Study Guide

Fool for Love Analysis

By Sam Shepard

  • Tone

    Rough and A Little Too Ready (To Be Violent/Get Busy with Your Sibling); Sad

    It's sad times in this rundown motel room—that's clear from the get-go. As we've already said elsewhere, the play is a tragedy, and our characters are pretty sad individuals. Sure, lots of people aren't able to find the strength to get out of bad relationships, but a bad relationship with someone you found out is your sibling? That's a whole new level of sad, pathetic, and awful.

    On top of the depressing subject matter and the sad, weak characters, there's an undercurrent of violence/violent tendencies in the characters that feels like it could burst out at any moment. Take a weird interaction between Eddie and May (and there are so many) early in the play, in which May says she thinks Eddie is going to "erase" her:

    MAY: You're gonna' erase me.
    EDDIE: What're you talking about?
    MAY: You're either gonna' erase me or have me erased.
    EDDIE: Why would I want that? Are you kidding?
    MAY: Because I'm in the way.

    That's a pretty bizarre thing to come out with out of the blue, right? Okay, cheating is certainly bad, and sleeping with your sibling is really bad, but to just assume that your lover would be willing to "disappear you" crime lord-style is super unsettling.

    Then, of course, there are the various threats that Eddie makes against Martin, and May makes against the Countess—they're both super jealous and tend to burst out with promises of violence against their sibling-lover's lovers.

    In short, it's pretty chilling how ready these characters are to threaten violence or believe that they will be the victims of it. So, there's this edge of danger and violence in the tone that, combined with the tragic stuff, makes the play a pretty squirm-worthy read.

  • Genre


    Well, it's a dramatic one-act play, so "drama" is kind of a no brainer, right? However, Fool for Love is definitely also a tragedy—come on, it's using the same playbook as Oedipus Rex, which is one of the biggies, as tragedies go, so that can't be too big of a shock.

    With two protagonists who are totally trapped by their forbidden love for each other and their delusional (and imaginary—he's a delusion himself!) old man rocking away in his chair and talking nonsense about being married to Barbara Mandrell, the play presents a pretty sad-sack set of people and circumstances—and at the end of the play, it's clear that May and Eddie have made zero progress, still up to their old tricks and trapped in their same old toxic, codependent cycle.

    Definitely tragic. Definitely squirm-worthy.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is so great, because it really makes it sound like you're going to get some lighthearted fluffy romantic comedy… and instead you get two half siblings wrapped up in a nasty codependent romance that they can't seem to give up.

    Anyway, despite seeming kind of misleadingly lighthearted, it's actually a pretty apt name, 'cause Eddie, May, and the Old Man are all "fools for love" in their own ways. Love seems to make them do things that don't make any sense. If that's not "foolish," we don't know what is.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The Old Man gets the last word in the play. Now that Eddie and May have scurried off, he's free to just keep living in his own little imaginary world where he's married to Barbara Mandrell.

    Self-delusion and fantasy—and the way fantasies can somehow become equal to reality, in the minds of some—have been big topics in the play, so the Old Man's reprise of his Mandrell story is pretty appropriate as a capper to the play:

    "Ya' see that picture over there? Ya' see that? Ya' know who that is? That's the woman of my dreams. That's who that is. And she's mine. She's all mine. Forever." (584)

    In addition to just fantasizing that he's with a star, it seems important that the "woman of [his] dreams" is "his." Like with Eddie, control is a big thing for the Old Man, so the illusion of possessing his ladylove must be his favorite fantasy of all time. More than a little hypocritical, given that he wasn't even able to be faithful to one woman, but whatever floats his boat.

  • Setting

    A "Low-Rent Motel Room on The Edge of The Mojave Desert"

    The entire play takes place within May's motel room, which (as you might have gathered from the descriptor "low-rent") is not the snazziest of establishments. According to the stage directions that open the play, the room is pretty battered, drab, and old; the green walls, blue chenille bedspread, and door to the outside are described as "faded," and the tabletop is "well-worn Formica."

    There seem to be no bright colors in the set decorations, creating a kind of depressed and depressing atmosphere that mirrors the characters' desolation.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    "The proper response to love is to accept it. There is nothing to do." – Archbishop Anthony Bloom

    So what's up with the epigraph? Well, we're not really sure, but if we had to guess (and that's what we're here for), we'd say that Shepard's playing with us a little bit with this epigraph. The quote from the archbishop seems to suggest that love really isn't that complicated—someone gives it, and the person receiving it should just shut up and take it and write a nice thank-you card. Easy, right?

    Well, not so much for the folks in this play; love is a big complicated mess for them. Also, in the case of May and Eddie, there are definitely certain kinds of "love" that probably shouldn't be given or accepted, if you catch our drift.

    Sure, maybe Shepard really just wants to make an "it's all good" kind of statement about how love is just love and should be taken as such… but the gritty, down and dirty, complicated situations that are the heart of his play kind of work against that reading.

    In fact, the suggestion is that love gives you quite a lot to say and do—even when incest isn't involved.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Fool for Love flies right by—it's a short read, and the prose is very readable. The themes and characters are hard enough to sift through, so we guess Shepard gave us a little break by making the play such a dang pleasure to read. So, while it's not a tough climb language-wise just be ready to dig into figuring out what makes these characters tick and tock… beyond pure sibling-love, that is.

  • Writing Style

    Well, let's put it this way: These characters aren't going to be hosting Masterpiece Theater any time soon. This is not a stuffy or prim crowd, and it shows in the dialogue.

    There are lots of examples, but let's just look at the final lines of the play, where the Old Man insists yet again that he's married to Barbara Mandrell: "Ya' see that picture over there? Ya' see that? Ya' know who that is? That's the woman of my dreams" (584).

    As this snippet demonstrates, words are often abbreviated or written more casually to reflect a more loosey-goosey speaking style—so, here, "you" becomes "ya'." There's a lot of "gonna" throughout—that's a big one. From those stylistic flourishes, you get a sense that these people aren't very hoity toity—they're normal folks, and they aren't afraid to tell it like (they think) it is.

  • Rope

    Since Eddie appears to be quite the cowboy, and he's super controlling (like, so much so that he tries to bend reality to what he wants it to be), it seems appropriate that he ends up showing off his lassoing skills. He says he needs to practice—which isn't too surprising, given that he's a rodeo cowboy:

    "Little practice. Gotta' stay in practice these days. There's kids out there ropin' calves in six seconds dead. Can you believe that? Six and no change. Flyin' off the saddle on the right hand side like a bunch of Spider Monkeys, I'm tellin' ya', they got it down to a science." (218)

    So, he just hangs out in May's room roping bedposts while he and May chat. This is a not-so-subtle bit of sexual innuendo (he picks bedposts for a reason): he's basically showing off some Christian Grey-style skillz. He's also, a little menacingly, referencing the fact that he's pretty much "tied" May to him—her sexual attraction to him is as tight as a lasso.

    Seems harmless enough, we suppose, but when the conversation turns to May's boyfriend, Eddie's "practice" turns into a kind of nasty demonstration of his intent/ability to control the situation.

    When May asks what Eddie intends to do when Martin shows up (since Eddie is so eager to meet him), Eddie claims, "I'm gonna' nail his ass to the floor. Directly" (243). To add emphasis to that threat, he then ropes the chair right next to May and yanks it "violently" toward him.

    The message there seems pretty clear—Eddie's got his lasso or "noose" around this whole situation, and he intends to make sure everything goes down his way. He's going to make sure Martin knows who's boss. So, the rope seems like a pretty clear symbol of Eddie's controlling tendencies.

  • Alcohol

    There are a couple of references to being "on the wagon" in the play, and they definitely seem to be part of a larger metaphor for quitting bad habits generally—you know, like incest.

    May mentions early on that she's "on the wagon" in the classic sense—that is, that she's taking a break from alcohol (150). However, that changes in the blink of an eye once she and Eddie really start arguing, and he storms out for the second time in his visit. After a good solid cry fest, when she hears Eddie returning, she apparently wants to look busy, so she goes and takes a swig from the bottle of liquor on the table and stares at it as he reenters.

    Eddie, too, claims that he's mostly been on the straight and narrow lately—in terms of alcohol and everything else:

    "Well, I haven't dropped the reins in quite a while ya' know. I've been real good. I have. No hooch. No slammer. No women. No nothin'. I been a pretty boring kind of guy actually." (225)

    Who knows how true that is? But in any case, like May, Eddie's return to alcohol coincides with their reunion.

    Of course, the real "drug" in the play seems to be May and Eddie's insane feelings for each other, and Shepard seems to use the frequent references to alcohol/quitting alcohol to underline that other incestuous little addiction. May and Eddie might have been on the wagon from alcohol and each other up to that night, but they are indulging fully and freely in both addictions by the time the play is over.

  • The "Picture" of Barbara Mandrell

    Both the Old Man and Eddie seem to want to live in their own little alternate realities, which they can shape or define however they please. The Old Man seems to be the true champ of this tendency, taking his delusions to a pretty high level—so high, in fact, that he thinks it's totally legit to claim that he's married to famous songstress Barbara Mandrell.

    He makes this clear in an early conversation with Eddie, where he points at an imaginary picture of Barbara Mandrell on the wall of the room:

    THE OLD MAN: Ya' know who that is?
    EDDIE: I'm not sure.
    THE OLD MAN: Barbara Mandrell. That's who that is. Barbara Mandrell. You heard a' her?
    EDDIE: Sure.
    THE OLD MAN: Well, would you believe me if I told ya' I was married to her?
    EDDIE: (pause) No.
    THE OLD MAN: Well, see, now that's the difference right there. That's realism. I am actually married to Barbara Mandrell in my mind. Can you understand that?
    EDDIE: Sure.
    THE OLD MAN: Good. I'm glad we have an understanding.

    In this moment, the Old Man is basically asking Eddie to buy into his notion that he can qualify whatever nonsense goes on in his mind as reality.

    This might seem harmless enough initially—ha ha! This crazy (and imaginary) old man thinks he's married to Barbara Mandrell—how quaint!—but the Old Man's belief that he can just define reality as he pleases goes well beyond fantasizing about country stars.

    Later in the play, the Old Man gets super upset when May and Eddie mention that Eddie's mother committed suicide after the Old Man abandoned her, and that is so not something the Old Man wants to hear.

    He tries to get Eddie to stop May from talking about how the Old Man hurt people with his bigamy, but Eddie adds on to her story, confirming that his mother committed suicide after the Old Man left for good (and that she used the Old Man's gun). The Old Man is not pleased and rails against Eddie for breaking their "pact."

    By that, he apparently means the "understanding" he and Eddie forged when he got Eddie to say he understood the Old Man's need to believe that he was married to Barbara Mandrell. In short, he wants permission to live in his own little world without intrusion from the unpleasant realities he fled from in the first place.

    He holds on to that desire right until the play's closing moments, when he reiterates that the woman in the imaginary picture of Barbara Mandrell on the wall is "his":

    "Ya' see that picture over there? Ya' see that? Ya' know who that is? That's the woman of my dreams. That's who that is. And she's mine. She's all mine. Forever." (584)

    Did you get that? Not only is Mandrell his (imaginary) wife, but she's his. The message is clear, Like his son Eddie, the Old Man is a controlling fantasist who wants to construct his own reality out of wishes, regardless of what actual reality is, and the picture of Mandrell becomes a symbol of his tendencies in this regard—and, by extension, Eddie's, too.

  • Narrator Point of View

    N/A—It's a drama

    You can't really talk about a narrator per se with dramas, since the characters do all of their own talking—there's no outside narrator shaping what's going on. That said, factors such as the play's structure and stage directions can frame the drama in much the same way that a narrator does.

    In this case, from Shepard's stage directions, we can tell that he's trying to present a very drab and depressing atmosphere—this is not a happy place, and from the minute we read about the set decorations (or see them in a live production), we're not expecting the good times to roll. Shepard doesn't use stage directions to editorialize too very much but they do suggest Shepard's "slant" on the drama he presents.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage

    Eddie has come to see May after a long absence. He seems to want her back in a lovey dovey kind of way, but apparently she's a thousand times bitten and now (finally) shy—she doesn't trust him not to run out on her again.

    They argue back and forth about their history and whether they have a future, and it's not at all clear that May and Eddie will end up living happily ever after. Since—oh yeah—May is going out on a date with someone else that night.

    Dream Stage

    Initially, Eddie is really angry to hear that May was going out with someone else, but then he convinces himself that May made the guy up to get back at him for doing her wrong in the past. He hangs out and decides he's going to meet this guy, if he exists. Also, he threatens physical violence.

    Naturally, May doesn't think this sounds like a great plan.

    Frustration Stage

    While they're still arguing back and forth about whether Eddie will get a chance to meet May's date, they see headlights outside May's hotel room. It's not May's date, however—it's some lover of Eddie's (May thinks it's some countess who had canoodled with him in the past).

    Whoever she is, she makes quite a splash by shooting the windshield out of Eddie's truck. Eddie needs to go back and watch some romantic comedies to learn how to woo a lady back—because having your mistress show up with a gun is just in bad taste.

    Nightmare Stage

    The Countess leaves, and Eddie and May get back to arguing. Then finally May's date, Martin, actually does show up. Instead of whisking May off to the movies, however, Martin ends up in a conversation with Eddie about Eddie and May's cringe-worthy love life.

    It seems that they're not only former lovers—they're also half siblings. And it turns out that the old dude who has been at the side of the stage talking to them (in their minds, natch) is their father, a bigamist who had split his time between Eddie and May's mothers. Charming. Eddie and May make googly eyes at each other during the storytelling and end up making out.

    Destruction or Death Wish Stage

    While Eddie, May, and Martin are talking/being gross, the Countess comes back and ends up setting fire to Eddie's truck (apparently by shooting the gas tank). Eddie says he's going out to check on the damage and will be right back, but May is sure he's fled for good.

    She packs a bag and leaves, ostensibly to follow him. And Martin just ends up standing there alone (well, the Old Man is still around, but the only characters who could hear him are gone).

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Lovers' Quarrel

    A man named Eddie has shown up at a motel room belonging to a woman named May, and May just doesn't seem to know how she feels about it. On the one hand, she apparently hates him. On the other hand, she clearly wants him to stay (hey, love is complicated). Apparently, they have quite a bit of lovey dovey history, and she has major abandonment issues—so that might explain the push-pull thing she's doing with him.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Three's A Crowd

    While they're talking, it becomes clear that May is expecting someone else that evening. When she tells Eddie that, he totally flies off the handle and gets super angry. He storms off, and May is devastated. Then he returns pretty soon after. Apparently he had decided May was lying about this other dude. But then he storms out again pretty quickly, and May is, once again, devastated. Are you seeing a pattern here? Okay, good.

    Anyway, after some more shenanigans and conversations in that same vein, suddenly headlights appear in the room from outside. May thinks it's her date, so she goes to the door. But it turns out to be some woman in her Mercedes Benz, who just stares at May. Eddie gets May away from the door quickly, and the woman in the Benz shoots out the windshield of Eddie's truck and drives off.

    Well then. May is sure it's the "Countess," a woman Eddie had been cheating on her with.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    Out In The Open

    Another set of headlights soon appears, and this time it is May's date, Martin. May tries to pass Eddie off as her cousin (which was his suggestion), but Eddie rats her out for lying and then reveals the truth: that he and May are half-siblings. Cue a collective "eeeeew."

    Falling Action

    Worst. Date. Ever.

    Now officially on the worst date in the history of the world, Martin sticks around to hear the dirty details (although at one point he does try to get out through the window—Eddie stops him). It seems that May and Eddie had shared a father, a bigamist who had split his time between the two families. Unfortunately, May and Eddie had already gotten busy before the bigamy/sibling thing was discovered.

    Oh, and we probably should have mentioned that there's a character known as the Old Man sitting on a platform at the front of the stage who sometimes talks to Eddie and May, and it turns out that he is their father. (He's not literally there, of course—he's just in their minds.)

    He's definitely pretty interested in hearing his kids' retelling of his big fat bigamist life… until he finds that he doesn't really like their version. In particular, he is very upset to hear that Eddie's mother had committed suicide after he peaced out on both families once the jig was up.

    Eddie and May make googly eyes at each other as May tells her half of the story, and they eventually start making out. Rinse and repeat that collective "ewwwwww."

    Resolution (Denouement)

    Return of the Countess

    The return of the Countess's headlights breaks up the incest love fest. She apparently shoots Eddie's gas tank, which means his car goes up in flames (and the horses in the back race out of their trailer). Eddie says he's going outside to check on the damage. May doesn't want him to go, but he says he'll be right back.

    She then starts packing a suitcase. When Martin kind of asks what's up/tries to find out if she needs anything, she says she's sure Eddie is not coming back—he's flown the coop. So, she packs a suitcase and follows. Martin is left there dazed, and the Old Man is rambling on about Barbara Mandrell being his wife.

    Because what that man needed was another wife.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    We meet Eddie and May, two former lovers. Eddie has come to visit May in her motel room; it seems that they had been living together before, and May had peaced out when Eddie went on a long trip without her.

    May seems ambivalent about Eddie being there. It seems that he's scooted off and left her over and over again, and she's pretty peeved with him for that. She seems to want him to leave… and, yet, she's also terrified that he will do just that. Of course, she's aware that she's expecting another gentleman caller that evening, so part of her wants Eddie to go to avoid awkwardness.

    When Eddie realizes that May is seeing another dude, the tension between them really heats up. He does not like that news one bit, and at one point he goes to get a shotgun. It seems he wants to stick around to "meet" Martin (and potentially do him physical violence). Naturally, May isn't so into that idea.

    Act II

    While they're arguing back and forth about the boyfriend and their past relationship, a woman shows up and shoots out the windshield of Eddie's truck. May assumes this is a woman she knows as the Countess, who was Eddie's mistress at one point. So then May's livid about that.

    Then, Martin (her date) shows up, and Eddie ends up launching into some details about their relationship. It seems that not only are they former lovers, they're also (half) brother and sister. Gross. Eddie and May each relay their memories of their father's bigamous shenanigans with their respective mothers and the impact his betrayal had on them.

    Act III

    Martin is apparently the sport of the century, so he sticks around to hear all this (okay, he tries to leave a couple of times, but he doesn't really try that hard). Meanwhile, Eddie and May get so riled up by the stories that they start making out.

    And then (because this isn't already enough of a circus), the Countess shows up and sets Eddie's truck on fire. Eddie claims he is going out to check on the damage, but May knows that he's not coming back. So she packs a bag, ostensibly to follow him? Meanwhile, poor Martin is left standing there . . .

  • Allusions

    Pop Culture References

    • Haggard, Merle (stage directions)
    • Mandrell, Barbara (120; 587)
    • The Marlboro Man (69)
    • Tracy, Spencer (509)