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Society's view of marriage has changed a great deal since Elizabethan times.
It was not at all unusual for a girl to be married by the age of eighteen. In fact, a woman in her middle to late twenties would often have been considered a "spinster," and doubt would abound as to whether that woman would ever marry. Men could marry at any age. It was not unusual for a man to marry later in life.
A single woman's consent was not at all necessary in marriage. A woman was expected to respect her father's choices for her, and she would be expected to do so with her husband as well. This only changed if a woman was a widow. The social requirements regarding lifestyle and marriage did not apply to widows. With enough wealth left by a husband to support herself, she could live as she chose. Without provisions made by a husband, she might marry again, or become a companion for a wealthy female relative or a member of elite society, in order to support herself.
Choosing a spouse for a young lady would have been left to a father or male relative if her father was deceased. Often times, between families of means and high social standing, a love match was not the usual way of things: marriages were arranged between the father of the bride and the father of the groom. Contracts of marriage might even be drawn up while the "male and female" in question were very young, perhaps still infants. If the marriage was not arranged, a young man could speak to a girl's parents for permission to court their daughter.
In terms of the roles of women, girls were not educated in the same way as boys. Young ladies might have tutors to teach reading and writing, and perhaps language (this was specific to the home), but she was primarily instructed in sewing, perhaps music and dance, comportment, and learning to "manage" a household, if she came from a home of wealth and forward-thinking parents.
When a woman married, she belonged to her husband. She was expected to support him in all things and do what she was told. She had no legal voice. She, ideally, brought wealth to her marriage, and then she provided her husband with an heir. Because of primogeniture (where wealth was inherited by the oldest male child of the family), boy children were more desirable than girls.
Failing to be a submissive, obedient and dutiful wife was considered a sin against God. Women were ostensibly supportive of their husband in all things.
I believe society's views on marriage have changed dramatically since Elizabethan times!
First of all, most men and women did not marry for love. Their marriages were mainly a jostling for money, positition, and power, and many were forced into marriages they were unhappy in. Young people were often used as pawns in an adult world to be traded, bartered, and wasted. Love was seldom considered a necessity when choosing a mate, and if it came along, it was considered a bonus! In fact, love was such a sought after commodity that poets like Shakespeare wrote beautiful, inspiring sonnets and tragic plays like Romeo and Juliet which speak of unrequitted love and heartbreak.
Women, especially, were consdered inferior when it came to choosing a partner. Most of the time, their marriages were pre-arranged by their parents and they had little or no say in the transaction. They were basically treated like cattle at the local auction--bought, sold, and traded at will! A young girl must have dreaded the often terrifying, gloomy, fearful prospect of marriage. If she happened to be given to a young, good-looking, kind man, she was very fortunate indeed!
Men generally married for the dowary their prospective brides brought to them. Often a man moved up considerably in the social ranks of society by a good-placed marriage. Alliances between countries were formed; wars were prevented; kingdoms were perpetuated; a family's good name, fortune, and title was protected.
Another important fact was that most women were considered old maids if they were not married off by the age of 18. It was not uncommon for a girl to be married by the time she was 16.
Today, both men and women are free to choose their mate and most do it for the love and companionship they find. Dating is a common practice by all in an effort to find that "perfect someone." Age is still a big factor in that a minor under the age of 17 has to have his or her parent's consent. Most people marry by the time they're 25, but a lot wait until they are in their thirties or forties due to career or lifestyle choices.
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