William Shakespeare Marriage as Comic Closure - Essay


(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 lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream may flee from Athens at the outset of the play in rebellion against the patriarchal order articulated by Theseus and Egeus, but they do so only to find themselves in a wood ruled by' a patriarch just as powerful (a point neatly made by the theatrical tradition of using the actor who plays Theseus to double Oberon), and at the end of the play the two couples willingly return to the society from which they had fled to take their allotted parts as leading members of it and, no doubt, to assist in its perpetuation. In similar fashion, Rosalind, Celia, Oliver and Orlando return from the Forest of Arden, where they had so briefly glimpsed a world in which traditional gender roles could be reversed and the patriarchal system of property division overturned by Oliver's renunciation of his patrimony in favour of Orlando, to take their places in the hierarchy of the court; and in The Two Gentlemen of Verona the excursion into the forest of Valentine, Proteus, Silvia and Julia merely enables them to return to the city properly established as clearly defined couples. In Hamlet and King Lear, Othello and Macbeth, worlds may be broken and assumptions overturned; in the comic universe, however, the world not only remains fundamentally the same, but is indeed reinforced by the reaffirmation of that most basic of all props of social and patriarchal order, marriage.

Although these elements of conservatism may doubtless be traced, other factors, far more radical, are also at work. It is noteworthy that although single or multiple marriages are almost invariably the obvious goal of Shakespearean comedy and are clearly signalled from the outset, either by such transparent devices as the King of Navarre's misogyny,5 which is clearly riding for a fall, or by the even more obvious sign of a crucially placed, slow-paced meeting between the hero and heroine such as that between Rosalind and Orlando, this expected telos is only very rarely attained within the confines of the play itself. The truism that Shakespeare's comedies all end with marriages is not true. There was of course no theoretical prescription that all comedies should end thus—indeed, comedy in general lacked a theory such as that supplied by Aristotle for tragedy—but there was nevertheless a growing tradition which established marriage as the goal at least of romantic comedy. That tradition Shakespeare habitually disrupts.

As You Like It

(Shakespearean Criticism)

As You Like It may appear to contradict this assertion immediately, since it closes with not one but four weddings: those of Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver, Silvius and Phebe and Touchstone and Audrey.6 But although the audience certainly perceives these couples as having been finally united and receives the appropriate sense of comic closure, the weddings do not take place on stage, or indeed within the timescale of the play at all. Rosalind and Celia are brought on to the stage by what the New Penguin editor terms 'a masquer representing Hymen'.7 In the theatre this part is usually taken by the actor who plays Corin, one of the few named characters who does not have to appear on stage at this time; but there is some residual ambiguity about whether we are to perceive this as a metatheatrical doubling or one operating and acknowledged within the fictional world of the play—whether we are to see it as one actor doubling two parts which have no necessary connection between them other than the fact that they never appear on stage at the same time, or whether we are to assume that Rosalind and Celia, having no one else to whom they can turn, have taken Corin into their confidence and asked him to represent Hymen in the masque that they wish to stage.8 Trivial though this point may seem, it may nevertheless be of some interest; if the masquer is obviously Corin in disguise, and is visibly perceived as such by the other characters on stage, then the whole affair is going to seem very much less mysterious than it might otherwise do. The supernatural elements which Rosalind has earlier tried to invoke with her claim to be the nephew of a magician will be at once debunked, and it will even be apparent to the quick-witted where Rosalind has been hiding all this time, and how the whole scene has been stage-managed. (That this is apparent to the characters seems clearly suggested by the fact that nobody ever troubles to explain it, and by Phebe's immediate exclamation 'If sight and shape be true, / Why then, my love adieu!') However, to have Corin taking part in a masque will provide a visual blending of country character with courtly form, offering an image of that Utopian mingling of classes which Arden may initially have seemed to promise but which it has never, until now, achieved, so that a sense of magic lost in one area may perhaps be miraculously regained in another.

Whoever plays Hymen, however, one thing is certain: he is not competent to perform a marriage. Indeed he explicitly admits as much in his words to the Duke:

Good Duke receive thy daughter,
Hymen from heaven brought her,
Yea brought her hither,
That thou mightst join her hand with his
Whose heart within his bosom is.

(V.IV.l 10-14)

The god of marriage, then, seems to be transferring his responsibilities to the Duke; but the Duke is no more able than he to conduct the ceremony. It would, of course, be normally expected that he would have to give his consent, but even that seems to be preempted when, immediately after Hymen's speech, Rosalind intervenes:

Rosalind [To the Duke.] To you I give myself, for I am yours.
[To Ori.] To you I give myself, for I am yours.


At the same time as she reinscribes herself within the patriarchal order by investing her rights in herself in her father, she also challenges it by asserting her desire for Orlando; Diane Elizabeth Dreher comments of this moment that 'discovering her animus or inner authority, she performs what has traditionally been the father's function, arranging her marriage and those of the other couples'.9 Fortunately, the Duke is unlikely to prove a demanding father; he will accede happily to her wish to marry the son of his own old friend, and neither he nor the audience is liable to pick up on any potentially disturbing undercurrents in Rosalind's words. Unlike the story of Cordelia, where the divided selfhood which must attempt to please both father and husband becomes a source of anxiety, the emphasis here is less on the division implied by Rosalind's phrasing than on the reintegration and reconstitution of the family. The potential disharmony of the double promise is left unexplored. But it is there.

More obviously an issue, though, is that no one has come forward who has the authority to sanction and legitimate the weddings. As Celia says when Rosalind entreats her to conduct the mock marriage, 'I cannot say the words' (IV.I.121)—or rather, she can utter them, but in her mouth they have no performative validity. Diane Elizabeth Dreher feels that this exchange 'not only assures Rosalind of Orlando's love, but also approximates a legal marriage';10 but this seems an odd view to take of it given Celia's own disclaimer of competence in the matter. Only a priest can speak the words of the marriage service, and priests in the forest are few and far between. Indeed clerics in general prove elusive in the play: there is the Old religious man' who converts Duke Frederick, but his whereabouts are unknown, and there is Sir Oliver Martext, whom Richard Wilson sees as the outlaws' Friar Tuck,11 but he, as Touchstone and Jaques agree, 'is not like to marry . . . well' (III.III.82-3). Just as in the mock marriage performed by Celia—which can indeed be read as foreshadowing this difficulty—so here at the time of the real marriage there is no-one who can say the words. Hymen's declaration that "Tis I must make conclusion / Of these most strange events' (V.IV.125-6) has its claim to finality undercut when 170 lines later the Duke pronounces the end of the play proper with a rhyming couplet of his own: 'Proceed, proceed. We will begin these rites, / As we do trust they'll end, in...

(The entire section is 2442 words.)

A Midsummer Night's Dream

(Shakespearean Criticism)

In A Midsummer Night's Dream the difference in the nature of the experiences offered by marriage to men and to women is signalled right at the outset, in the opening dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta. The couple seem to be united in their eagerness for the approach of their ensuing wedding:

The. Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man's revenue.
Hip. Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

(The entire section is 1931 words.)

The Two Gentlemen Of Verona

(Shakespearean Criticism)

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the character who in many ways appears the most vulnerable is not Valentine, whose good faith leads him into banishment, nor Silvia, distressed and frightened though she undoubtedly is by the attempted rape, nor even Julia, forced to witness the faithlessness and villainy of her lover, but Proteus himself, the man who causes the suffering of all of them. Proteus says of himself, 'I do as truly suffer, / As e'er I did commit'.27 These lines, and Proteus' part in general in this scene, have often been considered badly underwritten, but Barry Lynch's moving delivery in the 1991 Swan Theatre production by David Thacker at Stratford-upon-Avon showed that they can in fact be...

(The entire section is 2991 words.)