Valentine’s Day season kicks off right around January 2 these days, filling the stores with overpriced chocolates, a parade of pink hearts and making restaurant reservations near impossible. But no matter how you feel about the holiday, there is no way to escape it. So with February 14 right around the corner, we chose to celebrate it with a tribute to some of classic literature’s steamiest love stories — all of which can be enjoyed far away from the crush of consumerism.
Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories in world literature. It is the tale of two teenagers from feuding families who fall in love at first sight and then marry, risking it all for romance. From the opening lines, the audience knows what comes ahead in this tragic play: that these two “star-crossed lovers” are doomed to die. By the end of the play, an “ancient grudge” and “their parents’ rage” will lead Romeo and Juliet to take their own lives in dramatic fashion.
A stylized film of Shakespeare’s masterpiece from London’s National Theatre stars Josh O’Connor as Romeo and Jessie Buckley as Juliet. Made during the coronavirus pandemic, the film features a contemporary company of actors in a shuttered theater who bring to life the tale of young lovers trying to transcend a world of violence and hate. Watch the Romeo & Juliet episode and clips on Great Performances.
Antony and Cleopatra
Romeo and Juliet are certainly the most well known pair of Shakespeare’s doomed lovers — but let’s not forget Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman general Marc Antony (who was already married) was bewitched by the Egyptian queen Cleopatra’s brilliance and beauty. Their love affair outraged the Romans, who were wary of the growing powers of the Egyptians. But despite all the threats, Antony abandoned his wife and he and Cleopatra married in a romantic but tenuous political alliance between their territories. It is said that while fighting a battle against Romans, Antony received an inaccurate report of Cleopatra’s death. Shattered, he fell on his sword. When Cleopatra learned about Antony’s death, she was shocked, and she took her own life. In Shakespeare’s world, great love demands great sacrifices.
Helen of Troy
The story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War was a true story that melded with fiction as it was passed from storyteller to storyteller, eventually being immortalized as a legend in Homer’s Iliad. Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology. She was the wife of Menelaus and the daughter of Zeus by Leda. Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, fell in love with Helen and abducted — thus triggering the Trojan War. The Greeks assembled a great army, led by Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon, to retrieve Helen. Troy was destroyed. Helen returned safely to Sparta, where she lived happily with Menelaus for the rest of her life.
Jayne Eyre and Mr. Rochester
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a story of a young woman who survived an abusive home and a strict boarding school to eventually accept a job as a governess and French tutor at Thornfield Hall. It is here where she meets the aloof owner, Edward Rochester. At first Jane finds Rochester rather rude and insensitive, but it is her ability to stand up to him that earns his love. The two become engaged, however on their wedding day Jane discovers Mr. Rochester is already married. Mortified, Jane runs away but later returns years later after a fire destroys the Rochester mansion. Mr. Rochester’s wife dies and leave’s him blind. Their love sparks again and as an heiress, she does not even depend on his fortune any more.
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is another tale of two lovers united across the lines of wealth and class. Elizabeth Bennet comes from a family of modest means, growing up with no governess or social instruction of any kind. For a woman such as Elizabeth, success meant finding a suitable (read: rich) husband. For a society man like Fitzwilliam Darcy, to marry a woman of such social stature would be simply unacceptable. In spite of these social taboos, and their own prejudices, Darcy and Elizabeth eventually end up happily ever after.
Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind chronicles the tumultuous relationship of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, against the backdrop of the Civil War. Scarlett, the prototypical Southern Belle entertains a parade of suitors is used to being admired. Rhett Butler is one of the few that challenges her headstrong ways — much to Scarlett’s initial annoyance. But as time passes, and the war rages on, Scarlett’s new perspective shows her that she and Rhett are truly meant for each other.