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

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

Shaina Lucas - February 12, 2019

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.

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

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.

See Marriage, Love, and Courtship Through the Eyes of William Shakespeare
Famous Venician courtesan Veronica Franco.

Courtship Through the Eyes of the Elite and Courtesans

Most of what is known about marriage, love, and courtship are from the growing society at the time, property-owners. Though England was ruled by a powerful woman, Queen Elizabeth I, women were not typically seen in careers of power. A woman’s typical role in society was marriage to motherhood. A wife’s job was to rear children, take care of them and run the household work. Elite women had the luxury of servants to help with the children and household duties, but lower-class women had no help and must do the work herself.

There were certain women during the sixteenth century that were entirely at leisure and free from motherhood and household duties. These women were courtesans – today known as prostitutes. During the sixteenth century, it was a much different profession than today. Courtesans were taught politics, read literature, and were the most knowledgeable women in the world. Courtesans also suffered a cruel fate near the end of their prime. Once used up, they could either find a man to marry or be unwanted by anyone.

See Marriage, Love, and Courtship Through the Eyes of William Shakespeare
A depiction Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare Online.

Courtesans chose to pursue this profession because of having no other option open for them. Many were too delicate to become a scullery maid or work in the winery. This gave them an option to use their beauty to their advantage and move their way up in social ranking, though they still could not marry a man above their station. Sixteenth-century ways of thinking are seen as repugnant to modern day thinking. Men were seen as superior beings over women due to physical nature. It was said that because males had greater physical strength, higher intellectual ability, and capacity for feeling they were more dominant over women. The Renaissance was, of course, a time of upheaval. Literacy, faith, politics, and social values all were challenged, molded and changed to what they will eventually become in the twenty-first century.

See Marriage, Love, and Courtship Through the Eyes of William Shakespeare
The marriage of the Virgin fresco in the Tournabuoni Chapel. Wikimedia Commons.

Italian Renaissance And the Changing Ideals of Marriage

The Italian Renaissance (which happened years before the cultural change hit England) had some different views of marriage during this time. During the Renaissance in Italy, friendship was not a quality in marriage. Italian women were much more visible in the social world, educated, and more closely connected to civil and political life. These women could hold their own in a social gathering with informal diplomacy and witty conversation.

Wives of princes had even more of a difficult time for they were called upon to act as a deputy while their husbands were away, which was quite frequent during this time. Florentine traditions had elderly or mature men marry adolescent and barely literate girls. With an elite marriage being used to stave off war, it was not uncommon for the newlyweds to be of different ages or even dislike one another. Later in years, elite women would write about how the circles in court would recognize that men needed to take into account the sensitivity of their parents who were just as intelligent and closer in age as their significant other.

Property-owning classes of the early modern period saw marriage as a collective decision. It was a decision of family and kin, not the individual. Considerations for marriage were due to political patronage, property preservation and accumulation, past lineage associations, and extension of lineage connections. The greatest fear in society was that of a marriage alliance that melded a family together with a lower-class family or family of lower degree than the other. Primogeniture was the preservation and protection the entail was designed for. The study of the English family of this era is shrouded in confusion unless the principle of primogeniture, and practice of it, is consistently born into the mind. Under this system, the elder and younger children of the family suffered. Younger children received no title or estate unless they happened to be heir to their mother’s property. Some of these children were kept around the estates as a sperm-bank in case the elder son died childlessly and had to be replaced.

See Marriage, Love, and Courtship Through the Eyes of William Shakespeare
Queen Elizabeth primogeniture painting by Delaroche. Since the queen did not have an heir, the throne went to the first closest blood relative. Wikimedia Commons.

With the primogeniture system, a factor that lasted from the sixteenth century up until the nineteenth century was the dowry. In England, landed heiresses who provided property to their husbands was substantial enough of a dowry. Brides that didn’t have land property provided a cash sum called a ‘portion’. During the Renaissance, the dowry money went directly to the father of the groom. The father would then use this as a dowry for his own daughters to marry them off if he had any.

In return for this, the father of the groom would provide for the bride if she happened to survive her husband and become a widow. During the sixteenth century, this was called a ‘jointure’ which made marriage even more of an economical transfer rather than a transfer of love and friendship. This furthered the reason why women married men of their own class and own station for these men would be able to provide for their lavish expenses.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Franson, J. Karl. “`Too soon marr’d’: Juliet’s age as symbol in Romeo and Juliet.” Papers On Language & Literature 32, no. 3 (Summer96 1996): 244-262.

James, Carolyn. “Friendship and Dynastic Marriage in Renaissance Italy.” Literature & History 17, no. 1 (Spring2008 2008): 4-18.

Macfarlane, Alan. Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840. 1986.

McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston, Palgrave MacMillan Ltd, 2001.

Nelson, T.G.A. “Doing things with words: Another look at marriage rites and spousals in renaissance drama and fiction.” Studies in Philology 95, no.4 (Fall98 1998): 351.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. 1597. In The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare, The Complete Works Annotated, edited by Howard Staunton, 155-222. New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1979.

Shakespeare, William. Taming of the Shrew. 1594. In The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare, The Complete Works Annotated, edited by Howard Staunton, 225-280. New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1979.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. 1598. In The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare, The Complete Works Annotated, edited by Howard Staunton, 691-746. New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1979.

Sokol, B.J, and Mary Sokol. Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977.