Weekly Feature

Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Antony and Cleopatra

Valentine's Day: Couples in History

February 09, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Famous couples, like Lancelot and Guinevere or Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra, have a way of charming us into believing in the power of love. Below are resources about memorable couples in myth, popular fiction and history.

Chivalry and Royalty

Lancelot and Guinevere

Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight of King Arthur's Round Table, is still celebrated and studied today. Fordham University’s online Medieval Sourcebook gives us several excerpts from Chrétien de Troyes’ rendition of the story of Sir Lancelot and his tragic romance with Queen Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. While the story may seem to be a blatant endorsement of infidelity, Lancelot still stands as one of the best exemplars of chivalry, even if he never actually existed.

Antony and Cleopatra

The star-crossed love of Roman general Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was rendered immortal by a Shakespeare play and a 1963 film, “Cleopatra,” that united its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. While Taylor has been better known for the quantity, not the quality, of her romances, the chemistry of the two—and the parallels between the historical tale and the relationship between the real-life seductress and Burton—were etched in moviegoers’ memories. The film also features lavish, Oscar-winning costume design and art direction.

Watch the five-minute trailer for “Cleopatra” on YouTube, accompanied by a written synopsis of the movie from a knowledgeable fan.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were an ideal 19th-century couple, advising, encouraging and learning from each other. They raised nine children together, but were separated after only 21 years of marriage when Albert died of either typhoid or a cancer-like stomach illness. Queen Victoria never got over the loss of her husband. After his death, she remained out of the public eye for three years. She dressed in black mourning clothes until her death in 1901. Learn more about Prince Albert’s life with Victoria from the PBS “Queen Victoria” program site.

A full biography of Queen Victoria, written in 1868, is available to read via Google Book Search.

Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra

Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra were the last ruling couple of the Russian monarchy. Their story is captivating, complete with bad-guy Rasputin and a hemophiliac son (who the Russian people saw as an omen of the end of the Empire). The couple is profiled on First World War.com, a historical tribute to the people and events surrounding the war. Watch a short but fascinating video of the Tsar and Tsarina greeting the people of Russia in 1914, just before the start of the war. The site also includes biographies of the Tsar and Tsarina.

Marked by Words

Some couples from the past, united by prose and poetry, left the legacy of their romance on paper (or parchment). Such couples include Abelard and Heloise, the monk and nun whose love letters are published as a book.

Peter Abelard, born in the late 11th century, was a renowned philosopher in Paris who met Heloise when he began tutoring her at the request of her uncle. The two fell in love, conceived a child and married in secret. But Heloise’s uncle Fulbert, the canon of Notre-Dame Cathedral, banished Heloise to a convent and ordered the castration of Abelard. Abelard became a monk and devoted himself to a life of asceticism. The two lovers remained connected through letters, which can be read in this century in “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.”

Dynamic Duo

Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were husband and wife as well as successful poets of the 19th century. While Barrett Browning’s work, according to many scholars, overshadowed her husband’s, both writers published remarkable work that also revealed their love for each other.

A Browning scholar, Kathleen Blake, contends that the love letters and poems between the Brownings are better indicators of their relationship than Barrett Browning’s poetry. Read Blake’s essay on the Brownings, hosted on the history site Victorian Web.

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