Updated: Jun 1, 2021
Ah yes, romantic love- the wonderful burning fire sparking between naive youths which forms a central theme in The Tempest. However, while the image of 'love' we have in the public sphere is often tainted by lust and worldly self-consciousness, the romantic love presented by Shakespeare in this play is idealistically pure and innocent, shared between two young lovers bridging the gap between complete inexperience and some level of romantic experience.
The characters who share the romantic love in the play are Ferdinand and Miranda, and the nature of their relationship is exceedingly pure and of ideal tenderness, infused with a somewhat pious admiration due to their mutual perceptions of the other as 'divine.' Ferdinand's first line upon encountering Miranda is an exclamation revealing an instantaneous development of admiration for the young lady:
"Most sure the goddess on whom these airs attend!"
Miranda is equally smitten by the appearance of Ferdinand:
"I might call him a thing divine, for nothing natural I ever saw so noble."
Prospero acknowledges their quick descent into affection, stating in an aside that "at the first sight they have changed eyes." Ferdinand's passion for this beauty he has just met is pure, expressing the satisfaction he would feel to just "behold this maid" in the hyperbolic language common in courtly encounters:
"Might I but through this prison I may once a day behold this maid... Space enough have I in such a prison."
Miranda reciprocates this sort of passion, pleading with her father against his fatherly chiding of her ignorance of the wider world to be merciful with the young Ferdinand, claiming that he is "gentle and not fearful," and advocating that "there's nothing evil ill can dwell in such a temple," citing his appearance as proof for a virtuous nature.
Their incredible zeal in their youthful romance extends through into Act 3 Scene 1, where Ferdinand is being 'tested' by Prospero for the strength of his love for Miranda. The young man's enamourment is not perturbed by his "mean task" because of the mistress for whom he does it:
"The mistress which I serve quickens what's dead,
And makes my labours pleasures. O, she is
Ten times more gentle than her father's crabbed,
And he's composed of harshness...
My sweet mistress
Weeps when she sees me work and says such baseness
Had never like executor. I forget;
But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours
Most busilest when I do it."
In this soliloquy, his love for his "sweet mistress" seems to refresh his resolve in working. She "makes [his] labours pleasures," converting the 'odious' and unappealing nature of his wood-stacking to a pleasant toil for the benefit of his love. In this way, their love seems infused with a sort of piety, wherein Ferdinand serves his "mistress" (to whom he likens a goddess) with a sort of religious-like devotion. His joy comes in simply "behold[ing] this maid," even from the prison of his labour.
Miranda's entrance to the scene shows her concern and affection for Ferdinand, suggesting that he doesn't work so hard and rather rest while she "bear [his] logs the while." However, Ferdinand is unable to accept something like that, preferring to "crack [his] sinews, break [his] back" than allow this "precious creature" to undertake his dishonourable labour while he sits idly by. Their mutual concern for each other is exemplified here; the compassionate and innocent Miranda meeting with Ferdinand (she thinks) behind her father's back out of concern for his wellbeing while working so hard, and the deeply smitten Ferdinand, happy to just be near Miranda and unwilling to subject her to dishonourable work for his sake.
One aspect of their relationship which cannot be overlooked is the comparative purity of it. When Miranda offers to be Ferdinand's wife, she states that she would otherwise forever be his maid. Ferdinand is overjoyed to be her husband- and their seal of this promise of marriage is- get this- a handshake. If that doesn't scream 'virtuous,' I don't know what will:
"Ay, with a heart as willing
As bondage e'er of freedom. Here's my hand."
"And mine, with my heart in't. And now farewell
Till half an hour hence."
In sharing this handshake, they promise each other their hands in marriage, but with an innocence that relates the nature of their bond.
Their passion is controlled and refined; accompanied by not only concern but also an admirable amount of mutual respect for each other and gentility expressed in their every interaction. Ferdinand does not simply say he loves Miranda, but intertwines it with expression of his honour for her:
"I, beyond all limit of what else i'th' world,
Do love, prize, honour you."
The two lovers are very different, but also very similar in some ways. Miranda is a compassionate and gentle young lady raised away from the rest of the world and society, solely taught and raised by her father. In romance, she is not only completely inexperienced with the idea of courting, but also with the appearance of men other than her father and the deformed Caliban. Ferdinand is her first love, "the first [man] that e'er [she] sighed for," and her innocence in this relationship is part of what makes it so unique. Miranda is also physically pure, living up to this sort of chaste and virtuous
Ferdinand is Miranda's opposite in terms of experience, having "liked several women" in the past. However, he finds that Miranda outdoes any of these women, all of whom had flaws which overturned their other good features. It isn't explicitly stated that Ferdinand has abstained from sexual relations, but being a prince and unmarried suggests that he may be physically pure as Miranda is (seeing as a prince would likely only have such relations with the wife he intends to bear his heir). Miranda, as Ferdinand repeats tirelessly, is supremely beyond the leagues of any woman he had encountered before. His monologue in Act 3 Scene 1 is a testament to his newfound love who so considerably outstrips every earthly creature in beauty and soul:
"Admired Miranda! Indeed the top of admiration
Worth what's dearest to the world. Full many a lady
Have I eyed with best regard, and many a time
the harmony of their tongues Hath into bondage
brought mine too diligent ear. For several virtues
Have I liked several women, never any
With so full soul but for some defect in her
did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed
and put it to the foil. But you, O you,
So perfect and so peerless, are created
Of every creature's best."
What must not be overlooked is the strange circumstances surrounding this romantic love. Ferdinand has been bereaved of his father (at least, to his belief), and has washed up on an island made all the more mystical by its spatial ambiguity. His encounter with a lovely young lady superior in her beauty and virtue to all those he has met before triggers a love more deep and full than he had ever experienced before. Miranda, innocent and inquisitive, with a seemingly endless capacity for awe at the world around her, is a nonpareil in every sense. Her inexperience with the world outside of the secluded island make her capable of boundless love, unfettered by self-consciousness or societal conventions.