mother sends a love potion with her handmaiden to be used when Isolde meets her aging prospective husband King Mark. By accident Isolde and Tristan drink it on the way back to Cornwall and fall instantly and irrevocably in love.
They are unable to fight their passion; they became lovers. Although this romance is in the tradition of the idealistic romances of the Arthurian courts, their behaviour crosses the line because they indulge their love for each other, rather than living in a state of platonic longing as the courtly love would dictate. In some stories Tristan becomes part of the Round Table. In others it is a forerunner of the tales of the King Arthur, Guinevere
and Lancelot triangle.
Poetically, they are absolved of total guilt here by the love potion which dictates their behaviour beyond their control. Nice to think rationalization of motives isn't a recent invention.
In any case Isolde must marry King Mark but she and Tristan carry on their affair. Eventually of course King mark tumbles to the idea and in a fury sets out to have his nephew killed.
Tristan leaves Cornwall for Brittany where he meets a young woman Iseult and attracted to her looks and possibly to her similar name, he marries her. He still longs for Isolde and apparently leaves the marriage to Iseult unconsummated, which sets a stage for mischief and revenge..
Tristan becomes ill and sends for Isolde to see her before he dies or perhaps to help save his life with her Celtic healing powers. In his message he says if the returning ship has white sails he will know she is coming; if black sails she is not. We know of course this story is going to end tragically.
Iseult, hurt by the husband she loves who cannot love her back because his heart belongs to Isolde, gets her revenge. She tells Tristan the ship has returned with black sails when in fact they are white.
Tristan lies dying in misery, believing his love has abandoned him. Isolde arrives just too late. She dies shortly afterwards of a broken heart. They are buried together and legend says two trees grow from their graves
and intertwine so that they cannot be separated. Although cut down by King Mark they grow again, intertwining in everlasting love.
Our ideas of romance have changed since the times of great tragedies. We don't like to settle for an unhappy ending; we need a HEA. I wonder why tragedy appealed to past audiences and why it has lost its lustre in modern times. Was it that people all lived so close to tragedy then that they were able to identify with it easier? Was it a morality issue where everyone must receive punishment for their failings? Do we live in such a fast paced society now that we need to have everything tidied up at the end? Happy endings seem to signify an end of the story and a return to normal life.
Tragedies leave so many questions behind to ponder long after the story
has been told. In that way they leave a more lasting impression.