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Such Sweet Sorrow: The Literary Legacy of Star-Crossed Lovers

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 29, 2021

Shakespeare's Love of Luckless Lovers

Romeo and Juliet, first performed on this day in 1595, is known as one of William Shakespeare's most popular plays. In it, he coined the now-ubiquitous term "star-cross'd lovers" and the play has been a staple of the theatre ever since. Modern stage and film adaptations like West Side Story, Shakespeare in Love, and Romeo + Juliet continue to leave audiences weeping copious tears. And for a creative YA retelling, try Gwenda Bond's charming Girl on a Wire.

But R & J was by no means Shakespeare's only tale of woe. In fact, his very first publication is believed to have been a narrative poem about Venus and Adonis. The story, originally penned by the Latin poet Ovid in Metamorphoses, tells of a goddess falling for a man who doesn't return her affection. Incidentally, the story of Romeo and Juliet was likely inspired by that of Pyramus and Thisbe, another couple from Ovid's epic poem. Shakespeare also wrote plays about Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra. It's probably not a spoiler to reveal that these stories don't end happily ever after.

Subsequent Sad Sweethearts

Of course, since Shakespeare's time there have been lots of heartbreaking novels featuring bereft beaus and disconsolate darlings. Below are a handful of our favorites of these woeful wooers from literature. BTW, all of these stories have also been adapted to film and we've included links for some of those as well.

Heathcliff and Catherine—In Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, a gypsy foundling falls for the daughter of his patron amidst the wild Yorkshire moors. Despite loving him back, she decides to marry for status and his ensuing bitterness knows no bounds.

Anna and VronskyAnna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's pièce de résistance, depicts the scandalous affair between the tempestuous wife of a powerful government official and a dashing military officer. What could go wrong? A recent film adaptation.

Gatsby and Daisy—Often described as a searing critique of the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald's vision of a tenuous love affair, doomed by a culture rife with indulgence, wealth, and self-absorption. A recent film adaptation.

Janie and Tea CakeZora Neale Hurston's Harlem Renaissance classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of an American Black woman searching for love in the early twentieth century. After surviving some toads, she finds her prince. But then disaster strikes. A recent film adaptation.

Julia and Winston—Written over seventy years ago, Nineteen Eighty-Four is George Orwell's vision of a chilling dystopian future. The story tackles the question: Can love defeat tyranny? The answer, a resounding no.

Ennis and Jack—Cowboys in rural Wyoming aren't supposed to fall in love. Brokeback Mountain, a short story by Annie Proulx, tells the story of this fragile affair and the homophobic culture that doomed it from the start. The Oscar-winning film.

"'Tis Better to have Loved and Lost..."

These words are often credited to the Bard, but in fact, they came from Alfred, Lord Tennyson in a poem he wrote as a requiem for a beloved friend. In any case, when it comes to good literary drama, lost love may be preferable, no? Obviously, we all like a happy ending in real life, but isn't it cathartic to read a tragic romance that makes you weep and hold your loved ones just a little tighter.

Who are your favorite forlorn flames in fiction?

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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