Love's Labour's Lost: Cultural/Historical Influences

English Renaissance Marriage Practices and their connections to Love's Labour's Lost
Allison Hein '03

Marriage in the Renaissance time. What was it like? Why were Romeo and Juliet so for it? Why were King Ferdinand, Dumaine, Biron and Longueville so against it? Was renaissance marriages truly like what we are led to believe from the romance novels that are set in that period? Or are they only romanticizing the harsh reality of the time? In the following pages will show you the ins and outs of marriages of the time.

The age of the participants in the marriage ceremony varies not only accordingly to gender, but also the century in which they were married. While the women in the late sixteenth married at about twenty, women in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries married at an average age of twenty- two to twenty-three (Stone 46). The age for males to marry depends on if they were the heirs or if they were the "spare". The average age for the heir's first marriage in the early sixteenth century was at twenty-one, advancing to twenty-two by the end of the same century (Stone 46). The trend continues to move upward throughout the remaining centuries with the average age in the seventeenth century being twenty-four, raising to twenty-six in the early eighteenth century, to twenty-seven and twenty-nine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, respectively (Stone 46). The younger sons tended to marry in there early to middle thirties, if they chose to marry at all (Stone 48).

The reasons for the delay in age of getting married are very clear. In later centuries the parents were more willing to let the children decide who they would marry, which meant allowing them to mature before making the decision (Stone 46). The next reason is the growing belief that " sperm was a vital fluid that controlled growth, and excessive discharge before full maturity would, therefore, stunt physical and intellectual growth" (Stone 46). The final reason may have been the growing duration of higher education, which included a few years at a university, followed by a few years at the Inns of Court, and summed up by two or three years of a Grand Tour (Stone 48).

The next big question is often why get married? Along with economic imperatives, there were other issues. These reasons, too, vary depending on gender. It also varies on economic class. The majority of upper class women married as the "model" insisted (Duby 26). For women, marriage was not only her destiny, but also a metamorphic transformation that would decide her future social and economic status that would come with her new household (Duby 29). For males, there were three basic objectives (Stone, 1977, pp. 42). Lawrence Stone puts it succulently in his book The Family, Sex and Marriage: in England 1500-1800, when he says "the continuity of the male line, the preservation intact of the inherited property, and the acquisition through marriage of further property or useful political alliances" (42). In the lower classes, marriages were more often formed because of mutual affection and sexual compatibility, due to more relaxed courtship practices that allowed couples to get to know each other first (Duby 83).

Dowries often played a large part in the decision to marry. A dowry, is the custom in which all brides, both rich and poor alike, contributed a cash sum, along with the sensitivity of status and rank, to the intend groom (Stone 60). Hence, since marriages involved an interchange of cash between the father of the bride and the groom, it is inevitable that a great majority of marriages took place within the same or close to the same socio-economical class.

There were various ways to enter into a marriage in the Renaissance period. If the parties involved had property there were several steps involved (Stone 31). The first included a written legal contract between the parents of the bride and groom concerning finical arrangements; the next step was a formal oral exchange, before witnesses, of the promises (Stone 31). The third step was the reading of the banns in church, three times, the fourth was the church wedding, and the final step was the act of sexual consummation (Stone 31). It should be noted however that any sort of exchanges of promises before witnesses and followed by cohabitation was, by law, regarded as a valid marriage (Stone 31). In remoter areas, commonly known as Scotland, Wales and the extreme southwest, the 'handfast', the betrothal ceremony, was treated by many of the poor as a sufficient binding union without the Church blessing (Stone 31).

The idea of "roles" in renaissance marriages was clearly defined. There was no question to the fact that fathers, meaning males, should rule (Bell 220). The man's "list of jobs" beings with "Wysdome and loue, the generall heads of all husbands duties", while the woman's begins with " Subjection, the general head of all wiues duties" (Clark 38). Simply put, the husband's role was that of a provider of shelter and of sustenance, he paid the bills and taxes and he also represented the house in the community (Duby 29). The role of the wife was to generally be a helpmate, a mother, and through her appearance, "confirm the status of the husband" (Duby 30).

According to Rudolph M. Bell in his 1999 book entitled How To Do It, " a wife ought to have no feelings of her own; instead, she should join in with her husband in seriousness as in sport, in sobriety as in laughter" (224). He goes on to say; " she [the wife] should keep silent when her husband is angry but console him with words of comfort when he is sullen…. A wise wife closes her ears to the backbiters who warn of her husbands evil ways" (225).

When it comes to fidelity in the renaissance marriages there is varying research on the subject. Some say that the best way for keeping a woman chaste is for the husband to set a chaste example (Clark 38). An author of the time, William Gouge, says if there is any discrepancy between whose adultery is worst, the husband's is that "because the husband is superior and should govern by example" (Clark 39). Although, in contrast, "Count Annibale Romei in The Courtiers Academie (1598): a women's adultery is more dishonorable than a man's since she dishonors her husband…and offends every women's principle virtue- honor, that is, chastity" (Clark 39).

In this time period, there was no divorce permitting remarriage in the Anglican Church (Stone 37). When marriages broke down, usually due to adultery, the only separation was of room and board with a financial settlement (Stone 37). For the most part, marriage was indissoluble, breakable only by death (Stone 38). This is clearly emphasized by a sarcastic poem by a spinster Miss Weeton in 1808, a poem about a husband that is discontented:

" 'Come soon, O Death, and Alice take.'
He loudly groan'd and cry'd;
Death came- but mad a sad mistake,
For Richard 'twas that died" (Stone 38).

For the poor, there were other alternatives to death, as a means of ending a marriage (Stone 38). It was all too easy to run away and never to be heard from again, and another option still, was bigamy, which was easy and common (Stone 40). Yet another option for the poor was an "unofficial folk-custom of divorce by mutual consent by 'wife-sale'" (Stone 40). In which, Stone says " a husband 'puts a halter about her [the wife] neck and thereby leads her to the next market place, and there puts her up to an auction to be sold to the best bidder, as if she were a brood mare or a milch-cow. A purchaser is generally provided beforehand on these occasions'" (40).

In the Renaissance period, remarriages were not uncommon. In fact, " one out of every four or five marriages in early modern Europe was a remarriage" (Duby 74). Many of those who remarried were fathers of young children whose wife had passed in childbirth, and needed a woman to fulfill wifely duties (Stone 56).

Why the men of Navarre, in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, are against out right perusal and courtship leading to marriage one will never know. Likewise, why the women of France are against it when the men come around to it is also a mystery. Could it be that the women were already strong and had no need for a man to bend their will and to be submissive to? Or perhaps, the men did not want to have to cut short the intellectual pursuits. I guess one will never know because the bard is no longer around to share his reasonings behind his play.

Works Cited
Bell, Rudolph M. How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999

Clark, Ira. "The Marital Double Standard in Tudor and Stuart Lives and Writing: Some Problems" Medieval & Renaissance drama in England 9 (1997): 34-55.

Duby, Georges, Michelle Perrot, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Arlette Farge, eds. A History of Women in the West: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes. Vol. III. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 1997.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage: In England 15000-1800. New York: Harper, 1977.

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