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Marriage as Comic Closure

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2442

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 true delights' (V.IV.196-7). Here, closure deconstructs itself with its emphasis on proceeding and beginning; and even this sense of beginning is in turn eroded by Rosalind's immediately following remark that 'It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue' (V.IV.198). Into this slippage of time, paradoxically caught between conclusions, beginnings and epilogues, the weddings themselves disappear. They have not been performed by the end of the play; and when Rosalind with her epilogue returns the audience to the real world of time, the play no longer has any future in which they could still take place. So although the marriages may be promised, implicit and assumed, they can never happen.

Moreover, the whole idea of marriage itself becomes an issue in the play. Touchstone has earlier attempted to disrupt the traditional pattern of comedy by having his marriage to Audrey performed in the very middle of the play (III.iii) but in fact his aim in attempting to arrange such a marriage is paradoxically not to achieve closure, but to leave open in his life possibilities which marriage is seen as precluding: Jacques exhorts him not to have his marriage performed by Sir Oliver Martext because 'This fellow will but join you together as they join wainscot; then one of you will prove a shrunk panel, and like green timber, warp, warp' (III.III.77-80). If marriage is traditionally used to achieve closure, then Touchstone's sentiments call into question the very possibility of such closure by his insinuation that marriages are prone to dissolution, and not just by the hand of God removing one of the partners.

Nor is Touchstone's an isolated perspective on his situation: Hymen sings ironically that he and Audrey are 'sure together / As the winter to foul weather' (V.IV.134-5), while Jacques tells him 'thy loving voyage / Is but for two months victuall'd' (V.IV.190-1). Granted that what is envisaged here is not so much divorce as squabbling within marriage (as Rosalind in more playful mood also forecasts for herself and Orlando [IV.I.135-54]), even so Touchstone's earlier resolution to be married by Sir Oliver has explictly addressed the question of termination of marriages, and it is even possible to see it hinted at when Orlando agrees to go through the mock-wedding ceremony with Ganymede 'now, as fast she can marry us' (IV.I.127), where 'fast' can be taken to refer not only to the speed but also to the validity of the ceremony. And of course another form of the dissolution of marriages is figured in the plot not only of this play alone but of virtually all Shakespeare's comedies: while both Rosalind and Celia have living fathers and Orlando has one who was alive recently enough for his memory to be green, no one in the play has a living mother.12 The male partner, it seems, may survive after marriage, but the female partner has borne her children and then disappeared, her identity so utterly effaced that we do not even know what happened to her.13 The implication may well be that within their marriages a similar fate may lurk to obliterate the vivacity even of a Rosalind or a Celia. Certainly, it would be possible to cast a sceptical eye over the likely effects on Phebe's health and life expectancy of the perpetual pregnancy and parturition forecast for her in Jacques' valediction to Silvius, 'You to a long and well-deserved bed' (V.IV.189).

But if a constant and life-threatening involvement in the processes of pregnancy and childbirth is the inevitable destiny of the married woman, the married man too has an unpleasant fate which he cannot avoid and which is repeatedly foreshadowed for him in the course of the play: cuckoldry. It forms the standard theme of Rosalind's teasing of Orlando: the snail, she tells him, brings its destiny with it, and when he inquires what that is she replies 'Why horns—which such as you are fain to be beholding to your wives for; but he comes armed in his fortune, and prevents the slander of his wife' (IV.I.56-9)—with perhaps an implication that even where cuckoldry itself is not present in a marriage, the rumour of it is bound to be. It is seen by Touchstone as not only unavoidable, but in some sense even acceptable:

As horns are odious, they are necessary. It is said, many a man knows no end of his goods. Right. Many a man has good horns and knows no end of them. Well, that is the dowry of his wife,'tis none of his own getting. Horns? Even so. Poor men alone? No, no. The noblest deer hath them as huge as the rascal. Is the single man therefore blessed? No. As a walled town is more worthier than a village, so is the forehead of a married man more honourable than the bare brow of a bachelor; and by how much defence is better than no skill, by so • much is a horn more precious than to want.


Indeed, as Touchstone has earlier pointed out, the very environment of the forest is full of reminders of cuckoldry: contemplating his imminent marriage, he remarks, 'A man may, if he were of a fearful heart, stagger in this attempt; for here we have no temple but the wood, no assembly but horn-beasts' (III.III.42-4).

This is a point raised again in the short and bizarre scene in which Jaques and the Lords celebrate the deer-killer with a song:

What shall he have that kill'd the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home. The rest shall bear
This burden.

Take thou no scorn to wear the horn,
It was a crest ere thou wast born.

Thy father's father wore it,
And thy father bore it.

The horn, the horn, the lusty horn,
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.


The scene seems to be introduced solely to allow for the singing of this lyric, which, like Jaques' speech, both affirms and defuses the inevitability of cuckoldry by representing it as natural, figured even in the idyll of the pastoral by the horns of the deer, which become a badge of potency—the sign of the deer-killer—simultaneously with their more normal role as signifiers of shame. This song also, though, addresses one of the most fundamental of all aspects of cuckoldry, the threat it poses to the transmission of land and property from undoubted father to undoubted son. The spectre is raised in the sixth line ('it was a crest ere thou wast born') simultaneously evokes the pride of ancestry symbolised by heraldry, and casts doubt on the line of descent by associating birth and cuckoldry so intimately. However, the threat has no sooner been raised than it is triumphantly defused: the fear of not being able to identify the father is countered with the assurance that in this matter all fathers are alike—all are cuckolds. A kind of collective identity is thus asserted which can take precedence over the ultimately unknowable individual identity of any one father. Male bonding has triumphed over the apparent threat to patriarchal and class power posed by women's sexual infidelity.14

As You Like It does, indeed, then, take marriage as a central theme; but just as the structural patterning of the play resists closure, so does the apparent ideological fixity of the meaning of marriage itself break down under the pressure of the meanings imposed on it by the play. Even the play's Edenic overtones work ultimately to undermine the stability of the marital ideal that is apparently held up at its end: for all the return to a prelapsarian state in the duchy (a theme obviously signalled by Adam's name), this is an Eden with a snake, and, moreover, a lioness (interestingly changed from a lion in Shakespeare's source);15 and if the couples at the end in any sense figure Adam and Eve, they must equally image the collapse of the pastoral ideal and of marital harmony which was to occur in that first of all marriages. Rather than a device to close the play securely, to ensure female subordination to patriarchal power and to secure the transmission of property between members of the elite, marriage is revealed as allowing interference with all three elements. But while the male characters of the play seem able to accept and even to embrace these contradictions within marriage, for the female characters the absence of mothers—the fact that the previous generation of married women have apparently vanished without trace—postulates a less hopeful future.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

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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;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.


In fact, Hippolyta's lines are susceptible of a very different interpretation, as was shown by the way that Penny Downie played the role at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1982. Her Hippolyta was a deeply reluctant, indeed sullen, bride: her statements that the time would pass quickly were motivated not by joy but by a disempowered acceptance of the inevitable, and her flat future tenses, without any use of the optative, reflected this sense of despairing entrapment.

Such a reading also serves to highlight the fact that Theseus insistently perceives all the blocking figures to their marriage as female. He alludes, in turn, to the moon (most usually figured in Elizabethan discourse in her classical personae as Cynthia, Diana, Dictynna or Artemis, and as such associated with the Virgin Queen herself), a stepdame and a dowager.17 Hippolyta, in marked contrast, concurs in imaging the moon as female, but views it as a symbol of empowerment, a representation of the 'bow' (I.I.9) which was once her weapon. Theseus' assumptions are even more remarkable in a play where the blocking figures are in fact uniformly male—Egeus, who objects to his daughter's marriage, and, arguably, Oberon, though, like Theseus, he himself constructs the cause of the quarrel between the fairies as the opposition of Titania—and where the women tend to be unusually powerless for representatives of the comic feminine.18 But if the plot of the play minimises the power of women, its imagery maximises it, and concomitantly figures men as weakened, clearly suggesting a deep-rooted fear, as in Titania's elegiac comment that 'the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard' (II.I.94-5). Even the play-within-the-play may encode a fearful female. 'Ninny's tomb' may be funny, but it also memorialises Ninus, King of Assyria, whose wife, as Sir David Lindsay of the Mount recorded in his attack on female rulers, was the 'proude and presumptious' Semiramis,19 who is one of the examples Lindsay cites to prove the innate unfitness of women to occupy posts of power.

The idea briefly indicated in Hippolyta's speech that women may be unwilling to marry recurs throughout the play.20 In many of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the women are seen as being very actively in search of a husband: Viola has barely landed in Illyria before she is enquiring about Orsino's marital status, Olivia rapidly proposes marriage to the supposed Cesario, and Feste is able to tease Maria by alluding to the possibility of Sir Toby marrying her; both Julia and Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona actively seek their lovers out, and Rosalind in As You Like It effectively engineers her own marriage when Orlando, blinded by her male disguise, does not take the initiative. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena does indeed actively pursue Demetrius, but whereas the other heroines who do this are presented as spirited and determined, and invariably preserve their dignity and their self-respect, she is seen as merely ridiculous:

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love—
And yet a place of high respect with me—
Than to be used as you use your dog?


Titania, who (although for very different reasons) similarly pays court to the man of her choice, is equally seen as a butt of jokes. Far more popular, both with the men of the play and generally with audiences and critics, is Hermia, who, unlike the majority of Shakespeare's heroines, shows a distinct concern for propriety—'Nay, good Lysander; for my sake, my dear, / Lie further off yet; do not lie so near' (II.II.42-3). In fact, if Hermia and Lysander had decided to perform a contract of per verba de futuro in front of a witness such as Helena and had then consummated their marriage in the woods, it would have become immediately legal; but that is never suggested, and Hermia's behaviour is presented instead as the polar opposite to Helena's. When attitudes such as this are highlighted, the decision to set the opening scene of the 1982 Stratford-upon-Avon production in the Victorian period becomes a highly suitable one.

Hermia's concern to protect her virginity has previously gone even further, when, unamazed by the choice she is offered between enforced marriage, execution, and the cloister, she unhesitatingly chooses the lifelong chastity of sisterhood rather than marriage with Demetrius.21 Here, of course, her decision is perfectly understandable, since the partner offered her is one she has no liking for; but taken along with other instances of women not wishing to marry or to live within marital relationships in the play, it may nevertheless be seen as significant. Titania may be eager enough for Bottom, but she is undergoing what seems to be an effective separation from her 'lord' Oberon; and whatever Hippolyta's feelings for Theseus may be now, we are told clearly enough what they must have been initially when Theseus reminds her 'Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries' (I.I. 16-17). Moreover, the play even includes more or less direct reference to that ultimate refuser of marriage, 'the imperial votress' (II.I.163) herself, Elizabeth I, whose decision to remain single had given rise to the cult of the Virgin Queen.22

As if this were not enough, the play clearly warns of the possible dangers of marriage: a wife risks quarrels and the curbing of her will, such as occurs in the relationship of Titania and Oberon, and death in childbirth, as happens to the mother of the changeling boy; or her children may be deformed—although the fairies promise that this will not happen to any of the couples in the play, their mere mention of deformity nevertheless serves to confirm it as a real possibility.23 This last is an issue that would affect the husband too, and the death of both Pyramus and Thisbe in the mechanicals' playlet could perhaps serve as a reminder that love offers perils for both sexes. Nevertheless, neither Demetrius nor Lysander is threatened with anything like the dreadful choice that is offered to Hermia, and both Theseus and Oberon end the play with very much the upper hand in their relationships: Titania has been thoroughly humiliated by the discovery of her love for an ass (an ironic and radically reductive rewriting of Theseus' much more heroic adventures with the Minotaur), and Theseus at the banquet firmly overrules Hippolyta's distaste for the mechanicals' play with her first lesson in theatre criticism and public behaviour (V.l.89-105).

Moreover, in this play too the marriages do not provide closure by occurring at the end of the play.24 Almost all the plot material has been used up by the opening of Act V: Titania and Oberon are reconciled, the lovers have come together in mutually agreeable couples, returned to the city and been reconciled with Theseus and Egeus, Bottom has been transformed back to his normal shape, and all that remains is for the mechanicals to perform their play. We may perhaps wonder to what extent the fairies Titania and Oberon can be considered bound by the human rite of marriage at all—especially since each accuses the other of having effectively conducted an open relationship. As for the marriages of the mortals, they appear to have taken place between IV.I and V.I: in the first of these scenes Theseus announces that 'in the temple by and by with us / These couples shall eternally be knit', and in the second all are looking forward to the advent of the evening which will allow them to consummate the marriages. It would in fact be perfectly possible in narrative terms to end the play after Act IV.I.

What comes after that point is obviously important in terms of providing a suitably celebratory finale, but it offers too a comment on what has occurred. The tragic story of Pyramus and Thisbe may serve to remind us how very easily the events of the play could have developed along the lines of Romeo and Juliet; the fairies' final benediction can be seen as indicating how much such a blessing may be needed. Marriage then is not seen as some sort of transcendental signifier which automatically confers meaning on events: its own meaning is open to probing and exploration. Even when closure does finally occur, its meaning is unmade even as it is made:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call.
So, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.


Puck's paradoxes both return the play to the real world and, at the same time as they offer a final comment on the play, they deny the possibility of making any such comment at all, since the making of meaning must finally be in our hands. In offering itself for approval the play finally abdicates control over its own authority; and thus, although it has been careful to present itself as an ostensible celebration of marriage, the diametrical antithesis of the 'some satire, keen and critical, / Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony' (V.I.54-5) which Theseus fears, it ultimately acknowledges that the meaning-making audience is equally free to construct out of it as potentially subversive a critique as it wishes of contemporary marriage, and, above all, of the role of women within it. As Christopher Brooke, in his history of marriage, observes of the idea that A Midsummer Night's Dream was an occasional play feting an actual wedding, 'I am glad it was not my wedding it celebrated, for it proceeds by showing us the lowest view of human marriage we have so far encountered'.25

If both As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream seem to offer sympathy for the position of women within marriage, it must not be forgotten that the issue of men's role within marriage has, even if only marginally, also been addressed in them.26 In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as later in The Merry Wives of Windsor where Herne the Hunter functions as a recuperative figure in exactly the same way as the horn song does, this becomes of far greater importance.

The Two Gentlemen Of Verona

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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 seen as more than adequate to the situation, since what they suggest is that Proteus' own suffering is directly proportional to that experienced by all the other three lovers in combination. Indeed, it could even be argued that he has undergone more than they have had to do: for whereas they have throughout the play been firmly locked into stable, unshakeable identities, Proteus has undergone a most violent and radical attack on his very sense of selfhood, bordering almost on what might now be termed a form of schizophrenia.

This is seen clearly in II, VI, where, like Richard III before Bosworth, Proteus effectively falls apart. Given, in modern editions, the whole scene to himself, he soliloquises:

I cannot leave to love; and yet I do;
But there I leave to love, where I should love.
Julia I lose, and Valentine I lose;
If I keep them, I needs must lose myself;
If I lose them, thus find I by their loss:
For Valentine, myself; for Julia, Silvia.
I to myself am dearer than a friend,
For love is still most precious in itself,
And Silvia (witness heaven, that made her fair)
Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope.

(II.VI. 17-26)

Underlying the apparent arrival at a decision here is a terrifying sense of the dizzying relativity of all available senses of identity. The first line sets up a logical impossibility which the balanced syntax can do no more than leave as paradox. It may be glossed over by the sophistry of the second, but that also introduces another, equally worrying, idea: Τ is no longer absolute, standing unbounded as subject of the sentence, but modified and compromised by its physical location—'there', 'where'.

'I' finds itself even further destabilised in the third line when both Julia and Valentine successively usurp the apparent subject position of their respective phrases, and in the fourth line the issue is explicitly addressed when Proteus admits to himself the awful possibility that he may 'lose myself. This is hastily dismissed when a swift change of object alters the situation to losing not himself but 'them'—a safely demonised, externalised group which leaves his own sense of identity apparently unthreatened and intact. But Proteus, as his Protean name suggests, has exposed a far more radical possibility than that of simple self-loss: lurking behind the exchange of persons which he now proposes is the spectre that he may have no self to lose. If Julia can replace Silvia and Proteus Valentine, and if Julia's former self is indeed modified and devalued by the mere existence of Silvia, as suggested in the two closing lines, then in what sense can any of these people be presented as a 'self? In this sense Proteus' 'I do as truly suffer / As e'er I did commit' is a statement which is both admirably expressive and a profound psychological restorative, for in it he has finally achieved an assertion of the coherence of the two parts of his previously shattered self: what 'I' has done, Τ is also paying for, and the payment is small price for the reintegration of self which the language enables him to assert. Looked at in this light, the 'marriage' which seals the end of the play is less one between Proteus and Julia than between Proteus and his estranged selfhood, or perhaps with Julia as a manifestation of that former, regretted state of psychological unity.

The play does end with the promise of other, more conventional marriages. Valentine assures his regained friend:

Come, Proteus, 'tis your penance but to hear
The story of your loves discovered.
That done, our day of marriage shall be yours,
One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.


All is apparently well that ends well, and Valentine's extraordinary offer of his own interest in Silvia to Proteus could also be read as indicating that the friendship of the two gentlemen will, despite all the strains to which it has been subject, survive and even prosper. Nevertheless the darker notes are there. The ring which Julia produces as a token both of her own identity and of Proteus' former affection for her may serve to remind us that bonds sealed by rings have been broken before and could be again. Moreover, while the two women have shown themselves eager for marriage throughout the play, the behaviour of both Proteus and Valentine can be seen as registering a rather more ambivalent attitude. When we first meet them, in I.I, love is already a force which threatens to pull their friendship apart: Proteus will stay at home because of it, losing the chance of adventures and finding himself separated from his friend. And it remains throughout the play the single greatest threat to male bonding, not only disrupting the relationship of Proteus and Valentine but also falsifying and eventually undermining their interactions with the male authority figure, the Duke.

It would be plausible to see Proteus' sudden switch to Silvia as operating effectively as a continuation of that movement away from love which has already been inaugurated by his decision to leave Julia: subconsciously, he has chosen the most inaccessible of all possible females, the beloved of his friend. It is a move guaranteed to precipitate the crisis which has until now been only latent, to force a radical choice between the two parts of his fissured identity. As in The Two Noble Kinsmen, so much later in Shakespeare's career, what we see here is the crippling psychological cost in terms of the loss of personal and social selfhood which men may fear will be the price of marriage.28

Another fear, too, can be seen as lying behind both this play and others of Shakespeare's apparently 'happy' comedies. Finding himself unable to persuade Silvia to yield to his advances, Proteus decides to rape her. This is not only his own lowest psychological point; it is also devastatingly revealing about his attitude to marriage. Obviously no modern feminist can admit any sort of defence of his act, but it may be possible to look at in a light rather different from that in which it is customarily considered. If Proteus himself regards marriage as a threatening, dangerous state, he might well project such feelings of reluctance onto his female partner—and this could lead him to regard not only Silvia but all women as quite simply needing to be raped in order to make marriage possible at all. We can read his action less as an individual, isolated act of violation than as the emblem of his views of all relationships, in which either others or the self must always be lost; in one sense, it is himself that he tries to rape. The idea of female reluctance to marry, which had figured so threateningly in A Midsummer Night's Dream, thus recurs here, raising the question of whether it could be that the universal assumption of women's desire to cuckold their husbands by incessant sex actually masks in general the repression of a deeper fear too threatening even to voice—that female participation in sex is reluctant.

Frigid women, who are at the same time impossible to keep chaste; fragmented men in danger of losing their selves, their honour and their friends; incompetent or unavailable priests and defective ceremonies; savage uncivilised settings in which wild beasts roam as the fitting emblem of the human condition—the makings of marriage in Shakespearean comedy are not promising ones. But it is, of course, precisely the innate instability of its personnel and character that make the institution such a vital one. The radical fissuring that splits selves and societies can be kept from cracking only by the constant repetition and reduplication of social and ideological bonds that marriage alone is seen as capable of providing, forming as it does the one framework in which the behaviour of each partner is constantly visible, constantly subject to policing by the other. The Shakespearean 'happy' comedies do not celebrate marriage: they reveal its crucial functioning in the maintenance of society and also the internal stresses and contradictions to which it is constantly subject—an instability instanced by the repeated structural decentring of marriage from its supposed position of comic closure. And contrary to so much of the misogyny and the marital ideology of the time, they powerfully reveal that outside the institution of marriage both men and women are adrift, while inside it both must pay a high price for their security.


1 See Ejner J. Jensen, Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 2, on the importance attached by the critical tradition to the ends of comedies.

2 This is noted by Nigel Wood ('Endpiece', in Theory in Practice: Hamlet, ed. Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood [Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996], pp. 24-54, p. 137), in response to Brian Vickers' assertion to the contrary.

3 For the Elizabethan expectation that the birth of a child would inevitably result from sex, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton: Harvester, 1983), p. 130.

4 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham [1957] (London: Routledge, 1987), I.III.11. All future quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

5 Katharine Eisaman Maus, in 'Transfer of Title in Love's Labour 's Lost: Language, Individualism, Gender', in Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Ivo Kamps (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 205-23, sees Navarre's academy as an attempt to repress 'the involvement of women in the process of title transfer' (p. 215).

6 The extent to which As You Like It is generally perceived as a play riddled with marriages is interestingly indicated by the Oxford and Cambridge Ό' level board question on the play cited by Alan Sinfíeld, 'Write an editorial for the Arden Gazette on the recent outbreak of marriage in the district' ('Give an account of Shakespeare and Education, showing why you think they are effective and what you have appreciated about them. Support your comments with precise references', in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985], pp. 134-57, p. 150).

7 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. H.J. Oliver (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), V.4.104s.d.

8 That there is a genuine ambiguity here is something that has become very clear to me when teaching this text, and an assumption either way can produce very different readings, as in Malcolm Evans' discussion of the play in Signifying Nothing: Truth's True Contents in Shakespeare's Texts, 2nd edition (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), where it is taken for granted that it is indisputably the god Hymen who appears. (Evans does not discuss the performance aspect.)

9 Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986), p. 123.

10 Dreher, Domination and Defiance, p. 122.

11 See Richard Wilson, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p. 75.

12 See Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, pp. 13-14.

13 Barbara J. Bono points out, however, that the forest of Arden echoes the maiden name of Shakespeare's mother Mary Arden, and that the play encodes a recognition of human origin in a maternal body which precludes knowledge of the father ('Mixed Gender, Mixed Genre in Shakespeare's As You Like It', in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986], pp. 189-212, pp. 194 and 211). On absent mothers in Shakespearean drama generally, see most particularly Mary Beth Rose, 'Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance', Shakespeare Quarterly 42:3 (Fall 1991), pp. 291-314.

14 See Richard Wilson, Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p. 76, on the patriarchal values encoded in 'thy father's father'.

15 See Louis Adrian Montrose, ' "The Place of a Brother" in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form', Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981), pp. 28-54, p. 50. Montrose also offers a brilliant analysis of the workings of male bonding mechanisms in the play in general and in the horn song scene in particular, which he terms a 'charivari' (p. 49). He sees the play as a whole as working to diminish the power of women. For additional comment on the snake and lioness, see Valerie Traub, 'Desire and the Differences it Makes', in The Matter of Difference, ed. Valerie Wayne (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 81-114, p. 105.

16 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Methuen, 1979), I.1.1-11. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

17 For the argument that Shakespeare might be alluding here to the presence of actual dowagers in the audience, see Steven May, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Carey-Berkeley Wedding', Renaissance Papers (1983), pp. 43-52, pp. 46-7.

18 For an ingenious reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream as structured around the fear and avoidance of older women, see Terence Hawkes, 'Or', in Meaning by Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1992). On the absence of mothers in Shakespeare's plays, see Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, 2nd edition (Urbana, IL: Illini Books, 1993), p. 171.

19 See Paula Louise Scalingi, 'The Scepter or the Distaff: The Question of Female Sovereignty, 1516-1607', The Historian, 41:1 (1975), pp. 59-75, p. 64. Semiramis is referred to twice in Titus Andronicus (II.1.22 and II.III.118), and so is Pyramus (II.III.231), which increases the probability of an allusion to her in Dream.

20 On lesbian desire in the play, see Valerie Traub, 'The (In)significance of "Lesbian" Desire in Early Modern England', in Erotic Politics, ed. Susan Zimmerman, pp. 150-69, p. 157. For an argument that all Shakespearean comedy is fundamentally informed by homoeroticism, see Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters, pp. 20-9.

21 For discussions of the difficulties of ascertaining whether, in this and similar situations, the sympathies of the audience would be engaged on behalf of the unruly lovers or of the patriarchal order which they challenge, see Michael Hattaway, 'Drama and Society', in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama, ed. A.R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 110, and Richard Levin, New Readings vs Old Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 151-3.

22 For an account of some pertinent aspects of the cult, see Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977); Susan Bassnett, Elizabeth I: A Feminist Perspective (Oxford: Berg, 1988); and my own Elizabeth I and Her Court (London: Vision Press, 1990). On its potential implications for the play, see particularly Louis Adrian Montrose, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form', reproduced most conveniently in New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, ed. Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton (Harlow: Longman, 1992), pp. 109-30. For discussion between the relationship between the cult of Elizabeth and comic closure in general, see Peter Erickson, 'The Order of the Garter, the cult of Elizabeth, and class-gender tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor ', in Shakespeare Reproduced, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 116-40, p. 130. Philippa Berry comments on the tension between the strong emphasis on marriage in Protestant ideology and Elizabeth's refusal of it, and offers a reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream as attempting to restore Elizabeth to 'the control of the patriarchy' (Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen [London: Routledge, 1989], p. 143) and as mounting a 'challenge [to] the Platonism of Elizabeth's cult by its emphasis upon female heterosexuality and the subordination of woman in marriage' (pp. 143-4). My own reading would agree that women are shown to be subordinated in marriage but would suggest that the implications of this fact may be a possible locus for debate, and hence that it is not being uncritically endorsed.

23 Hawkes (Meaning by Shakespeare, p. 20) comments that 'a motif of disfiguring, translating change is all-pervasive'.

24 Though Stephen Greenblatt suggests that the Fairies' use of fielddew at the end of the play is indeed evocative of the marriage blessing ('Resonance and Wonder', Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 43 [1990], pp. 11-34; reprinted in Stephen J. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture [London: Routledge, 1990], p. 163).

25 Christopher Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 231.

26 The importance of directing critical attention to the male characters as well as the female ones, even and perhaps especially for a feminist reading, has been stressed by, amongst others, Walter Cohen, who characterises as one of the achievements of American feminist criticism 'a psychoanalytically inspired sensitivity to the costs repeatedly exacted in the course of the plots not only from women but, given the constricting norms of male identity, from men as well' ('Political Criticism of Shakespeare', in Shakespeare Reproduced, p. 23). He goes on to question Linda Bamber's division into comic women, tragic men (p. 24).

27 William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, ed. Clifford Leech (London: Methuen, 1969), V.IV.76-7. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

28 For a discussion of this as a central concern in The Two Noble Kinsmen, see Kathleen McLuskie, Renaissance Dramatists (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1989), p. 13, and Bruce P. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 72.

Source: "Marriage as Comic Closure," in The Shakespearean Marriage: Merry Wives and Heavy Husbands, Macmillan Press, 1998, pp. 16-33.

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