See Marriage, Love, and Courtship Through the Eyes of William Shakespeare

By Shaina Lucas

Marriage is a subject that cultures have hotly debated since antiquity. During Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare watched these social events unfold around him and used it to his advantage. Shakespeare’s work reveals ideas relating to marriage, romance, and love throughout early modern Europe during the Renaissance specifically in Elizabethan England. His works of Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew will be subjected to an in-depth analysis of love, courtship, and marriage that was common during the English Renaissance period.

From the latter of the twelfth century until 1563, Catholic Europe marriage was per verba de praesenti- speaking words that they are married at that moment in time. This way of marriage was in place for Protestant England from the Reformation until 1753. The condition of these marriages was that both bride and groom must consent to the marriage. During this time, God was the only witness needed to bind a marriage together legally. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, canons of the Anglican Church were reissued. These were restrictions that full marriage was legal only by having a ceremony in a church, with a priest, banns read, a license obtained in advance, and with parental consent if the bride and groom were minors.

Shakespeare witnessed these changes in marriage as he, himself, wrote plays that inducted those ideals. Along with current social and political trends of his age, Shakespeare took some ideas for his plays from classical antiquity. He was a Renaissance humanist who studied Roman and Greek works. He turned to antiquity for many of his works including Julius Caesar and The Rape of Lucrece. Another major literary area he drew from was European and English fiction that were mostly written in prose or verse.

William Shakespeare. Biogoraphy.com

Shakespeare’s Works Drew From Modern Culture

Romeo and Juliet was a romantic tale Shakespeare was attracted to that originated on the Continent and made its way to England. His play derives from the long English poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke which was first printed three decades before Shakespeare’s play. Its thematic focus and plot were altered by Shakespeare but Brooke took his plot from other European sources to create his poem. Brooke’s style of writing was popular in Elizabethan England and useful when Shakespeare sought out dramatic subjects. Romeo and Juliet show the traditional marriage norms of the elite during the Renaissance. Marriage was a formal arrangement for political use to climb the social ladder. Shakespeare also incorporates marriage ideals from the Middle Ages because the setting for the play is in fourteenth century Verona, Italy.

The legal age for marriage during the Renaissance was fourteen, but women of that age were still seen as children until fifteen. Boys during this time matured at ages sixteen to eighteen. During the Middle Ages, women were married off at ages of twelve or thirteen because dying of old age was at thirty or forty. Capulet informs Count Paris that Juliet is too young to be married and says “Too soon mard are those so early made” but yet forces Juliet to still marry Paris at fourteen. This forced Juliet to marry her lover Romeo which was probably appalling to Elizabethans. Elizabethans thought the reason Romeo and Juliet’s marriage ended in destruction was that they violated the norms of the society they lived in.

Romeo and Juliet’s story could have been drastically changed. Both were members of the elite class and could have married if it was not for their families being at war with each other. Normally, one would marry to stop a war and make peace, but this was not the case. Paris was also higher in rank than Romeo which made him a more suitable match for Juliet. It could be said that looking deep into the philosophy of the play, that Shakespeare was trying to convey that the old ways of marriage were dying and the time to marry for love in the elite class was blooming.