Fashion industry experts have described 2019 as a “lust-driven” year. Amidst a climate of uncertainty, people have sought to satiate their desires through decadent behaviour. The year certainly started off in a spectacular fashion, with the premier of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis arguably the highpoint—a bold, taboo-breaking drama about a future world leader who has an affair with his assistant. Its director spoke about how the events of 2020 have only served to strengthen his opinion that “we are all in love or lust.”

Is it just escapism, or is there substance behind these events? Is the year ahead really going to be defined by unbridled hedonism, or is there more to it than that? Is there a ‘lust’ and ‘love’ dichotomy in the public consciousness?

These questions might seem familiar because they have been explored previously by literary scholars. In fact, the idea that love and lust overlap, or are somehow dependent on one another, is known as “eroticism” in literary studies. Scholars have considered the intersection of sex and love in great detail, often using literary works as a lens into what is arguably one of the most fascinating and complex phenomena in human social history.

Take Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In it, the titular characters explore the relationship between lust and love, as each possess the other in varying degrees. Their relationship oscillates between the two, with Mr Hyde initially representing a ‘pure’ form of lust, and then, later on, a ‘real’ form of love. The authors of Sexuality and Love in Scottish Literature point out that this is a common theme in Stevenson’s work, where “love and desire are used interchangeably and the line between the two is blurred.” As well as exploring the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, literary scholars have examined the interplay of sex and love in the works of William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Heinlein.

Literary critics have long recognised the existence of eros in human culture, and how it can inform and shape our interactions with the world around us. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the ‘lust-driven’ year ahead, many of the literary scholars who study sexuality and love, also study the works of William Shakespeare. Indeed, it was with this in mind that, just this year, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in England launched the Othello Initiative, an effort to promote greater diversity in the representation of LGBTI people in Shakespeare’s works.

Love And Lust In Shakespeare

The Bard’s plays are known for their innovative language and striking poetic rhythm. In addition, they are credited with giving birth to English literature as we know it today, so it is perhaps not surprising that Shakespeare is frequently cited as a key figure in the study of love and lust. Literary scholars have noted the “overlap between love and lust” in Shakespeare’s works, and how this has been used to great effect. Let’s consider two of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Love’s Labor’s Lost and Romeo And Juliet, to better understand how he uses these themes and how they have developed over the years.

In Love’s Labor’s Lost, we are first introduced to the rebellious and arrogant Prince Escalus (also known as ‘the fat alchemist’). When we first meet him, the prince has just unwittingly set a series of mischievous and seemingly impossible experiments in motion. In one experiment, he combines the oils of apricot, orange and almond with the mercury of the adder’s tongue to create an ‘aphrodisiacal’ liquid. In another, he fuses the blood of a peacock and a goat together to create an ‘appetising’ ointment. Unfortunately, these experiments have serious consequences: they unleash a horde of bloodthirsty animals on the unwitting townsfolk, killing several people and injuring many more. Nonetheless, Prince Escalus refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, and maintains that the blame lies with the women he loves, and the women whom he loves to insult. He says:

  • “This fault, dear Brutus, I lay not upon you
  • But you, being the foremost man of our time,
  • Are first in suspicion”

Later on in the play, we see Escalus in a melancholy mood, musing over the “perplexities, confusions…[and] misunderstandings” that he has experienced. In a fit of anger, he declares that “this thou knowest, Cassius,/ That at heart I am not Brutus, but sorry/That pity, like a fool, hath so upset my judgement/That I am changed from the former Brutus” (3.3.43–46). What is interesting about Escalus’s remark in this scene is that, while he implies that he has always been a kind and good-natured person, it is the women in his life that have caused him to evolve. Without the women in his life, he claims, he would still be “that virtuous Brutus,” and not the “sophisticated lover” he claims to be today. This point is further emphasised when he meets Lucrece, the wife of the rival Brutus:

  • “Fairest lady, you do me wrong

    To call me back the same I was before

    My mind was once proud and lusty, as it is now humble,

    So humble that it doth adore your sight

    With an impoverished affection” (2.2.30–35)

  • “When I do look at you, I see such contentment,

    That my heart infers that you must be pleased with me

    Is this contentment because I am happy?

    Or is this contentment because I look like you?

    For you alone, I am willing to forgo my pride

    And to be content with what nature chose

    To favour me with: fair skin and bright eyes” (2.2.38–43)

Thus, it would seem that Escalus is torn between two loves: the first, which he feels responsible for, is virtuous and chaste, and the second, which he is attracted to, is less so. This ambiguity is further explored in Romeo And Juliet, Shakespeare’s most famous and enduring work. What is perhaps most interesting about this play, which is set in Italy, is that it explores the complications that arise when two individuals are brought together in what is ostensibly a ‘happy’ union, but is in fact full of conflict. To begin with, we see Montague and Capulet, two feuding families, represented by their respective heads: the elderly and vengeful Count Montague, and the middle-aged and peace-loving Cardinal Capulet. The two men are locked in a struggle for power and prestige, one that is manifested in their viciousness and brutality towards each other. Their enmity is a source of great sadness and unhappiness to the families they represent, and indeed to the whole of Verona, where the action of the play takes place. In their desire to destroy one another, and with the consequent risk of causing even greater harm, both men fail to see the crux of their problem, which is their deeply-seated mutual attraction. This point is articulated by the title character, Romeo, who pleads with his beloved, Juliet, to elope with him:

  • “O wife! O cousin! O sister! O daughter!

    What crime had my kinsmen, what disgrace

    That you should bear the publick blame

    For their evil deeds?” (1.5.43)

  • “I conjure you by the rights of fellowship, by the traditions of our love, and by the strength of your understanding, fulfil my desires” (1.5.56)

  • “If you but knew, how many men, O marriage-blessed maid,/Have loved you dearly, and you them! How many men,/On youthful exploits and mad desires,/Have spent their last penny on your charms!” (1.5.75–77)