Of Domesticall Duties (1622) was a popular and widely read conduct book providing advice and rules for family life. It was written by the Church of England clergyman William Gouge. The work is divided into eight treatises, starting with the examination of Bible passages that give authority to his ideas of domestic duty, followed by a consideration of marriage and the mutual duties between husband and wife, and six further treatises on the specific duties of wives, husbands, children, parents, servants and masters.
Gouge’s work embraces patriarchy, placing the husband at the head of the household. He says a wife should show ‘obedience’ to her husband’s authority and ‘come when he calls’ her. She should refrain from ‘ambition’ and abandon any idea that ‘wives are their husbands equals’. This was not an unusual view for the time, although Gouge did note that when he preached on female subservience in church he often observed discontented murmurings from the women in his congregation.
At the same time, Gouge emphasises the need for ‘fellowship’ between married men and women. A husband should be ruled by ‘wisdome and love’ and avoid ‘too much strictnesse’.
In Shakespeare’s day, it was legal for husbands to beat their wives, but Gouge argues strongly against it, seeing ‘buffets, blowes, strokes & stripes’ as unjustified ‘cruelty’ (p. 389). He asks if it is reasonable that a man’s ‘bed-fellow’, the ‘joynt governour of the family, should be beaten at his hands’ and risk losing the respect of her ‘children or servants’ (p. 391). Instead, he suggests that, if she needs to be disciplined, she could be ‘restrained’ or ‘denied’ the things she most enjoys (p. 392). It is only if a husband is ‘set upon by his wife’, that he might beat her in self-defence (p. 393).
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has provoked fierce debate about its depiction of violence between husbands and wives, or masters and their servants. In Act One, it is the ‘wild-cat’ Kate (1.2.196) who first hits out at her suitor. Petruchio never strikes her back, but he ‘tames’ her by other means, cruelly beating the servants and denying Kate food and sleep (4.1.185) until she becomes the ‘most obedient’ wife and comes when he sends for her (5.2.67–68).
Gouge offers us an insight into contemporary views which might help put these actions in context. But how far does this explain or excuse Shakespeare’s troubling view of marriage?
One aspect of Romeo and Juliet that often provokes shock and controversy in modern audiences is the age of the young protagonists, particularly Juliet, who is 13. But was this shocking to the audiences of Shakespeare’s day? The answer is probably yes. Some scholars have taken Paris and Lady Capulet’s words that many girls younger than Juliet are mothers (1.2.12 and 1.3.69–71) at face value, and have even used Romeo and Juliet as proof that young marriages were normal practice at the time. However, historical evidence tells a different story. Historians have used data from parish registers to show that the average age in early modern England for women to first marry was their mid-twenties, and men their mid to late-twenties. Even for the gentility, the average age was around 20 for women and 25 for men. The number of people marrying in their teens, particularly their early teens, was very small, and the practise was largely frowned upon for reasons of health, maturity and financial stability.
This is borne out by the attitude expressed towards young marriage in Of Domesticall Duties. In a section titled ‘Of ripenesse of yeares in them that are to be married’, Gouge establishes the legal minimum ages for getting married as 12 for girls and 14 for boys, but he also expresses the opinion that it is better to wait: ‘if they forbeare some yeares longer, it will be much better for the parties themselves that marie, for the children which they bring forth, for the family whereof they are the head, and for the common wealth whereof they are members.’ (p. 180)
Gouge also preaches in favour of love matches rather than forced marriages, but urges that children should have their parents’ consent and says that ministers who perform marriages without parental consent are committing a sin.
Shakespeare’s Juliet is younger than she was in his sources (16 in Arthur Brooke’s version, 18 in William Painter’s) and Shakespeare also avoids making his play a simplistic cautionary tale against youthful imprudence. By making his Romeo and Juliet so young, Shakespeare perhaps removes from them much of the blame for their fate. Furthermore, he complicates the emotional response to the play, as a contemporary audience would likely have felt troubled and concerned by their age as well as being caught up in the love story.