The Argument Between Law and Love – A Common Theme

When we picked the works for this month’s Culture Club, we chose them based on the concept of the supernatural, and the idea of ‘moving between different worlds’. But I’ve discovered another common theme among the major works we’re discussing (Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death) that has nothing to do with the supernatural, and yet is perhaps central to them all. This theme is: the argument between law and love.

I first came across this idea in connection with Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and its antinomian stance (antinomian in the sense that the gospel of Christ is in direct antagonism to the ‘moral law’ of the old testament), which I outlined in an earlier post. To summarise, in his book Witness Against the Beast EP Thompson makes the following case:

The signature of antinomian sensibility will be found, not at two or three points only in Blake’s work, but along the whole length of his work, at least from 1790 until his death. They are manifest in the Songs [of Innocence and Experience]. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is an antinomian squib thrown among Swedenborgians. In the early prophecies, Urizen is the author of the Moral Law; in the major prophetic books the argument between law and love, repression and regeneration, is intrinsic to their structure.

Now look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play opens with Theseus and Hippolyta preparing for their nutpials, but the action begins when Egeus enters and holds up the threat of Athenian law against his daughter (death or banishment to a nunnery). He does this in order to stop her marrying Lysander, whom she loves, and to ensure that she marries his own favourite suitor, Demetrius. In the introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition, Harold F. Brooks says:

As is usual in Shakespeare, the romance in the comedy springs partly from threat: here the initial threat is brought by Egeus. As a ‘heavy father’ thwarting his daughter’s choice in love, he is the successor of the Duke in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and perhaps of Capulet. North mentions Theseus’ responsibility for ‘preservation of the laws’; and like Duke Solinus at the start of The Comedy of Errors, in the Dream he affirms his inability to extenuate or mitigate them: like him, despite reluctance, he can do no better than pass a superended and conditional sentence. Still like Solinus, eventually he does what he had declared impossible, but in changed circumstances when no sensible and magnanimous ruler could have done otherwise.

In a footnote Brooks quotes Alexander Leggatt, from his book Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love: ‘it is the law itself, and not the prince’s will, which constitutes the threat.’ And what is threatened by this law is ‘true’ love. Brooks concludes, ‘In the Dream, it is only after supernatural intervention that Theseus’s reason and goodwill can decide the outcome and assure the lovers’ happiness.’

The film A Matter of Life and Death provides the most bald statement of this theme. The last act of the film is a trial in heaven, in which Carter has to prove that he loves June in order to circumvent the natural law that demands his life. This is clear enough, but the final line of the film seals it:

The law may be the strongest thing in the universe, but on Earth nothing is stronger than love.

More posts on William Blake at Culture Club:

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2 responses to “The Argument Between Law and Love – A Common Theme”

  1. V. interesting. I also think there is a similar conflict going on in MR James – Oh whistle and I’ll come to you. The narrator is a dry zacademic from the world of rational argument who is unable to withstand the onslaught of something which lies outside his compass. I suppose that’s what the tension in all these works is – the collision between reality and unreality is so powerful that it becomes impossible to distinguish what is real and what is not when the accident is over.

    BTW did you pick up on the Robert Burns poem from which I assume James took his title?

    Chorus.-O Whistle, an’ I’ll come to ye, my lad,
    O whistle, an’ I’ll come to ye, my lad,
    Tho’ father an’ mother an’ a’ should gae mad,
    O whistle, an’ I’ll come to ye, my lad.

    But warily tent when ye come to court me,
    And come nae unless the back-yett be a-jee;
    Syne up the back-stile, and let naebody see,
    And come as ye were na comin’ to me,
    And come as ye were na comin’ to me.
    O whistle an’ I’ll come, &c.

    At kirk, or at market, whene’er ye meet me,
    Gang by me as tho’ that ye car’d na a flie;
    But steal me a blink o’ your bonie black e’e,
    Yet look as ye were na lookin’ to me,
    Yet look as ye were na lookin’ to me.
    O whistle an’ I’ll come, &c.

    Aye vow and protest that ye care na for me,
    And whiles ye may lightly my beauty a-wee;
    But court na anither, tho’ jokin’ ye be,
    For fear that she wile your fancy frae me,
    For fear that she wile your fancy frae me.
    O whistle an’ I’ll come, &c.

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