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Love in Times of War: war wives and widows in Shakespeare


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A public lecture by Bob White, Professor of English and Cultural Studies, UWA.

The subject of war in Elizabethan literature, and Shakespeare’s plays in particular, has attracted sustained attention from a variety of perspectives. However, it is usually treated in the light of military manuals as a technical subject, which is ‘men’s work’, and the question is rarely raised--what happens to love relationships in times of war? In discussions of the comedies the existence of war is either ignored altogether or diminished to the level of ‘background noise’ even though there is a war in almost every comedy, if only a trade war in The Comedy of Errors and a diplomatic war in Love’s Labour’ Lost. In tragedies the loss of love is generally seen as part of the male protagonist’s lonely fate rather than a set of emotional tragedies in which conflict is internalised destructively within relationships, and there are female casualties not often considered in terms of their own loss—Desdemona, Cordelia, Ophelia, Lavinia, Lady Macduff, and others. In history plays, war is kept firmly in the foreground, and love is analysed only in terms of providing moments of apparently insignificant contrast. However, with the renewed critical interest in emotions, the nexus drawn in Shakespeare’s plays between war and love, and the consequences of war on love relationships emerges as a subject inviting closer attention. It is the subject of this talk.

This talk is part of a lecture series presented by the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

The three lectures in this series, offered by UWA academics associated with the UWA Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, focus on representations of war and peace in European art and literature. Collectively, they will examine the contexts and reception of cultural and political practices of war and peace in the medieval and early modern era from the perspectives of emotions history, medievalism, and gender studies. In this way, the series stands to challenge conventional interpretations of European life in wartime from the sixteenth- to the nineteenth century.