Internet Shakespeare Editions


The marriage ceremony

From the Roxburghe Ballads. University of Victoria Library.

Marriage was a religious, economic, and practical necessity. In the nobility, it was a major means of increasing capital*; and in the middle class, each partner contributed significantly to the household economy.

The ceremony itself was not so different from today, except that the bride promised to obey* her husband, and did not usually wear white. Rings* were exchanged. The bride was sometimes decked with ears of wheat to symbolize Ceres, goddess of fertility. At the end of the wedding there was a toast in sweet wine--or ale for the less wealthy.

Even in the idyllic forest world of As You Like It, the technicalities* involved in the marriage ceremony could be a touchy subject.

Premarital sex and sexuality

In common with most early modern societies, the virginity of the bride was of paramount importance. How else could the family of the husband be sure that the blood line was being continued? Sometimes, however, marriage was delayed to make sure the bride was fertile. In Measure for Measure, the Friar/Duke justifies Mariana's sleeping with Angelo because she was formally betrothed to him beforehand; on the other hand, Prospero is adamant that Miranda and Ferdinand remain chaste before marriage:

If thou [Ferdinand] dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minist'red,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-eyed disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.
(The Tempest, 4.1.15-22)

Nonetheless, "handfast" marriages* were common, and the ecclesiastical courts were often busy with cases involving premarital sex and adultery.

Within the bounds of marriage, sexuality was accepted by the Church -- and more openly celebrated in the literature. Homosexual acts were considered "abominations," and, at least in theory, were more severely punished.


  1. Profitable marriages . . .

    . . . were possible not only through the uniting of two properties, but also through the bride's dowry. There is much discussion of dowries in Shakespeare's comedies: Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew is willing to sell Bianca to the highest bidder, while being prepared to offer a suitably extravagant dowry to Pretruchio for taking on Kate.

  2. The marriage vows

    Cranmer's original wording is seldom used today:

    Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God's ordinance, in the holy estate of Matrimony; wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as you both shall live?
    (The Book of Common Prayer).

    The husband's words are identical, except that he is "to love her, comfort her. . ."

  3. Ring-poetry

    Wedding rings, the circle a symbol of perfection, the gold a symbol of purity and nobility, were often inscribed with "posies": Gratiano, in The Merchant of Venice, speaks in defence of giving away his ring:

    [It was] a hoop of gold, a paltry ring
    That she did give me, whose posy was
    . . . 'love me, and leave me not.'

    On the other hand, it is clearly a matter of deep feeling for Shylock that Jessica trades his ring -- which she had stolen -- for a monkey. Tubal reports to Shylock the news he has had of a merchant:

    Tubal: One of them showed me a ring that he had of your daughter for a monkey.
    Shylock: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.
    (The Merchant of Venice 3.1.111-16)

  4. A marred marriage

    When the clown Touchstone decides to marry the goat-herd Audrey ("Come, sweet Audrey./We must be married, or we must live in bawdry"), their vicar is Sir Oliver Mar-text, who insists that the marriage is not lawful unless there be someone to give away the woman.

    Jacques intervenes; he believes that the marriage is improper, the priest unfit: "will you, being a man of your breeding, be married under a bush like a beggar?"

    Touchstone's response is that he would rather be improperly married: "not being well married, it will be a good excuse for me hereafter to leave my wife" (See As You Like It, 3.3.82-94).

  5. "Handfast" marriage

    Marriages made by vows of betrothal witnessed by others--Florizel and Perdita are thwarted in a handfast marriage in The Winter's Tale, and Shakespeare himself may have been involved in one.

    Handfast marriages date back to the middle ages when the weddings of ordinary folk left no trace because they were oral transactions. Handfast marriages involved the joining of the bride and groom's hands, as well as a public exchange of vows known as "plighting the troth," (n modern English, "pledging the truth"). During Shakespeare's life, however, the number of handfast marriages began to concern church officials and parents, who weren't necessarily informed of handfast marriages. It was about this time that handfast ceremonies came to signify betrothal rather than marriage. Unlike marriage, which now had to be officially sanctioned by the church, handfast betrothals were not indissoluble; nevertheless, handfasts did involve commitment and intent to officially marry.

    The "bed-trick" played in two plays (Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well) may have seemed less bizarre in a society which understood the possiblity of marriage without a formal ceremony.

    Commentators at the time inveighed against the tradition of handfast marriages, claiming that men used them to seduce women and then leave them.

    The ghostly ennemy doth deceyve many psones by ye pretence & colour of matrymony in pryuate & secrete contractes. For many men whan they can not obteyne theur unclene desyre of the woman wyl promyse marryage, & thervpon make a contracte promyse eche vnto other sayenge. Here I take the Margery vnto my wyfe, I therto plyght the my trouth. And she agayne, vnto him in lyke maner. And after that done, they suppose they maye lawfully vse theyr unclene behauyour, and somtyme the acte and dede doth folow, vnto the great offence of god & theyr owne soules.
    Richard Whytford, A Werke for Housholders (1530, 1537)