love, Love that flows and enters through the eyes, is stripped of the real, in beauty’s gaze, Love “is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.” (Berger 50: 1973)

Though “Her eye discourses” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.55), her eyes do not. That singular eye, like the heart, is a metaphysical organ. It holds therefore, only ideas. The Love we seek sees without eyes. Does it seek with the will? Or perhaps with a Will? We must sharpen our interrogation.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name;

Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

(Romeo and Juliet 2.2.75-78)

After devolving again into Petrarchian symbol and metaphor, invoking dichotomies of sun and moon, eyes and stars, dim and bright, day and night, mere mortals and wingèd messengers, redolent with the kitsch we might expect in the deceived, the spectacle of love refracted in the weak and febrile gleaming of the eye, we are asked to consider how love might be bound up in name and naming, in word and meaning, in roles and definitions, and all the constraints imposed through what we say, and what we hear. Could the ear, the voice, language itself be the organ of Love?

“What’s in a name?” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.85) What indeed. Shakespeare gives voice through our warstruck lovers to some fundamental questions. Are we defined by the words, the conventions, the expectations, the roles that name us? “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet” argues that nature is fundamental, irregardless of how we are named. Birds form vocal communities with distinctive songs by which they recognise their young, each other, and potential mates. A song essentially works as a name. In circumstances where, because of population decline, in which young male regent honeyeaters no longer learned their songs of recognition, they failed to attract mates, resulting in even more serious population decline (Crates et al. 2021).

When humans become separated from their vocal community, become indistinct, unrecognized, unnamed, through language via a range of misnamings, diagnoses, epithets, insults, from subject become a kind of object. The names, the language by which we know them, are a kind of prosthesis, by which they are contained. This is the name as an empty vessel, deindividuated, depleted of Love.

Perhaps our lovers can, like the lovers in Toni Morrison’s variation, out of two, make a single vessel?


Come to me


Here on this

bed let us

make a world.


You will

teach me?


If you know

how to

laugh you

will not



(2012: 45)

In defiance, in refusal, we may believe we find the ear that attends, the mouth that in utterance hungers, not despite but because of the way it signifies and captures the other in the self. “And, for they name, which is no part of thee,/Take all myself.” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.90)

We refuse our name at our peril, even when we mean only to reconstruct it in a new world, a private world made of the pet names, private meanings and secret language of lovers. This distinct discourse devolves, as Bakhtin tells us, from a broader heteroglossia, where meaning is constructed in a dialogical process between individual consciousnesses that “lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word” (2010: 293). The rapier-weilding braggadocios of Shakespeare’s Verona, like the baseball-weilding street youths of Walter Hill’s New York, share their own patois, their own code, their own language that binds them as much as it separates them from outsiders.

That the secret discourse lovers imagine creates for them a unique and isolated island, is belied by the fact that uncounted others use the same names and ready-made phrases. What we thought was our private Eden is fecund with wormed apples and blind cupids, kitsch, cliched and cloying. Where we thought the construction of the other in the self, the self in the other, was a linguistic intermingling which made of our private discourses a kind of heaven, instead, unable to escape our gaze that defines the other, the other’s gaze that defines us, we are as Sartre says, put in the position of passing judgment on ourselves as on an object, for it is as an object that we appear to the Other. (2018: 308) Hell is indeed, other people, there is no exit (even when pursued by bear). Love, constructed dialogically in a kind of folie à deux becomes a linguistic prosthesis, a structure flimsy as a house of cards in which “the assumption of identity always leads to destruction.” (Bowers 1994: 556)

In Shakespeare Love always comes as a metaphor, a linguistic prosthesis “from outside the self, an alien invader.” (Maus 2015: 75) In Venus And Adonis, Love is a boar, “Whose tushes never sheathed he whetteth still,/Like to a mortal butcher bent to kill. (2015: 617-618)

When MacBeth is cajoled by his ambitious wife to slay and usurp his king and kinsman, Duncan, he at first resists;

Prithee, peace!

I dare do all that may become a man;

Who dares do more is none.

(Macbeth 1.7.45-47)

In the moments before drawing the dagger, to plunge it frenziedly into the flesh of Duncan and his guardsman, he soliloquises it with all concomitant intensity and ardour.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

(Macbeth 2.1.33-34)

We assume this is guilt, but the language which moves Macbeth, the language in which he laments, is as fevered as that of any lover. In their folie à deux, their shared discourse of Love, Macbeth has become emasculated, “unmanned in folly” (Macbeth 3.4.75) as Lady MacBeth continuously reminds him.

When Romeo — “fortune’s fool” (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.135) —is defended by Mercutio, who dies on Tybalt’s dagger, in an “envious thrust” under the intervening Romeo’s arm, Romeo too is emasculated;

O sweet Juliet,

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,

And in my temper softened valor’s steel.

(Romeo and Juliet 3.1.111-13)

Shortly before, Romeo, through Juliet, declared he had reason to love Tybalt, protesting, “I never injuried thee,/But love thee better than thou canst devise.” (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.65-66). The dagger moves again, Tybalt’s blood is spilled. And once more, at the sepulchre, “By heaven, I love thee better than myself,/For I come hither armed against myself.” Paris is slain by Romeo, a declaration of love is followed by the thrust of a blade. It moves again;

Juliet takes Romeo’s dagger in hand;

O happy dagger,

This is thy sheath; there rust and let me die.

(Romeo and Juliet 5.3.169-70)

In Desdemona’s death, under Othello’s hands we might find a contradiction, when he swears to the chaste stars, “I’ll not shed her blood,/Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow/And smooth as monumental alabaster.” (Othello 5.2.3-5) She dies virginal as a statue, or a grave. He performs what he considers justice, invoking the idea of a righteous execution, in which no blood is drawn.

Oh balmy breath, that dost almost persuade

Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.

Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee

And love thee after.

(Othello 5.2.16-19)

A declaration of love, a blade. In an act of substitution, Iago takes on Othello’s role, Emilia Desdemona’s. Emilia’s blood stains Desdemona’s unblemished wedding sheets. Othello, I think, also falls on Romeo’s sword. In blood spattered finale, the bodies in tableaux carefully arranged. Here the exception proves the rules.

For Shakespeare, love, lust, murder and suicide are inextricably intertwined. Pettigrew (2022: 409) tells us, the lust murderer, the piquerist, are not easily identified, the penetrations that sign their particular psychodynamic, often mistaken for more prosaic wounds, the patterns by which they mark and stage their victims as props, “to be used to fulfil their violent sexual fantasies…are borne of the killer’s deviant sexual fantasies which form part of his sexual arousal pattern.”

Some argue in Shakespeare’s works we find the first signs of modernity, a burgeoning humanism, and yet, on the point of a quill, or the point of a knife, the signs of a particular sadistic predilection becomes apparent. Of course, perhaps this is the defining point of modernity; desire is a blade.

Shakespeare’s heroes are emasculate picaros. Love is a dagger. The hallucinatory prosthesis, the object that fills the vacant subject, the organ upon which, and from which Love’s effluvium flows.


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