Marriage is often described as a special bond held between individuals after they fall in love, however in the Elizabethan era in Europe, this was not the case. In this paper I will be discussing how Shakespeare and his ideologies of marrying for love as opposed to monetary and property gain through arranged marriages, influenced the traditional and societal views on marriage during the Elizabethan era in Europe. Shakespeare wrote many plays, poems, and sonnets, that all portrayed marriage as a means to come out of love as opposed to the societal and traditional view that love comes after the arranged marriage.
In the Elizabethan Woman written by Carroll Camden, Camden explains that during the Elizabethan era, marriage was based on the need for procreation as well as property or monetary gain, love was not the necessary component. The main purpose after marriage for women in the Elizabethan era was to raise the children and take care of the household, and she was meant to be seen and not heard. She had to be loyal and obedient to her husband and was required to maintain all the household duties.In Clark Talley’s thesis paper entitled Shakespeare’s Concept of Love and Marriage As Presented in Ten Selected Plays, Talley writes that the main purpose of a husband in the relationship was to be the decision maker of the household, he had to be able to command respect from his children and have his wife conform to the way he runs the household. The husband was also to use secrecy when bringing his male friends over as if she were to cheat or commit adultery it would be his fault as he put the temptation before her.
Due to the plethora of problems and gender roles in the marriage there is no surprise when love was not mentioned in the same sentence as marriage and was not the basis of marriage, even though it was expected to follow, but marriage was mainly practiced for the practical obligations that follow. The way Shakespeare displayed love and marriage in his plays and sonnets was that love was the key component to a successful relationship. This strayed from the traditional belief, Shakespeare’s ideologies of love can be seen in The Tempest, in the relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda. Their relationship can be shown simply by the quote “Most sure, the goddess On whom these airs attend! Vouchsafe my prayer May know if you remain upon this is land; And that you will some good instruction give Howl may bear me here: my prime request, ‘Which I do last pronounce, is, O you wonder! If you be maid or no’?” (Shakespeare 1. i1. 421-426) This quote shows how Ferdinand feels when he first meets Miranda. He is completely obsessed and blind in love with her. Ferdinand compares her to a goddess and asks how he should act in her presence because he is so blown away by her beauty. Miranda feels a similar way, in The Tempest she says “I might call him / A thing divine, for nothing natural / I ever saw so noble’ (Shakespeare Lii.417-418). This quote shows Miranda’s feelings towards Ferdinand. Miranda has not seen something that is not natural and divine because she is so attracted to him. Because they are so in love they get married, their love prevails and they marry for love as opposed to marrying for monetary or property gain.
However, despite this marriage being based on love which strays from the traditional Elizabethan era marriages, it is still similar in ways of gender roles. Miranda is still a virgin and Ferdinand vows Prospero that he will not take her virginity until they are married, this was a traditional Elizabethan era tradition, women were supposed to stay virgins until after marriage to stay pure. Another example of love and marriage in one of Shakespeare’s works can be seen in A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, I won’t be discussing the relationships and marriages of all four couples in this play as three of them are not a true and accurate representation of the influence of marriage based on true love. Hippolyta is Theseus’ war prize, Titania was drugged and humiliated by Oberon, and Helena marries Demetrius who is still drugged as he never gets the antidote. These are examples of some of the typical marriages at the time, it does not reflect a love based marriage, but it does show the realistic marriages in the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare writes these marriages to show the problems with the stereotypical marriages and to attempts to show the importance of true love based marriage between Lysander and Hermia. He writes these as a warning sign for the societal view. The main and true story of love and marriage is between Lysander and Hermia. Lysander and Hermia have to overcome many obstacles before they can get married, because the in this time period the father could choose who their daughter marries, Hermia’s father Egeus does not want Lysander and Hermia to marry, rather he wishes for her to marry Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away so they can get married. Another obstacle they overcome is when Lysander is drugged and falls in love with Helena, however once receiving the antidote, he falls back in love with Hermia.
A quote that shows Lysander’s love to Hermia is “Ay me! for aught that I could ever read, Could ever hear by tale or history, The course of true love never did run smooth.” (1.1.134-136). This shows that Lysander understands that his love for Hermia is not an easy path, and that he will love her regardless of the troubles that become them. This can be seen in the play, Lysander and Hermia had to overcome many obstacles but in the end of the story their true love prevailed. Lysander and Hermia marry based on love despite Hermie’s father disapproving of their marriage, this shows how the characters were marrying based on love and not following the traditional and social norms of that era. The history of marriage in Europe in the Elizabethan era was largely dictated by the Catholic Church as well as families trying for monetary or property gain. In Amanda Mabillard’s writing; Shakespeare’s Treatment of Love and Marriage she writes how Shakespeare’s writings of love based on marriage changed the traditional and societal belief of marriages can be seen mainly in the sense of Romanticism, Shakespeare’s influence of marriage is impossible to see in the common person as wedding records were not as well kept as well as not knowing individual common lives in this time it is impossible to tell if people were marrying for love or for gain. But the change can be seen in the writings of the Elizabethan Era. In Robert Giroux’s writing of The Man Who Knew Shakespeare, he writes that a major way this can be seen is with writers such as Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson. Similarities can be seen with Spencer’s writing of “Sonnet 75” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”, both of these Sonnets revolve around love.
Shakespeare’s influence on Ben Jonson can be seen when Jonson says that he loves and adores William Shakespeare but he is very envious in his works. The works of these authors as well as Shakespeare continued to influence other writers in the future. Another way that Shakespeare influenced love and marriage was the average age of marriages. In E. A. Wrigley’s writing of English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580–1837, he writes that most people married around their late teens, and early twenties, but there were cases of people marrying in their early and mid teens. Most of these were arranged marriages but were still fairly commonplace. Arranged marriages were however, more popular around families of more noble people, but the average age of marriage in the common person, were higher. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is only fourteen, and Shakespeare shows the dangers of young marriages and love by showing the dangers of young love and the problems that surround parents and families disapproving of love, as a result of the stigma surrounding their love, Romeo and Juliet end up committing suicide. This shows how Shakespeare in one play, shows the problems surrounding families pushing their beliefs on their children’s love as well as the problems surrounding such young marriages, as a result people took note of these warning signs and young marriages were no longer so common in Europe.
These examples show how Shakespeare influenced the society at the time. In his writings he influenced more people to write in a similar way, and people fell in love with the idea of romanticism and love. This is shown In Ruth Oldman’s Shakespeare and the Culture of Romanticism. She writes that it is hard to see the direct correlation between how the writings directly affected the society at the time, but the influence can be seen in changes overtime. Shakespeare’s writings did not completely throw the world upside down, but his influence is undeniable and his ideologies can still be seen in the modern world.
- Oldman, Ruth M. E.’Shakespeare and the Culture of Romanticism ed. by Joseph M. Ortiz (review).’ Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 68 no. 2, 2014, pp. 240-242.
- Project MUSE Talley, Clark L. “SHAKESPEARE’S CONCEPT OF LOVE AND MARRIAGE AS PRESENTED IN TEN SELECTED PLAYS .” Kansas State Teachers College, Aug. 1970.
- Giroux, Robert. “The Man Who Knew Shakespeare.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2000.
- Camden, Carroll. The Elizabethan Woman. Elsevier, 1952. Mabillard, Amanda. “Shakespeare’s Treatment of Love and Marriage.” Shakespeare’s Treatment of Love and Marriage. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York :Signet Classic, 1998. Print. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
- The Tempest. Cambridge :Harvard University Press, 1958. Print. Wrigley, E. A. (1997).
- English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580–1837. Cambridge University Press. pp. 135–139.