Shakespeare's numerous depictions of marriage in his comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances suggest the pivotal importance of this subject to his dramas. Contemporary scholars are interested in Shakespeare's diverse portrayals of marriage, which present wedlock as the end of comedy, the source of historical legitimacy, the origin of tragedy, and the romantic point of reconciliation. Although marriage is ubiquitous in all of Shakespeare's works, critics observe that it is undoubtedly the central concern of at least two plays. In The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio's forceful wooing of the stubborn and shrewish Katherine (Kate) suggests that marriage may be a cruel form of punishment, although Shakespeare moderated this position for comic effect by the play's conclusion. Another ostensibly comedic play with troubling overtones, Measure for Measure depicts marriage as a contract entered not for love or romance, but as the only satisfactory solution to the vexing problem of human sexuality. The comedies and romances tend to portray matrimony as a desired end, while the tragedies and bleaker histories dramatize marriage as the cause of suffering and strife. A select survey suggests the broad range of Shakespeare's depictions of marriage: an ephemeral solution (Romeo and Juliet), an illicit or incestuous pairing (Hamlet), a source of jealousy and anxiety (Othello), an elusive prize (Love's Labour's Lost), a symbol of renewal and reconciliation (The Tempest), or quite simply a happy ending (All's Well That Ends Well). Ann Jennalie Cook (1981) illuminates differences between Shakespeare's dramatic representations of marriage and the social customs of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Cook claims that far from depicting cultural norms, Shakespeare's dramas generally reflect certain extraordinary situations in regard to courtship and marriage, extreme circumstances he may have employed to highlight elements of corruption, injustice, or absurdity associated with the institution of marriage. Margaret Loftus Ranald (1979) summarizes Shakespeare's use of English matrimonial law as a thematic and plotting device in Shakespearean drama. She contends that “marriage is the one human relationship portrayed in almost every play and almost every poem. … If we are to understand Shakespeare's plays fully, we must recover as much as possible of his views of marriage.”
Theatergoing audiences generally recognize the celebration of one or more happy marriages as a fundamental requisite to a satisfactory conclusion in Shakespearean comedy. Many contemporary scholars, however, dismiss the notion that Shakespeare's comedies can or should be understood as endorsements of marriage. Coppélia Kahn (1975) considers The Taming of the Shrew to be Shakespeare's quintessential comic dramatization of matrimony. Taking a feminist approach to the work, Khan argues that Shakespeare's comedy satirizes the concept of male dominance as a pillar of matrimonial stability and harmony by exploring Katherine's subversion of chauvinist attitudes regarding marriage. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) suggests that Shakespeare's comic nuptials demonstrate varied patterns of disruption, postponement, or dislocation brought about by feminine resistance (The Taming of the Shrew), female fear of submission (Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing), a male perception of marriage as a threat to masculine friendship (The Merchant of Venice, Love's Labour's Lost), or in some cases a combination of these factors. Janet Adelman (1989) focuses on so-called bed-tricks (clandestine exchanges of sexual partners) in All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure as problematic attempts to legitimize illicit sexuality prior to marriage. Also concerned with matrimony in Measure for Measure, Michael D. Friedman's (1995) study suggests that contemporary attitudes toward wedded union and romantic love have skewed the meaning of the marriage proposals in the drama. According to Friedman, Renaissance audiences would have recognized that the play's three marriage proposals were meant as offers of recompense for male assaults on female chastity. Lisa Hopkins (see Further Reading) highlights marriage evasions in Love's Labour's Lost, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado about Nothing, declaring that Shakespeare consistently undercut expectations of marriage as the source of comic closure in these dramas.
Critics have noted that rather than a source of harmony, redemption, stability, or metamorphosis, marriages in the tragedies are often an impetus to disaster. Michael D. Bristol (1990) defines the concept of “charivari”—a festive ritual of “unmarrying” performed as a community objection to an unacceptable marriage—as a structural principle in Othello. Avoiding an interpretation of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago as psychological entities, Bristol stresses the symbolic function of these characters according to his scheme: because of racial differences between the wedded Othello and Desdemona, Othello occupies the role of the mocked clown, Desdemona is the impossible sexual object, and Iago plays the part of “de-mythologizer” by offering ironic commentary on this carnivalesque marriage of grotesque opposites. The result, according to Bristol, is a theatrical reenactment of ritualized cruelty, inscribed within the tragic downfall of Othello and victimization of Desdemona. Lisa Jardine (1991) probes the unlawful marriage of Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet, which invalidates Hamlet's succession as king of Denmark. Jardine emphasizes not only Gertrude's guilt and responsibility for entering the illegitimate union, but also her agency as an active participant, rather than as a victim of patriarchal oppression. Lisa Hopkins (1998) surveys Shakespeare's tragic marriages, suggesting that the tragedies provide valuable commentary on the use of marriage as comic resolution: whereas comedies end in marriage, tragedies begin with them. Firstly, Hopkins analyzes Romeo and Juliet, explaining that the play “inextricably intertwines marriage and death.” Hopkins also views the marriages in King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello as catalysts for tragedy. Lear's failure to accept the marriage of his youngest daughter Cordelia, the incestuous match of Gertrude and her brother-in-law Claudius, the sterility of marriage between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the socially conditioned incompatibility of Othello and Desdemona all precipitate calamity. Hopkins concludes by summarizing these catastrophic marriages as symbolically disruptive to social norms of sexuality, legitimacy, succession, or race.
The marriages in Shakespeare's romances, in contrast to his comedies and tragedies, suggest some of Shakespeare's most affirmative views on the subject. Stephen Orgel (1984) considers several interrelated issues in The Tempest, including marriage, authority, and the renunciation of power. For Orgel, the absence of Prospero's wife on the island contributes to an instability that prompts a search for a surrogate to fill the empty space, which Prospero finds in the younger generation. Using his magical powers, he undertakes to join his daughter Miranda with the shipwrecked young noble Ferdinand. The process plays out on two levels: one symbolic, the other political. Prospero's generation—characterized by loss, fraternal strife, usurpation, and exile—finds rejuvenation in the next. Simultaneously, Prospero thwarts his usurpers, foiling his brother's succession to the dukedom of Milan and quietly regaining his old authority through his daughter. Meanwhile, the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand offers a thematic gesture toward reconciliation, and begins a movement into a less discordant future. D'Orsay Pearson (1987) discusses A Midsummer Night's Dream as a depiction of harmony in marriage. Rather than accepting the traditional Renaissance view that matrimonial bliss derives from male sovereignty and feminine obedience—a feature demonstrated in the pairings of Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania—Pearson contends that Shakespeare's romantic comedy demonstrates that masculine superiority is an illusion, and instead substitutes tolerance and reciprocity for gendered hierarchy. Finally, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1989) studies Shakespeare's dramatization of the Protestant marriage ideal in Cymbeline. Simonds examines references to the emblematic patience and forbearance of the elm tree embraced and entwined by a reinforcing vine, and claims that the references to this peaceful, symbiotic union would have had moral, social, and even political relevance to Renaissance audiences on the subject of marriage.