William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download William Shakespeare Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Marriage as Comic Closure

Lisa Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University

The most outstanding feature of Shakespearean comedy is its pervading obsession with marriage. In many instances single or multiple marriages are used to provide comic closure, as in As You Like It and Love's Labour's Lost, in which four couples marry or are expected to marry, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, in each of which three couples marry, and Much Ado About Nothing and Two Gentlemen of Verona, in each of which two couples marry. In other examples the very fact of marriage is used as the mainspring of the comedy, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the very title of the play indicates the importance of marriage, or, to a lesser extent, The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, in each of which a marital relationship plays a central part. Indeed, marriage is so central a topic in Shakespearean comedy that it is the presence of marriages in their plots which has problematised the genre classifications of both the late romances and the two 'dark' comedies, Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends Well, and which provides the main justification for whatever claim they are accorded to be treated as comedies.1 We know, moreover, that many of Shakespeare's comedies bear clear marks of having been written expressly for performance as part of the celebrations surrounding the solemnisation of actual marriages, so that the connection would have been still more obvious to their original audiences.

But for all that the plays can indeed be grouped together with reasonable accuracy into these broad classifications, to do so obscures both some significant and some interesting differences between them, and also the problematic ways in which marriage is generally treated in these plays. For one thing, despite the traditional view that marriage provides comic closure, this is, in fact, very rarely achieved.2 The idea is of course drawn on—the audience is repeatedly encouraged to expect that the proceedings will be appropriately closed with a wedding—but these expectations are then either disappointed, or gratified in such a way that the spectator will be forced to question both the meaning of the events he or she has witnessed and also the assumptions underlying his or her response to the events.

Marriage is appropriate as a provider of closure for comedy because it focuses primarily on the experience of the group, as opposed to the individualist, isolationist emphasis of tragedy. The tragic hero lives and dies a fundamentally lonely figure, traumatically separated from his God, his society and his surroundings. Marriage both counters this element of separation by showing humans in a relationship which is, in theory at least, one of indissoluble bonding, and also holds out the promise of renewed life in the birth of offspring (referred to both in the words of the marriage ceremony and in Elizabethan wedding customs, and assumed to be the inevitable product of all heterosexual intercourse).3 The ultimate polar opposite of the tragic closure provided by death would of course be birth itself, which is indeed sometimes used in this symbolic sense (All's Well that Ends Well may be taken as an example of this); but birth, too, places primacy on the experience of the isolated individual, and the social ritual of marriage, with its stress on continuity and group survival, therefore provides a more effective counterbalance to the finality implied in the death of the tragic individual.

Such an emphasis on continuity is undoubtedly present in much of Shakespeare's work. It can be traced explicitly through the first 18 of his sonnets, and it can also be detected in Oberon's blessing of the bridal bed in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in Rosalind's reference to Orlando, almost as soon as she sees him, as 'my child's father'.4 It is also possible to discern in Shakespeare's comedies clear signs of the conservatism which is so often felt to flourish in comedy: the...

(The entire section is 8,432 words.)