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
Margaret Loftus Ranald (essay date winter 1979)
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...
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Ann Jennalie Cook (essay date 1981)
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...
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Suzanne Gossett (essay date 1991)
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...
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Marliss C. Desens (essay date 2001)
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...
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Criticism: Marriage In The Comedies
Coppélia Kahn (essay date spring 1975)
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...
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Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)
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...
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Janet Adelman (essay date 1989)
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”...
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Criticism: Marriage In The Romances
Stephen Orgel (essay date fall 1984)
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...
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D'Orsay W. Pearson (essay date 1987)
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...
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Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date winter 1989)
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...
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Criticism: Marriage In The Tragedies
Michael D. Bristol (essay date 1990)
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...
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Lisa Jardine (essay date 1991)
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.
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Lisa Hopkins (essay date 1998)
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...
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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...
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