The Discourse of Marriage and Wiving (1620) offers man-to-man advice on ‘how to chuse a good wife from a bad’ and how to address the tricky task of understanding women. Admitting somewhat ironically that he is an unmarried ‘Batchelour’, the author Alexander Niccholes claims to ‘survey’ the game of marriage with more insight than those that ‘play’ it. This was part of a growing genre of 16th- and 17th-century self-help guides, warning prospective husbands of the challenges they’d inevitably face and how to overcome them.
The virtues and dangers of marriage
Niccholes gestures towards the idea (common in this period) that marriage was a social and spiritual necessity, offering men support and companionship. In the ‘Admonition to Women’, he constructs his vision of ideal wives: ‘Creatures whose Creation, state and being, / Was for mans sake’ (sig. B3r). In his ‘Admonition’ to men, he also suggests that, since Eve was created from Adam’s rib, men without wives are incomplete. But having assessed the ‘dangers’ that lie along the way, he then dryly dismisses marriage in two throw-away lines at the end of the poem: ‘I thinke the husband that would thrive and marry, / Must for a better age and women tarry’ (sig. B2v). If men want to wed happily, they must hope for a new era with better quality women.
Deceptive women: armed with heels and tongues
Though his tone is lightly comic, Niccholes reveals some strongly misogynistic views. For him, women are by nature manipulative and immoral, deceptive and superficial, concerned only with ‘outward shew’. He makes a disconcerting link between showy and seductive clothes, strong words and ‘shameless deeds’. When ‘Arm’d with their heeles, as well as with their tongues’, women become ‘Monstrous’ (sig. B2r).
The idea of dishonesty and disguise is expanded in Chapter 4, where Niccholes warns of the tendency for bad women to pose as good. Even seemingly virtuous women must be viewed with suspicion. Like devils, they may be masquerading as angels to ‘draw others into the chaines of darknesse’ (p. 8)
Later, setting out his ‘precepts to be observed in Marriage and Wiving’, he raises questions relevant to Shakespeare’s Othello, suggesting that men should avoid letting friends get ‘too familiar with thy wife’ and guard against ‘idle jelousie’ (p. 48). Iago exploits his position as Othello’s trusted friend to manipulate his jealousy, while insincerely warning him to ‘beware’ of the ‘green-ey’d monster’ (3.3.166).
Does Shakespeare question these ideas?
In exploring courtship, marriage and female infidelity (or male fears about it), Shakespeare confronts many of the assumptions revealed in manuals like this one. But does he reinforce or challenge the sexual stereotypes that emerge in Niccholes’s handbook? When characters like Hamlet, Othello or Claudio (in Much Ado About Nothing) accuse women of deception and sexual betrayal, is the audience encouraged to question the basis of these allegations and to criticise men’s values? What notion of marriage is presented in tragedies like Macbeth and Othello? And how should we respond to comedies which are so often resolved with a convenient wedding?