Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Shakespeare himself would not be a likely nominee for “Husband of [Any] Year.” But what does his work suggest about his view of marriage?
Overwhelmingly, the plays depict marriage, and wives in particular, in both positive and nuanced ways. That fact—what some literary critics have called Shakespeare’s “gynaecolatry”—might be seen as a tremendous irony in light of his biography. (Or as yet more proof that the character from Stratford was not the guy who wrote those plays.) Or you could see the contradiction as the artist’s version of a busman’s holiday problem: he could write beautifully about something that he had no energy for when he was “off duty.” Sadly, it is not difficult to find examples of all sorts of artists and philosophers who expressed great passion and sensitivity about the human condition who had no patience for actual human beings. In any event, marriages in Shakespeare are generally treated as a very good thing; and when they go badly, if the blame can be laid exclusively on one half of the corporation, it is usually the male half. See, e.g., Othello.
Marriage is both implicitly and explicitly celebrated as an institution in Shakespeare, yet he doesn’t really depict “traditional” marriages where the participants stick with traditional gender roles and thus live happily ever after. For instance, in so many of the comedies, the girl gets her man by dressing up as a boy and seducing the “straight” guy by being smarter and more interesting than he is. See, e.g., Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night.
The only play where we have what looks like a wife submitting demurely to a traditional patriarchal husband is at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. But that result—such that spirited Kate seems to be broken/tamed by play’s end—is really too abrupt, too silly to be taken seriously. The author seems to beg us to see Kate’s submissive performance as a self-conscious joke. The lack-of-seriousness is built into the singsong-y meter and forced rhymes of Kate’s last speech. For example, are we really supposed to believe that it is a good thing that the woman who, during the preceding four Acts, has displayed incredibly sharp, quick, inventive verbal skills ends up saying things like this:
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor[.]
And how about this patently awful pair of couplets at the end of her big speech:
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.
Come on. No way Will wants us to think she believes that crap—or that he is recommending this display as something women should really emulate.
So I am standing my ground: Shakespeare was not one to promote conformity—in marriage or otherwise.
But what about all those weddings? Isn’t that promoting convention?
Okay, sure, Shakespeare liked to use the convention of a wedding to symbolize a “happy ending”—a celebratory closing that also suggests a fresh start, that life will go on despite all the horror human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another. Virtually all of the comedies wrap up with the announcement that one or two or even four or more couples are going to get hitched in the near future. BUT in all of Shakespeare only one wedding ceremony takes place that involves The Church—and that one is a bit sketchy.
I am speaking of Romeo and Juliet. The kids’ co-conspirator, Friar Lawrence, sees that they cannot keep their hands off each other. So he agrees to perform a quick, secret ceremony in his monastic cell:
Come, come with me, and we will make short work;
For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till holy church incorporate two in one.
We don’t see the actual ceremony; but we know that the Friar performs it although he knows that the couple only met the day before. He also knows full well that their parents definitely would NOT approve of the arrangement if they had a clue what was going on. And these are mere teenagers we are talking about! So this “religious service” is not exactly a rousing endorsement of the role religion plays in sanctifying marriage. And The Church’s (secret) blessing most certainly does not insulate R & J from disaster for very long. They have one fantastic night together; then he must skip town at dawn because he has been officially banished for killing Juliet’s cousin. When the couple is eventually reunited, it is in a tomb. He kills himself thinking she is already dead. Then she, waking up to find his dead body on top of her, kills herself with his dagger. Yep. Shakespeare’s most famous love story, and the only one depicting a religiously sanctified marriage, never progresses beyond a frenzied, one-night honeymoon.
The only other wedding ceremony is in The Tempest. It is a psychedelic affair involving pagan goddesses conjured up by Prospero for his daughter Miranda and her new beau Ferdinand. The latter is the son of the King of Naples. During the wedding masque, the King is wandering around elsewhere on the enchanted island, laboring under the misapprehension that his dear boy and heir to the throne drowned at sea in the storm that Prospero’s magic created. Aside from the happy couple, the only witness to the ceremony is Prospero himself. And the whole thing—a colorful tribute to fertility—is cut a bit short by news that Prospero’s disgruntled slave, Caliban, has joined forces with some drunken sailors who are headed that way to try to assassinate Prospero. Not exactly a “traditional” wedding. But it does usher in what looks like a truly promising partnership between Miranda and Ferdinand who spend their first date as a married couple playing chess.
I could go on and on. But I can envision my own husband saying, “But you really don’t have to….”—as a not-so-subtle hint that I have already rambled on long enough, thank you very much.
I’ll conclude simply by insisting that we can learn a lot about the promise, pleasure, and pitfalls of marriage from Shakespeare’s plays. One thing we learn is that this old institution is a complicated thing that resists easy classification. Therefore, legal arguments about the proper role of the modern state in determining who can get married, how it is accomplished, and what it means once you get there should, perhaps, be similarly nuanced.