......the ancient Greeks had more than one word for love; they differentiated between love of friends, love of home, greed, and erotic love. A little later in history we see the romans, like the Greeks, differentiating between erotic love and mere sexual greed, yet their plays, and especially their comedies, seem to prefer to ridicule the lover. A man in love was a man who was no longer reasonable and therefore no longer truly a man. Virtue, a concept invented by the Romans, is a word derived from vir
, meaning a man. Manliness was the same thing as Virtue to them, and had everything to do with getting ahead. It didn't have much to do with a tender appreciation for a sexual partner.
The Greeks and Romans used myths to tell stories about love and lust. In these myths, sexual promptings were felt to be destructive. They turned humans into animals or plants. Even the gods were turned into animals by lust. But the Greeks were interested in depicting love in all its forms, which suggests it was a topic of continuing fascination and importance for them and that they had a sophisticated awareness of the issue.
In early medieval European society the idea of sexual love was nothing if not confused. Love was often depicted as a disaster that threatened the all-important loyalties to the local lord and his clan. From Beowulf
to King Arthur's legends to Tristan and Iseult, the plots all carry the same major components about love, that love leads to disaster; and that the demands of loyalty and loyalty's relentless partner--revenge--destroy love.
Love is always seen as a static concept. There is no attempt to show that love can grow or change; it can meet challenges ('for richer, for poorer...'), there is almost no exploration of the way love can deepen and develop, or fail to grow and so wither and die. One is either in love or not.
What this signals to us is that in bygone eras people were fully aware of the power of sexual love and the need to idealize the loved one, yet they had very little idea as to what to do with this urge, nor how to align it with religion. Religion insisted that only the love of God mattered....
Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet
is pointing us to a far more complex discussion of love than just sexual attraction and its challenges....The play is much richer if we stop focusing on what we expect to see--a romantic love story--and observe its larger resonances as an exploration of many different kinds of love, loyalty and attachment. Despite this, society in those times had a rather grim and pragmatic approach to love; love was not to derail wedding alliances if it could be avoided. Love was nice, but money ensured that no one would starve.
In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries we can detect a move to redress this imbalance of love being a negative influence by and large, by authors such as Jane Austen, who explored themes of fulfilled love matches, based on patience and sensibility.