Study Guide

Fool for Love Themes

By Sam Shepard

  • Abandonment

    The alternate title for Fool for Love could be Desertion in the Desert, since both characters have bushels of abandonment issues. First, we learn early on that Eddie has been the abandoner quite a few times, leaving May in a lurch while he goes gallivanting off with some lady called the Countess. As a result of his frequent departures/adultery, May's super tweaky about being left—so when Eddie shows up in her motel room, she's so scrambled she toggles back and forth between just wanting him out of her hair and being terrified that he'll leave again.

    Of course, the fact that their father abandoned them both is at the heart of these issues. The Old Man totally modeled that behavior of skipping out for Eddie, so it's no wonder Eddie imitated it. In a pretty twisted play about people who have a lot of issues, abandonment is at the top of the list of problems at work.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Eddie implies that May's version of his indiscretions/adultery/abandonment is exaggerated. Do you think it is? Why or why not, and how do you know?
    2. What do you think is at the heart of the Old Man/Eddie's tendency to abandon their partners for other partners? Is this presented as a "boys will be boys" kind of situation—i.e., understandable? Is it evil? Is it crummy, but just kind of the way things are?
    3. Why do you think Eddie takes off at the end of the book, even though he's spent the entire play trying to get May to want him to stay? And more importantly, where does he go? With the Countess? Somewhere else entirely?

    Chew on This

    Both Eddie and May are in total denial—May can't come to terms with the fact that she and Eddie have an incestuous relationship, and Eddie lies about having abandoned her over and over again. May is not lying about his behavior; he's just unable to face up to it.

    Eddie clearly runs back off to the Countess at the end of the play, unable to break out of the cycle of adultery and remorse that he and May (and the Countess) have gotten into. The power of that cycle is the point of the whole play.

  • Love/Sex

    Love and sex are really twisted, complicated animals in Fool for Love—even more so than usual, and that's saying something. You see, our two protagonists (and lovebirds), Eddie and May, are also related. And not, like, in a third cousin removed kind of way—they are half siblings.

    We were already creeped out by how codependent, unhealthy, and borderline violent their relationship was—but then when you add the fact that they're siblings on top of it? Totally takes things to a whole new level of disturbing. So don't think that the "Love/Sex" theme means that Fool for Love has lots of flowers and chocolate-coated romance. This is a "tequila and incest" kind of story.

    Questions About Love/Sex

    1. May and Eddie's relationship is disturbing enough when we first meet them—why add the extra layer of incest to the whole thing? What does that plot twist achieve, in terms of our understanding of the characters?
    2. Does the play present May and Eddie as totally out-of-this-world creepy and sick, or are there some aspects of their relationship that at least somewhat relatable? If so, what are those moments?
    3. What do you make of the Old Man's attitudes toward love? He seems to think that he had something real with both of his wives—do you believe him?

    Chew on This

    The incest plot really drives home the play's overarching point: People will do really screwed up things for love/sex, no matter how bad of an idea it is.

    The other big take home of Fool for Love is that relationships involve lying—a lot of it. Lying to oneself, lying to your partners: that's the game.

  • Power/Control

    There are definitely a couple of control freaks running around in Fool for Love, namely Eddie and his dad (a.k.a. the Old Man). They both seem to want lots and lots of freedom to come and go as they please in their relationships, and they make up their own versions of past and present realities to suit their own needs—which is really the ultimate form of autonomy and control, right?

    May is more than willing to call both men out on their faulty memories and abandonment-happy ways, which causes them a decent amount of angst throughout the play. That said, at the end of the day, Eddie and the Old Man seem to get their way… although whether or not they're in total control is open for debate.

    Questions About Power/Control

    1. Does Eddie maintain total control of the situation with May? Why or why not? Is he in control at the end?
    2. How does Martin fit into the power dynamics/games between Eddie and May?
    3. Is May a control freak in any way? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Eddie has totally lost control of the situation at the end of the story, which is why he runs out—not to be with the Countess (which would be status quo), but to get away from the whole crazy situation.

    Eddie maintains total control over the relationship with May at the end—he leaves, and she follows, still totally under his spell.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Eddie and the Old Man are definitely manly men—heck, the fact that the Old Man is known only by his general age/sex tells you how important manliness is to understanding what he's about. In Fool for Love Eddie obviously takes pride in being a man's man—or, as he would probably say, a guy's guy; he's all about roping steer, riding horses, and being dirty/smelly from his various many dudely activities.

    When he's feeling insecure about May's possible involvement with another man, he just hauls out this cowboy-heavy idea of what it means to be a man and compares Martin against it. May doesn't seem to buy into any of this stuff, of course, but that doesn't seem to matter to Eddie—being the dudeliest dude at the dude ranch is super important to his own self-image.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Do you think May is impressed by any of Eddie's peacocking and cowboy act, or does she find it ridiculous? How do we know?
    2. Is the Old Man as much of a macho man as Eddie? How do we know?
    3. Are we supposed to find Martin sympathetic, or do we kind of (like Eddie) think he's a wet noodle?
    4. What's presented as preferable—Eddie's hypercowboy masculinity, or Martin's more gentle, bland grass tending? Or are they both equally repellent?

    Chew on This

    Masculinity gets kind of a rough portrayal in Fool for Love, with no truly positive or admirable male characters in sight. Even Martin, who is a nice guy, is hard to watch, since his whole character implies that "nice" guys must be spineless.

    Martin may be bland, but he comes off as totally admirable compared to the Old Man and Eddie.

  • Violence

    There's not a whole lot of actual physical violence on stage in Fool for Love, but there are threats of galore—May's threats of violence against the Countess, Eddie's threats against Martin, and so on. As a result, you kind of get the sense that violence is just one ill-advised comment away from breaking out and causing a bloodbath, which is almost more unsettling than if the characters were outright beating each other up.

    But there is some outright violence in the play—for example, when Eddie gets physical with May to keep her from leaving the motel room, or when the Countess decides to shoot up Eddie's car.

    Questions About Violence

    1. For all the threats of violence, there is remarkably little violence on stage. Why do you think Shepard made that choice?
    2. Eddie and May both threaten each other (and their other partners) with violence at various points. Is one party more or less violent than the other, or are they both equally to blame in this regard?
    3. Do you get the sense that the Old Man has a violent streak?

    Chew on This

    Violence is a huge theme in this play because love is pretty much violent and awful overall. Shepard keeps actual violence largely offstage because he wants to keep the focus more on the psychological violence that love causes.

    You could argue that the Old Man is violent in a way, since Eddie implies that his dear dad's actions contributed to the death of his mother.

  • Lying/Betrayal

    Forget lying as a theme—it's an outright family tradition in Fool for Love. The Old Man had two families that he kept secret from each other. As a result, May and Eddie met and fell in love without knowing they were related. Really, is there a better PSA for why lying (and cheating) is a bad idea?

    Eddie has been continuing that family tradition by cheating on May/running out on her for long stretches, and May, too, likes to lie—for example, she is reluctant to admit the truth about her family/the whole incest thing to Martin (though we have to admit that we understand not wanting to share that information with your date).

    In short, there's a whole lot of lying and betrayal going on in this play, and it all goes back to the mother, er, father of betrayals, namely the Old Man's bigamy.

    Questions About Lying/Betrayal

    1. Do you think Eddie really believes his own lies, or does he know he's lying? The distinction seems to matter quite a bit to him, so which side of the fence is he on?
    2. How do Eddie and the Old Man differ in their lying/cheating/betraying ways? Do they differ? Why or why not?
    3. Are May's lying ways similar to Eddie's/the Old Man's or different?
    4. Is lying fundamental to love/relationships, in this play's universe?

    Chew on This

    Lying is a big theme in the story because love is always about making up a story about yourself and your relationship. These characters are only getting into problems because the lovers tell a different story about the same set of events.

    Lying to oneself or to others is what ruins love. Take this play as an example: Without lying, there's no accidental incest!

  • Jealousy

    When cheating (and even just love in general) is involved, jealousy is often not too very far away. That's definitely the case in Fool for Love. With all the deep, complicated feelings May and Eddie have for each other comes a metric ton of crazy jealousy.

    At first, it seems like May is the main victim of the green-eyed monster—and she has reason to be. Eddie carried on a long affair with someone called the Countess, leaving May for her and then returning over and over again. Then Eddie, for his part, gets pretty ruffled when he finds out May has moved on (after his most recent departure) and starts threatening to beat up her new beau. That definitely looks like jealousy to us, even if he denies it.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Why does Eddie pretend that he's not jealous of Martin, when he clearly is?
    2. Do you think May's jealousy is reasonable, given her circumstances/past with Eddie? Or is she a little off the rails? What about Eddie?
    3. Is jealousy portrayed as natural? Poisonous? Both?

    Chew on This

    May's jealousy seems a bit extreme at first, but ultimately you realize that all her "crazy" behavior is totally reasonable, given her history with Eddie.

    All the jealous behavior is how we know everyone in the play is totally nuts.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    There's a lot of alcohol use all over this play, even though both of our main characters claim to have been on the wagon as of late. May's pretensions to being "on the wagon" go out the window pretty early on in Fool for Love, and she's drinking directly out of the bottle before you know it. Ah, well, the best intentions . . .

    It really seems like May and Eddie's alcohol use/abuse increases the more they get back into their old groove, relationship-wise, which kind of suggests that their relationship is the real addiction at play in the, well, play—and the rampant references to alcohol are just there to draw attention to that incestuous hankering.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Why do you think May has been on the wagon, and why do you think she falls off so suddenly?
    2. Why does May feel the need to tell Martin that they've been drinking a little bit? Beyond just letting him know what he's in for, what does that information do?
    3. Why does Eddie lie to Martin when he says that May hasn't had a drop of alcohol?

    Chew on This

    The rampant alcohol use/abuse in the play highlights other bigger forms of addiction and compulsive behavior—like, Eddie and May's feelings for each other.

    May tells Martin that they've been drinking to try to preemptively explain Eddie's behavior and perhaps discredit anything he has to say.

  • Family

    Eddie and May bring new meaning to the whole concept of "keeping it in the family," since they are both lovers and half siblings. Family is a very big topic in Fool for Love, obviously—and Shepard gives us a little wink in that direction from the get-go by naming one of his characters simply "the Old Man."

    Sure, as we already noted in "Men and Masculinity," that name draws attention to that character's sex (and age), but it is also a little nod the very important fact that he is "the old man" to both Eddie and May. Pretty clever, huh? It definitely signals that everything in Fool for Love comes back to the family relationships.

    Questions About Family

    1. What kind of relationship do May and the Old Man appear to have? How does that relationship compare to the Old Man's relationship with Eddie?
    2. How would the play have been different if the voices/ghosts of Eddie and May's mothers had been featured? Why do you think Shepard didn't include them in the cast of imaginary characters?
    3. Is there any kind of brotherly/sisterly element to Eddie and May's relationship, or is it all toxic "romance"?

    Chew on This

    Because the play is pretty focused on masculinity, Shepard focuses more on the father-son relationship than the father-daughter one—the failures of the father are at the heart of everything.

    When Eddie and May debate telling Martin they're siblings, they initially do it in a way that makes us feel like they think it's just another lie they could tell about their relationship (i.e., basically equal to saying they're cousins), rather than, well, the truth. That suggests that they are both in a certain amount of denial about their relationship.