by Jessie Pew, dramaturg
I looked across the room. Standing there, holding a cup, was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. They looked up and caught my eye and I knew immediately—I was in love.
If you are anything like me, when you were younger (or honestly even now) you may have imagined, or even hoped, to have something like this happen: a moment when, out of the blue, and seemingly for no reason at all, the world falls into place and you finally experience love at first sight. After all, it seems to happen in most Disney movies and romcoms, and it seems so much easier than the ordinary struggles of awkward first dates and mindlessly scrolling through a dating app.
Love at first sight is an incredibly common trope, which has existed in literature basically since we started writing stories. In mythology, this looked like a god or other minor deity shooting an unsuspecting protagonist with a magical arrow which left them hopelessly besotted—dare I say, in love—with whoever happened to cross their path first. This was used both for good and mischief, as well as a fair amount of revenge, and seemed to create a plot wherein a person was only somewhat responsible for their actions. For of course, we all are known to fall for the folly of love.
The origin of the phrase “love at first sight” is somewhat disputed, some citing Christopher Marlow in 1598, with others claiming that James Brander Matthews is the real “originator” of that term in 1885. However, there is little doubt as to who truly popularized the trope in drama and literature. I’m not even going to give you two guesses—obviously it’s Shakespeare. From Romeo and Juliet to Twelfth Night to Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare loved nothing more than beginning the dramatic arc of a play with two characters meeting and at instantly feeling something. While always seeming a bit far-fetched for modern audiences, one of his most “criticized” uses of this trope appears in As You Like It, where the majority of the characters seem to have this instant connection and romance to the person they marry at the end of the play.
While of course, modern audiences tend to assume that this is a shallow trope, I did wonder if perhaps that was partly the result of a much more cynical society when it comes to love. It seems most people have this idea that most romances are doomed before they even begin, and that the idea of loving someone forever or immediately is shallow and unlikely.
While I want to disagree with these thoughts as a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic, I also study psychology, so I had to look to the literature. Luckily, as humans we by and large seem to be fascinated by romance—a concept we can’t really see or measure in any other creature—so as silly as it may sound, a significant number of studies have been conducted and published on the phenomenon called “love at first sight”, or LAFS, as many of these studies used. The studies have two basic goals: figure out what LAFS is on a hormonal, biological level, and what it means on a social or a psychological level. Basically, what’s happening in our brains and body, and is it real? What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me.)
To probably no one’s shock, the overwhelming conclusion is that LAFS is not love in the significant way we tend to mean when we say that word. Overall, an experience of LAFS is not indicative of a lasting and emotionally (or even physically, in many instances) romantic relationship. However, 1 in 3 people in Western society report having experiences with LAFS, so it’s certainly not nothing. It is too widely documented and used in literature to be a purely created feeling or phenomenon. LAFS may not be indicative of real love, per say, but it can be a term used to describe powerful attraction. Attraction is an important component of love, but in humans it is definitely not the only or even primary indicator of a successful romance. In some ways, love at first sight may be more similar to the hormones or biological processes that go into mating in other animals. This highly romanticized trope, which seems so human and foolish, may actually be the more universal experience among living creatures!
With all that being said, I felt like there was more to LAFS, at least from a literary perspective. After all, I don’t think many of us genuinely believe we actually fall in love with someone immediately—although I do live in Provo, so maybe that’s not a universal state of mind—but rather that you can feel intensely and immediately attracted to someone. And that attraction can invoke or invite you to do the work to build a lasting relationship that actually can develop into love. The idea is, for a lot of valid reasons, very encouraging and hopeful. But still, we are generally within a society that doesn’t genuinely believe that people can fall truly in love that quickly. However, a lot of this knowledge doesn’t come from scientific studies or advanced knowledge—it’s just this thing we learn as we get older: love is complicated, in large part because people are complicated. And people have always been complicated. So what made love at first sight so appealing to us in the first place, if most people who reach adulthood throughout history don’t seem to put as much stock into love as our beloved and classic fictional characters?
I don’t think there’s one good answer to this. A very real aspect of the appeal is that it makes a good story. It helps create powerful poems and plays and songs. And that’s valid in and of itself. I would, however, hypothesize a little bit more complex as an answer. In our modern American society, we view marriage as largely an endeavor of love and romance. While there are real legal and financial benefits to getting married, as of 2019, 88% of people in America cited “love” as the main reason they did or would get married. Children are also a large component or reason to be married. It worked this way for our parents and our grandparents, and likely their parents as well, that we fall under the assumption that marriage has, for the majority of the time, been largely motivated by love. However, until the mid 1800s, love genuinely had little to do with marriage. It was far more political, both on a micro and macro level, being used largely as a vehicle for connections and financial stability. While I think we understand that to be true for major political figures, it really functioned this way for everyone. In the context of human history, marrying primarily for love is a modern concept.
That being said, humans have always had an innate need for companionship and emotional security. So while few people may have married for love, even in Shakespeare’s time, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume love didn’t matter to people attending the Globe. The same holds true for our Greek and Roman friends of ancient history. Even if you didn’t believe marriage was an institution created for love, sharing your life and having a family with another person is no small matter. In that context, I think it makes a lot of sense that Shakespeare and those who came to see his plays loved the idea of meeting someone and knowing you would and could love them. Most of the comedies revolve around marriages and relationships that likely would have occurred for the more common political and financial reasons anyway—it’s only in stories like Romeo and Juliet, where our lovers are “star-crossed” from the beginning, the tragedies, where non-approved relationships truly occur. You could make the argument that of course people wanted to believe in love at first sight, because that could be the main avenue to happiness in a marriage that they could see.
Whether you love the trope, or love to hate it, we want to believe in love. We want to believe that our instincts are accurate. In many ways, our willingness to be a fool for love is not only one of our most human traits, but one of our more endearing ones as well. Love may be merely madness, as Rosalind says in Act 3, but it is a madness I can’t bring myself to mind.