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Marrying young in Shakespeare's timeWe all accept Paris' words that women of Juliet's...

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chriseparker | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:53 PM via web

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Marrying young in Shakespeare's time

We all accept Paris' words that women of Juliet's age and younger marry and are often "happy mothers made." Over the years, this perception that young people married in their early teens in Shakespeare's time has been accepted as fact by most who study Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in general.

Instead, research shows that the average age for first marriages was 25 or 26 for women and 27 or 28 for men. Among the aristocracy, the average marriage age for women was 19 to 21, and the average age for men was 24 to 26. Since the age of consent for girls was 12, for boys 14, marriages did take place between young teens, but these marriages at such early ages were rare and not generally considered the best age for marriage. (See Bruce W. Young's Family Life in the Age of Shakespeare, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009, p. 41.)

For years I accepted the common perception that young people often married in their early teens in Shakespeare's time.

I would be most interested to hear how learning the facts about marriage age in Shakespeare's time affects other people's feelings or perceptions about Romeo and Juliet.

 

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litlady33 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:37 PM (Answer #2)

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This is very interesting. I, too, always accepted that it was common for people to marry young in Shakespeare's age. When my students are apalled to find out how young Juliet is, I simply reply, "That's how it was back then."

I think the discovery that marrying at such a young age wasn't as common as I previously thought doesn't necessarily change my perception of the play, but validates my feelings that Shakespeare was trying to highlight the foolishness of the young love and the importance of taking things slowly. Certainly Shakespeare wants readers to see how immature Romeo and Juliet are, and knowing that it wasn't so common for young people to get married makes me think that Shakespeare would agree the two had no business getting married and that the adults should have been more responsible.

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mwalter822 | Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted July 14, 2012 at 1:51 AM (Answer #3)

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Thanks for posting that interesting information. I was surprised. However, it doesn't really change my perspective on Romeo and Juliet. I don't think it matters if early marriage was the norm or not as far as Shakespeare's message was concerned. Even if Romeo and Juliet never married I think the story could have held up. Just the fact that they were kept apart by forces beyond their control is enough to generate the conflict that led to the tragic ending.

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chriseparker | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted July 14, 2012 at 1:13 PM (Answer #4)

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This is very interesting. I, too, always accepted that it was common for people to marry young in Shakespeare's age. When my students are apalled to find out how young Juliet is, I simply reply, "That's how it was back then."

I think the discovery that marrying at such a young age wasn't as common as I previously thought doesn't necessarily change my perception of the play, but validates my feelings that Shakespeare was trying to highlight the foolishness of the young love and the importance of taking things slowly. Certainly Shakespeare wants readers to see how immature Romeo and Juliet are, and knowing that it wasn't so common for young people to get married makes me think that Shakespeare would agree the two had no business getting married and that the adults should have been more responsible.

I agree! The adults in Romeo and Juliet's lives should have provided more guidance. This especially applies to the Friar, who deserted Juliet at that crucial moment in the tomb.

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creativethinking | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

Posted July 14, 2012 at 3:51 PM (Answer #5)

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Wow, thanks for posting this... I've taught the play for three years now, and I was never aware of that historical tidbit. When I think about the fact that Juliet was young to get married even by the standards of Shakespeare's time, for me it heightens the tragedy of the story even more. When I first read Romeo and Juliet in high school, I understood the foolishness of the heroes and sort of thought "how idiotic are THEY?" But once I returned to it as an adult, my feelings softened... especially when I see my students, who are around the same age. Now, when I read it, my reaction is more like: "Gosh, who is looking out for these lost, angry kids?"

To now know that both the arranged and spontaneous marriages of Juliet were even more needless and rushed than I previously believes increases my sense of injustice done to these young characters. Juliet was a pawn in a business transaction (her father's agreement with Paris), and Romeo was a puppet for his trusted Friar Lawrence's desire to bring peace to Verona.

Romeo and Juliet (not to mention Tybalt, Bevolio, et. al.) really are "just kids." That really seals the tragedy for me.

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wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted July 15, 2012 at 4:26 PM (Answer #6)

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I appreciate the information.  I didn't realize that the average marriage age was older than the late teens.  It still doesn't change my opinion of the story.  I think Juliet married Romeo because he was her choice.  Surely she was aware that her father was seeking a mate for her.  Perhaps part of her willingness to rush into a marriage was because she wanted to make her choice before her father made one for her.  Of course, her father intended for her to marry at a later age, but the events of the play changed his mind.  While a marriage at 14 might not have been the norm, I still don't think it was as unusual as it is today.  Perhaps I am wrong about that, but I doubt the people of Shakespeare's time would have reacted in the same way that people would today.  

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Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 15, 2012 at 8:17 PM (Answer #7)

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Shakespeare married when he was eighteen, so he was a little out of the norm himself.  I think Shakespeare uses the ages of Romeo and Juliet to intensify the tragedy of the story, like a hyperbole almost.  Their choices and their deaths are all the more unforgettable and devastating because they were so young. 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 19, 2012 at 4:52 AM (Answer #8)

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By "Shakespeare's time" is the Elizabethan Age in England implied, or is all of Europe included because Romeo and Juliet are from Verona, Italy, in the fourteenth century, not the sixteenth, which is Shakespeare's era? According to a few sources, girls married very young in medieval Europe. Here is what one site posts to the Internet,

During the medieval age,....A marriage could take place from the age of seven if there was consent, but for the girl, consent could come from her parents even if she herself didn’t want the match.

 Read more at Suite 101: Women in the 14th Century: The Roles Played by Medieval Women in Britain | Suite101.com http://suite101.com/article/women-in-the-14th-century-a196534#ixzz212bJgZMf

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litteacher8 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted September 29, 2012 at 9:09 PM (Answer #9)

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This is an interesting idea, but Romeo and Juliet might have taken place earlier.  Also, it took place in Italy and not in England.  Your statistics do show that aristocrats marry younger, and they were both from aristocratic families.  We also know that Shakespeare took the idea for the play from a poem written earlier.

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