Shakespeare uses the idea of love at first sight to make his comedies, particularly Midsummer’s Night Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, lighter and more comical. The dramatic suddenness of love in these plays point to a great deal of irrationality, loss of control and the idea of love sickness. Several of the characters in these plays fall in love so quickly that it can be difficult for the audience to take their feelings seriously. Instantaneous love works well within the context of this type of play since they are not serious love stories, but instead similar to a light farce on romantic confusion.
Falling in love at first sight can in many ways be seen as irrational, which is why Shakespeare uses it to point out the absurdity of his characters. Take for instance the play Midsummer’s Night Dream. Titania, a beautiful fairy queen, falls madly in love with Bottom, who is a mortal with an ass’s head: ‘And thy fair virtue’s force doth move me / On the first view to say, to swear I love thee’ ( MND,III. I). Often love does not make sense and in this case, it would be difficult to understand how Titania could fall in love with Bottom, but Shakespeare is trying to stress the very foolishness of love altogether.
Another Shakespearean comedy that is full of irrational characters falling in love instantly is As You Like It. Orlando and Oliver are particular foolish and over the top about their feelings towards Rosalind and Aliena. Orlando becomes a typical romantic fool when he meets and falls in love with Rosalind; just after they meet he declares, ‘What passions hangs these weights upon my tongue? / I cannot speak to her, yet she urg’d conference’ (AYLI, I. II). He claims that he will die without Rosalind and writes sappy poetry which cover the trees of the Forest of Arden.
Yet at the same time, he claims to not understand his brother’s instantaneous love: ‘Is’t possible, that on so little acquaintance you should like her? That, but seeing, you should love her? ‘ (AYLI, V. I). It is very ironic that Orlando can see the foolishness of Oliver’s sudden emotions, but fail to grasp his own. For Oliver, the love that he found is so strong and so deep, he is willing to give up his authority and wealth simply to be with the peasant Aliena. He completely changes his attitude and viewpoint regarding all matters, including his brother.
Irrational love can also be a sign of selfishness or simply wanting to be in love for the sake of love itself. In Twelfth Night, two characters in particular exemplify this notion. Throughout the play, Orsino and Olivia seem to be in love with themselves as well as the idea of love. From the opening monologue, Orsino expresses his feelings towards love: ‘If music be the food of Love, play on / Give me excess of it: that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken and die’ (Twelfth Night, 1. 1. 1-3).
Clearly Orsino is simply in love with love, because although he professes his love for Olivia throughout the play, he suddenly has a change of heart at the conclusion when he falls for Viola. Olivia acts in the same fashion as Orsino when she suddenly falls for in love with ‘Cesario. ‘ Even though the object of her love clearly rejects her, she persists, making Viola/Cesario very uncomfortable. This illustrates the selfishness of her so-called love. If Olivia truly loved Cesario, she would take ‘his’ feelings into consideration. Shakespeare also uses the suddenness of love to point out the lack of control people often have of their emotions.
Many characters in his plays seem to claim absolutely no responsibility for their emotions as well as their actions. Often times, it seems as though an external force is acting upon them, such as the case in MND, when the mortals’ emotions are completely controlled by the fairies’ magic love potion. At the onset of the play, both Lysander and Demetrius are deeply in love with Hermia and want nothing to do with her friend Helena. However, with a bit of the love potion on their eyes, they awaken and suddenly their love for Hermia has transferred to Helena.