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Elizabethan Marriage and Divorce

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    Base of Society
    As Lyndon Baines Johnson says, “The family is the corner stone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled. So, unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together, all the rest — schools, playgrounds, and public assistance, and private concern — will never be enough” (Danes). He believed that family is the base of the society.

    The way that family is set up affects children in all ways. Family structure is very important and that no matter what we do, it will never be enough. No matter what era it is, family structure and relationships will always be part of the citizens everywhere. During the Elizabethan Era, society was controlled by the Protestant Church and the citizens had to follow the rules. On the other hand, modern day society is controlled by the public and the people have more freedom in their actions. Shakespeare’s writing was influenced by the way family structure was set up. Elizabethan marriages were arranged, and many took place at a young age with several customs to follow. The common age most men married was at twenty one. The legal age for boys to get married was at 14 and for girls at 12 with parental permission (“Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings”). Most people today would find this shocking because the age was so young, today many people get married at an older age therefore the age difference is odd of the opinion of people of modern time. One of the reasons why the age was so young was because most marriages were arranged in the Elizabethan Era.

    Elizabethan woman had very little choice in who her husband might be. The Elizabethan women were inferior to the men. They were dependent on the male figure in the family to support them (“Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings”). It would be fair to say that women in the Elizabethan Era have little control over their life. Elizabethan women were always brought up to believe that they were inferior to the men and that they knew better. Marriage were usually arranged to bring prestige or wealth to the family. Most couples would meet for the first time on their wedding day (“Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings”). This is controversial because in today’s society marriages are based on love and if the two spouses love and want to be with each other. Since it wasn’t like that back then, many people could argue that it is wrong if both spouses are forced into marriage. There were many customs that individuals followed in Elizabethan Marriages. According to “Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings”, “Elizabethan wedding custom dictated that the couple’s intention to marry had to be announced in the church three times on three consecutive Sunday or holy days.”

    Any marriages that were kept secret and not published were considered illegal (“Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings”). This is not surprising because the church was in control during the Elizabethan Era; it had very strict and instituting rules that the people had to follow. “Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings” states that, “Arrangements for Elizabethan weddings would have been with local church. Weddings were always a religious ceremony, conducted by a minister.” The women were expected to a dowry, which consisted of money, goods, or property which the woman would bring into the marriage (“Elizabethan Marriages and Weddings”). After the marriage, the law gave the husband rights over his wife; she had become his property.

    This can be arguable because many people today believe that women have a stance in society, even though they are one by law, it doesn’t mean that she becomes his “property”. Even though marriage was considered a contract which couldn’t be broken, there were ways where people could separate. Divorce in Elizabethan England was hard to obtain, but were many alternatives around it. One alternate to divorce was getting an annulment. An annulment allowed remarriage because it states the marriage had never happened (Eisenach). Another alternate besides annulment was a separation. Eisenach states, “A separation from bed and board granted a spouse who could prove the other spouse’s adultery or excessive cruelty permission to live separately and separated the spouse couldn’t remarry…because the marriage bond remained intact.”

    This would have affected both spouses and children if they had any, because the children would be spilt and the spouses would be living alone. Divorce was considered punishment. The innocent party could remarry and get custody of children and control finances. Poor and unhappy spouses had another option to court. Informal divorce, authorities tried to condemned these but could do little to stop them (Eisenach). There weren’t an excessive number of informal divorces that happened but it was an option as an alternative to divorce for individuals who were unhappy. Before the Protestant reformation legal divorce was illegal and impossible in Europe because of the Catholic churches. Divorce remained unobtainable for many years with the control of the Protestant church. Even though all social classes brought suits but only wealthy most needed separation and annulments (Eisenach).

    This shows that lower class needed the benefits of both spouses to live comfortably that they didn’t go for separations and annulments and just stayed and compromised with each other. Even though there were some annulments and separations, most families were together and had a good family relation. Children’s relationships with their parents were strict to prepare them for adulthood. Children were taught to always respect and obey their parents. The wealthy children, both boys and girls would be punished for any sort of bad behavior (“Elizabethan Family Life”). Whenever children misbehaved there was immediate discipline. The parents’ discipline was usually physical which included spanking (Stewart 28). This is unusual today because parents don’t physically punish their kids, it more of taking away privileges.

    “Elizabethan Family Life” points out that “the children were almost considered servants to the adults in the family.” According to many historians, children were treated as small adults instead of children (Stewart 28). The children were mature at a younger age than they are nowadays. Stewart adds that “Children were expected to be well behaved, especially in dealing with parents and other adults. Parents taught their children the proper forms of address such as ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ for person of a higher rank” (28). Stewart analyzes, “Most couples wanted children, if not for sentimental reasons then for economic ones. Even though it certainly cost more to expand the household, children could help out a great deal as they got older” (28).

    With a high death rate, an average woman was pregnant at least six times during her lifetime (Stewart 27). The love for children almost wasn’t shown like it is today; they were almost taken care of as property. When babies were born Elizabethans believed that babies should be wrapped in a long band of linen so that they couldn’t move. A baby with freedom, they believed it was in danger of improper growth of bones (Stewart 28). The freedom of kids was always to a minimum since they were born; unlike today where children have the freedom to do what they wish. In the words of Stewart, “Some children especially those in lower class working families, never attended school; their parents believed they would never really need an education to do the kinds of jobs for which they were destined” (29).

    Even if the children wanted to get an education, the parents didn’t believe that they would need it; it seems as if the parents don’t have faith in the children to reach their dreams. Strict discipline was believed in strongly within parents, unlike today. Even though strict discipline isn’t believed strongly in parents, there are similarities between the two eras. Many of the marriage, divorce, and family relations from the Elizabethan Era have followed down throughout the years to modern day United States. Modern day marriage in the United States is similar to the many traditions that were in the Elizabethan Era. Brown reports, “Nearly all countries have a minimum age requirement for marriage. In many countries – and in most U.S. states – it is eighteen, although it is sometimes younger with parental consent or a judge’s permission”. In the Elizabethan Era, there was a legal minimum age requirement that applied for all individuals.

    The bride customarily wears a white dress, veil and bouquet. The bride and groom exchange vows and accept each other as husband and wife at the alter (Brown). As previously stated above, in England most brides wore a white dress, veil and bouquet; the bride and groom exchanged vows and accepted each other. Parallel to Elizabethan marriages, the husband and wife exchange rings, and seal the contract with a kiss. The woman usually takes the last name of her husband (Secara). Another similarity that Modern day and Elizabethan Era have is some of the laws of divorce. A couple planning on divorce must make arrangements for child custody property division, and financial support. They may make agreement with lawyers. If not judge decides on the arrangements (Nock).

    This is similar to Elizabethan England because even though they didn’t have divorces nor were they easily obtainable, if spouses get a separation they would have to figure out the custody for the children. Modern day family relationships have changed in many ways but there still are many similarities between now and Elizabethan England. Just like most families around the world, modern and Elizabethan Era, families live together in one household. In modern and Elizabethan England family reputation is very important to families. In both time periods, families both care about how they act together when out in public or in private because it affects the reputation of their name.

    Even though many customs are similar, there are many that have changed and altered throughout the years. Even though there are some similarities between the two time periods, there are many aspects that have changed throughout the years. A lot has changed since the Elizabethan Era along with everything modern day marriage is and has changed since. Brown acknowledges, “In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other western counties nearly everyone makes his or her own decision about whom and when to marry.” This is different from Elizabethan marriages because they didn’t get to choose whom they want to marry. Before two people get married or engaged, they spend time with each other and date; if they find that love for each other. A man usually gives a woman an engagement ring as a token of their agreement to marriage (Brown). In Elizabethan England there wasn’t any formal engagement, as stated above, most Elizabethan couples met for the first time on their wedding day.

    According to Brown, “Two people usually date, or go on social outings with members of the opposite sex before they marry.” Men and women stay single longer than they used to. In the United States increasing numbers of couples live together and then enter marriage in late 20’s (Brown). In Elizabethan time, most people got married at an early age compared to modern time most people get married in their late 20’s. Some American states allow same-sex marriages. These legal relationships are similar to marriage but usually with few rights and responsibility (Brown). With the Protestant Church in control, there was no same –sex marriage allowed. In the Elizabethan Era there wasn’t any kind of formal divorce, but there are differences in the way modern time divorces happens and the laws behind it. Each United States’ state has its own divorce laws. But all states recognized a divorce only if both spouses are legal residents (Nock).

    In England, since the church was in control of all the provinces which meant that all the divorce laws were the same throughout the country. Nock adds, “A person seeking a divorce on a no fault ground does not try to prove that the spouse committed a wrong. The person simply testifies that their marriage has failed. In many cases, the judge grants a divorce even if the person’s spouse objects.” A fault divorce is when a spouse must prove his/her spouse committed a fault. Many faults are approved (Nock). Most divorces are approved by the government and the spouses likewise Elizabethans didn’t approve on divorce. United States has one of the highest divorce rates. In general cities have a higher divorce rate than rural area (Nock). This isn’t surprising, currently people have their own freedom (with some limits) to do what they please and the courts cannot stop them. Even with United States having one of the highest divorce rates, family relationships were a lot different than Elizabethan Era. Compared to the past hundred years fathers now are spending more time with children (Coontz).

    The average number of hours a woman spends at home has gone down since more women are entering workforce, the number of children per family also went down but the number of individual attention has gone up (Coontz). In the Elizabethan Era, woman’s job was to do housework and take care of the children. Nowadays, women are working in the workforce and taking care of children which take up ample time of their day. Coontz states, “Studies have shown that kids do better in their own right when their mothers are happy with their lives.” American people are really hectic that the parent-child relationships are suffering. After-school activities take up much of the children’s day that they are almost never home with their parents (Pan). Kids are so much busier today than they were in the Elizabethan Era that parents and children are always out. Pan points out, “Children as young as six weeks are being shuttled to day care facilities five days a week.”

    In the Elizabethan Era, rich families would hire “nurses” to help them take care of children at home, but in modern society children are going to day care all day and only see their parents at night starting at a young age. Whenever families are together they aren’t really together. They are surrounded by technology (Pan). Technology has taken up much of people’s lives that they are more focused on that instead of family. In Elizabethan England, technology wasn’t as big as it is now to take up much of their time. Pan addresses, “Often, schools work to undermine parent child relationship in America. The sheer amount of time that children spend at school makes their classmates and teachers their primary influencers, instead of their parents.” Most children spend more time at school with after school activities than they do at school. In England, there wasn’t many after-school activities which means most children came home after school. The difference between the time periods affects Shakespeare’s writing, showing how much has changed from his writing to now.

    Shakespeare’s writing Romeo and Juliet clearly showed the family structure and relationship in the Elizabethan Era. In Romeo and Juliet the Montague family was an upper class family. Shakespeare showed through his writing that the parents of Romeo expected a lot from him. The Capulet were also an upper class family. Shakespeare wrote that Paris wanted to marry Juliet. In the beginning, Lord Capulet did not want Paris to marry Juliet right now because of her age. He believed that she was too young and wanted her to experience her adolescent years. Juliet was only thirteen at the time and Paris is inferred to be around his twenty’s; which is a major difference, but this was common throughout Elizabethan England. Towards the end, Capulet forces Paris to marry Juliet even though she doesn’t want to. Through this, Shakespeare shows that he doesn’t care for Juliet; he cares more about his reputation, family’s wealth and recognition. Family reputation was very important to upper class families in the Elizabethan England. Second, the feud between the families indicated that something terrible was going to happen. In the chorus in scene one of Romeo and Juliet, “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life; whose misadventure’s piteous overthrows Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” The audience finds out that Romeo and Juliet are the peacemakers of the feud, with none of the feud being their fault. The parents use Romeo and Juliet to end the feud that has been going on for years.

    The nurse and Friar Lawrence act like mother and father to Romeo and Juliet. The parents of Romeo and Juliet were very strict with them; at one point in the play Lady Capulet finds it awkward to be alone in the room with Juliet, her daughter that she lets the nurse stay. Whenever they need help they go to them instead of their own parents. Toward the end of the play after they find Romeo and Juliet dead, Lady Capulet says, “O me, o me, my child, my only life! Revive, or I will die with thee” (Romeo and Juliet). The audience finds out that Lady Capulet actually loved Juliet, but did not show it. Shakespeare made the parents mistreat their children when they were but when they die he shows how much the parents really loved them. The family aspects of Elizabethan Era proved to have influences on Shakespeare’s work, just like family relationship has effects on aspects today. A.M Homes once said, “Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren.

    The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from” (Family Quotes). This statement agrees with both eras, Elizabethan England and Modern U.S. that even though families have good and bad events throughout their lifetime. Families will create their own story that will be the base of the society and the flagpole.

    Family structure in both time periods was different in many ways; it was much stricter and to the law back then. Even though the way family structure is set up in both eras is similar. Women in modern families have a lot more say in how their life will go then the women in Elizabethan England. The way marriage, divorce, and the parent – child relationship is certainly more different. Looking from one culture to the next allows society to understand the differences and similarities between family structure and how things are done. It lets one see how things are different and the improvements and downgrade the cultures made.

    Works Cited
    Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Family Life.” Elizabethan Era. Ed. Linda Alchin. N.p., 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2013. – – -. “Elizabethan Wedding and Marriages.” Elizabethan Era. Ed. Linda Alchin. Linda Alchin, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. Brown, Susan L. “Marriage.” World Book. N. pag. World Book Student. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. Coontz, Stephanie. “American Family: Where We Are Today.” Stephanie Coontz. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. Danes, Chuck. “Family Quotes.” Abundance and Happiness. Ed. Chuck Danes. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. Eisenach, Emlyn. “Divorce.” Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. By Eisenach. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. N. pag. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. “Family Quotes.” Notable Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. Nock, Steven L. “Divorce.” World Book. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. World Book Student. Web. 14 Apr. 2013. Pan, Wendy. “Parent – Child Relationships – What’s the Problem with Them?” Ezine Articles. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. Secara, Maggie. “Betrothal & Wedding.” Life in Elizabethan England. Ed. Maggie Secara. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2013. Stewart, Gail B. Life in Elizabethan London. Farmington Hills: Lucent, 2003. Print.

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