Shakespeare's numerous depictions of marriage in his comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances suggest the pivotal importance of this subject to his dramas. Contemporary scholars are interested in Shakespeare's diverse portrayals of marriage, which present wedlock as the end of comedy, the source of historical legitimacy, the origin of tragedy, and the romantic point of reconciliation. Although marriage is ubiquitous in all of Shakespeare's works, critics observe that it is undoubtedly the central concern of at least two plays. In The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio's forceful wooing of the stubborn and shrewish Katherine (Kate) suggests that marriage may be a cruel form of punishment, although Shakespeare moderated this position for comic effect by the play's conclusion. Another ostensibly comedic play with troubling overtones, Measure for Measure depicts marriage as a contract entered not for love or romance, but as the only satisfactory solution to the vexing problem of human sexuality. The comedies and romances tend to portray matrimony as a desired end, while the tragedies and bleaker histories dramatize marriage as the cause of suffering and strife. A select survey suggests the broad range of Shakespeare's depictions of marriage: an ephemeral solution (Romeo and Juliet), an illicit or incestuous pairing (Hamlet), a source of jealousy and anxiety (Othello), an elusive prize (Love's Labour's Lost), a symbol of renewal and reconciliation (The Tempest), or quite simply a happy ending (All's Well That Ends Well). Ann Jennalie Cook (1981) illuminates differences between Shakespeare's dramatic representations of marriage and the social customs of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Cook claims that far from depicting cultural norms, Shakespeare's dramas generally reflect certain extraordinary situations in regard to courtship and marriage, extreme circumstances he may have employed to highlight elements of corruption, injustice, or absurdity associated with the institution of marriage. Margaret Loftus Ranald (1979) summarizes Shakespeare's use of English matrimonial law as a thematic and plotting device in Shakespearean drama. She contends that “marriage is the one human relationship portrayed in almost every play and almost every poem. … If we are to understand Shakespeare's plays fully, we must recover as much as possible of his views of marriage.”
Theatergoing audiences generally recognize the celebration of one or more happy marriages as a fundamental requisite to a satisfactory conclusion in Shakespearean comedy. Many contemporary scholars, however, dismiss the notion that Shakespeare's comedies can or should be understood as endorsements of marriage. Coppélia Kahn (1975) considers The Taming of the Shrew to be Shakespeare's quintessential comic dramatization of matrimony. Taking a feminist approach to the work, Khan argues that Shakespeare's comedy satirizes the concept of male dominance as a pillar of matrimonial stability and harmony by exploring Katherine's subversion of chauvinist attitudes regarding marriage. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) suggests that Shakespeare's comic nuptials demonstrate varied patterns of disruption, postponement, or dislocation brought about by feminine resistance (The Taming of the Shrew), female fear of submission (Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing), a male perception of marriage as a threat to masculine friendship (The Merchant of Venice, Love's Labour's Lost), or in some cases a combination of these factors. Janet Adelman (1989) focuses on so-called bed-tricks (clandestine exchanges of sexual partners) in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure as problematic attempts to legitimize illicit sexuality prior to marriage. Also concerned with matrimony in Measure for Measure, Michael D. Friedman's (1995) study suggests that contemporary attitudes toward wedded union and romantic love have skewed the meaning of the marriage proposals in the drama. According to Friedman, Renaissance audiences would have recognized that the play's three marriage proposals were meant as offers of recompense for male assaults on female chastity. Lisa Hopkins (see Further Reading) highlights marriage evasions in Love's Labour's Lost, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado about Nothing, declaring that Shakespeare consistently undercut expectations of marriage as the source of comic closure in these dramas.
Critics have noted that rather than a source of harmony, redemption, stability, or metamorphosis, marriages in the tragedies are often an impetus to disaster. Michael D. Bristol (1990) defines the concept of “charivari”—a festive ritual of “unmarrying” performed as a community objection to an unacceptable marriage—as a structural principle in Othello. Avoiding an interpretation of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago as psychological entities, Bristol stresses the symbolic function of these characters according to his scheme: because of racial differences between the wedded Othello and Desdemona, Othello occupies the role of the mocked clown, Desdemona is the impossible sexual object, and Iago plays the part of “de-mythologizer” by offering ironic commentary on this carnivalesque marriage of grotesque opposites. The result, according to Bristol, is a theatrical reenactment of ritualized cruelty, inscribed within the tragic downfall of Othello and victimization of Desdemona. Lisa Jardine (1991) probes the unlawful marriage of Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet, which invalidates Hamlet's succession as king of Denmark. Jardine emphasizes not only Gertrude's guilt and responsibility for entering the illegitimate union, but also her agency as an active participant, rather than as a victim of patriarchal oppression. Lisa Hopkins (1998) surveys Shakespeare's tragic marriages, suggesting that the tragedies provide valuable commentary on the use of marriage as comic resolution: whereas comedies end in marriage, tragedies begin with them. Firstly, Hopkins analyzes Romeo and Juliet, explaining that the play “inextricably intertwines marriage and death.” Hopkins also views the marriages in King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello as catalysts for tragedy. Lear's failure to accept the marriage of his youngest daughter Cordelia, the incestuous match of Gertrude and her brother-in-law Claudius, the sterility of marriage between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the socially conditioned incompatibility of Othello and Desdemona all precipitate calamity. Hopkins concludes by summarizing these catastrophic marriages as symbolically disruptive to social norms of sexuality, legitimacy, succession, or race.
The marriages in Shakespeare's romances, in contrast to his comedies and tragedies, suggest some of Shakespeare's most affirmative views on the subject. Stephen Orgel (1984) considers several interrelated issues in The Tempest, including marriage, authority, and the renunciation of power. For Orgel, the absence of Prospero's wife on the island contributes to an instability that prompts a search for a surrogate to fill the empty space, which Prospero finds in the younger generation. Using his magical powers, he undertakes to join his daughter Miranda with the shipwrecked young noble Ferdinand. The process plays out on two levels: one symbolic, the other political. Prospero's generation—characterized by loss, fraternal strife, usurpation, and exile—finds rejuvenation in the next. Simultaneously, Prospero thwarts his usurpers, foiling his brother's succession to the dukedom of Milan and quietly regaining his old authority through his daughter. Meanwhile, the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand offers a thematic gesture toward reconciliation, and begins a movement into a less discordant future. D'Orsay Pearson (1987) discusses A Midsummer Night's Dream as a depiction of harmony in marriage. Rather than accepting the traditional Renaissance view that matrimonial bliss derives from male sovereignty and feminine obedience—a feature demonstrated in the pairings of Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania—Pearson contends that Shakespeare's romantic comedy demonstrates that masculine superiority is an illusion, and instead substitutes tolerance and reciprocity for gendered hierarchy. Finally, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1989) studies Shakespeare's dramatization of the Protestant marriage ideal in Cymbeline. Simonds examines references to the emblematic patience and forbearance of the elm tree embraced and entwined by a reinforcing vine, and claims that the references to this peaceful, symbiotic union would have had moral, social, and even political relevance to Renaissance audiences on the subject of marriage.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Ranald, Margaret Loftus. “‘As Marriage Binds, and Blood Breaks’: English Marriage and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 30, no. 1 (winter 1979): 68-81.
[In the following essay, Ranald surveys the use of English matrimonial law as a thematic and plotting device in Shakespearean drama.]
The ramifications of English matrimonial law, with its numerous and confusing regulations on spousals, contracts, and impediments, had considerable influence on the plotting of Shakespeare's plays, and indeed on a great deal of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. A full understanding of the action of many plays in these two periods depends largely on a knowledge of the complexities of matrimonial law.
It is not necessary to claim that Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Wilkins, Beaumont, Fletcher, or Ford were well-trained lawyers or were otherwise possessed of any special knowledge about the canon and civil law of matrimony.1 Osmotic knowledge of matrimonial law was probably even more comprehensive and precise in Shakespeare's time than today, partly because of compulsory attendance at Sunday services during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There, in accordance with law, the congregation would hear, among other things, the prescribed homilies on matrimony. Parish priests were expected to report any breaches of matrimonial law occurring among their flock. Apparitors were...
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SOURCE: Cook, Ann Jennalie. “Wooing and Wedding: Shakespeare's Dramatic Distortion of the Customs of His Time.” In Shakespeare's Art from a Comparative Perspective, edited by Wendell M. Aycock, pp. 83-100. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1981.
[In the following essay, Cook illuminates differences between Shakespeare's dramatic representations of marriage and the social customs of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.]
Courtship and marriage are such universal experiences that audiences assume familiarity with the subject when Shakespeare presents scenes of wooing and wedding. Yet in recent years social historians have presented overwhelming evidence to show that the customs and attitudes surrounding the Elizabethans' selection of a mate were vastly different from those now held in England and America. As a consequence, the judgment we make on such lovers as Kate and Petruchio or Portia and Bassanio may be somewhat warped.
Now obviously Shakespeare's plays were not written as true-to-life reflections of the world in which he lived. Any piece of literature, even one which aims at faithful representation, falsifies in subtle but significant ways. But it is important for a proper understanding of a work that the contemporary reader or viewer minimize the falsification he brings by virtue of his experience, his naiveté, or his presuppositions. In this task history can assist literature....
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SOURCE: Gossett, Suzanne. “‘I'll Look to Like’: Arranged Marriages in Shakespeare's Plays.” In Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, pp. 57-74. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Gossett examines the tensions between romantic love and political expediency in Shakespeare's portrayal of arranged marriages in such plays as Love's Labour's Lost, Henry V, and The Tempest.]
Writing to Prince Henry in 1612 regarding marriage, Sir Walter Ralegh comments, “There is a kind of noble and royal deceiving in marriages between kings and princes; yea, and it is of all others the fairest and most unsuspected trade of betraying. It has been as ordinary amongst them to adventure or cast away a daughter, to bring some purpose to pass, as at other times, for saving of charges, to make them nuns” (Ralegh, “Marriage” 239). Daughters of royal houses were raised to expect that they would be pawns in an international alliance market. The future Queen Elizabeth was the object of marriage negotiations from the age of fourteen months, and in her fifth year her father was “lumping Elizabeth together with his niece, Margaret Douglas, and Mary Howard, widow of his base-born son, in a special bargain offer—all three girls to be bestowed by the Emperor's advice ‘upon such of the princes of Italy as shall be thought...
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SOURCE: Desens, Marliss C. “Marrying Down: Negotiating a More Equal Marriage on the English Renaissance Stage.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 14 (2001): 227-55.
[In the following excerpt, Desens remarks on the efforts of women in such works as The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, Cymbeline, and Othello to create an equal union between husband and wife by selecting men outside their own social rank.]
Much of the feminist criticism in the last decades of the twentieth century has focused on the ways in which female characters in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are bound by their society's male-constructed paradigms. A wealth of historical and legal evidence from the society that produced this drama suggests that these arguments are also relevant to life in the “real” world as well as to the fictional world depicted on stage. However, acknowledging the legal and social power of men and focusing solely on women as powerless victims in early modern England, which understandably many such studies have done initially, may cause us to miss parts of the larger picture. In any system where one group holds power, whether that group does so because of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, or any other socially constructed paradigm, some members of the subordinate group will always find ways to negotiate the system in order to gain covertly the...
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Criticism: Marriage In The Comedies
SOURCE: Kahn, Coppélia. “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage.” Modern Language Studies 5, no. 1 (spring 1975): 88-102.
[In the following essay, Kahn describes The Taming of the Shrew as a farce in which Katherine “subverts her husband's power without attempting to challenge it,” and argues that the play satirizes the concept of male supremacy in marriage.]
The Taming of the Shrew depicts the subjection of a willful woman to the will of her husband. The literary antecedents of the heroine's character have long been acknowledged; Kate's shrill tongue, anger, and intransigence mark her as the conventional shrew. But the degree to which Petruchio's characterization is molded by a social, rather than a literary, stereotype has gone unnoticed. He is animated like a puppet by the idée fixe that a man must command absolute obedience from his wife. In effect, he embodies the prevailing system of patriarchal marriage, its basic mechanisms displayed in exaggerated form.
Shakespeare lived in an age devoted to the maintenance of order through hierarchy, an age in which the creation of Eve from Adam's rib was both historical fact and article of faith. But he is never an advocate of order for order's sake; he never fails to question the moral grounds and practical effect of hierarchy. While endorsing the principle, he is skeptical of the...
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SOURCE: Neely, Carol Thomas. “Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Comedies.” In Shakespeare's ‘Rough Magic’: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 61-72. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1985.
[In the following essay, Neely suggests that Shakespeare's comic marriages demonstrate varied patterns of disruption, postponement, or dislocation brought about by feminine resistance, female fear of submission, or a male perception of marriage as a threat to masculine friendship.]
Marriage, no one doubts, is the subject and object of Shakespeare's comedies, which ordinarily conclude with weddings celebrated, re-celebrated, or consummated. But throughout these plays broken nuptials counterpoint the festive ceremonies, manifesting male and female antagonisms and anxieties which impede the movement toward marriage. The notion of “broken nuptials” is appropriated from Leo Salingar, who finds it the distinctive feature of a number of Shakespeare plays which have Italian novelle as sources.1 I extend the implications of the expression, using it to refer to all of the parodic, unusual, or interrupted ceremonies and premature, postponed, or irregular consummations which occur in nearly every comedy from Love's Labor's Lost's deferred weddings to Measure for Measure's premature consummations. The centrality of the...
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SOURCE: Adelman, Janet. “Bed Tricks: On Marriage as the End of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 151-74. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Adelman centers on Shakespeare's handling of the bed tricks in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure and examines the plays' depictions of marriage as a socialized legitimation of sexuality.]
In the midst of Hamlet's attack on deceptive female sexuality, he cries out to Ophelia, “I say we will have no moe marriage” (3.1.147). Hamlet begins with the disrupted marriage of Hamlet's mother and father; by the end of the play both the potential marriage of Hamlet and Ophelia and the actual marriage of Claudius and Gertrude have been destroyed. This disruption of marriage is enacted again in the tragedies that follow immediately after Hamlet; the author of Troilus and Cressida and Othello seems to proclaim with Hamlet, “we will have no moe marriage.” But the comedies written during this period—All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure—end conventionally in marriage; in them Shakespeare was, I think, experimenting to discover by what means he might make marriage possible again.
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Criticism: Marriage In The Romances
SOURCE: Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero's Wife.” Representations 8 (fall 1984): 1-13.
[In the following essay, Orgel considers the absence of Prospero's wife in The Tempest in relation to the play's interconnected themes of marriage, legitimacy, power, control, and renunciation.]
This essay is not a reading of The Tempest. It is a consideration of five related moments and issues. I have called it “Prospero's Wife” because some of it centers on her, but in a larger sense because she is a figure conspicuous by her absence from the play, and my large subject is the absent, the unspoken, that seems to me the most powerful and problematic presence in The Tempest. In its outlines, the play seems a story of privatives: withdrawal, usurpation, banishment, the loss of one's way, shipwreck. As an antithesis, a principle of control, preservation, re-creation, the play offers only magic, embodied in a single figure, the extraordinary powers of Prospero.
Prospero's wife is alluded to only once in the play, in Prospero's reply to Miranda's question, “Sir, are you not my father?”
Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and She said thou wast my daughter; and thy father Was Duke of Milan; and his only heir And princess: no worse issued.
Prospero's wife is identified as Miranda's mother, in a context implying...
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SOURCE: Pearson, D'Orsay W. “Male Sovereignty, Harmony and Irony in A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Upstart Crow 7 (1987): 24-35.
[In the following essay, Pearson contends that in A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare questioned the notion that male supremacy and feminine obedience lead to matrimonial harmony.]
As is well known, the belief in the male's sovereignty in marriage and subsequently as head of his household had been hammered, figuratively, into the Elizabethan consciousness. The theory was divinely sanctioned. Children were governed by commandment; women in marrying were reminded, with the authority of St. Paul, that the husband was naturally fitted to be his “wyves heade, even as Christe is the heade of the church.”1 The official “Sermon on the State of Matrimony” described woman as the “weaker vessel,” not because of lack of physical stamina but because she was “a weak creature, not endued with like strength and constancy of mind” as was her male counterpart, so that she was therefore “more prone to all weak affections and dispositions of mind. …”2 She was to be guided by a male, first her father and then her husband, who was to regard her peccadillos with tolerance: “she must be spared and borne with” (p. 554).
Moreover, the homily stressed that feminine subjugation was a source of concord or harmony in...
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SOURCE: Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “The Marriage Topos in Cymbeline: Shakespeare's Variations on a Classical Theme.” English Literary Renaissance 19, no. 1 (winter 1989): 94-117.
[In the following essay, Simonds studies Shakespeare's dramatization of the Protestant marriage ideal in Cymbeline through his references to classical emblematic imagery of the elm and vine.]
Perhaps the most emotionally satisfying stage image in Shakespeare's Cymbeline occurs in Act 5, scene 5, where it elicits from Posthumus the best poetry in the entire play: “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die” (5.5.263-64).1 This is, of course, the moment when a joyful Imogen flings her arms about the neck of her long-lost husband, who at last returns her loving embrace. Although such reunions occur elsewhere in Shakespeare's canon, this one is unusual for the haunting beauty of Posthumus' words, which are often quoted but—to my knowledge—have never been fully explained.
The matrimonial embrace is also visually unusual, since Imogen is still dressed as the boy Fidele. What we see on the stage is the rather shocking spectacle, for the early seventeenth century, of two young men (or at least of a man and a boy in masculine attire) passionately hugging one another, a sight Shakespeare was careful to avoid in his earlier plays. For example, in the finale of As You...
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Criticism: Marriage In The Tragedies
SOURCE: Bristol, Michael D. “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello.” Renaissance Drama n.s. 21 (1990): 3-21.
[In the following essay, Bristol interprets Othello in terms of “charivari”—a carnivalesque ceremony of “unmarrying” meant as an objection to a socially inappropriate marriage, in this case the union of dark-skinned Othello and white Desdemona.]
If certain history plays can be read as rites of “uncrowning” then Othello might be read as a rite of “unmarrying.” The specific organizing principle operative here is the social custom, common throughout early modern Europe, of charivari.1 The abusive language, the noisy clamor under Brabantio's window, and the menace of violence in the opening scene of the play link the improvisations of Iago with the codes of a carnivalesque disturbance or charivari organized in protest over the marriage of the play's central characters. Charivari does not figure as an isolated episode here, however, nor has it been completed when the initial onstage commotion ends.2 Despite the sympathy that Othello and Desdemona seem intended to arouse in the audience, the play as a whole is organized around the abjection and violent punishment of its central figures.
Charivari was a practice of noisy festive abuse in which a community enacted its specific objection to inappropriate marriages...
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SOURCE: Jardine, Lisa. “‘No Offence i' th' World:’ Hamlet and Unlawful Marriage.” In Uses of History: Marxist, Postmodernism and the Renaissance, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, pp. 123-39. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Jardine offers a feminist/new historicist reassessment of Gertrude's guilt in marrying her murdered husband's brother in Hamlet.]
Madam, how like you this play?
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
O, but she'll keep her word.
Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in't?
No, no, they do but jest—poison in jest. No offence i' th' world.(1)
This piece is part of the groundwork for a larger project on the relationship between cultural history and textual studies.2 It is therefore both exploratory and incomplete—characteristics which will, I hope, make the work available for use by others besides myself who are trying to make explicit some of the assumptions behind recent historically-based text-critical practice. The aim is to set up a dialogue with others writing similarly reflectively—an aim which was the starting-point for the Essex Symposium for which an earlier draft of this [essay] was...
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SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “Tragic Marriage.” In The Shakespearean Marriage: Merry Wives and Heavy Husbands, pp. 133-60. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998.
[In the following essay, Hopkins regards marriage as the source of tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello.]
‘All comedies end with a marriage,’ said the maiden English teacher at my all girls' school, ‘and all tragedies begin with them.’ In the four great works of Shakespeare's central tragic period, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, marriage functions as a site of stress, disruption and destruction of the individual identity. In three of the four plays, a marriage, or the arrangements for it, directly precipitate a disaster; as Joanna Montgomery Byles comments, ‘to some extent, it is the denial of Eros and the destructiveness of family attachments which largely contribute to the fate of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear’.1 Beginning where the comedies left off, these plays sharply develop the darker hints contained within the comic world.2
ROMEO AND JULIET
The tragedy of marriage is perhaps most immediately apparent in Romeo and Juliet. Though the lovers' attachment may seem to promise a comic outcome, the opposition of their families, sealed in the double death of Tybalt and Mercutio which follows...
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Abate, Corrine S. “‘Once more unto the breach’: Katharine's Victory in Henry V.” Early Theatre 4 (2001): 73-85.
Comments on Shakespeare's effective portrayal of Queen Katharine as an equal marriage partner to Henry V, despite the necessity that she acquiesce to a forced union for political reasons.
Berger, Jr., Harry. “Marriage and Mercifixion in The Merchant of Venice: The Casket Scene Revisited.” Shakespeare Quarterly 32, no. 2 (summer 1981): 155-62.
Concentrates on Portia's struggle with her father and Bassanio in the husband-selection scene (Act III, scene ii) of The Merchant of Venice.
Berkeley, David S., and Donald Keesee. “Bertram's Blood-Consciousness in All's Well That Ends Well.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 31, no. 2 (spring 1991): 247-58.
Maintains that the union between Helena and Bertram in All's Well That End Well suggests Shakespeare's belief that the merits of virtue justify marriage outside the boundaries of social class.
Birje-Patil, J. “Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 106-11.
Evaluates the Elizabethan legal debate regarding the creation and dissolving of marriages as a minor thematic element in Measure for...
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