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Shakespeare Quarterly 56.1 (2005) 76-100

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Love and Service in Twelfth Night and the Sonnets


Love Has all but Vanished from Current Critical Discourse. Since the theoretical transformation of Shakespeare studies some twenty years ago, scholars have been reluctant to engage with either the word or the concept in Shakespeare's work. A pair of terms that now regularly do service in its place—power and desire—have replaced love. The word is impossibly general and vague, while power and desire, properly theorized, have promised to strip love of its murkiness and sentimentality. They have enabled us to shift our attention from a relatively naïve and common-sense obsession with what characters feel to the structural conditions that allow such feelings to be manipulated in relations of power and subjection. Desire and power thus assure entry into the history and politics of sexual relations that love positively debars. Their critical keenness permits them to reveal the structural reality underlying talk of love.

But we need to take care when we reduce one concept to another. Such a transformation, whereby one argues that "love is not love"—being instead desire, formations of power, ideological obfuscation of real relations, and so on—runs the risk of simplifying or distorting the concept as it does its work in the complex interactions of Shakespeare's poetry and plays. Such reductions may be analytically illuminating, but when they begin to supplant the original concept, they generally lose more than they gain. It is curious that now, within a critical milieu so committed to an historical understanding of texts, we have replaced words that Shakespeare uses frequently with ones he seldom uses and whose theoretical inflections he would have found strange. Rather than offering a refreshed, overarching concept of love in Shakespeare or the early modern period, or even attempting to recover a unifying notion peculiar to Shakespeare's time, I wish to look more carefully at how the word love is used in Twelfth Night and in Sonnets 26, 57, 58, and 120. Love is what Ludwig Wittgenstein called a "family-resemblance" concept: that is to say, it has no single, core meaning in all of its separate uses.1 Instead it produces a network of meanings, each of which may in turn be [End Page 76] related to other words—other strands in the network—cognate with it in ways that depend on context.

Recent critics have tended to prefer desire or Eros over love not only because of the latter word's association with sentiment but also because an earlier generation of Shakespeare scholars identified it with a state in which characters rise above the trammeling conditions of social, political, and economic relations.2 But these are insufficient reasons to abandon or shun the word, or to substitute for its range of meanings other concepts related but not identical to it. I aim to explore ways in which love is indeed connected to social concerns—to the inequalities of political or economic power—and to show that it offers no transcendent escape from them, at least in Shakespeare's texts. But I also want to show, first, that love is concerned not just with the absences and inequities of desire but also with the pleasures of intimacy and the demands of reciprocity;3 and, second, that the intimacy and reciprocity inherent in love may be borrowed from relationships, such as those between master and servant, that appear at first sight to be wholly unerotic.

This essay focuses on such uses and contexts in the five works listed above. Instead of talking exclusively about desire and power in these texts, I shall examine the related-but-distinct uses of love and service. It is surprising that the critical interest in service has come so recently, considering how central and pervasive the experience of service is to the early modern period and its literature. There has been little focus, however, on service in relation to love. Whereas love and service, in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, are related to power...


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