Marriage in Shakespeare’s day

Marriage – a social contract

Marriage in Shakespeare’s day was as much a social and financial contract as it was a personal decision. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are about individuals making their own choice about love and marriage, often in the face of parental opposition (as in Romeo and Juliet) or social disapproval (as in The Taming of the Shrew). However, the social and economic aspects of marriage were of great practical necessity. Parents were often involved in arranging matches for their children that would increase their capital or add more money to the household economy. Baptista, in The Taming of the Shrew, not only works hard to marry his shrewish daughter off to any man who will have her, he also arranges for his younger daughter to marry an older, wealthier man.

Marriage - a religious contract

The Book of Common PrayerThe religious elements of marriage were important aspects of the social and financial contract made when two people got married. The Bible was used to form the liturgy and rites of the Church of England through the Book of Common Prayer, as well as the rituals of marriage, burial and baptism. The Book of Common Prayer influenced Shakespeare’s exploration of marriage in plays such as The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It
Although the marriage rites as set out in the Book of Common Prayer are parodied in the wedding scenes in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare explores elements of a healthy marriage at the end of the play. Here Katherina and Petruchio have reached an understanding about each other and their relationship whereby they treat each other with the kind of mutual respect described in the homily On the state of Matrimony (1563-71). 

Marriage and respect

Shakespeare likens a good marriage to the relationship between a prince and his subjects. Katherina says that, like a good king, the husband cares for his wife:
And for [her] maintenance; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land.     
In return he desires ‘love, fair looks, and true obedience’ from his wife:
Such duty as the subject owes the prince, 
Even such a woman oweth to her husband; 
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour, 
And not obedient to his honest will, 
What is she but a foul contending rebel 
And graceless traitor to her loving lord? (Act 5 Scene 2)     

Marriage laws and customs  

Although the Church expected people to marry using a religious service, and the Book of Common Prayer set out a service of Holy Matrimony (marriage), there were also other forms of betrothal recognised by English common law.
  • ‘Sponsalia per verbi de praesenti' literally meant ‘espousal (i.e., marriage) by the word given at the present time'. Those who made this promise to each other were regarded as legally married, whether or not they then went through the consecration of a church marriage.
  • ‘Sponsalia per verba de futuro', was an agreement to marry in the future. This agreement could be put aside if certain conditions, such as an agreed dowry, were not fulfilled. However those who entered into a ‘de futuro' agreement could not break it if their relationship was physically consummated.
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