marriage and courtship

Marriage and courtship

Eric Rasmussen explains the complex process of getting married in Shakespeare’s England, and the way this worked for young Will himself. He explores the tension, in Shakespeare’s plays, between the old order, in which fathers chose their daughters’ husbands, and the new order based on mutual love, but still plagued by the threat of infidelity.

In the early modern period, customs of courtship and marriage were undergoing significant shifts. Throughout the medieval period, money, class or alliance governed and regulated marriage. As Europe modernized, however, the Puritans and others began to champion the novel idea of marriages based on mutual inclination and love. Time and again Shakespeare’s plays dramatise the conflict between the old order in which fathers chose husbands for their daughters and the new order in which daughters wished to choose their own mates based on affection. A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Egeus demanding that his daughter Hermia either marry Demetrius, the husband he has selected for her, or be put to death; while Hermia remains steadfastly committed to Lysander, the prospective husband that she has chosen.

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1583

Queen Elizabeth reserved the right to choose who she should marry – and whether she should marry at all. Portraits like this portrayed her as the perpetual virgin.

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Given the newfound prominence of mutual attraction, lovers began to manifest concerns about the proper ways to ‘woo’ a mate. Juliet worries that Romeo, having overheard her protestations of love for him, will think she’s ‘too quickly won’ and offers to play hard to get if need be: ‘I’ll frown and be perverse and say thee nay, / So thou wilt woo.’ Indeed, since men were generally the wooers, the issue of female agency in the process was complicated, as Helena complains in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘we should be wooed and were not made to woo’. In the ‘courtship’ of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, the two seem happiest when verbally sparring. As Benedick notes, ‘we are too wise to woo peaceably’.

Vives' conduct book for Christian women

Vives' conduct book for Christian women

Juan Luis Vives insists that, when it comes to choosing a husband, maidens should keep quiet: ‘it becometh not a maide to talke, where hir father and mother be in communicacion about hir mariage’, 1557.

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In Shakespeare’s England, the process for getting married could be complex. A couple wishing to marry had first to obtain the blessing of the church, either by obtaining a licence to marry, or by having the ‘banns’ read – that is, announcing the couple’s names and their intent to marry – on three successive Sundays from a church pulpits in the home parishes of both parties. Couples who paid for a license and testified that there were no obstacles to their union still had to wait one month before they could be married. For some, the process was too slow. Consequentially, a culture of clandestine marriage emerged. The ‘Fleet marriage’ was so named because the Fleet prison in London offered the venue; as a prison it claimed to be independent of church marriage strictures, and rapid – or secret – marriages could be carried out. Before the custom was outlawed in 1754, tens of thousands of ‘Fleet marriages’ were solemnized.

Of Domesticall Duties by William Gouge, 1622

Of Domesticall Duties by William Gouge, 1622

Gouge preaches against the sinful ministers who accept bribes to marry couples without their ‘parents consent’.

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A Treatise of Spousals by Henry Swinburne, 1686

A Treatise of Spousals by Henry Swinburne, 1686

This book tries to untangle the knotty question of marriage law in early 17th-century England.

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William Shakespeare’s marriage serves as a fascinating example of an expedited wedding. In 1582, 18-year-old Will was romantically involved with Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. Late that November, the two obtained a special license to marry, two of Anne’s neighbors paid £40 to certify that the wedding was lawful, the banns were read once, and the couple were officially wed less than two weeks after they received the licence. Their first daughter, Susanna, was born a scant six months later. The license and the certification of lawfulness represented significant financial outlay. Aside from ‘Fleet marriages,’ only the well-to-do could be married in haste and it appears that Anne’s friends could afford to grease the skids of the Church’s bureaucracy.

Famously, Shakespeare left his ‘second best bed’ to his wife in his will. It’s not clear whether this bequest was an insult, implying Anne’s subordinate place in his affections, or a tender reminder of matrimonial bliss. In either case, the behest needs to be seen in the somewhat complicated context of the legal doctrine of coverture, which declared that a property-holding woman who married became ‘covered’ by her new husband. Her identity would be merged with his, and her property would become his. Thus, even though the second-best bed may have seemed to ‘belong’ to both Anne and Will – and even though it may have been her property before the marriage – it was legally Will’s to give to his wife. A far cry, indeed, from contemporary prenuptial agreements or divorce settlements!

The phrase ‘rule of thumb’ was long thought to derive from an early English law that allowed men to discipline their wives so long as they used a stick no greater than a thumb's-breadth. Although the story appears to be apocryphal, the theme of men having an upper hand in marriage recurs in Shakespeare, as in the title of The Taming of the Shrew. The titular character, Katherina, can certain be read as an example of the stock character of a shrew, ‘a woman given to railing or scolding or other malignant or perverse behavior’ (Oxford English Dictionary), and certainly early modern audiences would have recognised her as such and the need to be ‘tamed’ as an obvious one. But her characterization, especially her final monologue, may destabilise the stereotype; and some scholars have argued for an ironic reading of the play as exposing rather than reinforcing sexist conventions.

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

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.

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Other married characters in his plays are significantly more straightforward. Some operate as relatively one-dimensional stock characters: Much Ado about Nothing’s Hero – beautiful, virtuous, maligned, forgiving – springs immediately to mind. Though Shakespeare valorises devotion in Hero, he elsewhere demonstrates the tragic ramifications of devotion turned to obsession. Othello’s love for Desdemona morphs into a poisonous, eventually deadly jealousy; this narrative of faithful love turned sour reappears in Cymbeline, albeit with a happier result. This thread of venomous jealousy exposes in turn another anxiety related to marriage: the threat of cuckoldry.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Hero swoons in the church after being denounced as a whore; Much Ado About Nothing, Act 4, Scene 1 by William Hamilton.

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Stemming from medieval concerns about land inheritance, marital infidelity carried different stigmas depending on which partner was unfaithful. Unfaithful wives were harshly judged, while philandering men received far milder social stigma. In A Winter’s Tale, the jealous King Leontes suspects his wife Hermione of having an affair with his best friend Polixenes; in retaliation, Leontes sentences Hermione and her baby to be burnt to death. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s oeuvre includes few instances of actual infidelity; it’s more often the case that the husbands, like Leontes and Othello, who believe themselves to be cuckolded are either mistaken, misled, or insane.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

A Bedchamber - Othello threatens Desdemona while she sleeps, convinced that she has been unfaithful. Othello, Act 5, Scene 2 by John Graham.

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Since land and property passed through the male line, the issue of an unfaithful wife’s union with another man might inherit land owned by her husband. One of the ways Richard seeks to delegitimize the claims of the young princes to the throne in Richard III is to suggest their bastardy. If bastards, it would follow, they ought not to inherit the throne vacated by the death of their father, Edward IV. Richard’s claim is fabricated, but the bastardy of Don John in Much Ado about Nothing is an established fact. Indeed, the stage directions in the early texts refer to him as ‘John the Bastard,’ his speech prefixes are often simply ‘Bastard’. Like Hero, Don John’s character has little nuance or divergence from convention: if bastard, therefore he must be base.

Don John of Austria, bastard son of Charles V

Don John of Austria, bastard son of Charles V

Shakespeare’s first audiences might have made a link between the fictional Don John and the real Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor.

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The bastard Edmund in King Lear similarly schemes to upset the status quo but differs from Don John in his interiority: Edmund’s first soliloquy establishes him as psychologically complicated, tormented by the societal double standard which lionises his (legitimate) brother and demonises him. Though Edmund’s behavior confirms his status as a villain, he marks a significant shift away from the traditional equivalence of bastard as purely evil moral freak. Shakespeare’s plays and poems teem with unique marital – and sometimes extramarital – unions. The most well-known instance of the latter may be the legendary romance of Antony and Cleopatra, in the play of that name – though Troilus and Cressida takes the drama of infidelity another step by situating it in a politically-charged love triangle. Neither does Shakespeare shy away from writing villainous couples. In Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude marry almost before the corpse of Old Hamlet is cold. In King Lear, Edmund the bastard seduces Lear's two older daughters and pits them against each other, promising fidelity to each. And so on, and on: practically every romantic relationship in Shakespeare's work – courtships, seductions, marriages, infidelities – stands out as somehow unique, somehow innovative. Although we don’t know if Will Shakespeare’s marriage to Anne was a stormy one, it is certainly true that there are virtually no happily married couples in his plays.

Map of the murder of Lord Darnley, 1567

Map of the murder of Lord Darnley, 1567

Mary Queen of Scots married shockingly soon after her husband, Lord Darnley’s murder in 1567. The scandal might have been in the minds of the first audiences for Hamlet.

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  • Eric Rasmussen
  • Eric Rasmussen, Foundation Professor and Chair of English at the University of Nevada, is co-editor of the award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of William Shakespeare: The Complete Works andWilliam Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.