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In Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, there’s a fictional court case against Claudio for extra-marital misconduct. The play separately asks the audience to pass judgment on Angelo regarding a marriage pre-contract that was known as a “Spousal” during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In 1604, when Measure for Measure was first performed, these cases of immoral behavior were being tried in real life in what were known as “ecclesiastical courts,” or colloquially, as the “Bawdy Courts.” Many of the actual citizens that had been brought up on charges in these bawdy court cases were members of the audience being addressed by the play’s fictional court portrayal. It was in this same year that church courts started cracking down on engaged couples who were becoming secretly engaged or “bethrothed” to one another without witnesses or parental consent. Here today to tell us about the battle between civil and canon law that governed couples intending to get married, and the specific changes to to canon law that were issued in 1604, is our guest and theatrical historian, Cynthia Greenwood.  

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Cynthia Greenwood is an independent scholar and theater critic specializing in Shakespeare’s Jacobean-era comedies. She is the author of Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays, and more. Cynthia published How Measure for Measure’s Bawdy Court Ethos Puts the Canon Law Revisions of 1604 on Trial, which she joins us today to discuss further.  

More on Cynthia’s publications

Cynthia first became interested in the challenges that William Shakespeare presented to her students when she taught British literature to undergraduates at Wharton Junior College in 1988. While teaching and reviewing Shakespeare productions at theatres and festivals for metropolitan newspapers, she assumed the role of professional interpreter of Shakespeare for intelligent readers who never warmed up to the world’s greatest playwright in the classroom.

Today, as an independent scholar and a theatre critic, she continues to research questions about Shakespeare’s Jacobean-era comedies. She earned a Master of Arts degree from The University of Houston in 2014, with a major focus on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, a Master of Arts degree from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 1988, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in linguistics from The University of Texas at Austin. 

Besides her books, Deciphering Shakespeare’s Plays (2018) and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays (2008), Cynthia Greenwood has published in-depth arts reports, profiles, and reviews in The New York Times, Playbill, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer, San Antonio Express-News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and, among others. 

I’ll be asking Cynthia Greenwood about:

  • What was meant by the terms “spousal” or “Betrothal” in early modern England? 
  • What was the conflict between being betrothed and being formally married within the Church of England?  
  • The canon law change that occurred in 1604 was issued by the Church of England and specifically prohibited marriages occurring outside the presence of witnesses and without parental consent. What was going on in England that made the church feel this proclamation was necessary? 
  • …and more!

If you’re interested in how marriage and the law intersect in Shakespeare’s plays, Cynthia highly recommends a book called Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage 📚 , by B.J. Sokol and Mary Sokol. Anne Barton has also written a superb essay on marriage, law, and Shakespeare in a collection entitled, Essays: Mainly Shakespearean. 📚
Another excellent book is Shakespeare and the Law, edited by Paul Raffield and Gary Watt. It contains two excellent essays pertinent to today’s topic: Jonathan Bate’s essay entitled, “The Bawdy Court,” and an essay by Germaine Greer entitled, “Shakespeare and the Marriage Contract.

This is a screen capture of the 1604 Canon Laws, as listed on the website for the Anglican Church of England. Source
The revelation of Olivia’s betrothal, from “Twelfth Night,” Act V, Scene i | c 1790 | by William Hamilton | Public Domain | Source
“The Betrothal” by Rembrandt (circle of) About 1600 (Dutch) | Public Domain | Source (Note: Page also lists 1640 as the date)

Our guest, George Monger, explains exactly what “Reading the Banns” meant and what the customs were for a bride, groom, and family whenever a marriage (and betrothal) were taking place for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!