There are few things which transcend time and place with greater force than human emotions. We might have a great deal of difficulty understand someone else’s culture or the time period in which they were living; however, we can immediately relate to their experiences of loss at the death of a loved one, happiness at the birth of a child, or the feeling of being in love.
William Shakespeare described the anguish of forbidden love in his play “Romeo and Juliet”. Romeo and Juliet were from two different families that did not get along and they had to see each other in secret. The pain these two lovers experienced was so great that the play ends with each of them taking their own life.
This same theme of forbidden love was expressed in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Peter Abelard, a well-known philosopher in the eleventh century is hired to tutor a young woman. They eventually fall in love, have a child, and then secretly get married. When her uncle finds out about this, Heloise is banished to a convent and Abelard eventually becomes a monk. In spite of their new vocations, these two are still in love and their letters express their very strong feelings for each other.
The love between Antony and Cleopatra was one of the factors which helped to undo the Egyptian empire. Mark Antony and Empress Cleopatra fell in love and, against the advice of the Roman government, the two of them got married. The Roman army became deeply concerned about the increasing power of the Egyptians and eventually went to war with them. Antony, who was fighting against his countrymen, received a false report that Cleopatra had been killed. He became so distraught that he fell on his own sword.
When Cleopatra heard the news that Antony had taken his own life she ended her own life. Such is the power of love. It can lead one to believe that it is better to no longer be alive than to go on living without the one you love.
A leading medieval poet of Iran, Nizami of Ganje is known especially for his romantic poem “Layla and Majnun”. Inspired by an Arab legend, Layla and Majnun is a tragic tale about unattainable love. It had been told and retold for centuries, and depicted in manuscripts and other media such as ceramics for nearly as long as the poem has been penned. Layla and Qays fall in love while at school. Their love is observed and they are soon prevented from seeing one another. In misery, Qays banishes himself to the desert to live among and be consoled by animals. He neglects to eat and becomes emaciated. Due to his eccentric behavior, he becomes known as Majnun (madman). There he befriends an elderly Bedouin who promises to win him Layla’s hand through warfare. Layla’s tribe is defeated, but her father continues to refuse her marriage to Majnun because of his mad behavior, and she is married to another. After the death of Layla’s husband, the old Bedouin facilitates a meeting between Layla and Majnun, but they are never fully reconciled in life. Upon death, they are buried side by side. The story is often interpreted as an allegory of the soul’s yearning to be united with the divine.1
When we think of love stories, we often reflect upon the warm sentiment of two souls being united as one and living out the remainder of their lives in peace and harmony. However, this is rarely the case. Love is often painful. There are few people who can hurt us more than someone we love. A glance, a gesture, or even a single word can cut us quicker and deeper than any knife ever made.
If a love relationship goes wrong, it can go terribly wrong, but if the relationship is strong in can be a marvelous thing to behold. The expressions of caring, compassion, and affection between two people who are genuinely in love can melt even these coldest of hearts. Love can also inspire a person to great acts of heroism which they would never have seen themselves capable of had it not been for the relationship that they share with this other person.
Rather early in the novel, Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита) by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) we are introduced to “the Master”, a bitter author, whose historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ has been rejected. He becomes so despondent that he burns his manuscript and turns his back on the world, including his lover, Margarita.
In part two of Master and Margarita we are finally introduced to Margarita, who represents human passion and refuses to despair of her lover or his work. She is made an offer by Satan, and accepts it, becoming a witch with supernatural powers on the night of his Midnight Ball, which coincides with the night of Good Friday, linking all three elements of the book together, since the Master's novel also deals with this same spring full moon when Christ's fate is sealed by Pontius Pilate and he is crucified in Jerusalem.
Later, after learning to fly, she enters naked into the world of the night, flies over the deep forests and rivers of Russia, bathes, and, cleansed, returns to Moscow as the anointed hostess for Satan's great Spring Ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they pour up from the bowels of Hell.
She survives this ordeal without breaking, borne up by her unswerving love for the Master and her unflinching acknowledgment of darkness as part of human life. For her pains and her integrity, she is rewarded well. Satan's offer is extended to grant Margarita her deepest wish. She chooses to liberate the Master and live in poverty and love with him. In an ironic ending, neither Satan nor God think this is any kind of life for good people, and the couple leave Moscow with the Devil, as its cupolas and windows burn in the setting sun of Easter Saturday.
Margarita could have had anything she wanted. She could have chosen to become the wealthiest woman in the world, the ruler of some country, or become the wife of the most handsome man of her day. However, she chose none of these things. Instead, she chose to live in poverty with the Master.
This is the power of love in our lives. It can inspire us to see what it truly important and be willing to forego anything else so that we will be able to attain that which is most important to us.
1 “Top Twenty Most Famous Love Stories in History and Literature” http://amolife.com/reviews/top-20-most-famous-love-stories-in-history-and-literature.html