WSJ Historically Speaking: Breaking Up Has Always Been Hard to Do



As Valentine’s Day draws near, let’s not forget its Roman ancestor: the festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite (celebrated every Ides of February) that was about as romantic as a trip to the abattoir. The highlight of the day involved priests dipping their whips into goat’s blood and trolling the streets of Rome, playfully slapping any women who passed by. The ancients had no use for frilly hearts and chocolates.

Nevertheless, our classical forbears did know a few things about the flip side of Valentine’s Day: the art of the breakup. The Romans were masters of the poetic put-down. The 1st-century poet Ovid could offer some exquisitely worded insults; here is Elegy VI in his “Amores,” as translated by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century: “Either she was foul, or her attire was bad,/ Or she was not the wench I wished t’ have had./ Idly I lay with her, as if I loved not,/ And like a burden grieved the bed that moved not.”

By contrast, love was no laughing matter for the Greeks. In the tragedy “Medea,”Euripides added a gory twist to the age-old excuse of “It’s not me, it’s you.” Here, the brushoff is delivered by Jason (of Argonauts fame) to Medea, the beautiful witch who betrayed her country to help him capture the Golden Fleece. Adding insult to injury, Jason casts her aside for a younger, prettier princess. Medea takes the “woman scorned” motif and turns it into every Greek male’s worst nightmare by embarking on a killing spree that includes the new bride and father-in-law and finally her and Jason’s own two sons. Sated at last, Medea absconds to Thebes, leaving Jason to his own private hell.

But the ancient poets’ efforts were tame compared with the efforts of some disgruntled monarchs. Isabella of France is accused of venting her fury against King Edward II not with a pen but with the aid of a red-hot poker. Enraged by her husband’s preference for male favorites, Isabella exacted her revenge after the king was deposed in 1327. According to popular lore, the gruesome killing was performed in the dungeons of Berkeley Castle, greatly contributing to the castle’s reputation for being haunted.

Henry VIII was no less terminally minded than Isabella in his attitude to breakups, but he preferred the short, sharp chop to anything so elaborate as a heated poker. Unfortunately, once Henry started getting rid of his wives, he didn’t stop until he had completed the rhythmic series: “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Appalled by Henry’s excesses, the British establishment shied away from legalizing divorce for another 400 years.

In modern times, the legalization of divorce has allowed couples not only to break up without resorting to violence but also to remarry one another as often as they like. Approximately 6% of remarriages in the U.S. involve the original parties, according to a study by Nancy Kalish, a psychologist at California State University, Sacramento.

The title for the greatest repeat performance is still held by two silver-screen idols, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Their tortuous history began when the couple met while filming “Cleopatra.” After divorcing their spouses, Burton and Taylor married for the first time in 1964. Hundreds of arguments later, they divorced in 1974. The couple remarried in 1975 and divorced again in 1976. Rumors of a third reconciliation were cut short in 1984 when Burton died.

It is hard not to think of the pair when remembering the words of the poet E.E. Cummings: “love is more thicker than forget/ more thinner than recall/ more seldom than a wave is wet/ more frequent than to fail.” Pace Euripides and everyone else, breaking up need not always mean the end.


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