Sunday, March 27, 2011

Elizabethan Marriage

I've spent a lot of time learning about Shakespeare and establishing a basic understanding of his life as a play write and more specifically a son, husband, father, lover and active participant in a family-based society. This week I am focusing on the marriage & love aspect of familial Shakespeare. I turned to the book Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare by Bruce Young to research historical information about marriage in the Elizabethan era. I was surprised to find that what I previously thought about marriage in Shakespeare's time--female inferiority, arranged & teenage marriages--was, generally, incorrect.

Bruce Young introduces the topic of Elizabethan marriage with the finding that "Most historians conclude that love and friendship were essential elements of English marriages throughout the entire early modern period [Renaissance]" (44).

Men and women mingled with relative freedom and there wasn't usually a wide age gap between husbands and wives. Most brides & grooms were in their twenties, although the age of consent was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. The average age of marriage in aristocracy was 19-21 women, 24-26 for men, but for most classes is was higher. The average age of marriage in England through the 1500-1600s was 25-26 for women and 27-28 for men (41).

There were formal courting standards of getting the approval of a woman's parents before trying to "woo" her, but dating was also much like it is today--meeting through friends, getting acquainted over dinner, going out to social gatherings. Falling in love was a "common precursor to marriage". Women weren't always passive about it either. Dr. Young states that both men and women were active in choosing a spouse. Wealth was a factor but "virtue, shared belief and a capacity for harmony and love were supposed to be given greater weight" (38)

The engagement or "betrothal" was taken almost as seriously as marriage. There were ceremonies of betrothal much like the marriage ceremonies of our days: taking each other by the hand, making promises and even sometimes exchanging rings. Marriage was religiously based--as most aspects in life were during this time--so divorce was non-existent. Even broken engagements were looked down upon and sometimes they would even prevent future marriage (40).

Arranged marriages were rare and legally invalid if either the bride or groom did not give consent (35).
Besides this law, most parents were very involved with "helping" to choose the spouse of their child because their view of "kinship" at the time actively involved both sides of the family. In Elizabethan era "marrying the family" really was the case (36). Although there was no marrying within the family, or at least no close relatives. 

Elizabethan wedding dress
A typical marriage ceremony included the exchange of wedding bands, as today. During the ceremony the priest would state 3 reasons for marriage: "the procreation of children to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord", "to avoid fornication", "for the mutual society, help and comfort" of the couple (40). We can see in these three reasons that marriage wasn't just a love affair, nor was it just a business affair. Marriage was a duty, a religious commitment, a comfort & joy and also held high importance to society. Family was central to the Elizabethan society as their identity rested upon community not individuality (29). I wonder if growing up in such a close knit community was the reason Shakespeare was so adept to the universal nature of humans?

Marriage was monogamous and romantically seen as a way to connect an individual to the past and future. Also, around this time surnames were fully established, which is an important addition to marriage. I wonder if we would feel as united, and committed as couples without having the same last name? Maybe that is just my romantic side coming through, but I think there is weight to surnames being established during this point in time. It must've had some effect on marriage.

What I enjoyed reading most about marriage was that while the idea of man as the domineering head of the house was prominent, there were many also many beliefs of men and women as "complementary", "partners", and essentially equal (42). I believe this is something that gave root to romance and love-based-marriages during the time. Of course, there is also evidence of what is called "companionate marriage"--a marriage that is more "calculated" than driven by love (44). I think there is evidence in Shakespeare's plays of all the different types of marriage in his time--companionate, lustful, and a sincere loving marriage. My next post will be on A Midsummer Night's Dream and how Shakespeare illustrates these three types of marriage, their benefits & their follies.