Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Much like Elizabethan England, the 21st century has its own favourite couples. Shakespeare’s lot had Romeo & Juliet, Othello & Desdemona, Antony & Cleopatra, Titania & Oberon… For us there’s Brangelina, Bennifer, Kimye, Posh & Becks – sadly, none of them have real names (but what’s in a name anyway?). And the associated drama today is as severe as that which took centre stage at the Globe Theatre in 1599-ish. Shakespearean love was no picnic, after all: characters died for love, lied for love, murdered for love, but they also reveled in love’s joy and beauty.

Even fairytale favourites (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel….you know) have endured the cynicism of modern society. With popular culture the master of the masses, Disney now has the monopoly on fairytale love: love at first sight, love’s ‘true kiss’, love’s pure bliss – a whimsical idealism that, one can only imagine, is cultivating a generation of relationship-fools in search of an ill-defined utopia. Yet there is something in the wind, and it smells like change. Possibly something to do with a little film called Frozen, only the highest-grossing animated film ever as well as one of the top highest grossing films of all time. It’s powerful stuff.

A (very) loose adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen (1844), Frozen has turned Disney’s typical relationship stereotype (prince and princess fall in love, enemy intervenes, prince rescues princess, happily ever after blah blah blah) on its head. Elsa, older sister to Anna, future Queen of Arendelle and possessor of some bad-ass icy powers, nearly flat-lines her sis’ in childhood and is responsible for trapping her kingdom in an eternal winter. Yikes! Tired of confinement, even if it is for the sake and safety of others, Elsa lets go – so the song says, in a joyful chorus involving at least 1.7 million children.

Love saves the day, only not in the conventional sense – sibling love and self-love are what Frozen is all about

Along with Elsa’s new-found freedom comes a heap of consequences – a snow-monster-thing and again a near-dead sister. But love saves the day, only not in the conventional sense – sibling love and self-love are what Frozen is all about. True love’s kiss is the embrace of a sister and a world turning from white to green is the by-product of confidence and sagacity. Elsa’s journey is one of self-discovery. Think: independent woman who, although lonely, is OK with being alone and is sensible about love. Right? It seems almost anomalous. And it is, in a fairytale context. But life, hate to break it to y’all, is no fairytale. As Frozen reminds us. Sure, the princesses are pretty and the castles are colossal (as usual) but the story is different, the characters are dynamic and the point is charismatic – so much so that half the world is locked in and engaged.

So, what does Frozen have to do with Shakespeare? Only this: “A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”

Much Ado About Nothing and Frozen: two stories, centuries apart but both acute social commentaries each with a feminine voice tenacious in proportionate measure. Beatrice, the woman who would rather listen to crows than men in love, is one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters. Known for her intelligence, her voracity, her independence, Beatrice refuses to marry because she has not discovered the perfect, equal partner and because she is unwilling to abjure her liberty and submit to the will of a controlling husband. Shakespeare used characters like Beatrice to question love, to reveal flaws in its chivalry, to expose it as something marred by immorality.

To love is to suffer, in its broadest conception. Shakespeare knew it. Even Disney has cottoned on. And Elsa and Beatrice learn it.

Elsa, like Beatrice, challenges love’s preconceived idealism. Not only is Elsa a single woman, but she is a Queen without a King and she understands the naivety of fairytale love. When Anna, after knowing Prince Hans as long as it takes to sing a Disney duet, accepts his marriage proposal in all of about five seconds, Elsa tells her sister, “You can’t marry a man you just met” and is met with the response “You can when it’s true love.” Elsa challenges her, “And what do you know about true love?” Boom. Shake shake SHAKE the room. And Disney defies its own doctrine.

Both Beatrice and Elsa are women in the throes of figuring out life (good luck!) and all of its complexities, love especially – and even moreespecially; how to love without pain. Beatrice protects her heart with wit and humour, “Men were deceivers ever. One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never. Then sigh not so but let them go and be you blithe and bonny, converting all your sounds of woe into hey nonny nonny” and Elsa uses ice, the shards a fortress-forming manifestation of her emotional turmoil. The thing is…to love is to suffer, in its broadest conception. Shakespeare knew it. Even Disney has cottoned on. And Elsa and Beatrice learn it.

The feisty Beatrice is ultimately conquered by her love for Benedick, who says “Peace, I will stop your mouth” putting his feisty lover in her place. Beatrice pays a price for love; the sacrifice of submission in exchange for happiness. But Elsa, the epitome of the modern woman, owes a great deal to the feminist revolution – she is rescued not by a man’s embrace but by her blood, her sister, as well as her growing aptitude for self-love and self-assertion.  What Shakespeare contemplated with Beatrice, Elsa has achieved with Disney, which is not only a magnificent irony but a sign of the times. Art is, after all, a reflection of the society that conceives it into being.

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