illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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...

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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 inLove'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.

Margaret Loftus Ranald (essay date winter 1979)

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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 appointed to bring offenders to the attention of the bishops and the ecclesiastical courts. Public penance was frequently imposed for sexual offenses. And since penance usually took place at Sunday services with the penitents exhibited as examples to all, it must have made a strong impression on even the uneducated.

As for Shakespeare himself, the circumstances of his own marriage, and his participation in the 1610 Belott-Mountjoy lawsuit (which concerned the financial arrangements of a marriage contract), indicate that he possessed at least a well-informed layman's knowledge of English marriage law. It is certain that he read both Holinshed and Foxe, whose works contain extensive matrimonial material. And he may have had professional legal advice, the source of which has as yet defied discovery. Be that as it may, almost all of the matrimonial situations used by Shakespeare and his fellow Tudor and Stuart dramatists suggest common knowledge rather than specialized study of English canon and civil law.2 For the purposes of their plays, Shakespeare and his contemporaries merely transferred English legal practice to foreign settings.

In general, Shakespeare concerns himself with such obvious matrimonial topics as betrothals, contracting, premarital intercourse (antenuptial immorality), impediments to marriage, and the marriage ceremony itself. But matrimonial problems are used as primary plot devices on relatively few occasions. Generally, the laws of matrimony are used in varying degrees of importance as secondary plot devices, as devices to strengthen character motivation, or as the realistic substructures of imaginative dramatic creations. Around 1600-1604, however, Shakespeare seems to have become so fascinated with legal quibbles and complications that he wrote two plays, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, that require an understanding of English matrimonial law for interpretation. By contrast, earlier plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing, show Shakespeare merely experimenting with matrimonial material.


The Taming of the Shrew is full of references to matrimonial law and ceremonial practice, treated with that easy familiarity that comes from common knowledge shared among writer and audience. First of all comes betrothal contracting, with Petruchio initiating financial arrangements with Baptista before even talking with Kate. This sequence is sometimes thought to indicate the young man's fortune-hunting proclivities, but Petruchio is actually following Elizabethan custom; as a matter of prudence, the wealthy classes usually arranged financial settlements before wooing commenced. Petruchio, a typically prudent wooer, comes directly to the point, asking

… if I get your daughter's love
What dowry shall I have with her to wife?

(II. i. 119-20)3

Baptista's offer seeming satisfactory, the young wooer offers his part of the bargain, the jointure:

And for that dowry, I'll assure her of
Her widowhood, be it that she survive me,
In all my lands and leases whatsoever.
Let specialties be therefore drawn between us.
That convenants may be kept on either hand.

(II. i. 123-27)

Since this widowhood, or jointure, was the only money a wife was automatically entitled to from her husband's estate, a suitable pre-nuptial settlement was essential.4 The specialties (deeds) of which Petruchio speaks are simply those legal documents which put all such financial arrangements in the form of a contract.

The financial arrangements for Kate's marriage are quickly completed, for Baptista is so eager to get rid of a shrewish daughter that he does not haggle over terms. He does, however, insist that Petruchio gain Kate's “love,” presumably her willing consent, and this suggestion raises a good legal point. Baptista knows that since Petruchio will now become acquainted with the shrewish disposition of his lady, he will be unable to break the contract on the ground of the impediment “certain conditions unknown”; he will be unable to claim that he had not been made aware of Kate's violent behavior and lacerating tongue.

Baptista acts quite differently in the marriage of his outwardly docile daughter, Bianca. Since she has more than one wooer, he decides quite literally to sell her marriage to the highest bidder:

Faith, gentlemen, now I play a merchant's part
And venture madly on a desperate mart.

(II. i. 328-29)

'Tis deeds must win the prize, and he of both
That can assure my daughter greatest dower
Shall have Bianca's love.

(II. i. 344-46)

Obviously he is not considering the compatibility of the parties, since one of the suitors, the old man Gremio, would clearly prove an unhappy match. Even though the books of matrimonial conduct always urged parents to consider the age and compatibility of the couple, Baptista operates as an all-powerful father and neglects a necessary prerequisite for valid matrimony, the free and unforced consent of Bianca. At the same time he takes care to keep Gremio as a candidate in reserve should the “supposed Lucentio” default on his generous offer. Bianca is simply informed by messenger of her father's decision; she is expected to agree to the marriage he has arranged.

Baptista does not dare to act in such a high-handed manner in the matching of the independent-minded Kate, and Shakespeare dramatizes this contrast through the wild wooing in which Petruchio espouses himself to his witty adversary. Interestingly, however, Petruchio begins his courtship by telling Kate that she has no choice other than to marry the man her father has approved of:

                                                                                                    Your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife, your dowry 'greed upon
And will you, nill you, I will marry you.
Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn,
For by this light, whereby I see thy beauty—
Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well—
Thou must be married to no man but me.

(II. i. 271-77)

Kate says nothing here, and the betrothal is ratified by what is in effect a private exchange of consents.

In the above speech one should note one important point on which the interpretation of matrimonial contracts depended. There is some difficulty in distinguishing between the present and future tenses in English, and while the offer of marriage here would appear to be in the future tense, one must also consider the differentiation between “will” in the intentional sense, and “will” as an auxiliary in the future tense.

This distinction has considerable legal importance, because English canon and civil law recognized two kinds of betrothal contracts, whose effects were determined by the tense employed. A vow made in words of the present tense (sponsalia per verba de praesenti) constituted an agreement to enter into the married state immediately. A vow in words of the future tense (sponsalia per verba de futuro) was merely a promise to marry at some future time. A de praesenti spousal created the status of virtual matrimony at that moment, without future action on the part of the persons concerned. It could even be upheld in courts against a later, consummated contract. Henry Swinburne, the best Stuart authority on the subject, asserts that these “Spousals … are in Truth and Substance very Matrimony indissoluble.”5 On the other hand, a contract made in words of the future tense was not absolutely binding and might be dissolved without much difficulty, provided physical consummation had not taken place, because “this is no present Marriage, no present Espousals, no present Contract of Matrimony, no present taking of Husband and Wife, nor that Present Bond of Assurance, which can never be dissolved, as the only Cause and Essence thereof.”6 Spousals de futuro signified merely an agreement to marry at some time, specified or unspecified, in the future.

Ambiguity of tense occurs again in The Taming of the Shrew in the public betrothal of Kate and Petruchio, where Petruchio uses what appears to be a de futuro public spousal:

… we have 'greed so well together
That upon Sunday is the wedding day.

(II. i. 299-300)

After her angry retort “I'll see thee hang'd on Sunday first,”7 Kate remains silent, and by the legal principle that “silence means consent” she is considered to have agreed to the contract. Baptista takes both their hands, joins them, and blesses the union, while Gremio and Tranio joyfully act as the two required witnesses. To be sure, this ceremony is not a religious one, but evidence seems to indicate that the formal church espousal ceremony had ceased with the Reformation, despite Shakespeare's later reference to the ritual in Twelfth Night (IV. iii. 22-31, and V. i. 150-57).8 One departure from the usual form of spousing is that there is no exchange of tokens in the form of rings, gifts, or coins. But Petruchio promises them for the wedding. The couple then seal the bargain with a betrothal kiss: “And kiss me, Kate, ‘We will be married a Sunday’” (II. i. 326). The formality of this espousal is in sharp contrast to that of Bianca, who elopes and is married clandestinely but nonetheless legally, in the “church with the priest, clerk, and some sufficient honest witnesses” (IV. iv. 91-92).

Kate is eventually married in a public ceremony, but not before Petruchio has given her a bad fright by letting her think herself jilted at the altar:

Now must the world point at poor Katherine
And say, ‘Lo, there is mad Petruchio's wife
If it would please him come and marry her.’

(III. ii. 18-20)

Apparently, as Kate notes (III. ii. 15-16), the banns of marriage have already been called. As far as she and everyone else are concerned, then, the marriage needs only the ceremony in church, in facie ecclesiae, to ratify the contract. Kate quite correctly refers to herself as “Petruchio's wife,” because the espousal, even if de futuro, gave the parties the right to call each other husband and wife. Should Petruchio now not come to claim her, Kate would be in a very difficult position. Although she would have grounds for claiming that Petruchio had abrogated the contract through his failure to appear, her reputation would be ruined because it would appear that Petruchio knew something detrimental about her which caused him to renege on the marriage. She would be thought “damaged goods” and therefore unmarriageable.9 At this point Kate is indeed deserving of sympathy: she sees herself as a permanent laughingstock, condemned to a life of frustrated spinsterhood. Hence the arrival of Petruchio, no matter how late and no matter how ill-dressed, comes as a relief to the young woman who is almost irrevocably committed to marry him.

Next comes the wedding ceremony, and Shakespeare makes it follow the ritual of his own day very closely. He does not reproduce the ceremony itself on the stage, however, and in this case one wonders whether a staging of the reported scene (II. ii) might have been considered blasphemous. Petruchio demonstrates his iconoclasm by reducing the essentials of the marriage ritual to broad humor. His reply to the priest's asking “If Katherine should be his wife” is shockingly irreverent: “ay, by gogs wouns.” And he frightens the congregation and the bride by cuffing the priest. With his stamping, swearing, and generally violent behavior, Petruchio succeeds in terrifying Kate and horrifying the wedding guests. He also reduces to shambles the nuptial meal of wine-soaked cakes (“sops”) and sweets customarily given to guests before they leave the church.10 Even the chaste bridal kiss is not exempt from Petruchio's brusque irreverence:

… he took the bride about the neck
And kissed her lips with such a clamorous smack
That at the parting all the church did echo.

(II. ii. 173-75)

Then, while insisting that Katherine accompany him away immediately after the ceremony, Petruchio carefully details her new position as his wife: she is his sole property, a femme couverte whose legal personality is completely subsumed in that of her husband:

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.

(II. ii. 226-28)

From this point on, the action of the play is devoted to showing how Kate learns to accommodate herself to this new status without totally losing her own individuality.

Obviously in this play Shakespeare is using matrimonial law and practice in a manner subsidiary to and supportive of the structure of the plot. He garners humor from familiar situations and develops the characters of both Kate and Petruchio through their ways of dealing with matrimonial law and the conjugal relationship.

A similar strategy may be seen, though to a lesser extent, in The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, where Shakespeare makes use of matrimonial impediments which are peripheral to the main action but which support and intensify character motivation. In The Merchant of Venice the impediment of disparitas cultus, which forbade marriage between baptized and unbaptized persons, gives Jessica an acceptable reason for her change of religion.

Similarly, Shakespeare's use of the impediment of “public honesty” in Hamlet helps to intensify Hamlet's disgust with the matrimonial situation of his mother and Claudius. According to English law, the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius would have been declared null and void ab initio on the basis of affinity, since Gertrude had previously been married to her husband's brother.11 The Ghost's description of Claudius as “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” thus effectively states the canonical view of such a marriage in Shakespeare's England, whether or not adultery had occurred during the lifetime of the older Hamlet. Further, Claudius is guilty of the canonical impediment of criminality, the murder of the party who obstructs a marriage. Revulsion against Gertrude's sexuality is therefore only part of the reason for Hamlet's rage and horror; Hamlet's mother and uncle are living in a relationship that most Elizabethans would probably have recognized instantly as illegal and technically incestuous.12


On occasion the niceties of matrimonial law can be integral to the plot. This is first shown in the case of Much Ado About Nothing, where the action really turns on the marriage of Claudio and Hero rather than on the brilliant wit of Benedick and Beatrice. In this play the marriage of Claudio and Hero should be taken as representing the Elizabethan norm, solidly rooted in those same conventions detailed in The Taming of the Shrew, with Claudio in fact the shrewd, hardheaded fortune-hunter that Petruchio has alleged himself to be. Similarly, Hero typifies the modest maiden of conduct books and marriage manuals, the docile young woman that Bianca at first seems to be.13

From the beginning of his wooing, Claudio seems to be a young man with his eye set on marrying a rich wife. He says that he was first struck with the modesty of Hero, “the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” (I. i. 165-66). But as he continues, he takes care not to commit himself until Don Pedro, his patron, gives his blessing to the union, noting that “the lady is very well worthy” (I. i. 196-97). To this Claudio replies, “You speak this to fetch me in, my lord” (I. i. 198). These are hardly the words of a lover, and G. K. Hunter, the New Arden editor, notes the harsh meanings of cheat or beguile that belong to the word “fetch.” Some seventy lines later, we are told that Hero is Leonato's only child and heir. At this point Claudio launches into “romantic” speeches, but he still speaks of “liking” rather than love; he avoids committing himself irrevocably.

The matchmaking then proceeds by way of intermediaries, according to the decorous Elizabethan pattern, but it is complicated by Leonato's belief that Don Pedro is wooing for himself. Hero, the submissive daughter, is expected to accept the patron just as readily as the protégé; similarly, Claudio seems prepared to give up Hero if Don Pedro wants her for himself. At the beginning of the play, then, Claudio is less the romantic young man in love than the ambitious young soldier primarily concerned with his own advancement. The action of the play proceeds on the premise that before Claudio can be worthy of Hero he must learn how to love. He must learn that marriage is more than a business arrangement.

Claudio is espoused twice in the play, and in both cases the contracts are de praesenti, notable largely because of the matter-of-fact and businesslike tone of the consents, so different from the unpredictability and indeed the warm humor of Petruchio's praise of Kate. In the first instance the spousal takes place in the home of the bride with her father performing the ritual. No actual financial bargaining is shown, by contrast with The Taming of the Shrew, but apparently since Don Pedro has “broke with her father and his goodwill obtained” (I. iii. 268-69), the financial arrangements are satisfactory. Leonato carefully points out the worth of Hero as a marriage bargain:

Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes. His grace hath made the match, and all grace say amen to it.

(II. i. 270-72)

Claudio says nothing, but on Beatrice's prompting he speaks his words of consent:

Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange.

(II. i. 274-77)

The modest Hero then remains silent until Beatrice takes command to suggest that her cousin stop Claudio's mouth with a kiss. As in The Taming of the Shrew, the young woman's silence constitutes constructive consent, which is then ratified by the spousal kiss. Now, since Claudio's words were couched in the present tense, the two are husband and wife in everything except bed, and the union is consequently all but indissoluble. Nonetheless, they should not anticipate the religious rites by physical consummation.

No spousal gifts are exchanged here, but one need not expect the totality of legally-sanctioned ritual in a drama. As usual, Shakespeare gives enough detail so that the situation will be recognizable, perhaps suppressing the remainder for reasons of dramatic economy. The day of marriage is set, and Claudio sounds like an ardent bridegroom when he suggests that the ceremony take place the next day: “Time goes on crutches till Love have all his rites” (II. i. 317-18). (Evidently this is to be a marriage without the calling of the banns—something permitted under English law if a dispensation had been obtained, something that Shakespeare well knew from his own marriage.) When Claudio offers to accompany Don Pedro to Arragon immediately after the consummation of his marriage—a proposal that argues ambition rather than ardor or uxoriousness—it becomes clear that his feelings are not very deeply rooted in this marriage. We can thus understand the ease with which Claudio believes the allegations of Hero's misconduct, despite the flimsy quality of the evidence.

In Don John, however, Shakespeare portrays a villain well versed in matrimonial law. Don John makes use of the one legal loophole that would invalidate a contract de praesenti: antenuptial immorality with someone other than the affianced. Robert Cleaver notes that a contract may be invalidated “if either of them … haue committed adulterie after the contract.”14 Hero's adultery (had it indeed taken place) would have constituted a breaking of the marriage contract, unless Claudio decided, knowing of the fault, to ignore and thereby condone it. But Claudio chooses to repudiate Hero publicly at the altar. It would be a mistake, however, as Charles T. Prouty and Nadine Page have pointed out, to conclude that Claudio is unnecessarily cruel. He is merely acting in conformity with Elizabethan conventions and safeguarding his legal position. Only by public defamation would a duped Elizabethan bridegroom have believed himself suitably revenged on his dishonest bride and her family and absolved of all responsibility for the marriage-breaking.15

Shakespeare manages the repudiation scene with great dramatic skill, gradually building suspense by his emphasis on the traditional wedding preparations before the couple reach the altar. The marriage then begins, following the form laid down in the Book of Common Prayer. But as soon as the priest makes what is usually a pro forma request that any impediments to the match be revealed, Claudio denounces Hero and abrogates the contract on the grounds of her unchastity. In the confusion Leonato thinks of the one legal point that would constitute an extenuating circumstance:

Dear my lord, if you, in your own proof,
Have vanquished the resistance of her youth
And made defeat of her virginity—
I know what you would say. If I have known her,
You will say she did embrace me as a husband,
And so extenuate the forehand sin.

(IV. i. 43-48)

Leonato is here quite correct in terms of English law. But it is important to note the words “extenuate the forehand sin,” since the situation has sometimes been misunderstood. Contrary to the views of some earlier scholars, neither de praesenti nor de futuro spousals conferred all the physical rights of marriage.16 A spousal improperly ratified by premarital physical consummation formed a union that was valid, but irregular;17 the action was always deplored18 and ecclesiastical penalties were usually imposed upon the participants.19 These penalties usually involved public penance, and in some rare cases excommunication, but this latter sentence was usually voided on payment of a fee (in York, for example, the fine was two shillings and sixpence).20 The couple were then obliged to ratify their union by recelebration in the parish church.

This is what Leonato wishes Claudio to do. The young man does not wish to be tied to a “contaminated stale,” however, and speedily disabuses Leonato, alleging Hero's adultery with someone other than the betrothed. Claudio eventually learns the truth, and in his repentance he purges himself of his past faults, is forced to reassess his own behavior, and finally comes to know himself. At this point he is worthy of Hero. In agreeing to marry the “daughter” of Antonio, sight unseen, he demonstrates a new humility, and a desire to make amends for his false judgment. He then contracts his second de praesenti spousals with the disguised Hero: “I am your husband if you like of me” (V. iv. 58). This second vow is very different in tone from Claudio's earlier, somewhat arrogant giving of himself to Hero (II. i. 274-77). Leonato is satisfied, but manages to twist the knife in the wound by pointedly referring to the lady's excellent financial position: “she alone is heir to both of us” (V. i. 277). In addition, both Antonio and Leonato take care that Claudio recite his vow in the presence of a priest and other witnesses before he is permitted to see Hero's face.

Actually this latter precaution is rather unnecessary, though it does provide a fine coup de théâtre: Claudio could not have refused Hero once her innocence had been proven. With the removal of the impediment of antenuptial immorality, the original spousal contract would have been automatically reinstated. Nevertheless, when Hero reveals herself, there is no doubt that Claudio is more than willing to perform on both his contracts; the two are indeed husband and wife by virtue of both past and present espousals.

It may be objected that Claudio gets off very lightly, by being permitted to marry the lady he had defamed. And today one may wonder about Hero's judgment in accepting Claudio as her husband. It must be recalled, however, that Hero could not marry any man except Claudio without tacitly confirming the charge of immorality. Further, even if Claudio had succeeded in having his first spousal contract declared void, all his protestations of Hero's innocence would have meant little if he had then refused to marry her.21 Her reputation would have been ruined and her fate similar to that feared by Kate—permanent spinsterhood.

Obviously Benedick and Beatrice do not require detailed consideration from this point of view. Suffice it to say that they too enter into a spousal contract in words of the present tense. Shakespeare uses their somewhat uncanonical but quite legal exchange of vows as a means of developing their merry and witty characters. Like Kate and Petruchio, they are iconoclastic and humorous as they give their free and unforced consents before witnesses and ratify their contract with the ritual spousing kiss.


Detailed studies of Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well already exist, but some comments on the legal questions they raise are in order here.22

The plot of Measure for Measure is deeply concerned with the same matrimonial problem as that treated in Much Ado About Nothing: the nature of spousal contracting. As Ernest Schanzer has pointed out, Claudio and Juliet are contracted to each other in a de praesenti espousal, for Claudio specifically says:

Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady, she is fast my wife
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. …

(I. ii. 140-48)

Quite clearly, their consummated contract is a union that in English law would be valid but irregular, arising from a “true contract” de praesenti made in secret between the lovers, but not ratified by public ceremony in facie ecclesiae. Though it carries a capital penalty rather than an ecclesiastical punishment,23 the “Viennese” law against fornication is similar to the English ecclesiastical law against antenuptial immorality. Isabella's initial reaction to the news of her brother's offense and imprisonment would have been understandable to anyone familiar with the English ecclesiastical situation. Her words “O let him marry her” (I. iii. 49), indicate the usual answer to antenuptial immorality: that the lovers be permitted to marry in the church after suitable penance (something that the Duke arranges in the fifth act of the play). Claudio's imprisonment and close brush with death would have seemed sufficient penance for both parties, particularly when Juliet has also confessed and repented of her sin (II. iii. 34-35), willingly accepting an even heavier share of the blame than Claudio.

The case of Angelo and Mariana is somewhat different, because their espousal appears to have been a conditional one dependent on payment of a dowry. Such a contract would have been classified as de futuro. It would have become de praesenti (and hence almost indissoluble) only after the fulfillment of the condition (here the exchange of money); it would have lapsed automatically on failure to perform on the terms of the contract.24 Clearly the pecuniary provisions of the contract between Mariana and Angelo were violated. But then Angelo had taken a reprehensible action by dishonestly accusing Mariana of antenuptial immorality with another man, an allegation which, if true, would automatically have voided even a de praesenti contract. But Mariana still loves him and considers herself morally bound by the contract. Her physical ratification of the contract through the bed-trick would create another valid but irregular union. A fine distinction worth noting, however, is that a recalcitrant Angelo could have invoked the impediment of error personae had such a case come to trial before an ecclesiastical court.

But the really important thing to observe here is that Shakespeare's conception of foreign canon law is defective. In the Vienna of Measure for Measure Angelo would have committed the capital civil offense of fornication. In the historical Vienna of Shakespeare's time he would have committed the same offense under the Roman canon law that would have been in force there. In Europe after the Council of Trent (1546-63) such an offense would have constituted a mortal sin and the union would have been declared null and void. No extenuating circumstances would have been admitted, although later dispensation and permission to marry would probably have been possible.25 Both Angelo and Mariana would thus have been liable to ecclesiastical punishment under Roman canon law as well as punishment under the statute which is the basic premise of the play. What Shakespeare is doing, in other words, is transferring the English canon and civil law of marriage to Vienna without concerning himself with legal anachronisms.

Despite the disguised Duke's assurances to the contrary, then, there is sin in the bed-trick substitution. But the sin is lessened by the existence of the conditional spousal that would “extenuate the forehand sin.” One might also argue, however, that the earlier contract is still in effect, since Angelo's allegation of Mariana's sexual offense is untrue and a dowry might still be paid. In this case, the bed-trick would reinstate the earlier spousal and make it indissoluble.

The couple are married in church, and as in Much Ado we are led to question the motivation of a woman who would even wish to marry the man who has destroyed her reputation. Certainly love is an irrational passion, but again we must recognize the fact that in a similar Elizabethan or Jacobean situation Mariana would have been considered immoral and hence unmarriageable except to Angelo. In joining himself to her, he would either be affirming her innocence or expressing his willingness to accept her despite her alleged past. But the marriage in Act V also develops another aspect of matrimonial law—inheritance. With the Duke's insistence on having the religious ceremony performed, the possible impediment of error personae is removed and the relationship is thereby rendered completely indissoluble, a union breakable only by death. Mariana is now an honest woman, and any child she may have conceived will be legitimate. Even more important, as Angelo's widow she will be entitled to her “widowhood,” her jointure or share of Angelo's estate on his death. But now the Duke goes even further, granting Mariana the entirety of Angelo's possessions “To buy … a better husband” (V. i. 421). This is a very tempting offer: it would free Mariana from a husband who has not treated her kindly, give her a chance of revenge, and leave her a rich widow who under English law was entitled to control her own property and bestow her hand where she herself pleased. Mariana is being tested; she is placed in a position to choose between love and wealthy independence, mercy and justice. She opts for love and mercy, taking Angelo as a husband, despite the wrong he has done her. The play thus ends with reconciliation, attained by means of legalistic maneuvers that give added depth to the admirable and forgiving wife.


All's Well That Ends Well is usually regarded as a twin to Measure for Measure, chiefly because of its variation on the bed-trick.26 But the major action of the play really depends on two other matrimonial problems: the enforced consent of Bertram, and Helena's insistence on gaining her conjugal rights.

At the beginning of the play Bertram is a fatherless minor of noble birth and consequently a ward of the King. The duties of a guardian were threefold: (1) he should oversee the education, both mental and moral, of his ward; (2) he should judiciously administer the estates of his ward, taking care to prevent wastage by rapacious relatives or by the inexperienced minor himself; (3) he should arrange a suitable marriage for his ward in terms of age, rank, and wealth. When Helena chooses Bertram for her husband as her reward for curing the King, therefore, she is quite correct in stating that the young man is within his gift. But the fact that Bertram is his ward does not give the King the right to insist on his marriage to a woman of lower rank, as Helena indeed is. This would constitute disparagement, a fate to which Bertram quite rightly objects. But the King outwits him by granting Helena a title of nobility to ratify her undoubted virtue and thus make her more than equal to her recalcitrant bridegroom. Where the King errs is in insisting on the young man's unwilling consent through reverential fear (per metus reverentialis), using threats that would strike fear into the heart of a strong man (metus qui posset in virum constantem cadere):

Do thine own fortunes that obedient right
Which both thy duty owes and our power claims;
Or I will throw thee from my care forever,
Into the staggers and the careless lapse
Of youth and ignorance, both my revenge and hate
Loosing upon thee in the name of justice,
Without all terms of pity. Speak! thine answer!

(II. iii. 159-65)

The effect of these words is to force Bertram into a defective consent, creating an impediment that could be invoked to dissolve the union, even if it were later consummated, since a key ingredient in matrimonial contracting was the free and unforced consent of the parties. As a result, though Bertram obeys the King and goes through the religious ceremony, he takes two eminently sensible steps to avoid a permanent matrimonial contract: (1) he refuses to consummate the marriage unless certain impossible situations are fulfilled; (2) he deliberately arranges to desert Helena. Though one may regret Bertram's lack of taste, it is important to recognize that his actions are not merely callow cruelty. For in the English law that Shakespeare was using, absence for two years inside the country or three years outside the country would have been grounds for the annulment of an unconsummated marriage.27 Further, Bertram's absence would make it impossible for Helena to bring an ecclesiastical suit to compel cohabitation.

With the object of gaining her conjugal rights, Helena now proceeds with the fulfillment of Bertram's tasks. This time no sin is involved in the bed-trick substitution. The couple have been married in facie ecclesiae, and Bertram's initially defective consent has been rectified by his later constructive consent in consummating the contract, though perhaps he could bring suit on the ground of error personae. In the final scene, however, Bertram is forced to recognize the virture and true nobility of Helena by contrast with the unsympathetic and apparently aggressive Diana to whom he had momentarily thought himself permanently bound by secret contract, ratified by exchange of rings. He willingly and thankfully gives his consent to Helena, promising to “love her dearly—ever, ever dearly” (V. iii. 313).

By the end of the play Bertram has arrived at a truer understanding and a more honest assessment of himself and is thus worthy of Helena, whose love has helped bring him to this point.


In these plays English matrimonial law is only one of the many important elements, of course, but appreciation of each is enhanced by a reasonable knowledge of the topic. In Shakespeare, marriage is the one human relationship portrayed in almost every play and almost every poem. It forms the optimistic denouement of every comedy, and it is usually described in affirmative images of harmony, order, and even transcendence. In the poems it may be either humorous or tragic, depending on the context. In the tragedies, wherever marriage relationships are subverted or destroyed, disaster ensues, until, in his bleakest play, Timon of Athens, Shakespeare even demonstrates the horror of a world completely devoid of marital love. By the last plays Shakespeare lessens his emphasis on matrimonial law, developing his treatment of marriage far beyond the use of legalism as a major plot device or as realistic detail. He now celebrates love, the kind of virtuous love that ends in marriage, the fertile relationship that purifies and ennobles humankind.

If we are to understand Shakespeare's plays fully, we must recover as much as possible of his views of marriage. To do that, we must endeavor to recover the Elizabethan and Jacobean milieu that helped shape his thought and dramaturgy, even if the search leads into the labyrinthine passages of canon and civil law.


  1. Wilkins and Beaumont were enrolled at Inns of Court, but no record remains of their legal attainments. W. Nicholas Knight, Shakespeare's Hidden Life: Shakespeare at the Law, 1585-1595 (New York: Mason and Lipscomb, 1973), believes that Shakespeare gained an extensive knowledge through his possible employment as a scrivener, as well as through participation in his father's lawsuits. I am not altogether convinced by these arguments.

  2. Note here the final scene of Ben Jonson's Epicoene, where the denouement gives a very complete summary of matrimonial impediments, culminating in error personae.

  3. All quotations and citations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  4. As a result of the institution of the jointure, wives did not have to be mentioned in the wills of their husbands, unless some unusual special bequest was made. Such may have been the case of Shakespeare's “second-best bed.” The church also used the wife's right to dower as a means of preventing clandestine marriages, because such financial arrangements were officially made “atte churche dore” before the religious ceremony in facie ecclesiae.

  5. A Treatise of Spousals, or Matrimonial Contracts (London, 1686), p. 75. This excellent account by the Judge of the Prerogative Court of York was written in 1610 and published posthumously.

  6. Ibid., pp. 56-57; see also p. 14.

  7. John Heywood reminds us of a frequently-rehearsed debate between a quarreling couple who finally conclude that hanging is preferable to wedding:

    Weddyng and hangyng are desteny I sée.
    Weddyng or hangyng, which is best, sir (quoth shée)?
    Forsooth, good wife, hangyng I think best (quoth hée)
    So help me god, good husband, so thinketh mée:
    O how like lambes, man and wyfe here agrée.

    Iohn Heywoodes Woorkes (London, 1562), sig. K.

  8. Chilton Latham Powell, English Domestic Relations 1487-1653 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1918), p. 4 n.

  9. Margaret Loftus Ranald, “The Manning of the Haggard: or The Taming of the Shrew,Essays in Literature, 1 (1974), 157.

  10. John Cordy Jeaffreson, Brides and Bridals, 2nd ed. (London, 1873), I, 231-33; Edward J. Wood, The Wedding Day in All Ages and Countries (New York, 1869), pp. 248-49.

  11. This prohibition remained in effect in England until the passage of 7 Edward VII, c. 47, popularly known as “the deceased wife's sister act,” which allowed dispensation for marriage within such a relationship of affinity.

  12. See also Jason P. Rosenblatt, “Aspects of the Incest Problem in Hamlet,Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 349-64.

  13. See Charles Tyler Prouty, The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1950), p. 53 and passim; see also Josephine Waters Bennett, Introd. to Much Ado About Nothing, Pelican Shakespeare, p. 275.

  14. R[obert] C[leaver], A Godlie Forme of Householde Gouernment (London, 1598), p. 137.

  15. Prouty, p. 46; Nadine Page, “The Public Repudiation of Hero,” PMLA, 50 (1935), 744.

  16. See particularly W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (London: Macmillan, 1931). Lawrence's view has been refuted by Davis P. Harding, “Elizabethan Betrothals and Measure for Measure,Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 49 (1950), 139-58; Ernest Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 13 (1960), 81-89; Margaret Loftus Ranald, “The Betrothals of All's Well That Ends Well,Huntington Library Quarterly, 26 (1973), 179-92. See also J. W. Lever, Introd. to the New Arden Edition of Measure for Measure (London: Methuen, 1965), pp. liii-lv.

  17. Alexander W. Renton and George G. Phillimore, The Comparative Law of Marriage and Divorce (London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1910), p. 18.

  18. William Harrington, … the Commendacions of Matrymony, the Maner and Fourme of Contractyng Solempnysynge and Lyuyng in the Same, … Imprynted at the Instaunce of Mayster Polydore Vergyl Archdeaken of Welles (1528), is most specific on this matter:

    And whan matrymony [spousals de praesenti] is thus laufully made / yet the man maye not possesse the woman as his wyfe / nor the woman the man as her husbande / nor inhabyte [cohabit] / nor flesshely meddle togyther as man and wyfe; afore suche tyme as that matrymony be approued and solemnysed by our mother holy chyrche / and yf they do in dede they synne deedly.

    (Sigs. aiiir-v)

    It is not clear from the quotation whether the term “synne deedly” indicates mortal or venial sin.

  19. Reginald Haw, The State of Matrimony (London: S.P.C.K., 1952), p. 52; Schanzer, p. 87.

  20. Ronald A. Marchant, The Church Under The Law: Justice, Administration and Discipline in the Diocese of York, 1540-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), p. 27.

  21. Page, p. 744.

  22. See works cited earlier by Schanzer and Ranald. S. Nagarajan, “Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Betrothals,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 14 (1963), 31-38, offers some challenging comments on the above approach, as also does J. Birje-Patil, “Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 106-11.

  23. Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), notes that in 1650 adultery was made a capital crime for both parties and that in Shakespeare's day there was a body of extremists who wished for such a penalty (p. 212).

  24. Swinburne, pp. 114-19.

  25. See H. J. Schroeder, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent; Original Text with English Translation (St. Louis: Herder, 1941), p. 184.

  26. For a detailed discussion of backgrounds see Lawrence, pp. 39-63.

  27. Swinburne, p. 237.

Michael D. Bristol (essay date 1990)

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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 and more generally exercised a widespread surveillance of sexuality. As Natalie Davis has pointed out (“Reasons of Misrule”), this “community” actually consists of young men, typically the unmarried ones, who represent a social principle of male solidarity that is in some respects deeply hostile to precisely that form of institutionally sanctioned sexuality whose standards they are empowered to oversee.3

As a violent burlesque of marriage, charivari represents the heterosexual couple in grotesquely parodic form. The bride, frequently depicted by a man dressed as a woman, will typically be represented as hyperfeminine. The groom, against whom the larger share of social animosity is often directed, is invariably represented as a type of clown or bumpkin. In addition, the staging of a charivari requires a master of ceremonies, a popular festive ringleader whose task is the unmaking of a transgressive marriage (Neill). Even in its standard form, a full-blown charivari would be a disturbing spectacle to witness. The charivari that forms the comical substructure of Othello is even more powerfully troubling, because here the role of the clownish bridegroom is conflated with a derisory and abusive image of “The Moor.”

The following analysis sketches out an interpretation of Othello as a carnivalesque text.4 Carnival is operative as something considerably more than a novel decor for the mise-en-scène or an alternative thematics for interpretation. The play's structure is interpreted schematically as a carnivalesque derangement of marriage as a social institution and as an illustration of the contradictory role of heterosexual desire within that institution. The grotesque character of this popular festive scenario is heightened by its deployment of the stereotypical figure of an African, parodically represented by an actor in blackface. Heterosexual desire is staged here as an absurdly mutual attraction between a beautiful woman and a funny monster.

At the time of the play's earliest performances, the supplementary character of Othello's blackness would be apparent in the white actor's use of blackface to represent the conventionalized form of “The Moor.” In the initial context of its reception, it seems unlikely that the play's appeal to invidious stereotypes would have troubled the conscience of anyone in the audience. Since what we now call racial prejudice did not fall outside prevailing social norms in Shakespeare's society, no one in the early audience would have felt sympathy for Othello simply on grounds that he was the victim of a racist society.5 It is far more probable that “The Moor” would have been seen as comically monstrous. Under these conditions the aspects of charivari and of the comical abjection of the protagonists would have been clear to an audience for whom a racist sensibility was entirely normal (Newman).

At the end of the sixteenth century racism was not yet organized as a large-scale system of oppressive social and economic arrangements, but it certainly existed in the form of a distinctive and widely shared affekt-complex. Racism in this early, prototypical, form entails a specific physical repugnance for the skin color and other typical features of black Africans. This sensibility was not yet generalized into an abstract or pseudoscientific doctrine of racial inferiority, and for this reason it would have been relatively difficult to conceive of a principled objection to this “commonsensical” attitude. The physical aversion of the English toward the racial other was rationalized through an elaborate mythology, supported in part by scriptural authority and reinforced by a body of popular narrative (Jordan, Tokson). Within this context, the image of the racial other is immediately available as a way of encoding deformity or the monstrous.

For Shakespeare and for his audience the sensibilities of racial difference are for all practical purposes abstract and virtually disembodied, since the mythology of African racial inferiority is not yet a fully implemented social practice within the social landscape of early modern Europe. Even at this early stage, however, it has already occurred to some people that the racial other is providentially foreordained for the role of the slave, an idea that is fully achieved in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century institution of plantation slavery and in such successor institutions as segregation and apartheid. The large-scale forms of institutional racism that continue to be a chronic and intractable problem in modern societies are, of course, already latent within the abstract racial mythologies of the sixteenth century, since these mythologies enter into the construction of the social and sexual imagery both of the dominant and of the popular culture. In more recent contexts of reception the farcical and carnivalesque potentiality of the play is usually not allowed to manifest itself openly. To foreground the elements of charivari and comic abjection would disclose in threatening and unacceptable ways the text's ominous relationship to the historical formation of racism as a massive social fact in contemporary Europe, and in the successor cultures of North and South America as well as in parts of the African homeland itself. Against this background the text of Othello has to be construed as a highly significant document in the historical constitution both of racist sensibility and of racist political ideology.

As a seriocomic or carnivalesque masquerade, the play makes visible the normative horizons against which sexual partners must be selected and the latent social violence that marriage attempts to prevent, often unsuccessfully, from becoming manifest. To stage this action as the carnivalesque thrashing of the play's central characters is, of course, a risky choice for a director to make, since it can easily transform the complex equilibrium of the play from tragedy to opera buffa. Although the play is grouped with the tragedies in the First Folio and has always been viewed as properly belonging to this genre, commentators have recognized for a long time the precarious balance of this play at the very boundaries of farce.6Othello is a text that evidently lends itself very well to parody, burlesque, and caricature, and this is due in part to the racial otherness of its protagonist (Levine 14-20, Neill 391-93).

The relationship of marriage is established through forms of collective representation, ceremonial and public enactments that articulate the private ethos of conjugal existence and mark out the communal responsibilities of the couple to implement and sustain socially approved “relations of reproduction.” In the early modern period the ceremonial forms of marriage are accompanied (and opposed) by parodic doubling of the wedding feast in the forms of charivari.7 This parodic doubling is organized by a carnivalesque wardrobe corresponding to a triad of dramatic agents—the clown (who represents the bridegroom), the transvestite (who represents the bride), and the “scourge of marriage,” often assigned a suit of black (who represents the community of unattached males or “young men”).8 Iago of course is neither unattached nor young, but part of his success with his various dupes is his ability to present himself as “one of the boys.” Iago's misogyny is expressed as the married man's ressentiment against marriage, against wives in general, and against his own wife in particular. But this ressentiment is only one form of the more diffuse and pervasive misogyny typically expressed in the charivari. And of course Iago's more sinister function is his ability to encourage a kind of complicity within the audience. In a performance he makes his perspective the perspective of the text and thus solicits from the audience a participatory endorsement of the action.

The three primary “characters” in charivari each has a normative function in the allocation of marriage partners and in the regulation of sexual behavior. These three figures parody the three persons of the wedding ceremony—bride, groom, and priest. The ensemble performs a travesty of the wedding ceremony itself. The ringleader or master of ceremonies may in some instances assist the partners in outwitting parental opposition, but this figure may also function as a nemesis of erotic desire itself and attempt to destroy the intended bond. In the actual practice of charivari, the married couple themselves are forced to submit to public ridicule and sometimes to violent punishment (Ingram, Muchembled). In its milder forms, a charivari allows the husband and wife to be represented by parodic doubles who are then symbolically thrashed by the ringleader and his followers.

This triad of social agents is common to many of Shakespeare's tragedies of erotic life, and it even appears in the comedies. Hamlet stages “The Murder of Gonzago” partly as a public rebuke to the unseemly marriage of Claudius and Gertrude (Davis, “Reasons of Misrule” 75). This is later escalated to a fantasy of the general abolition of the institution of monogamy, “I say we will have no moe marriage” (3.1.148). Hamlet's situation here expresses the powerful ambivalence of the unattached male toward marriage as the institutional format in which heterosexual desire and its satisfaction are legitimated. His objection to the aberrant and offensive union of mother and uncle is predicated on the idealization of marriage and in this case on the specific marriage of mother and father. This idealization is, however, accompanied by the fantasy of a general dissolution of the institution of monogamy back into a dispensation of erotic promiscuity and the free circulation of sexual partners. A similar agenda, motivated by a similar ambivalence, is pursued by Don John in Much Ado about Nothing, and by Iachimo in Cymbeline.

The argument I hope to sketch out here requires that readers or viewers of Othello efface their response to the existence of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago as individual subjects endowed with personalities and with some mode of autonomous interiorized life. The reason for such selective or willful ignorance of some of the most compelling features of this text is to make the determinate theatrical surfaces visible. To the extent that the surface coding of this play is openly manifested, the analysis presented here will do violence to the existence of the characters in depth. I believe that the withdrawal of empathy and of identification from the play's main characters is difficult, not least because the experience of individual subjectivity as we have come to know it is objectively operative in the text. It has been suggested, in fact, that the pathos of individual subjectivity was actually invented by Shakespeare, or that this experience appears for the first time in the history of Western representation in that great sociocultural laboratory known as Elizabethan drama (Belsey, Brecht).

Whether this view is accurate or not, however, there is the more immediate difficulty that we desire, as readers and viewers, to reflect on and to identify with the complex pathos of individual subjectivity as it is represented in Shakespeare's oeuvre. This is especially so, perhaps, for professional readers and viewers, who are likely to have strong interests in the experience of the speaking/writing subject and in the problematic of autonomy and expressive unity. The constellation of interests and goal-values most characteristic of the institutional processing of literary texts has given rise to an extremely rich critical discourse on the question of the subject; it is precisely the power and the vitality of this discourse that makes the withdrawal of empathy from the characters so difficult. But when we acknowledge the characters not only as Othello, Desdemona, and Iago, but also as components in a carnivalesque “wardrobe” that is inscribed within this text, then this wardrobe assigns them the roles of clown, transvestite, and “scourge of marriage” in a charivari.

The clown is a type of public figure who embodies the “right to be other,” as M. M. Bakhtin would have it (Dialogic Imagination 158-67), since the clown always and everywhere rejects the categories made available in routine institutional life. The clown is therefore both criminal and monster, although such alien and malevolent aspects are more often than not disguised. Etymologically “clown” is related to “colonus”—a farmer or settler, someone not from Rome but from the agricultural hinterland. As a rustic or hayseed the clown's relationship to social reality is best expressed through such contemporary idioms as “He's out of it!,” “He doesn't know where it's at!,” or simply “Mars!” In the drama of the early modern period a clown is often by convention a kind of country bumpkin, but he is also a kind of “professional outsider” of extremely flexible social provenance. Bakhtin has stressed the emancipatory capacity of the clown function, arguing that the clown mask embodies the “right to be other” or refus d'identité. However, there is a pathos of clowning as well, and the clown mask may represent everything that is socially and sexually maladroit, credulous, easily victimized. And just as there is a certain satisfaction in observing an assertive clown get the better of his superiors, so is there also satisfaction in seeing an inept clown abused and stripped of his dignity. This abuse or “thrashing” of the doltish outsider provides the audience with a comedy of abjection, a social genre in which the experience of exclusion and impotence can be displaced onto an even more helpless caste within society.

To think of Othello as a kind of blackface clown is perhaps distasteful, even though the role must have been written not for a black actor, but with the idea of black makeup or a false-face of some kind. Othello is a Moor, but only in quotation marks, and his blackness is not even skin deep but rather a transitory and superficial theatrical integument. Othello's Moorish origins are the mark of his exclusion; as a cultural stranger he is, of course, “out of it” in the most compelling and literal sense. As a foreigner he is unable to grasp and to make effective use of other Venetian codes of social and sexual conduct. He is thus a grotesque embodiment of the bridegroom—an exotic, monstrous, and funny substitute who transgresses the norms associated with the idea of a husband.

To link Othello to the theatrical function of a clown is not necessarily to be committed to an interpretation of his character as a fool. Othello's folly, like Othello's nobility and personal grandeur, is a specific interpretation of the character's motivation and of his competence to actualize those motives. The argument here, however, is that the role of Othello is already formatted in terms of the abject-clown function and that any interpretation of the character's “nature” therefore has to be achieved within that format. The eloquence of Othello's language and the magnanimity of his character may in fact intensify the grotesque element. His poetic self-articulation is not so much the expression of a self-possessed subject but is instead a form of discursive indecorum that strains against the social meanings objectified in Othello's counter-festive persona. Stephen Greenblatt identifies the joke here as one of the “master plots of comedy,” in which a beautiful young woman outwits an “old and outlandish” husband (234). Greenblatt reminds us here that Othello is functionally equivalent to the gull or butt of an abusive comic action, but he passes over the most salient feature of Othello's outlandishness, which is actualized in the blackface makeup essential to the depiction of this character. Greenblatt's discretion is no doubt a political judgment rather than an expression of a delicacy of taste. To present Othello in blackface, as opposed to presenting him just as a black man, would confront the audience with a comic spectacle of abjection rather than with the grand opera of misdirected passion. Such a comedy of abjection has not found much welcome in the history of the play's reception.

The original audience of this play in Jacobean England may have had relatively little inhibition in its expression of invidious racial sentiments, and so might have seen the derisory implications of the situation more easily. During the nineteenth century, when institutional racism was naturalized by recourse to a “scientific” discourse on racial difference, the problem of Othello's outlandishness and the unsympathetic laughter it might evoke was “solved” by making him a Caucasoid Moor, instead of a “veritable Negro” (Newman 144). Without such a fine discrimination, a performance of Othello would have been not so much tragic as simply unbearable, part farce and part lynch-mob. In the present social climate, when racism, though still very widespread, has been officially anathematized, the possibility of a blackface Othello would still be an embarrassment and a scandal, though presumably for a different set of reasons. Either way, the element of burlesque inscribed in this text is clearly too destabilizing to escape repression.

If Othello can be recognized as an abject clown in a charivari, then the scenario of such a charivari would require a transvestite to play the part of the wife. In the context of popular culture in the early modern period, female disguise and female impersonation were common to charivari and to a variety of other festive observances (Davis, “Women on Top”). This practice was, among other things, the expression of a widespread “fear” of women as both the embodiment of and the provocation to social transgression. Within the pervasive misogyny of the early modern period, women and their desires seemed to project the threat of a radical social undifferentiation (Woodbridge). The young men and boys who appeared in female dress at the time of Carnival seem to have been engaged in “putting women in their place” through an exaggerated pantomime of everything feminine. And yet this very practice required the emphatic foregrounding of the artifice required for any stable coding of gender difference. Was this festive transvestism legitimated by means of a general misrecognition of the social constitution of gender? Or did the participants understand at some level that the association of social badness with women was nothing more than a patriarchal social fiction that could only be sustained in and through continuous ritual affirmation?

Female impersonation is, of course, one of the distinctive and extremely salient features of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramaturgy, and yet surprisingly little is known of how this mode of representation actually worked (Rackin). The practice of using boy actors to play the parts of women derives from the more diffuse social practice of female impersonation in the popular festive milieu. Were the boy actors in Shakespeare's company engaging in a conventional form of ridicule of the feminine? Or were they engaged in a general parody of the artifice of gender coding itself? A transvestite presents the category of woman in quotation marks, and reveals that both “man” and “woman” are socially produced categories. In the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, gender is at times an extremely mobile and shifting phenomenon without any solid anchor in sexual identity. To a considerable degree gender is a “flag of convenience” prompted by contingent social circumstances, and at times gender identity is negotiated with considerable grace and dexterity. The convention of the actor “boying” the woman's part is thus doubly parodic, a campy put-down of femininity and, at another level, a way to theorize the social misrecognition on which all gender allocations depend.

Desdemona's “femininity” is bracketed by the theatrical “boying” of his/her part. This renders her/his sexuality as a kind of sustained gestural equivocation, and this corresponds to the exaggerated and equivocal rhetorical aspect of Desdemona's self-presentation. As she puts it, “I saw Othello's visage in his mind” (1.3.252); in other words, her initial attraction to him was not provoked by his physical appearance. The play thus stipulates that Desdemona herself accepts the social prohibition against miscegenation as the normative horizon within which she must act. On the face of it she cannot be physically attracted to Othello, and critics have usually celebrated this as the sign of her ability to transcend the limited horizons of her acculturation. These interpretations accept the premise of Othello as physically undesirable and therefore insinuate that Desdemona's faith is predicated on her blindness to the highly visible “monstrosity” of her “husband.” In other words, her love is a misrecognition of her husband's manifestly undesirable qualities. Or is it a misrecognition of her own socially prohibited desire? Stanley Cavell interprets her lines as meaning that she saw his appearance in the way that he saw it, that she is able to enter into and to share Othello's self-acceptance and self-possession (129ff.). In this view Desdemona is a kind of idealization of the social category of “wife,” who can adopt the husband's own narrative fiction of self as her own imaginary object. Desdemona is thus both a fantasy of a sexually desirable woman and a fantasy of absolute sexual compliance. This figure of unconditional erotic submission is the obverse of the rebellious woman, or shrew, but, as the play shows us, this is also a socially prohibited métier for a woman. In fact, as Greenblatt has shown in his very influential essay, the idea that Desdemona might feel an ardent sexual desire for him makes Othello perceive Iago's insinuations of infidelity as plausible and even probable (237-52). The masculine imagination whose fantasy is projected in the figure of Desdemona cannot recognize itself as the object of another's desire.

Like all of Shakespeare's woman characters, Desdemona is an impossible sexual object, a female artifact created by a male imagination and objectified in a boy actor's body. This is, in its own way, just as artificial and as grotesque a theatrical manifestation as the blackface Othello who stands in for the category of the husband. What is distinctive about Desdemona is the way she embodies the category of an “ideal wife” in its full contradictoriness. She has been described as chaste or even as still a virgin and also as sexually aggressive, even though very little unambiguous textual support for either of these readings actually exists.9 Her elopement, with a Moor no less, signals more unequivocally than a properly arranged marriage ever could that the biblical injunction to leave mother and father has been fulfilled. It is probably even harder to accept the idea of Desdemona as part of a comedy of abjection than it is to accept Othello in such a context. It is, however, only in such a theatrical context that the hyperbolic and exacerbated misrecognition on which marriage is founded can be theorized.

At the level of surface representation then, the play enacts a marriage between two complementary symbols of the erotic grotesque. This is a marriage between what is conventionally viewed as ipso facto hideous and repellent with what is most beautiful and desirable. The incongruity of this match is objectified in the theatrical hyper-embodiment of the primary categories of man and woman or husband and wife. It is not known to what extent Elizabethan and Jacobean theater practice deliberately foregrounded its own artifice. However, the symbolic practice of grotesque hyper-embodiment was well known in popular festive forms such as charivari. The theatrical coding of gender in the early modern period is still contaminated by the residue of these forms of social representation.

The marriage of grotesque opposites is no more a private affair or erotic dyad than a real marriage. Marriage in the early modern period, among many important social classes, was primarily a dynastic or economic alliance negotiated by a third party who represents the complex of social sanctions in which the heterosexual couple is inscribed.10 The elopement of Desdemona and Othello, as well as their reliance on Cassio as a broker or clandestine go-between, already signals their intention deliberately to evade and thwart the will of family interests. To the extent that readers or viewers are conditioned by the normative horizons that interpret heterosexual love as mutual sexual initiative and the transcendence of all social obstacles, this elopement will be read as a romantic confirmation of the spiritual and disinterested character of their love (Luhmann). However, it can also be construed as a flagrant sexual and social blunder. Private heterosexual felicity of the kind sought by Othello and Desdemona attracts the evil eye of erotic nemesis.11

The figure of erotic nemesis and the necessary third party to this union is Othello's faithful lieutenant, Iago. It is Iago's task to show both his captain and his audience just how defenseless the heterosexual couple is against the resources of sexual surveillance. The romantic lovers, represented here through a series of grotesque distortions, do not enjoy an erotic autonomy, though such erotic autonomy is a misrecognition of the socially inscribed character of “private” sexuality. His abusive and derisory characterizations of the couple, together with his debasement of their sexuality, are a type of social commentary on the nature of erotic romance. The notion of mutual and autonomous self-selection of partners is impugned as a kind of mutual delusion that can only appear under the sign of monstrosity. In other words, the romantic couple can only “know” that their union is based on mutual love and on nothing else when they have “transcended” or violated the social codes and prohibitions that determine the allocation of sexual partners.

Iago is a Bakhtinian “agelast,” that is, one who does not laugh. He is, of course, very witty, but his aim is always to provoke a degrading laughter at the follies of others rather than to enjoy the social experience of laughter with others. He is a de-mythologizer whose function is to reduce all expressivity to the minimalism of the quid pro quo. The process represented here is the reduction of quality to quantity, a radical undifferentiation of persons predicated on a strictly mechanistic, universalized calculus of desire. Characters identified with this persona appear throughout Shakespeare's oeuvre, usually in the guise of a nemesis of hypocrisy and dissimulation. Hamlet's “I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.76) and Don John's “it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain” (Much Ado about Nothing 1.1.31) are important variants of a social/cognitive process that proclaims itself to be a critique of equivocation and the will to deception. It is ironic, of course, that these claims of honesty and plain dealing are so often made in the interests of malicious dissimulation. What appears to be consistent, however, in all the variants of this character-type, is the disavowal of erotic attachment and the contemptuous manipulation of the erotic imagination.

The supposedly “unmotivated” malice enacted by this figure is puzzling, I believe, only when read individualistically. Is Iago envious of the pleasure Othello enjoys with Desdemona, or is he jealous of Othello's supposed sexual enjoyment of Emilia? Of course, both of these ideas are purely conjectural hypotheses that have no apparent bearing on Iago's actions. In any case, Iago shows no sustained commitment to either of these ideas, as numerous commentators have pointed out. Nevertheless, there is an important clue to understanding Iago as a social agent in these transitory ruminations. Iago seems to understand that the complex of envy and jealousy is not an aberration within the socially distributed erotic economy, but is rather the fundamental precondition of desire itself. Erotic desire is not founded in a qualitative economy or in a rational market, but rather in a mimetic and histrionic dispensation that Iago projects as the envy-jealousy system (Agnew 6-7 et passim). In this system men are the social agents, and women the objects of exchange. Iago's actions are thus socially motivated by a diffuse and pervasive misogyny that slides between fantasies of the complete abjection of all women and fantasies of an exclusively masculine world.

Iago's success in achieving these fantasies is made manifest in the unbearably hideous tableau of the play's final scene. If the play as a whole is to be read as a ritual of unmarrying, then this ending is the monstrous equivalent of a sexual consummation. What makes the play unendurable would be the suspicion that this climax expresses all too accurately an element present in the structure of every marriage. This is an exemplary action in which the ideal of companionate marriage as a socially sanctioned erotic union is dissolved back into the chronic violence of the envy-jealousy system. Iago theorizes erotic desire—and thus marriage—primarily by a technique of emptying out Othello's character, so that nothing is left at the end except the pathetic theatrical integument, the madly deluded and murderous blackface clown. Desdemona, the perfect wife, remains perfectly submissive to the end. And Iago, with his theoretical or pedagogical tasks completed, accepts in silence his allocation to the function of sacrificial victim and is sent off to face unnamed “brave punishments.”

Finita la commedia. What does it mean to accept the mise-en-scène of this play? And what does it mean to know that we wish it could be otherwise? To the extent that we want to see a man and a woman defying social conventions in order to fulfill mutual erotic initiatives, the play will appear as a thwarted comedy, and our response will be dominated by its pathos. But the play also shows us what such mutual erotic initiatives look like from the outside, as a comedy of abjection or charivari. The best commentators on this play have recognized the degree to which it prompts a desire to prevent the impending debacle and the sense in which it is itself a kind of theatrical punishment of the observers.12 This helpless and agonized refusal of the mise-en-scène should suggest something about the corrosive effect on socially inscribed rituals of a radical or “cruel” theatricality.

The idea of theatrical cruelty is linked to the radical aesthetics of Antonin Artaud. However, the English term “cruelty” fails to capture an important inflection that runs through all of Artaud's discussion of theater. The concept is derived from words that mean “raw” or “unprocessed.” In French “cruaute” expresses with even greater candor this relationship with “le cru” and its opposition to “le cuit.” Cruelty here has the sense of something uncooked, or something prior to the process of a conventional social transformation or adoption into the category of the meaningful (Artaud 42 et passim). Othello, perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, raises fundamental questions about the institutional position and the aesthetic character of Shakespearean dramaturgy. Is Shakespeare raw—or is he cooked? Is it possible that our present institutional protocol for interpreting his work is a way of “cooking” the “raw” material to make it more palatable, more fit for consumption?

The history of the reception of Othello is the history of attempts to articulate ideologically correct, that is, palatable, interpretations. By screening off the comedy of abjection it is possible to engage more affirmatively with the play's romantic liebestod. Within these strategies, critics may find an abundance of meanings for the tragic dimension of the play. In this orientation the semantic fullness of the text is suggested as a kind of aesthetic compensation for the cruelty of its final scenes. Rosalie Colie, for example, summarizes her interpretation with an account of the play's edifying power.

In criticizing the artificiality he at the same time exploits in his play, Shakespeare manages in Othello to reassess and to reanimate the moral system and the psychological truths at the core of the literary love-tradition, to reveal its problematics and to reaffirm in a fresh and momentous context the beauty of its impossible ideals.


The fullness of the play, of course, is what makes it possible for viewers and readers to participate, however unwillingly, in the charivari, or ritual victimization of the imaginary heterosexual couple represented here. Such consensual participation is morally disquieting in the way it appears to solicit at least passive consent to violence against women and against outsiders, but at least we are not howling with unsympathetic laughter at their suffering and humiliation.

Colie's description of the play's semantic fullness is based in part on her concept of “un-metaphoring”—that is, the literalization of a metaphorical relationship or conventional figuration. This is a moderate version of the notion of theatrical cruelty or the unmaking of convention that does not radically threaten existing social norms. In other words, the fate of Desdemona and Othello is a cautionary fable about what happens if a system of conventional figurations of desire is taken literally. But the more powerful “un-metaphoring” of this play is related not to its fullness as a tragedy, but to its emptiness as a comedy of abjection. The violent interposing of the charivari here would make visible the political choice between aestheticized ritual affirmation and a genuine refusal of the sexual mise-en-scène in which this text is inscribed.

Othello occupies a problematic situation at the boundary between ritually sanctioned reality and theatrically consensual fiction. Does the play simply depict an inverted ritual of courtship and marriage, or does its performance before an audience that accepts its status as a fiction also invite complicity in a social ritual of comic abjection, humiliation, and victimization? What does it mean, to borrow a usage from the French, to “assist” at a performance of this text? At a time when large-scale social consequences of racist sensibilities had not yet become visible, it may well have been easy to accept the formal codes of charivari as the expression of legitimate social norms. In later contexts of reception it is not so easy to accept Othello in the form of a derisory ritual of racial and sexual persecution, because the social experience of racial difference has become such a massive scandal.

The history of both the interpretation and the performance of Othello has been characterized by a search for consoling and anaesthetic explanations that would make its depictions of humiliation and suffering more tolerable. On the other hand, some observers, like Horace Howard Furness, have been absolutely inconsolable and have even refused to countenance the play.14 The need for consolation is of course prompted by the sympathy and even the admiration readers and spectators feel for the heterosexual couple who occupy the center of the drama. The argument I have tried to develop here is not intended to suggest that the characters do not deserve our sympathy. Nevertheless, Othello is a text of racial and sexual persecution. If the suffering represented in this drama is to be made intelligible for us, then it may no longer be possible to beautify the text. It may be more valuable to allow its structures of abjection and violence to become visible.


  1. See Neely, Broken Nuptials. On charivari, see Le Goff and Schmitt, Thompson, and Underdown 99-103.

  2. Laroque; see also Nelson and Haines 5-7.

  3. On the topic of “male solidarity” see Sedgwick.

  4. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World 145-96 and passim; see also his Dialogic Imagination 167-224 and Gaignebet.

  5. Hunter, “Elizabethans and Foreigners” and “Othello and Colour Prejudice.” See also Jones and Orkin.

  6. Rymer 2: 27. See also Snyder 70-74.

  7. See Alford; Belmont; Davis, “Charivari”; Grinberg; and Bristol.

  8. For the importance of “youth groups” and of unmarried men see Davis, “The Reasons of Misrule.”

  9. Arguments for a chaste or virginal Desdemona are found in Nelson and Haines as well as in Janton. The idea of a sexually aggressive Desdemona is to be found in Greenblatt 237ff. and in Booth.

  10. On the “triangular” character of erotic desire see Girard 1-52.

  11. Dumouchel and Dupuy; see also Siebers.

  12. In addition to Cavell and Greenblatt see, for example, Burke; Neely, “Women and Men in Othello”; Parker; Snow; and Stallybrass.

  13. For other recuperative readings within quite different normative horizons see, for example, Newman; Barber and Wheeler 272-81; Heilman; Holland 197-216; and Kirsch 10-39.

  14. Furness found the play horrible, and wished Shakespeare had never written it (2: 149, 156). See also Cavell 98ff.

Works Cited

Agnew, Jean-Christophe. Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Alford, Violet. “Rough Music or Charivari.” Folklore 70 (1959): 505-18.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. Trans. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove, 1958.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

———. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT P, 1968.

Barber, C. L., and Richard P. Wheeler. The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Belmont, Nicole. “Fonction de la dérision et symbolisme du bruit dans le charivari.” Le Goff and Schmitt 15-21.

Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen, 1985.

Booth, Stephen. “The Best Othello I Ever Saw.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 332-36.

Brecht, Bertolt. The Messingkauf Dialogues. Trans. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1965.

Bristol, Michael D. “Wedding Feast and Charivari.” In his Carnival and Theater: Plebian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England. New York: Methuen, 1985. 162-78.

Burke, Kenneth. “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method.” Hudson Review 4 (1951): 165-203.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Colie, Rosalie. Shakespeare's Living Art. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Charivari, honneur et communauté à Lyon et à Genève au XVIIe siècle.” Le Goff and Schmitt 207-20.

———. “The Reasons of Misrule: Youth Groups and Charivaris in Sixteenth-Century France.” Past and Present 50 (1971): 49-75.

———. “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe.” The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society. Ed. Barbara A. Babcock. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978. 147-90.

Dumouchel, Paul, and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. L'Enfer des choses: René Girard et la logique de l'économie. Paris: Seuil, 1979.

Furness, Horace Howard. Letters. Ed. Horace Howard Furness Jayne. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, 1922.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Grinberg, Martine. “Charivaris au Moyen Age et à la Renaissance. Condamnation des remariages ou rites d'inversion du temps?” Le Goff and Schmitt 141-47.

Heilman, Robert. Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1956.

Holland, Norman. The Shakespearean Imagination: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1964.

Hunter, G. K. “Elizabethans and Foreigners.” Shakespeare Survey 17 (1964): 37-52.

———. “Othello and Colour Prejudice.” Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967): 139-63.

Ingram, Martin. “Le charivari dans l'Angleterre du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle. Aperçu historique.” Le Goff and Schmitt 251-64.

Janton, Pierre. “Othello's Weak Function.” Cahiers Elisabéthains 34 (1988): 79-82.

Jones, Eldred D. Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968.

Kirsch, Arthur C. Shakespeare and the Experience of Love. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Laroque, François. “An Archaeology of the Dramatic Text: Othello and Popular Traditions.” Cahiers Elisabéthains 32 (1987): 13-35.

Le Goff, Jacques, and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds. Le charivari: Actes de la table ronde organisée à Paris (25-27 avril 1977) par l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales et le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Paris: Mouton, 1977.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Luhmann, Niklas. Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy. Trans. Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Muchembled, Robert. “Des conduites de bruit au spectacle des processions. Mutations mentales et déclin des fêtes populaires dans le Nord de las France (XVe-XVIe siècle).” Le Goff and Schmitt 229-36.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

———. “Women and Men in Othello: ‘What should such a fool / Do with so good a Woman?’” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 211-39.

Neill, Michael. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383-412.

Nelson, T. G. A., and Charles Haines. “Othello's Unconsummated Marriage.” Essays in Criticism 33 (1983): 1-18.

Newman, Karen. “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello.Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor. New York: Methuen, 1987. 143-62.

Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the ‘Plain Face’ of Racism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 166-88.

Parker, Patricia. “Shakespeare and Rhetoric: ‘Dilation’ and ‘Delation’ in Othello.Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. London: Methuen, 1985. 54-74.

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Stephen Orgel (essay date fall 1984)

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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 that though she was virtuous, women as a class are not, and that were it not for her word, Miranda's legitimacy would be in doubt. The legitimacy of Prospero's heir, that is, derives from her mother's word. But that word is all that is required of her in the play. Once he is assured of it, Prospero turns his attention to himself and his succession, and he characterizes Miranda in a clause that grows increasingly ambivalent—“his only heir / And princess: no worse issued.”

Except for this moment, Prospero's wife is absent from his memory. She is wholly absent from her daughter's memory: Miranda can recall several women who attended her in childhood, but no mother. The implied attitudes toward wives and mothers here are confirmed shortly afterward when Prospero, recounting his brother Antonio's crimes, demands that Miranda “tell me / If this might be a brother,” and Miranda takes the question to be a charge of adultery against Prospero's mother:

                    I should sin
To think but nobly of my grandmother:
Good wombs have borne bad sons.


She immediately translates Prospero's attack on his brother into an attack on his mother (the best she can produce in her grandmother's defence is a “not proved”), and whether or not she has correctly divined her father's intentions, Prospero makes no objection.

The absent presence of the wife and mother in the play constitutes a space that is filled by Prospero's creation of surrogates and a ghostly family: the witch Sycorax and her monster child, Caliban (himself, as becomes apparent, a surrogate for the other wicked child, the usurping younger brother), the good child/wife Miranda, the obedient Ariel, the violently libidinized adolescent Ferdinand. The space is filled, too, by a whole structure of wifely allusion and reference: widow Dido, model at once of heroic fidelity to a murdered husband and the destructive potential of erotic passion; the witch Medea, murderess and filicide; three exemplary goddesses, the bereft Ceres, nurturing Juno and licentious Venus; and Alonso's daughter, Claribel, unwillingly married off to the ruler of the modern Carthage, and thereby lost to her father forever.

Described in this way, the play has an obvious psychoanalytic shape. I have learned a great deal from Freudian treatments of it, most recently from essays by David Sundelson, Coppelia Kahn and Joel Fineman in the volume called Representing Shakespeare.2 It is almost irresistible to look at the play as a case history. Whose case history is a rather more problematic question, and one that criticism has not, on the whole, dealt with satisfactorily. It is not, obviously, that of the characters. I want to pause first over what it means to consider the play as a case history.

In older psychoanalytic paradigms (say Ernest Jones's) the critic is the analyst, Shakespeare is the patient, the plays his fantasies. The trouble with this paradigm is that it misrepresents the analytic situation in a fundamental way. The interpretation of analytic material is done in conjunction with, and in large measure by, the patient, not the analyst; what the analyst does is enable the patient, free the patient to interpret. An analysis done without the patient, like Freud's of Leonardo, will be revealing only about the analyst. A more recent paradigm, in which the audience's response is the principal analytic material, also seems to me based on fundamental misconceptions, first because it treats an audience as an entity, a unit, and in addition a constant one, and more problematically, because it conceives of the play as an objective event, so that the critical question becomes, “this is what happened: how do we respond to it?”

To take the psychoanalytic paradigm seriously, however, and treat the plays as case histories, is surely to treat them not as objective events but as collaborative fantasies, and to acknowledge thereby that we, as analysts, are implicated in the fantasy. It is not only the patient who creates the shape of his history, and when Bruno Bettelheim observes that Freud's case histories “read as well as the best novels,”3 he is probably telling more of the truth than he intends. Moreover, the crucial recent advances in our understanding of Freud and psychoanalysis have been precisely critical acts of close and inventive reading—there are, in this respect, no limits to the collaboration. But if we accept this as our paradigm, and think of ourselves as Freud's or Shakespeare's collaborators, we must also acknowledge that our reading of the case will be revealing, again, chiefly about ourselves. This is why every generation, and perhaps every reading, produces a different analysis of its Shakespearean texts. In the same way, recent psychoanalytic theory has replaced Freud's central Oedipal myth with a drama in which the loss of the seducing mother is the crucial infant trauma. We used to want assurance that we would successfully compete with or replace or supersede our fathers; now we want to know that our lost mothers will return. Both of these no doubt involve real perceptions, but they also undeniably serve particular cultural needs.

Shakespeare plays, like case histories, derive from the observation of human behavior, and both plays and case histories are imaginative constructs. Whether either is taken to be an objective report of behavior or not has more to do with the reader than the reporter, but it has to be said that Shakespearean critics have more often than not treated the plays as objective accounts. Without such an assumption, a book with the title The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines would be incomprehensible. We feel very far from this famous and popular Victorian work now, but we still worry about consistency and motivation in Shakespearean texts, and much of the commentary in an edition like the Arden Shakespeare is designed to explain why the characters say what they say—that is, to reconcile what they say with what, on the basis of their previous behavior, we feel they ought to be saying. The critic who worries about this kind of consistency in a Shakespeare text is thinking of it as an objective report.

But all readings of Shakespeare, from the earliest seventeenth-century adaptations, through eighteenth-century attempts to produce “authentic” or “accurate” texts, to the liberal fantasy of the old Variorum Shakespeare, have been aware of deep ambiguities and ambivalences in the texts. The eighteenth century described these as Shakespeare's errors, and generally revised them through plausible emendation or outright rewriting. The argument was that Shakespeare wrote in haste, and would have written more perfect plays had he taken time to revise; the corollary to this was, of course, that what we want are the perfect plays Shakespeare did not write, rather than the imperfect ones that he did. A little later the errors became not Shakespeare's but those of the printing house, the scribe, the memory of the reporter or the defective hearing of the transcriber. But the assumption has always been that it is possible to produce a “perfect” text: that beyond or behind the ambiguous, puzzling, inconsistent text is a clear and consistent one.

Plays, moreover, are not only—and one might-argue, not primarily—texts. They are performances too, originally designed to be read only in order to be acted out, and the gap between the text and its performance has always been, and remains, a radical one. There always has been an imagination intervening between the texts and their audiences, initially the imagination of producer, director, actor (roles that Shakespeare played himself), and since that time the imagination of editors and commentators as well. These are texts that have always had to be realized. Initially unstable, they have remained so despite all our attempts to fix them. All our attempts to produce an authentic, correct, that is, stable text have resulted only in an extraordinary variety of versions. Their differences can be described as minor only if one believes that the real play is a Platonic idea, never realized but only approached and approximately represented by its text.

This is our myth: the myth of a stable, accurate, authentic, legitimate text, a text that we can think of as Shakespeare's legitimate heir. It is, in its way, a genealogical myth, and it operates with peculiar force in our readings of The Tempest, a play that has been, for the last hundred and fifty years, taken as a representation of Shakespeare himself bidding farewell to his art—as Shakespeare's legacy.


She is missing as a character, but Prospero, several times explicitly, presents himself as incorporating her, acting as both father and mother to Miranda, and in one extraordinary passage describes the voyage to the island as a birth fantasy:

When I have decked the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burden groaned, which raised in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue.


To come to the island is to start life over again—both his own and Miranda's—with himself as sole parent, but also with himself as favorite child. He has been banished by his wicked, usurping, possibly illegitimate younger brother Antonio. This too has the shape of a Freudian fantasy: the younger child is the usurper in the family, and the kingdom he usurps is the mother. On the island, Prospero undoes the usurpation, recreating kingdom and family with himself in sole command.

But not quite, because the island is not his alone. Or if it is, then he has repeopled it with all parts of his fantasy, the distressing as well as the gratifying. When he arrives he finds Caliban, child of the witch Sycorax, herself a victim of banishment. The island provided a new life for her too, as it did literally for her son, with whom she was pregnant when she arrived. Sycorax died some time before Prospero came to the island; Prospero never saw her, and everything he knows about her he has learned from Ariel. Nevertheless, she is insistently present in his memory—far more present than his own wife—and she embodies to an extreme degree all the negative assumptions about women that he and Miranda have exchanged.

It is important, therefore, that Caliban derives his claim to the island from his mother: “This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother” (I.ii.333). This has interesting implications to which I shall return, but here I want to point out that he need not make the claim this way. He could derive it from the mere fact of prior possession: he was there first. This, after all, would have been the sole basis of Sycorax's claim to the island, but it is an argument that Caliban never makes. And in deriving his authority from his mother, he delivers himself into Prospero's hands. Prospero declares him a bastard, “got by the devil himself / Upon thy wicked dam” (I.ii.321-22), thereby both disallowing any claim from inheritance and justifying his loathing for Caliban.

But is it true that Caliban is Sycorax's bastard by Satan? How does Prospero know this? Not from Sycorax: Prospero never saw her. Not from Caliban: Sycorax died before she could even teach her son to speak. Everything Prospero knows about the witch he knows from Ariel—her appearance, the story of her banishment, the fact that her pregnancy saved her from execution. Did Sycorax also tell Ariel that her baby was the illegitimate son of the devil? Or is this Prospero's contribution to the story, an especially creative piece of invective, and an extreme instance of his characteristic assumptions about women? Nothing in the text will answer this question for us, and it is worth pausing to observe first that Caliban's claim seems to have been designed so that Prospero can disallow it, and second that we have no way of distinguishing the facts about Caliban and Sycorax from Prospero's invective about them.

Can Prospero imagine no good mothers, then? The play, after all, moves toward a wedding, and the most palpable example we see of the magician's powers is a betrothal masque. The masque is presided over by two exemplary mothers, Ceres and Juno, and the libidinous Venus with her destructive son Cupid has been banished from the scene. But the performance is also preceded by the most awful warnings against sexuality—male sexuality this time: all the libido is presumed to be Ferdinand's, while Miranda remains Prospero's innocent child. Ferdinand's reassuring reply, as David Sundelson persuasively argues,4 includes submerged fantasies of rape and more than a hint that when the lust of the wedding night cools, so will his marital devotion:

                    … the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong'st suggestion
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust, to take away
The edge of that day's celebration. …


This is the other side of the assumption that all women at heart are whores: all men at heart are rapists—Caliban, Ferdinand, and of course that means Prospero too.


The play moves toward marriage, certainly, yet the relations it postulates between men and women are ignorant at best, characteristically tense, and potentially tragic. There is a familiar Shakespearean paradigm here: relationships between men and women interest Shakespeare intensely, but not, on the whole, as husbands and wives. The wooing process tends to be what it is here: not so much a prelude to marriage and a family as a process of self-definition—an increasingly unsatisfactory process, if we look at the progression of plays from As You Like It, Much Ado about Nothing, Twelfth Night through All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida to Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline. If we want to argue that marriage is the point of the comic wooing process for Shakespeare, then we surely ought to be looking at how he depicts marriages. Here Petruchio and Kate, Capulet and Lady Capulet, Claudius and Gertrude, Othello and Desdemona, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Cymbeline and his queen, Leontes and Hermione will not persuade us that comedies ending in marriages have ended happily, or if they have, it is only because they have ended there, stopped at the wedding day.

What happens after marriage? Families in Shakespeare tend to consist not of husbands and wives and their offspring, but of a parent and a child, usually in a chiastic relationship: father and daughter, mother and son. When there are two children, they tend to be represented as alternatives or rivals: the twins of The Comedy of Errors, Sebastian and Viola, infinitely substitutable for each other, or the good son-bad son complex of Orlando and Oliver, Edgar and Edmund. We know that Shakespeare himself had a son and two daughters, but that family configuration never appears in the plays. Lear's three daughters are quite exceptional in Shakespeare, and even they are dichotomized into bad and good. We might also recall Titus Andronicus's four sons and a daughter and Tamora's three sons, hardly instances to demonstrate Shakespeare's convictions about the comforts of family life.

The family paradigm that emerges from Shakespeare's imagination is a distinctly unstable one. Here is what we know of Shakespeare's own family: he had three brothers and three sisters who survived beyond infancy, and his parents lived into old age. At eighteen he married a woman of twenty-four by whom he had a daughter within six months, and a twin son and daughter a year and a half later. Within six more years he had moved permanently to London, and for the next twenty years—all but the last three years of his life—he lived apart from his wife and family. Nor should we stop here: we do not in the least know that Susanna, Hamnet and Judith were his only children. He lived in a society without contraceptives, and unless we want to believe that he was either exclusively homosexual or celibate, we must assume a high degree of probability that there were other children. The fact that they are not mentioned in his will may mean that they did not survive, but it also might mean that he made separate, non-testamentary provision for them. Certainly the plays reveal a strong interest in the subject of illegitimacy.

Until quite late in his career, the strongest familial feelings seem to be expressed not toward children or wives but toward parents and siblings. His father dies in 1601, the year of Hamlet, his mother in 1608, the year of Coriolanus. And if we are thinking about usurping, bastard younger brothers, it cannot be coincidental that the younger brother who followed him into the acting profession was named Edmund. There are no dramatic correlatives comparable to these for the death of his son Hamnet in 1596. If we take the plays to express what Shakespeare thought about himself (I put it that way to indicate that the assumption strikes me as by no means axiomatic) then we will say that he was apparently free to think of himself as a father—to his two surviving daughters—only after the death of both his parents. 1608 is the date of Pericles as well as Coriolanus.

One final biographical observation: Shakespearean heroines marry very young, in their teens. Miranda is fifteen. We are always told that Juliet's marriage at fourteen is not unusual in the period, but in fact it is unusual in all but upper class families. In Shakespeare's own family, his wife married at twenty-four and his daughters at twenty-four and thirty-one. It was Shakespeare himself who married at eighteen. The women of Shakespeare's plays, of course, are adolescent boys. Perhaps we should see as much of Shakespeare in Miranda and Ariel as in Prospero.


The psychoanalytic and biographical questions raised by The Tempest are irresistible, but they can supply at best partial clues to its nature. I have decribed the plays as collaborative fantasies, and it is not only critics and readers who are involved in the collaboration. It is performers and audiences too, and I take these terms in their largest senses, to apply not merely to stage productions, but to the theatrical dimension of the society that contains and is mirrored by the theater as well. Cultural concerns, political and social issues, speak through The Tempest—sometimes explicitly, as in the open-ended discussion of political economy between Gonzalo, Antonio and Sebastian in Act II. But in a broader sense, family structures and sexual relations become political structures in the play, and these are relevant to the political structures of Jacobean England.

What is the nature of Prospero's authority and the source of his power? Why is he Duke of Milan and the legitimate ruler of the island? Power, as Prospero presents it in the play, is not inherited but self-created. It is magic, or “art,” an extension of mental power and self-knowledge, and the authority legitimizing it derives from heaven—“Fortune” and “Destiny” are the terms used in the play. It is Caliban who derives his claim to the island from inheritance, from his mother.

In the England of 1610, both these positions represent available, and indeed normative ways of conceiving of royal authority. James I's authority derived, he said, both from his mother and from God. But deriving one's legitimacy from Mary Queen of Scots was an ambiguous claim at best, and James always felt exceedingly insecure about it. Elizabeth had had similar problems with the sources of her own authority, and they centered precisely on the question of her legitimacy. To those who believed that her father's divorce from Katherine of Aragon was invalid (that is, to Catholics), Elizabeth had no hereditary claim; and she had, moreover, been declared legally illegitimate after the execution of her mother for adultery and incest. Henry VIII maintained Elizabeth's bastardy to the end. Her claim to the throne derived exclusively from her designation in the line of succession, next after Edward and Mary, in her father's will. This ambiguous legacy was the sole source of her authority. Prospero at last acknowledging the bastard Caliban as his own is also expressing the double edge of kingship throughout Shakespeare's lifetime (the ambivalence will not surprise us if we consider the way kings are represented in the history plays). Historically speaking, Caliban's claim to the island is a good one.

Royal power, the play seems to say, is good when it is self-created, bad when it is usurped or inherited from an evil mother. But of course the least problematic case of royal descent is one that is not represented in these paradigms at all, one that derives not from the mother but in the male line from the father: the case of Ferdinand and Alonso, in which the wife and mother is totally absent. If we are thinking about the derivation of royal authority, then, the absence of a father from Prospero's memory is a great deal more significant than the disappearance of a wife. This has been dealt with in psychoanalytic terms, whereby Antonio becomes a stand-in for the father, the real usurper of the mother's kingdom;5 but here again the realities of contemporary kingship seem more enlightening, if not inescapable. James in fact had a double claim to the English throne, and the one through his father, the Earl of Darnley, was in the strictly lineal respects somewhat stronger than that of his mother. Both Darnley and Mary were direct descendants of Henry VII, but under Henry VIII's will, which established the line of succession, descendants who were not English-born were specifically excluded. Darnley was born in England, Mary was not. In fact, Darnley's mother went from Scotland to have her baby in England precisely in order to preserve the claim to the throne.

King James rarely mentioned this side of his heritage, for perfectly understandable reasons. His father was even more disreputable than his mother; and given what was at least the public perception of both their characters, it was all too easy to speculate about whether Darnley was even in fact his father.6 For James, as for Elizabeth, the derivation of authority through paternity was extremely problematic. In practical terms, James's claim to the English throne depended on Elizabeth naming him her heir (we recall Miranda's legitimacy depending on her mother's word), and James correctly saw this as a continuation of the protracted negotiations between Elizabeth and his mother. His legitimacy, in both senses, thus derived from two mothers, the chaste Elizabeth and the sensual Mary, whom popular imagery represented respectively as a virgin goddess (“a piece of virtue”) and a lustful and diabolical witch. James's sense of his own place in the kingdom is that of Prospero, rigidly paternalistic, but incorporating the maternal as well: the King describes himself in Basilicon Doron as “a loving nourish father” providing the commonwealth with “their own nourish-milk.”7 The very etymology of the word “authority” confirms the metaphor: augeo, “increase, nourish, cause to grow.” At moments in his public utterances, James sounds like a gloss on Prospero: “I am the husband, and the whole island is my lawful wife; I am the head, and it is my body.”8 Here the incorporation of the wife has become literal and explicit. James conceives himself as the head of a single-parent family. In the world of The Tempest, there are no two-parent families. All the dangers of promiscuity and bastardy are resolved in such a conception—unless, of course, the parent is a woman.

My point here is not that Shakespeare is representing King James as Prospero and/or Caliban, but that these figures embody the predominant modes of conceiving of royal authority in the period. They are Elizabeth's and James's modes too.


Prospero's magic power is exemplified, on the whole, as power over children: his daughter Miranda, the bad child Caliban, the obedient but impatient Ariel, the adolescent Ferdinand, the wicked younger brother Antonio, and indeed, the shipwreck victims as a whole, who are treated like a group of bad children. Many critics talk about Prospero as a Renaissance scientist, and see alchemical metaphors in the grand design of the play. No doubt there is something in this, but what the play's action presents is not experiments and empiric studies but a fantasy about controlling other people's minds. Does the magic work? We are given a good deal of evidence of it: the masque, the banquet, the harpies, the tempest itself. But the great scheme is not to produce illusions and good weather, it is to bring about reconciliation, and here we would have to say that it works only indifferently well. “They being penitent,” says Prospero to Ariel, “The sole drift of my purpose doth extend / Not a frown further” (V.i.28-30). The assertion opens with a conditional clause whose conditions are not met: Alonso is penitent, but the chief villain, the usurping younger brother Antonio, remains obdurate. Nothing, not all Prospero's magic, can redeem Antonio from his essential badness. Since Shakespeare was free to have Antonio repent if that is what he had in mind—half a line would have done for critics craving a reconciliation—we ought to take seriously the possibility that that is not what he had in mind. Perhaps, too, penitence is not what Prospero's magic is designed to elicit from his brother.

Why is Prospero's power conceived as magic? Why, in returning to Milan, does he renounce it? Most commentators say that he gives up his magic when he no longer needs it. This is an obvious answer, but it strikes me as too easy, a comfortable assumption cognate with the view that the play concludes with reconciliation, repentance, and restored harmony. To say that Prospero no longer needs his magic is to beg all the most important questions. What does it mean to say that he needs it? Did he ever need it, and if so, why? And does he in fact give it up?

Did he ever need magic? Prospero's devotion to his secret studies is what caused all the trouble in the first place—this is not an interpretation of mine, it is how Prospero presents the matter. If he has now learned to be a good ruler through the exercise of his art, that is also what taught him to be a bad one. So the question of his need for magic goes to the heart of how we interpret and judge his character: is the magic a strength or a weakness? To say that he no longer needs it is to say that his character changes in some way for the better, that by renouncing his special powers he becomes fully human. This is an important claim: let us test it by looking at Prospero's renunciation.

What does it mean for Prospero to give up his power? Letting Miranda marry and leaving the island are the obvious answers, but they can hardly be right. Miranda's marriage is brought about by the magic; it is part of Prospero's plan. It pleases Miranda, certainly, but it is designed by Prospero as a way of satisfying himself. Claribel's marriage to the King of Tunis looks less sinister in this light: daughters' marriages, in royal families at least, are designed primarily to please their fathers. And leaving the island, reassuming the dukedom, is part of the plan too. Both of these are presented as acts of renunciation, but they are in fact what the exercise of Prospero's magic is intended to effect, and they represent his triumph.

Prospero renounces his art in the great monologue at the beginning of Act V, “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,” and for all its valedictory quality, it is the most powerful assertion of his magic the play gives us. It is also a powerful literary allusion, a close translation of a speech of Medea's in Ovid,9 and it makes at least one claim for Prospero that is made nowhere else in the play: that he can raise the dead. For Shakespeare to present this as a renunciation speech is upping Prospero's ante, to say the least.

In giving up his magic, Prospero speaks as Medea. He has incorporated Ovid's witch, prototype of the wicked mother Sycorax, in the most literal way—verbatim, so to speak—and his “most potent art” is now revealed as translation and impersonation. In this context, the distinction between black and white magic, Sycorax and Prospero, has disappeared. Two hundred lines later, Caliban too is revealed as an aspect of Prospero: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

But Caliban is an aspect of Antonio, the evil child, the usurping brother. Where is the real villain in relation to Prospero now? Initially Antonio had been characterized, like Caliban and Sycorax, as embodying everything that is antithetical to Prospero. But in recounting his history to Miranda, Prospero also presents himself as deeply implicated in the usurpation, with Antonio even seeming at times to be acting as Prospero's agent: “The government I cast upon my brother”; “[I] to him put the manage of my state”; “my trust … did beget of him / A falsehood,” and so forth. If Prospero is accepting the blame for what happened, there is a degree to which he is also taking the credit. Antonio's is another of the play's identities that Prospero has incorporated into his own, and in that case, what is there to forgive?

Let us look, then, at Prospero forgiving his brother in Act V. The pardon is enunciated (“You, brother mine, that entertain ambition. … I do forgive thee” [75-78])10 and qualified at once (“unnatural though thou art”), reconsidered as more crimes are remembered, some to be held in reserve (“at this time I will tell no tales” [128-29]), all but withdrawn (“most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth” [130-31]), and only then confirmed through forcing Antonio to relinquish the dukedom, an act that is presented as something he does unwillingly. The point is not only that Antonio does not repent here: he also is not allowed to repent. Even his renunciation of the crown is Prospero's act: “I do … require / My dukedom of thee, which perforce, I know, / Thou must restore” (131-34). In Prospero's drama, there is no room for Antonio to act of his own free will.

The crime that Prospero holds in reserve for later use against his brother is the attempted assassination of Alonso. Here is what happened. Prospero sends Ariel to put all the shipwreck victims to sleep except Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio then persuades Sebastian to murder Alonso—his brother—and thereby become King of Naples. Sebastian agrees, on the condition that Antonio kill Gonzalo. At the moment of the murders, Ariel reappears and wakes Gonzalo:

My master through his art foresees the danger
That you his friend are in; and sends me forth—
For else his project dies—to keep them living.


This situation has been created by Prospero, and the conspiracy is certainly part of his project—that is why Sebastian and Antonio are not put to sleep. If Antonio is not forced by Prospero to propose the murder, he is certainly acting as Prospero expects him to do, and as Ariel says, Prospero “through his art foresees” that he will. What is clearly taking place is Prospero restaging his usurpation and maintaining his control over it this time. Gonzalo is waked rather than Alonso so that the old courtier can replay his role in aborting the assassination.

So at the play's end, Prospero still has usurpation and attempted murder to hold against his brother, things that still disqualify Antonio from his place in the family. Obviously there is more to Prospero's plans than reconciliation and harmony—even, I would think, in the forthcoming happy marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. If we look at that marriage as a political act (the participants are, after all, the children of monarchs) we will observe that in order to prevent the succession of his brother, Prospero is marrying his daughter to the son of his enemy. This has the effect of excluding Antonio from any future claim on the ducal throne, but it also effectively disposes of the realm as a political entity: if Miranda is the heir to the dukedom, Milan through the marriage becomes part of the kingdom of Naples, not the other way around. Prospero recoups his throne from his brother only to deliver it over, upon his death, to the King of Naples once again. The usurping Antonio stands condemned, but the effects of the usurpation, the link with Alonso and the reduction of Milan to a Neapolitan fiefdom are, through Miranda's wedding, confirmed and legitimized. Prospero has not regained his lost dukedom, he has usurped his brother's. In this context, Prospero's puzzling assertion that “every third thought shall be my grave” can be seen as a final assertion of authority and control: he has now arranged matters so that his death will remove Antonio's last link with the ducal power. His grave is the ultimate triumph over his brother. If we look at the marriage in this way, giving away Miranda is a means of preserving his authority, not of relinquishing it.


The significant absence of crucial wives from the play is curiously emphasized by a famous textual crux. In Act IV Ferdinand, overwhelmed by the beauty of the masque Prospero is presenting, interrupts the performance to say,

                    Let me live here, ever.
So rare a wondered father and a wise
Makes this place Paradise.


Critics since the eighteenth century have expressed a nagging worry about the fact that in celebrating his betrothal, Ferdinand's paradise includes Prospero but not Miranda. In fact, what Ferdinand said, as Jeanne Addison Roberts demonstrated only six years ago,11 reads in the earliest copies of the folio, “So rare a wondered father and a wife,” but the crossbar of the f broke early in the print run, turning it to a long s and thereby eliminating Miranda from Ferdinand's thoughts of wonder. The odd thing about this is that Rowe and Malone in their eighteenth-century editions emended “wise” to “wife” on logical grounds, the Cambridge Shakespeare of 1863 lists “wife” as a variant reading of the folio, and Furnivall's 1895 photographic facsimile was made from a copy that reads “wife,” and the reading is preserved in Furnivall's parallel text. Nevertheless, after 1895 the wife became invisible: bibliographers lost the variant, and textual critics consistently denied its existence until six years ago. Even Charlton Hinman with his collating machines claimed there were no variants whatever in this entire forme of the folio. And yet when Jeanne Roberts examined the Folger Library's copies of the book, including those that Hinman had collated, she found that two of them have the reading “wife,” and two others clearly show the crossbar of the f in the process of breaking. We find only what we are looking for or are willing to see. Obviously it is a reading whose time has come.


  1. Line references throughout are to the Arden edition, edited by Frank Kermode. In this instance, I have restored the folio punctuation of line 59.

  2. Edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore, 1980).

  3. The New Yorker, March 1, 1982, p. 53.

  4. “So Rare a Wonder'd Father: Prospero's Tempest,” in Representing Shakespeare, p. 48.

  5. Coppelia Kahn makes this point, following a suggestion of Harry Berger, Jr., in “The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family,” in Representing Shakespeare, p. 238. For an alternative view, see the exceptionally interesting discussion by Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare, p. 104.

  6. The charge that he was David Rizzio's child was current in England in the 1580s, spread by rebellious Scottish Presbyterian ministers. James expressed fears that it would injure his chance of succeeding to the English throne, and he never felt entirely free of it.

  7. C. H. McIlwain, Political Works of James I (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), p. 24.

  8. From the 1603 speech to Parliament; ibid., p. 272.

  9. Metamorphoses 7.197-209, apparently at least partly refracted through Golding's English version.

  10. Kermode and most editors read “entertained,” but I have restored the folio reading, which seems to me unexceptionable.

  11. “‘Wife’ or ‘Wise’—The Tempest 1. 1786,” University of Virginia Studies in Bibliography 31 (1978).

Coppélia Kahn (essay date spring 1975)

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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 practice: if Richard II is the only true anointed king, he is also, as king, a failure. If Petruchio must command and Kate submit so that harmony (or at least decorum) may be maintained, the division of power and status according to sex alone is, he shows, irrational and ultimately illusory.

As Robert Heilman demonstrates, the taming is best viewed as a farce which “carries out our desire to simplify life by a selective anesthetizing of the whole person; man retains all his energy yet never really gets hurt.”1 Farce, according to Heilman, deals with people as though they lack normal physical, emotional, and moral sensitivity, and are capable only of mechanical responses. In making Kate react almost automatically to the contradictory kinds of treatment Petruchio administers (flattery before the wedding, and force afterwards), Shakespeare molds her to the needs of the farce. In the first three acts, before the taming begins in earnest, she is portrayed in terms of her resistance to male efforts to dispose of her in marriage. Our strongest impression of her is that she fights back. But though she declares she'll see Petruchio hanged before she marries him, marry him she does, and though she flatly refuses to obey his first command to her as a wife, she exits mutely with him at the end of Act III. Contrary to our expectations, she doesn't retaliate with all the shrewish weaponry said to be at her disposal. In the end, as I shall show, she subverts her husband's power without attempting to challenge it, and she does so in a gamesome spirit, without hostility or bitterness. Thus Shakespeare allows the male to indulge his dream of total mastery over the female without the real-life penalties of her resentment or his guilt.

But the farce has another purpose which Heilman and other critics fail to see. It exaggerates ludicrously the reach and force of male dominance and thus pushes us to see this wish for dominance as a childish dream of omnipotence. In short, the farce portrays Petruchio's manliness as infantile. A 1904 editor of the play roundly declared, “It will be many a day … ere men cease to need or women to admire, the example of Petruchio.”2 How pitiable that we should still need and admire it, almost seventy years later. That we do is revealed by the prevailing tendency of criticism to justify Petruchio's methods in Petruchio's terms, endorsing that version of masculinity which the farce undercuts as well as indulges. Though it has long been recognized that Shakespeare gives Kate's “shrewishness” a psychological and moral validity lacking in all literary predecessors, critics still argue that Petruchio's heavy-handed behavior is merely a role briefly assumed for a benign purpose. They claim that he is Kate's savior, the wise man who guides her to a better and truer self, or a clever doctor following homeopathic medicine.3 They have missed the greatest irony of the play. Unlike other misogynistic shrew literature, this play satirizes not woman herself in the person of the shrew, but male attitudes toward women. My purpose is to reveal the ways in which Shakespeare puts these attitudes before us.


Long before Petruchio enters, we are encouraged to doubt the validity of male supremacy. First of all, the transformation of Christopher Sly from drunken lout to noble lord, a transformation only temporary and skin-deep, suggests that Kate's switch from independence to subjection may also be deceptive, and prepares us for the irony of the dénouement. More pointedly, one of the most alluring perquisites of Sly's new identity is a wife, and his right to domineer over her. As Scene 1 of the Induction begins, Sly suffers public humiliation at the hands of a woman when the Hostess throws him out of her alehouse for disorderly conduct. After he awakens from his sleep in the second scene, it is the tale of his supposed wife's beauty and Penelope-like devotion and patience that finally tips the balance, convincing him that he really is the aristocrat of the servants' descriptions:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak,
I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed
And not a tinker nor Christopher Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o' th' smallest ale.(4)

(Ind. 2. 68-75)

He then glories in demanding and getting his “wife's” obsequious obedience:

… Where is my wife?
Here, noble lord. What is thy will with her?
Are you my wife and will not call me husband?
My men should call me “lord;” I am your goodman.
My husband and my lord, my lord and husband,
I am your wife in all obedience.

(Ind. 2. 102-107)

The humor lies in the fact that Sly's pretensions to authority and grandeur, which he claims only on the basis of sex, not merit, and indulges specifically with women, are contradicted in his real identity, in which he is a woman's inferior. Similarly, as I shall argue later, Petruchio seems to find in Kate the reflection of his own superiority, while we know that he is fooled by a role she has assumed.

In the main play, the realistic bourgeois ambiance in which Kate is placed leads us to question the definition of shrewishness which the characters take for granted. In medieval mystery plays and Tudor interludes, shrews were already married to their pusillanimous husbands and were shown as domestic tyrants. Male fears of female freedom were projected onto the wife, who was truly a threatening figure because she treated her husband as he normally would have treated her. When the husband attempted rebellion, he usually lost.5 Shakespeare departs from this literary tradition in order to sketch Kate as a victim of the marriage market, making her “the first shrew to be given a father, to be shown as maid and bride.”6 At her entrance, she is already, for her father's purpose, that piece of goods which Petruchio declares her to be after the wedding. Baptista is determined not to marry the sought-after Bianca until he gets an offer for the unpopular Kate, not for the sake of conforming to the hierarchy of age as his opening words imply, but out of a merchant's desire to sell all the goods in his warehouse. His marketing technique is clever: make the sale of the less popular item the prerequisite of purchasing the desirable one. As Tranio sympathetically remarks after Kate's marriage is arranged, “'Twas a commodity that lay fretring by you” (II. 1. 321). Knowing that Gremio and Hortensio are interested only in Bianca, Baptista tactlessly invites them to court Kate, and does so in her presence. The two suitors then begin to insult her. Gremio refers to her as a prostitute by offering to “cart” her through the streets, a punishment for prostitutes, instead of to court her. When she indignantly asks her father, “Is it your will, sir, to make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (I. 1. 57-58), she is only reacting to the insult and aptly characterizing her situation as that of a whore being loosed to anyone who'll have her for the best price.

That money, not his daughter's happiness, is Baptista's real concern in matchmaking becomes evident when Petruchio brusquely makes his bid for Kate. Previously, Petruchio's desire to marry solely for money, even though he had inherited his father's fortune, was comically exaggerated. The rhetorical expansiveness of his speech made humorous the profit motive which Baptista takes seriously:

                                                                      … if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio's wife—
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance—
Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates' Xanthippe or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes, at least,
Affection's edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas.
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.

(I. 2. 65-75)

Both Petruchio and Baptista pretend to make Kate's love the ultimate condition of the marriage, but then Petruchio simply lies in asserting that she has fallen in love with him at first sight. Her father, though he doubts this far-fetched claim (“I know not what to say”) claps up the match anyhow, for on it depends Bianca's match as well. Both marriages provide insurance against having to support his daughters in widowhood, promise grandsons to whom he may pass on the management and possession of his property, and impart to his household the prestige of “marrying well,” for the wealth of the grooms advertises Baptista's own financial status. Petruchio's and Tranio/Lucentio's frequent references to their respective fathers' wealth and reputations remind us that wealth and reputation pass from father to son, with woman as mere accessory to the passing. As Simone de Beauvoir states in The Second Sex,

The interests of property require among nobility and bourgeoisie that a single administrator take charge. This could be a single woman; her abilities were admitted; but from feudal times to our days the married woman has been deliberately sacrificed to private property. The richer the husband, the greater the dependence of the wife; the more powerful he feels socially and economically, the more authoritatively he plays the paterfamilias.7

As the wedding party waits anxiously for the tardy groom (Act III, scene 1), Baptista alludes to “this shame of ours” and Kate corrects him: “No shame but mine.” Baptista's first person plural reveals that he thinks in terms of his reputation as paterfamilias; Kate's insistence that the shame resides with her, the woman conned into marrying a man she doesn't love and then deserted by him at the church door, doesn't penetrate her father's consciousness. His next lines shock us because they apply the stereotype of the shrew to Kate when we have been seeing her as a particular woman wronged by the socio-economic system of marriage:

Go, girl, I cannot blame thee now to weep.
For such an injury would vex a very saint,
Much more a shrew of thy impatient humor.

(III. 2. 27-29)

Even the Bianca plot emphasizes heavily the venal aspects of marriage, though it is usually characterized as romantic, in contrast to the realism and farce of the taming. In Act II, scene 1, Baptista awards Bianca to Tranio/Lucentio solely because he offers more cash and property as “widowhood” (that is, claims to have more total wealth) than Gremio does. As George Hibbard has shown, the scene satirizes the hard-headed commercial nature of marital arrangements.8 Baptista's chivalric “'Tis deeds must win the prize” puns on title deeds to property, and the length and specificity of each suitor's inventory of wealth calls inordinate attention to the fact that dutiful, submissive Bianca, courted in high-flown style by the ardent Lucentio, is still a piece of property, to be relinquished only with the guarantee that Baptista will profit if the groom expires. Always the clever businessman, Baptista accepts Lucentio's bid pending his father's assurance of his fortune, but keeps Gremio in reserve should the deal fall through.


It is time to turn with Kate from the father to the husband. From the moment Petruchio commands his servant “Knock, I say,” he evokes and creates noise and violence. A hubbub of loud speech, beatings, and quarrelsomeness surrounds him. “The swelling Adriatic seas” and “thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” are a familiar part of his experience, which he easily masters with his own force of will or physical strength. Like Adam, he is lord over nature, and his own violence has been well legitimized by society, unlike Kate's, which has marked her as unnatural and abhorrent. But let us examine the nature of Petruchio's violence compared to Kate's.

The hallmark of a shrew is her scolding tongue and loud raucous voice—a verbal violence befitting woman, since her limbs are traditionally weak. It is interesting that Kate is given only twelve lines in her entrance scene, only five of which allude to physical violence:

I'faith, sir, you shall never need to fear:
Iwis it [marriage] is not halfway to her heart.
But if it were, doubt not her care should be
To comb your noddle with a three-legged stool
And paint your face and use you like a fool.

(I. 1. 61-65)

Here she threatens Hortensio in response to his greater threat, that no man will marry her. These lines have a distinctly defensive cast; Kate refers to herself in the third person, and denies any interest in a mate because two prospective mates (Hortensio and Gremio) have just made it clear that they have no interest in her. Kate's vision of breaking furniture over a husband's head is hypothetically couched in the subjunctive. Yet later Tranio describes her speech in this scene as “such a storm that mortal ears might hardly endure the din” (I. 1. 172-173). Throughout the play, this kind of disparity between the extent and nature of Kate's “shrewish” behavior and the male characters' perceptions of it focuses our attention on masculine behavior and attitudes which stereotype women as either submissive and desirable or rebellious and shrewish. Kate is called devil, hell, curst, shrewd (shrewish), and wildcat, and referred to in other insulting ways because, powerless to change her situation, she talks about it. That her speech is defensive rather than offensive in origin, and psychologically necessary for her survival, is eloquently conveyed by her own lines:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And rather than it shall I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.

(IV. 3. 77-80)

Though she commits four acts of physical violence onstage (binding and striking Bianca, breaking a lute over Hortensio's head, hitting Petruchio and then Grumio), in each instance the dramatic context suggests that she strikes out because of provocation or intimidation resulting from her status as a woman.9 For example, the language in which her music lesson with Hortensio is described conveys the idea that it is but another masculine attempt to subjugate woman. “Why, then thou canst not break her to the lute?,” asks Baptista. “I did but tell her she mistook her frets / And bowed her hand to teach her fingering,” replies Hortensio (II. 1. 147, 149-150). Later Petruchio explicitly attempts to “break” Kate to his will, and throughout the play men tell her that she “mistakes her frets”—that her anger is unjustified.

On the other hand, Petruchio's confident references to “great ordnance in the field” and the “Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, trumpets' clang” of battle bespeak a lifelong acquaintance with organized violence as a masculine vocation. The loud oaths with which he orders his servants about and startles the priest in the wedding service are thus farcical exaggerations of normal masculine behavior. In its volume and vigor, his speech suggests a robust manliness which would make him attractive to the woman who desires a master (or who wants to identify with power in its most accessible form). Grumio characterizes his master in terms of his speech, in lines which recall the kind of speech attributed to Kate:

O' my word, and she knew him as well as I do, she would think scolding would do little good upon him. She may perhaps call him half a score of knaves or so—why, that's nothing. And he begin once, he'll rail in his rope-tricks. I'll tell you what, sir, and she stand him but a little, he will throw a figure in her face and so disfigure her with it that she shall have no more eyes to see withal than a cat. You know him not, sir.

(I. 2. 107-115)

If Petruchio were female, he would be known as a shrew and shunned accordingly by men. Behavior desirable in a male automatically prohibits similar behavior in a female, for woman must mold herself to be complementary to man, not competitive with him. Indeed, if manhood is defined and proven by the ability to dominate, either in battle or in the household, then a situation which does not allow a man to dominate is existentially threatening.10 When Petruchio declares, “I am as peremptory as she proud-minded,” he seems to state that he and his bride-to-be are two of a kind. But that “kind,” bold, independent, self-assertive, must only be male. Thus his image of himself and Kate as “two raging fires” ends on a predictable note:

And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.
So I to her, and so she yields to me,
For I am rough and woo not like a babe.

(II. 1. 132-137; emphasis mine)

His force must necessarily triumph over Kate's because he is male and she is not. Those critics who maintain that his is acceptable because it has only the limited, immediate purpose of making Kate reject an “unbecoming” mode of behavior miss the real point of the taming. The overt force Petruchio wields over Kate by marrying her against her will in the first place, and then by denying her every wish and comfort, stamping, shouting, reducing her to exhaustion, etc., is but a farcical representation of the psychological realities of marriage in Elizabethan England, in which the husband's will constantly, silently, and invisibly, through custom and conformity, suppressed the wife's.

At the wedding in Act III, scene 1, Petruchio's behavior travesties the decorum, ceremony and piety which all those present feel ought to accompany a marriage. It is calculated to deprive Kate of the opportunity to enjoy the bride's sense of triumph, of being the center of admiration and interest; to humiliate her in public; to throw her off her guard by convincing her he is mad; and to show her that now nothing can happen unless and until her husband pleases. The final effect of the wedding scene, however, is less comical than the rhetorically delightful accounts of Petruchio's offstage antics. When all the trappings are stripped away (and they are, by his design), the groom is simply completing the legal arrangements whereby he acquires Kate as he would acquire a piece of property. When he declares he'll “seal the title with a lovely kiss,” he refers not just to Kate's new title as his wife, but also to the title-deed which, sealed with wax, passed to the purchaser in a property transaction. (The pun recalls Baptista's “deeds,” a similar play on words discussed above.) Tranio remarks of Petruchio, “He hath some meaning in his mad attire,” and he is right. When Petruchio says “To me she's married, not unto my clothes,” he assumes a lofty morality, implying that he offers Kate real love, not just its worldly show. This moralistic pose becomes an important part of his strategy in Act IV when he claims to do nothing that isn't for Kate's “good.” But in the brutally plain statement he delivers at the conclusion of the wedding scene, he momentarily drops this pose:

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.

(III. 2. 230-232)

His role as property-owner is the model for his role as husband; Kate, for him, is a thing. Or at least she will become a thing when he has wrenched unquestioning obedience from her, when she no longer has mind or will of her own. It is impossible that Shakespeare meant us to accept Petruchio's speech uncritically: it is the most shamelessly blunt statement of the relationship between men, women, and property to be found in the literature of this period. After the simple declarative statements of possession, quoted above, which deny humanity to Kate, the speech shifts to chivalric challenges of imaginary “thieves” who would snatch her away. Is she goods, in the following lines, or a medieval damsel?

                                                                                … Touch her whoever dare,
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua. Grumio,
Draw forth thy weapon, we are beset with thieves.
Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man.

(III. 2. 233-237)

The point is that Petruchio wants to think of her in both kinds of terms. The speech concludes grandly with the metamorphosis of Petruchio into a knight-errant:

Fear not, sweet wench; they shall not touch thee, Kate.
I'll buckler thee against a million.

(III. 2. 233-239)

The modulation of simple ownership into spurious chivalry reveals the speaker's buried awareness that he cheapens himself by being merely Kate's proprietor; he must transform the role into something nobler.

Petruchio's thundering oaths and physical brutality reach a crescendo at his country house in Act IV, when he beats his servants, throws food and dishes on the floor, stomps, roars and bullies. These actions are directed not against his bride but at his servants, again in the name of chivalry, out of a fastidious devotion to his bride's supposed comfort. But his stance is rooted realistically in his status as lord of a manor and master of a household which is not Kate's but his. He ordered her wedding clothes, chose their style and paid for them. Kate wears them not at her pleasure but at his, as Grumio's jest succinctly indicates:

Well, sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.
You are i' th' right, sir; 'tis for my mistress.

(IV. 3. 153-154)

In the famous soliloquy which opens “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” (IV. 1. 182-205), Petruchio reduces Kate to an animal capable of learning only through deprivation of food and rest, devoid of all sensitivity save the physical. The animal metaphor shocks us and I would suggest was meant to shock Shakespeare's audience, despite their respect for falconry as an art and that reverence for the great chain of being emphasized by E. M. W. Tillyard. I suppose Kate is actually being elevated in this speech, in view of previous references to her as her husband's horse, ox and ass, for a falcon was the appurtenance of a nobleman, and a valued animal. But the blandness of Petruchio's confidential tone, the sweep of his easy assumption that Kate is not merely an animal, but his animal, who lives or dies at his command—has a dramatic irony similar to that of his exit speech in the wedding scene. Both utterances unashamedly present the status of woman in marriage as degrading in the extreme, plainly declaring her a sub-human being who exists solely for the purposes of her husband. Yet both offer this vision of the wife as chattel or animal in a lordly, self-confident tone. Urbanity is superimposed on outrage, for our critical scrutiny.


Shakespeare does not rest with showing that male supremacy in marriage denies woman's humanity. In the most brilliant comic scene of the play (IV. 5), he goes on to demonstrate how it defies reason. Petruchio demands that Kate agree that the sun is the moon in order to force a final showdown. Having exhausted and humiliated her to the limit of his invention, he now wants her to know that he would go to any extreme to get the obedience he craves. Shakespeare implies here that male supremacy is ultimately based on such absurdities, for it insists that whatever a man says is right because he is a man, even if he happens to be wrong. In a male-supremacist utopia, masculinity might be identical with absolute truth, but in life the two coincide only intermittently.

Why does Kate submit to her husband's unreason? Or why does she appear to do so, and on what terms? On the most pragmatic level, she follows Hortensio's advice to “Say as he says or we shall never go” only in order to achieve her immediate and most pressing needs: a bed, a dinner, some peace and quiet. Shakespeare never lets us think that she believes it right, either morally or logically, to submit her judgment and the evidence of her senses to Petruchio's rule. In fact, the language of her capitulation makes it clear that she thinks him mad:

Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon or sun or what you please.
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
.....But sun it is not when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.

(IV. 5. 12-15, 19-20; emphasis mine)

At this point, Hortensio concedes Petruchio's victory and applauds it; Petruchio henceforth behaves and speaks as though he has indeed tamed Kate. However, we must assume that since he previously donned the mask of the ardent lover, professing rapture at Kate's rudeness, he can see that she is doing the same thing here. At their first meeting he turned the tables on her, praising her for mildness and modesty after she gave insults and even injury. Now she pays him back, suddenly overturning his expectations and moreover mocking them at the same time. But he is not fooled, and can take that mockery as the cue for compromise. It reassures him that she will give him obedience if that is what he must have, but it also warns him that she, in turn, must retain her intellectual freedom.

The scene then proceeds on this basis, each character accepting the other's assumed role. Kate responds to Petruchio's outrageous claim that the wrinkled Vincentio is a fair young maiden by pretending so wholeheartedly to accept it that we know she can't be in earnest. She embroiders the fantasy in an exuberant declamatory style more appropriate to tragedy than comedy:

Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child!
Happier the man whom favorable stars
Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow!

(IV. 5. 36-41)

Her rhetoric expresses her realization that the power struggle she had entered into on Petruchio's terms is absurd. It also signals her emancipation from that struggle, in the terms she declared earlier: “… I will be free / Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.”

Of course, a freedom that exists only in words is ultimately as limited as Petruchio's mastery. Though Kate is clever enough to use his verbal strategies against him, she is trapped in her own cleverness. Her only way of maintaining her inner freedom is by outwardly denying it, which thrusts her into a schizoid existence. One might almost prefer that she simply give in rather than continue to fight from such a psychologically perilous position. Furthermore, to hold that she maintains her freedom in words is to posit a distinction without a difference, for whether she remains spiritually independent of Petruchio or sincerely believes in his superiority, her outward behavior must be the same—that of the perfect Griselda, a model for all women. What complicates the situation even more is that Kate quite possibly has fallen in love with her tamer, whose vitality and bravado make him attractive, despite his professed aims. Her failure to pursue her rebellion after the wedding or in the country house supports this hypothesis as does the tone of her mockery in Act IV, Scene 5, and thereafter, which is playful and joyous rather than bitter and angry as it was in the first three acts.

Finally, we must remember that Shakespearean comedy celebrates love; love by means of any contrivance of plot or character. Here Shakespeare parts company with sterner moralists such as Jonson, or more relentless social critics such as Ibsen. As Northrop Frye states, “In comedy and in romance, the story seeks its own end instead of holding the mirror up to nature.”11 Though Shakespeare quite astutely mirrors aspects of the human condition in the comedies, that is not his main purpose. In this play as in the other early and middle comedies, he aims to present an idealized vision of life as the triumph of love in marriage. The match between Kate and Petruchio bespeaks a comic renewal of society, the materialism and egotism of the old order transformed or at least softened by the ardor and mutual tolerance of the young lovers. Shakespeare wants to make us feel that Kate has not been bought or sold, but has given herself out of love. Thus he makes her walk a tightrope of affirming her husband's superiority through outward conformity while questioning it ironically through words. Portia, Beatrice, Viola and Rosalind perform similar athletic feats on their way to the altar, but their wittiness, unlike Kate's, ends with the wedding.

Words, as an instrument of command and an assertion of individuality, have been important throughout the play. In the first scene, the mere fact that Kate protested her father's plan for disposing of her, instead of submitting wordlessly, marked her for the male audience as a shrew, while Bianca's demure silence defined her as the epitome of desirability. Petruchio shrugged off the challenge of taming Kate by comparing her scolds to the noise of thunder, lions, and cannon, and mustered a volume of abuse far greater than hers when dealing with his servants. Kate whetted his desire by matching him taunt for taunt at their first meeting, and he lectured her to dumb amazement during their honeymoon on diet, continency, and fashions in dress. On the way back to Padua, she finds in words a way out of subjection, creatively evolving a rhetoric of satirical exaggeration. This rhetoric and the ironies it produces are Shakespeare's way out of the difficulty he encountered in writing a critique of marriage in the form of a comedy which must, somehow, celebrate marriage.

In the last scene, Shakespeare finally allows Petruchio that lordship over Kate, and superiority to other husbands, for which he has striven so mightily. He just makes it clear to us, through the contextual irony of Kate's last speech, that her husband is deluded. As a contest between males in which woman is the prize, the closing scene is analogous to the entire play. It was partly Petruchio's desire to show his peers that he was more of a man than they which spurred him to take on the shrew in the first place. Gremio refers to him as a Hercules and compares the subduing of Kate to a “labor … more than Alcides' twelve” (I. 2. 256-257). Hortensio longs but fails to emulate his friend's supposed success in taming. Lucentio, winner in the other wooing context, fails in the final test of marital authority. Petruchio stands alone in the last scene, the center of male admiration.

As critics have noted, the wager scene is punctuated by reversals: quiet Bianca talks back and shrewish Kate seems to become an obedient wife. In a further reversal, however, she steals the scene from her husband, who has held the stage throughout the play, and reveals that he has failed to tame her in the sense he set out to. He has gained her outward compliance in the form of a public display, while her spirit remains mischievously free. Though she pretends to speak earnestly on behalf of her own inferiority, she actually treats us to a pompous, wordy, holier-than-thou sermon which delicately mocks the sermons her husband has delivered to her and about her. It is significant that Kate's speech is both her longest utterance and the longest in the play. Previously, Petruchio dominated the play verbally,12 and his longest speech totalled twenty-four lines, while Kate's came to fifteen. Moreover, everything Kate said was a protest against her situation or those who put her in it, and as such was deemed unwomanly, or shrewish. Petruchio's impressive rhetoric, on the other hand, asserted his masculinity in the form of command over women and servants and of moral authority. Now Kate apes this verbal dominance and moralistic stance for satirical effect.

In content, the speech is thoroughly orthodox. Its sentiments can be found in a dozen treatises on marriage written in the sixteenth century.13 The arguments that a woman's beauty is her greatest asset and depends on her amiability; that her obedience is a debt rendered in return for financial support; that the household is a hierarchy like the state, with husband as lord and wife as subject; that the female's physical delicacy fits her only for meekness—all were the platitudes of male dominance. Kate offers them with complete seriousness, straightforwardly except for a few verbal ironies, such as the reminder of her husband's rhetorical patterns in “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign,” which echoes his “my goods, my chattels; … my house, / My household stuff, my field, my barn, / my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.” The grave moral tone of the speech, as I have noted, comes from Petruchio also, but its irony emanates primarily from the dramatic context. First, it follows upon and resembles Kate's rhetorical performance on the road back to Padua. It is a response to her husband's demand that she demonstrate her obedience before others, as she did then before Hortensio, and as such it exceeds expectations once more. It fairly shouts obedience, when a gentle murmur would suffice. Having heard her address Vincentio as “Young, budding virgin,” we know what she is up to in this instance. Second, though the speech pleads subordination, as a speech—a lengthy, ambitious verbal performance before an audience—it allows the speaker to dominate that audience. Though Kate purports to speak as a woman to women, she assumes the role of a preacher whose authority and wisdom are, in the terms of the play, thoroughly masculine. Third, the speech sets the seal on a complete reversal of character, a push-button change from rebel to conformist which is, I have argued, part of the mechanism of farce. Here as elsewhere in the play, farce has two purposes: it completes the fantasy of male dominance, but also mocks it as mere fantasy. Kate's quick transformation perfectly fulfills Petruchio's wishes, but is transparently false to human nature. Towards the end of her lecture, Kate hints that she is dissembling in the line “That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.” Though she seems to be the most vocal apologist for male dominance, she is indeed its ablest critic.14

On one level, the dénouement is the perfect climax of a masculine fantasy, for as Kate concludes she prepares to place her hand beneath her husband's foot, an emblem-book symbol of wifely obedience. On a deeper level, as I have tried to show, her words speak louder than her actions, and mock that fantasy. But on the deepest level, because the play depicts its heroine as outwardly compliant but inwardly independent, it represents possibly the most cherished male fantasy of all—that woman remain untamed, even in her subjection. Does Petruchio know he's been taken? Quite probably, since he himself has played the game of saying-the-thing-which-is-not. Would he enjoy being married to a woman as dull and proper as the Kate who delivers that marriage sermon? From all indications, no. Then can we conclude that Petruchio no less than Kate knowingly plays a false role in this marriage, the role of victorious tamer and complacent master? I think we can, but what does this tell us about him and about men in general?

It is Kate's submission to him which makes Petruchio a man, finally and indisputably. This is the action toward which the whole plot drives, and if we consider its significance for Petruchio and his fellows we realize that the myth of feminine weakness, which prescribes that women ought to or must inevitably submit to man's superior authority, masks a contrary myth: that only a woman has the power to authenticate a man, by acknowledging him her master. Petruchio's mind may change even as the moon, but what is important is that Kate confirm those changes; moreover, that she do so willingly and consciously. Such voluntary surrender is, paradoxically, part of the myth of female power, which assigns to woman the crucial responsibility for creating a mature and socially respectable man. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare reveals the dependency which underlies mastery, the strength behind submission. Truly, Petruchio is wedded to his Kate.


  1. Robert Heilman, “Introduction,” The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, ed. Robert Heilman, The Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: New American Library, 1966), p. xxxii.

  2. R. Warwick Bond, “Introduction,” The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1904). Quoted by Robert Heilman, “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew,” MLQ, [Modern Language Quarterly] XXVII (1966), 147-161.

  3. Here are four examples of this viewpoint:

    a) “But ‘taming’ is only a metaphor. We can describe the action just as well by saying that Petruchio cures Kate of chronic bad temper … more shrew than she, he ‘kills her in her own humor.’” Richard Hosley, The Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 17.

    b) Muriel C. Bradbrook, “Dramatic Role as Social Image: a Study of The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, XCIV (1958), pp. 132-150, states: “Though at one point it is suggested that ‘he hath some meaning in his mad attire,’ no one seems to disagree when Bianca sums up at the exit of the pair [Kate and Petruchio], ‘Being mad herself, she's madly mated.’ The central point, the knot of the play, is here” (p. 142).

    c) In his Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: a Mirror for Lovers (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), Hugh Richmond characterizes Kate's behavior before the wedding as “obviously pathological,” produced by “a mind close to breakdown.” Thus, “her disintegrating personality seems to justify almost any kind of shock therapy. … Petruchio's physical violence is only a figure for Katherine's, and ‘kills her in her own humor’” (pp. 90-91).

    d) Heilman, “Introduction,” p. xli: “Kate's great victory is, with Petruchio's help, over herself.”

  4. All quotations from The Taming of the Shrew are taken from the Signet edition, cited in note 1 above.

  5. For a review of medieval shrew literature, see Katherine Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: a History of Misogyny in Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966), pp. 88-93. Muriel Bradbrook, “Dramatic Role,” pp. 134-138, discusses Tudor treatments of the shrew. For an example of shrew literature contemporary with Shakespeare, see Tom Tyler and his Wife (ca. 1578), ed. Felix E. Schelling, PMLA, XV, no. 3 (1900), pp. 253-289. Strife, the hero's wife, humiliates and tortures him, forcing him “To serve like a knave, and live like a slave.” His friend disguises himself as Tom and secures Strife's surrender immediately by beating her. However, when Tyler confesses that not he but another man did it, she turns on him again and resumes her tyranny.

  6. Bradbrook, “Dramatic Role,” p. 139.

  7. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1949; rpt. New York: Bantam-Knopf, 1953), pp. 93-94.

  8. George Hibbard, “The Taming of the Shrew: a Social Comedy,” Shakespearean Essays, ed. Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders, Special Number: 2, Tennessee Studies in Literature (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1964), pp. 16-30. Hibbard's remarks on the financial aspects of marriage in the play are most helpful. He is more sensitive to Kate's position as woman and as marriage-commodity than any critic I have read.

  9. In her first manifestation of violence, she torments Bianca only in response to Bianca's more underhanded treatment of her in the first scene, when she subtly lorded it over Kate by acting as though she were a martyr to her elder sister's failure to attract suitors. Actually, Bianca's confinement is not Kate's fault; it is the whim of their father. When Kate declares, “Her silence flouts me,” she means that Bianca intends her ostentatiously submissive attitude as a slap at her vocally rebellious sister. Kate responds to Bianca's slyness with blows, an “unfeminine” but understandable outlet.

    After she breaks the lute on Hortensio's head, she strikes Petruchio, an outburst she could have avoided had she been able to think of an appropriately lewd rejoinder to his obscene remark, “What, with my tongue in your tail?” Invention fails her, as cunning later does when she fails to realize that Grumio, like his master, is only torturing her with the promise of food, and (in her last physical outburst) strikes him.

  10. I am indebted to Lee Edwards for this comment.

  11. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: the Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965; rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), p. 8.

  12. Space does not allow me to compare the style and dramatic impact of Kate's and Petruchio's speech respectively. In quantitative terms, however, Petruchio speaks 564 lines in the play, Kate 207, less than half as many. In several scenes, notably IV. 1, Kate is conspicuously silent while her husband utters a volley of commands, oaths, and admonitory remarks.

  13. Carroll Camden lists and summarizes the contents of such works in The Elizabethan Woman (Houston: University of Texas Press, 1952), pp. 61-75, 77-82. Katherine Rogers, Troublesome Helpmate, pp. 140-151, reviews Puritan treatises on marriage. Of the latter, two of the most easily obtainable are A Preparative to Marriage (1591) by Henry Smith, in his Works, ed. T. Fuller (Edinburgh: J. Nichol, 1866) vol. I, and “The Marriage Ring,” by Jeremy Taylor, in The Whole Works, ed. R. Heber, rev. ed. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1862-5), vol. IV.

  14. On this point I find myself in disagreement with Richard Henze, “Role Playing in The Taming of the Shrew,” Southern Humanities Review 4 (1970), 231-40, who sees Kate as playing a succession of “complementary” roles at Petruchio's direction, culminating in the role of obedient wife which has by then become “natural” to her.

    Kate's pose of submissive wife is one of many instances in which characters assume roles or identities not their own. Christopher Sly, Tranio and Lucentio, Hortensio, and the Pedant all take on false identities, whereas Kate, Bianca, and the Widow behave so as to conceal their true natures. This common element of “supposes” (so named from one of Shakespeare's sources, Gascoigne's play Supposes) has long been recognized as a major source of meaning in the play. In the context of the play's treatment of marriage, the fact that not only Kate and Petruchio but also the other two couples assume sex-determined poses which their true personalities belie lends greater weight to the idea that masculine and feminine roles in traditional marriage are false.

Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)

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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 motif is reinforced by the fact that Shakespeare added broken nuptials when they are absent from his sources, altered the meaning and increased the significance of those he found there, and imbued them with more complex and wide-ranging functions than they originally had.2

The existence of the motif has implications for study of the comedies' relationships, continuity, and development. The pervasiveness and patterning of the motif may provide a way of looking at them no less useful than those provided by C. L. Barber's implicit distinction between festive and other comedies, Sherman Hawkins' division between green world comedies of extrusion and closed heart comedies of intrusion, and Salingar's categories of farcical, woodland, and problem comedies.3 Exploration of the motif will show that the most important impediments to comic fulfillment are within the couples themselves and not, as Northrop Frye has influentially argued, within the blocking figures and repressive laws of an anti-comic society in need of transformation.4 The broken nuptials are one means of achieving the release of emotion moving toward clarification which C. L. Barber has explored in the festive comedies. I argue, extending Barber's insights, that release of emotion is necessary in all of the comedies as is some transformation of released emotion although not precisely the sort which Barber finds characteristic of the late romances.5 Within the continuity of the comedies which the motif manifests, overall development is likewise apparent. In earlier comedies irregular nuptials identify and release conflicts, engendering their resolution. In later comedies in which conflicts are severe and anxieties deeply rooted, nuptials are more severely disrupted and resolutions increasingly strained.6

In Shakespearean comedy, if wooing is to lead to a wedding ceremony and consummation of the marriage, separation from family and friends must occur, misogyny must be exorcised, romantic idealizing affection must be experienced and qualified, and sexual desire must be acknowledged and controlled. Only then can subjective romance and urgent desire be reconciled in a formal social ceremony. Resistance to marriage is variously manifested and mitigated and is different for men and women. Women bear a double burden. Once released from their own fears, usually through the actions of other women, they must dispel men's resistance and transform men's emotions. The irregular nuptials in three early comedies reveal and remove different impediments to the comic project: Kate's resistance to romantic affection in Taming of the Shrew, which is transformed by Petruchio; the men's vacillation between misogyny and romanticism in Love's Labor's Lost, which is mocked and countered by the ladies; and the capricious, aggressive action of desire in Midsummer Night's Dream, which is experienced and manipulated by both men and women and which transforms them. I will examine the significance of the broken nuptials in these three plays and trace the development of each one's version of the motif through later comedies. Then I will focus on the central instance of broken nuptials in Much Ado About Nothing, showing how this thematically pivotal comedy extends earlier uses of the motif and anticipates its darker configurations in the problem comedies and contemporaneous tragedies.

In The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio's disruptions of his and Kate's nuptials—the mocked ceremony, interrupted feast, and postponed consummation—while arrogant and misogynistic reveal and mitigate the sources of Kate's resistance to affection and marriage. His mockery of the wedding rituals implies that a formal ceremony does not guarantee mutual commitment. His removal of her from the feast parodies the authoritarian possessiveness which constitutes a genuine threat to Kate. At the same time he celebrates the sexual bond generated in their first bawdy exchange, romanticizing it by picturing her as a threatened damsel with a devoted protector. His seizure of her likewise exaggerates the separation from her family which is necessary if she is to move beyond the restrictive role of shrew through which she has defined her relation to them. Kate, gradually shifting roles in response to Petruchio's bullying, commits herself to him through their verbal games, their public kiss, and her concluding affirmation of marriage. Her new-found pleasure in giving and receiving affection is confirmed in her final speech, a celebration of reciprocity that brilliantly reconciles patriarchal marriage with romantic love and mutual desire. She defines marriage not just as a hierarchical social institution in which an obedient wife dutifully serves her lord, but, conversely, as a playful Petrarchan romance in which an ardent lover courageously serves a beautiful woman;

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign—one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilest thou li'st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience.


Underlying both fictions is a reciprocal sexual bond in which the woman is a clear, life-giving fountain, responsive to her husband's “honest will” (5.2.160). Following this joyous reassertion of her marriage vows and the re-celebrated wedding feast, the couple can go off to bed for the belated consummation of their marriage.

Female resistance to wooing and wedding is rare in the comedies and is not elsewhere dispelled by men. But other women—Beatrice, Phebe, Olivia, Diana, and Isabella—do “usurp” themselves, as Viola puts it to Olivia (1.5.185); their withdrawal from men has something in common with Kate's. It is characterized by unsparing attacks on male pride and romanticism and by the self-pride and suppression of desire most thoroughly manifested in Isabella. Olivia and Isabella, like Kate, must loosen constricting bonds to family. All of these women are released by vehement attacks on their pride and beauty, and by the preliminary movement into temporary, inadequate, or counterfeit relationships—Kate's farcical marriage, Beatrice's “wars” with Benedick, Phebe's and Olivia's adolescent attachments to the disguised women who attack them, Diana's pretended acquiescence in Bertram's seduction of her, and Isabella's pretended participation in the bedtrick. All but Kate are urged toward their release by other women. The attacks on Beatrice by Hero, on Phebe by Rosalind, and on Olivia by Viola, and the bedtrick substitutions of Helena for Diana and Mariana for Isabella engender in each of the women partial identification with the situation of the woman she is paired with. The resisting women are transformed or potentially transformed, and the women who attack pride or are humiliated through the bedtricks must confront their own defenses and anxieties in preparation for their own commitments.

Male resistance to marriage is more pervasive and persistent; it typically takes other forms and is dispelled in somewhat different ways. Men's conflicting bonds are not usually to family but to male peers. Instead of withdrawing, they defend themselves against women and protect self-esteem by aggressive misogyny or witty romantic idealization. The men are released in the early comedies by women's mockery, designed to reveal the men's absurdity and the limitations of the women they worship. In Love's Labor's Lost the women mock the men's wooing and postpone the weddings until after the play has ended. In the original academe scheme the men banish women in order to cement their fellowship and to overcome “devouring Time” and the “disgrace of death” by warring against “the huge army of the world's desires” (1.1.3-4, 10). Their facile shift from misogyny to romanticism is incomplete and reveals the similar functions of the two poses. The formulaic wooing, like the ascetic retreat it replaces, continues to protect the men from women and sex and time and strengthens their bonds with each other; their untimely marriage proposals deny, once again, the reality of death. The women, responding to their own desires and to the threat posed by male arrogance, rigidity, and misogyny, abort the expected festive conclusion—“These ladies' courtesy / Might well have made our sport a comedy” (5.2.873-74)—and refuse the offers. They impose on the men separate, year-long penances which are to be a fruitful transformation of the “little academe” to which they were originally pledged. Through these, romance, wit, and male friendship, having had their season, will give way, in time, to the fulfillment, the prosaic familiarity, and the heterosexual “binding” and “breaking” (AYL, 5.4.58) imaged in the seasonal songs. Oaths once sworn to each other against women will now be sworn to their beloveds. Wit, once tested against a world of “frosts and fasts” (5.2.799) and disease, will be discarded if it proves inadequate. Awaiting the men's growth, the women undergo a complementary withdrawal to mourn the king's death; in later comedies and in the tragedies, female withdrawal becomes increasingly defensive and involves greater risks.

In The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It the threats of male friendship and idealizing romance are again confronted, not in interrupted nuptials but in parodic ceremonies imposed by the women on the men they love: at the end of Merchant, Bassanio must reassert his wedding vows and receive again Portia's ring before the mid-play marriage can be consummated, and Orlando must rehearse his vows with Rosalind/Ganymede/Rosalind in preparation for the actual wedding which concludes As You Like It. Portia and Rosalind use the pseudo-ceremony to mock the conventionally extravagant commitments of the men; both assert the possibility of female infidelity to emphasize the sexual dimension of women and marriage not fully acknowledged by their beloveds. Bassanio's bond with Antonio—for which he leaves Portia and gives away her ring—has constituted a genuine threat to his marriage. In the last scene he is brought to recognize this and to recommit himself more fully to Portia. Antonio must also pledge himself to the marriage, in effect giving Bassanio away with the return to him of Portia's ring, which has come to represent Portia's faith and chastity, Bassanio's lapsed and reaffirmed fidelity, and the sexual consummation of the marriage which will follow their re-wedding. Orlando's romantic pledge to die for love is likewise transformed by means of a mock ceremony into a realistic commitment to marry, knowing that the sky will change and the wife may wander. Portia and Rosalind, in disguise and in control, can playfully use the fantasy of female infidelity to qualify romance because neither their sexuality nor their potential infidelity is perceived as a real threat in these plays.

But in Midsummer Night's Dream desire, symbolized by the operations of the fairy juice, is urgent, promiscuous, and threatening to women as well as men. Its effects mock protestations of constancy by Lysander and Demetrius and exaggerate the patriarchal possessiveness of Theseus and Oberon: “every man should take his own. … The man shall have his mare again, / and all shall be well” (3.2.459, 463-64). All is made well in part because the erratic or aggressive desires of the controlling men are “linger(ed)” (1.1.4) by the chaste constancy of Hermia and Helena and the poised detachment of Hippolyta or tempered by the inconstancy of Titania with Bottom. Oberon, engineering this union, imagines it as an ugly, bestial coupling “with lion, bear, or wolf, or bull” (2.1.180), an apt punishment for Titania's multiple desires and intimacies. But from Titania's perspective (and ours) it is a comically fulfilling alternate nuptial—and was staged as such by Peter Brook, complete with streamers, the wedding march, a plumed bower, and a waving phallus.8 The union is a respite for Titania from the conflicts of her hierarchical marriage. She and Bottom experience not animal lust, but a blissful, sensual, symbiotic union, characterized, like that of mother and child, by mutual affection and a sense of effortless omnipotence. Their eroticism, the opposite of Oberon's bestial fantasies or Theseus' phallic wooing, is tenderly gynocentric: “So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle / Gently entwist; the female ivy so / Enrings the barky fingers of the elm” (4.1.43-45). Although Titania disavows her “enamoured” visions (4.1.77-78), and Oberon misconstrues them, the couple's “amity” (4.1.88) depends on that prior union: freed by it to relinquish her other love object, the Indian boy, to Oberon, Titania's submission generates in him the tenderness she craves. The wedding festivities at the end of the play incorporate the union aborted by death enacted in the Pyramus and Thisbe play. This play's linking of parodic romance and bawdy innuendo brings comically into the festive conclusion the two dimensions of love—conventional romanticism and uncontrollable desire—which, converging, threatened the couples in the forest.

Later, in Twelfth Night, another dream-nuptial is similarly commanded by the woman and acquiesced in amazedly by the man. Sebastian, like Bottom, is the bemused recipient of female bounty. But the romantic and sexual attraction of Olivia and Sebastian is legitimized in a chapel by the priest, who describes the exquisitely formal and decorously conventional wedding: “Confirmed by mutual joinder of your hands, / Attested by the holy close of lips, / Strength'ned by interchangement of your rings; / And all the ceremony of this compact / Seal'd in my function, by my testimony” (5.2.156-60). While perfectly completed, this is, perhaps, the most irregular nuptial of all, for Sebastian both “is and is not” (5.1.216) the object of Olivia's desires. (More farcically and less happily, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the sexual mismatches of Caius and Slender, whose brides turn out to be “lubberly” boys (5.5.186), break their nuptials and reflect the ludicrous impotence of their desires and of Falstaff's). In Twelfth Night the union is wondrous, not troublesome; the fortunate appearance of twin Sebastian “unties” all the “knots” (2.2.41) of the play, releasing Olivia from proud disdain into satisfied desire, allowing Orsino's free-floating fancies to anchor on Viola, his “fancy's queen” (5.1.389), and transforming Viola's romantic and self-sacrificing pledge to die for Orsino—“And I, most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest a thousand deaths would die” (5.1.131-32)—into a fulfilling sexual commitment. But the simultaneously regular and irregular nuptial points to the sheerly contingent connection of sexual desire with romantic affection and with wedding ceremonies and anticipates the more radical substitutions which are necessary to untie the tangles of the problem comedies.

As romance and desire are increasingly fragmented in later comedies, both pose greater threats. Misogyny and romanticism corrupt each other when, in Angelo and Much Ado's Claudio, idealization of women becomes a brittle, easily shattered defense against sexual desire and anxiety, and when, in Troilus and Bertram, romantic rhetoric is employed as a weapon of aggressive seduction, as foreshadowed in Proteus's arrested rape in Two Gentlemen of Verona. The desire induced in the earlier comedies to generate release—through the fairy juice, the witty mockery of the heroines, the bawdy of fools, clowns, and subplot characters—now degenerates into lust. This lust, untransformed, cannot be absorbed into the ritualistic conclusions as Touchstone's is after Jaques interrupts the fool's earlier attempt to contrive a quasi-legitimate union with Audrey. The comically irregular ceremonies and postponed consummations of the earlier comedies give way in All's Well and Measure for Measure to “cozen'd” and premature consummations which “Defile the pitchy night” (AWW, 4.4.23-24), consummations which feel like prostitution in All's Well and like rape in Measure for Measure. The submission of Helena and Mariana in the bedtricks is painfully humiliating, and in the last scenes of the plays Diana and Isabella must take this humiliation on themselves. The men are not merely mocked into acknowledgments of the risks of marriage and the limitations of the beloved; they are forced into marriages they dread with women they dislike.

Much Ado About Nothing contains the most clear-cut example of broken nuptials—Claudio's interruption of his wedding ceremony to accuse Hero of infidelity. It looks both forward and backward and has affinities with most of the other comedies. In it the threats posed by misogyny, romanticism, sexual anxieties, and social conventions are variously dispelled. In the Beatrice/Benedick plot, the couple are released by their mutual mockery and their double gullings which function like the mockery and trickery of Love's Labor's Lost, Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It to break down defenses and release affection. In the Claudio/Hero plot, however, anxieties are expressed and mitigated by the broken nuptials, Claudio's penitence and acceptance of a substitute bride, and Hero's vilification and mock death, motifs which anticipate Twelfth Night, All's Well, and Measure for Measure.

The witty bawdy of Much Ado About Nothing, more extensive than that of Taming, Midsummer Night's Dream, or As You Like It, but more lighthearted than that of All's Well and Measure for Measure, manifests sexuality as the central component of marriage and the source of radically different anxieties for men and women. Its primary subject is intercourse, persistently viewed as male assault: men “board” woman (2.1.138) and “put in the pikes with a vice” (5.2.20) while women resign themselves to being made “heavier … by the weight of a man” and “stuff'd” (3.4.26, 63); thus they belittle the “blunt … foils” (5.2.13) and “short horns” (2.1.22) which threaten them. They do not, however, see their own sexuality as a weapon; they joke about “lightness” (3.4.36, 43, 45) to warn each other against it, and even the term itself associates them with weakness rather than strength. Fear of male aggressiveness explains, I think, Hero's heavy heart on her wedding morning and her willingness to be the passive object of her father's negotiations, Pedro's wooing, and Claudio's low-keyed proposal; she, like Claudio, wishes to emphasize the social not the sexual aspect of their marriage. Beatrice's more aggressive, witty resistance to men and marriage is also rooted, not in deep-seated hostility toward either (indeed her mockery poignantly reveals her desire for both), but in her apprehensiveness about the sexual and social submission demanded of women in marriage. Wary of men's volatile combination of earthly frailty with arrogant authority, she does not want a husband,

till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I'll none. Adam's sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.


Women fear submission to men's power; men, likewise perceiving their sexuality as power over women, fear the loss of this power through male submission to the “yoke” of marriage or through female betrayal. They defend themselves against betrayal in three ways: by transforming it, through the motif of cuckoldry, into a proof of virility; by anticipating it through misogyny; and by denying its possibility through idealization. All three motifs are prominent in Much Ado. As Coppélia Kahn suggests, cuckoldry becomes associated with virility by means of the horn which symbolizes both.9 The defensive function of cuckoldry jokes is made apparent in the extended one which introduces the final weddings. The scorn due the cuckold is ingenuously swallowed up in the acclaim awarded the cuckolder for his “noble feat”: “And all Europa shall rejoice at thee, / As once Europa did at lusty Jove / When he would play the noble beast in love” (5.4.50, 45-47). Cuckoldry, thus deftly dissociated from female power and sexuality, can be identified with masculine solidarity, authority, and virility: “There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn” (5.4.123). Benedick's misogyny is similarly self-protective. His cynicism about women—“I will do myself the right to trust none” (1.1.237)—coupled with the claim that all women dote on him, allows him to profess virility without ever putting it to the proof. The parallel defense against sex and risk erected by misogyny and idealization, implicit in Love's Labor's Lost, is made explicit in Benedick's admission that could he find an ideal woman, he would abandon the pose: “But till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace” (2.3.27-29). Claudio finds—or creates—“all graces in one woman,” but his defense is as fragile as Benedick's. Romanticizing rhetoric and patriarchal marriage conventions conveniently coalesce, enabling him to maintain Hero as a remote perfect object of possession, not to be touched, scarcely even talked to: “Lady, as you are mine, I am yours” (2.1.296).10

The witty verbal skirmishes comprising Beatrice's and Benedick's “merry wars” express, as Claudio's and Hero's silence does, anxieties about sexuality and intimacy. But the heterosexual hostilities released in the bawdy and, more violently, in the broken nuptials are dispelled with more difficulty than in earlier comedies. Beatrice and Benedick cannot transform themselves or each other, but their asymmetrical gullings resemble the ceremonies mocking men and the attacks on female recalcitrance already examined. The two deceits, invariably viewed as parallel, are quite different. The men gently mock Benedick's witty misogyny while nurturing his ego; they emphasize his virtues, not his “contemptible spirit” (2.3.180), and confirm his fantasy that all women adore him with a drawn-out exaggerated tale of Beatrice's helpless passion for him. Even such assurances of his power win from him only a grudgingly impersonal commitment: “Love me? Why, it must be requited” (2.3.19). This he must justify by relying, like Claudio, on friends' confirmations of the lady's virtue and marriageability, and by viewing marriage not as a personal relationship but as a conventional social institution for controlling desire and ensuring procreation: “the world must be peopled” (2.3.236).

The gulling of Beatrice by the women is utterly different in its strategy and effect. They make only one unembroidered mention of Benedick's love, praise his virtues, not Beatrice's, and attack at length and with gusto her proud wit, deflating rather than bolstering her self-esteem. Accepting the accuracy of the charges, Beatrice unhesitatingly abandons pride and wit and is released into an undefensive, personal declaration of her passion and an affirmation of the submission she had resisted: “And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, / Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand. / If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee / To bind our loves up in a holy band” (3.1.111-14). She views marriage not as a social necessity but as a ritual expressing affectionate, passionate, mutual commitment. Unlike Benedick, she trusts her own sense of his worth more than her friends' praise: “For others say thou dost deserve, and I / Believe it better than reportingly” (3.1.115-16). Subsequently, Claudio's slander, the broken nuptials, and Hero's mock death lead her to test Benedick's commitment further.

Claudio's defensive idealization of Hero, when shattered, appropriately by Don John's report that she has had “her chamber window ent'red” (3.2.108), easily turns into vicious degradation—as will happen later with Angelo, Troilus, Hamlet, and Othello. His former cautious silent worship inverted, Claudio denounces Hero in extravagantly lascivious rhetoric, perverts the ceremony which had protected him, and seeks from friends confirmation of her corruption as he had formerly sought proof of her virtue. Hero's response to his slander is a mock-death which extends the self-concealment practiced, through masking, disguise, or withdrawal, by women in other comedies. The women in Love's Labor's Lost mask themselves and go into seclusion at the end; Kate plays shrew and Titania evades Oberon; Julia, Rosalind, Portia, and Viola are disguised. The literal masks of Beatrice and Hero at the ball reflect their self-protective concealment behind facades of wit and silence.

But the strategies used in this play and later ones do not merely parody or postpone nuptials but mend ruptured ones. Necessary now to mitigate not idealization of women but their degradation, they grow bolder and more dangerous. Hero's play death is both an involuntary, passive escape from male degradation and a voluntary, constructive means to alter it. The “death” of the unchaste woman satisfies the lover's desire for revenge while alleviating his anxiety about infidelity. Then, as the friar explains, freed from the pain of loving her and the fear of losing her, the lover can re-idealize the woman: “then we find / The virtue that possession would not show us / Whiles it was ours” (4.1.219-21). Through the death of the corrupted beloved, the lover can repossess her, purified, as in Othello's “I will kill thee, / And love thee after” (5.2.18-19). Whereas in most earlier comedies female control brought men to their senses, in later ones, more disturbingly and less reciprocally than in Taming and Dream, female submission generates male affection. Women “die” of unrequited love as Beatrice is said to be doing; they “die” sexually, validating male virility as Helena and Mariana do; and they die, or pretend to, as retribution for their imagined betrayals. Helena, Cleopatra, and Hermione, like Hero, will voluntarily pretend death to transform their lovers' attitudes, and Ophelia's and Desdemona's actual deaths engender in Hamlet and Othello the penitent re-idealization the friar describes. But in Claudio the process is perfunctory and coerced, and his eagerness to “seize upon” (5.4.53) a substitute bride merely confirms his pragmatic romanticism. In the problem comedies Bertram's and Angelo's repentance is even less spontaneous than Claudio's and no more fully realized: the crucial presence of two women at the endings—one of the chaste object of lust (Diana, Isabella), the other the substitute bride and enforced marriage partner (Helena, Mariana)—emphasizes the unreconciled split between the men's idealization and degradation of women, between social convention and lust.

In Much Ado, however, the completed and festive nuptials are made possible not only by Claudio's penance, Hero's mock death, and their lightly sketched reconciliation, but also by Benedick's willingness to respond to Beatrice's demand that he “Kill Claudio.” (4.1.288). Extravagant and coercive as this demand may be, it serves as a necessary antidote to and transformation of the play's pervasive misogyny. Benedick's promise to serve Beatrice will reciprocate her willingness to “tame her wild heart” for him. His challenge will transform an aggressive male gesture into an affirmation of his faith in Beatrice and Hero, repudiating his former distrust of women and dividing him from the friends who shared and encouraged this attitude. Similarly, Berowne must redirect his wit, Theseus wed Hippolyta “in another key,” and Bassanio relegate friendship to “surety” for his marriage. Although the challenge comes to nothing, its delivery and the discovery of the halting sonnets which signal their release into the silliness of romance enable Beatrice and Benedick to marry “in friendly recompense” (5.4.83) with mutuality achieved. But when, at the conclusion, a double wedding is imminent, and threats of infidelity are raised one last time only to be laughed away, we should perhaps remember Beatrice's acute satire on wooing and wedding—and their aftermath:

wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinquepace. The first suit is hot and hasty, like a Scotch jig (and full as fantastical); the wedding, mannerly modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes Repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinquepace faster and faster till he sink into his grave.


Beatrice's description, which places marriage as a precarious beginning, not a happy ending, is anticipated by the many irregular nuptials of earlier comedies and embodied in the troubling open endings of All's Well and Measure for Measure. The culmination of “fantastical” romance and “hot and hasty” desire in a “mannerly-modest” ceremony does not preclude the repenting which follows in the problem comedies and tragedies. “The catastrophe is a nuptial,” as Armado proclaims with relish in his love letter to Jaquenetta (LLL, 4.1.78), but later nuptials prove to be catastrophic in a sense other than the one Armado consciously intends. And in Much Ado, there is one final nuptial irregularity: the dancing begins, at Benedick's insistence, even before the weddings are celebrated.


  1. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp. 302-5.

  2. Love's Labor's Lost and Midsummer Night's Dream lack sources for the plays as a whole, and there are no clear-cut antecedents for the deferred weddings of the one or the Titania/Bottom union of the other. Merchant of Venice's postponed consummation is absent from its central source, the first tale of the fourth day of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino's Il Pecorone in which the return of the ring is a minor incident. The mock wedding ceremony in As You Like It's source, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, is a one sentence joke. The interrupted ceremony of Much Ado, the precipitous marriage of Olivia and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, and the bedtricks of All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure derive from important plot incidents in the sources—Bandello's Novella, #22, “Timbreo and Fenicia”; the anonymous Gl' Ingannati; the ninth story of the third day of Boccaccio's Decameron; Decade 8, Tale 5 of Cinthio's Hecatommithi, “The story of Epitia”; and George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra. But in these sources, the incidents do not have anything like the tone, weight, configuration, or significance that they have in Shakespeare's plays. See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare's Plays 1 and 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966, 1968), for these sources and discussion of Shakespeare's use of them.

  3. C. L. Barber in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (New York: Meridian, 1963) gives extended discussion to Love's Labor's Lost, Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV. Sherman Hawkins in “The Two Worlds of Shakespearean Comedy,” Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967): 62-80 distinguishes between Comedy of Errors, Love's Labor's Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night, closed heart comedies of intrusion, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It, green world comedies of extrusion, holding that Taming of the Shrew and Merry Wives of Windsor share characteristics of both groups. Leo Salingar in Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy distinguishes three groups of comedies: Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Night, farcical comedies derived from classical or Italian learned comedies; Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labor's Lost, Midsummer Night's Dream, and As You Like It, woodland comedies with sources in pastoral or romance literature; and Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well that Ends Well, and Measure for Measure, problem comedies with Italian novelle as sources (pp. 298-305).

  4. In “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays, 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), Frye's Shakespearean examples tend to assimilate Shakespeare to the New Comedy structure he outlines although he distinguishes Shakespearean green world comedy from the generic norm. Even in A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), where Frye looks more specifically at the three ritual phases of Shakespearean comedy, he continues to emphasize the anti-comic society which must be overcome (pp. 72-117).

  5. Barber focuses on the release of emotion in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy and in “‘Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget’: Transformation in ‘Pericles’ and ‘The Winter's Tale,’” Shakespeare Survey 22 (1969): 61, compares this with the transformation of emotion required in the romances.

  6. I am indebted to Richard P. Wheeler's Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), which places the festive comedies and the late romances in relation to the problem comedies. See especially, pp. 12-19.

  7. This and subsequent citations are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, gen. ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

  8. For a photograph of one moment in this scene, see Peter Brook's Production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Chicago: The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1974), p. 103.

  9. Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 122.

  10. Janice Hays, “Those ‘soft and delicate desires’: Much Ado and the Distrust of Women,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 79-99 discusses in detail Claudio's fears of and defenses against sexual involvement.

Ann Jennalie Cook (essay date 1981)

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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.

For almost twenty years men like Lawrence Stone and Peter Laslett have been studying patterns of marriage and family as they existed in Shakespeare's day.1 Their findings point toward a situation radically unlike our own in at least three crucial ways.2 First, to the modern mind there is an obvious difference between marriage for interest (i.e., for money, status, or power) and marriage for affect (i.e., for love, friendship, or sexual attraction). The former is wrong and the latter, right. Marry for love but not for money. Be led by sex but not by status. Establish a friendship but not a power base. Second, we assume that sex without love—or at least some significant emotion—is immoral and that marriage for personal gain alone is a form of prostitution. Ethical people do not make love in order to make money. Finally, the pursuit of personal happiness is now considered the primary good. In times of crisis, political or social good may take precedence over personal happiness—but only temporarily and only for a limited number of people.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a far different set of values prevailed. Despite the romantic ideas expressed in plays and poetry, most marriages were contracted on the basis of interest rather than affect. Society demanded a legitimate male heir to preserve the family name and properties. Moreover, the financial arrangements of a marriage settlement were essential to insure that both parties could live securely until death. Marriage was also viewed as the safest outlet for the healthful discharge of sexual appetites. Finally, companionship was always mentioned as a reason for marriage, but in actuality most couples scarcely knew each other before the wedding and afterwards often spent much of their lives apart, as we suspect Shakespeare and his wife did. Clearly, then, the social customs dictated a marriage based primarily on wealth, status, or power and only secondarily on love, friendship, or sexual attraction. Sex was intended primarily for procreation or health and only secondarily as an expression of mutual affection and therefore took place within marriage—with or without love. And family advancement took a decided precedence over personal happiness.

Another striking difference between marriage then and marriage now revolves around the authority to contract a union. Today, provided a man and woman are legally of age, they alone make the choice of a mate. Parents and friends may counsel, cajole, or criticize, but they cannot command or countermand a union. Not so in Shakespeare's time. Parents or guardians negotiated matches for their children and wards, backed by the power of a patriarchal, authoritarian culture. The church canons of 1603 specifically forbade marriages without parental approval for anyone under the age of twenty-one, and it was considered a grave sin to contract a union after that age in defiance of family wishes. Only widows, widowers, and adult heirs whose fathers had died could exercise a free choice in marriage. Gradually, children were permitted a veto over the prospective spouse, but parents or guardians continued to make the initial selection and to conduct the pre-marital negotiations.3

Among the privileged in England, these negotiations were both complicated and crucial. Today, a swift ceremony constitutes a valid marriage, with such matters as financial support, ownership of property, inheritance, and the like relegated to a haphazard future settlement. But in Elizabethan England, financial arrangements were settled first. After all, in the upper levels of society every man was expected to “live idly and without manuall labour and … to bear the port charge and countenance of a gentleman.” Such a leisured lifestyle required money. Fathers thus counseled sons to marry richly, for “ritches will be comforts when other things ar amis, and save one from many mischiefs.” Or, again, “Let her not be poor … for a man can buy nothing in the market with gentility.” As the Earl of Northumberland put it, “love grows soon cold when want calls at your doors. … Time will tell you of many imperfections in her that plenty must make plasters for.” Of course the transfer of money in marriage required legal safeguards, just like any other financial transaction. Thus, as the most lucrative match became increasingly desirable and the contractual arrangements became increasingly complex, a specialized market for brokering marriages and drawing up marriage documents developed in London.4

Typically, the negotiations proceeded along the following pattern. Fathers of eligible children sought out potential mates from suitable families with suitable financial offers. Additional wealth might overcome defects of birth, appearance, or character, just as impressive family connections, uncommon beauty, or notable abilities might compensate for lesser riches. In any case, the bride's father agreed to provide a dowry, or portion, payable in cash over a one- or two-year period, together with a trousseau, jewels, and the wedding feast. In exchange, the groom's father agreed to make an allowance for the couple during his lifetime, to guarantee precisely what his son would inherit at the father's death, and to provide a pension, called a dower, or jointure, to the bride should she be widowed. The bargaining was especially intense for heirs and heiresses, since they would eventually inherit most or all of the family's property. However, all girls, even heiresses, constituted a financial drain on the family, since portions, or dowries, had to be paid in cash. On the other hand, for heirs or the fathers of heirs, marriage meant an immediate gain, with the direct payment of the bride's cash portion, while with luck and longevity the future widow's jointure could be deferred for payment in the next generation or avoided altogether if the wife died before her husband. For men, marriage thus constituted a ready means to repair sagging fortunes or to pay debts, even though it meant a long-term liability.5

The successful negotiation of marriage agreements was cemented by a public ceremony in which the contract was signed and approved before witnesses. The pre-marital contract was then eventually ratified by the marriage ceremony. However, physical consummation of the betrothal constituted a binding marriage even without the wedding, though a church ceremony was required for inheritance of property. The pre-marital agreements could be voided by the existence of a previous contract, and in fact the banns read before the wedding were to insure that no prior contracts existed. Before the wedding or consummation the agreement could also be voided by the failure of either party to provide what was promised or by proof of fornication. At this stage, the personal preference or aversion of the prospective couple had presumably been settled. Rare indeed was the case of Sir Richard Cholmley, who forfeited £1,000 of his daughter's wedding portion when Katherine finally admitted that she simply could not marry Lord Lumley. Sir Richard even permitted her to marry the man she loved, a poor younger brother, but this kind of indulgence was almost unheard of.6

Now it is true that a few couples defied convention to marry for love, against the will of family or guardian. But such daring lovers constituted only a handful. For the most part elopements and intrigues occurred at Court, which was virtually the only place where young men and women of equal status could meet freely. Yet even at Court, the Queen's severe displeasure fell upon those who married without her consent, as the Earls of Leicester, Hertford, and Essex, among others, soon discovered. Robert Tyrwhit and Sir Walter Raleigh went to jail for marrying secretly, while both Elizabeth Vernon and the third Earl of Southampton were put behind bars when they married after the lady became pregnant. The Queen beat Mary Shelton and bluntly refused Mary Arundell when those ladies asked permission to marry.7 Moreover, the Court's severity toward love matches was resoundingly echoed in society at large whenever such unions ran counter to the wishes of a parent or guardian. Children might rebel, but for Elizabethans marriage was a family matter far too serious to trust to the whim of love or the heat of passion.

What, then, are we to make of Shakespeare's treatment of love and marriage in his plays? First, I think we must acknowledge that at the most basic level Shakespeare was not attempting to present a realistic portrait of the customs of his day. Instead, he was following a long-standing literary tradition, reaching all the way back to the Middle Ages and particularly prevalent in Court circles, which placed romantic love ahead of all other considerations in the relationships between men and women. Second, as a man of his time and as a shrewd observer of human nature, he often brought conventional marriage customs into his plays and at the same time deftly commented upon those customs. Finally, we need to realize that the presuppositions about courtship and marriage that modern audiences apply to Shakespeare are far removed from those of the audiences for which he wrote. What is ultimately important, of course, is to see just where Shakespeare conforms to accepted custom and where he departs from it for his own dramatic purposes, so as to avoid making false interpretations either through ignorance of the past or inappropriate intrusion of the present. The best way to achieve such an aim is to consider a few plays.

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare's earliest, longest, and most obvious commentary on the marriage market. In comic terms the play presents a confrontation of orthodox and unorthodox courtship. From the very beginning, even in the Induction, Shakespeare places an insistent monetary emphasis in the play—drunken, debt-ridden Sly being tossed out for refusing to pay for glasses he has broken and then surrounded with the trappings of wealth. All this is prelude to the Italian setting of the story, where everyone's father (or pseudo-father) seems to be a “merchant of great traffic through the world” (I.i.12). Words like “profit,” “commodity,” “business,” and “shipping” stud the dialogue, though indeed the bargaining for wives is obvious enough to require little secondary enforcement.8

The situation seems simple enough—a wealthy merchant with no sons but two daughters who will presumably make rich prizes for their husbands. Bianca, the younger, is eagerly sought after; but Kate, the elder, who must be married first, is such a shrew that “though her father be very rich, any man is so very a fool to be married to hell” (I.i.122-24). As with many another less-than-perfect prospect, however, “there be good fellows in the world … would take her with all her faults, and money enough” (I.i.126-29). And such a one is Petruchio. His father being dead, the young man may choose any wife he pleases and have unrestricted use of her portion: “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua—/ If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (I.ii.73-74). His straightforward declaration marks him not as a base fortune hunter but as one who cuts right through the superficialities to the substance of the marriage negotiations. It may not be true, as Gremio cynically claims, “Why give him gold enough and marry him to a puppet or an aglet-baby or an old trot with ne'er a tooth in her head” (I.ii.76-78). But it is short-sighted of Hortensio to claim that despite Kate's youth, her beauty, her excellent upbringing, and her fortune, he “would not wed her for a mine of gold” (I.ii.90). “Thou know'st not gold's effect,” sensibly replies Petruchio. “Tell me her father's name, and 'tis enough” (I.ii.91-92).

Petruchio's courtship in fact follows a highly conventional procedure, exaggerated enough to make it amusing but perilously close to the real thing. Having located “One rich enough to be Petruchio's wife” (I.ii.65) and assured himself of her age, appearance, education, and family, the hero must now negotiate with Kate's father—who, it turns out, is an old friend of the family. (“I know her father though I know not her, / And he knew my deceased father well” [I.ii.99-100].) In his wooing, Petruchio receives the customary support of his friends, together with the highly uncustomary bonus of their agreement to pay his expenses if he is successful. Gremio, Hortensio, and the disguised Tranio all promise to “be contributors / And bear his charge of wooing whatsoe'er” (I.ii.211-12).

While the other suitors came loaded down with gifts for Bianca, Petruchio wastes no time in coming to terms for Kate with Baptista.

You knew my father well, and in him me,
Left solely heir to all his lands and goods,
Which I have bettered rather than decreased.
Then tell me, if I get your daughter's love
What dowry shall I have with her to wife?
After my death the one half of my lands,
And in possession twenty thousand crowns.
And for that dowry, I'll assure her of
Her widowhood, be it that she survive me,
In all my lands and leases whatsoever.
Let specialties be therefore drawn between us,
That covenants may be kept on either hand.
Ay, when the special thing is well obtained,
That is, her love, for that is all in all.


Several significant factors emerge in this conversation. For one thing, Petruchio is a capable man, having already enlarged his inheritance and now seeking to enlarge his wealth still further with Kate's dowry. Moreover, he sets up a jointure that goes to her only if he dies first and only for her lifetime. In this way he secures his estate for inheritance by his successors. No future husband or children of any future marriage can share in more than the income during Kate's lifetime. On the other hand, Petruchio gets a fortune in ready money—twenty thousand crowns, amounting to £5,000, more than double the sum most peers offered for their daughters9—and the prospect of half Baptista's lands unless he predeceases his father-in-law. Almost anyone in the audience would realize that Petruchio has made a splendid bargain. Let the papers be drawn indeed!

As for getting Kate's love, it seems clear that Baptista is motivated less by concern for her wishes than by fear of her temper. After all, with his favorite, Bianca, he says,

'Tis deeds must win the prize, and he of both
That can assure my daughter greatest dower
Shall have Bianca's love—


No nonsense here about gaining the girl's consent. Instead, he treats Bianca's love as a possession which is his to bestow. Were it not for Kate's vicious tongue, the private interview with Petruchio would doubtless be a mere formality. As it is, Shakespeare provides a salty burlesque of the awkward encounters many prospective couples endured, but he ends with the hard facts:

And therefore, setting all this chat aside,
Thus in plain terms. Your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife, your dowry 'greed upon,
And will you, nil you, I will marry you.


Despite Kate's protests to Baptista—“You have showed a tender fatherly regard / To wish me wed to one half lunatic, / A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack” (II.i.288-91)—she has no real say in the matter. Petruchio sets Sunday for the wedding and bids Baptista to fulfill his obligations: “Provide the feast, father, and bid the guests.” “God send you joy! Petruchio, 'tis a match,” the father announces as the eager Gremio and Tranio immediately make it an official contract with, “Amen, say we, we will be witnesses” (II.i.318, 321, 322).

Petruchio's departure thus marks the end of a courtship that has followed, point for point, the customary pattern for wooing. Shakespeare has cleverly scraped away all the niceties to expose the necessities of marriage: money matters most, and the woman's wishes least. A wife is a possession to be bargained for and bought. At the wedding, Petruchio characteristically speaks the plain truth when he says,

I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.


Meanwhile, the bargaining for Bianca exposes the true nature of the marriage market in another way. Petruchio has bought what seems to be a flawed “commodity” (II.i.330) at a cheap price. The suitors for Kate's sister frantically outbid each other to buy what seems to be a perfect piece of merchandise. Incredibly, they ask for no dowry whatsoever, and Baptista does not offer to provide one, as he does for Kate. Though presumably Bianca too would get half of his lands at her father's death, he never mentions such an inheritance. Instead, the auction centers on what each suitor bids as a dower, or jointure, in the event of Bianca's widowhood. Old Gremio first offers his city house with all its rich furnishings and many chests filled with crowns, together with his farm and its six hundred milk cows and six score oxen. “Myself am struck in years, I must confess, / And if I die to-morrow this is hers, / If whilst I live she will be only mine” (II.i.362-64). The reckless Tranio, disguised as his master Lucentio, offers three or four houses just as good, besides two thousand ducats (£400) a year in land. The desperate Gremio, whose entire holdings in land do not come to two thousand ducats, adds his argosy of ships. Tranio throws in three argosies, “two galliasses / And twelve tight galleys” (II.i.380-81), promising to double anything Gremio might add next.

Nay, I have off'red all. I have no more,
And she can have no more than all I have.


Tranio has won.

Even modern audiences enjoy the auction and revel in the joke that Tranio's bid is bogus. But what Shakespeare's audience would also have seen is the absurdity of the size of the offers for a dowerless bride. No woman was worth so much, and certainly no woman ever got all a man had. Even the widows of wealthy London merchants were entitled to no more than a third to a half of their husband's personal property.10 A man's land—his estate—was preserved for his heirs or his nearest male kin, not his widow. Gremio is a doting fool.

A further problem besets the offer of Tranio / Lucentio. Unlike Petruchio, the young man has a father who is very much alive and thus legally controls all the family assets. The careful Baptista therefore insists,

I must confess your offer is the best,
And let your father make her the assurance,
She is your own, else you must pardon me.
If you should die before him, where's her dower?


Bianca will be married to Lucentio “if you make this assurance. / If not, to Signior Gremio” (II.i.398-99). At these words Gremio quite properly takes heart:

Now I fear thee not,
Sirrah, young gamester, your father were a fool
To give thee all and in his waning age
Set foot under thy table. Tut, a toy!
An old Italian fox is not so kind, my boy.


And he is right. No father, whether Italian or English, would have assented to the kind of settlement Tranio proposes, nor would he (like Lear) have relinquished control of his estates before death. But, then, the bogus son supplies a bogus father with no such sensible scruples. Tranio says:

And he shall be Vincentio of Pisa,
And make assurance here in Padua
Of greater sums than I have promised.


In the bargaining scene between the phony father and Baptista, the two old men do not even discuss specific terms, as Petruchio does. The Pedant-turned-parent asks for no portion in cash, makes no inquiry of Bianca's inheritance, and agrees to what Baptista calls “a sufficient dower” (IV.iv.45) with no question about what Tranio has pledged. Instead, they simply send for a scrivener and Bianca so that the agreement can be signed and witnessed “privately and well” (IV.iv.57).

Shakespeare's merry but merciless exposure of the marriage market takes a different turn when he reveals the “treasure” Bianca for what she truly is. For one thing, the audience is shown—long before the final wager—that Bianca is just as headstrong as Kate. She tartly informs her tutors,

I am no breeching scholar in the schools,
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.


She flirts with her instructors, encourages Lucentio's masquerade and his suit, and after scarcely a week, elopes without so much as a careless thought for the future security her father is so keen to obtain for her. This paragon of female virtue has in fact committed serious moral offenses, first by behaving in private with “lightness”—“Fie on her, see how beastly she doth court him”—“See how they kiss and court” (IV.ii.24, 34, 27)—and then by marrying without her father's consent. Moreover, she and Lucentio have acted in a way that severely jeopardizes the stability of their marriage. Legally, since there is no pre-marital contract, Baptista is not obliged to pay any dowry. Nor is the groom's father obliged to make the couple a living allowance, to designate Lucentio as his heir, or to provide a jointure for Bianca should she be widowed. Shakespeare may be arching an eyebrow at marriage-for-money-and-never-mind-love, but he is also arching an eyebrow at marriage-for-love-and-never-mind-money. In this comedy Lucentio has only to kneel and confess all to obtain his father's pardon and his assurance to the outraged Baptista that “we will content you, go to” (V.i.123). But we have only to look at tragedies like Romeo and Juliet and Othello to see what catastrophe elopements could bring. In the real world, children were disinherited, jailed, and beaten for marrying without parental consent.11 In the play world, Baptista provides the wedding feast and all is forgiven.

But Shakespeare makes it clear that Petruchio, who follows the conventional path to marriage—in his own unconventional way—gets a better bargain than Lucentio, who breaks the rules for love of a bogus “treasure,” or Hortensio, who settles for “a lusty widow … / That shall be wooed and wedded in a day” (IV.ii.50-51). As is consistent with the monetary matrix of the play, Lucentio and Hortensio literally lose money on their wives, while Petruchio wins his bet and more. Baptista observes:

The wager thou hast won, and I will add
Unto their losses twenty thousand crowns,
Another dowry to another daughter,
For she is changed as she had never been.


Like Shakespeare, Petruchio has exposed all things for what they truly are and reshaped them to his own terms—including wooing, wedding, and wife.

Bargaining for a bride nowhere else figures so prominently as it does in The Taming of the Shrew, but the issue does crop up in other Shakespearean plays. There, too, a glance at the accepted customs of the period can help to reveal the dramatic techniques involved. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, we find a repeat of the Italian mercantile setting, combined with marriage ventures and an attempt to set a money value on “worth.” However, because the play also seriously explores the problems of risk and indebtedness, Bassanio's wooing is much more subject to misunderstanding than is Petruchio's or Lucentio's.12 Bassanio has come into an inheritance but like countless young men in London has “disabled mine estate / By something showing a more swelling port / Than my faint means would grant continuance” (I.i.123-25). With liberality touted as a virtue and thrift denounced as a niggardly vice, gentlemen of “faint means” often fell into debt and as often looked to a good marriage to mend matters.13 In Shakespeare's world Bassanio would have seemed quite sensible in going after Portia, rather than opportunistic, mercenary, or selfish, as he tends to appear today. In backing Bassanio's endeavor to retrieve himself with some credit, Antonio plays the then-expected part of a friend. Antonio has, after all, lent money gratis to others. The sum he risks in outfitting the wooing party is large—three thousand ducats amounting to about £600—but it is no more than a man of his means can afford to risk in such a significant cause and it offers the best way of getting payment on his loans to Bassanio. Or so it seems at first.

Bassanio, however, bears an even greater risk. He is like all the suitors:

You must take your chance,
And either not attempt to choose at all
Or swear before you choose, if you choose wrong
Never to speak to lady afterward
In way of marriage.


To an Elizabethan, the forfeiture of marriage and the extinction of one's family line was a truly fearsome penalty, so severe that most of Portia's wooers simply depart.14 Morocco and Aragon, who do make the attempt, are both princes. They leave chagrined but scarcely destitute. If Bassanio fails, he will leave impoverished, indebted, and disgraced, forever cut off from the only honorable means of establishing himself—marriage. He alone among the suitors “must give and hazard all he hath” (II.vii.16) to gain his Portia—a name quite intentionally akin to “portion.”

But Bassanio's is not the only courtship and marriage that has disturbed modern critics. It troubles some that Jessica not only steals out of her father's house of “hell” (II.iii.2) but also steals Shylock's gold and jewels.15 The elopement is softened by the repeated references to the Christian salvation she thereby obtains. Moreover, even Shylock's references to Jacob ally his house to the Old Testament family where deceit and trickery are used to secure a husband and wealth—with no apparent loss of God's favor. As for the “gold and jewels she is furnished with” (II.iv.31), Jessica is entitled to a large portion as the daughter of a rich man and thus takes what her father would assuredly but unfairly have denied her. No girl, especially a Jewess, could expect a man to take her for nothing. And if the young couple's liberality with her fortune turns into prodigality, this sin is perhaps preferable to Shylock's sins of usury and parsimony. Besides a proper portion, however, Jessica also is entitled to be her father's sole heiress. This benefit Antonio secures for her at the end of the trial:

So please my lord the Duke and all the court
To quit the fine for one half of his goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it
Upon his death unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter.
Two things provided more: that for this favor
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift
Here in the court of all he dies possessed
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.(16)

The critical furor over the forced conversion has obscured the fact that Shylock is also obliged to act justly towards Jessica and Lorenzo. Lorenzo has taken Jessica only for her fair self and her purloined dowry, but as a further reward he also receives her rightful inheritance. As was customary, the young couple will not receive the inheritance until Shylock dies, but then they will get everything—with the half of it in Antonio's hands ventured in commerce and thus not tainted by usury. In this regard, Antonio stands as surrogate for a careful, loving father, just as he does for Bassanio.17 In both cases he uses the means at his disposal to assist his friends to a secure and thus a happy future. Any Elizabethan gentlemen would have understood and applauded the actions of the Merchant of Venice, many no doubt wishing they had a similar father/friend.

I shall pass over such comedies as Much Ado about Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor, where marriage negotiations also figure significantly, to discuss a play that has doubtless attracted the most attention on this subject—Measure for Measure. Pages of books and learned journals are filled with arguments over the differences between the Claudio-Juliet commitment and the Angelo-Mariana commitment. Fine distinctions between spousals de futuro and de praesenti are drawn to explain why it was wrong for Claudio to sleep with Juliet before any wedding and yet quite proper for Angelo to lie with Mariana.18 Surprisingly, very little has been said about the financial arrangements in the two cases, even though that aspect is crucially important to the major concerns of the play.

The facts are clearly, even bluntly, set forth in the dialogue, when Claudio says,

Thus it stands with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady, she is fast my wife
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.


In other words, the young couple have made a private commitment, which was indeed considered binding, but have delayed the church ceremony until a more favorable property settlement can be worked out. The fact that “friends” control her dowry means that Juliet's parents are dead and the marital arrangements thus lie in the hands of her guardians. Shakespeare's audiences would not have missed this oblique reference to the very real difficulties of wards who were often bought and sold in marriage with little regard for their best interests or their own wishes.19 Claudio too is obviously parentless, since he has only his sister to plead for him and he has contracted a marriage for himself. Juliet's dowry thus assumes increased importance, since the money comes directly to him rather than his father. No matter how much he loves his intended bride, he would be quite foolish to forego one of the chief advantages of his marriage, though admittedly his financial prudence does not excuse his sexual imprudence.

The facts of Angelo's alliance with Mariana are set forth by the disguised Duke/Friar:

She should this Angelo have married, was affianced by her oath, and the nuptial appointed: between which time of the contract and limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was wracked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister. But mark how heavily this befell to the poor gentlewoman: there she lost a noble and renowned brother, … with him the portion and sinew of her fortune, her marriage dowry; with both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming Angelo. … [He] Left her in her tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake.


In this case, Angelo and Mariana had obviously entered into a property settlement, publicly and properly witnessed. Such a premarital contract could be nullified on the grounds of fornication or failure to pay the promised sum. Angelo makes both charges, though only the dowry is lost, and not Mariana's virtue. Legally, Angelo has a valid reason to break off the match, and his decision certainly rests on sound financial grounds. But morally, he is guilty of shameful lying and cruel indifference. The withdrawal from his contract did not have to include either the ruin of Mariana's reputation or the refusal to comfort her grief.

Money, or rather the lack of money, is the critical issue in both these situations. Neither Claudio nor Angelo wants to accept a bride who pays him less than her full price, yet each winds up accepting a “devalued” wife through sexual involvement with her. In the process, each man experiences public humiliation and very nearly loses his life. When Juliet becomes obviously pregnant, Claudio goes to prison and is sentenced to die, saved only by a providential substitution and the Duke's secret intervention. Similarly, through the Duke's secret intervention and his providential substitution of Mariana for Isabella in Angelo's bed, the result is the deputy's public exposure and a death sentence. Angelo's lust, like Claudio's, earns him a dowerless wife with a blemished reputation. The Duke offers Mariana a better chance at the marriage market with Angelo's goods:

                                                                      For his possessions,
Although by confiscation they are ours,
We do instate and widow you with all,
To buy you a better husband.


However, the proffered jointure, certainly more generous than any which might have been written in her original contract with Angelo, is not so large that Mariana would buy a second husband with the life of the first.

The buying and selling of lives, wives, and bodies stands at the core of Measure for Measure.20 The pimps, whores, and bawds in the subplot merely engage more blatantly in the same “trade” as Angelo and Claudio. This trade in female flesh of course cheapens and degrades the women involved: “The stealth of our most mutual entertainment / With character too gross is writ on Juliet” (I.ii.149-50). Mariana's “reputation was disvalued / In levity” (V.i.219-20) and she is instantly married at the Duke's orders, “else imputation, / For that he knew you, might reproach your life” (V.i.416-17). Yet the trade degrades the men involved too, leading them to lie, deceive, and connive, often with indifference towards the suffering their female partners must endure. In the final bargain, each man gets far less than he had hoped for but far more than he deserves.

I am not convinced that Shakespeare held firm, consistent views on the marriage practices of his day. Instead, he seems to have turned a clear, undeceived eye upon those negotiations that so critically shaped the future of every couple, sometimes exposing absurdities, sometimes righting injustices, sometimes exploring corruptions. Always, however, he manages to integrate the marriage material into the aesthetic concerns peculiar to each play. Across a distance of almost four centuries, social history helps to show us both the distortions and the faithful reflections in Shakespeare's mirror of marriage. And we appreciate his art all the more.


  1. See Lawrence Stone, “Marriage among the English Nobility in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 3 (1960-61), 182-206; The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), esp. pp. 175-78, 192-95, 589-671; The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), esp. pp. 3-62, 85-218; Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1965), esp. pp. 81-106; Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), esp. pp. 1-49, 102-73. Among earlier studies, see Wallace Notestein, “The English Woman, 1580-1650,” Studies in Social History, ed. J. H. Plumb (London: Longmans, Green, 1955); and Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (Houston: Elsevier Press, 1952). A study which appeared following the symposium in January 1979 is Margaret Loftus Ranald, “‘As Marriage Binds, Blood Breaks’: English Marriage and Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 30 (1979), 68-81. In this paper I will be concerned exclusively with the marriage patterns for the privileged in the society, since circumstances were somewhat different for the commonality.

  2. See Stone, Family, pp. 86-87, for the distinction between “interest” and “affect.” See also G. R. Hibbard, “Love, Marriage and Money in Shakespeare's Theatre and Shakespeare's England,” The Elizabethan Theatre VI (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977), pp. 134-55. Hibbard views Raleigh's marriage for love as atypical, Bacon's marriage for interest as the norm. Moreover, he uses Middleton's realistic treatment of marriage as a sharp contrast to Shakespeare's unrealistic treatment. As Stone's work in Family amply documents, the great shift from marriage based on affect to marriage based on love was influenced not so much by literature as by the Puritan insistence upon love and harmony between spouses. However, Puritan teachings did not have a significant impact until after Shakespeare. For further accounts of the Puritan view of marriage, see Edward S. LeComte, Milton and Sex (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1978); John Halkett, Milton and the Idea of Matrimony (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1970); Katherine Rogers, Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1966), pp. 140-51; and Roland M. Frye, “The Teachings of Classical Puritanism on Conjugal Love,” Studies in the Renaissance, 2 (1955), 148-59.

  3. Stone, Family, pp. 151, 171-72; Crisis, pp. 594-99, 608-09, 619; “Marriage,” pp. 182-85. For the 1603 canons, see E. Gibson, Codex Juris Ecclesiastici Anglicani (London: Clarendon Press, 1761), p. 421.

  4. Stone, Crisis, pp. 49, 613-15, 623 ff., 50; Family, p. 181; “Marriage,” pp. 193-95. Hibbard also points out the profiteering of the London lawyers who arranged marriages, p. 142.

  5. Stone, Crisis, pp. 621, 632-45; “Marriage,” pp. 187-89, 192, 194-95. Note that younger sons rarely figured in significant negotiations, since they had nothing to offer except what the father or the eldest brother allowed. Many never married.

  6. Ernest Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 13 (1960), 85-86; Stone, Crisis, pp. 609-10; “Marriage,” pp. 198-99.

  7. Stone, Crisis, pp. 605-06, 609-10; Family, pp. 103-04, 181; “Marriage,” p. 186; Hibbard, pp. 135-36.

  8. In rather different contexts from my own, George Hibbard and Coppélia Kahn have also discussed some aspects of the marriage market in Shrew. See Hibbard's “The Taming of the Shrew: A Social Comedy,” Shakespearean Essays, ed. Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders for Tennessee Studies in Literature (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1964), pp. 16-30; and Kahn's “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage,” Modern Language Studies, 5 (1975), 88-101. Kahn's assertion that Baptista's negotiations “provide insurance against having to support his daughters in widowhood” reveals her imperfect understanding of the financial responsibility for widows, always a burden on the husband's family. All citations come from the Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  9. Stone, Crisis, pp. 638-39. For the English equivalents of crowns and ducats, I am indebted to Professor Sanford Sternlicht, who is an authority on Elizabethan money. A crown equalled 5s., a ducat 4s., with 20s. to the pound.

  10. Stone, Crisis, pp. 628-29.

  11. Stone, pp. 602, 606; Hibbard, “Love,” pp. 135, 140-42.

  12. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch calls Bassanio “a predatory young gentleman” in his Introduction to the New Cambridge Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1926), p. xxv. In a more temperate vein, Albert Wertheim feels that Bassanio's “interest in Portia's wealth outweighs his undoubtedly genuine affection for her,” in “The Treatment of Shylock and Thematic Integrity in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970), 77, 79. Neil Carson says Bassanio and all the other young men in the play “seem at times little better than determined fortune hunters,” in “Hazarding and Cozening in The Merchant of Venice,English Language Notes, 9 (1971-72), 168. Herbert S. Weil scores the hero for his “unappealing selfishness” in “The Options of the Audience: Theory and Practice in Peter Brook's Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey, 25 (1972), 27. James Smith thinks Bassanio's project “smacks of an optimism, a presumption, a recklessness, a levity … inconceivable unless fortified by ignorance,” in Shakespearean and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), p. 44. And Elizabeth S. Sklar, in “Bassanio's Golden Fleece,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 18 (1976), sees Bassanio as “something of an opportunist who uses the affection he inspires in others for material gain” (p. 500). Sylvan Barnet, among others, claims that Bassanio's prodigality is “clearly not immorality but generosity,” in “Prodigality and Time in The Merchant of Venice,PMLA, 87 (1972), 28-29. See also Norman N. Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1968), who takes a more historical approach in pointing out that for Elizabethans, “a man's estate, or a woman's, was just as much a part of them as the color of their hair or the sound of their voice” (p. 102).

  13. His debts are negligible compared to those incurred by spendthrifts like Rutland, Southampton, Essex, Oxford, and Northumberland, who compiled massive obligations in an astonishingly short time; see Stone, Crisis, p. 582. See also Hibbard, “Love,” pp. 136-37, for Bacon's efforts to solve money problems with a rich marriage.

  14. As E. Pearlman points out in “Shakespeare, Freud and the Two Usuries,” English Literary Renaissance, 2 (1972), 217-36, the loss of money is equated with castration in the play.

  15. Again, Quiller-Couch voices the harshest pronouncement on Jessica: she is “bad and disloyal, unfilial, a thief; frivolous, greedy, without any more conscience than a cat and without even a cat's redeeming love of home. Quite without heart, on worse than an animal instinct—pilfering to be carnal—she betrays her father to be a light-of-lucre carefully weighted with her sire's ducats” (p. xx). Even a recent interpreter can speak of “Jessica's unnatural theft and desertion”; see R. Chris Hassel, “Antonio and the Ironic Festivity of The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970), 70. Jessica's stout defenders include John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 74; Austin C. Dobbins and Roy W. Battenhouse, “Jessica's Morals: A Theological View,” Shakespeare Studies, 9 (1976), 107-20; and R. F. Hill, “The Merchant of Venice and the Pattern of Romantic Comedy,” Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 82.

  16. IV.i.378-88. Joan Ozark Holmer is one of the few who even note what Jessica and Lorenzo receive at the trial's outcome. See “Loving Wisely and the Casket Test,” Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 66. Herbert S. Donow incorrectly claims that Portia secures “a daughter's portion” for Jessica in “Shakespeare's Caskets: Unity in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 92. Wertheim is simply wrong when he claims that “Shylock, like all the other Venetians, is offered the opportunity to lose his money and find grace” (p. 86), since Shylock receives the offer of life, Christian baptism, and the restoration of half his goods at the same time. The original sentence is loss of life and goods with no grace at all.

  17. The argument for Antonio as surrogate father is at least as valid as that for him as homosexual lover of Bassanio. Among the proponents of the latter view are Graham Midgley, “The Merchant of Venice: A Reconsideration,” Essays in Criticism, 10 (1960), 119-33; John D. Hurrell, “Love and Friendship in The Merchant of Venice,Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 4 (1961), 328-41; and Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972).

  18. W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 2nd ed. (1931; rpt. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1960), pp. 95-96; Harding P. Davis, “Elizabethan Betrothals and Measure for Measure,JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], 49 (1950), 139-58; Schanzer, pp. 85-86; S. Nagarajan, “Measure for Measure and Elizabethan Betrothals,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 115-19; J. Birje-Patil, “Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 106-11; A. D. Nuttall, “Measure for Measure: The Bed-Trick,” Shakespeare Survey, 28 (1975), 51-56; Harriet Hawkins, “What Kind of Pre-Contract Had Angelo? A Note on Some Non-Problems in Elizabethan Drama,” College English, 36 (1974-75), 173-79. To indicate the kind of debate this question has generated, Schanzer argues that the Claudio-Juliet contract was de praesenti and the Angelo-Mariana agreement de futuro, while Nagarajan and Birje-Patil claim the reverse was true. Hawkins says the whole issue is irrelevant, insisting that modern views are just as valid as Elizabethan ones, and that in any case all audiences have probably had the natural common sense to react in the same way, regardless of differing attitudes or conventions.

  19. Stone, Crisis, pp. 600-05; Joel Hurstfield, The Queen's Wards: Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1958).

  20. For another view of the way money figures into the primary concerns of the play, see R. J. Kaufman, “Bond Slaves and Counterfeits: Shakespeare's Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Studies, 3 (1967), 85-97.

Lisa Jardine (essay date 1991)

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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 written.3

As a start, the remarks which follow are prompted by my reading of a helpful article by David Simpson, entitled ‘Literary criticism and the return to “history”’ (in double inverted commas).4 It is that ‘return to’, and then “history” in double inverted commas, in his title, which immediately takes my attention. And indeed, Simpson sets out to show that

the status of historical inquiry has become so eroded that its reactive renaissance, in whatever form, threatens to remain merely gestural and generic. ‘History’ promises thus to function as legitimating any reference to a context beyond literature exclusively conceived, whether it be one of discourse, biography, political or material circumstances.5

In other words, he believes that many so-called historicist critics are using the catchword ‘history’ to mask a quite conventional (and conservative) commitment to a set of unscrutinised, idealised premises about a past already modelled to the ideological requirements of the present.6 The implication of that idea of ‘return’, then, is that there is something retrograde, and above all something positivistic, about the undertaking—that is, that in invoking history we are privileging something called ‘facts’ or ‘real-life events’, whereas in truth we are all now supposed to know that there are only texts, that our access to facts and to history is only and inevitably textual.7

I start my own argument by making it clear that I do not regard the present endeavour as either a turn or a return. I do not think that we should let the marketing tag, ‘new’ (targeted at eager academic consumers, after the latest product), suggest fashionable change, any more than we should allow ‘historicist’ to suggest retroactive, backward-looking positivism (once historicism always historicism). What we should be looking at, I suggest, is the converging practices of social historians, intellectual and cultural historians, text critics and social anthropologists, as they move together towards a more sensitive integration of past and present cultural products. It is to this generally progressive trend or development that I consider my own work belongs.8

Both historians and text critics have learnt a lot from recent literary theory. We do, indeed, now begin from that position of understanding that our access to the past is through those ‘textual remains’ in which the traces of the past are to be found—traces which it will require our ingenuity to make sense of. Nevertheless, it is by no means the case that this inevitably leaves us in a position of radical indeterminacy. In fact, I begin to believe that it only appears to lead us in such a direction if we are committed (wittingly or unwittingly) to the view that what textual remains yield, in the way of an account of the past, is evidence of individual subjectivity. In this case, indeterminacy is apparently doubly inevitable. For what we recognise as individual subjectivity is the fragmented, partial, uncertain, vacillating trace of first-person self-expression. And if we take on board Stephen Greenblatt's suggestive idea of self-fashioning—an aspiration on the part of the individual, embedded in past time, towards a coherence of self, which is inevitably endlessly deferred, and historically incomplete—it can be argued that what the cultural historian can retrieve and reconstruct of the past will of necessity be correspondingly incomplete and indeterminate. Here, Greenblatt's primary model is an anthropological one, his methodology that of the social anthropologist (and with it some of his assumptions about the strangeness of other selves).9

But those of us who are committed to social and political change may consider that we have another agenda altogether, the focus of which is group consciousness (and intersubjectivity).10 In my recent work, I have emphasised that the specified ground for my own textual and cultural interpretations is a strongly felt need to provide a historical account which restores agency to groups hitherto marginalised or left out of what counts as historical explanation—non-élite men and all women. And since that means the focus of my critical attention is social relations within a community, the shaping of events in telling the tale is part of the given of the kind of excavation of the past I am engaged in.11 In other words, I find that I am able to accommodate competing accounts of a set of textually transmitted events (competing versions of what makes collections of incidents in past time culturally meaningful), without discarding as illusory the lost incidents in past time which gave rise to them. That is a methodological matter to be negotiated, the very fabric out of which perceived social relations are constructed, not a break-down or paradox within the community as such. Texts may be generated by individual, gendered selves, but we may nevertheless choose to give our attention to the way in which in any period, membership of a community is determined by a shared ability to give meaning to the shifting unpredictability of everyday life. This is the group consciousness on which social practice depends, and which provides the boundary conditions for individual self-affirmation and action.

‘Restoring agency’ is, for me, a matter of countering the apparent passivity of non-élite groups within the historical account. But this needs a little further glossing. The counter-position to passivity (by implication, powerlessness), is active participation, but not (without falsifying the account) power. In my recent exploration of the defamation of Desdemona in Othello, I was not able to give back to Desdemona power to accompany her activity—but I was able to reposition our attention in relation to the events which take place on the stage, so that representation no longer overwhelmed the interpersonal dynamics of an early modern community to which the text gives expression.12 In so far as I was successful, this retrieval of agency for Desdemona was achieved by my treating the individual subject in the drama as a ‘cultural artefact’:13 the play gives us a tale of Desdemona's actions in the (then) recognisably shared terms of the early modern community. We can retrieve that recognition, I argued, by juxtaposing the tales told in contemporary court depositions (where the recognition of the infringing of shared codes of behaviour is the essence of the story) with the dramatic text—both being ‘performances’ before ‘audiences’ in that same community. Our access to something like ‘who Desdemona is’ is given by learning to ‘read’ in the social relations dramatised, those situations which were meaningful—which established or expressed Desdemona's relationship to her community in ways acknowledged as socially significant. Those ‘events’ (as I choose to call such socially meaningful sets of relationships) are the expressed form of Desdemona's ‘lived experience’, and I mean that, since in my view it will not make a significant difference whether the ‘person’ who is presented via this shaped version of experience is real or fictional.14

What distinguishes this kind of retrospective critical activity from that of the social historian, I think, is that we want to position ourselves so as to give meaning to early modern agency, not simply to record it, to show that it was there. As Geertz says:

We are seeking, in the widened sense of the term in which it encompasses much more than talk, to converse with [our ‘native’ informants], a matter a great deal more difficult, and not only with strangers, than is commonly recognized. ‘If speaking for someone else seems to be a mysterious process,’ Stanley Cavell has remarked, ‘that may be because speaking to someone does not seem mysterious enough.’15

Or as Greenblatt puts it—consciously alluding to the Geertz, as he specifies his own methodological starting-point:

I began with the desire to speak with the dead.

This desire is a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies, a motive organized, professionalized, buried beneath thick layers of bureaucratic decorum: literature professors are salaried, middle-class shamans. If I never believed that the dead could hear me, and if I knew that the dead could not speak, I was nonetheless certain that I could re-create a conversation with them.16

What distinguishes the kind of analysis I am after, in the new ‘interdiscipline’ I see my work as moving towards, from much literary criticism, and from much recent text criticism, is that it seeks to engage with the external manifestations of selfhood. It does not treat the ‘lived experience’ of the individual, as something with which the modern critical self can engage, and which it can make meaningful in its own terms. Nor does it posit an unchanging human nature immune to local circumstances, which it is the critic's task to retrieve.17

This brings me to a crucial distinction which in the consideration I shall be giving to Hamlet I shall particularly need to sustain, between the version of the term ‘subject’ which my own approach addresses, and the one which I introduced earlier—individual internalised selfhood (of which the related term ‘subjectivity’ is symptomatic).

The form that the pursuit of the ‘lived experience’ or untramelled universal selfhood in textual criticism currently takes is grounded in psychoanalytical theory. It is the pursuit of a gendered first-person, authentic utterance—a discourse which inscribes the individual's unique experience of reality. The subject, in this sort of textual study, is that first-person discourse—which is the only access we have to individual selfhood.18 And this discourse, which inscribes the individual's experience and determines her selfhood, is a discourse of desire and sexuality. And since this symbolic construction of the subject depends on a sign system which the receiver of the discourse shares with the discourser, subjectivity, in so far as it is grasped and understood is transhistorical.

In Greenblatt's pioneering work, this pursuit of the psychoanalytical subject via psychoanalytic theory coexists with the methodology of social anthropology.19 The individual critic acknowledges the distance which separates him from the discoursing subject in past time; he (sic) attempts to ‘speak with the dead’. It follows that the terms of the dialogue he establishes are those which he can ‘hear’ as the textual trace of selfhood, within his own discursive formation: desire and sexuality. By reaching back into texts which preserve desirous discourse in the early modern period, the new historicist critic retrieves those sign systems which he (from his own position in time and culture) can recognise; it is those shared discursive strategies which are, for him, all we can know of selfhood in past time.

The drawback in such an approach for the feminist critic is that sexuality is explicitly assumed to code ‘power’ in ways which lead to the subjection of women (no longer qua women, but ostensibly as standing for something else)—even (ironically, and anachronistically) the subjection of Elizabeth I to her desirous male subjects.20 But the main point to note is that, on this account of subjectivity, the ‘actual’ is coextensive with what two discourses share—a matter of intertextual identity. This is, in my view, a fundamental difficulty for such a theory, and its methodology of power relations and subjectivity construction, when we are trying to deal with an inaccessible historical past, and particularly when we are trying to recover female agency from the cultural traces of the past.21

Which brings me finally to the problem of ‘feeling’, and our access to it, in Hamlet. Hamlet's feelings towards his mother Gertrude were already described in recognisable terms of incestuous desire in the classic 1919 article on the play by T. S. Eliot:22

The essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother … Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. … Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelopes and exceeds her.23

This is an appropriate starting point, both because this idea of excess has been a feature of all Hamlet criticism since Eliot, and because it already makes clear that an account of Hamlet's ‘excessive’ feelings in terms of desire (inexpressible emotion), immediately makes concrete and specific his mother as focus of attention for her guilt—she is pronounced guilty not as a judgement on her actions, but as a condition of her presence in the play in relation to Hamlet (thus textual rather than historical in my sense). If Hamlet's feeling is excessive it is because his sense of his mother's guilt exceeds what could possibly fit the facts of the plot: the guilt of a mother who has stimulated sexual desire in her son. Here ‘desire’ is taken in the psychoanalytic and deconstructive sense, and is not an event but (according to Lacanian theory (and then Derrida)) a permanent condition of language, with regard to which Hamlet adopts a particular (problematic) orientation, one which produces mothers as guilty of arousing excessive desire in their sons.24

If desire is taken to be ‘a permanent condition of language’, then the analysis of the subject, and the interpretation of the text (in our case, the text of Hamlet) tend increasingly towards one another. In a recent article entitled ‘Sexuality in the reading of Shakespeare’, Jacqueline Rose writes:

The psychoanalytic concept of resistance … assumes that meaning is never simply present in the subject, but is something which disguises itself, is overwhelming or escapes. Freud came to recognize that its very intractability was not a simple fault to be corrected or a history to be filled. It did not conceal a simple truth which psychoanalysis should aim to restore. Instead this deviation or vicissitude of meaning was the ‘truth’ of a subject caught in the division between conscious and unconscious which will always function at one level as a split. Paradoxically, interpretation can only advance when resistance is seen not as obstacle but as process. This simultaneously deprives interpretation of its own control and mastery over its object since, as an act of language, it will necessarily be implicated in the same dynamic.

In both Hamlet and Measure for Measure, the play itself presents this deviant and overpowering quality of meaning which appears in turn as something which escapes or overwhelms the spectator.25

And if we add the increasing interest of some critics in social anthropology, and in kinship systems as reflected in social forms, including language, the collapse of (specifically) ‘incest’ from a specified, forbidden sexual union into a universal tendency towards non-conforming, problematic forms of desirous social relationships (manifested above all in language) is complete. In his recent book, The end of kinship: ‘Measure for measure’, incest and the idea of universal siblinghood, Marc Shell writes:

I have tried to bring to light a literary tradition associating physical and spiritual kinship and to suggest the manifestation of this tradition in the politics of the modern world. … [This] project involves reconsidering the polarity or the opposition between ascent into kinship and descent from kinship (or between incest and chastity) just as though ‘the way of descent and the way of ascent were one and the same.’

Some literary works display an inescapable vacillation between such descents and ascents, a vacillation from which society as we know it begins in an archaeological sense. Such vacillation takes place in Hamlet, where the hero thinks both about descent into incest or parricide, which he both desires and fears … and also about ascent into universal kinship. … The movements to and from absolute chastity and unchastity (incest), taken together, lend credence to a discomforting thesis: that there is no ultimately tenable distinction between chastity and incest, so that our ordinary understanding of marriage—as a middle way or as an adequate solution to the difficulties posed by society's exogamous need for an intersection of intertribal unity and intertribal diversity—is mistaken.26

I am not pretending, here, to cover this issue adequately. But I use this abbreviated discussion as a way of distinguishing ‘subjectivity’ approaches from my own approach, focused as it is on agency and event, in terms I outlined at the beginning of this chapter. In my terms, what is striking in the play Hamlet is that Hamlet does not sleep with Gertrude; there is no incestuous ‘event’ in the play, between mother and son, to match the excessive emotion on his side, and the excessive guilt on hers.27Claudius sleeps with (marries) Gertrude, and it is in fact on her sexual relations with him that Hamlet's excessive emotion concerning Gertrude is focused. And the point about Claudius's marriage to Gertrude historically (as event) is (a) that it is ‘unlawful’ and (b) that it deprives Hamlet of his lawful succession. So I first turn my attention to what constituted unlawful marriage in the early modern period, and then show how the social relations of the play are altered if we put back the Gertrude/Claudius marriage in history—reinstate it as event—and look at the offence that it causes to Hamlet.

‘Unlawful marriage’, in early modern England, was a matter for the Ecclesiastical Courts. It is a key feature of the church canons (the legislation in canon law) that someone is offended by incest/unlawful marriage. As the 1603 canons put it:

If any offend their Brethren, either by Adultery, Whoredome, Incest, or Drunkennesse, or by Swearing, Ribaldry, Usury, or any other uncleannesse and wickednesse of life, the Church-wardens … shall faithfully present all, and every of the said offenders, to the intent that they may be punished by the severity of the Lawes, according to their deserts, and such notorious offenders shall not be admitted to the holy Communion till they be reformed.28

And the crucial passage on incest itself in these canons runs:

No person shall marry within the degrees prohibited by the lawe of god, and expressed in a table set forth by authority in the year of our lord 1563; and all marriages so made and contracted shall be adjudged incestuous and unlawful, and consequently shall be dissolved as void from the beginning, and the parties so married shall by course of law be separated. And the aforesaid table shall be in every church publickly set up, at the charge of the parish.29

Two depositions from the Durham Ecclesiastical Court Records, concerning an ‘unlawful marriage’ (around 1560) show clearly how this idea of ‘offence caused’ has a bearing on individual cases brought to the notice of the church courts:

EDWARD WARD of Langton near Gainford husbandman, aged 40 years.

He saith that ther is dyvers writing hanginge upon the pillers of ther church of Gainford, but what they ar, or to what effect, he cannott deposse; saing that he and other parishioners doith gyve ther dewties to be taught such matters as he is examined upon, and is nott instruct of any such.

He saith, that he was married with the said Agnes in Gainford church by the curat Sr Nicholas, about 14 daies next after Christenmas last past, but not contrary to the lawes of God, as he and she thought. And for the resydew of the article he thinks nowe to be trewe, but not then. Examined whither that he, this deponent dyd knowe at and before the tyme of their mariadge, that she the said Agnes was, and had bein, his uncle Christofore Ward's wyfe, ye or no, he saith that he knew that to be trew, for she had, and haith yet, fyve children of his the said Christofer's. Examoned upon the danger of their soules, and evyll example, he saith that both he and mayny honest men in that parish thinks that it were a good deid that thei two meght still lyve to gyther as they doo, and be no further trobled. + AGNES WARD, ALIAS SAMPTON, aged 40 years.

—all the Lordship and paroch of Gainford knew howe nighe hir first husband and last husband was of kyn, and yet never found fault with their mariadg, neither when thei were asked in the church 3 sondry sonday nor sence—they haith bein likned [linked?] to gither more and 2 yere, and yett never man nor woman found fault—but rather thinks good ther of, bicause she was his own uncle wyf.+30

The purposive narrative of these depositions is not difficult to unravel: Edward Ward's marriage to his uncle Christopher Ward's widow, Agnes, is incest under ecclesiastical law, but ‘mayny honest men in that Parish thinks that it were a good deid that thei two meight still lyve to gyther as they doo, and be no further trobled’, and, as Agnes testified, everyone in the parish knew ‘howe nighe hir first husband and last husband was of kyn’, ‘and yett never man nor woman found fault’. Not only did no one find fault; they ‘rather thinks good ther of, bicause she was his own uncle wyf’.

Church law holds the marriage unlawful; Christian charity suggests that no one is harmed by the marriage, and widow and children are appropriately cared for. The ‘dyvers writing hanginge upon the pillers of ther church’ that Edward Ward refers to are the ‘table [to] to be in every church publickly set up, at the charge of the parish’, specified in the 1603 canons quoted above: the tables of consanguinity and affinity which specified who might legally marry whom (as Edward Ward clearly deposes, he himself is illiterate, and unable to read the tables). And we may, I think, extend the idea of ‘offence caused’ one stage further. Someone had to draw the marriage to the attention of the courts; that person had to be someone to whom the ‘unlawfulness’ of the marriage gave some (material) offence.31 This charge laid by another is what is referred to (but permanently uninterpretable without information now lost to us) in the sentence in Edward Ward's deposition: ‘And for the resydew of the article he thinks nowe to be trewe, but not then’.32

If we look at the Levitical degrees, the tables of consanguinity and affinity, we see how these already incorporate the idea of ‘offence caused’. ‘Consanguinity’ conforms broadly with what we might expect: a man may not marry his mother, his father's sister, or his mother's sister, his sister, his daughter, or the daughter of his own son or daughter.33 The table of consanguinity prohibits marriages with close blood ties, in the generations in which it might plausibly occur (parent, sibling, offspring, grandchild). The table of affinity, by contrast, reflects unions which might produce conflicting inheritance claims.34 A man might not marry his father's wife, his uncle's wife, his father's wife's daughter, his brother's wife, or his wife's sister, his son's wife, or his wife's daughter, nor the daughter of his wife's son or daughter. None of these are blood ties, but each creates complications over the line. In particular, the marriage of a widow to her dead husband's brother threatens the son's inheritance claim. The son is first in line, his father's brother second; the marriage of the dowager widow to the second in line threatens to overwhelm the claim of the legitimate heir.

Notoriously, Henry VIII's marriage to his dead brother Arthur's widow, Catherine of Aragon, was incestuous under the Levitican tables of affinity.35 Since Claudius's marriage to Gertrude is, like Henry VIII's, a marriage to a dead brother's widow, there is no doubt in the play of the incest, and Hamlet states the case directly:

Let me not think on't—Frailty thy name is woman—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears—why, she—
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer—married with my uncle,
My father's brother—but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month.
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married—O most wicked speed! To post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!(36)

The ghost of Hamlet senior puts the case more forcefully still, but unlike Hamlet, gives the active part in the incest entirely to Claudius:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen. …
O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!
If thou has nature in thee, bear it not,
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.(37)

An offence—incest—but (as in the case from the court records), some anxiety as to who has been materially offended. In kinship terms there is an offence. It goes unrecognised until someone claims it as such.

Kinship and inheritance are remarkably strong themes in the play from its opening moments.38 Young Hamlet is heir to Old Hamlet, just as young Fortinbras is heir to Old Fortinbras: he comes at the head of an army to reclaim his inheritance.39 Claudius's first entrance as King, with Hamlet as not-King (dressed in mourning black), immediately emphasises the alienation of the Hamlet line. Indeed, what is striking about this first entrance is that it is entirely unexpected in revealing to the audience Claudius as King (referred to throughout the play simply as ‘King’—here only as ‘Claudius King of Denmark’), sumptuously, with Hamlet in mourning black. Everything in the earlier scenes has prepared the audience for Hamlet's appearance as King. The prolonged mourning (an interesting topic itself in early modern history) insistently keeps the direct line, Old Hamlet/Young Hamlet present. And Claudius's opening words fix for the audience the usurpation:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we …
Taken to wife.(40)

The first exchange of words between Claudius and Hamlet (somewhat late in the scene—it follows the ‘fatherly’ exchange with Laertes) underlines the fact that the ‘unlawful’ marriage has strengthened the line in Claudius's favour, and to Hamlet's detriment:

But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—
A little more than kin, and less than kind.
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun.(41)

If Hamlet is Claudius's cousin, Hamlet should be king; if Hamlet is Claudius's son, then he is confirmed as line-dependent on Claudius, who sits legitimately on the throne. I suggest that Act I in its entirety dwells deliberately on incest as a material offence committed against Hamlet.42

Claudius's unlawful marriage to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, cuts Hamlet out of the line.43 The offence is against Hamlet. But for a mother to connive in wronging her own blood-son (even if passively) makes her an emotional focus for the blame—not simply the unlawful marriage, but the unnatural treatment of a son.44 She has indeed committed a sinful and unlawful act, on which Hamlet obsessively dwells. He does so as one to whom that act has caused harm, disturbing the conventional relationship between blood-bond and line-bond, so that his filial duty towards his mother is now at odds with his obligations towards his father and himself (the legitimate line). The act is sexual (as Hamlet insistently reminds us). Its consequences are material for the line, and Hamlet is equally insistent about that:

Now mother, what's the matter?
Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.(45)
Mother, you have my father much offended. …(46)
Have you forgot me?
                                                                                          No, by the rood, not so.
You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And, would it were not so, you are my mother. …(47)
What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?
                                                                                          Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty.(48)

Offence against Old Hamlet (‘my father’); offensive behaviour towards Claudius (‘thy father’, because Gertrude is ‘[her] husband's brother's wife’, and thus he her son's father). Hamlet is caught between the knowledge of an unlawful marriage, a crime committed (and perhaps two), to which the community turns a blind eye,49 and a sense of personal outrage at a wrong perpetrated against himself, by his close kin, when to rectify that outrage would be to commit petty treason.50

Here, I suggest, we have an alternative account of ‘(the man) … dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear’—one in which we can see quite clearly that in so far as Gertrude is supposed to have behaved monstrously and unnaturally towards her first husband and her son, her guilt—in direct contrast to Claudius's—is culturally constructed so as to represent her as responsible without allowing her agency.51 In my version, the intensity of feeling, the sense of outrage on Hamlet's behalf is still there, but it is produced as a consequence of offences recognised within the early modern community (in which Gertrude is much more straightforwardly and specifically implicated). In this account, Gertrude has participated in the remarriage—has (literally) alienated her son, and Old Hamlet's name (and does not apparently accept Hamlet's urging to leave Claudius's bed, because that argument (his) does not effect her).

We have not, then, exonerated Gertrude, but we have recovered the guilt surrounding her as a condition of her oppression: she is required by the kinship rules of her community to remain faithful to her deceased husband; that same community deprives her of any but the proxy influence her remarriage gives her, over her son's future. Yet she is the emotional focus in the play's cultural construction of the guilt which taints the State of Denmark.

Let me end by reminding you of something I said at the start: that there are grave reasons why I have found myself pushed to look for evidence of such agency in history—this is by no means simply an urge to identify my own critical position as an end in itself. It is above all the consequences for women of thus shifting the focus from text and discourse to history and agency, which, for me, currently, ‘motivates the turn to history’.52 As a Shakespeare critic, I have become tired of having to listen to offensive critical discourses, for which the author need apparently take no responsibility, which excavate desire in discourse so as to ‘objectivate’ the female subject—object of desire, object of blame, permanently victim.53 After my initial reaction, which was one of anger (as some people will remember all too well),54 it occurred to me that there must be something wrong with such accounts in relation to women, whether or not such critical enterprises were valuable in relation to men and patriarchy. For in history, women are not permanently in the object position, they are subjects. To be always object and victim is not the material reality of woman's existence, nor is it her lived experience. If we look at event, at agency in history, the inevitability of these accounts disappears. And we find that we are once again entitled to ask (as I have done in the case of Gertrude): Who, after all, has been wronged, and by whom?


  1. Hamlet, III.ii.224-30. All references are to the Arden edition, ed. Harold Jenkins (London, 1982).

  2. Reading Shakespeare historically (forthcoming).

  3. I am particularly grateful to Annabel Patterson and Jean Howard, with whom I discussed that earlier draft at length, on that occasion, and to Bill Sherman, who couldn't be there, but who criticised the paper at length and in detail afterwards.

  4. Simpson 1987-8.

  5. Ibid., 724-5. For another powerful argument which meshes with Simpson's doubts about the authenticity of discourse theorists' commitment to ‘history’ see Montrose 1986.

  6. ‘In particular, given the current popularity of discourse analysis, it seems likely that for many practitioners the historical method will remain founded in covertly idealist reconstructions’ (ibid.).

  7. Catherine Belsey, in her chapter in this volume, ‘Making histories then and now: Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V’, gives an elegant account of the ideological motivation for the privileging of a master-narrative version of history in criticism of Shakespeare's ‘history’ plays (for a similarly astute account of the ideology of Hamlet criticism, see Terence Hawkes, ‘Telmah’, in Hawkes 1986). Unlike Simpson, however, she sees the possibility of a post-modernist deconstruction which ‘uncovers the differences within rationality, and thus writes of it otherwise’, and which will thereby ‘activate the differences and promote political intervention’. She proposes this as an alternative to both ‘the master-narrative of inexorable and teleological development’ and ‘a (dis)continuous and fragmentary present, a world of infinite differences which are ultimately undifferentiated because they are all confined to the signifying surface of things’.

  8. For a challenging account of these developments in cultural history see Chartier 1988.

  9. See, for instance, Geertz 1984; M. Rosaldo 1984; Shweder and Bourne 1984; Bruner 1986.

  10. For a clear account of the way in which political commitment sharpens the focus of feminist historical work, see Jean Howard's chapter in this volume, ‘Towards a postmodern, politically committed, historical practice.’

  11. See most eloquently Davis 1987.

  12. See Jardine 1990.

  13. See first of all Geertz 1973, p. 51; then Greenblatt 1980, p. 3.

  14. See Geertz 1973, pp. 15-16.

  15. Geertz 1973, p. 13.

  16. Greenblatt 1988, p. 1. I am grateful to Bill Sherman for making this helpful connection for me, and for his continued support for my efforts to get to grips with recent writings in social anthropology.

  17. See Geertz 1973, p. 35: ‘The image of a constant human nature independent of time, place, and circumstance, of studies and professions, transient fashions and temporary opinions, may be an illusion, that what man is may be so entangled with where he is, who he is, and what he believes that it is inseparable from them. It is precisely the consideration of such a possibility that led to the rise of the concept of culture and the decline of the uniformitarian view of man. Whatever else modern anthropology asserts—and it seems to have asserted almost everything at one time or another—it is firm in the conviction that men unmodified by the customs of particular places do not in fact exist, have never existed, and most important, could not in the very nature of the case exist. There is, there can be, no backstage where we can catch a glimpse of Mascou's actors as ‘real persons’ lounging about in street clothes, disengaged from their profession, displaying with artless candor their spontaneous desires and unprompted passions.’

  18. I leave aside here the issue of the disadvantaging of women per se in Lacanian theory, see Jardine 1989.

  19. This coexistence is made easier by the fact that social anthropologists like Geertz have thoroughly absorbed psychoanalytical theory, and tend to assume the Freudian subject as the starting point for their discussions of the cultural construction of selfhood. See Geertz 1973; Rosaldo 1984.

  20. See Neely 1988, pp. 5-18.

  21. In our Symposium discussions it became clear, I think, that in this respect (and this respect only) feminist critics are currently at an advantage in the critical debate being conducted around historicist and deconstructive critical approaches to text. Since they have a declared political objective, they are entitled to discard methodologies which fail to contribute constructively to it.

  22. I concede, after many discussions on the subject, that taking Eliot as starting-point is in some sense a rhetorical device. But I find it striking that Eliot is fully aware of Freud, and thus that psychoanalytical reading of the play is established before psychoanalytical theory is explicitly introduced into literary studies.

  23. Eliot 1932, pp. 144-5.

  24. For a clear account of the consistent allocation of blame to the woman in psychoanalytical readings of Hamlet and Measure for measure see Rose 1985.

  25. ibid., pp. 116-7. See also her very clear rehearsal of a series of psychoanalytical readings of Hamlet prompted by Eliot's essay.

  26. Shell 1988, p. 24.

  27. The same kind of account can be given of Ferdinand's ‘incestuous desire’ for his sister, in The Duchess of Malfi. See Jardine 1983b.

  28. Gibson 1730; Burn 1763.

  29. Gibson 1730; Burn 1763.

  30. Surtees Society 1845, p. 59. The ‘marks’ made by both dependents indicates that they were illiterate (a fact which is confirmed within Edward Ward's deposition).

  31. See Davis 1983 for a clear case in which an unlawful relationship goes unreported in the community until a charge is brought by an individual who regards the ‘marriage’ as depriving him of something (land) due to him: ‘The new Martin was not only a husband, but also an heir, a nephew, and an important peasant proprietor in Artigat. It was in these roles that the trouble finally began’ (p. 51).

  32. In fact, the canons of 1603 were drawn up hastily upon Elizabeth's death, since at her death it was suddenly realised that there now was no body of valid ecclesiastical law (her own legislation having been specified as for the duration of her reign). Owing to an oversight, the 1603 canons did not go through Parliament until some three years later, when it was realised that the clergy was probably operating outside statute law, and the situation was rectified. Patrick Collinson has recently suggested to me that these canons in fact never went on to the statute book—that in fact the Tudor and Stuart governments left church law in a kind of deliberate limbo. All of this is really to suggest that (a) it was extraordinarily difficult to operate the various competing demands of common law, statute, and canon law, and (b) ‘moral’ and ‘legal’ demands might readily be perceived to be in opposition, the legal contrary to custom, or the moral dubious within the technical law.

  33. There are exactly comparable tables of consanguinity and affinity for the woman.

  34. Indeed, this is how theological dictionaries traditional describe the rules of affinity—as concerning property.

  35. So was Henry's marriage to Ann Boleyn, since he had already had a relationship with her sister (Catholic propaganda, interestingly, claimed more obvious incest: that Ann was in fact Henry's daughter).

  36. Hamlet I.ii.146-57. And see the Book of Common Prayer, cit. Jenkins, Hamlet, 319, n. 14. For another example of explicit affinity incest in the drama see Spurio's relationship with his stepmother in Tourneur's The revenger's tragedy. There, as here, the unlawfulness of the relationship is emphasised by the repeated formula from the tables of affinity: ‘Spurio. I would 'twere love, but 't 'as a fouler name / Than lust; you are my father's wife, your Grace may guess now / What I call it’ (I.ii.129-31). In Cymbeline Cymbeline tries both to force Imogen to divorce her true husband, Posthumous, and to enter into an incestuous marriage with her stepbrother, Cloten.

  37. I.v.42-6; 80-3.

  38. For extended discussion of the ‘elective’ monarchy in Denmark, see Harold Jenkins's discussion in the recent Arden edition. I point out for brevity that Scotland was an elective monarchy: the eldest son of the reigning monarch was removed at birth to the care of the Earl of Marr. In due course the clans were assembled, and he was ‘elected’ heir to his father.

  39. ‘Now sir, young Fortinbras, … [comes] to recover from us by strong hand … those foresaid lands / So by his father lost.’ I.i.98-107.

  40. I.ii.1-14.

  41. I.ii.64-7, and then see 107-12: ‘You are the most immediate to our throne, / And with no less nobility of love / Than that which dearest father bears his son / Do I impart toward you.’

  42. The offence is committed against Hamlet senior and Hamlet junior. See Greenblatt 1986, p. 219: ‘The ghost of Old Hamlet—‘of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched’—returns to his land to demand that his son take the life of the imposter who has seized his identity.’ There seems to be a useful notion here of ‘Hamlet’ as an identity, a nexus of relations that Hamlet junior ought to occupy. See Girard 1986, 285-6: ‘This significance of twins and brothers … must be present … if we are to interpret correctly the scene in which Hamlet, holding in his hands the two portraits of his father and his uncle … tries to convince his mother that an enormous difference exists between the two. There would be no Hamlet ‘problem’ if the hero really believed what he says. It is also himself, therefore, that he is trying to convince.’

  43. Had Hamlet an heir himself his position would be strengthened (the play stresses Gertrude's maturity). I have come to think that this is the emphasis which so insistently produces Ophelia as fallen woman—were she pregnant she would threaten the (new) line in Denmark.

  44. The intensity of the blame this occasions stands comparison with the blame which drives Ophelia insane—the murder of a father by the daughter's ‘husband’ (an act of petty treason, carried out by a king's son). Early modern inheritance law consistently reflects anxiety as to whether mothers can be expected to act reliably on their male offspring's behalf, in the absence of a male head of household. See Jardine 1987, p. 9.

  45. That is, ‘been offensive to’.

  46. That is, ‘committed an offence against’.

  47. See Bullinger: ‘A woman maye not mary husbandes brother’ (fol. xvir.)

  48. III.iv.7-41.

  49. On this account the possible murder of the king is a secondary issue.

  50. On murder by wife or child as petty treason see Sharpe.

  51. It is because this particular cultural construction of female guilt is still current that it remains plausibly ‘real’ to critics.

  52. The phrase comes from Howard 1986, p. 13, and is a question addressed to all those whose work has been called ‘New Historicist’—‘What motivates the turn to history?’ (p. 14).

  53. ‘Objectivate’ is Chartier's term. See, for instance, Chartier 1988: ‘To combat [the] reduction of thoughts to objects or to “objectivations” … a definition of history primarily sensitive to inequalities in the appropriation of common materials or practices has come into being’ (p. 102). ‘Foucault has a lot to say about the way ‘public’ discussion of sex constitutes the chief way in which public institutions manipulate the consciousness and intimate experiences of great masses of people’ (Sintow, Stansell and Thompson 1983, p. 9).

  54. San Diego, 1984.

D'Orsay W. Pearson (essay date 1987)

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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 marriage:

For this surely doth nourish concord very much when the wife is ready at hand at her husband's commandment, when she will apply herself to his will, when she endeavoureth herself to seek his contentation, and to do him pleasure, when she will eschew all things that might offend him. …

(p. 556)

The husband, in turn, could “nourish concord” by “considering these her frailties” and sparing her (pp. 554,55).

Despite this restating of a centuries-old traditional view, the author of “The Sermon on the State of Matrimony” was not so sanguine about masculine superiority and feminine inferiority as the passages just quoted might suggest. Marriage was a meritorious state for women, we read, because they “must specially feel the griefs and pains of matrimony, in that they relinquish the liberty of their own rule, in the pain of their travailing, in the bringing up of their children” (p. 557). This suggests that feminine obedience is not a natural condition but rather one of “estate.” Such unnatural obedience, the “Sermon” suggests, comes not from recognition of superior worth of the male but from an artificial concentration upon role. Whatever her husband's failings, the wife was charged,

this only must be looked upon, by what means thou mayest make thyself without blame. … And therefore bring not thy excuses to me … Go thou, therefore about such things as becometh thee only, and show thyself tractable to thy husband.

(pp. 558,59)

In short, dutifulness was to be achieved only by an act of self-immolation of will—an act not only psychologically unrealistic but one which also violated one of the stated purposes of marriage, to “live together lawfully in perpetual friendly fellowship” (p. 551).

The ironic dual vision of feminine obedience—that it is a natural condition because of difference of kind and that it is in fact a fiction imposed by the role, one which can be achieved only by concentrating on role—is present throughout the “Sermon.” Reader or auditor can accept the traditional view, presented with the weight of historical authority and sacred injunction, but only if the ramifications of admissions such as those above are not followed to their logical conclusions. In the “Sermon,” despite its insistence upon the tradition of masculine sovereignty, lie the seeds of a more “modern” view of feminine obedience and duty.

Like the “Sermon,” A Midsummer Night's Dream approaches the question of male sovereignty ironically, developing, at different levels of perspective, both conventional and unconventional statements about masculine sovereignty and harmony. The comedy has long been identified as a play about love and marriage, a play perhaps written for the “occasion” of a noble wedding.3 Nevertheless, the importance of Elizabethan theories of marriage and family to its characterization, its movement, and the ultimate statement it makes about feminine subjugation have not been adequately explored. A Midsummer Night's Dream is infinitely more than a play about the “lawlessness and laughableness” of love.4 It is more than an exploration, in terms of Platonic referents, of the dominance of the rational soul (Theseus) over the concupiscent soul (Hippolyta), as Paul Olson suggested when he recognized that the concept of male sovereignty in marriage, as it leads to harmony, is a central concern of the comedy.5 Shakespeare's play does more than examine the ideologies of male sovereignty in family and married life. It shows us instead the chaos which results when female subservience is foresworn and masculine sovereignty ignored. Yet to say only this would be to oversimplify. In terms of movement and plot resolution, A Midsummer Night's Dream seems to assert that harmony follows automatically upon the establishment of male dominance and wifely obedience. Working against this simplistic position, however, are individual male-female relationships which ironically show that concord is achieved by magic and “policie”; by fiat; by achievement of feminine will; by mutual recognition of the value of intent.

In the initial scenes of the play, Shakespeare rapidly introduces a multiplicity of disjunctive sovereignty-obedience relationships. There is Theseus, who “won” Hippolyta “doing [her] injuries” and “woo'd” her with his “sword.”6 Egeus enters to demand that his daughter be forced to wed Demetrius on pain of death, even though she favors Lysander. The lovelorn Helena has been spurned by Demetrius, who has abused his sovereign role in courtship (Helena claims of her sex, “We should be woo'd, and were not made to woo” [II.i.242].), while Bottom and his rustic fellows propose to act out the tragic results of disobedience to parental authority. The authority figures command, threaten, and decree, though their rhetoric fails to persuade those who by tradition should be dutiful.

Thrown into relief by the rebellion of conventionally obedient figures, the masculine soveriegnty of Act I shows itself as tyranny. By polarizing obedience to an either-or dichotomy, the playwright associates sovereignty not only with ego-centered inflexibility but also with a long list of negative terms: “death,” “injuries,” “disfigure,” “mew'd,” “barren,” “austerity,” “spotted,” “inconstant,” and, in the case of the rustics, “lamentable” and “cruel.” As a result of the insistence upon obedience, the initial world of A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of striking dis-ease. The apparent amity of Theseus and Hippolyta is no exception, for as they discuss their forthcoming marriage their attitudes toward it are strikingly different. Theseus sees the moon “lingering” his desires, “Like to a step-dame, or a dowager, / Long withering out a young man's revenue” (I. i. 4-6). Hippolyta appears to soothe, yet her reply suggests no similar wish to hasten the passage of time. Four days, she says, will “quickly steep themselves in night; / Four nights will quickly dream away the time” (I.i.7-8). When Egeus puts forth his demand that the Duke enforce the Athenian law which gives him life or death control over his daughter Hermia should she continue to refuse to marry Demetrius, his insistence on her conforming to his choice of two equally eligible suitors falls within the letter of the law but ignores a reciprocal view of his duty, to consider his daughter's preference if other circumstances are equal.7 Theseus' “love” for his captive bride—if such it is—has not bred in him charity toward others who love; the “mercy” he exhibits for Hermia when he offers her the chaste life of a nun illustrates early in the play the arbitrary, uncompassionate quality all male sovereignty exhibits, for it offers merely a different form, albeit a preferable one, of sterility.

Because of this substitution of tyrannical force for benevolent sovereignty (the “Sermon” warned the husband not to be too stiff, “so that he ought to wink at some things, and must gently expound all things, and to forbear” [p. 554]), the initial climate of Athens is unfavorable to courtship, to procreative marriage, to friendship and even to the most primitive attempts at art. Except for Hippolyta, who as martial conquest is a royal prisoner, the individual victims of a world where masculine sovereignty is abused determine on an exodus to Northrup Frye's green world, which holds out the promise of fulfilling their differing ambitions. Bottom and his crew think to perfect their inappropriate wedding play. Hermia and Lysander seek his aunt's domicile, where they will be wed. Demetrius aims to return Hermia to Athens and to marriage or death, while Helena tags after, convinced that Demetrius' indifferent presence is preferable to his absence.

It is at this point in the play's action that Shakespeare presents his final disjunction of masculine sovereignty and feminine obedience—Titania and Oberon. For the other males and females paired in the play, marriage is a future state. For Oberon and Titania, it is a present misery. Titania has pitted her will against that of her sovereign lord, refusing to give him the changeling son of her late devotee; she has, she says, forsworn Oberon's “bed and company” (II. i. 62). The disruption of the traditional husband-wife power structure, we learn, has consequences far beyond the division of the fairy kingdom into two courts. The whole world, of nature and of man, is in chaos. Not only have the seasons reversed themselves, the crops rotted, the animals become diseased. Titania tells her estranged husband:

The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
.....And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

(II. i. 98-102; 115-117)

Clearly, the violation of the tradition of female obedience has affected not only the fairy world but also the world of nature and human society, which is bereft of not only recreation and dalliance (note the sexual innuendo in “the quaint mazes in the wanton green”) but also of spiritual communion as well.8 Most significantly, what is absent from the society is communion and harmony, suggested by the absence of game and song.

Retrospect, it has been said, is essential to an understanding of A Midsummer Night's Dream.9 Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in II. i., as the actions of the fairy deities reflect backward to illuminate the “dis-ease” which afflicted Athenian society in Act I. As deities, Oberon and Titania seem clearly modelled on the anthropomorphic deities of antiquity. They are more powerful than the world they rule, yet they have human weaknesses.10 They are possessive. They favor specific mortals: Titania, Theseus; Oberon, Hippolyta. They cheat, wrangle, are strong-willed. They may be sexually promiscuous (see II. i. 70-80). They are not omniscient—note Oberon's ignorance of the presence of another Athenian youth in the forest. But most importantly, their disharmony is reflected in the disruption of harmony in nature and society. These are fertility deities gone wrong;11 and one is reminded of the earth's growing parched and sterile as Ceres sought futilely for Persephone.12

But II. i. does more than inform past action. It also foreshadows the future. Titania had charged that the world's malaise grew out of husband and wife “debate” and “dissention”; Oberon offers a cure, one which epitomizes the play's movement toward denouement:

Do you amend it then; it lies in you.
Why should Titania cross her Oberon?
I do but beg a little changeling boy
To be my henchman.

(II. i. 118-21)

In Oberon's view, in Titania's obedience and subservience lies the cure for natural and social ills; when the proper power equation is renewed, there will be harmony in both the fairy kingdom and the world of men.

Significantly for Shakespeare's examination of male sovereignty and its relationship to harmony, the mere statement of a solution cannot resolve the difficulty. The estrangement between the fairy queen and her lord is perpetuated because Titania refuses to give Oberon the child. “The fairy land buys not the child of me” (II.i.122), she declares, giving as an excuse for her willfulness the devotion of her votaress:

And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
And for her sake I will not part with him.

(II. i. 136,37)

Oberon reveals his anthropomorphic affinities when he acts to achieve revenge for this slight to masculine sovereignty. He determines:

                              Thou shalt not from this grove
Till I torment thee for this injury.

(II. i. 146,47)

He plots. Once in possession of the potent juice of love-in-idleness, he will

… watch Titania as she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes;
The next thing then she waking looks upon
(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf or bull,
On meddling monkey or on busy ape),
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.

(II. i. 177-82)

His scheme, stripped of its lyricism, amounts to shaming Titania into obedience by casting her into a dotage latent with bestiality.13 Thus Oberon, like Theseus and Egeus, sees the exercise of power—here the power of malefic magic and “policie” rather than the power of arms or of the law—as the answer to feminine disobedience. His recourse to such extreme means argues the same ego-centered masculinity which was seen in Theseus, Egeus and Demetrius; Titania joins Hermia and Helena as figures whose individual desires are of little importance. Oberon, like his mortal counterparts in the play, acts upon the Machiavellian belief that the end justifies the means.14

Viewed from this perspective, the magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream is neither playful nor benign. Like all erotic magic, it is aimed at affecting the unnatural.15 With Puck as its agent, however, it becomes merely inept and bungling; as a result of its ineptitude, negative judgment of Oberon's perverse revenge is deflected. Nevertheless, the results of his plot eddy outward, affecting not just Titania, in much the way that the results of their quarrel spread beyond the fairy kingdom. None of the mortals who fled Athens appears immediately likely to find in the wood the solutions he sought. Puck, furnishing a “monster” for Oberon's plot, metamorphoses Bottom and deprives the rustics of their principal actor. Oberon's sympathy for the lovelorn Helena is frustrated when Puck anoints the wrong youth's eyes, and the love triangle which caused problems in Athens simply shifts its apex from Hermia to Helena. Helena discovers that “to be translated” into Hermia's “favor” (I. i. 191, 186) is not worth all the world except Demetrius. And while Puck can report to Oberon that “My mistress with a monster is in love” (III.ii.6) and “Titania wak'd and straightway lov'd an ass” (III. ii. 34), Titania and the audience see her doting directed at a “gentle mortal” (III. i. 137) who phlegmatically has a stronger appetite for hay than for sex.16

Oberon's plotting is successful in one respect; he does achieve marital dominance. Having confronted Titania in a compromising scene of his own devising, he reports to Puck:

When I had at my pleasure taunted her,
And she in mild terms begg'd my patience,
I then did ask of her her changeling child
Which straight she gave me. …

(IV. i. 57-60)

Having successfully degraded his wife into obedience, Oberon can afford, in the words of the “Sermon,” to “consider these her frailties” and “undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes” (IV. i. 62,63). Unethical cunning, not a natural superiority, has righted the traditional power ratio. Harmony, a quality hitherto absent from both human and supernatural realms, returns first to the fairy kingdom, then to earth, and finally to mortal society. Oberon commands:

Sound, music! Come, my queen, take hands with me,
And rock the grounds whereon these sleepers be.
Now thou and I are new in amity. …

(IV. i. 85-87)

The measured movement of dance, seen in the fairy round, is transmitted first to earth and then to the sleepers, whose own potential harmony has remained in suspension until the deities' seminal disharmony was resolved.

First to enjoy this return to order are the young lovers. Oberon's “benevolence” in extending the power of love-in-idleness to Demetrius and Lysander had resulted in brawling—between Hermia and Helena, between Demetrius and Lysander, and among the mispaired lovers. Now when they wake Lysander is cured of his infatuation with Helena by the juice of “Dian's bud” and loves where he first loved; Demetrius, still under the influence of love-in-idleness, dotes where he first wooed. Theseus, in an abrupt about-face, silences Egeus' intransigent insistence on controlling Hermia's future with the voice of rule; the father by fiat gains a daughter who does not contest his will.

Resolution has been delayed for an exemplary “divine” act of feminine obedience, so that “Jack shall have Jill; / Naught shall go ill, / The man shall have his mare again, and all shall go well” (III. ii. 461-63), In point of dramatic time, the traditional comic denouement comes after the one “married” couple in a marriage play achieves harmony because the wife obeys her husband.

Nevertheless, this structural affirmation of the relationship between obedience and harmony is not Shakespeare's total commentary on either harmony or its source. While structure may confirm the rightness of male sovereignty and its essential importance to harmony, individual relationships suggest that male sovereignty, like appreciation of the rustic's performance, is a matter of illusion and poetic faith. Ironically, it involves feminine will and willingness, not immolation of will. Hermia's speech in Act I had sounded this theme:

So will I grow, so live, so die, my lord,
Ere I will yield my virgin patent up
Unto his lordship, whose unwished yoke
My soul consents not to give sovereignty.

(i. 79-82)

Masculine dominance in the play comes not from that natural superiority which the “Sermon” dutifully recorded from tradition, but within the frame of male-female psychological tension which the “Sermon” recognized and for which it could only posit self-immolation of the feminine will. Titania, perhaps, foregoes her desire to retain the changeling, but her obedience is an act of self-defense, not the result of dwindling into a prescribed role as “wife.” Egeus gains his obedient daughter only when confronted by a higher authority than his own; ironically, he is obedient to masculine rule in a way none of the women is. Lysander and Demetrius have silent, and apparently obedient, wives, because their wives' souls so consent for the moment. And the tragic tale of the tyrannical sovereignty practiced by the parents of Pyramus and Thisbe is turned to comedy by the amateurish performance of the rustics.

Theseus' relationship with Hippolyta is more problematical and complex, for as the former Queen of the Amazons, those early “feminists,”17 Hippolyta's is a more ingrained and sustained clinging to individual rule; her characterization is one of Shakespeare's most subtle achievements. I have already noted the polarization of attitudes toward the couple's forthcoming marriage in Act I; critics before me have observed that their responses to the tales of the four young lovers embody differing aesthetics.18 This kind of disputatiousness on Hippolyta's part, an indirect rebellion against masculine sovereignty, is in fact one of her most sustained characteristics. Except in Act V, her appearances are limited to two brief scenes, the introductory frame scene and the hunting scene of IV. i. Here, as in the frame and in Act V, Hippolyta will not allow Theseus' assertions to go unchallenged. In the hunt scene, when Theseus praises his own hounds, she counters:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bay'd the bear
With hounds of Sparta. Never did I hear
Such gallant chiding, for besides the groves,
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seem'd all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.


Hippolyta practices a frustratingly subtle, civil form of rebellion to masculine superiority, managing to contradict her betrothed's pronouncements even as she seems merely to comment. There is not, either here or in Act I, a verbal signal that she is disagreeing with Theseus. This she gives only after she is wed. After listening to Theseus' apostrophe to fantasy and imagination, she counters:

And all their minds transfigur'd so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images
And grows to something of great constancy. …

(V. i. 24-26)

That our experience of the play tends to support her conclusion is here unimportant. What she is telling us is that as a wife she refuses to subdue her own judgment to that of the man she has married, signalling her disagreement through more witnesseth and the “But” (23) which introduces her speech. Her open refutation of her husband's grandiloquent theorizing could be viewed as a final push for independent rule; more probably it argues her own differing self-concepts as betrothed and as wife. In the first identity, her position was equivocal; a captive and a royal guest, formalized decorum dictated the degree of her civility. As wife, one of two who make one in flesh, she demonstrates that one flesh does not for her imply as well one mind—her husband's. Hermia and Helena, conditioned to pay lip service to masculine sovereignty by their society, become acquiescent once they have what they desire. Despite her marriage, Hippolyta withstands acceptance of Theseus' “rule,” if thus it can be interpreted, until almost the end of the play. He accepts the rustics' performance, for

          … what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.

(V. i. 91-92)

Not so for Hippolyta; the play is “the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (210); she is “a-weary of this moon” and wishes it would change (251). Only gradually is she caught up in the spirit of tolerance toward the play which the male spectators share, so that she exclaims, “Well shone, moon. Truly the moon shines with a good grace” (267-68), and “Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man” (290). Harmony here is achieved through game and play; she has been slowly won over to accept the amateurish effort with the same spirit that Theseus, then Lysander and Demetrius, accept it. The amity of Theseus and Hippolyta is the result of mutual tolerance of the disparity between act and intent.

The total harmony at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream has a tenuous quality; it rests for the most part on Machiavellian trickery, as in the case of Oberon and Titania, or on the gratification of female desire, as with Hermia and Helena. The effect may be sweet; but it is not lasting, though it allows for a universal harmony in the play world ultimately and provides excuse for the fairies' lustration of the brides' bed.

In the final analysis it is not male dominance and feminine obedience publicly acknowledged which provide for the harmony at the end of the comedy. The Theseus of Act V posits a more realistic basis for harmony than either sovereignty or obedience. It is probably not accidental that his acceptance of the rustic's dramatic offering recognizes the deficiency of duty and the importance of “noble respect” which takes cognizance of intent and not merit. Nor should it go unnoticed that Hippolyta, who initially contradicted the claim that the slow waning moon “lingered” and “withered” desire, now wishes the moon to change. What we see at the end of the comedy, in the relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta, is a harmony based on a mutual vision of duty: the recognition of the disparity between intent and performance, or more simply, an insight into the nature of reality. Both share a mutual attitude toward imperfection which accepts the chasm between the theoretical and the real. Act V is not incidental to the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream;19 it is essential to establishing a viable resolution to the questions and actions introduced in Act I.

If Shakespeare's final commentary on the source of harmony in marriage differs from that of the ecclesiastics, it is not so widely disparate as it might at first appear. The “Sermon” itself reveals that its author was caught between the authoritative, traditional version of masculine superiority and sovereignty and a more empirical vision of human action and human motivation, a dilemma which for a churchman could have only one resolution, the ecclesiastically sanctioned one of feminine obedience, however unrealistically it might be achieved. Shakespeare too paid his dues to the traditional view in structuring A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he was not bound by that tradition. In individual instances, he shows that masculine sovereignty, or its illusion, results from trickery, from fiat, or from feminine will achieved. The playwright's final technique for achieving harmony, and structurally his ultimate one, owes little either to sovereignty or obedience and everything to tolerance and mutually reciprocal acceptance of imperfection and intent. This binds two into not just one flesh but into fellowship as well.


  1. “The Fourme of the Solempnization of Matrimonye,” Queen Elizabeth's Prayer Book 1559 (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1911), p. 127.

  2. Sermons or Homilies Appointed To Be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth of Famous Memory (London: C. and J. Rivington, 1825), p. 554.

  3. See, for example, E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London: Sedgwick and Jackson, 1925), p. 79; John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (1957; rpt. London: Methuen, 1968), p. 90; Harriet Hawkins, “Fabulous Counterfeits: Dramatic Construction and Dramatic Perspective in The Spanish Tragedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest,Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1973), 51.

  4. Chambers, p. 81.

  5. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage,” ELH, 24 (1957), 101. Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer Night's Dream” ‘Jack Shall Have Jill; Naught Shall Go Ill’,” WS [Women’s Studies], 9 (1981), 47-63, takes a more negative view of the theme of sovereignty; she suggests that the play “affirms patriarchal order and hierarchy, insisting that the power of women must be circumscribed” (p. 47). For treatments which deal with “order” or Theseus as symbol of order, see Madeline Doran, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Metamorphosis,” Rice Institute Pamphlets, 46 (1960), 116; Blaze O. Bonazza, Shakespeare's Early Comedies: A Structural Analysis (London: Mouton, 1966), p. 122; David Young, Something of Great Constancy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966), p. 89.

  6. I. i. 16-17. All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  7. Henri Bullinger, The Christen State of Matrimonye, tr. Miles Coverdale (London: J. Gough, 1543). Chapter V is entitled, “To a right mariage / must children al so haue the consent of theyr parentes”; Chapter VI (Sigs. Biiiiv-Civ) stresses that “The parentes ought not to constrayne ther children to matrimonye / nether to mary them a fore theyr tyme”: “In this poynt ought not the parentes to take to much vpon the selues because of theyr auctorite/nether to abuse or to compell theyr childe eyther (because of filthy advauntage or lothsomnesse in taking payne) to let him go & have no respect vnto him. For an ungodly and unhappye thing is it in the cause of mariage to compell a yonge man agaynst his will / to take such one as he hath no hart vnto. For in mariage ought to be the consent of both partyes with the consent of theyr parentes” (Sig. Biiiiv).

  8. Rose A. Zimbardo, “Regeneration and Reconciliation in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1973), 35-50, also sees the chaos in nature stemming from the discord between Titania and Oberon.

  9. Peter G. Phialas, Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1966), p. 25.

  10. See G. M. A. Grube, “The Gods in Homer,” Phoenix, 5 (1951), 62-76. See also Anca Vlasopolos, “The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night's Dream,Renaissance Quarterly, 31 (1978), 21-29, for an excellent discussion of the ecclesiastical and primitive associations of the date in the play's title.

  11. For a discussion of Titania's connection with Hecate (and thus Persephone), see my “‘Unkind’ Theseus: A Study of Renaissance Mythography,” ELR, 4 (1974), 295n. T. Walter Herbert, Oberon's Mazed World (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 40-44, discusses Titania's Dianic associations as well as paralleling the fairy court to the classical one on Olympus.

  12. The story of Ceres and Persephone is not the only classical tale suggested by MND. The verbal battle between Oberon and Titania is strongly reminiscent of the quarrel of Hera and Zeus in The Iliad, XV. Young, p. 14, suggests that Bottom's metamorphosis parallels events associated with Circe, Midas and Apuleius; David Ormerod, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Monster in the Labyrinth,” Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 39-52, suggests the wood as the “Cretan maze transported across the seas” and Bottom as a “metamorphosed Minotaur” (p. 52). An excellent study of the Theseus-Minotaur-Pasiphae myth in MND is M. E. Lamb's “A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur,” TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language], 21 (1979), 479-491.

  13. Ormerod, pp. 40-43, and Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (New York: Norton, 1974), pp. 223-229, would not see the bestiality as “latent”; to both it is actual.

  14. Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593), 2 vols. (London: Dent, 1907), esp. I, 167-185, for a contemporary discussion of will. Oberon's “end,” the return of Titania to her properly obedient role, may be good, but his “means,” the attempt to persuade her through degradation, is not. Actions were judged unethical both when good means were used to achieve a bad end and bad means were used for a good end.

  15. See my “Witchcraft in The Winter's Tale: Paulina as ‘Alcahueta y vn Poquito Hechizera’,” Shakespeare Studies, 12 (1979), 195-214. See also David Bevington, “‘But we are spirits of another sort’: The Dark Side of Love and Magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Proc. of the Southeastern Inst. of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Summer, 1975, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 7, ed. Siegfried Wenzel (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1978), 80-92.

  16. Lamb, p. 481, commenting that Bottom is “oblivious to her [Titania's] charms,” also sees his sex drive as limited.

  17. Celeste Turner Wright, “The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature,” SP, [Studies in Philology] 37 (1940), sees them as “the foremost ancient examples of feminism” (p. 433) but goes on to claim that Hippolyta, at the end of the play, is “a tamed and contented bride; her husband has shrunk her back into the bounds prescribed for women by nature. …” (p. 437).

  18. Howard Nemerov, “The Marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta,” Kenyon Review, 18 (1956), 633-41. See also Richard Henze, “A Midsummer Night's Dream: Analogous Image,” Shakespeare Studies, 7 (1974), 115-123.

  19. Anne Barton, “Introduction” to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Riverside Shakespeare, suggests that Act V is “superflous” in terms of plot, and concerns itself “principally, and even somewhat selfconsciously, with the relationship between art and life, dreams and the waking world” (p. 219).

Suzanne Gossett (essay date 1991)

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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 convenient’” (Plowden 17; 22). Elizabeth's namesake, Princess Elizabeth, was properly trained: she wrote to her father, James I, shortly before her marriage was arranged that “il mio fine e solo di piacere a vostra Mta,” and told her future husband after he arrived in England that she was pleased with his attentions “la quelle je cheriray d'autant plus afectionement que c'est le commandement du roy” (Baker 31-32).

When there was “some purpose” to bring to pass, little consideration was given to personal taste, physical compatibility, or similarities of age or religion. Catholic husbands suggested for Queen Elizabeth included her sister's widower, King Philip of Spain, and three sons of the French queen mother, Catherine de Medici: Charles IX, the Duke of Anjou, and the Duke of Alençon, who were sixteen, eighteen, and twenty years her junior respectively. Catherine contemplated for her own daughter Marguerite de Valois, the model for the princess in Love's Labour's Lost, “the heir of Spain, a lunatic and only half a man … the King of Portugal, who hated all women … the Archduke Rudolph, who cared only for the beauty of the stars”; finally she gave her to the King of Navarre, a Protestant to whom the Catholic Marguerite apparently had a physical aversion (Mariéjol 45, 47). Nevertheless, Marguerite assured her mother that she “had no will nor choice save” her mother's (Memoirs 85).

Marriages based on family interest were not confined to royalty. Among the wealthier classes in England, “property and power were the predominant issues which governed negotiations for marriage. … Personal factors entered into the strategy of marriage only in so far as it was important to ensure a healthy genetic strain for breeding” (Stone 70-73). But by the end of the sixteenth century the type of arranged marriage in which the inclination of the partners was not consulted at all was under increasing pressure. Stone traces the progression: “in the early sixteenth century, children were bought and sold like cattle for breeding, and no one thought that the parties concerned had any right to complain. But Protestant moral theology, with its stress on ‘holy matrimony,’ slowly forced a modification of this extreme position, which was only maintained in its pure state through the seventeenth century in the highest ranks of the aristocracy where the stakes of property and power were largest. To retain holy matrimony … it was necessary that the couple should be able to develop some affection for each other. It was therefore thought necessary to concede to the children the right of veto” (135).

During Shakespeare's lifetime both positions were hotly defended. Pamphlets appeared suggesting that the plague was God's punishment for “widespread disobedience on the part of marriageable offspring,” while others ascribed “most familial difficulties to enforced marriages” (Fitz 10). Andrew Gurr believes that the King's Men and Henslowe's company took opposite sides in this debate, Shakespeare's company defending young love and Henslowe's the right of parents to arrange marriages (195-196; 200). Yet the general trend was toward some freedom of choice: Puritan, Anglican, and even Catholic writers demonstrated a new concern for mutuality in marriage, which required consent from both partners (Novy 5).1

Shakespeare was familiar with the older model and the newer one. His own marital history suggests individual choice, but he was close enough to the court to know how marriage was used in uniting great families. Antony and Cleopatra contains a pure case of alliance: Octavia is given to Antony by “the power of Caesar, and his power unto Octavia” for the purpose of holding two men, Antony and Caesar, “in perpetual amity” (2.2.152-153; 132); the marriage, as Enobarbus predicts, enforces affection neither between the spouses nor between the brothers-in-law. Romeo and Juliet begins with the accepted late-Elizabethan compromise, whereby Capulet urges Paris to win Juliet's heart, since “my will to her consent is but a part” (1.2.17), and she dutifully promises to “look to like” (1.3.98). Disaster ensues when Juliet attempts to exercise her right to veto; Capulet, it turns out, has never doubted that “she will be rul'd in all respects by me” (3.4.13-14); his threats when she opposes him, “An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend; / And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets” (3.5.192-193), can be paralleled from actual cases. A notorious one concerned Frances Coke, whose parents had differing ideas about whom she should marry. To enforce their wills mother and father successively kidnapped her, her father, the former Lord Chief Justice, at the head of a band of armed retainers. When Frances finally yielded to his proposal that she marry Sir John Villiers, she added the following suggestive postscript to the letter she wrote her mother: “Dear Mother believe there has no violent means been used to me by word or deed” (Bowen 408).2

Stone dismisses Shakespeare's plays as “propaganda” for an unrealistic “ideal of romantic love” rejected “by all theologians, moralists, authors of manuals of conduct, and parents and adults in general” (128). Yet Shakespeare's dramas, often treated as uniformly romantic,3 take careful account of the differing constraints upon young people of different classes. His plays do usually convey a sense that young people should have a say in picking, or at least in accepting, their own marriage partners. Although in tragedies like Othello independent choice may lead to disaster, in many plays on the New Comedy model young men and women choose mates without or against their parents' wishes, and nevertheless all turns out well. The Merry Wives of Windsor offers this pattern in a middle class setting. Anne Page eludes two separate arrangements proposed by her parents, and Fenton justifies the lovers' actions:

You would have married her most shamefully,
Where there was no proportion held in love …
The offense is holy that she hath committed.


As both Page and his wife wish the young couple joy, they apparently accept their marriage, and perhaps Fenton's argument. Similar successes for impetuous young lovers occur in only slightly more gentrified settings in Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merchant of Venice.4

As soon as he dealt with the nobility, Shakespeare was more cautious. In As You Like It Rosalind, whose status as the daughter of a deposed duke is ambiguous, consciously avoids her father in the forest while she plays at courtship with Orlando. Nevertheless, when she is ready to marry, she cautiously asks the Duke whether, if she produces Rosalind, “You will bestow her on Orlando here?” and reminds him to “keep you your word, O Duke, to give your daughter” (5.4.7; 19). Though she says to Orlando, “To you I give myself, for I am yours,” (5.4.116), in actuality she has herself ritually given to her new husband by the Duke, to whom she also gives herself (Boose 327). She has been influenced all along in her choice by her father's desires: her first reaction to learning Orlando's identity as “the youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys” is “My father lov'd Sir Rowland as his soul” (1.2.212-213; 225). Celia's question, “Doth it therefore ensue that you should love his son dearly?” (1.3.30-31), intimates that in loving Orlando, Rosalind, despite her apparent independence, has honored the considerations that led to arranged marriages.5

In the remainder of this paper I will examine three liminal cases, cases where, even in an ostensibly comic mode, Shakespeare could not ignore the external factors which affected “the highest ranks of the aristocracy.” In these three plays—Love's Labour's Lost, Henry V, and The Tempest—Shakespeare dramatized the situation where potential conflict between personal and political choice in marriage was greatest. In all three cases the young woman is a princess;6 in all three cases she has been designed by her father for a particular husband to confirm an international alliance; yet in all three cases Shakespeare constructs the situation to alleviate audience anxieties about her lack of choice. The complexities to which this gives rise reveal themselves in the language of the plays and in conflicting generic conventions. All three plays parallel or recall specific political situations, and all implicitly ask how—to use Novy's terms—patriarchy and mutuality can be compromised when political fortunes are at stake.7

In Love's Labour's Lost, Erickson argues, “female power is virtually absolute” (67), and Huston considers the world of this play painless, partly because there are “no tyrannical parents to run from” (36). But both ignore the political limitations on the romantic plot. The Princess arrives in Navarre on a diplomatic mission, and she has with her Boyet, whose diction, like the structure of the play, is calculated to recall her real purpose while concealing it. Boyet does not tell the Princess directly what she is to do. His job is to encourage her to do it of her own volition, to make her, like Elizabeth of Bohemia, choose to cherish the man her father may choose. He begins:

Now, madam, summon up your dearest spirits;
Consider who the King your father sends,
To whom he sends, and what's his embassy:
Yourself, held precious in the world's esteem,
To parley with the sole inheritor
Of all perfections that a man may owe,
Matchless Navarre; the plea of no less weight
Than Aquitaine, a dowry for a queen.


The audience, like the princess, is invited to “consider.” The language is that of political marriage: Navarre is an inheritor, Aquitaine a dowry. The emphasis throughout this scene is on heredity: Maria, describing a marriage solemnized “between Lord Perigort and the beauteous heir / Of Jaques Falconbridge” (2.1.41-42), does not bother to include the bride's name; Katherine is identified as “The heir of Alençon” and Maria as “an heir of Falconbridge” (2.1.194; 205). Like Katherine and Maria the princess is an “heir.” Yet it is a sign of simplicity to make this too overt. Only the Forester will later openly equate the princess with her possessions: “Nothing but fair is that which you inherit” (4.1.20). However, Boyet's comment on the King of Navarre's visible infatuation is hardly less direct, as he reemphasizes the purpose of the alliance he hopes for:

I'll give you Aquitaine and all that is his,
An you give him for my sake but one loving kiss.


Despite the apparent importance of the political strand in this comedy, the disagreement between the King of France and the King of Navarre is obliquely described and difficult to follow. Comment about it disappears from the middle acts, intentionally I believe. If the play is not to take on the tone of the opening of King Lear, where the marriage auction for Cordelia, like the daughters' love contest, is originally structured as an exchange of love for lands, Shakespeare must avoid insisting on the princess's role as a political pawn. Therefore, as soon as the matrimonial solution to the contention between France and Navarre has been suggested, the subject, and the attendant “serious business, craving quick dispatch” (2.1.31), is hidden under a cloud of games and sports.8 Comedy conceals history: the play proceeds as if it were As You Like It, where for “sports” Rosalind devises “falling in love.”

In the fifth act, when the Princess learns of her father's death, there is a notable change. Until this point the Princess has not responded to Boyet's insinuations. She has consistently treated the declarations of the men as “courtship, pleasant jest, and courtesy … a merriment” (5.2.776; 780). The choice of husband, she and the audience know, will not be hers anyway: she will be matched at her country's and father's will. But suddenly she does have power over her own destiny; now there are no fathers, tyrannical or not. Abruptly, history dominates comedy. Like Queen Elizabeth, this new Queen of France takes control. Elizabeth refused to marry anyone she had not seen, an insuperable obstacle in the negotiations with Archduke Charles. The French queen shows her power to “subdue a lord” (4.1.40) by dismissing her suitor.

Though the new queen promises she will be the King of Navarre's if he can meet his “trial” for a year, Berowne recognizes that “that's too long for a play” (5.2.874). Elizabeth, too, made promises of marriage and did not keep them. In the case of the Duke of Alençon, she declared before the French Ambassador and various English nobles that, “the Duke of Alençon shall be my husband,” dramatically kissing “him on the mouth, drawing a ring from her own hand and giving it to him as a pledge.” Yet at this time “Elizabeth's one idea … was to avoid marriage” (Mendoza, quoted in Plowden 189; Neale 261). The difference between a princess's duty and a queen's power, between comedy and history, emerges as generic tension when Berowne exclaims against the failure of dramatic convention: “these ladies' courtesy / Might well have made our sport a comedy” (5.2.871-872). Instead the ladies have acquired the power of veto, and the new form of marriage arrangement alters the dramatic form.9

The reverse mixture occurs in Henry V. In the fifth act scene between Henry and Princess Katherine of France, history becomes comedy. The victor of Agincourt comes wooing like a tongue-tied countryman, like Orlando “a quintain, a mere lifeless block” (AYL, 1.2.241), able to wrestle but not to talk French. Williamson argues that Henry's “entire maneuver in getting Katherine to justify his demanding her as one of the treaty terms depends for its effect on the pretense that both are as free as ordinary men and women to love and marry by choice.” Yet Katherine “never forgets she has no choice about whether she will marry Henry” and when Henry forces her to kiss him it is a sign of his imperiousness emerging (“Courtship” 331).

Katherine, indeed, has no choice, but this need not mean she is an unhappy victim. The play's marriage is as complex as those of real royalty, because Shakespeare intentionally foregrounds the duality of Katherine as princess and person. We see Katherine first in 3.4, following Henry's speech to the Governor of Harfleur, a speech full of images of “hot and forcing violation,” of “the blind and bloody soldier” defiling “the locks of your shrill shrieking daughters” (3.3.21; 34-35). Her brief appearance will be succeeded in 3.5 by the Dauphin's prediction that “our madams,” disgusted at French ineptitude, “will give their bodies to the lust of English youth” (28-30). Sandwiched in between is Katherine's simple recognition that she must learn English: “il faut que j'apprenne” (3.4.4-5). The scene prepares for the two critical aspects of Katherine and Henry's relationship in Act 5 and later: their difficulty in communicating verbally, and the necessity that they communicate sexually.

Katherine's desire to learn vocabulary for the parts of the body is her unconscious acknowledgement that this is to be her role in the French peace terms, and thus it is she, rather than her waiting woman, who hears the sexual overtones of the last few words. Unlike similar scenes between Portia and Nerissa or Desdemona and Emilia, here knowledge of the sexual realities cannot be displaced down the social hierarchy. Kate, though she will not “prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France” (53-54), is aware she will have to use their physical reality with the ruler of England. In one sense she is, like the maidens of Harfleur, a sexual spoil.10

Yet in the final scene, when Kate, like the “maiden cities,” yields, it is an oversimplification, as an Elizabethan would know, to assume she will be unhappy. Her very concern, “is it possible dat I sould love de ennemie of France” (5.2.170-171), assumes marriage will entail love, even as it acknowledges a well known problem of such alliances. Ralegh comments:

We will take it for granted, that marriages between foreign princes, for the most part, are but politic: for wheresoever they employ their own affections … they commonly make choice of their own subjects. Now this policy in marriages hath either respect to the enlarging of dominion and uniting of kingdomes, dukedomes, or other principalities … or to the end of some great war and the establishing of peace.

(“Match” 223-224)

How, then, in drama or in life, to create a sense of personal attraction and mutual interest? The kiss which offends Williamson is the heart of the solution. While it recalls comic scenes in which young men “stop the mouths” of their beloveds, it has historical precedent. In 1589, at the insistence of the people of Edinburgh, James VI of Scotland was married by proxy to Anne of Denmark, whom he had never seen but with whom, as his biographer says, “in boyish and romantic fashion [he] became more and more enamoured” (Willson 88). Anne was 15, James 23. She sailed from Copenhagen in late August but contrary winds forced the ship into Oslo; in late October the romantic young lover “secretly resolved to sail in person to fetch home his bride” (89). There are two accounts of what happened next, and the conflict between them precisely embodies the actual and dramatic difficulties of sorting out the factors involved in royal marriages:

A Scottish account relates in homely fashion that the King made his way at once to the old Bishop's Palace where Anne was lodged, “passed quietly with boots and all to her Highness,” and offered to kiss her after the Scots fashion. Anne demurred. “Marry, after a few words privately spoken betwixt his Majesty and her, there passed familiarity and kisses.”


Willson objects that this is a “good story,” but one unhappily belied by a Danish narrative of the King's sojourn in Scandinavia. According to this account, James “entered Oslo in some state, preceded by heralds and accompanied by Danish and Norwegian nobles. … He and Anne spent half an hour together, and he then was escorted to his lodgings” (91).

The “Scottish account” has the same purpose as the end of Henry V: it presents—or creates—the king as an eager wooer, rather than as a ruler exercising his rights; it emphasizes sexual rather than legal persuasion. And we must never forget that this could work: Willson admits that soon James was “deeply in love with his young bride” (91). Shakespeare, simultaneously revealing and concealing the political basis of royal marriages, was doing no more than the royal players themselves did.11

In his last three romances Shakespeare once again has heroines who are princesses, and all three plays conclude with marriage or the confirmation of marriage. With each succeeding play Shakespeare progressively softens the conflict between parental arrangement and personal choice. Both Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale return to the New Comedy pattern: in defiance of parents, royal youths choose their own mates. Yet because Cymbeline is an awkward generic mixture, long delaying the shift to tragicomedy, (and actually appearing as a tragedy in the Folio), the happy ending does not entirely elide the picture of suffering caused by a princess's independent choice.

In Cymbeline Imogen, employing what Ralegh calls her “own affections,” “refers herself” to her subject, despite the king's intention that she marry his stepson Cloten. Cloten officiously but correctly reminds her of her obligations to her rank:

And though it be allow'd in meaner parties
Yet who than he more mean?—to knit their souls,
On whom there is no more dependency
But brats and beggary, in self-figur'd knot,
Yet you are curb'd from that enlargement by
The consequence o' th' crown. …


Imogen's angry retort that Cloten is “too base” to be Posthumus's groom does not respond to his political point or to his criticism that she has sinned “against obedience, which you owe your father” (2.3.113-114). However, from the first scene we are reminded that the king's proposed arrangement for Imogen is both personally inappropriate (Cloten is “a thing too bad for bad report”), and politically useless: Cloten, the king's “wife's sole son” (1.1.16-17; 5), brings no new international alliance to the state.12 Furthermore, Cloten's pursuit of Imogen seems sexually perverse: their brother-sister relationship gives the proposal overtones of incest, and he is apparently undeterred by Imogen's marriage. Nevertheless his objections linger, and at the conclusion Shakespeare attempts an interesting reversal of the conclusion of Love's Labour's Lost to mute the conflict. Where in the early play the princess's elevation gave her control over her marriage and the ability to refuse a proposed husband, in Cymbeline the reappearance of Imogen's brothers, which her father reminds her means she “hast lost … a kingdom” (5.5.375), reduces her political stature and removes the question of her marriage from the central political arena.

In Winter's Tale, since Perdita does not know her aristocratic rank, it is Florizel who defies parental authority. As a male Florizel receives a concession made to no princess in Shakespeare's plays: even the disguised Polixenes allows it is “reason my son should choose himself a wife,” though he insists “the father … should hold some counsel in such a business” (4.4.406-410).13 There is no previous arrangement for Florizel, and the audience knows his beloved is herself a princess. Florizel is prepared to tempt tragedy by his obstinate disobedience, but since his choice for himself could not be bettered, personally or politically, by his father's “counsel,” the apparent conflict between love and political arrangement evaporates.

These two plays might seem to confirm Stone's suspicions of Shakespeare's excessive romanticism. But The Tempest, apparently equally romantic, takes full account of the realities of arranged marriage. In this play Shakespeare presents his most extensive dramatic solution to the problem of the royal marriage, using a variety of techniques to blur the distinction between political arrangement and personal love.

Immediately after Miranda first delights in the sight of Ferdinand, Alonso bemoans the marriage of his daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis. His grief is double, for he believes he has lost his son on the return voyage, and Claribel is so far removed from Italy that “I ne'er again shall see her” (2.1.113). Sebastian “rubs the sore,” reminding Alonso that he has only himself to thank for the loss:

You were kneel'd to and importun'd otherwise
By all of us, and the fair soul herself
Weigh'd between loathness and obedience, at
Which end o' th' beam should bow.


On to Claribel, who never appears and for whom audience sympathy is thus limited, are displaced all the negative factors of the political alliance. In observations written in 1611—the same year that The Tempest was first produced—on a marriage proposed for Princess Elizabeth with the Catholic Prince of Savoy, Ralegh analyzed the potential “comfort and contentment of this young lady.” He found “little in appearance presently,” and “less to be hoped for in the future. For at first she must be removed far from her nearest blood both by father and mother. … And what true correspondency or matrimonial affection there can be maintained between those persons, whose minds are different and opposite in the religious points of their Christian faith, is greatly to be doubted” (Ralegh, “Match,” 235). One can imagine what he would say of Claribel, “loose[d] … to an African,” and dwelling “ten leagues beyond man's life” (2.1.127; 248). The issue of distance was not hypothetical: after her marriage in April 1613 to the acceptably Protestant prince Frederick, Elizabeth never saw any of her immediate family again.

Distance, difference, personal loathing are all Claribel's, while for Miranda is reserved the happy marriage that Elizabeth of Bohemia enjoyed despite political troubles. But Miranda is the object of two plans, her father's and an alternate one that exemplifies the dangers that may follow from arranging marriages purely for state purposes. Personal inappropriateness is of no importance to Caliban as he plots to marry Miranda to Stephano. With much historical precedent he ignores the princess's feeling, telling the butler, “She will become thy bed, I warrant, / And bring thee forth brave brood.” Stephano immediately envisions the rest of the political arrangements: “Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will be king and queen … and Trinculo and thyself shall be viceroys” (3.2.100-109). Unacceptable difference here comes not from race, religion, or distance, but from class distinctions which Stephano would violate or subvert. He does not even fear his wife's reaction to the murder of her father. This arrangement parodies and, by contrast, softens and condones the one projected by Prospero, who claims to do “nothing but in care of” Miranda (1.2.16). Shakespeare's magic may make us forget that the outcome of Ferdinand and Miranda's wedding will be the “uniting of kingdomes, dukesdomes, or other principalities.”14

As in Henry V, in The Tempest a generic shift to comedy assists the audience in accepting a marriage arranged for state purposes. The Tempest begins with elements of a revenge play: Prospero has gained control of all of his enemies, the sea “hath requit” Prospero's supplantation and exposure, and Ariel's great speech to the “three men of sin” threatens “ling'ring perdition” before offering forgiveness (3.3.51-82).15 However, once Miranda and Ferdinand meet, Prospero encourages us to read events through the lens of the familiar comic form: he takes on the role of the heavy father, “lest too light winning / Make the prize light” (1.2.453-455). The “rarer action” replaces revenge: instead of a masque of vengeance there is the wedding masque of spirits, “harmonious charmingly” (4.1.119). Yet the comic ending still awards Prospero his dukedom and title to the Kingdom of Naples for his heirs.

In this late play Shakespeare collapses the apparent opposition between the two components of royal marriage. He achieves this legerdemain by displaying such a marriage from two perspectives. On the one hand the audience sees that Prospero “carefully engineers the romance of Ferdinand and Miranda” (Williamson, Patriarchy 156).16 Despite his pretense at being the heavy father, he is not the blocking but the propelling figure, manipulating the young couple's emotions through magic as well as through natural attraction. The visual emblem of this control is 3.1., where Prospero, unseen, observes and comments on Ferdinand and Miranda's wooing. Yet in this same scene Miranda conceives of herself as a romantic heroine, like Bianca of Taming of the Shrew or Perdita the shepherdess. Believing her father to be “hard at study,” she gives away her hand in full awareness that she has broken his “hest” to do so. Williamson praises Miranda's spirit in wooing for herself (Patriarchy 166), but Miranda's spirit, like her actions, lies within the intentions of her father; he has constructed her desire. At the end of The Tempest Shakespeare has finally found a way to show a princess observing perfect filial obedience by choosing for herself.

Shortly before he escaped the marriage market by an untimely death, Prince Henry was asked by his father which of three princesses he preferred. He replied, “My part, which is to be in love with any of them, is not yet at hand” (Willson 285). This witty statement sounds paradoxical to the modern reader, but it was a paradox familiar to Jacobean Englishmen and audiences. Chamberlain's letters show no concern for Princess Elizabeth's feelings while negotiations proceeded with various royal houses. When Savoy was being considered, he wrote Carleton:

The ambassador of Savoy followed the King to Tiballs. … For ought I can learne he had but a cold aunswer, and yet the Duke his master was so confident that he offered to come in person to conduct her. Yt is thought the breaking of the match in Spaine hath marred this. … Our speculativi make many discourses as yf this younge Lady was a likely match for the king of Spaine, others that the same busines is now in treating for the royne blanche in France, but I thincke they are both wayes wide.

(McClure I 316)

Yet once the chosen husband arrived, Chamberlain notes repeatedly, and apparently with pleasure, that the future bridegroom is “every day at court, and plies his mistresse hard and takes no delight in running at ring, nor tennis, nor riding with the Prince … but only in her conversation” (I 381; cf. 387). These lines remind us of Prospero's direction to Ferdinand, “Sit then and talk with her; she is thine own” (4.1.32).

By the early seventeenth century the English, while acknowledging the desirability of family alliances, apparently recognized the need for personal affection as a basis for marriage. When an ordinary young girl like Bianca runs off with an appropriate young man they, like her father, could be “contented.” The importance of alliance was immensely augmented when the young girl was a princess. Yet the more that attention was paid to the purposes of holy matrimony, the more that even in aristocratic homes young women were offered the possibility of veto, the harder it was to look upon young royalty as cattle for the marriage market. Shakespeare's solutions were not a simple endorsement of defiant young love. Caught between the realities of court life and the call of the comic form, he found ways to acknowledge the obligation to self at the same time as the obligation to political necessity. Using the resources of dramatic form, he managed to copy Prince Henry: bit by bit, and culminating in The Tempest, he wrote the conflict out of existence.


  1. For a balanced view, see Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family 1450-1700 (London: Longman, 1984). Houlbrooke concludes that “in practice, matches ranged across a wide spectrum which ran from the arranged … to the completely free. The degree of freedom allowed the individual depended … upon his or her sex, prospects of inheritance and social rank.” According to Houlbrooke, “in the seventeenth century, parents were often ready to allow greater freedom of choice” but in fact “the duty of compliance with parental wishes [had never been] … inculcated with uniform success even in wealthy families. There was a widespread belief among would-be marriage partners that freedom of choice was their right” (69-71).

  2. Lynda E. Boose analyzes the psychological implications and ritual substructures in plays where a father must give his daughter in marriage; my concern, instead, is to consider the plays against the historical and social background of the period.

  3. Typically, G. R. Hibbard uses the romanticism of Romeo and Juliet to contrast “Elizabethan marriage as it was,” depicted in Thomas Middleton's London comedies (134-138; 142).

  4. In this case, Jessica's actions are partly excused because she flees Shylock to marry a Christian, a change which the play approves.

  5. Celia's status is likewise ambiguous; her father is a false duke, and by the time Celia marries Oliver, Frederick has chosen the hermitage, thus declaring his indifference to worldly arrangements. The play is very slippery as it negotiates between pastoral comedy and courtly politics.

  6. Although Prospero is the Duke of Milan, he repeatedly refers to his daughter Miranda as a princess. Cf. 1.1.59; 173.

  7. David Bergeron reads the Stuarts as a “text” influencing Shakespeare's romances, and emphasizes the ways in which the family of history coalesces with the family of art, including in the matter of marriage.

  8. For Montrose, the reason the “significant [political] issues seem to evaporate as the play unfolds … is surely not that Shakespeare's interest wandered but that he was contriving to point up the wavering interest of some of his characters.” However, Montrose thinks that the princess is “aware of her mission all the time” (87-88).

  9. One should not exaggerate Elizabeth's power over her marriage. It is perfectly possible that she did want to marry Dudley, or even Alençon, and yielded to good sense and her counselors' opposition.

  10. Tennenhouse also recognizes that Shakespeare dramatizes the “conquest of France as Henry's wooing of Katherine” (69) by activating “the strategies of romantic comedy.” But he emphasizes the way in which the wooing “confirms the value of blood” and does not consider Katherine's feelings.

  11. That James soon lost interest in Anne, and eventually in women, does not belie his early affection for his bride, with whom he had seven children.

  12. The contrast with Philaster is instructive. There, too, the proposed husband is unacceptable for sexual reasons (he can't wait for the wedding but goes off with Megra the court's lady of easy virtue). Nevertheless, Pharamond is a prince of Spain, presumably able to offer a political alliance to Sicily. Arethusa, like Imogen, chooses a native instead. However, since Philaster is actually the rightful prince, this union is itself a solution to the political problems of the kingdom.

  13. In All's Well that Ends Well the French king's failure to accord Bertram the opportunity to “choose himself a wife” is a major cause of that play's uneven critical and theatrical reception. See Williamson on wardship (59-64) for a discussion of arranged marriages for wealthy male orphans.

  14. Paul Cantor emphasizes Prospero's political motives in letting Miranda and Ferdinand “play at being Romeo and Juliet” (249).

  15. I am grateful to Karen Robertson for suggestions about the revenge elements in The Tempest.

  16. For a more negative view of the symbolic scheme whereby “Miranda is deprived of any possibility of human freedom, growth or thought,” see Leininger, 291.

Works Cited

Baker, L. M., ed. The Letters of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. London: Bodley Head, 1953.

Bergeron, David M. Shakespeare's Romances and the Royal Family. Lawrence, Kansas: Kansas UP, 1985.

Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 3rd. ed. Glenview, Il.: Scott Foresman, 1980.

Boose, Lynda E. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA 97 (1982): 325-347.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke. Boston: Atlantic-Little Brown, 1957.

Cantor, Paul A. “Prospero's Republic.” Shakespeare as Political Thinker. Ed. John Alvis and Thomas G. West. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1981.

Erickson, Peter. “The Failure of Relationship between Men and Women in Love's Labor's Lost.Women's Studies 9 (1981): 67-81.

Fitz, Linda T. “‘What Says the Married Woman?’: Marriage Theory and Feminism in the English Renaissance.” Mosaic 13 (1980): 1-22.

Gurr, Andrew. “Intertextuality at Windsor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 189-200.

Hibbard, G. R. “Love, Marriage and Money in Shakespeare's Theatre and Shakespeare's England.” The Elizabethan Theatre VI Ed. G. R. Hibbard. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975, pp. 134-155.

Houlbrooke, Ralph A. The English Family 1450-1700. London: Longman, 1984.

Huston, J. Dennis. Shakespeare's Comedies of Play. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.

Leininger, Lorrie Jerrell. “The Miranda Trap: Sexism and Racism in Shakespeare's Tempest.The Woman's Part. Ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, Carol Thomas Neely. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980, pp. 285-294.

Marguerite de Valois. Memoirs. Trans. Violet Fane. London: John C. Nimmo, 1892.

Mariéjol, Jean H. A Daughter of the Medicis, The Romantic Story of Margaret of Valois. Trans. John Peile. New York: Harper & Bros., 1929.

McClure, Norman Egbert, ed. The Letters of John Chamberlain. 2 vols. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939.

Montrose, Louis Adrian. “Curious-Knotted Garden”: The Form, Themes and Contexts of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Salzburg Studies in English Literature. Salzburg, 1977.

Neale, J. E. Queen Elizabeth I. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Novy, Marianne. Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

Plowden, Alison. Marriage with My Kingdom: The Courtships of Elizabeth I. New York: Stein and Day, 1977.

Ralegh, Sir Walter. “On a Marriage between Prince Henry and A Daughter of Savoy.” The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh, Kt. 8 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1829, 8: 237-252.

———. “On a Match Between Lady Eliz. and the Prince of Piedmont.” The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh, Kt. 8 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1829, 8: 223-236.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Abridged Ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Williamson, Marilyn. “The Courtship of Katherine and the Second Tetralogy.” Criticism 17 (1975): 326-334.

———. The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.

Willson, D. Harris. King James VI and I. London: Jonathan Cape, 1956.

Lisa Hopkins (essay date 1998)

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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


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 almost immediately on the wedding ceremony, inextricably intertwines marriage and death within the structure of the play, just as Sampson verbally confounds the loss of virginity with the cutting off of heads.3 The very word ‘married’ sounds ominously in the text. Discussing the nubility of Juliet, Paris argues that ‘Younger than she are happy mothers made’ (I.2.12); Old Capulet immediately responds with ‘And too soon marred are those so early made’ (I.2.13), where ‘marred’ and ‘made’ quibble with ‘married’ and ‘maid’ in a way that posits a worrying equivalence between ‘married’ and ‘marred’. When ‘married’ itself is heard, it is in a similar context, as Lady Capulet exhorts her daughter to observe Paris well, and ‘Examine every married lineament’ (I.3.84); the next reference has Juliet, seeing Romeo, exclaim, in ironic prophecy, ‘If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed’ (I.5.134-5), just as the Friar will later rhyme ‘tomb’ and ‘womb’ (II.3.5-6). Though Juliet later associates marriage with honour, in her virtual proposal to Romeo (II.2.143-6), for Romeo it leads precisely to an imagined loss of honour: ‘O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper softened valour's steel!’ (III.1.113-15).

With savage irony, it is precisely as a counter to the tragedy of Tybalt's death that Old Capulet proposes to cheer his family by hastening Juliet's wedding. Initially, Old Capulet has seemed a very proper father indeed, protecting his child on account of her youth, and exhorting her suitor, ‘But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart. / My will to her consent is but a part’ (I.2.16-17). Soon, however, he becomes one of the most peremptory of all Shakespeare's fathers, transgressing social norms as well as disregarding Juliet's reluctance:

                                                  ‘A Thursday, tell her,
She shall be married to this noble earl.
Will you be ready? Do you like this haste?
We'll keep no great ado—a friend or two.


Naomi Conn Liebler argues that Romeo and Juliet, ‘by marrying in secret … prevent their families and their larger community from participating in the marriage rite’,4 but Capulet himself was equally proposing to restrict the element of communal celebration involved. There has been much debate about where the sympathies of Shakespeare's original audience would have lain in the disagreement between Juliet and her father: David Lindley, for instance, suggests that ‘there can be little doubt that many a father in the Globe Theatre would have identified with Capulet's feelings. Nor is it clear that the play as a whole endorses the position of Romeo and Juliet themselves.’5 Diane Elizabeth Dreher suggests that the absence of Capulet from the wedding makes it an unsatisfactory ceremony,6 and Jonathan Goldberg points out that in this play marriage definitively works against homosociality rather than facilitating it:7 only after the death of the couple themselves are the two fathers able to join in ‘a belated public solemnization of the marriage contract’.8

What is perhaps most striking, though, is the extent of the paralleling rather than the contrasting in the representation of attitudes to marriage. Thomas Moisan points, for instance, to ‘the Nurse's reiterated recollection of the “Ay” Juliet's three-year-old voice gave to but a cruder version of the very question put to her by her mother’,9 and Capulet quite literally speaks with Juliet's voice when he mimics her presumed answer that ‘I'll not wed, I cannot love; / I am too young, I pray you pardon me!’ (III.5.186-7); he also produces a paralleling of opposites as he recounts how he has worked towards Juliet's marriage ‘Day, night; hour, tide, time; work, play; / Alone, in company’ (III.5.177-8). There is a similar echoing in Juliet and her mother agreeing to poison Tybalt's assassin (III.5.96-9). Though Juliet is actually feigning here, the passage is a multiply suggestive one: it will again stress similarity rather than difference when Romeo in turn decides to buy poison, and it also evokes the story of Tristan and Iseult, where Iseult and her mother concoct a similar scheme against the killer of the mother's brother. The comparison is an interesting one, working both to elevate the lovers by association, and also to point up the fact that their own relationship is a legitimate one, not dependent on Tristan and Iseult's transgression of the marriage bond. It also works to reinforce an association between poison and women,10 which may further be hinted at in the suggestive phrasing of the Apothecary, ‘Mantua's law / Is death to any he that utters them’ (V.1.66-7). When Romeo takes poison and Juliet wields his dagger, we may thus indeed be tempted to feel that their unlicensed love has not only made him effeminate, but her—at least temporarily—mannish. Leading the living to lie in tombs, sons to die before their fathers, and Romeo to figure death as birth (V.1.62-5), their marriage consistently generates inversion (Lynda Boose argues that the whole of the latter half of the play ‘progresses as a series of inverted and disordered epithalamia’),11 but it just as insistently leads to the revelation of parallels—both trends being contained in its final effect of healing the feud, as Capulet says ‘O brother Montague, give me thy hand’ (V.3.296).

One reason for the essentially homologising effect of the marriage lies in Romeo and Juliet's own basic similarity. Unlike, say, Othello and Desdemona, or even Hamlet and Ophelia, they are close in rank, years and status, and are members of the same community, which would indeed benefit from their marriage, if their parents would only sanction it. Despite their youth, they behave in a way that is, arguably, more mature than their own parents' conduct (a comparison which is actually suggested by the play's profusion of parallels). Romeo may kill Tybalt, but only because he was trying to prevent violence and make peace, and neither of the lovers thinks of consummating the relationship before they have had it blessed by the church (which, in the person of Friar Laurence, thoroughly supports their actions). With old heads on young shoulders, they in fact work only towards aims that are in tune with their society (in contrast, perhaps, to Mercutio, whom some readings see as punished by premature death for a homoerotic orientation unconducive to social rituals of bonding and reproduction). Moreover, the love of Romeo and Juliet will ultimately benefit their community by procuring the ending of the feud. This early tragedy has often been criticised for the apparently contingent nature of the tragic outcome—essentially, disaster strikes first because Romeo's arm accidentally got in Mercutio's way, and secondly because the letter goes astray—which does not spring from any hamartia on the part of the hero or any feeling that society as a whole has lost its way. This certainly seems to be true of the central relationship, for this was a marriage that need not have failed, a marriage that could have been equally at home in the comic world. In Shakespeare's more mature work, there will be a radical shift in conception, for there the seeds of tragedy will lie in the marital relationship itself.


In Hamlet, we enter the world of Denmark in the immediate aftermath of the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude—a ceremony which, in Hamlet's eyes at least, was ominously conflated with a funeral, and which has certainly sounded the death-knell of his own peace of mind—Janet Adelman points to ‘the logic of the play's alternative name for poison: “union”’,12 while Terence Hawkes observes that the verb ‘to marry’ is ‘the one the play seems to turn on’.13 There can be no doubt at all that to the Renaissance mind, the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude was indeed both improper and, as Gertrude herself says, ‘o'er hasty’: Roland Mushat Frye points out that ‘in Tudor sermons and theological tracts, marriages such as that of Gertrude and Claudius are invariably classified as adultery, even if whitewashed by a marriage ceremony’, and that ‘the marriage followed the funeral almost at once, because it was impossible to bury a king or queen in Renaissance England in less than a month after the death, or at least it was never done more promptly’.14 Even so, however, the extent of the disorder which it precipitates is striking.

Unlike the marriages of male characters in comedies, Claudius' alliance with Gertrude notably fails to facilitate his bonding with other men, proving particularly destructive in his relationship with Hamlet, whose goodwill is of particular importance to him since the Prince is not only his nephew but the heir presumptive to his throne. Claudius even seems to be himself uneasy about the marriage. Although no one has ever doubted that he loves Gertrude, the occasions on which he speaks of his relationship with her can all be seen as encoding ominous undertones. His initial description of her as ‘Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state’15 has given rise to much speculation about the precise political significance of their relationship, and whether, if Gertrude had some kind of purchase on government, Claudius perhaps stood to gain by the marriage as well as being motivated by affection. Claudius later cites his continued possession of his wife as a reason for his inability to repent, and speaks of Gertrude to Laertes in terms characterised by a radical ambivalence:

My virtue or my plague, be it either which—
She is so conjunctive to my life and soul
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her.


The person most adversely affected by the marriage, however, is Hamlet. Throughout the play, he experiences difficulty in reconciling his twin images of his mother as mother and as wife; he also reverses the traditional patterns of comedy by his increasing alienation from Ophelia, his own potential wife—Lisa Jardine underlines this teleology of separation when she points to Ophelia's return of Hamlet's gifts as ‘a sign of a betrothal broken off’.16 For him, the problematics of identification with the father cannot be mediated by women, and Ophelia, whose name so ironically signifies ‘help’ in Greek, can function as nothing more than a hindrance on his psychological quest, perpetually doubling both his language and his life-events but radically divorced from sharing them with him.

If Hamlet himself fails to connect with Ophelia, moreover, it often seems as if the play itself does not do so either. Hamlet, notoriously, is nothing without its prince, and it has often been remarked that not only does the prince himself habitually dislocate responsibility for his troubles onto women, but that the play relentlessly invites us to share his own perspective on the female characters, to such an extent that traditional critical response to both Ophelia and Gertrude has been radically conditioned by Hamlet's own response to them.17 Ophelia's soliloquy at the end of the nunnery scene briefly reverses this process by offering us her summing-up of his present condition, but it is rare to take the question of Gertrude's view of Hamlet very much further than A. C. Bradley's careless characterisation of her as like a sheep in the sun, wanting to be happy herself and vaguely desirous of seeing her fellow-sheep happy too. Nevertheless, since Gertrude is one of the very few examples in the Shakespearean canon of a woman who has survived one long marriage and has recently embarked on another, it might well be worth looking for a moment at ‘what says the married woman’.

Of Gertrude's attitude to her previous husband we know little or nothing, except, perhaps, what we could deduce from the portrayal of her represented by the Player Queen in The Murder of Gonzago. Of her attitude to her son we know a great deal, and it is very suggestive. The first exchange between them that we hear involves her publicly reproaching him for his dress and his behaviour; the last includes her comment that ‘He's fat and scant of breath’ (V.II.290). For all the apparent affection between them, and for all the warmth which led Ernest Jones to advance his famous suggestion that Hamlet was suffering from an unresolved Oedipus complex, there are other suggestions that a keynote of the relationship between them is denigration and rejection, considerably pre-dating the more obviously disruptive advent of Claudius. When the Player Queen concludes a speech with the line ‘None wed the second but who kill'd the first’ (III.II.175), Hamlet mutters aside, ‘That's wormwood’ (III.II.176). Wormwood, as Juliet's nurse reminds us, was the substance traditionally applied to the nipple to impart a bitter taste and deter the infant from further suckling; as such, it functions as the sign of the first and most shattering rejection by the mother of the child. That such an association is indeed present here is suggested by the Player Queen's almost immediately preceding assurance that ‘Such love must needs be treason in my breast’ (III.II.173); treason in the breast is what Hamlet seems to be remembering, a betrayal by his mother not only of his father but also of his infant self, but which he can now revenge by submitting her to this public exposure of her husband's guilt and her own. Suggestively, he also echoes here his father's description of the operations of the poison: ‘with a sudden vigour it doth posset / And curd, like eager droppings into milk, / The thin and wholesome blood’ (I.V.68-70). Both men envisage their fate as fundamentally informed by images of milk spoiled and milk denied, in a minor-image cluster reinforcing the play's larger narrative moves towards the disruption rather than the perpetuation and flourishing of family groups.

Imaging himself, perhaps with some justification, as rejected by his mother, Hamlet never seems likely to move towards forming a family of his own. If there is a sketched suggestion of malfunctioning lactation, there is a strongly sustained one of a general failure of fertility and of blight and waste. Claudius' view of nature is that its ‘common theme / Is death of fathers’ (I.ii.103-4); Horatio uses the language of fertility to suggest guilt when he wonders whether the Ghost has ‘uphoarded in thy life / Extorted treasure in the womb of earth’ (I.i.139-40). For Laertes, ‘birth’ is used to figure the constraints of Hamlet's rank (I.iii.18), and for Hamlet all breeding produces sinners, and so is best avoided (III.i.121-4); Naomi Conn Liebler points out that Hamlet's lament for the forgotten hobby-horse also encodes a failure of fertility, since the traditional hobby-horse ‘was specifically a man dressed in a horse mask and a hoop-like skirt under which he caught and then released village maids in an aggressively mimed fertility dance’.18 Hamlet wants ‘no mo marriage’ (III.i.149), and associates all marriage with curses, cuckoldry, error and the blighted growth of ‘a mildew'd ear’ (III.i.136-41, III.ii.245-6 and III.iv.64). In this, he resembles his counterparts in the comedies, but the difference is that he cannot mould his perspective into a basis for joking and for male camaraderie, since he shares it only with women—all his invectives on the subject are directed either to Gertrude or Ophelia. To Claudius, he can offer only a riddle—‘My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh; so my mother’ (IV.iv.54-5)—which, because it takes dangerous obliterations of difference as its theme, cannot work to effect any such joining itself.

Other characters also figure marriage as being, at the best, problematic, both to achieve and in its operations. Both Laertes and Polonius doubt that Ophelia would be able to become Hamlet's bride; later, Ophelia herself sings of how women may be deceived by false promises of matrimony (IV.v.62-6), and she also hints at the dangers of hypergamy, or marriage with a person below one's own station, when she says in her madness ‘It is the false steward that stole his master's daughter’ (IV.v.170-1). Bridget Gellert Lyons comments that ‘deathly coldness or seclusion (“Be thou as chaste as ice …” “Get thee to a nunnery”) on the other, are presented to a young girl as the only sexual alternatives’.19 The floral imagery that clusters round the scenes of Ophelia's madness and death clearly evokes a parodic and subverted wedding rite, with the accompanying suggestion of sterility and waste. Moreover, images of illegitimacy and of unlicensed sexuality abound: Laertes exclaims, ‘That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father’ (IV.v.117-18), and Hamlet tells Laertes, ‘I am afeard you make a wanton of me’ (V.ii.303). The Player Queen, representing Gertrude, protests, ‘In second husband let me be accurst; / None wed the second but who kill'd the first’ (III.ii.174-5), and Gertrude herself gives a brief clue to her own marital history when she cries, ‘O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs’ (IV.v.110). Clearly implying that she herself is not Danish, she reminds us of the political rather than the personal nature of the imperatives which would have structured her alliance with Old Hamlet. Swiftly though this is suggested, it is an important idea, since it refers to the importance of marriage as a crucial element of social and national substructure. Once marriages have been broken, illegitimately contracted, or become impossible, the failure and the repercussions are not merely private and personal: something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark as a whole.

It is these ideas of rottenness, of decay and of failure to flourish which permeate the imagery of the play. The green world is present in Hamlet only in ghastly parody, in the ‘unweeded garden’ (I.II.135) of the hero's imagination, in the barren plot imaged as serving Fortinbras' followers as a grave and in the literal graveyard itself, and in the pastoral landscape of Ophelia's death; the ‘country’ to Hamlet is always hideously conflated with the pun on ‘cuntry’.20 None of these affords growth and renewal; even resurrection is invoked only to be deflated in the disinterment of Yorick's skull. A society which, in Hamlet's terms, celebrates a marriage with cold meat (left over from a funeral), and where the central relationship involves a woman presumably well past child-bearing age, kills its children, but begets no new ones. Instead, it anatomises its central marriage from a perspective never previously available in the plays—that of the child, radically excluded—and it shifts attention from social and ideological function to psychological cost. It shows us a Claudius who perceives his own uxoriousness as dangerous weakness (and who will later keep silent and let his wife die, rather than betray his own guilt by warning her against the poisoned cup); a Gertrude who, at any rate according to her son and her first husband, has been coarsened and diminished by her second marriage, and a child whose bitter disappointment in his mother and fraught imaginings of his father leave him paralysed, misogynist and sterile. Even when the state passes to the new rule of Fortinbras, the crisis in the state of marriage is not resolved, for Fortinbras, like Hal before him and Malcolm and Edgar after him, is a saviour conspicuously free from any contact with women. Marriage, though it carries within it the seeds of its own renewal, does not prove easy to restore in the tragic world when it has been once disrupted.


If Hamlet treats marriage predominantly from the point of view of the child, King Lear deals with the perspectives and experiences of the father—in this case a father for whom the marriage of his youngest and favourite child seems to be proving a source of great stress.21 Although the opening scene of the play is ostensibly concerned primarily with the major political issues of abdication and succession, both these are mediated through questions of marriage—are, indeed, staged to some extent as a wedding ceremony,22 onto which Lear attempts to map his own meanings. Even before the subject of Cordelia's betrothal has been mentioned, we hear of marriage vows made—and broken, as Gloucester introduces his bastard son to Kent:

I cannot conceive you.
Sir, this young fellow's mother could; whereupon she grew round-womb'd, and had, indeed, Sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.
But I have a son, Sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account: though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.(23)

The reference to Edgar's age makes it quite clear that Gloucester's relationship was an adulterous one, and this will later be seen by Edgar as the direct and operative clause for all Gloucester's suffering:

The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us;
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.


Less noticeable than the fact of the transgression, but equally troubling, is Gloucester's reference to his sons' respective places in his ‘account’, a word which in turn causes ‘dearer’ to resonate not only with the language of love but with the language of cost. In a low-key way, he uses exactly the same discourse of quantity rather than quality which will later characterise Lear's approach to his children, so that encoded in this passage is not only a cheapening of the marriage relationship but an approach to the parent-child one patterned as a transaction rather than as an emotional response.

Both these elements are even more strongly marked in Lear's dealings with his daughters. From the outset, the scene is riddled with tensions between the rehearsed and the spontaneous, the genuine and the expedient. Lear inaugurates the proceedings with the ominous line ‘Meantime, we shall express our darker purpose’ (I.i.35). The idea connoted by ‘express’ seems to make it quite clear that what is to be unfolded is something already decided, but ‘darker’ suggests not only something previously concealed but something inherently sinister, a meaning, indeed, which may have been unsuspected even by Lear himself until he discovers that it has found expression; certainly there seems to be a deep-seated unease about the prospect of Cordelia's marriage which will later lead him, quite irrationally, to condemn France as ‘hot-blooded’ and to refuse absolutely to ‘knee his throne’ (II.iv.210, 212).24 On the surface, the ‘purpose’ seems a straightforward and sensible one:

We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now.


Nevertheless, there is again a darker note sounded in Lear's unquestioned assumption that ‘future strife’ would follow if dowry business were left unsettled. In his mind, marriage already figures as a focus for stress and disruption.

It becomes even more of a threat to him when his youngest daughter unequivocally tells him that her imminent marriage is going to diminish the amount of affection she feels for him:

                                                                                Good my Lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.


Though Cordelia's caution here is intended as a corrective to the extravagance and exaggerations of Goneril and Regan, it also partakes of the same discourse of reckoning as characterised Gloucester's approach to affection (and which is so scorned by Antony in his first exchange with Cleopatra): Cordelia conceives of love not as boundless, but as demarcated and rationed. She may implicitly reject her sisters' language of cost and price, but she also, to some extent, shares it, and she is indeed to find herself virtually echoed in Goneril's final advice to her:

Let your study
Be to content your lord, who hath receiv'd you
At Fortune's alms; you have obedience scanted,
And well are worth the want that you have wanted.


On the terms to which both Goneril and Cordelia have subscribed, it is indeed Goneril who sounds the more dutiful here, and seems to have the more generous and compliant conception of the marriage relationship.

Any such view of the sisters is of course soon challenged, as the behaviour of Goneril and Regan sharply deteriorates. It is notable that their disobedience to the (literally) patriarchal structures of behaviour enjoined by their father is repeatedly figured as an attack not primarily on the relationship between father and child, but on that between husband and wife. In the first scene, there is no hint that there is anything amiss between either couple, but trouble soon begins to surface: Goneril declares, ‘I must change arms at home, and give the distaff / Into my husband's hands’ (IV.ii.17-18), and even Regan, though her relationship with Cornwall seems far more secure, shows occasional signs of impatience with him—the Arden editor suggests that on their arrival at Gloucester's castle, ‘Regan takes the words out of her husband's mouth, and thereby shows that he is subordinate’ (II.i.118 note). More strikingly, the daughters' disobedience is actually interpreted as a retrospective assault on the sanctity of their parents' marriage: Lear terms Goneril a ‘Degenerate bastard’ (I.iv.251), and tells Regan that if her behaviour were to resemble her sister's, ‘I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb, / Sepulchring an adult'ress’ (II.iv.128-9) (the Arden note comments that the source-play of Leir starts with the funeral of the queen). Bastardy is again invoked as the ultimate social evil when Albany uses it to forbid Regan's marriage to Edmund: when Edmund declares that Albany has no jurisdiction over them, Albany retorts ‘Half-blooded fellow, yes’ (V.iii.81). In a play that questions many things, the absolute distinction between marriage and adultery remains sacrosanct, and marriage is invoked as a fundamental guarantor of the continuation of civilised society; nevertheless, marking as it does the progression to maturity of a new generation, it is a rite of passage fraught with a peculiar melancholy for those whose lives are waning. It is, as much as anything, the marriage of his youngest child which disempowers Lear.


In Othello and Macbeth, the focus switches from the generations not personally involved in marriage to those which are, and Macbeth in particular presents perhaps the Shakespearean canon's most sustained and probing portrait of an individual marriage—and one which, for all the brevity of the play, is particularly attentive to changes in the relationship over time. The institution of marriage radically fashions not only the individual life of Macbeth, but also the whole mindset of the society in which he lives. Violent and unsettled as it may be, it nevertheless adheres strictly to the rituals which surround kinship and the home. Notably, the Captain initially figures Macdonwald's rebellion precisely in terms of unlicensed sexuality: ‘fortune on his damned quarrel smiling / Showed like a rebel's whore’,25 whereas Macbeth, fighting for the rightful king, is ‘That Bellona's bridegroom’ (I.2.56). Even if loyalty has been forfeited and rebellion broached, legitimate marriage, it seems, remains available as an absolute demarcator. Even heaven is figured as structured by it in Banquo's homely image, ‘There's husbandry in heaven, / Their candles are all out’ (II.1.4-5).

Marriage—and the legitimacy of offspring which, at least in theory, it ensures—also lies at the heart of the play in a different way. It is a critical commonplace that Shakespeare's choice of subject in Macbeth surely represents a response to the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, and the resultant heightened awareness of all things Scottish. James's claim to the throne derived entirely from the principles of primogeniture and hereditary succession of legitimate offspring; and these are precisely the considerations which are set aside when Macbeth is crowned king in preference to either of the sons of Duncan. However, under the Scottish custom of tanistry, whereby the throne passed not to the son of the previous ruler but to a suitable adult male relative, Macbeth's succession is perfectly legal; it could indeed be said to be Duncan who outrages convention by unilaterally designating Malcolm as Prince of Cumberland, and thus as his probable successor, apparently without prior consultation with his magnates. If blood-relationship alone is sufficient, marriage becomes relatively unimportant, but if, as in the case of James VI and I, it is legitimate descent which is prioritised, then marriage becomes the cornerstone of the royal succession. It is notable that during the course of Macbeth Scottish society seems to undergo a clear shift from the first model to the second. There is no initial challenge to Macbeth's claim to the throne, but by the end of the play it seems to be tacitly assumed that the right of Malcolm, as the eldest son of Duncan, is unquestionable. Moreover, Malcolm himself prominently foregrounds the ritual force of marriage in his discussion of his suitability for the kingship. The first sin that he claims is voluptuousness (IV.3.60ff), and he warns Macduff that ‘Your wives, your daughters, / Your matrons, and your maids, could not fill up / The cistern of my lust’ (IV.3.61-3). Macduff's growing horror draws precisely on the idea of legitimate succession and continuity of good citizenship which marriage should ensure, but which Malcolm, it seems, is monstrously transgressing:

                                                                                                                        Thy royal father
Was a most sainted king; the queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day she lived.


In the end, of course, such a marriage of a virtuous king and a virtuous queen is indeed vindicated as having produced desirable offspring; but immediately after Malcolm's self-revelation we hear of the savage destruction of Macduff's own marriage, and all its progeny. As the grief sinks in, it is Malcolm's turn to give counsel, as he exhorts Macduff, ‘Dispute it like a man’ (IV.3.219)—an echo, perhaps, of the latent fear that all association with women, even within the legalised context of marriage, carries the threat of effeminisation.

Though Malcolm's unsatisfactoriness as an offspring of his parents' apparently perfect marriage proves eventually to be only illusory, it does nevertheless accord with a strongly marked pattern, in the play as a whole, of sterility and of blighted progeny. Initially, the world of the play does indeed seem to promise fertility and growth, as Duncan says to Macbeth, ‘Welcome hither. / I have begun to plant thee, and will labour / To make thee full of growing’ (I.4.28-30). But soon such images of the cycle of the natural world are perverted as Lady Macbeth advises her husband, ‘look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't’ (I.5.63-4). For her, reminders of the green world occur only in abuse:

                                                                                Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely?


Her use of ‘green’ connotes nausea, not viridescence. Macbeth too will come to revel in the obliteration of the potential for growth, his determination intact ‘though the treasure of nature's germens tumble all together / Even till destruction sicken’ (IV.1.57-9). In his kingdom, Macduff's ‘chickens’ will fall victim to a ‘kite’, and babies will be cooked in the witches' stew.

In contrast, Macbeth's enemies come increasingly to be identified as figures of regeneration and the renewal of fertility. Lennox announces that they come ‘To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds’ (V.2.29-30). While Macbeth laments that ‘my way of life / Is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf’ (V.3.22-3), and threatens to make a hideous parody of the normal processes of fruit-bearing by hanging the messenger on a tree ‘Till famine cling thee’ (V.5.40), Malcolm's army advances with its boughs like the green world come to life to take its revenge on the figure who has threatened it.26 In a final confirmation of his increasing identification with the anti-natural, Macbeth responds to the approach of Birnam wood with an invocation of the apocalypse:

I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o'the world were now undone.—
Ring the alarum bell!—Blow wind, come wrack …


Most noticeably, of course, Macbeth is identified from the outset as an emblem of his sterility by his own childlessness. The apparent contradiction between this and his wife's memories of giving suck has aroused the spilling of much critical ink (the simplest explanation is in fact Shakespeare's awareness that Gruouch, the historical Lady Macbeth, had a son, Lulach the Fool, from an earlier marriage); but its dramatic and thematic functions are clear enough. It allows not only for a stress on the eventual passing of the Scottish throne to the Stuart line, but also for the presentation of Macbeth (and pointedly him, rather than the couple as a whole) as an incarnation of barrenness27—a point often made in production.28

Despite their childlessness, however, there can be no doubt that the Macbeths' relationship is—initially at least—a happy one. Barbara Everett calls them ‘probably Shakespeare's most thoroughly married couple’,29 and as a couple, they function in striking contrast to the Macduffs' marriage, in which the husband inexplicably abandons wife and children in his flight to England, and the wife responds with bitter recrimination and open criticism of him in front of the children. Even when she is most grossly provoked, by Macbeth's extraordinary behaviour in the banquet scene, Lady Macbeth never does this, desperately trying instead to find excuses for him; indeed A. C. Bradley famously remarked that ‘strange and almost ludicrous as the statement may sound, she is, up to her light, a perfect wife’.30 In the theatre, it is customary to present their relationship as an explosively erotic one—indeed, in Philip Franks' production at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in November 1995, Lady Macbeth's backless purple gown was so striking that the actress appeared in it, in character, in the Celebrity Wardrobe column of the Sheffield Star, explaining that it was her ‘seduction outfit’. It is, however, perhaps precisely this sexual charge which proves the undoing of the relationship as well as its distinctive strength, for Lady Macbeth's view of marriage, while in some ways companionate, is also relentlessly premised on sharply drawn sexual distinctions. For her, men are men—exhortations to be a ‘man’, and accusations of failure of manhood, punctuate her exhortations to her husband—and women are Other,31 creatures whose best hope of full achievement lies in being unsexed. Known only by the name of her husband, affectionately remembering her father, Lady Macbeth is fully interpellated into patriarchal ideology. Never seen outside her own house, she even dies within it, and the most horrific of her actions are nevertheless clearly inserted within a framework, however transgressive and paradoxical, which clearly asserts her femininity: even the laying out of the grooms' daggers parodies her ‘proper’ duty of table-setting, and her invocation of darkness is couched in the language of breastfeeding.32 Thus by driving her husband to definitive, ‘manly’ action she has inevitably set in motion the processes which will confine them to radically demarcated separate spheres. Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh notes the extent to which ‘womanhood becomes significantly prominent in Shakespeare's character development of [Lady Macbeth]: she is seen walking in her sleep in her night gown and her talk is all of the perfumes of Arabia’;33 conversely, Coppélia Kahn points to the extent of Macbeth's eventual separation from the world of women when she suggests that when Macduff ‘cows’ his opponent's better part of man ‘it is Macduff's bond with the feminine which triumphs over Macbeth's manly valour’.34 What the Macbeths' relationship shows us, then, is perhaps that when the genders are kept so firmly apart, and when what lies at the heart of marriage is a sexual relationship so clearly predicated on sexual difference, it can work to break down the companionship and union altogether.


The marital relationship in Othello, on the other hand, is, notoriously, by no means so clearly identified as sexual. Nicholas Brooke comments that ‘Macbeth is unique among Shakespeare's tragedies in centring on an intimate marriage (Othello's was never that)’,35 and there has even been extensive critical debate about whether the marriage of Othello and Desdemona ever actually achieves consummation,36 while Stephen Greenblatt has commented perceptively on ‘the syntactic ambiguity’ in Iago's lines ‘to abuse Othello's ear / That he is too familiar with his wife’, where it could as well be Othello himself as much as Cassio who is figured as over-intimate with Desdemona.37 Michael Hattaway, too, notes that even when he is killing Desdemona, Othello can still refer to himself as being yet to ‘pluck her rose’, which, he argues, clearly connotes her virginity.38

It is certainly quite clear that Othello does not unequivocally embrace the married state. He tells Iago:

I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reach'd; for know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth.(39)

In Othello's account, marriage has offered him nothing:40 already Desdemona's social superior because of his royal ancestry, he has merely succeeded in forfeiting his freedom, an action which he figures by reference to the sea, which, throughout the play, will recur as an image of unpredictability, insatiability and instability. The only redeeming feature, it seems, is his ‘love’ for the ‘gentle Desdemona’, and love, in Shakespeare, rarely proves enough to sustain a marriage. Moreover, even Othello's description of his feelings may sound an ominous note; even if ‘gentle’ does not suggest a noticeable rank difference from his own ‘royal’ condition, in this marriage of dissimilarities, it certainly suggests a conditionality in Othello's love, which will endure only as long as he finds her ‘gentle’ (and Desdemona, even more than Shakespeare's other heroines, is a woman whom men are continually finding suspect).41 This is clearly not the language of an eager bridegroom, and even the act of warning his wife of his departure is characterised in terms suggestive of effort and cost: ‘I will but spend a word here in the house’ (I.ii.48).

Interestingly, Desdemona, too, is described by her father as initially averse to marriage:

                    a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage, that she shunn'd
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation


There is a forceful implicit logic to Brabantio's paratactic structure here, for the syntax draws no distinction between the various elements of his list, presenting ‘opposite to marriage’ as precisely the same kind of quality as ‘tender’, ‘fair’ and ‘happy’; the effect is that it, too, becomes an item in his praise of her, implicitly aligning Brabantio himself with his daughter's alleged repugnance to marriage. Iago, also, registers such a dislike, dismissing Cassio as ‘A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife’ (I.i.21), a passage that has aroused much critical debate since the suggestion that Cassio is either married or about to be so never occurs again. Suggestively, the ‘almost’ of Iago's indictment of Cassio is echoed by his assumption that Othello's own marriage may be merely provisional, shown when he questions his general:

                                                                                but I pray, sir,
Are you fast married? For be sure of this,
That the magnificio is much belov'd,
And hath in his effect a voice potential
As double as the duke's; he will divorce you,
Or put upon what restraint, and grievance,
That law (with all his might to enforce it on)
Will give him cable.


The triple alliteration of ‘double’, ‘duke’ and ‘divorce’ may perhaps serve to underline the potential ambiguity of ‘double’, which, in Renaissance English, connotes ‘duplicitous’ as often as ‘duplication’. Moreover, here again syntax and imagery work to disturbing effect. For Iago, ‘divorce’ is envisioned as an alternative to ‘restraint’ and ‘grievance’ which would operate within marriage; and marriage itself is best ‘fast’, although that very ‘fastness’ associates it with precisely the same kind of tethering idea as is present in the ‘enforce'd ‘cable’ of the law which Brabantio might invoke as punishment. Iago's terms are ominous indeed, suggestive of nothing but trouble whatever the outcome may be.

Similar danger signals continue to gather round the couple's unfolding story, to the extent, indeed, that Michael Bristol has brilliantly compared the whole play to the performance of a charivari, a popular ritual performed to deprecate a marriage not to the satisfaction of the community.42 What we hear of their courtship resonates heavily with the language of manipulation: Othello recalls that he ‘Took once a pliant hour, and found good means to draw from her …’ (I.iii.151-2), that he ‘did beguile her of her tears’ (I.iii.156), and, finally, that ‘Upon this hint I spake’ (I.iii.165; my italics in all cases). Brabantio is appalled by what he hears:

If she confess that she was half the wooer,
Destruction light on me, if my bad blame
Light on the man!


The focus of his anger is telling. The hints and counter-hints which characterised the couple's courtship may seem to us to be informed with a mutuality which is profoundly appealing; but Brabantio's point is precisely that there should be no such mutuality in male-female relationships, and while modern sensibilities may disagree, we should be aware that, from one point of view, he is right: in a misogynistic society, what Desdemona has done is dangerous. Her behaviour may have arisen from pleasing motives, but it will lay her open to exactly the kind of misconstruction which will, in fact, dog her whole career. Additionally, she will soon find out that the ‘division’ which she experiences between father and husband is in fact a spurious distinction, since both will operate within the same actantial role of patriarch: as Brabantio warns Othello, demonstrating a degree of same-sex identification which ironically transcends their individual conflict, ‘Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: / She has deceiv'd her father, may do thee’ (I.iii.292-3).

Desdemona responds to her father's accusations in terms strongly reminiscent of Cordelia: ‘My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty’ (I.iii.175-6). To some extent, her argument fails just as Cordelia's had done, since the angry father is not appeased, but it also functions in a different way, for whereas Cordelia did retain a considerable emotional investment in her father, Desdemona's commitment will in practice, be entirely to her husband, and will indeed go further than simple ‘duty’ might prescribe:

So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me


Not only does she press to accompany him; she, as Othello had done earlier, assigns a reason for her love—the performance of love's ‘rites’.43 Where Othello seeks gentleness, Desdemona desires performance; unfortunately, there seems to be a radical mismatch between the couple's expectations of each other and what each offers. Ironically, they might in fact do better to reverse the polarities and value the ‘gentleness’ of Othello and Desdemona's dedication to ‘rites’, in which case they might hope for the kind of eclectic but fulfulling mutual exchanges which characterised the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra—except that they too would find, like Antony and Cleopatra, that theirs is a society which does not easily countenance such failure to adhere to traditional gender roles.

That there is indeed a marked difference in their attitude to love's ‘rites’ is clearly indicated by Othello's response to Desdemona's speech:

Your voices, Lords: beseech you, let her will
Have a free way; I therefore beg it not
To please the palate of my appetite,
Nor to comply with heat, the young affects
In my defunct, and proper satisfation,
But to be free and bounteous of her mind;
And heaven defend your good souls that you think
I will your serious and great business scant,
For she is with me.


There is certainly at least a tolerance of Desdemona's evident sexuality here, and it is easy to hear a standard Renaissance pun on both male and female sexual organs in Othello's plea ‘let her will / Have a free way’. Nevertheless, Othello goes out of his way to discount the influence of his own ‘appetite’ and ‘heat’, which seem (the passage is a notoriously difficult one to construe) to be ‘defunct’ now that he is no longer young. Moreover, when the Duke orders that their departure should take place immediately, Desdemona queries it—‘Tonight, my Lord?’ (I.iii.277), but Othello positively embraces the haste which will, in effect, defer his embracements of Desdemona: ‘With all my heart’ (I.iii.277).

Even when the couple are safely reunited in Cyprus, Othello is still noticeably willing to postpone the moment of consummation:

                                                  If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute,
That not another comfort, like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.


Though the standard pun on ‘die’ certainly enforces a suggestion here that it is the moment of orgasm that he is so impatient for, Othello's persistent efforts to divorce mind and soul from body equally inform ‘die’ with an idea that it is real death, in a classical instance of the Freudian death-wish, that he craves. Desdemona's attitude, though, is once again visibly differentiated from his when she responds, ‘The heavens forbid / But that our love and comforts should increase, / Even as our days do grow’ (II.i.193-5). Here, she takes on the eschatological overtones of Othello's concern with death, fates and souls, but recasts them into the image of the ‘heavens’ which, as well as being the abode of God, are also responsible for the regulation of the cycles of time and weather, so that the image-pattern shifts towards the temporal promise implied by ‘increase’ and ‘grow’.

Desdemona's figures of fertility are, however, doomed even before they are spoken, for in direct opposition to her own vision of beneficent heavens, the audience have already heard of the only kind of fruition that will take place in the play in Iago's triumphant declaration ‘I ha't, it is engender'd; Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light’ (I.iii.401-2). Iago's ‘engendering’ and ‘birth’ will be the play's only examples of parturition, and they, like Frankenstein's monster, will be born of a radical misogyny that seeks persistently to exclude and demonise women. Condemning the whole sex as ‘Players in your housewifery; and housewives in your beds’ (II.i.112), Iago sees sexual misconduct, gender role reversal and sexual failure everywhere he looks: ‘For that I do suspect the lustful Moor / Hath leap'd into my seat’ (I.ii.290-1); ‘Our general's wife is now the general’ (II.iii.305-6); ‘her appetite shall play the god / With his weak function’ (II.iii.37-8). Even his account of Bianca is subtly skewed, when he calls her ‘A housewife that by selling her desires / Buys herself bread and clothes’ (IV.i.94-5); what Bianca actually obtains from the economic transaction may be bread and clothes, but for Iago, what she wants is, perversely, not what she buys but what she sells, and he reads her as motivated not by need but by desire. This is consistent with his usual pattern of imagining an aggressive sexuality for all around him—indeed the vigour with which he describes Cassio's supposed dream-advances to himself (III.iii.424-32) has led many critics to suspect that what is at work is indeed, as Emilia terms it, his ‘fantasy’ (III.iii.303), and that what really motivates him is a repressed homosexual desire for either Othello or Cassio. If such were indeed the case, then his failure to achieve such a liaison would be another instance of the fact that, as the perversion and sterility of his own imagery of birth implies, Iago can only create from what is there already. He can feed desires, but he cannot implant them; he may reap the harvest of Desdemona and Othello's mismatched relationship, but the seeds were sown already.

Throughout the scenes dramatising Iago's manipulation of events, there is in fact a carefully controlled balance between the damage done by his provocation and the damage which the couple bring upon themselves. Iago may prompt Cassio's appeal to Desdemona, but he could hardly have hoped for such a disastrously self-destructive response as Desdemona spontaneously makes to the suggestion:

                                                            my lord shall never rest,
I'll watch him tame, and talk him out of patience;
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift,
I'll intermingle everything he does
With Cassio's suit.


However briefly, Desdemona here is unmistakably proposing to exhibit the stereotypical behaviour of the shrew, and laying herself open, in Renaissance ideologies, to appropriate punishment: unlike Emilia, who obeys her husband even when (as in the case of the handkerchief) his commands are morally dubious, Desdemona is, at least in some sense, wilful.44 She will combine immoderate talking, a standard attribute of both shrew and loose woman, with inappropriate sexual behaviour, for she will talk her husband ‘tame’—i.e. reduce him to impotence. The appearance of such a word in such a context must surely remind us that it might well be Desdemona herself who would be seen, like Kate, as in need of ‘taming’ here. Once again, a gesture of unguarded generosity on Desdemona's part exposes her to serious charges of deviancy and tempts patriarchal wrath.

Desdemona's campaign continues along these unpromising lines when she mounts her attack on Othello. Not satisfied with some signs of softening on his part, she warns him:

                                                  nay, when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficulty,
And fearful to be granted.


What is notable here is Desdemona's insistent use of indicative and future tenses, rather than conditionals: she confidently anticipates a time when she will make such a demand of Othello, and she puts it to him as a test of his love. It is perhaps unsurprising that Othello's own use of the future tense in a rather similar situation suggests that he is already mentally prepared to fail that test:

Excellent wretch, perdition catch my soul,
But I do love thee, and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.


The Arden editor's note says that it would be wrong to read any suggestion of futurity into ‘when’, but the language clearly invites it, as it does again when Othello tells Iago ‘I'll see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove’ (III.iii.194). Certainly he listens to Iago, but his own psychic processes are at work as well. When Iago reminds him, ‘She did deceive her father, marrying you’ (III.iii.210), he immediately assents, ‘And so she did’ (III.iii.212), and he is soon exclaiming, ‘Even then this forked plague is fated to us, / When we do quicken’ (III.iii.280-1). Othello here mentally links conception and cuckoldry, just as when he later tells Desdemona:

This argues fruitfulness, and liberal heart;
Hot, hot, and moist, this hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty; fasting and praying


He has, moreover, given his wife a handkerchief which, in one version of its origins, was deliberately designed to secure the marital chastity of his own parents, which he clearly imagines as threatened (though in that relationship it was the husband who was thought likely to stray). For Othello, it seems, the love of fathers and mothers is likely to deteriorate, and yet sex is always likely to turn husbands and wives into fathers and mothers. Perhaps this is why this play which includes three childless women figures its births as monstrous and hellish, so that even Emilia hopes that Othello's distraction is caused merely by state-matters, ‘And no conception, nor no jealous toy / Concerning you’ (III.iv.154-5).

Emilia in general functions in sustained counterpoint to her husband, defending female sexuality in contrast to his attacks on it, and asserting stoutly, ‘But I do think it is their husbands' faults / If wives do fall’ (I.viii.86-7), a clear and sane articulation of a perspective that does not always seek to make women a focus of blame. Her words will take on a bitter ring, however, in the play's final demonstration of how even Desdemona's best intentions are always vulnerable to indictment: after his wife has sought to exculpate him of her murder, Othello cries savagely, ‘She's like a liar gone to burning hell, / ‘'Twas I that killed her’ (V.ii.130-1). While Emilia dies echoing another ‘lie’ of Desdemona's that was nevertheless profoundly expressive of truth, the Willow Song, Othello reverts to a scale of values that marriage with Desdemona had perhaps barely disrupted. He exclaims:

                              Behold, I have a weapon,
A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier's thigh


‘Weapon’, the idea of ‘itself sustain’ and ‘thigh’ might all suggest, in another context, the penis; but for Othello, the sword has perhaps always been better. His brief marital career disastrously concluded, he reclaims his preferred identification as a soldier. Even when he joins Desdemona on the bed, the presence of Emilia robs the scene of intimacy.

Obviously, events have been precipitated by Iago's lies and manipulations. Nevertheless, the seeds of trouble have been clearly there from the beginning, and they may well be thought to lie primarily in the conflicting sets of expectations which characterise Othello's and Desdemona's approach to their relationship. It is notable that, when Othello comes to believe in Desdemona's infidelity, he finds that he has a positive superfluity of causes to which to attribute her apparent change of heart: he imagines that his colour, his age, his cultural difference and his military background all separate him from her, and indeed in terms of the cultural norms espoused by Shakespeare's own society and in many of his other plays, he has a point. Othello does seem to be old to marry—older than any of the Shakespearean characters who make a successful marriage, with the highly dubious exception of Claudius in Hamlet, and perhaps Paulina and Camillo in The Winter's Tale. He has, notably, not renounced his military career, which Bertram in All's Well needed to do before he could commit himself to his wife; he does indeed find that his differing cultural expectations cause him problems in understanding the probable causes of his wife's behaviour, though he himself does not really understand this until it is too late. And having married as it were in a cultural vacuum, without the support of either her family or his, they find that they have no one to turn to when difficulties begin—there is only Emilia, whose advice is well meant but ill-informed, and Iago, who is out to destroy them.

Shakespeare need not have been a racist to suggest that a marriage between an older black soldier and a young white Venetian woman was unlikely to survive in such circumstances and in such a setting—he need only have been a realist.45 He presents Othello as, in many respects, a dignified, noble figure, and Desdemona as loving and lively; he lets us see what attracted each to the other. But marriage in Shakespeare is above all a social relationship as well as a personal one, and where the social infrastructure is lacking the personal interaction is simply not enough to sustain the bond. If Othello at the outset seems to think that marriage has surprisingly little to offer to him personally, what is abundantly clear throughout the play is that his relationship with Desdemona has nothing at all to offer to the society around it—indeed its first effect was to kill her father, a potent emblem of its failure to feed the community and the needs of the patriarchy.

The patriarchy, however, is amply revenged, for in one sense the failure of the relationship could be said to be little to do with purely personal traits, but to be radically conditioned by the very success with which both Othello and Desdemona had previously inhabited their socially allotted roles. So complete is their interpellation within these that they, as characters, seem completely unaware of the extent to which they conform to such sets of expectations; but on the metatheatrical level the audience is repeatedly reminded of the extent to which both Othello and Desdemona have, as it were, their parts already scripted for them. When Othello speaks of the supposedly authentic, personal experiences of his journeys, the audience will actually hear echoes of the fictional accounts of Sir John Mandeville; when Desdemona talks of ‘taming’, she as a character is oblivious to any intertextual echoes of the earlier play, but we as audience are acutely alive to them. Indeed every act of close reading depends on the belief that the hearer can perceive resonances and themes in the speech of which the fictional speaker himself must be supposed to be unaware. In the cases of Othello and Desdemona, what I think I have heard is unconscious adherence to a psychological pattern which is not purely personal, but social, for it seems to me that each has internalised, in different ways, a set of ideas about female behaviour which read it as always already likely to be deviant.

In Othello's case, this has manifested itself as a fear of commitment—with, arguably, a concomitant fear of consummation and perhaps of conception—and, despite his protestations of not being easily jealous, an underlying readiness to believe in the slanders that a man, and a comrade, tells him about his wife. In Desdemona, the effects seem to me to be both more subtle and more pernicious. Quite unintentionally, Desdemona throughout the play consistently behaves in ways that allow of a hostile construction: openly called ‘whore’, she is also vulnerable to charges of deceit, of being a bad daughter, of being sexually voracious, and of being a shrew; even after her death, when the audience, who are fully convinced of her innocence of adultery, have seen her nobly attempt to shield her husband from blame, we must still hear that husband call her a liar—and indeed we have to agree with the accusation, in a technical sense at least. What Desdemona does, then, is repeatedly find herself inhabiting, as if to the manner born, all the most reductively misogynistic stereotypes that her culture has to offer.46 Whenever she attempts to speak, she is, unwittingly, ‘spoken by’ a socially authorised counter-discourse which labels her and demonises her. If it is true to say that the marriage between Othello and Desdemona is doomed partly by a culture clash, then her culture is, ultimately, at least as deeply implicated as his in the destruction of love and hope. Indeed what one sees in all these four tragedies, where discourses of misogyny and of extreme gender differentiation can be so rapidly and so effectively mobilised, is the self-destructiveness of a cultural reflex that, by demonising feminity, disables men too, dooming both individuals and the mutuality of marriage, along with the green world of fertility and renewal which it represents. Nevertheless, marriage does not function in this tragic world as an ideal to be unequivocally defended: as the greed of the Macbeths, the incest of Claudius and Gertrude, and the elements of disparity between Othello and Desdemona so clearly show, marriage, if it is to be worth anything at all, must always function as a social unit, rather than as a purely personal relationship.


  1. Joanna Montgomery Byles, ‘Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Revenge in Hamlet’, in New Essays on Hamlet, ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning (New York: AMS Press, 1994), pp. 117-34, p. 122.

  2. Carol Thomas Neely also comments on how ‘In the tragedies, maidens become wives’ (Broken Nuptials, p. 22) and on the extent to which ‘disrupted marriages are prominent in many of the tragedies’ (p. 1). Marilyn French similarly remarks that ‘Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies have similar events’ (Shakespeare's Division of Experience [London: Jonathan Cape, 1982], p. 35), while Lawrence Danson comments that ‘in comedy the catastrophe is a nuptial; in tragedy and romance, the nuptial is prologue’ (‘“The Catastrophe is a Nuptial”: The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale’, Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994), pp. 69-79, p. 74.

  3. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. T. J. B. Spencer (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), I.1.20-2. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

  4. Naomi Conn Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 150. Another interesting instance of reading the play in terms of ritual is to be found in Barbara Everett, Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare's Tragedies (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1989), discussing the importance of Lammas (p. 115).

  5. David Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 40.

  6. Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986), p. 60. Christopher Brooke further notes that ‘Shakespeare unrolls at length the betrothal and prepares elaborately for the consummation; but makes shift with the ceremony off-stage’ (The Medieval Idea of Marriage [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991], p. 246).

  7. Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs’, in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 218-35, p. 219.

  8. Dympna Callaghan, ‘The Ideology of Romantic Love: The Case of Romeo and Juliet’, in The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, ed. Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms and Jyotsna Singh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994), pp. 59-101, p. 78. This essay offers a particularly interesting discussion of the play's representation of marriage.

  9. Thomas Moisan, ‘“O Any Thing, of Nothing First Create!”: Gender and Patriarchy and the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’, in In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, ed. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker (Metuchen, NJ and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1991), pp. 113-36, p. 120.

  10. See David Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 166, for contemporary assumptions about this link.

  11. Lynda E. Boose, ‘The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 97 (1982), pp. 325-47, p. 329.

  12. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 10.

  13. Terence Hawkes, Meaning by Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 1.

  14. Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 79 and 82-3. Sharon Ouditt discusses critical approaches to Gertrude which focus on the inappropriateness of her remarriage in ‘Explaining Woman's Frailty: Feminist Readings of Gertrude’, in Theory in Practice: Hamlet, ed. Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996), pp. 83-107, p. 102. See also Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 45, on the play's representation of second marriage.

  15. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982), I.ii.9. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and references will be given in the text..

  16. Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters, p. 72. Diane Elizabeth Dreher (Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare [Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986], p. 61), sees the nunnery scene as a ‘distorted marriage ceremony … an exchange of vows at this point would constitute a legal marriage’.

  17. For interesting comment on Gertrude, see for instance Kay Stanton, ‘Hamlet's Whores’, in New Essays on Hamlet, pp. 167-88, esp. p. 167.

  18. Naomi Conn Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 178. See also Liebler's discussion of tainted marriage rites and the dissolution of distinction, pp. 186-7; Boose (‘The Father and the Bride’, p. 329), points out the extent to which the nunnery scene constitutes a parody of a marriage.

  19. Bridget Gellert Lyons, ‘The Iconography of Ophelia’, English Literary History 44 (1977), pp. 60-74, p. 72.

  20. See Stanton, ‘Hamlet's Whores’, p. 176.

  21. Diane Elizabeth Dreher sees Lear as feeling an ‘emotional need [which] has long been recognized in Christian marriage ceremonies’ (Domination and Defiance, p. 72); see also Boose, ‘The Father and the Bride’, p. 333. Everett (Young Hamlet, p. 79) comments interestingly on Lear's later characterisation of himself as ‘like a smugge Bridegroome’, a term that may perhaps be prompted in part by resentment of the play's actual bridegroom.

  22. For this idea, see Coppélia Kahn, ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear’, in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 33-49, p. 39; Kahn rightly credits the insight to Lynda Boose, who in turn has also commented elsewhere on the absence of mothers from the Lear and Gloucester families (‘“The Getting of a Lawful Race”: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman’, in Women,Raceand Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 35-54, p. 45. On absent mothers, see also Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, p. 104.

  23. William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1972), I.i.11-23. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and references will be given in the text.

  24. See, for instance, Kathleen McLuskie, ‘The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure’, in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 88-108, p. 99. Dreher (Domination and Defiance, p. 71) thinks that Lear prefers Burgundy as a candidate, because he sees him as less of a rival).

  25. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. G. K. Hunter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), I.2.14-15. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and references will be given in the text.

  26. As John Wain asks in his introduction to Macbeth: A Casebook (Macmillan: Basingstoke, 1968, p. 12), ‘Are the green boughs held by the soldiers … related to the May-day dances?’ Malcolm Evans similarly points to the relationship between Macbeth and the forms of popular ritual (Signifying Nothing, 2nd edition [London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989], p. 136).

  27. At III.4.141-3, Macbeth uses a series of phrases which may, perhaps, be suggestive in this connection, saying to his wife, ‘Come, we'll to sleep. My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use. / We are yet but young in deed’. Though OED does not record ‘self-abuse’ as signalling ‘masturbation’ until 1728, its close proximity to ‘hard use’ and ‘deed’, which often has a sexual connotation, might perhaps be thought to work towards an implication of a sterile sex act here. It is at any rate noticeable that Macbeth invites his wife to bed specifically to ‘sleep’.

  28. See, for instance, Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today (London: The Women's Press, 1988), p. 56. Philip Franks' autumn 1995 production at the Sheffield Crucible had an empty pram by the stage throughout.

  29. Young Hamlet, p. 103.

  30. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy [1904] (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1974), p. 316.

  31. For the otherness of women in this play, see also Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Speculations: Macbeth and Source’, in Howard and O'Connor, eds, Shakespeare Reproduced, pp. 242-64, p. 258.

  32. For a suggestive discussion of this see Adelman, Suffocating Mothers p. 135. Adelman suggests that Lady Macbeth may in fact be offering to feed the spirits, if they take her milk as their gall.

  33. Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh, ‘Macbeth: Oedipus Transposed’, Cahiers Elisabéthains, 43 (April 1993), pp. 21-33, p. 28.

  34. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 191.

  35. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, ed. Nicholas Brooke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 19.

  36. See, for instance, Pierre Janton, ‘Othello's Weak Function’, Cahiers Elisabéthains 7 (April 1975), pp. 43-50; T. G. A. Nelson and Charles Haines, ‘Othello's Unconsummated Marriage’, Essays in Criticism 33 (1983), pp. 1-18; Norman Nathan, ‘Othello's Marriage is Consummated’, Cahiers Elisabéthains 34 (1988), pp. 79-82; Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, p. 66; and Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 23.

  37. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 247. For comments along similar lines, though dealing with other parts of the play, see, for instance, Danson, ‘“The Catastrophe is a Nuptial”’, p. 74, and Marianne Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 131.

  38. Michael Hattaway, ‘Fleshing his Will in the Spoil of her Honour: Desire, Misogyny, and the Perils of Chivalry’, Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994), pp. 121-35, p. 132.

  39. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. M. R. Ridley (London: Methuen, 1958; reprinted Routledge, 1989), I.ii.21-8. All further quotations from the play will be from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

  40. Mark Thornton Burnett comments that ‘Marriage is envisaged by Othello as an unexciting responsibility and an unattractive inevitability’ (‘“When you shall these unlucky deeds relate”: Othello and Story-telling’, in Longman Critical Essays: Othello, ed. Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey [Harlow, Essex: Longman, n.d.], pp. 61-71, p. 69).

  41. Some critics share this tendency: see, for instance, Margaret Loftus Ranald, Shakespeare and His Social Context (New York: AMS Press, 1987), pp. 135-52, on Desdemona as failing to adhere to Renaissance ideals of wifely conduct.

  42. Michael D. Bristol, ‘Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello’, in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 75-97.

  43. Juliet Dusinberre, in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975), argues that Desdemona's general outspokenness would be regarded as justifiable within Puritan views on marriage (p. 84); Mary Beth Rose, in The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), argues that ‘Desdemona presents herself to the Senate as a hero of marriage’ (p. 138).

  44. I am indebted here to a lively debate on the electronic discussion group SHAKSPER, initiated by Jacob Goldberg and with subsequent contributions from David Evett, Daniel Lowenstein, Linda Vecchi, Richard Bovard and Sydney Kasten.

  45. Virginia Mason Vaughan comments on the extent to which Desdemona's elopement deviated from the normal marriage practices of the Venetian aristocracy, which were highly formalised and endogamic (Othello: A Contextual History [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], p. 28).

  46. Virginia Mason Vaughan comments ‘Desdemona is a true Venetian; true, that is, to the city's whore image by being unchaste, deceitful, and given to vice’ (Othello, p. 32).

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date winter 1989)

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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 Like It, the disguised Rosalind—although played by a boy—is recostumed in female clothing before she is led onstage by Hymen to rejoin her father and her bridegroom Orlando. With a similar regard for decorum and the social sensibilities of his audience, Shakespeare does not even allow Viola in Twelfth Night to embrace her twin brother Sebastian until she has relinquished her “usurp'd attire” and regained her proper “maiden weeds.” We may well ask, therefore, why in Cymbeline the playwright suddenly changes his habitual practice to a variation of costuming that must suggest a specific meaning associated with Posthumus' resonant lines.

A related problem I wish to consider in this essay is the significance of Arviragus' speech in Act 4, scene 2: “Grow patience! / And let the stinking-elder, untwine / His perishing root, with the increasing vine!” (ll. 58-60). This, too, is a memorable example of vegetation imagery, which needs explanation and which appears to be in some way related to Posthumus' reference to himself as a dying tree and to his wife as the fruit adorning his branches. A study of a popular iconographic convention of the Jacobean period and earlier may help us to answer all of these questions, for, as Dieter Mehl has rightly pointed out, “an important form of the emblematic in drama is the insertion of allegorical scenes or tableaux providing a pictorial commentary on the action of the play, thus creating that mutually illuminating combination of word and picture which is central to the emblematic method.”2

Thomas Combe makes a similar comment in the epistle “To the Reader” of his 1593(?) translation of Guillaume de la Perriere's Le Theatre des bons engins: “where words, though neuer so sensible, do pass the Reader without due consideration, pictures that are especially discerned by the sense, are such helps to the weaknes of common understandings, that they make words as it were deedes, and set the whole substance of that which is offered before the sight and conceipt of the Reader.”3 The reverse can also be true, when spoken words remind us of pictures we have seen.

But while Shakespeare's audience knew symbolic pictures well through the emblem books they studied and meticulously reproduced in their embroidery, on the carved and painted wood panels in their homes, and on their decorative ceilings,4 today we must laboriously reconstruct those once ordinary Renaissance mental associations between the wisdom of the ancients, biblical allusions, and everyday Jacobean life. I am convinced, with others, that the emblem books so treasured by Shakespeare's audience are today among the most reliable dictionaries for deciphering much of the visual and verbal imagery of the period, especially since words alone have multiple meanings and individual emblems do not. For this reason, I shall refer to a number of emblems in this discussion, which will therefore be primarily contextual rather than textual in focus. My purpose is to demonstrate not only the presence of a familiar marriage topos in Cymbeline but to explore as well the significance of the several ways in which Shakespeare varies its use and its meanings in respect to matrimony, politics, and Protestant theology.


Most seventeenth century readers of Greek and Roman poetry, or of Renaissance emblems based on classical sources, would have recognized that Posthumus' affecting words, “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die,” derive from the ancient marriage topos of the elm and the vine. These plants were wedded in antiquity by farmers for the survival and fecundity of the vine. Such once conventional agricultural lore, however, is no longer generally known to modern theater-goers or readers, who are left to contemplate only the aesthetic quality of a sentence that used to have profound meaning. According to the Arden edition of Cymbeline, Tennyson described Posthumus' speech as “among the tenderest lines in Shakespeare,” while Carolyn Spurgeon called it, “Ten words which do more than anything else in the play to bring [Posthumus] in weight and value a little nearer to Imogen” (p. 177 n.). Neither commentator recognized the previously familiar image of a fruitful marriage which is embedded both in Posthumus' words and in the sight of Imogen with her arms entwined about her husband's neck. Since Cymbeline is a play intrinsically concerned with marriage—or with the union between man and woman, between nations, and between heaven and earth—the dramatist really ought to provide some popular and emphatic image of matrimony in the last act to crystallize this pervasive conjugal concept. Shakespeare's visual and verbal reference to the elm and the vine topos does just that.

Peter Demetz' illuminating essay on “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos”5 still remains the most important source of information on this image, and I shall make considerable use of it in this essay, while also offering a few additions and corrections. Unfortunately Demetz is in error when he tells us that “the intimate union of marital elm and bridal vine as a poetic image of blissful marriage” derives from the “Greek epithalamium or Carmen 62 by Catullus, who may have learned it from a lost poem by Sappho” (pp. 521-22). I believe that the most probable original source of the topos is a still extant epigram in the Greek Anthology (IX, 231) by Antipater of Thessalonica: “I am a dry plane-tree covered by the vine that climbs over me; and I, who once fed clusters from my own branches, and was no less leafy than this vine, now am clothed in the glory of foliage not my own. Such a mistress let a man cherish who, unlike her kind, knows how to requite him even when he is dead.”6 Although Antipater's poem suggests that the original Greek agricultural practice was to wed the grapevine to a plane tree rather than to the elm, which was the preferred support in Italy (Demetz, pp. 522-23), the idea of the fruitful female giving new life to the dying male is identical to the image in Carmen 62 by Catullus.

As Demetz rightly points out, however, the first Latin version of the topos occurs in Catullus' so-called “Greek epithalamium” when a group of youths argue the case for marriage against a group of maidens who prefer the preservation of virginity (p. 521). They employ the following analogy to the cultivation of the grape:

As an unwedded vine which grows up in a bare field never raises itself aloft, never brings forth a mellow grape, but bending its tender form with downward weight, even now touches the root with topmost shoot; no farmers, no oxen tend it: but if it chance to be joined in marriage to the elm, many farmers, many oxen tend it: so a maiden, whilst she remains untouched, so long is she aging untended; but when in ripe season she is matched in equal wedlock, she is more dear to her husband and less distasteful to her father.7

The youths take a one-sided masculine viewpoint when they insist that the elm uplifts and makes the vine fertile, while Ovid, as we shall later see, emphasizes the mutual benefit of the marriage to both parties. Further echoes of this same marital image may be found in such Augustan poets as Horace, Vergil, and Quintilian (Demetz, p. 523).

The elm and vine topos was also employed by the early Christians as a “theological type.” According to Demetz, “In the centuries before the advent of Christianity, the vine and the grape symbolized fertility, and with fertility an afterlife sustained by vegetative permanence; early Christian art and literature made grape and vine refer to a transcendental and spiritual kind of immortality” (p. 524). This notion was legitimized by Psalm 128:3 (“Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house”) in the Old Testament, and by verse 1 of John 15 in the New Testament: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” Therefore, Christ was often pictured as a fruitful vine hanging from the cross, and the recurring image of the vine “wedded” to a tree in early Christian sepulchral art is usually understood as a reference to the mystical marriage of Christ and the Church.

The relevance of such traditional Christian symbols to our understanding of Cymbeline has been amply demonstrated by much recent scholarship on the theological subtext of the tragicomedy.8 First, the reign of Cymbeline was important to the Renaissance British historians Raphael Holinshed and John Speed primarily because it coincided with the Pax Romana which preceded the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. In addition, the main plot of the tragicomedy follows the typical morality pattern; it includes the fall of Posthumus to jealousy, his sinful order for his wife's death, his subsequent formal repentance, and his final reunion with his innocent bride, who has assumed the name of Fidele or “faithfulness” as she searches for her lost spouse in the wilderness.9 Even the spectacular descent of Jupiter to Posthumus in 5.4—with a promise of an ultimate reunion with Imogen—is a stage analogue to the nativity of Christ, since the name of Jove was an accepted euphemism for the Christian God in a theater forbidden by law to dramatize theology.10 And finally, the marriage between man and woman was and still is regarded by the Church of England as a symbolic reflection of Christ's spiritual marriage to his congregation or the Church (Ephesians 5).11 Thus the allusion to the marriage topos of the elm and the vine in Posthumus' speech must include spiritual as well as physical associations, particularly since the hero refers to his bride as “my soul.”

In his brief but illuminating “History,” Demetz traces the rediscovery of the classical elm and vine motif in the Renaissance by such humanist writers as Jovannus Pontanus, who used it in his De Amore Coniugali, and by the Dutch Neo-Latin writer Joannes Secundus (pp. 526-27), but surprisingly he overlooks the even more obvious and influential example of Desiderius Erasmus, who employed the same marriage topos in his colloquy “Proci et Puellae.” This charming courtship dialogue was translated into English in 1568 as A Modest Meane to Marriage by N. L., thought to be Nicholas Leigh, and is at least an analogue, if not a direct source, of Shakespeare's dialogue on virginity between Helena and Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well (1.1.106-86).12 Erasmus' young lover in A Modest Meane to Marriage attempts to possess his sweetheart by asking “whether it is a better sight for a vine to lye vppon the grounde and rot, or the same to embrace a poale, or an elme, and lode it full with purple grapes.”13 Since the vine must indeed be supported in some way if it is to produce a healthy crop of fruit, by analogy the human husband offers similar support to his bride and becomes in turn the trunk of the family tree.

As Demetz observes, the topos later became a familiar symbol of an ideal marriage among the English poets of the Renaissance, including Milton, who has the still innocent Adam and Eve “marry” the elm and the vine in Book 5 of his Paradise Lost (p. 527):

                                                                                they led the Vine
To wed her Elm; she spous'd about him twines
Her marriagable arms, and with her brings
Her dow'r th' adopted Clusters, to adorn
His barren leaves.

(ll. 215-19)

The image also appears in Spenser's Faerie Queene I.1.8 as “the vine propt elme,” in Sidney's Arcadia (Dicus: Epithalamium, stanza 2), and in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, this time in conjunction with its opposite form—the tree and the parasitical ivy—which symbolizes lust (Demetz, pp. 527-29). Meeting the wrong Antipholus in the streets of Ephesus, Adriana believes he is her husband and addresses him as follows:

Come, I will fasten on this sleeve of thine:
Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to a stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate:
If aught possess thee from me, it is dross,
Usurping ivy, brier, or idle moss;
All for want of pruning, with intrusion
Infect thy sap, and live on thy confusion.


The adulterous nature of Titania's embrace of Bottom, a mortal, in A Midsummer Night's Dream is indicated by the moon goddess's comparison of herself not with the vine but with “the female ivy [which] so / Enrings the barky fingers of the elm” (4.1.43-44). Obviously, Shakespeare knew the topos well, as did Ben Jonson, who made this image the center of a battle between the allegorical figures of Truth and Opinion in his 1606 court masque Hymenaei, or, the Solemnities of Masque and Barriers at a Marriage (Demetz, p. 527).


Jonson's masque is of particular importance because it celebrated the marriage of Sir John Hay, a Scottish favorite of Shakespeare's royal patron James I, with Honora, daughter of the English Lord Denny. Glynne Wickham reminds us that in Cymbeline Shakespeare also honored the Hay family by retelling the famous story of Hay's ancestors, the old man and the two boys who held a narrow lane against the invading Danes, as narrated in Holinshed's The Description & History of Scotland.14 Furthermore, Jonson's personification of Truth in Hymenaei makes a comment similar to Arviragus' later contrast between the “perishing root” and the “increasing vine” in Cymbeline:

For as a lone vine, in a naked field,
Never extols her branches, never bears
Ripe grapes, but with a headlong heaviness wears
Her tender body, and her highest sprout
Is quickly levell'd with her fading root;
By whom no husbandman, no youths will dwell;
But if by fortune, she be married well
To the elm her husband, many husbandmen
And many youths inhabit by her, then.(15)

Jonson's “Fading root” and Arviragus' reference to a “perishing root” (4.2.60) seem very close indeed, unless one agrees with J. M. Nosworthy that Shakespeare used the word “perishing” in the sense of the third definition of “perish” in the OED to mean “destructive” (Arden ed., p. 121n.). But such a reading would, I believe, spoil the antithesis between “perishing” as “dying” and “increasing” as “growing” or “multiplying”—that is, the poetic antithesis between death and life.

I wish to suggest, therefore, that in Act 4, scene 2 of Cymbeline, Arviragus' wish for a divorce of the elder tree from the vine should be understood as an original Shakespearean counter-topos to the elm and the vine. The scene begins with Imogen's complaint of sickness. However, the savage boys see her as a physician who has kept them well through her knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants or pot-herbs:

But his neat cookery! he cuts our roots in characters,
And sauced our broths, as Juno had been sick,
And he her dieter.
                                                                                Nobly he yokes [or marries]
A smiling with a sigh; as if the sigh
Was that it was, for not being such a smile;
The smile mocking the sigh, that it would fly
From so divine a temple, to commix
With winds that sailors rail at.


There is a sharply drawn antithesis here between sighing and smiling, which will then be transformed by Guiderius into the two basic qualities of human life, grief and patience, and finally by Arviragus into the emblematic form of these qualities, the elder tree (death) and the vine (life). In fact, we are warned to look for an emblematic meaning in the passage when Guiderius says “he cut our roots in characters,” since the word “characters” can mean both letters and visual images or emblems.16

Guiderius continues the contrast between sighs and smiles as follows:

                                                                                I do note
That grief and patience, rooted in them both,
Mingle their spurs together.
                                                                                                              Grow patience!
And let the stinking-elder, grief, untwine
His perishing root, with the increasing vine!


At this point the villain Cloten, who has caused much of Imogen's grief, enters in search of her and is beheaded by Guiderius in what we may interpret as an act of pruning at least one of the lateral roots (spurs) of grief.

Indeed Cloten's headless corpse soon becomes the central image in a theatrical Shakespearean emblem in Act 4, scene 2. Awakening from her counterfeit sleep of death, Imogen shrinks back from the flower-strewn body next to her. But instead of screaming, she interprets what she sees in the form of a subscriptio to an emblem: “These flowers are like the pleasures of the world; / This bloody man, the care on't” (296-97), or human grief. The audience sees Imogen herself still next to the supine corpse but presumably sitting up, or alive and growing—the stage image of “increasing” patience confronting death and grief.

But to return to the earlier lines of the marriage of patience with the elder tree (4.2.56-60), we should note that Shakespeare is not only referring here to a personification of forbearance and long-suffering endurance such as Viola envisions with her famous description in Twelfth Night, “She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief” (2.4.114-15), and such as Imogen acts out in Act 4, scene 2. Guiderius and Arviragus are also speaking of a plant, for in Cymbeline, patience seems to mean two different things at the same time: forbearance and an edible plant or docke (rhubarb) called Rumex patientia. The bark and roots of patience and of the elder were used both as purgatives and as healing poultices, although the herbalist John Gerarde warns that the elder purges “not without trouble and hurt to the stomacke.”17 Of patience, he tells us that “The Monkes Rubarbe is called in Latine Rumex satiuus, and Patientia, or Patience, which word is borrowed of the French, who call this herbe Pacience: after whom the Dutch men name this pot herbe also Patientie: of some Rhabarbarum Monachorum, or Monkes Rubarbe: bicause as it should seeme some Monke or other haue vsed the roote heereof instead of Rubarbe” (p. 314). If powdered and added to wine, patience may also be used to ease internal illnesses. According to Gerarde: “The decoction of Monkes Rubarbe is drunke against the bloudie flixe, the laske, the wambling of the stomacke which commeth of choler: and also against the stinging of serpents as Dioscorides writes” (p. 314). The plant patience can therefore be the exact opposite from a purge, acting instead like a soothing dose of Pepto-Bismol, so to speak, and an efficacious remedy as well against the sting of a serpent or against evil itself.

The “stinking-elder,” on the other hand, is associated with the betrayal and subsequent suicide of Judas, as Edward Dowden notes in his 1903 edition of Cymbeline. Dowden also points out that “Pliny names elder props as suitable for vines, but does not name the elder as a living tree for vine-support” and that “Gerarde mentions ‘stinking’ in his description of the elder.”18 Indeed, Gerarde does state that “the leaues consist of fiue or sixe particular ones fastened to one rib, like those of the Walnut tree, but euery particular one is lesser, nicked in the edges, and of a ranke and stinking smell” (p. 1233). But even more interesting for this discussion is Gerarde's later description of the jagged elder, which is identical to the common elder tree except for the leaves, “which doth so much disguise the tree and put it out of knowledge, that no man would take it for a kinde of Elder, vntil he had smelt thereunto, which will quickly shew from whence he is descended” (p. 1234). We may remember that the lustful Cloten also gave forth a bad odor, a fact that the courtiers mention twice in Cymbeline. In 1.3, the First Lord advises Cloten to change his shirt after his swordplay with Posthumus, since “the violence of action hath made you reek as a sacrifice: where air comes out, air comes in: there's none abroad so wholesome as that you vent” (ll. 1-4). The Second Lord comments later in 2.1 that Cloten, who desires to marry his stepsister Imogen, smells “like a fool” (l. 16), and thus further associates the wicked Queen's son with a traitorous “stinking-elder” which must be untwined from the roots of the fruitful vine or Imogen.

We know, of course, that Shakespeare was aware of the tradition that Judas had hanged himself on an elder tree, since he punned on this very bit of arcane information in the early comedy Love's Labor's Lost. Holofernes tells Berowne to “Begin, sir, you are my elder,” to which Berowne replies, “Well follow'd: Judas was hang'd on an elder” (5.2.605-06). In Cymbeline, therefore, the reference to the elder is another of many carefully sown allusions to the approaching birth and sacrifice of Christ, whose resurrection will overcome the grief of believers and will serve as a promise of the life to come. Yet perhaps we should note as well that the scholarly Gerarde did his best to dispel this popular myth of the elder tree in his entry for the Arbor Iuda, which he said “may be called in English Iudas tree, whereon Iudas did hang him selfe, and not vpon the Elder tree, as it is saide” (p. 1240).19

Unfortunately, none of these herbal metaphors is of any use to the love-sick Imogen, whose illness increases to the point where she finally decides to take some of the queen's medicine which Pisanio has given her. Although Imogen then appears to die from what her stepmother had intended to be a deadly poison, soon afterwards the heroine revives once the drug wears off, in imitation both of Christ and of the pruned grapevine.


In Cymbeline the false marriage described by Arviragus between smiles and sighs, the vine and the elder tree, is ultimately superseded by the true marriage of the elm and the vine in 5.5. When Posthumus and Imogen embrace, the husband invites his bride to “Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die” (263-64). Thus Shakespeare is probably the first dramatic poet to literalize the metaphor through a stage embrace, although Demetz mistakenly credits the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist in The Prince of Homburg with being the first to use this emblematic stage image:

the topos is transformed by the instincts of the playwright into pure theatrical effect and leads up to what early nineteenth-century stage technique considers a tableau. On the wooden quadrangle of the stage the Prince is transformed, as it were, into an elm by putting one of his arms around the Princess' body like a supporting branch … ; and Natalie, for her part, fully aware of this essentially connubial gesture, clings like the vine to his breast. … At this intense moment, the literary topos has abruptly been changed into pure pantomime, which speaks through ritual gestures rather than with mere words.

(p. 531)

I would have to argue that von Kleist—probably, like most German Romantics, an admiring reader of Shakespeare—could have discovered his theatrical literalization of the elm and vine topos in the English playwright's Cymbeline. For here Posthumus is self-consciously the supporting elm, and says so in “mere words,” while Imogen is the fruitful vine who, at this point, rather fiercely clings to him.

We still must deal, however, with the problem of Imogen's masculine disguise, which gives a strange cast to this Jacobean stage literalization of the marriage topos. Here Shakespeare may have arranged his visual image very deliberately in order to say something new about marriage itself. The emblem he gives us onstage is no longer that of woman as a clinging vine, no matter how fruitful, but of woman as an equal who has the strength and fortitude to sustain the elm after it dies, even as the tree now supports the vine. Indeed the sight of two men embracing onstage would normally suggest to a Renaissance audience not marriage but friendship.

The source for this transvaluation of the marriage topos into a symbol of friendship was the widely read Emblemata by Andrea Alciati, a book first published in Augsburg in 1531 (Demetz, p. 525). Alciati's emblem, … which is based on the motto “Amicitia etiam post mortem durans,” or “Friendship outlasting death,” depicts a fruitful vine supported by the branches of a dying elm.20 The Latin verse reads as follows in a recent English translation:

The elm withering because of old age and bare of leaves,
the shady foliage of the green grape-vine has embraced.
It acknowledges the changes of nature, and grateful to its parent
renders the mutual rights of service, and by its own
example it advises us to seek such friends,
as the last day, death would not separate from the pact of friendship.(21)

The German Protestant emblematist Joachim Camerarius, correctly observing that Alciati had borrowed his idea from both the Greek Anthology and Catullus, included a similar emblem … in his own Symbolorum et Emblematum ex re Herbaria Desumtorum Centuria una Collecta of 1559 (with many later editions) under the motto “Amicus Post Mortem.”22 His subscriptio reads “Quamlibet arenti vitis tamen haeret in ulmo: / Sic quoque post mortem verus amicus amat,” which Henry Green translates, “Yet as it pleases the vine clings to the withered elm, / So also after death the true friend loves.”23

In England this distinctly humanistic emblem of friendship first appeared in the 1586 edition of Geffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes, a book almost certainly known to Shakespeare. Whitney's inscriptio, or motto, is “Amicitia etiam post mortem durans.” The pictura … illustrates a fruitful vine embracing a leafless elm, while the subscriptio reads as follows:

A Withered Elme, whose boughes weare bare of leaues
          And sappe, was sunke with age into the roote:
A fruictefull vine, vnto her bodie cleues,
Whose grapes did hange, from toppe vnto her foote:
          And when the Elme, was rotten, drie, and dead,
          His braunches still, the vine abowt it spread.
Which showes, wee shoulde be linck'de with such a frende,
That might reuive, and helpe when wee bee oulde:
And when wee stoope, and drawe vnto our ende,
Our staggering state, to helpe for to vphoulde:
          Yea, when wee shall be like a sencelesse block,
          That for our sakes, will still imbrace our stock.(24)

Whitney's emblem reverses the sexes of the elm and the vine, making the elm female and the vine male, probably to emphasize the friendship aspect of his version and to dissociate the vine from the idea of a fruitful wife. This new masculine vine could be a faithful human friend, Christ as a spiritual friend, or both. The reader makes his own associations.

Shakespeare's image onstage of two males embracing takes Whitney's sexual reversal into account but still fundamentally retains the elm as the husband and the vine as the wife. At the same time gender becomes curiously inconsequential. The audience knows that the true Imogen is not a man, although the actor playing the role of Imogen is indeed male. Through such multiplied ambiguities, Shakespeare forces his audience to see through his provocative image onstage in order to interpret it for themselves, just as the Protestant emblematists expected their often borrowed mottos and picturas to be translated in the light of their newly written verses or subscriptios. As Huston Diehl cogently argues,

English emblem books … reinforce the Protestant belief in the necessity of interpretation and speak to the new concern for the epistemological process. They force their readers to confront the disparity between signifier and signified and at the same time to pursue the analogous relationship between disparate things, between image and the invisible thing it signifies. The emblematic image stimulates the reader to seek what is absent and invisible; it thus serves as an intermediary between the physical and the spiritual worlds. The enigmatic quality of the emblem enhances its function as a sign. … The emblematic image insists on being translated and transformed.25

Even as Shakespeare calls our attention to a new Protestant marital relationship with the stage embrace of Posthumus and Imogen, his ambiguities of gender in the theatrical image also remind his audience of the analogy between marriage itself and the spousal union of Christ with His Church. Indeed the entire play, as others have pointed out, demands that we see through its words and action to the invisible event of the Nativity which is soon to occur.

Transformations of the elm and the vine image continue within the emblem tradition as well. Cesare Ripa, for example, includes a different variation of “Amicitia” in his enormously popular Iconologia. The pictura in the 1603 edition shows the wedded elm and vine further embraced by a lady in white. Ripa's explanation of what is now a personification rather than a visual symbol of friendship, recalls the conventional marriage of the dead elm and the living vine, and then summarizes commonplace attitudes of the Renaissance toward friendship. Since there is no English edition of Ripa easily available, I will quote a translation of the passage in full:

A lady dressed in white, but roughly, so as to show the shoulder and bare breast, pointing with the right hand to the heart, on which will be a motto in golden letters, thus: LONGE, ET PROPE [Far and Near]; and on the hem of the dress will be written, MORS, ET VITA [Death and Life]. She will be rumpled, and on her head there will be a garland of myrtle and of pomegranate blossoms intertwined; on her forehead will be written: HEIMS, AESTAS (Winter, Summer).

She will be rumpled, and with the left arm she will hold a dead elm tree, which will be encircled by a living vine. Friendship, according to Aristotle, is a mutual, express and reciprocal benevolence guided by virtue and by reason among men who have similar backgrounds and characters. The white and rough vestment is the simple candidness of spirit, by which true love is seen to be far removed from any sort of deceit or artful smoothness.

She shows the left shoulder and bare breast, attaching to the heart the motto, Longe & prope, because the true friend, whether near by or far from the beloved person, is never separated in his heart; and in spite of the passage of time and fortune, he is always ready to live and die for the sake of friendship, and this is what the mottos on the hem of the dress and the forehead signify. But if it [friendship] is feigned, then, at the slightest change of fortune, you will see it vanish like the morning dew. Being rumpled, and having the garland of myrtle with the pomegranate blossoms, shows that the fruit of love and of the inner union reconciles and spreads abroad the sweet odor of its example of honorable actions, and this without vanity of pompous show, under which very often adulation is born [italics added], the enemy of this virtue.

She is depicted barefoot, likewise, to show readiness, or speed, and that in the service of the friend one should not prize comforts: as Ovid says on the art of love: Si rota defuerit, tu pede carpe viam [If wheels are lacking, make your way on foot]. Finally, she embraces a dead elm encircled by a living vine, in order to make it known that friendship begun in prosperity ought to endure always, and that the greater need should be friendship more than ever, if one remembers that there is no friend so useless that he does not know how to find some way or other to pay the obligations of friendship.26

All this sounds like a description of Imogen herself. And Ripa's contrast between friendship and “adulation” or adoration is equally significant in the light of both Posthumus' and Imogen's early insistence in Cymbeline that they adore one another as divinities rather than knowing, trusting, and loving one another as friends.

Since the word “friend” when applied to a woman meant “mistress’ to the Jacobeans, Posthumus pompously informs his companions in Rome—then considered by Protestants to be the center of religious idolatry—that “I profess myself her / adorer, not her friend” (1.5.65-66). This worshipful attitude would seem to be a shaky foundation for a happy marriage. Imogen is similarly foolish when she believes Iachimo's flattering description of Posthumus in 1.7: “He sits 'mongst men like a descended god; / He hath a kind of honour sets him off, / More than mortal seeming” (ll. 169-71). Moreover, she later becomes grotesquely absurd when she compares the corpse of Cloten, which she mistakes for that of Posthumus, to Mercury, Mars, Hercules, and even to Jove. The shrewd Italian tempter Iachimo was quite right in suspecting that Posthumus and Imogen did not yet have a mature understanding of one another or of marriage itself: “I have spoke this,” says Iachimo, “to know if your affiance / Were deeply rooted” (1.7.163-64; italics added), which it clearly was not. During the course of the play, therefore, the idolatrous lovers must die to one another and to their own immature selves before they can be reborn into the true matrimony symbolized by the embrace of the elm and vine.

Echoing the beautiful “love is strong as death” passage in The Song of Songs 7:6, Shakespeare's contemporary, the Dutch emblematist Otto van Veen also includes a version of Alciati's emblem on friendship in his multi-lingual Amorvm Emblemata or Emblemes of Love published in 1608. Van Veen's motto is “Loue after death,” while his subscriptio or verse assures us that

The vyne doth still embrace the elm by age ore-past,
Which did in former tyme those feeble stalks vphold,
And constantly remaynes with it now being old.
Loue is not kild by death, that after death doth last.(27)

The pictura … of the emblem shows a dying man at the base of the withered elm, an arrow in his heart; but—he is tenderly supported by the divine archer himself: Amor. Although the notion of a supportive friendship up to and after death should certainly be understood on the literal level, van Veen's emblem again reminds us that the topos extends to the realm of theology as well. In this sense the true friend referred to in all the Amicitia emblems is both an earthly friend who will care for our children after we have died and a spiritual friend, Christ or the Love God Himself, who will uplift our souls in the life to come.

Shakespeare seems to combine all of these meanings in his verbal allusion to the elm and the vine topos in Cymbeline and in his visual literalization of the image onstage. The fact that Imogen, or the bride, is still dressed as a boy when the spouses embrace serves to emphasize the need for a faithful Platonic friendship between man and wife, in addition to the conventional feelings of romantic love and sexual desire. It suggests as well that marriage is a coupling between social equals who pledge mutual support up to and after death, although the husband, of course, always remained “head” of the Christian household.

Jeanne Addison Roberts has recently expressed a similar interpretation of Shakespeare's enlightened view of matrimony in her analysis of The Taming of the Shrew as a work very probably indebted to the image of another popular Renaissance marriage topos, the hermaphrodite, which derives from Ovid's Metamorphoses.28 There is in fact a Protestant emblem by Mathias Holzwart (emblem 35 under the motto “Amor coniugalis”) which combines the elm and the vine image with a matrimonial couple depicted as an hermaphrodite … and praises the wife as “partner in joy and sorrow.”29 At any rate, in Act 5 Posthumus consciously relinquishes his former role in the play—that of idolater and jealous husband. Even though he still believes Imogen has been unfaithful to him, he generously forgives her “For wrying but a little” (5.1.5). To be sure, magnanimity toward a friend is emotionally less difficult than magnanimity toward a straying sexual partner, and it was one of the virtues commonly taught to men of honor. But Posthumus is more than magnanimous here; he offers all of himself as a sacrifice to love, in imitation of the Savior soon to be born and in imitation of the dying elm which still supports the vine: “I'll die / For thee, O Imogen, even for whom my life / Is, every breath, a death” (5.1.25-27).

The original inspiration for Shakespeare's variation of the marriage topos to include mutuality and friendship may have come, like so much else in the canon, from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Like Catullus, Ovid also mentions the marriage of the elm and the vine. In the story of Pomona and the love-sick viticulturist Vertumnus, the poet writes,

There was an elm tree opposite, a lovely sight to see, with its bunches of shining grapes, and this the god praised, and its companion vine no less. “But,” he said, “if this tree trunk stood by itself, and was not wedded to the vine, it would be of no interest to anybody, except for its leaves. Moreover, the vine is supported by the elm to which it has been united, whereas if it had not been so married, it would lie trailing on the ground.”30

In answer to the self-serving youths of Catullus' “Greek Epithalamium,” Ovid reminds us here of the entire equation—that, if the unsupported vine is of no interest to anyone, neither is the unadorned elm. The freedom of bachelorhood is as sterile and useless as perpetual virginity. Marriage is the natural and fruitful state for mature men and women in the garden of the world, as Protestant clerics never tired of pointing out during Shakespeare's lifetime.31

Furthermore, friendship as the basis for a good marriage was an equally important sixteenth-century Protestant theme which Shakespeare appears to emphasize in Cymbeline. Despite all their subsequent troubles, Posthumus and Imogen, friends since childhood, have freely chosen one another in defiance of the king and have entered into a marriage of mutual love. According to Robert Cleaver, writing in 1598, “Mutuall loue hauing his beginning of godlinesse and true vertue, maketh the husband and wife not to be too sharpe sighted in spying into one anothers faults: but that many things either they marke not, or if they marke them, they couer them with loue.”32 Although Posthumus ignores the first part of Cleaver's advice and does spy on Imogen, an amazing quality of love ultimately saves the marriage of Shakespeare's young couple, who mature before our eyes from idolatrous lovers of the Petrarchan mode into ideal, patient, and forgiving Protestant spouses.33

Imogen herself reveals no precise turning point in her understanding of marital love, as does Posthumus in his repentance scene. Nevertheless, by the end of Cymbeline, she is as magnanimous toward the husband who ordered her death as he has finally been toward her imagined infidelity. She recognizes Posthumus dressed as an invading Roman soldier and forgives this obvious political betrayal. She forgives as well his earlier personal betrayal of marital trust and friendship, treacheries which are analogous to the archetypal betrayal of Christ by Judas. Indeed it is very doubtful that in real life any woman could be so forgiving. In a similar manner, although Posthumus at first does not recognize his bride at all in her masculine disguise, he does at last see her as both his physical wife and as his forgiving spiritual friend, who will adorn his trunk with greenery and fruit for the rest of his life and beyond.

Dressed in male clothing, Imogen is no longer merely a clinging female vine supported by her “lord” (or husband-farmer), who has self-righteously—and correctly, according to the usual agricultural metaphor of marriage—assumed life and death rights over her. She is finally accepted in public as a human and living symbol of divine friendship and of Posthumus' own immortal soul. Thus with the help of Ovid, Alciati, and the Protestant theologians of his time, Shakespeare seems to have arrived here at a poetic criticism of the hidden agricultural metaphor in the term “husband” itself as applied to human life and has substituted the notion of mutually supportive friendship as a superior ideal for matrimony. Only God has the rights of a gardener or husbandman over human affairs.

And since marriage was itself a popular metaphor of the relationship between the king and his country, the political ramifications of this subtle metamorphosis in Cymbeline of the old agricultural metaphor, with its insinuation of dependency and of life and death rights of the husband over the wife for the sake of fruitfulness, to a metaphor of mutually supportive friendship in the political life of the nation, are breathtaking. Indeed vegetation symbolism in general was widely used to signify rebirth and reform, according to Gerhart B. Ladner.34 And there can be no doubt that the poet Shakespeare was fully aware of the politcal aspects of the elm and the vine topos. He had already used the motif in his previous Jacobean play Macbeth (c. 1606) to contrast the tentative relationship between Duncan and the newcomer Macbeth with the enduring relationship between Duncan and his true heir, Banquo, the ancestor of James I of England. In Act 1, Duncan receives Macbeth's homage formally and without embracing him: “Welcome hither! / I have begun to plant thee, and will labor to make thee full of growing.” To his kinsman, however, the royal husbandman is considerably more effusive: “Noble Banquo,” he says, “That hast no less deserv'd, nor must be known / No less to have done so, let me infold thee / And hold thee to my heart.” Accepting his role as the fruitful vine supported by the elm, Banquo gracefully replies, “There if I grow, / The harvest is your own” (1.4.27-33).35 In the tragedy of Macbeth the subject must accept the submissive role of a wife to the royal husbandman.

But in Cymbeline the embrace of Posthumus and Imogen, now symbolizing, as I have suggested, mutual support and the friendship of equals, is the last we hear or see of the elm and the vine in this play. Reconciled in Act 5 with his two wrongly banished courtiers, Cymbeline first substitutes a greeting of human equality for the agricultural metaphor in his reinstatement of Belarius: “Thou art my brother; so we'll hold thee ever” (5.5.400; italics added). The king then accepts the previously despised Posthumus into the royal family with the words, “We'll learn our freeness of a son-in-law: / Pardon's the word to all” (5.5.422-23). “Freeness” here means generosity in forgiveness, which is quite different from either pruning or harvesting and suggests the possibility of a new kind of political rule corresponding to the Protestant ideal of a good Christian marriage. Tracts of the period exhort the husband to be a leader and a teacher, rather than a tyrant, while the wife is now considered to be a willing “Helper” in the formation of a well-governed household (Cleaver, p. 159). Well-governed households, in turn, were understood to be analogous with well-governed kingdoms.

Cymbeline ends with a royal proclamation of peaceful union between man and wife, peace between the king and those he has exiled, peace between Britain and Rome, and peace between heaven and earth. As the king himself announces, “Never was a war did cease / (Ere bloody hands were wash'd) with such a peace” (5.5.485-86).36


  1. William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. J. M. Nosworthy, Arden Edition (London, 1955; rpt. 1979). All references will be noted parenthetically in the text.

  2. “Emblems in English Renaissance Drama,” Renaissance Drama 2 (1962), 46.

  3. The Theater of Fine Devices (1614), sigs, A5 and A5v. Italics added.

  4. See, for example, the embroidered bed hangings and cushion covers by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick; the wood panelling with beautifully carved versions of Alciati's emblems now in the Summer Room at University College in Oxford (panelling removed from a sixteenth-century Oxford house); the plaster ceiling decorated with emblems by Henry Peacham in the long gallery at Blickling Hall, Norfolk; and Lady Drury's elaborate Painted Closet now at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. Samuel Daniel published a note from one N. W. in his 1585 English translation of Paolo Giovio's treatise on how emblems were often used in interior decoration for personal statements during the Elizabethan period:

    A friend of mine whom you know, M. P. climing for an Egles nest, but defeated by the mallalent of fortune, limned in his studie a Pine tree striken with lightning, carying this mot. Il mio sperar, which was borowed also from Petrarch. Allor che fulminato e morto giaacque il mio sperar che tropp' alto mintana. Yet in despight of fortune he deuised also a Pinnace or small Barke, tossed with tempestious stormes, and in the sail was written expectanda dies, hoping as I think for one sunne shine day to recompence so many glomy and winter months (no sig.).

  5. “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos,” PMLA 73 (1958), 521-32; hereafter referred to parenthetically.

  6. The Greek Anthology, Vol. III, trans. W. R. Paton, The Loeb Classical Library (London, 1917), pp. 121-23.

  7. The Poems of Catullus, trans. F. W. Cornish, The Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1918), p. 89.

  8. See J. P. Brockbank, “History and Histrionics in Cymbeline,Shakespeare Survey II (1958), 42-44; Robin Moffet, “Cymbeline and the Nativity,” Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962), 207-18; Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Romance (Princeton, N. J., 1972), p. 181; Robert Grams Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965); and Homer D. Swander, “Cymbeline: Religious Idea and Dramatic Design,” Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene, Ore., 1966), pp. 256-57.

  9. Robert Grams Hunter summarizes Cymbeline's structure as follows: “The play belongs to that type of romantic comedy in which love is tested, in which, temporarily, one of the lovers fails the test, in which the lovers must undergo an ordeal as a result of that failure, and in which, finally, the ordeal is survived and the lovers—one penitent, one forgiving—are reunited.” See Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, p. 144.

  10. See Peggy Muñoz Simonds, “Jupiter, His Eagle, and BBC-TV.” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter (December 1985), p. 3. Even Dante and Petrarch used Jupiter as a symbol of the Christian deity, who is still often evoked euphemistically as “Jove” in upperclass English speech.

  11. See Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 10, 145.

  12. The relationship is briefly footnoted by G. K. Hunter in the Arden edition of All's Well. See p. 9n; p. 10n; and p. 12n.

  13. Desiderius Erasmus, A Modest Meane to Marriage, trans. N. L., 1568, sig. B 8.

  14. “Riddle and Emblem: A Study in the Dramatic Structure of Cymbeline,” in English Renaissance Studies: Presented to Dame Helen Gardner on her 70th Birthday (Oxford, 1980), pp. 94-113.

  15. The Works of Ben Jonson, Vol 7, ed. W. Gifford (1816), 8; italics added.

  16. See Arden edition of Cymbeline, p. 120n.

  17. John Gerarde, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), p. 1235; hereafter referred to parenthetically.

  18. William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. Edward Dowden (London, 1903), p. 130, n. 59 and n. 58.

  19. Robert Graves notes in The White Goddess the importance of the elder to the Celtic tree alphabet and its associations with witchcraft, evil, and bad luck:

    The thirteenth tree is the elder, a waterside tree associated with witches, which keeps its fruit well into December. It is an old British superstition that a child laid in an elderwood cradle will pine away or be pinched black and blue by the fairies—the traditional wood for cradles is the birch, the tree of inception, which drives away evil spirits. And in Ireland elder sticks, rather than ashen ones, are used by witches as magic horses. Although the flowers and inner bark of the elder have always been famous for their therapeutic qualities, the scent of an elder plantation was formerly held to cause death and disease. So unlucky is the elder that in Langland's Piers Plowman, Judas is made to hang himself on an elder tree. Spencer couples the elder with the funereal cypress, and T. Scot writes in his Philomythie (1616):

    The cursed elder and the fatal yew
    With witch [rowan] and nightshade in their shadows grew.

    King William Rufus was killed by an archer posted under an elder. The elder is also said to have been the Crucifixion tree, and the elder leaf shape of the funerary flints in megalithic long-barrows suggests that its association with death is long-standing. In English folklore to burn logs of elder “brings the Devil into the house.”

    See The White Goddess, amended and enlarged edition (New York, 1966), p. 185.

  20. Andrea Alciati, Emblemata (Padua, 1621), pp. 676-79.

  21. See Peter Daly, Virginia W. Callahan, and Simon Cuttler, eds., Andreas Alciatus: Index Emblematicus I (Toronto, 1985), emblem 161.

  22. Bk. l, p. 34 (Nuremburg, 1590).

  23. Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London, 1870), p. 308.

  24. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden, 1586), p. 62.

  25. Huston Diehl, “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England,” Renaissance Quarterly 39 (1986), 6l.

  26. Cesare Ripa. Iconologia (Rome, 1603), p. 16. Translated by Roger T. Simonds

  27. Otto van Veen, Amorvm Emblemata or Emblemes of Love (Antwerp, 1608), p. 244.

  28. “Horses and Hermaphrodites: Metamorphoses in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983), 159-80.

  29. Emblematum Tyrocinia: sive Picta Poesis latinogermanica (Strassburg, 1581) sig. s3.

  30. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans, Mary Innes (Baltimore, 1955), Bk. 14, p. 329.

  31. See Henry Smith, ‘A Preparative to Marriage,” The Sermons of Maister Henrie Smith (1593), pp. 1-3; Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, (New York, 1977), pp. 135-36; and Mary Beth Rose, “Moral Conceptions of Sexual Love in Elizabethan Comedy,” Renaissance Drama 15 (1984), 16-19.

  32. A Godly Forme of Householde Government. … (1598), p. 160; hereafter referred to parenthetically.

  33. In respect to what Posthumus calls “the woman's part” in marriage, Robert Cleaver says that ‘“she was ordeined as a Helper, and not a hinderer” (p. 159). He then argues “that women are as men are, reasonable creasures and haue flexible wittes, both to good and euill, the which with vse, discretion, and good counsell, may be altered and turned. And although there be some euill and lewde women, yet that doth no more prooue the malice of their nature, then of men, and therefore the more ridiculous and foolish are they, that haue inveighed against the whole sexe for a few euill: and haue not with like furie vituperated and dispraised all mankind, because part of them are theeues, murtherers, and such like wicked liuers” (p. 160).

  34. “Vegetation Symbolism and the Concept of Renaissance,” Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, I, ed. Millard Meiss (New York, 1961), 303-22.

  35. I quote from the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974). I also wish to express my appreciation to Ann Pasternak Slater for calling my attention to the presence of the elm and vine motif in Macbeth, to Margaret Mikesell for a bibliography of marriage manuals, and to Virginia W. Callahan for information on Alciati's version of the elm and the vine topos.

  36. An early version of this paper was presented to the World Shakespeare Congress in West Berlin, April, 1986. A revised short version was read at the annual meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America in Seattle, April, 1987.

Janet Adelman (essay date 1989)

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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.

Marriage rests on the legitimization of sexual desire within society; insofar as sexuality is felt to be illicit, marriage itself will be equivocal at best. As Hamlet proclaims the abolition of marriage, he repeatedly orders Ophelia to a nunnery (3.1.120-49). Here the double sense of nunnery as religious institution and bawdyhouse explicates perfectly the sexual alternatives left when marriage is abolished; or rather, it explicates the sexual alternatives—absolute chastity or absolute sexual degradation—that make the middle ground of marriage impossible. These are the sexual alternatives for the male protagonists of both problem comedies, where the middle is absent and sexual desire is felt only for the illicit. Bertram and Angelo are both presented as psychological virgins about to undergo their first sexual experience. In the course of their plays, we find that both can desire only when they imagine their sexuality as an illegitimate contamination of a pure woman, the conversion in effect of one kind of nun into the other. Both plays exploit this fantasy of contamination. The drama of the last scene in each play depends heavily on the sexual shaming of the supposedly violated virgins. The public naming of Diana as a “common gamester to the camp” (All's Well That Ends Well, 5.3.188); Lucio's comment that Mariana, who is “neither maid, widow, nor wife,” may be a punk (Measure for Measure, 5.1.179-80) and his extended joke about who has handled, or could handle, Isabella privately (5.1.72-77); even Escalus's claim that he will “go darkly to work” with Isabella, a claim that Lucio promptly and predictably sexualizes (5.1.278-80)—all assume the instantaneous transformation of the virgin into the whore, the transformation implicit in Hamlet's double use of “nunnery.” Though the contamination is apparently undone in these scenes insofar as the continuing status of Diana and Isabella as virgins is eventually revealed, these revelations do not undo the deeper fantasies of sexual contamination on which the plots rest; at the end, as at the beginning, male sexual desire is understood as desire for the illicit, desire to contaminate.

Since the impediment to the conventional festive ending in marriage in both comedies is thus the construction of male sexual desire itself, the ending turns on the attempt to legitimize sexual desire in marriage—an attempt epitomized in both plays by the bed trick, in which the illicit desires of men are coercively directed back toward their socially sanctioned mates. (See Neely 1985, Kirsch 1981, and Wheeler 1981 for very similar accounts of the problem and the solution in both plays; of these, Neely and Kirsch tend to be more sanguine than I am about the effectiveness of the cure.) In the bed tricks in both plays the act imagined to have been deeply illicit is magically revealed as having been licit all along—but only at the expense of the male protagonists' sexual autonomy. Through a kind of homeopathic cure both Bertram and Angelo are allowed to enact fantasies of the sexual soiling of a virgin and are appropriately shamed for these fantasies, only to find out that their sexual acts have in fact been legitimate and that the soiling has taken place only in fantasy. Bertram and Angelo are thus saved from their own imaginations; presented with legitimate sexuality as a fait accompli, they can—or so we might hope—go on to accept the possibility that they have been tricked into: the possibility of sexuality within marriage. But given the status of the bed tricks as tricks and the characters' failure to provide much evidence that they have been transformed by them, our hope seems frail indeed and the marriages at the end of both plays remain equivocal. Moreover, because they so clearly betray the desires of the male protagonists, the bed tricks in both plays tend to become, not a vehicle for the working out of sexual impediments, but a forced and conspicuous metaphor for what needs working out.

Comparison with Shakespeare's source for All's Well—there is no bed trick in the sources for Measure for Measure—can help us to gauge the tonality of the bed trick in both plays. In The Palace of Pleasure, William Painter's translation of Boccaccio's Decameron (day 3, story 9), the bed trick is a rather well-mannered and genial affair, repeated often and with affection. We are specifically told that the count (equivalent to Bertram) “at his uprising in the morning … used many courteous and amiable words and gave divers fair and precious jewels” (Bullough 1958, 2:395). In both All's Well and Measure for Measure the bed tricks are portrayed as one-night stands that the male protagonists have no desire to repeat—and not only, I think, for reasons of dramatic economy and credibility. Both Bertram and Angelo lose desire for their virgins as soon as they have ravished them; for both, apparently, the imagined act of spoiling virginity is the only source of sexual desire. In both plays the prohibition against speaking (AWW, 4.2.58; MM, 3.1.247) and the male recoil from the object of desire utterly transform the encounter reported in Painter, so that it becomes the epitome not only of the dark waywardness of desire but also of its depersonalization, the interchangeability of the bodies with which lust plays (AWW, 4.4.24-25). The potentially curative affectionate mutuality of the source is utterly absent: these bed tricks demonstrate the extent to which sexuality is a matter of deception on the one side and hit-and-run contamination on the other. They do not bode well as cures.

Insofar as the bed tricks represent sexuality in these plays, it is portrayed as deeply incompatible with the continuing relationship of marriage; the very trick that imports sexuality back into marriage reveals the incompatibility. In “Upon Some Verses of Virgil,” an essay that some have found a source both for Othello and for All's Well, Montaigne registers a similar sense of incompatibility. (See Cavell 1979, 474, for Othello and Kirsch 1981, 122-27, for All's Well; I am particularly indebted to Kirsch's account.) Montaigne says, “Nor is it other then a kinde of incest, in this reverent alliance and sacred bond, to employ the effects and extravagant humor of an amorous licentiousness” (1928, 72). Here Montaigne seems to me to come very close to the psychological core of the “problem” that I find definitive of the problem comedies. When Montaigne registers his sense of the incompatibility between the sexual and the sacred by calling that incompatibility incest, he associates the soiling potentiality of sexuality with the prohibitions surrounding the male child's first fantasies of soiling a sacred space; insofar as marriage is felt as sacred, sexuality within it will replay those ancient fantasies and their attendant anxieties. Angelo's anguished self-questioning upon the discovery of his own desire reiterates powerfully the core of Montaigne's concern: “Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?” (MM, 2.2.169-71). For the male sexual imagination represented in both Bertram and Angelo, sexuality within marriage is, I think, an ultimately incestuous pollution of a sanctuary; they can desire only when they can imagine themselves safely enacting this pollution outside the familial context of marriage. In both plays, however, the very fact of sexuality binds one incestuously to family, so that all sexuality is ultimately felt as incestuous. I want to look at this incestuous potential within both plays and then to suggest the ways in which they finally seem to me to undercut the accommodations to sexuality apparently achieved by their bed tricks.

The recoil from a sexuality felt as the soiling of a sacred space is split in two in All's Well and analyzed in two separate movements. Bertram's flight from, and slander of, Diana analyze his recoil from the woman felt as whore once his own sexuality has soiled her; even at the end of the play the deep shaming that Diana undergoes makes her the repository for his sense of taint. But the flight from Diana curiously echoes Bertram's earlier flight from Helena. This initial flight analyzes his aversion toward sexual union with a woman who is terrifying to him partly insofar as she is identified with a maternal figure and thus with the incestuous potential of sexuality. In the end, I shall argue, the splitting of the sexual object into the legitimate but abhorred Helena and the illegitimate but desired Diana will be undone as Helena and Diana begin to fuse; their fusion will serve the deepest of the play's sexual paradoxes. But before the end Diana seems the solution to the problem created by Helena: the problem of sexuality within a familial context.

Bertram's initial flight from Helena is phrased in terms that suggest a flight from this familial context. Here, too, Shakespeare's management of his source emphasizes issues central to the play: the figure of the Countess and the crucial association of her with Helena are his additions to Boccaccio/Painter. All's Well begins with the image of a son separating from his mother, seeking a new father (1.1.5-7) and new possibilities for manhood elsewhere. The formation of a new sexual relationship in marriage is ideally the emblem of this separation from the family of origin and hence of independent manhood. But marriage with Helena cannot serve this function, both because of the association of her with Bertram's mother—an association so close that Bertram's only words to her before their enforced marriage are a parenthesis within his farewell to his mother (“Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, / And make much of her” [1.1.77-78])—and because she becomes the choice of his surrogate father. Marriage to her would thus be a sign of his bondage to the older generation rather than of his growing independence. In Richard Wheeler's brilliant account of the play—an account to which this discussion is much indebted—Bertram's flight from Helena and his attraction to a woman decidedly outside the family structure become intelligible as attempts to escape the dominion of the infantile family (Wheeler 1981, especially 40-45; see also Kirsch 1981, 141, and Neely 1985, 70-71).

Bertram's exchange with the king suggests the extent to which marriage with Helena threatens to obliterate necessary distinctions between father and son, mother and wife:

Thou know'st she has rais'd me from my sickly bed.
But follows it, my lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising? I know her well;
She had her breeding at my father's charge—
A poor physician's daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!


Bred by his father, Helena is virtually his sister. Moreover, she becomes in the king's words virtually a surrogate mother. Lafew's reference to himself as a pander (“I am Cressid's uncle, / That dare leave two together” [2.1.97-98]) and the earlier sexualization of “araise” (2.1.76) combine to make the sexualization of the king's “she has raised me from my sickly bed” almost inevitable here (see Wheeler 1981, 75-76, and Kirsch 1981, 135). Bertram imagines himself sexually brought down by the woman who has raised up his surrogate father (see Neely 1985, 70). Beneath his social snobbery, I think we can hear a hint of the ruin threatened should Bertram become sexually allied with his surrogate father's imagined sexual partner. The escape from the parents' choice thus becomes in part an escape from the incestuous potential involved in marriage to a woman who is allied to his mother not only by their loving association but also by her position as fantasied sexual partner of his surrogate father. Bertram's response to the king suggests his terror at losing the social and familial distinctions that guarantee identity, distinctions protected by the incest taboo. His terror is unlikely to be assuaged when the king answers him by denying the distinction between Helena's blood and his: “Strange is it that our bloods, / Of color, weight, and heat, pour'd all together, / Would quite confound distinction” (2.3.118-20). Bertram's fear is, I think, exactly that the mingling of bloods (see The Winter's Tale, 1.2.109) in his sexual union with Helena would confound distinction.

Bertram faces an impossible dilemma: he must leave his family to become a man, and yet he can take his full place as a man in this society only insofar as he can be reconciled with his mother and the king, hence with the woman they have chosen for him. Moreover, the play insists on the full impossibility of the task facing Bertram by emphasizing at once the distance between him and his father and the social expectation that he will turn out to be like his father. From the first, Bertram's manhood is the subject of anxious speculation on the part of his mother and the king, speculation expressed in the desire that he be like his father in moral parts as well as in shape (1.1.61-62; 1.2.21-22). For them—hence for the ruling society of the play—manhood is defined as living up to one's father, in effect becoming him. Bertram himself unwittingly plays into this definition: he will accept the validity of the marriage only when Helena can show him “a child begotten of thy body that I am father to” (3.2.58-59). This stipulation in effect makes his own achievement of paternity the condition of his resumption of adult status in France: he can become a man only by becoming his father, and he becomes his father only by assuming his role as father—by becoming a father himself. But if paternity is imagined as becoming one's own father, then one's sexual partner again takes on the resonance of one's mother. The social world of the play and his own fantasy of himself as father finally allow Bertram his place as a man only insofar as he can form a sexual alliance with the woman he and the play identify with his mother. The route toward manhood takes Bertram simultaneously away from the mother and toward her; hence the incestuous double bind in which Bertram finds himself.

Given Bertram's association of Helena both with his mother and with his surrogate father's sexuality, we can begin to make sense of both the impossible conditions Bertram sets for Helena: the act by which Helena simultaneously makes Bertram a father and gets his father's ring is, I think, a fantasized replication of the act of parental intercourse by which Bertram himself was bred. Hence the complex logic governing the exchange of rings in the dark: Bertram's father's ring is given unawares to Helena, the mother's choice, and the ring taken from Helena turns out to have been the father king's. Even here, when poor Bertram thinks that he has escaped his family, the exchange of rings is in effect between father and mother; in the last scene the ring play turns out to have been a symbolic sexual exchange between surrogate parental figures. (On the sexualization of the rings see Adams 1961, 268-69.) In attempting to define his manhood by locating it elsewhere, Bertram thus finds himself returned to his mother's choice; flee as he might, there is no escaping Helena. Indeed, in its portrayal of Helena the play seems to me to embody a deep ambivalence of response toward the mother who simultaneously looks after us and threatens our independence. Astonishing both for her willfulness and her self-abnegation, simultaneously far below Bertram's sphere and far above it, apparently all-powerful in her weakness, present even when Bertram thinks most that he has escaped her, triumphantly proclaiming her maternity at the end, Helena becomes the epitome of the invisible maternal power that binds the child, especially the male child, who here discovers that she is always the woman in his bed.

Insofar as All's Well splits the sexually desired woman from the maternally taboo one, the project it sets for itself in reinstituting marriage is to legitimize desire, to import it back into the sacred family bonds. The bed trick is, as I have suggested, an attempt at such importation. But the bed trick as Shakespeare presents it here fails to detoxify or legitimize sexuality; instead it tends to make even legitimate sexuality illicit in fantasy, a “wicked meaning in a lawful deed” (3.7.45-47). Despite Shakespeare's apparent attempt to rescue sexuality here, he seems incapable in this play of imagining any sexual consummation—legitimate or illegitimate—that is not mutually defiling. Musing on the bed trick that technically legitimizes sexuality, Helena makes this sense of mutual defilement nearly explicit:

                    But, O, strange men,
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night.


It's very hard to say just what is defiling what here. The sexual interchange itself is replaced in Helena's words by a defiling interchange between “saucy trusting” and “pitchy night,” in which “saucy trusting” seems to stand in for Bertram's part and “pitchy night” for Helena's. We might imagine that the defilement here is the consequence of Bertram's belief that he is committing an illicit act; but in fact Helena suggests that the very trusting to deception that legitimizes the sexual act is the agent of defilement. The defilement thus seems to be the consequence of the act itself, not of its status as legitimate or illegitimate. Moreover, in her odd condensation of night, the bed, and her own apparently defiled body, Helena seems to assume the mutual defilement attendant on this act. In the interchange, Bertram/trust defiles Helena/night. But the night itself is “pitchy”; and as Shakespeare's frequent use reminds us, pitch defiles (see, for example, Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.57, Love's Labor's Lost, 4.3.3, and 1 Henry IV, 2.4.413). Bertram thus defiles that which is already defiled and that which defiles him in turn; that is, in the process of trying to sort out legitimacy and defilement, the play here reveals its sense of the marriage bed as both defiled and defiling. The bed trick thus works against itself by locating the toxic ingredient in sexuality and then replicating rather than removing its toxicity.

It is, moreover, revealing that both the sexual act and the bed tend to disappear in Helena's account, the one replaced by the mental process of trusting to deception, the other by the pitchy night. The sexual act at the center of All's Well is absent; its place in our imagination is taken by the process of working out the deception. One consequence of this exchange is the suggestion that mistrust and deception are at the very root of the sexual act, as though the man is always tricked, defiled, and shamed there, as though to engage in sexual union is always to put oneself into the manipulative power of women. At the same time, the disappearance of the sexual act in Helena's musing on the bed trick points toward the larger disappearance of the sexual act enabled by the bed trick. Ultimately, that is, the bed trick in All's Well seems to me as much a part of a deep fantasy of escape from sexuality as it is an attempt to bring the married couple together; as its consequences are unraveled in the last scene, it allows for a renewed fantasy of the flight from sexuality even while it seems to be a means of enabling and legitimizing sexual union.

Just before Helena appears in the last scene, Diana says, “He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd, / And at that time he got his wife with child” (5.3.300-301). In effect she separates the mental from the physical components of the sexual act, Bertram's intentions from his actual deed, ascribing the shame and soil to herself and the pregnancy to Helena. This split in part explains the insistence on Diana's shame in the last scene; her words here identify her role as substitute strumpet, the figure onto whom Bertram and the play can displace the sense of sexuality as defilement, thus protecting Helena from taint. The structure of the last scene is calculated to replicate the magical legitimization of sexuality in the bed trick insofar as it substitutes the pure Helena for the shamed Diana in our imaginations; we are put through the process of imagining a defiling sexual contact with Diana and then released from that image by the magical reappearance of Helena. (Hence, I think, the lengthy insistence on the mutual shame of Diana and Bertram, which is not strictly necessary for the plot.) But in the process of repudiating the taint attaching to sexuality, the last scene enables a fantasy repudiating sexuality itself. As Diana begins the process of repudiating her shame, the sexual act is done and then undone in our imaginations as the ring—emblematic of the sexual encounter—is given (“this was it I gave him, being a-bed” [5.3.228]) and ungiven (“I never gave it him” [5.3.276]). The business of the ring makes this portion of the last scene into a ritual of doing and undoing, from which the soiled Diana emerges purified, not a “strumpet” but a “maid” (5.3.290-93). Diana's last words—the riddle to which the appearance of Helena is the solution—again hint at this ritual of doing and undoing: in substituting the pregnant wife for the defiled bed—“he knows himself my bed he hath defil'd, / And at that time he got his wife with child”—Diana comes close to making the bed itself disappear, as though the act of impregnating did not take place in that bed at all. Her words suggest the almost magical quality of the act by which Bertram impregnates Helena: defiling one woman, he impregnates another. The pregnancy is thus presented as the result of Bertram's copulation with Diana, as though the child were Helena's by a magical transference through which Diana gets the taint and Helena gets the child.

Diana's riddle reinterprets the bed trick in effect as an act split into a defiling contact and a miraculous conception. As the defiled bed disappears, the sexual act itself seems to vanish, to become as imaginary as Bertram's knowledge of defilement. The stress throughout the scene has been on the undoing of the sexual act rather than on conception. In the logic of fantasy here, I think that the sexual act has not happened at all, not with Diana and not with Helena. The prestidigitation expressed in Diana's riddle brings the promised birth of Helena's child as close to a virgin birth as the facts of the case will allow. The sense of miracle that greets Helena's return is not wholly a consequence of her apparent return from the dead; it also derives partly from the apparently miraculous conception that Diana's riddle points toward. At the end Helena can thus assume her new status as wife and mother without giving up her status as miraculous virgin; she can simultaneously cure through her sexuality and remain absolutely pure. This simultaneity should seem familiar to us: it in fact rules the presentation of Helena's cure of the king, where her miraculous power depends equally on her status as heavenly maid and on the sexuality that could “araise King Pippen” (2.1.76). (See Neely's fine discussion of Helena's various roles, 1985, especially 65-70.) The play asks us nearly from the beginning to see Helena both as a miraculous virgin and as a deeply sexual woman seeking her will: thus the early dialogue with Parolles, in which we see her meditating both on how to defend her virginity and on how to lose it to her liking (1.1.110-51). Helena's two roles are ultimately the reflection of the impossible desire for a woman who can have the powers simultaneously of Venus and of Diana—who can in effect be both Venus and Diana, both generative sexual partner and sacred virgin. (Adams [1961, 262-64] finds the desire possible insofar as procreation legitimizes sexuality.) This is the fantasy articulated in Helena's re-creation of the Countess's youth, when “your Dian / Was both herself and Love” (1.3.212-13). The role of the character Diana should ultimately be understood in this context. As Helena chooses Bertram at court, she imagines herself shifting allegiance from Diana to Venus (2.3.74-76). The emergence of the character Diana shortly after Helena renounces her allegiance to the goddess Diana suggests the complexity of the role that Diana plays: if Bertram can vest his sense of sexuality as soiling in her, Helena can also vest her virginity in her. Both as the repository of soil and as the preserver of virginity, she functions as a split-off portion of Helena herself: hence, I think, the ease with which her status as both maid and no maid transfers to Helena in the end. Both in the bed trick and in the larger psychic structures that it serves, Helena can thus become Venus and reincorporate Diana into herself.

The buried fantasy of Helena as Venus/Diana, as secular virgin mother, is the play's pyrrhic solution to the problem of legitimizing sexuality, relocating it within a sacred familial context. The solution is pyrrhic insofar as it legitimizes sexuality partly by wishing it away; it enables the creation of familial bonds without the fully imagined experience of sexuality. But this is exactly what Bertram has told us he wants. The impossible condition that Helena must meet stipulates that she can be his wife only when she can prove herself a virgin mother, that is, prove that she is with child by him without his participation in the sexual act. This condition suggests that she can be safely his only when she can remove sexuality from the establishment of the family and hence sanctify and purify the family itself. The slippery riddle of the bed trick satisfies this condition both for Bertram and for the audience: he knows he has not had sexual relations with Helena; and we have watched the sexual act be defined out of existence in the last scene. Here sexuality can be allowed back into the family only through a fantasy that enables its denial: the potentially incestuous contact with Helena is muted not by denying her association with his mother but by denying the sexual nature of the contact. The fantasy of Helena as virgin mother thus allows Bertram to return to his mother and surrogate father; he can now accept his mother's choice and achieve paternity safely, in effect becoming his father without having had to be husband to his wife/mother.

In the multiple fantasies of All's Well the marriage can be consummated only insofar as Bertram can imagine himself as defiling a virgin or insofar as the act itself is nearly defined out of existence, so that it becomes a fact without act as it becomes a sin without sin, a “wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin and yet a sinful fact” (3.7.45-47). Despite the overt attempt to make sexuality curative, suspicion of sexuality remains the dominant emotional fact of the play. Even here, where Shakespeare attempts Pandarus-like to bring two together, we are left with a sense of failure about the sexual act itself and with a final queasiness about the getting of children.

It is no accident that the unborn child of All's Well, who epitomizes the attempt to bring sexual desire back into the bonds of the family, reappears at the start of Measure for Measure as the product of an illicit union, the sign of sin that condemns its parents by proclaiming their sexuality publicly. The transformation of the pregnant Helena into the pregnant Juliet is diagnostic of the relation between the two plays: the sexual queasiness that lies behind Bertram's flight from both Helena and Diana is given much fuller expression in Measure for Measure, with the consequence that the getting of children is the problem, not the purported solution. Here the bed trick cures nothing: it is technically necessary to the plot but carries no emotional weight because no curative power is vested in sexuality. The sexuality presented queasily as a forced cure in All's Well has here become a death sentence, whether by Angelo's restitution of the law or by the disease that seems its inevitable attendant. In this play's curious literalization of the Elizabethan pun on “die” that identifies death and orgasm, sexuality is the original sin that brings death into this world (see Skura's brilliant discussion of the pun and the association of sexual intercourse and death in Measure for Measure, 1981, especially 260-66). Here Claudio, Angelo, and Lucio are all condemned to die for their participation in sexuality; and they are saved, not by the machinations of a curatively sexual woman, but by those of a sternly asexual man.

The very distinction between licit and illicit sexuality on which All's Well seems to depend has broken down here, at least until Mariana appears halfway through the play; as this world is initially presented to us, all sexuality is illicit. After we have met Mariana, the play works hard to reinforce the distinction that has been obliterated, in effect to clear a space for legitimate sexuality. Hence the Duke's assurance that the sexual union of Angelo and Mariana is legal and no sin, despite its resemblance to the sin of Claudio and Juliet. But the very insistence of his assurance—an assurance that he feels compelled to give although Mariana shows no signs of needing it—should remind us that this apparently crucial distinction would be apt to disappear, and not just in the minds of modern audiences, were it not insisted on. The degree to which modern scholars differ in assigning degrees of legitimacy to the two relationships suggests the flimsiness of the distinction (see, for example, Ranald 1979, 77-79, and Nagarajan 1963, 116-18; Nuttall wisely dissolves the distinction [1975, 52-53]). When the Duke condemns the means by which Pompey supports himself, for example, legality or illegality does not seem to be the chief issue:

                                        say to thyself,
From their abominable and beastly touches
I drink, I eat, [array] myself and live.
Canst thou believe thy living is a life,
So stinkingly dependent?


Richard Wheeler has pointed out that the hatred of the body here is very close to the hatred the Duke expresses in his advice to Claudio (1981, 122); this hatred is prior to, and independent of, the degree of legality of either of their actions. For both men “all th' accommodations that thou bear'st / Are nurs'd by baseness” (3.1.14-15). The Duke's question to Pompey—“Can thou believe thy living is a life, / So stinkingly dependent”—reiterates his question to Claudio, “What's yet in this / That bears the name of life?” (3.1.38-39). For all life is nursed by baseness, stinkingly dependent on the fact of our conception. No wonder the baby Juliet carries is not a hope for the future but “the sin you carry” (2.3.19), the emblem of a life so stinkingly dependent; no wonder the bed trick in Measure for Measure is written, as it were, from the point of view of Diana, designed to preserve virginity, not to consummate sexual union.

The identification of the baby as “the sin you carry” confounds the act with the product of the act; like the Duke's speech to Pompey, it reveals a fundamental discomfort with the facts of human conception. I have argued that Bertram's return to Helena in All's Well is empowered partly by the fantasy that she is a secular virgin mother who enables the formation of family without sexual bonds. The desire to escape from sexuality expressed covertly in this fantasy is much more overtly the subject of Measure for Measure, where the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella all proclaim their exemption from ordinary sexual processes and where the attempt to establish a nonsexual family of spiritual fathers, brothers, and sisters is transparent in the plot. But this desire—permitted in fantasy in All's Well—is punished in Measure for Measure. Angelo and Isabella are brought face to face with their own sexuality and in effect made to acknowledge their place in the human family; the extremity of their self-exposure—both to themselves and to us as witnesses—seems in fact their punishment for the fantasies they embody. All's Well urges Bertram toward sexuality within the family and ultimately allows for a fantasy of escape from that sexuality; Measure for Measure enables the fantasy of escape from sexuality into a nonsexual family and then punishes the bearers of that fantasy.

The fantasy of escape from sexuality is most violently expressed and punished in the person of Angelo; the explosive rigidities of his sexual imagination are at the center of the play. These rigidities are embodied in the very geography of the city (see Berry 1976/77, 147-48): the battle within him between fierce repression of sexual desire and equally fierce outbursts of degrading and degraded desire is given a local habitation and a name in the geography that separates nunnery and brothel. The play begins with the order to raze the brothels (the spatial equivalent of beheading Claudio), but the central action imagined in it is instead the razing of the nunnery, the violation of sacred space in the person of Isabella. And this violation is the spur to Angelo's desire: “Having waste ground enough, / Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?” (2.2.169-71). The “strumpet, / With all her double vigor, art and nature” (2.2.182-83) could not tempt him because for him desire is necessarily the ravishing of a saint—a ravishing that collapses the distinction between brothel and nunnery as it transforms the sanctuary itself into a brothel/privy polluted by the evil of his own bodily wastes. The attempt to escape from sexuality by isolating the sanctuary from the brothel thus ends by bringing the two violently together. The violence of this conjunction is, I think, the consequence of the violence with which Angelo's imagination had initially split nunnery and brothel apart; it allows for no middle ground, no moated grange, no place for legitimate sexuality within marriage. This violence is translated into Angelo's violence toward the person of Isabella (see Wheeler 1981, 100). His words to her—“Be that you are, / That is a woman; if you be more, you're none” (2.4.134-35)—suggest a punitive need on his part to prove all women the same, all equally subject to soil, and so to undo the psychic geography of brothel and nunnery that governs him so rigidly. For if she agrees to his demand, she demonstrates in effect that there was never a sanctuary, that the place he imagined polluting was already polluted. The terms of Angelo's desire—his fantasy of polluting the sanctuary—thus virtually dictate the creation of Isabella as a nun to be violated.

Measure for Measure implies that Angelo will be fully human only when he can accept his own bodily condition. The fantasy of a life without human sexual ties is from the first vested in Angelo; the play sets out to test the claim that Angelo does not have an ordinary human body with ordinary human needs, that his “blood / Is very snow-broth” (1.4.57-58), his urine “congeal'd ice” (3.2.110-11). The figure of Angelo is the locus classicus in Shakespeare for the fantasy of escape from the consequences of original sin, escape from the act of parental sexuality by which one was engendered. Near the center of the play Lucio specifically associates Angelo's apparent exemption from human passion with an exemption from “this downright way of creation”:

They say this Angelo was not made by man and woman after this downright way of creation. Is it true, think you?
How should he be made then?
Some report a sea-maid spawn'd him; some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes.


In Lucio's fantasy, Angelo's life is not nursed by baseness, not stinkingly dependent; the Duke's unusual willingness to participate in Lucio's joke, even to entertain for a moment the possibility of an alternative means of creation, marks the centrality of this fantasy in the creation of Angelo.

The violent extremity with which Angelo is portrayed, as well as the violence of the shame to which he is reduced, is evidence of his status as scapegoat—evidence, that is, of Shakespeare's vindictiveness toward the bearer of this impossible fantasy. For the play sets out to demonstrate ruthlessly the observe of the fantasy expressed here: insofar as Angelo proves himself sexual, he demonstrates that he has inherited the sin of his origins; he becomes in effect the sin his mother carried. This conjunction dictates the terms in which Angelo expresses his awareness of his own violent sexuality: “In my heart the strong and swelling evil / Of my conception” (2.4.6-7). Through his pun on “conception” his desire to raze the sanctuary becomes linked with his pressing acknowledgement of the downright way he was conceived: in feeling sexual desire for the first time, he feels the damning presence of the act of parental sexuality that conceived him. The pun moreover suggests that his sexuality feels to him like the reduplication of maternal as well as paternal sexuality. “Strong and swelling” initially seems to carry the weight of his new-felt phallic potency. But the pun on “conception” reinterprets this phrase, making it into an implicit reference to pregnancy, as though he feels himself identified with his mother, female and soiled, pregnant with his own sexuality (see Sundelson 1983, 71-72, on Angelo's fear of becoming female). The sanctuary razed is thus associated with the maternal body; Angelo's sexual conception reiterates the soiling of that body by reduplicating its pregnancy in himself.

For Angelo sexuality is the inherited sin of conception; the curative attempt of the play is thus to reconcile Angelo literally to the necessities of original sin. Hence the logic by which Angelo is brought to face his own sexuality in a garden—a garden, moreover, anatomically linked with the female genitalia (see Desai 1977, 490; Berry 1976/77, 151). In his reliving of the fall, he imaginatively reenters the female body, the origin from which he had seemed to claim exemption; he is thus brought to face the sin of origin. The death sentence that is the consequence of this fall is the outward sign of Angelo's subjection to mortality and the appropriate punishment for his original sin.

As Angelo articulates his sexual conception, he places it in apposition to the figure of the strong and distant father whom that conception betrays:

                                        Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel; heaven in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception.


This apposition suggests another of the splits that rule Angelo: the spiritual father is here removed from the female realm of sexuality, the heart in which the swelling conceptions take place. This father is realized for Angelo in the figure of the Duke; hence the ease with which he identifies his unseen observation with that of “pow'r divine” (5.1.369). The Duke is in effect the distant heavenly father who returns to judge; like all mankind, Angelo is rescued from the consequences of his original sin only by the mercy of that father. But that mercy is dependent on the key figure of Mariana, who alone of the play's characters can experience desire without a sense of contamination (see Neely's fine discussion, 1985, 96-98). Mariana's hope that Angelo's confrontation with his own sexuality will have cured him—her wonderfully wistful “Best men are moulded out of faults” (5.1.439)—is at the heart of the play's curative attempt. The play on fault/foutre throughout (see, for example, 2.1.40 and 2.2.138) should enable us to hear the fullness of the hope expressed here: not only that Angelo may be improved by the confrontation with his specifically sexual faults, not only that he will be able to tolerate his own sexuality as the legacy of the fault/foutre that molded him, but that the sin of origin is the common ground of human goodness. (See Hyman's view that life can come only out of shame and vice, 1975, especially 12.) “Best men are moulded out of faults,” Mariana finally implies, because in the downright way of creation, that is the only way men are molded at all.

Despite the play's drive toward cure, the hope embodied in Mariana is frail. She herself is introduced into the plot only when the bed trick needs her; she never becomes a fully realized figure. Moreover, the bed trick itself remains imaginatively unrealized for the audience and of dubious value for Angelo himself. Even after Angelo finds that he has bedded his virtual wife, even after their marriage ceremony is performed, he is so filled with self-loathing and shame that he craves “death more willingly than mercy” (5.1.476), a condition from which the mere fact that Claudio is alive seems unlikely to rescue him. Nothing in the end of the play has the imaginative force of Angelo's confrontation with Isabella; that confrontation, rather than the hope vested in Mariana, is likely to remain definitive of sexuality for Angelo and, through him, for the audience.

I have suggested that the vision of sexuality expressed through Angelo virtually creates Isabella as a sanctuary to be violated. But we respond to Isabella not simply as an icon in a male fantasy about sexuality but also as a vividly and independently alive character with fantasies of her own. In fact the encounter of Angelo and Isabella is so explosive in part because the fantasies each embodies mesh so well. Isabella's initial flight to the nunnery and her desire for more restrictions there tell us that she, like Angelo, wishes to be exempt from ordinary human sexuality and from the ordinary bonds so engendered. When Angelo asks her to embrace female frailty by “putting on the destin'd livery” (2.4.138), he allows us to understand that this is precisely the livery Isabella had hoped to escape by putting on the livery of the nun. In effect the religious community frees her both from sexuality and from the bonds of the sexual family, working to establish a new family for her, remaking the original family relationships in a spiritual family in which sister, brother, father are free from the taint of sexuality. The play tests her commitment to her two kinds of sisterhood (see, for example, 2.2.19-21 and 2.4.18) and ultimately stresses the primacy of the natural, rather than the religious, bond. But at the same time it provides her with a spiritual and purified father in the form of the Duke and resolves the crisis of sexuality only in his presence. In the figure of Isabella the play thus simultaneously tests and enables the fantasy of the asexual family.

Like Angelo, Isabella seems to understand her own frailty by reference to the act of parental conception. She responds to Angelo's assertion that women are frail with a hysteria that voices an underground fantasy in which hereditary participation in the downright way of creation binds women to their fate as sexual beings:

Nay, women are frail too.
Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves,
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
Women? Help heaven! men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail.


Her conventional comment on women's vanity merges with her condemnation of the fragility of women in their ordinary reproductive role: both mirrors and women “make forms”; both are frail. Women are broken, she implies, in the process of making forms. This acknowledgment of women's role in making forms seems to call up its opposite, a brief fantasy of an all-male and presumably nonsexual creation; the extent to which Isabella entertains this male fantasy can be gauged by the fact that she goes on to imagine this all-male creation as spoiled by concourse with women. This is the fantasy that Posthumus will articulate more clearly when he asks, “Is there no way for men to be, but women / Must be half-workers?” (Cymbeline, 2.5.1-2); as Isabella articulates it, the fantasy becomes one more version of the Fall, the spoiling of male creation by women. And in imagining this creation, she conspicuously marks the passage from them to us, acknowledging herself as one of the polluting women. The pronoun sequence suggests that her implicit meditation on the downright way of creation has brought home to her her own involvement in female frailty, the inescapability of the female sexuality that is an inheritance from mother to daughter. All's Well That Ends Well twice invokes such an inheritance (“To speak on the part of virginity is to accuse your mothers” [1.1.136-37]; “now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got” [4.2.9-10]). Isabella's assumption of frailty seems to work by the same logic. The very facts of conception threaten to bind her to her nature as a sexual being; Isabella's participation in sexuality is an extension of her mother's frailty—the frailty that she manifested in conceiving her.

If we follow Isabella through this fantasy, we can begin to understand more clearly the passionate terms in which she responds to Claudio's pleas that she save his life by agreeing to Angelo's proposition:

Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?


Why incest? I think we first understand her response as invoking the brother-sister incest that figured in All's Well. Insofar as Isabella is identified with Juliet, both by her reference to their childhood interchanging of names (1.4.45-48) and by Angelo's explicit attempt to persuade her to do what Juliet has done (“such sweet uncleanness / As she that he hath stain'd” [2.4.54-55]), even the union of Claudio and Juliet may carry incestuous overtones. Moreover, the play persistently promotes the identification of Angelo himself with Claudio insofar as it asks Angelo to find a like guiltiness in himself (see 2.1.8-16 and 2.2.64-66, 136-41). It is in fact in response to Isabella's invocation of this identification that Angelo first feels desire, a desire signaled by his abruptly telling Isabella to leave (2.2.66) or attempting to leave himself (2.2.143). (Many have commented on the dynamics of this encounter. See, for example, Charney; Rosenberg 1972, 54-57; and Levin 1982, 262-63.) If Angelo is in fantasy identified with Claudio, then sexual commerce between Angelo and Isabella would again evoke the threat of brother-sister incest. Nonetheless, Isabella's language suggests that the primary act of incest imagined here is not between brother and sister. Both “Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?” with its pun on vice (see Wheeler 1981, 111) and “to take life / From thine own sister's shame” imagine Claudio born from Isabella, born from the shame or vice that is her sexuality. Purchasing Claudio's life at the price of sexual commerce with Angelo would make her into Claudio's mother in the act of engendering him (Wheeler 1981, 111; see also Reid 1970, 279). By replicating this act, the monstrous bargain with Angelo would not only insist that Isabella is the inheritor of her mother's frailty; it would also force Isabella to take her mother's place in a fantasied act of incest with her father, from which her brother Claudio would be made a man.

This fantasy may dictate Isabella's violent dissociation of her father from the act of engendering Claudio; immediately after she has called the act incestuous, she adds:

                                        What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issu'd from his blood.


Her poignant “What should I think?” suggests the extent to which the saving idea of her mother's infidelity serves a defensive function, removing her father from the act she imagines herself replicating. The removal of the father from sexuality here seems to me central to an understanding of the Duke's relation to Isabella and hence of his place in the play. Like Angelo, Isabella invokes a spiritual father removed from sexuality precisely at the moment that sexuality becomes most troublesome; and again like Angelo, that father eventually is embodied in the person of the Duke. We can follow this process of embodiment more clearly if we follow the fantasy that mediates the Duke's first appearance to Isabella as spiritual father in act 3, scene 1. In act 2, scene 4, Isabella steels herself against Angelo's proposal in part by imagining her brother's “mind of honor” that would gladly prefer his own death to his sister's pollution (2.4.179-83). When he in fact speaks with the voice that she imagines there, he is fully his father's son, speaking with his father's voice: “There spake my brother; there my father's grave / Did utter forth a voice” (3.1.85-86). Insofar as her brother's willingness to die protects her from sexuality, he is her father's son and speaks with his voice. But as soon as his desire for life threatens her exemption from sexuality, he becomes radically his mother's child, the product of her sexual betrayal of his father (see Wheeler 1981, 114). He can be the voice of his father only insofar as he protects Isabella from sexuality. When that protection fails, he ceases to be his father's son: he “ne'er issu'd from his blood.” This act of dissociation frees her father from sexuality just as the protection of Claudio as father-brother fails her—and the Duke appears to her magically as a nonsexual father protector within ten lines. Indeed, when Claudio had proclaimed his willingness to die, he had in fact been speaking with the voice of this father: it is of course the Duke who has just taught him his (temporary) willingness to die. The Duke as friar is, I am suggesting, the embodiment of the fantasied asexual father who will protect Isabella from her own sexuality: it is striking that Isabella calls him “good father” (3.1.238, 269) only after he offers her a way to save Claudio while maintaining her exemption from sexuality, thus enabling her to avoid the destined livery.

The appearance of the Duke-friar as a protective brother-father thus answers Isabella's need for a safe asexual family: hence the shock and dismay with which many audiences respond to his proposal of marriage. The Duke who has protected Isabella from sexuality now invites, or perhaps coerces, her participation in it; given both the ease with which the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate sexuality breaks down in this play and the suddenness with which the sainted Duke, like the sainted Angelo, announces his desire, his proposal threatens disturbingly to reiterate Angelo's. (Many others note this kinship; see, for example, Levin 1982, 259-60, and Berry 1976/77, 153.) His proposal thus focuses all the ambivalence about sexuality in the play: is it an attempt to escape from the rigidity of nunnery and brothel by carving out an area of legitimate sexuality, or is it one more attempt to invade the sanctuary?

The Duke's marriage proposal follows from the attempt in the bed trick to legitimize sexuality and hence to work toward the expected comic conclusion of marriage. But the concluding marriage suggest that the attempt fails: for Angelo and Lucio, and perhaps for Claudio, marriage is not a matter of comic festivity but a punishment for a sexual sin. (In the context of these marriages it makes sense to ask what sin in Isabella the Duke proposes to punish by marriage.) Distrust of sexuality remains so great that we are not allowed to see the reunion on stage of the one potentially happy couple, Claudio and Juliet. Even after sexual soil has been shifted from Isabella to Mariana and then removed from her by the revelation of her virtual marriage to Angelo, a sense of sexual disease persists. Our uneasiness with the final marriage proposal reiterates our uneasiness with the Duke's role throughout: though he directs both Isabella's and Angelo's accommodation to sexuality (see Kirsch's excellent discussion, 1981, 80-89), his own relation to sexuality is deeply problematic. (Uneasiness with the Duke, especially with his sexuality, is now a critical commonplace. See, for example, Levin 1982 and Paris 1981 throughout; Berry 1976/77, 152-59; Rosenberg 1972, 61-71; and Sundelson 1983, 98-100.) In the person of the Duke the play pulls in two directions at once: even while Shakespeare apparently uses him to reconcile the others to their own human nature, he reincarnates a fantasy of escape from that nature, becoming fully an “ungenitur'd agent” (3.2.174) just as Angelo is made to give up that status. Even at the beginning he disdains “the dribbling dart of love” (1.3.2) with an intensity that nearly rivals Angelo's, but he is spared the testing that Angelo must undergo. In his brilliant discussion of Measure for Measure Richard Wheeler suggests persuasively that Shakespeare preserves Vincentio as an ideal figure by displacing “conflict away from [him] and into the world around him”; “Shakespeare … uses Angelo as a scapegoat who suffers in his person the consequences of a conflict Vincentio is thereby spared” (Wheeler 1981, 133, 138). The Duke tells Angelo, “Be thou at full ourself” (1.1.43); and while Angelo enacts the conflicts of the Duke's sexual self, the Duke escapes into the role of friar, the unproblematically “ghostly father” (4.3.48, 5.1.126). In effect, the Duke splits into two figures, the sexual Angelo and the asexual friar. But this split replicates the very split in Angelo—between sexuality and absolute purity, the brothel and the sanctuary—that the play seems designed to cure (see Wheeler 1981, 139). Insofar as the cure rests on the invisible and all-seeing presence of the Duke as asexual ghostly father, the cure replicates the disease. (See Skura 1981, 252-54, for another account of the way in which the cure replicates the disease.)

The Duke's attempt to undo Angelo's psychic structure through the bed trick is only marginally successful because that psychic structure is too deeply embedded in the emotional geography of the play, as in the Duke himself. The rigidity of the psychic structure that would like to exclude sexuality altogether (or at least place it safely beyond bounds, outside the city walls) is reflected not only in the characters of Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke but also in the rigidity and fixity of all the play's physical locations. Brothel and nunnery, prison, moated grange, Angelo's garden—all are felt as distinct places rigidly separated from each other. The Duke promises to embody cure insofar as he crosses boundaries, moving from monastery to prison and moated grange, apparently psychically in control of nunnery, brothel, and the garden in which they meet in fantasy through the bed trick. In the final open street scene the play attempts through the person of the Duke to bring all these locales—each of them representative of a particular psychic space—together and out into the open. But instead of enabling genuine transformations in these places or genuine communication between them, the Duke seems only to transgress their boundaries, enforcing entrance rather than allowing change. Despite his efforts, these psychic places remain separate: married or unmarried, Lucio will remain an inhabitant of the brothel, Isabella of the nunnery, and Angelo of the fallen garden that his sexual fantasy has created. For the play has throughout made its meaning through its radical division into separate places, a division that cannot be canceled by ducal (or authorial) fiat any more than the bed trick can cancel the violence of the sexual splittings that haunt Angelo's imagination—violence that has split even the Duke himself. Our imaginations remain possessed not by Mariana and the promise of marriage that she holds forth but by the triad of Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke: Angelo as the image of sexuality conceived both as corrupting and as inescapable; Isabella as the image of the ferocity of the desire to escape from sexuality so conceived; and the Duke as the image of the asexual ghostly father who alone can protect his children from sexuality. Even at the end the play remains dichotomized into a region of sexual soil, below family, and a region of purity, above it. The Duke's proposal to Isabella suggests Shakespeare's desire to end this dichotomy; our shock—and Isabella's silence—suggest his incapacity to do so.

If we take the bed tricks of All's Well and Measure for Measure as diagnostic of the two plays, then the shift in their management can point to the ways in which Measure for Measure is an undoing of All's Well. (Both Neely 1985, 92-95, and Wheeler 1981, 12-13, 116, compare these bed tricks in terms very similar to mine.) In All's Well marriage is a cure, even if an enforced cure; in Measure for Measure it is a punishment. Despite its final muted fantasy of Helena as virgin mother, All's Well had seemed to promise that legitimate sexuality could be redemptive; in Measure for Measure the relationship between legitimate and illegitimate sexuality itself becomes vexed and all sexuality seems corrupting. Characteristically, then, the bed trick in All's Well functions dramatically to enforce marriage, while the bed trick in Measure for Measure functions to protect virginity. The direction of these differences is summarized in the shift in the agent through whom the bed tricks are realized. The bed trick in All's Well is under the management of Helena, a powerfully sexual woman. But exactly this management seems to be the central image that calls forth male fears in the play—fears of being drained or spent (see, for example, 2.3.281 and 3.2.41-42), ultimately fears of being absorbed into a female figure imagined as larger and more powerful than oneself, fears that Lavatch localizes in his “That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!” (1.3.92-93). Measure for Measure responds to the fears released in All's Well by redoing the bed trick so that it is under the management of a powerful and asexual man, in whose hands the women are merely cooperative pawns (see Riefer's discussion of the diminution of Isabella's power, 1984). That is, the play takes power back from the hands of the women and consolidates it in the Duke; and it allows him special power insofar as it represents him as a ghostly father, divorced from the bonds of natural family. In effect, then, Measure for Measure redoes the sexual act under the aegis of the protectively asexual father rather than of the sexually intrusive mother; in the end it is the pure father rather than the sexual mother who proves to have been everywhere unseen. That the doing and undoing in this pair of plays so closely anticipates that of The Winter's Tale and The Tempest suggests the centrality of these issues in Shakespeare's imagination.

Marliss C. Desens (essay date 2001)

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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 power their society overtly denies them. These attempts may vary from efforts to dominate the dominator, to efforts to achieve a de facto equality not formally recognized in the society at large.1 It is on the second of these that I wish to focus. I would like to suggest that some female characters in Renaissance dramas, and likely some women throughout the society that produced it, found ways of negotiating within the system in order to gain, unofficially, some of the power officially denied them. In this essay, I want to look at marriage as the site of such negotiation. In particular, I am interested in how female characters, approaching the making of a marriage, use their superiority in wealth and social status to create a condition of equality in marriage. While most such efforts—as in some of Shakespeare's comedies, Chapman's The Widow's Tears, and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi—successfully resolve the conflicting tensions inherent in gender and class differences, similar attempts in other plays collapse under the weight of the conflict.

The idea that women negotiate within marriage, either for domination or for a form of equality that the law does not officially recognize, is not new to Tudor or Stuart England. Chaucer addresses this issue of sovereignty in the marriage group of The Canterbury Tales, particularly in “The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale” and in “The Franklin's Tale.” In the first, the Wife of Bath seeks to end her inequality by dominating her various husbands, and yet her tale itself reveals a wistful longing for an equal relationship in which domination would not be necessary. When the husband gives the mastery to the ugly old hag he has been forced to marry, she in turn submits to him and becomes young and beautiful.2 This resolution suggests that the Wife of Bath, at least on an unconscious level, is actually seeking equality rather than domination. Unfortunately, she has no sense of how to gain power within marriage other than by manipulative behavior, which of course ends by destroying any possible basis for equality. In contrast, in “The Franklin's Tale,” the class difference between Dorigen, a woman of high degree, and her husband, a lowly knight, allows them to create a nonhierarchical relationship that only conforms outwardly to society's gender paradigm. He earns her love by performing noble deeds, and she responds by deciding “to take hym for hir housbonde and hir lord, / Of swich lordshipe as men han over hir wyves” (741-42). To reconcile the gender with the social hierarchy, Averagus, who is both superior and inferior, vows “that nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght, / Ne shold upon hym take no maistrie” (746-47). However, he will keep “the name of soveraynetee / That wolde he have for shame of his degree” (751-52). She, in turn, swears that since he proffers her “so large a reyne” that she will be “youre humble trewe wyf” (755-58). Thus, outwardly the marriage will conform to society's gender paradigm, but within the marriage they will be equals.

This issue of negotiation within marriage is also a feature in The Book of Margery Kempe, for Margery's acquisition of independent wealth apparently allows her to negotiate her freedom from the marriage bed in return for paying off her husband's debts. Although we must be careful in drawing conclusions about life in a historical period based solely on literary works, we also need to acknowledge the variables that occur within relationships, variables that may not necessarily coincide with law or custom. Two willing partners could negotiate privately a marriage quite different from the cultural model that gives the husband sole power. While such relationships may not have been the norm, they very likely existed in life as well as literature. These representative medieval works suggest a precedent for similar kinds of relationships depicted in the drama of the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, and it is to those relationships that we now turn.

Shakespeare certainly gave some thought to the possibility of this kind of negotiation, as a number of his comic heroines “marry down,” and in doing so, they apparently retain more power than they otherwise would. In addition to the precedent from medieval literature, he had another important model of such disparity from the Elizabethan stage: Bel-imperia of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Bel-imperia chooses not one but two lower-class lovers, thereby scorning a match with a social equal who would then, by virtue of being male, dominate her. She rejects the dynastic marriage her father, brother, and uncle plan for her with Balthazar—the heir to the Portuguese throne and the murderer of both her lovers. All the men expect her obedience; they speak down to her, dismiss her objections, and deny that she has independent status. One can see why she chose first Andrea, then, after his death, Horatio. With them, she can achieve the equality she cannot find with a man of equal or higher rank. Andrea notes this difference in rank that caused him to work at earning her love rather than taking it for granted:

My name was Don Andrea, my descent,
Though not ignoble, yet inferior far
To gracious fortunes of my tender youth:
For there in prime and pride of all my years,
By duteous service and deserving love,
In secret I possess'd a worthy dame,
Which hight sweet Bel-imperia by name.(3)

The grieving Bel-imperia refers to Andrea as “my garland's sweetest flower, / And in his death have burried my delights” (1.4.4-5). She selects Horatio as her next lover because, as Andrea's friend, he is so much like Andrea, although revenging Andrea and spiting Balthazar may also motivate her. The lovers' dialogue between them in 2.4 suggests that an equal relationship is evolving. The difference in social rank is particularly galling to Balthazar and the males of her family. Lorenzo later attempts to excuse his murder of Horatio by referring to the unsuitability of the men she chose:

Why then, remembering, that old disgrace
Which you for Don Andrea had endur'd,
And now were likely longer to sustain,
By being found so meanly accompanied,
Thought rather, for I knew no readier mean,
To thrust Horatio forth my father's way.


In arranging the marriage to Balthazar, her father and uncle speak of the need to control Bel-imperia. The king tells her father, that he must “take some little pains / To win fair Bel-imperia from her will” (2.3.41-42). “Will,” of course, does not only mean willfulness but also carries the meaning of sexual desire and power, a desire these men seek to curb in “their” women. Marrying her to a man of similar or higher rank reinforces the gender hierarchy.4

Her family misjudges her because she is female, just as they misjudge Hieronimo because he is not of the nobility. In taking on the role of revenger, typically a male role in the drama, and using a knife to stab Balthazar to death,5 she asserts her independence, then kills herself to maintain it. The importance of Bel-imperia in The Spanish Tragedy should not be underestimated. The play was continually revived until the closing of the theaters in 1642, so this idea that women may deliberately choose men of lower class in order to gain a form of equality had continual reinforcement—reinforcement that I would argue is reflected in other plays of the period.6

In addition to precedents from literature, Shakespeare could also have looked to such relationships within his own society. Social historians who have studied marriage patterns have noted that while most marriages appear not to have crossed class lines, some did. There is, however, disagreement as to how frequently such marriages occurred. David Cressy notes that “most English brides belonged to the same occupational or status clusters as their bridegrooms,” and that social equality was considered an important basis for marriage.7 However, according to Alan Macfarlane, marriages that crossed class lines did occur with some frequency. He cites studies by Stone and Laslett to support the contention that “intermarriage between different ranks of society was very common.” He further notes: “Lower down the social scale there is evidence in village studies of considerable marital mobility. The son of a poor labourer often married the daughter of a rich butcher or yeoman.” For men and women, marriage thus becomes “one of the most important strategies in improving one's life chances,” whether by social advancement or by gaining wealth.8 Thus, calculation of benefits and options was important in the making of marriages. This point is also made by Ann Jennalie Cook: “For many, a trade-off between birth and riches offered the only way to rise or to survive in the society.” However, she qualifies that statement by noting that her reading of the research still suggests a need for caution: “On balance, then both historical research and contemporary records do confirm the existence of alliances between those of unequal rank, wealth, or personal gifts. Yet neither the number nor the range must be exaggerated, for both were rather limited.”9 Perhaps these marriages were not the norm, but perhaps that is why they appealed to Shakespeare and his contemporaries as useful dramatic devices. Such marriages may also have been more common among the middle and lower classes, the groups from which most dramatists and actors came.

If we look at Shakespeare's plays, we see, with some frequency, women deliberately choosing men who, in varying degrees, are either below their social level or who are lacking in the wealth the women hold; indeed, they may be lacking in both. Ann Jennalie Cook devotes a chapter in Making a Match to exploring all the unequal marriages—where one spouse outranks the other—that occur in Shakespeare's plays. Such pairings, she notes, occur in his comedies, tragedies, and histories, but “in dramatizing fictional marriages between men and women of unequal rank, Shakespeare hews no single pattern.”10 On the whole, I would agree, but it strikes me that there is a pattern that emerges when we look at the female characters who marry men of lesser rank and wealth, a pattern discerned, in part, by Clara Claiborne Park, although her focus is on how much more intellectually gifted Portia and Rosalind are in comparison to their husbands-to-be, rather than on the women's superiority in social rank and wealth. Thus, Park argues, “If the bright young girl is to be made acceptable—to audiences, to readers, perhaps even to her creator—ways must be found to reduce the impact of her self-confidence, to make sure that equality is kept nominal.11 In other words, the woman must be brought down to the man's level. In terms of psychological dynamics, I agree with Park's thesis, but I question whether it holds in terms of social rank and wealth, particularly in The Merchant of Venice and in Twelfth Night. Portia and Olivia certainly appear to hold onto more power than many of their sister characters, and I would suggest that is because the usual gender hierarchy is to some extent mitigated by their superiority in social rank and wealth.

Some thoughtful female characters comment on their society's gender paradigms in marriage, and they do not like what they see. In Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice has the following reply to her uncle's desire to see her wed: “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster'd with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle I'll none. Adam's sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”12 Men, she is insisting, are not superior to women but equal. If all humans are made out of the dust of the earth, as stated in Genesis, then no one piece of dirt has the right to order around any other piece of dirt. Crispinella, in John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan, takes a similarly dim view of marriage. In the courtship phase, the woman has some power, but that power ends with marriage:

Marry? No, faith; husbands are like lots in the lottery: you may draw forty blanks before you find one that has any prize in him. A husband generally is a careless, domineering thing that grows like coral, which as long as it is under water is soft and tender, but as soon as it has got his branch above the waves is presently hard, stiff, not to be bowed but burst; so when your husband is a suitor and under your choice, Lord, how supple he is, how obsequious, how at your service, sweet lady! Once married, got up his head above, a stiff, crooked, knobby, inflexible, tyrannous creature he grows; then they turn like water, more you would embrace the less you hold. I'll live my own woman.13

She is even more explicit later, as she comments on the double standard of sexual behavior for men and women:

Oh, i' faith, 'tis a fair thing to be married, and a necessary. To hear this word must! If our husbands be proud, we must bear his contempt; if noisome, we must bear with the goat under his armholes; if a fool, we must bear his babble; and, which is worse, if a loose liver, we must live upon unwholesome reversions. Where, on the contrary side, our husbands—because they may, and we must—care not for us. Things hop'd with fear and got with strugglings are men's high pleasures when duty pales and flats their appetite.


Given the views stated here, one can imagine Beatrice and Crispinella going through life as happy spinsters, but such is not the case. Each negotiates a marriage based on the understanding that the husband will not exert the power society grants him. In Much Ado, that understanding is reached in 4.1, when Benedick agrees to kill Claudio, thereby explicitly choosing his future wife over his male friends. In The Dutch Courtesan, that agreement is spelled out in the proposal of Tysefew, Crispinella's suitor: “If you will be mine, you shall be your own. My purse, my body, my heart is yours; only be silent in my house, modest at my table, and wanton in my bed, and the Empress of Europe cannot content, and shall not be contented, better” (4.1.76-79).14

Based on their interactions with their future husbands, Beatrice and Crispinella are able to trust that the men will give them the equal relationships they desire. Portia and Olivia, however, choose husbands where they will have an advantage due to their wealth and social rank. Those advantages will offset the usual gender paradigm and allow for the private negotiation that will create the basis for a more equal relationship. Trust alone, it is suggested, may not be enough without some specific means of enforcing the agreement.

It may seem odd, in the case of Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, to speak of her as “choosing” a husband. After all, her father's will specifies that she must marry whichever man selects the correct casket. Even though she is bound by the will, she has, however, identified the man she would like. The question is, “Why Bassanio?” Various critics have considered this question, and there is some truth in the various answers they suggest. For Clara Claiborne Park, it is as simple as looking at the other suitors who have presented themselves: “Bassanio may be no more than a pleasantly affectionate incompetent in need of a rich wife to free him from his debts. But … among suitors who include a drunken German, an Englishman who speaks no European language, and an African prince … Bassanio looks good. She can make up, after all, what he lacks in intelligence and force.”15 Certainly the audience has no encouragement to favor the other suitors. Frank Whigham, however, argues that “the casket device in fact functions with quite secular effectiveness to select, by stylistic tests, a man of just the right sort of awareness, ultimately reaffirming and supporting a particular class-oriented definition of values.”16 He does not see Portia as making a choice; indeed, his essay focuses on issues of class, as defined by men, but ignores those of gender. I would suggest that Portia's father may have created the test in order to assure that his daughter will have more bargaining power after marriage than law and custom would strictly allow. These details would have been worked out in a marriage settlement, if her father had lived.17 In other words, he may have more faith in the good sense of the daughter he knows than he does in the future son-in-law he does not. The will would also prevent any other relative from arranging a marriage for Portia, so it need not necessarily be seen as her father's lack of trust in her ability to choose a husband. As is often the case, Shakespeare does not close off possibilities.

Portia clearly states that Bassanio is the man she would choose, and that choice stems from the realization that in marrying him, she could gain a more equal relationship.18 When Bassanio chooses the correct casket, Portia gives a speech that is customarily taken as a statement of the legal reality that all the wife's goods become her husband's:

                                                                                          But the full sum of me
Is sum of something; which, to term in gross,
Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractic'd,
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o'er myself; and even now, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours—my lords!—I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.


Ann Jennalie Cook, in her discussion of property and marriage, cites the relevant judicial statement: “But as the law bluntly put it, ‘That which the Husband hath is his owne,’ while ‘That which the Wife hath is the Husbands.’ At the end of the wedding day, the woman yielded up her body, her name, and her worldly goods.”19 However, even though Portia makes this public declaration, does she actually give up everything to Bassanio, or is there a difference between the public statement (what is culturally accepted) and the private reality (what can be negotiated between husband and wife)? Alan Macfarlane points out that while the wife's goods became the husband's upon marriage, “real estate—that is freehold land or housing, or land held by other tenures such as copyhold by a woman at her marriage—was very different. Unless she formally transferred this to her husband, it remained ultimately in her ownership.” In other words, “it remains his wife's, though he can have use of it.”20 Legally, the house and the estate may still be Portia's. In addition to this legal distinction, Bassanio also appears to be properly intimidated by his marriage to this fantastically wealthy, beautiful heiress. After all, it is Portia who offers him the money he needs to redeem Antonio, after he confesses to her that he has come wooing her in wealth for which Antonio has taken out a loan. His recognition of the social and financial gulf between them offsets the gender paradigm that Portia acknowledges in her speech.

Portia makes it clear at the end of the play that she is willing to use the power she has if Bassanio does not give her the equal treatment she desires. In her disguise as the doctor of law sent to rule on Shylock's case, she overhears her new husband proclaim:

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself,
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not to be esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil to deliver you.


Portia's response shows a justifiable irritation: “Your wife would give you little thanks for that / If she were by to hear you make the offer” (4.1.288-89). In Shakespeare's plays, the test of whether a man is ready to be a husband is whether he can put a wife ahead of his male friends. Bassanio obviously needs some schooling in what marriage means, and Portia, using the ring, makes sure to drive the lesson home. Lisa Jardine has argued that in giving the ring, Portia is setting up a legal contract: “If Bassanio parts with the pledge, she will be entitled to ‘exclaim,’ to renounce her claim, to break the betrothal, to renounce the contract drawn up. The formality of this pledge befits the fortune she brings to the marriage, which carries its own contractual obligations and undertakings.” In other words, “the symbolic breach is for Portia contractual (she may default on the property agreement.)”21 Cook disagrees with Jardine, since this is a marriage, not a betrothal, as “their vows are solemnized in church before this happens,” and thus Portia “cannot use such grounds for a dissolution.”22 The issue is confusing, especially since David Cressy, writing on social history, states, “No marriage was complete without consummation.”23 Significantly, consummation is what Portia is rejecting: “By heaven, I will ne'er come in your bed / Until I see the ring!” (5.1.190-91).24 Portia's threat not to consummate the marriage has profound legal consequences, since if she does indeed hold the land and manor in her own right, then at her death, it would not automatically pass to Bassanio, for his lifetime, unless there was a child born alive during the marriage.25 Portia does eventually reveal that Bassanio actually gave the ring to her, but she is letting him know that she expects equality within the marriage, and that she has some power to enforce it.

Olivia's choice in Twelfth Night, handled more subtly, is missed by many critics in discussions of the play, and by many actors and directors in productions of it. Indeed, Viola, in her male disguise, tends to be seen as the resourceful woman, while Olivia is often portrayed as self-indulgent, at best, and scatterbrained, at worst.26 In an astute discussion of the stage history of Twelfth Night, Irene Dash has pointed out the problem Olivia poses for productions: “Since patriarchal values favor the compliant woman over the aggressive one, Viola's breeches, ironically appear far less threatening than Olivia's decision making and husband-wooing.” For Dash, both Viola and Olivia are “grasping at suddenly available freedom” as a result of the deaths of brothers and fathers. However, she also sees them as losing that freedom, for she comments that “at the play's end, neither woman achieves her goal, defeated by contemporary conventions surrounding love and matrimony.”27 While I agree with Dash that Olivia's strength is repeatedly underestimated by critics and directors, I do not agree that her marriage at the end of the play is a defeat. I also question whether the unequal marriage of Olivia and Sebastian is only a matter of “holiday escape” on the stage, as Cook argues, a fairy tale that audiences would have defined only in that way, or whether Sebastian is “the forceful male needed to manage Olivia's chaotic household.”28 The question is why Olivia chooses Cesario/Sebastian over a marriage with Orsino, a man of higher social rank than her own.

The answer is hinted at early in the play. Sir Toby tells Sir Andrew: “She'll none o' the' Count. She'll not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit; I have heard her swear't” (1.3.110). While there is some disagreement on whether Olivia and Orsino are social equals or he is superior,29 a duke clearly outranks a countess. For a woman, marriage even to a social equal immediately puts her in a subordinate position because of the gender hierarchy, and marrying a man of superior rank only reinforces that subordination. Olivia is a woman who easily carries her authority. There is no evidence that her estate is poorly run. Indeed, Sebastian comments on her efficiency, even as he tries to puzzle out her apparently sudden interest in him. She is not mad, he notes, for if she were:

She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs, and their dispatch,
With such a smooth, discreet, and stable bearing
As I perceive she does.


At the play's end, it is Olivia, not her betrothed, Sebastian, who invites Orsino and Viola to share the wedding feast planned for her own nuptials: “One day shall crown th' alliance on't, so please you, / Here at my house and at my proper cost” (5.1.318-19). Earlier, when Sebastian agrees to their betrothal, she allows it to be kept secret until he is ready for it to be known, at which “time we will our celebration keep / According to my birth” (4.3.30-31; all italics mine). Her initial uncertainty on learning that she mistook Sebastian for Cesario may be the momentary fear that she has not obtained that superior power that will allow her to negotiate an equal marriage. Orsino's reassurance, “Be not amaz'd, right noble is his blood” (5.1.264), which focuses on a patriarchal concern with lineage, unexpectedly lets her know that she does still have the means for negotiation. He is “right noble” but not necessarily of her rank, and she likely has the greater wealth.30 She has not been suddenly thrust into the kind of marriage that she would have had with Orsino, a kind that she clearly rejects.

In wooing Olivia, Orsino relies on the privileges his rank and gender give him, and he is unable to accept Olivia's refusal to submit to his control. When she rejects one messenger, he sends another, certain that eventually she will relent. He is caught up in the behavior of the conventional lover who, in focusing on his own desires, reduces the woman to an object. Olivia is correct when she calls his proclaimed love “heresy” (1.5.228), for while he speaks as if she is in control and he is her servant, he is a “perfectly orthodox would-be dominant male.”31 Her refusal begins to anger him. He sends Cesario back with a jewel, as a love token/bribe, and the message, “My love can give no place, bide no denay” (2.4.124). Finally, he comes in person, and his anger is clear:

                                                                                          You uncivil lady,
To whose ingrate and unauspicious altars
My soul the faithfull'st off'rings have breath'd out
That e'er devotion tender'd!


Indeed, he is angry enough that she refuses his suit to consider killing her:

Why should I not (had I the heart to do it),
Like to th' Egyptian thief at point of death,
Kill what I love? (a savage jealousy
That sometime savors nobly).


These are the dynamics of Othello, in which idealization of the woman gives way to anger at the man's inability to control her, and then to hatred and the desire to destroy her. Is it any wonder that Olivia wishes to avoid such a marriage, or that she exercises her own control by wooing a “man” who because of his lesser social rank and wealth will not be able to dominate her in this way? Orsino and Viola belong together because they share the same romantic idealism and, in the end, Viola wants the conventional hierarchical marriage that Olivia rejects. Dash argues that the women in the play must learn to “accept their identities as sexual beings in a male-dominated world.”32 That is true for Viola, perhaps, but not for Olivia, who negotiates exactly the kind of nonconventional marriage she wants.


Although Shakespeare depicted the positive results that can ensue when inequalities of gender must be balanced with inequalities of social rank and wealth, three plays also suggest he was fully aware of its destructive possibilities. In Much Ado about Nothing, it contributes to Claudio's insecurity and the intense anger he displays toward Hero.33 Although critics generally assume that Hero and Claudio are equal in rank and fortune, I am not sure that is the case.34 Shakespeare's sources for the Hero-Claudio plot differ in this regard. In Orlando Furioso, Canto V, the woman is of a higher rank than the man, whereas in Bandello's La Prima Parte de le Novelle, novella 22, the man is of higher rank and greater financial wealth. Spenser's use of the story in The Faerie Queene, 2.4., also depicts the woman as of higher rank than the man.35 Although most discussions assume that Shakespeare is following Bandello, and altering his source by making the couple social equals,36 that assumption is open to question, as Shakespeare's depiction includes features of the story as told in Ariosto.37 Furthermore, the play contains evidence that Hero outranks her future husband and has the greater wealth. Does Claudio's status as “a young lord of Florence” equate with hers as the daughter of the “governor of Messina”? Don John is apparently dubious, for when Borachio announces that Claudio hopes to wed Hero, “the daughter and heir of Leonato,” he responds “a very forward March-chick” (1.3.54-56).38 Apparently, Claudio has an inkling that Hero, her father's only heir, certainly could do better in the marriage market, for he is initially reluctant to tell Don Pedro of his interest, and once he has, he is only too happy to have the Prince not just talk to the lady's father but woo her for him. Although Cook has argued that Don Pedro is here in the tradition of the noble who “exercises his authority and responsibility to make a suitable match for a follower,” and does cite other examples from plays,39 it still seems odd that Claudio speaks neither to father nor daughter until the engagement. Leonato's announcement, “His grace hath made the match” (2.1.303), suggests that Claudio has been accepted due to the Prince's influence. Thus, this sense of social insecurity, along with male anxiety about controlling women, and an inability to integrate the roles of warrior and lover, all become factors in Claudio's rage against Hero in the aborted wedding scene.

A much greater social gap exists between Posthumus and Imogen in Cymbeline. She is the daughter of the king and is heir apparent to the throne, while he is “a poor but worthy gentleman” (1.1.7). Thus, in choosing him “her own price / Proclaims how she esteem'd him,” and shows his virtue, which “by her election may be truly read, / What kind of man he is” (1.1.51-54). However, this opinion of Cymbeline's court is not reflected in Iachimo's comments on the drastic social difference between the two; indeed, Iachimo implies that because his wife outranks him, Posthumus will only be judged by Imogen's worth rather than his own: “This matter of marrying his king's daughter, wherein he must be weigh'd rather by her value than his own, words him” (1.4.14-17). He argues that Imogen's choice, which is praised “to fortify her judgment,” actually suggests that “an easy battery might lay [her] flat, for taking a beggar without less quality” (1.4.19-23). Although when Posthumus makes the wager with Iachimo, he is fully convinced of Imogen's chastity, Iachimo is able to convince him otherwise, even without his most damning evidence, by producing the bracelet Posthumus gave Imogen as a love token. Although a friend points out that it could easily have been stolen, Posthumus insists on taking it as evidence of Imogen's promiscuity. He may not be as quick as Othello to believe reports of his wife's unfaithfulness, but just as in Othello and Much Ado, the violence stems not just from an ingrained patriarchal tendency to see women as either pure or sexually rapacious but from the man's insecurity at knowing that this woman outranks him, with a subsequent loss of his power within the marriage. If she is unchaste, then she is not better than he, and socially he can reassert himself, either by killing her emotionally, as in Much Ado, by killing her himself, as in Othello, or by having her killed, as Posthumus seeks to do. However, Posthumus is unique in that he is the one man in Shakespeare's plays (and perhaps on the English Renaissance stage) who, even when he still believes his wife was guilty, realizes that he had no right to order her death. In his soliloquy at the start of the fifth act, he speaks of men who “murther wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little!” (5.5). He calls his wife “the noble Imogen” (9), refers to “my lady's kingdom” (19), and calls her Britain's “mistress” (20). As if to stress the social distance between them, he disguises himself as a Briton peasant during the battle. While the soliloquy can be read in terms of Imogen's moral superiority, his use of terms equally relevant to social difference suggests that he has, belatedly, resolved the clash between the gender paradigm and that of social rank.

Shakespeare's most comprehensive handling of differences within a marriage—one of which is social rank—occurs in Othello. As Ann Jennalie Cook points out, “Viewed through the lenses of tragedy, the marriage of a man and woman differing in age, birth, upbringing, temperament, nationality, and race can wreak disaster,”40 but she also notes that the play is silent on difference in social rank. She observes that “if, as the Moor claims, ‘I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege’ (1.ii.21-2), then he has wed beneath his rank,” but she also acknowledges Mark Taylor's argument that “as a senator's daughter Desdemona marries below her rank.” While it is true that “rank is the one ground of inequality not charged against her for this marriage,” perhaps that is because it is implicit in the situation.41 Othello may be general of the Venetian army, but he is also an outsider who has no clear social rank in Venice. Given that Desdemona has “shunn'd / The wealthy curled [darlings] of Venice” (1.2.66-67), according to her father, and “forsook so many noble matches” (4.2.125), according to Emilia, the question needs to be asked: What does Desdemona hope to gain from this marriage with a man so different from herself?

The answer lies in the gender paradigm we have been considering, as well as in her cultural context and its paradigm for marriage. According to the gender paradigm, once again, a lady of high degree has responded to the heroic deeds that have ennobled a warrior and thus made him worthy of her love, despite an obvious difference in social rank that must be negotiated within marriage. That difference is here reinforced by the cultural difference. Desdemona, in rejecting the “wealthy curled [darlings]” of Venice, is also, ironically as it turns out, rejecting the paradigm of the jealous Italian husband in the traditional Venetian marriage.42 When she first realizes the handkerchief is missing, she is confident of her husband's response:

                                                  And but my noble Moor
Is true of mind, and not made of no such baseness
As jealious creatures are, it were enough
To put him to ill thinking.
                                                                                                    Is he not jealious?
Who, he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humors from him.


Her confidence springs from the belief that Othello differs from all those “wealthy curled [darlings]” of Venice that she has rejected. Certainly, Othello initially gives her a freedom bordering on equality. He allows her to be “half the wooer” (1.3.176), approves of her deception of her father, and asks that she be allowed to address the Duke and council to speak in her own behalf. At this point, he sees her as a fellow outsider, and thus an equal in their joint battle against her father's opposition to the marriage.

Desdemona apparently expected that the difference in social rank, as well as the cultural difference, would create the possibility for the kind of negotiation that would give her a more equal marriage than she could expect with a man of her own society. She expects that Othello will continue to respond to her as an equal. Once the marriage is accepted by the Duke and Venetian senate, however, Othello no longer needs an ally and expects Desdemona to return to the traditionally subordinate role. The traditional hierarchy in their marriage is reinforced by the age difference, as well as by the fact that in eloping, she lost the advantage of independent wealth (Othello must “crave fit disposition for my wife” when the Senate gives him command at Cyprus), as well as that of powerful relatives (her father disowns her). If Othello considers himself a social equal, then that expected advantage is negated also. Even before Iago has begun to put his plan into motion, we see some friction between the couple, as she assumes she has a prerogative to discuss Cassio's reinstatement with Othello. Cassio has not yet asked for her help, but Emilia tells him, “the general and his wife are talking of it, / And she speaks for you stoutly” (3.1.43-44). Later, Othello is apparently uncomfortable with the direct role Desdemona is taking, for he attempts to divert her request rather than answering directly. She, for her part, attempts to get a specific answer:

                                                  Good love, call him back.
Not now, sweet Desdemon, some other time.
But shall't be shortly?
                                                  The sooner, sweet, For you.
Shall't be to-night at supper?
No, not to-night.
To-morrow dinner then?
                                                  I do not dine at home;
I meet the captains at the citadel.
Why then to-morrow night, [or] Tuesday morn;
On Tuesday noon, or night; on We'n'sday morn.
I prithee name the time, but let it not
Exceed three days.


Othello finally agrees to Cassio's return, but he ties it directly to his emotional attachment to Desdemona, who replies that she has not asked a “boon” but is giving rational advice: “'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, / Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm” (3.2.77-78). Othello then requests that she “leave me, but a little to myself” (3.2.85). He is clearly uneasy with her appeals to him on equal ground, and he is no doubt also feeling uneasy about the emotional power he feels that his love gives her.43

Thus, Iago, in his role as catalyst, has plenty of material on which to work. Desdemona, assuming equality, initially attempts to resolve her problems with Othello through logical arguments, and then, after being hit and subjected to his verbal and emotional abuse, through an increasingly traditional female subordination. Finally, she sends Emilia away on the fatal night because “we must not now displease him” (4.2.17). Like many a victim of gender violence, before and since, she recalls the hope of the early relationship with its promise of equality, even as she switches to compliance in a desperate attempt to alleviate the rapidly growing chasm of inequality with herself as victim. When Emilia asks the dying Desdemona who has killed her, she replies enigmatically, “Nobody; I myself” (5.2.124). Desdemona had hoped that the differences between Venetian men and Othello would allow her a more equal marriage. She did not understand what Emilia knew only too well: in this society, the male drive to dominate women, of which jealousy is a symptom, has made that impossible from the start.

Shakespeare was clearly fascinated with exploring the dynamics of women marrying down in terms of social rank and fortune. In addition to the plays discussed here, it is also a feature in As You Like It, where both Rosalind and Celia marry below their rank, as well as in the marriage of Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana in The Comedy of Errors. That other dramatists also chose to explore this idea of women marrying down suggests that the issues it raises are not necessarily unique to Shakespeare, although he does explore it in greater depth than any of the others, over a wider range of plays. While it may not always yield a positive outcome, on the whole, the decision by the woman in these plays to cross class boundaries gives hope for a more successful resolution of the inequality inherent in a patriarchal system of marriage. Although the female characters who marry beneath their social level may not always have the steely strength of Bel-imperia, they are after the same goal: a more equal relationship than would be possible with men of their own or a higher rank. That this dynamic is so widespread in the earlier drama of the English Renaissance44 suggests that issues of gender and class were of particular concern, especially when it gave women the power to move out of the subordinate position to which their gender had seemingly confined them. When class and gender hierarchies collide, there is uncertainty, and such uncertainty may give women their best opportunity to gain at least a more equal marriage than they could otherwise expect. However, it may also widen fissures by exacerbating male insecurity, thereby leading to male attempts to reassert the gender hierarchy in violent and deadly ways. It is a calculated risk by the female characters who choose this strategy, but a risk that many are shown as willing to take.


  1. The stereotype of the henpecked husband clearly illustrates the first, while the paradigm of a marriage where a wife, considered subordinate by her culture, considers herself an equal partner illustrates the second.

  2. Upon seeing her transformation, he embraces and kisses her, while “she obeyed hym in every thyng / That myghte doon hym pleasance or likying.” See Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath's Tale,” in The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed., ed. F. N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), lines 1255-56). Further references to this edition appear in the text.

  3. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards (London: Methuen and Co., 1959; repr. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), 1.1.5-11. Further references to this edition appear in the text.

  4. The same dynamic occurs in Grim the Collier of Croydon (c. 1600), by William Haughton. Morgan, Earl of London, wishes to marry his daughter to Lacy, Earl of Kent, a man of his own age, but she prefers Musgrave, a young gentleman. Morgan sets up a bed-trick in which his daughter, believing she is sleeping with Musgrave, will actually be matched with Lacy. He soliloquizes about the need to keep his daughter controlled by reinforcing the gender hierarchy with those of age and social rank:

    And then my Lord of Kent shall be my Sonne;
    Should I go wed my Daughter to a Boy?
    No, no, young girles must have their Wills restrain'd,
    For if the Rule be theirs, all runnes to nought.


    His daughter will not be under effective male control after she marries unless she weds an older man who is a social equal or superior. See William Haughton, Grim the Collier of Croydon, in A Choice Ternary of English Plays; “Gratiae Theatrales” (1662), ed. William M. Baillie (Binghamton, N. Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984).

  5. I know of only two other female revengers in this early drama. One is Perseda in Soliman and Perseda, also by Kyd. Perseda, however, uses a poisoned kiss to kill her husband's murderer. The other female revenger, Videna in Gorboduc, is a mother who revenges the murder of her son by stabbing her other son who killed him.

  6. One could, of course, make the argument that Bel-imperia, as a member of the royal family of Spain, is behaving irresponsibly, as she has a political duty to her nation. Audiences of the time would also know that Henry VI's and Edward IV's matrimonial choices, that put personal desire ahead of the nation's political good, had created social disaster. Ann Jennalie Cook has a good discussion of such marriages in Shakespeare's history plays. See Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 50-52. However, The Spanish Tragedy is only peripherally concerned with the nation; the focus is instead on personal relationships (within families, between lovers) and on the class distinctions within that society.

  7. David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 256.

  8. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1800 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 257; 258; 253.

  9. Ann Jennalie Cook, Making a Match, 43; 47.

  10. Ibid., 53.

  11. Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Women's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 105.

  12. William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, ed. Anne Barton, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd. ed., ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997), 2.1.59-65. All references to Shakespeare's plays will be to this edition.

  13. John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. M. L. Wine (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3.1.67-79. Further references to this edition appear in the text.

  14. A woman who does choose spinsterhood and its freedom over marriage is Moll, the cross-dressing woman in The Roaring Girl:

    I have no humour to marry. I love to lie o' both sides o' th' bed myself; and again, o' th' other side, a wife, you know, ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore I'll ne'er go about it. … I have the head now of myself, and am man enough for a woman; marriage is but a chipping and changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse i' th' place.

    See Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl, ed. Paul Mulholland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), 2.2.36-45.

  15. Park, “As We Like It,” 109. Although Park suggests that Portia rejects the African prince because a cross-racial marriage does not appeal to her, and Portia does say this, it should be noted that the prince has personality flaws that put him in the same category as the other suitors. His rank would also put Portia firmly in a subordinate position.

  16. Frank Whigham, “Ideology and Class Conduct in The Merchant of Venice,” in Renaissance Drama, New Series, 10, ed. Leonard Barkan (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1979), 97.

  17. Alan Macfarlane explains that a woman who had been through a church wedding had “an automatic right of ‘dower’ whereby a woman was seized of one-third of her husband's freehold estate for life. This could not be taken from her, waived or undermined, and it needed no specification or contract to protect it.” However, negotiations before a marriage might also include a “contractual jointure … to provide more generous terms for the wife, over and above the common law dower.” See Marriage and Love in England, 282. Macfarlane, however, does not note that the jointure could be less than dower, and that wives who were given a jointure before marriage lost any dower rights. Portia's father realizes he will not be alive to conduct those negotiations.

  18. There is an ongoing debate as to whether Portia, by her choice of song, instructs Bassanio on the correct casket. If so, then she is actively choosing him; if not, she does choose him, but she still needs her father's test to ratify her choice.

  19. Cook, Making a Match, 166.

  20. Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England, 274. See also the detailed discussion on 275-76.

  21. Lisa Jardine, “Cultural Confusion and Shakespeare's Learned Heroines: ‘These are old paradoxes,’” in Reading Shakespeare Historically (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 59.

  22. Cook, Making a Match, 177 n. 92.

  23. Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death, 374. See also 564, n. 76.

  24. In Shakespeare's source, the relationship was consummated before the young man returned to Venice. See the translation of “The First Story of the fourth Day of Ser Giovanni,” Il Pecorone, reprinted in the 2nd Arden edition of The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen & Co., 1955, repr. 1979).

  25. See Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England, 275.

  26. In the Trevor Nunn film (1996), the silly strain in Olivia is played up, although she is allowed to maintain some dignity. The “Live from Lincoln Center” production that aired in fall 1998 on American television depicts Olivia as a shallow woman.

  27. Irene G. Dash, “Challenging Conventions: Twelfth Night,” in Women's Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997), 212; 211.

  28. Cook, Making a Match, 62.

  29. Cook summarizes some of this disagreement in Making a Match, 61 n. 56.

  30. In the source, the story of Apolonius and Silla, in Barnabe Riche His Farewell to Military Profession, the brother and sister are children of a duke who is still alive. The change in social status—to make Viola and Sebastian of lesser rank than their marriage partners—appears to be deliberate on Shakespeare's part.

  31. I owe this succinct phrasing to my colleague, Constance Kuriyama, who read this essay and offered suggestions for sharpening arguments and improving clarity.

  32. Dash, Women's Worlds, 244.

  33. I describe it as “contributing” because it is one of several factors. Carol Thomas Neely's discussion of Much Ado clearly examines the social and psychological roots of the men's fear of female control. The men, she notes, deal with possible female betrayal and subsequent male loss of power in three ways: “they deny its possibility through idealization, anticipate it through misogyny, or transform it, through the motif of cuckoldry, into an emblem of male virility.” See Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 41. She also points out that the men must break with their male peers in order to marry (32).

  34. Among these are Cook, Making a Match, 94. See also A. R. Humphreys, in the introduction to the second Arden Much Ado about Nothing (London: Methuen, 1981), 11, and R. A. Foakes, introduction to Much Ado about Nothing (New York: Penguin, 1968), who writes that Claudio and Hero are “apparently of the same rank, and untroubled by disparity of fortune,” (15).

  35. The squire says:

    It was my fortune commune to that age,
              To loue a ladie faire of great degree,
              The which was borne of noble parentage,
              And set in highest seat of dignitee,
              Yet seemd no lesse to loue, than loued to bee:
              Long I her serv'd, and found her faithful still,
              Ne euer thing could cause vs disagree:
              Loue that two harts makes one; makes eke one will:
    Each stroue to please, and others pleasure to fulfill.

    See Edmund Spenser, The Faeire Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (London and New York: Penguin 1978, repr. 1987), 2.4.19.

  36. Jean E. Howard, argues that “while the Hero figure in the source is of humble origins, that is not true of Shakespeare's Hero,” and she claims Don Pedro “promotes a union between social equals and so strengthens the existing social order.” See “Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado about Nothing,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 175. She follows Charles T. Prouty's assertions in The Sources of “Much Ado about Nothing” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 43-44.

  37. Ariosto provides the detail of the maid who unwittingly is used in place of her mistress for a supposed rendezvous. In sharp contrast to Claudio, this version has the lover, who thinks he had been betrayed, return to defend his lady in trial by combat against his own brother, even though he still believes her guilty. Bandello's story provides the feigned death of the lady and her subsequent resurrection once her name is cleared. In Spenser, the jealous lover kills his betrothed.

  38. Cook takes this line as referring to Don John's supposing Hero is seeking to marry the prince, Don Pedro. However, Don John is clearly talking about Claudio's intended marriage to her.

  39. Cook, Making a Match, 94.

  40. Ibid, 68.

  41. Ibid, 52-53 n. 42. See also Mark Taylor, Shakespeare's Darker Purpose: A Question of Incest (New York: AMS Press, 1982), 11.

  42. Part of Iago's genius is that he not only convinces Othello that Desdemona conforms to the stereotype of the sexually promiscuous Venetian woman, but he is able to elicit from Othello behavior that conforms to the stereotype of the jealous Italian husband—well known to Shakespeare's audience from the Italian novellas. For a more detailed discussion, see Margo Hendricks, “‘The Moor of Venice’ or the Italian on the Renaissance English Stage,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 193-209.

  43. Much has been written about Othello's inability to resolve sexual issues. Carol Thomas Neely, in Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, analyzes these dynamics from a feminist perspective, as does Gayle Greene in “‘This That You Call Love’: Sexual and Social Tragedy in Othello,” originally published in Journal of Women's Studies in Literature 1 (1979): 16-32, and reprinted in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, ed. Deborah E. Barker and Ivo Kamps (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 47-62. By drawing attention to the issue of “marrying down” in this play, I by no means wish to downplay the importance of those sexual issues, but only to point out that Desdemona's quest for equality is a contributing factor. Another would be the differing cultural expectations that Othello and Desdemona bring to the marriage, an issue that Neely explores in “Circumscriptioins and Unhousedness: Othello in the Borderlands,” in Shakespeare and Gender, 302-15.

  44. I say “earlier” Renaissance drama because a preliminary survey suggests that it is much less common in the later drama.

Further Reading

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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 Measure.

Black, James. “The Latter End of Prospero's Commonwealth.” Shakespeare Survey 43 (1991): 29-41.

Contends that the harmonious marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand orchestrated by Prospero in The Tempest redeems the grotesque and enforced unions depicted in the earlier phases of the play.

Boose, Lynda E. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA 97, no. 3 (May 1982): 325-47.

Studies the relationship between overprotective fathers and their daughters and sons-in-law in Shakespearean drama.

Briggs, Julia. “Shakespeare's Bed-Tricks.” Essays in Criticism 44, no. 4 (October 1994): 293-314.

Examines the sources and consequences of deceitful sexual conquests (“bed-tricks”) that lead to marriage in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure.

Cacicedo, Alberto. “‘She is fast my wife’: Sex, Marriage, and Ducal Authority in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 187-209.

Claims that an unequal distribution of wealth and power among men is ameliorated by complete male control over women in marriage within the patriarchal social order of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Cook, Ann Jennalie. Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991, 273 p.

In-depth sociohistorical study of marriage and courtship in early modern England as reflected through the canon of Shakespearean drama.

Daniell, David. “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio.” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 23-31.

Argues for an interpretation of the union between Katherine and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew that stresses their mutuality.

Fortier, Mark. “Married with Children: The Winter's Tale and Social History; or, Infanticide in Earlier Seventeenth-Century England.” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 4 (December 1996): 579-603.

Sociocultural assessment of the The Winter's Tale that focuses on Shakespeare's critique of marriage and the nuclear family in the play.

Friedman, Michael D. “‘Hush'd on Purpose to Grace Harmony’: Wives and Silence in Much Ado About Nothing.Theatre Journal 42, no. 3 (October 1990): 350-63.

Suggests that the outspoken Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing ultimately sacrifices her feminine power by entering into a marriage that effectively silences her.

———. “Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 35, no. 2 (spring 1995): 231-49.

Probes the opposition between male social relations and the impetus toward marriage in All's Well That Ends Well and Much Ado, particularly emphasizing the ways in which this conflict is reflected through theatrical performance.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “The Marriage of Male Minds in Shakespeare's Sonnets.” JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 84, no. 3 (July 1985): 328-47.

Centers on the homoerotic subtext of Shakespeare's sonnets and their minor theme of the impossibility of marriage for love.

Hayne, Victoria. “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 1 (spring 1993): 1-29.

Explores the comic conventions underlying the three nuptials in Measure for Measure as they reflect different versions of the drama's central theme: marriage as a means of socially legitimizing sexuality.

Heffernan, Carol F. “The Taming of the Shrew: The Bourgeoisie in Love.” Essays in Literature 12, no. 1 (spring 1985): 3-14.

Reads The Taming of the Shrew as a critique of middle-class social values and marriage patterns.

Hennings, Thomas P. “The Anglican Doctrine of the Affectionate Marriage in The Comedy of Errors.Modern Language Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June 1986): 91-107.

Elucidates the celebration of Christian matrimonial and familial ideals in The Comedy of Errors.

Hibbard, G. R. “Love, Marriage and Money in Shakespeare's Theatre and Shakespeare's England.” In The Elizabethan Theatre VI, edited by G. R. Hibbard, pp. 134-55. Hamden, Conn.: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1975.

Contrasts Shakespeare's romanticized depictions of matrimony in his comedies with a number of documented real-life marriages from the early modern period in England.

Hill, W. Speed. “Marriage as Destiny: An Essay on All's Well That Ends Well.English Literary Renaissance 5, no. 3 (autumn 1975): 344-59.

Traces Helena's course toward an equal marriage with Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well.

Hopkins, Lisa. “What Makes a Marriage?” In The Shakespearean Marriage: Merry Wives and Heavy Husbands, pp. 66-84. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998.

Traces Shakespeare's critique of marriage in his otherwise comic plays Love's Labour's Lost, Much Ado about Nothing, and Measure for Measure.

———. “The Fate of the Nation: Marriage in the History Plays.” In The Shakespearean Marriage: Merry Wives and Heavy Husbands, pp. 85-108. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998.

Considers the problematic marriages depicted in Shakespeare's historical dramas Henry V, Richard III, and King John as unions strained by the irreconcilability of personal and public demands.

Korda, Natasha. “Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 109-31.

Marxist-materialist assessment of The Taming of the Shrew that centers on the commodification of Katherine in marriage and the shifting modes of production in domestic economies.

Mikesell, Margaret Lael. “‘Love Wrought These Miracles’: Marriage and Genre in The Taming of the Shrew.Renaissance Drama n.s. 20 (1989): 141-67.

Studies Shakespeare's revisions of his source material for The Taming of the Shrew to produce a play that conforms thematically with a late-sixteenth-century Protestant conception of marriage.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985, 261 p.

Investigates patterns of disrupted or delayed marriage in such plays as Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra.

Nelson, T. G. A., and Charles Haines. “Othello's Unconsummated Marriage.” Essays in Criticism 33, no. 1 (January 1983): 1-18.

Views Othello's failure to consummate his marriage to Desdemona as a central issue in Othello that defines a crucial limitation in his heroic code.

Newman, Karen. “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.” In Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, pp. 33-50. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Applies feminist and psychoanalytical theoretical approaches to the culturally constructed gender codes and conflicts of Renaissance marriage dramatized in The Taming of the Shrew.

Raley, Marjorie. “Claribel's Husband.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 95-110. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Emphasizes an unstaged Tunisian marriage referred to in The Tempest as a suppressed, potentially disruptive element in the drama that complicates the normative and harmonious union of Miranda and Ferdinand.

Ray, Sid. “‘Rape, I fear, was root of thy annoy’: The Politics of Consent in Titus Andronicus.Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1998): 22-39.

Considers the mutilation and rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus in the contexts of marriage and monarchy, interpreting these violent acts as signifiers of gendered and political repression.

Scott, Margaret. “‘Our City's Institutions’: Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure.ELH 49, no. 4 (winter 1982): 790-804.

Observes that the draconian legal code of Shakespeare's Vienna in Measure for Measure should not be construed as a literal stage representation of English matrimonial law, despite this widespread assumption among critics.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “Sacred and Sexual Motifs in All's Well That Ends Well.Renaissance Quarterly 42, no. 1 (spring 1989): 33-59.

Endeavors to reconstruct the meaning of All's Well That Ends Well as it would have been perceived by Renaissance audiences in regard to marriage, love, and the notorious bed-trick.

Watson, Robert N. “The State of Life and Power of Death: Measure for Measure.” In Shakespearean Power and Punishment, edited by Gillian Murray Kendall, pp. 130-56. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Conceives of Measure for Measure as a tragicomedy in which the problem of mortality in Protestant society is solved through socially sanctioned and fruitful marriage.

Wayne, Valerie. “Historical Difference: Misogyny and Othello.” In The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, pp. 153-79. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

Examines the conversation between Desdemona and Iago in Act II, scene i of Othello in order to address the drama as part of a Renaissance discourse on misogyny aimed toward the social role of women and ideology of marriage.

Wentersdorf, Karl P. “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure: A Reconsideration.” Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 129-44.

Briefly summarizes recent critical debate on the depiction of marriage laws in Measure for Measure and asserts that Shakespeare attempted to survey the broad range of Renaissance controversy and ambiguity concerning matrimony and sexual morality in the drama.

Wexler, Joyce. “A Wife Lost and/or Found.” Upstart Crow 8 (1988): 106-17.

Applies the deconstructive principle of indecidability to The Winter's Tale, questioning the drama's patriarchal assumptions regarding relationships between women and men in marriage.

Williams, George W. “Kate and Petruchio: Strength and Love.” English Language Notes 29, no. 1 (September 1991): 18-24.

Views Kate's acceptance of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew as her tacit acknowledgment of a symbolic social order involving a balance “between strength and affection, force and love” in marriage.


Magic and the Supernatural


Marriage as Comic Closure