Elizabethan Marriage. Source

Welcome to Episode #40 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

From Merry Wives of Windsor, to Measure for Measure, Alls Well That Ends Well, and others, the role of marriage plays a big role in Shakespeare’s plays, determines the action, defining the characters, and living on several assumptions about the marriage institution. But what are those assumptions, exactly? As a modern audience member, what do we need to know about marriage in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and how has it changed over the last 400 years? Will these changes impact how we receive Shakespeare’s stories?

Here to help us find the answers to these questions and explore the history of marriage, Shakespeare’s own marriage to Anne Hathaway, and what we can take away from the displays of marriage in Shakespeare’s plays, is our guest Frances Dolan.


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 Frances Dolan is a Distinguished Professor English at UC Davis, Her work focuses on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In 2004-5, she served as the President of the Shakespeare Association of America. She has held fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities (at the Newberry Library and the Folger Library), and the Monticello College Foundation. In November of 2018, she led a Folger Weekend Seminar on Agriculture in the 16th century, and she is the author of the article, “Shakespeare and Marriage” for UCDavis that we have invited her here to speak with us about today.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Frances about :

  • Was pregnancy a kind of marriage contract? If you became pregnant, did it always follow that a woman would marry the man with whom she had had a relationship?

  • Was marriage deemed inevitable for women in Shakespeare's lifetime? Were there independent women?
  • Can you explain what it might have meant for a man to woo a woman for marriage?

    …and more!

I took this, admittedly a little blurry, photo during my last trip to Stratford Upon Avon in September 2018. Photo Credit: Cassidy Cash, That Shakespeare Girl

The Wooing Chair.

At Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Stratford Upon Avon, England, there's a chair called The Wooing Chair. When you tour the cottage, the guide will tell you they believe this chair is the one William Shakespeare sat in to woo Anne Hathaway before they were married. 

I'm not sure what the entire history of the chair might be, that's another research project in itself, but I'm doubtful about it being a wooing chair because it is engraved with William Shakespeare's initials. You wouldn't bring your own chair to your future wife's house to sit and woo her, would you? 

It does appear to be Shakespeare's chair, given his name is on it, so it's a fun item to wonder about when visiting his hometown. Interestingly, there does appear to have been a trend among furniture makers in the 16th century for “his and her” chairs, but I was unable to find any history for a “wooing” chair. I did find that when courting a woman, a man was expected to bring gifts and tokens. These gifts and tokens could even legally be cited in court if a man used gifts to propose to a woman, then changed his mind. She could sue him in court for proposing to her and upon producing the gifts and witnesses, hold him to a marriage contract even if he backed out. Betrothal was serious business!

Truly, she must be given, or the marriage is not lawful.

Sir Oliver

As You Like It Act III Scene iii

“The Wooing of Henry V” engraved by W.Greatbach after a painting by W.F.Yeames, published in The Art Journal, 1876. Steel engraved antique print with recent hand colour. Size 24 x 21 cms including title, plus margins. Ref H6353 Source

There was a great deal of latitude in terms of defining where a marriage started in Elizabethan England. There are records of some couples being held in formal contract of marriage because they spoke marital words to one another in the sight of witnesses.

Other accounts tell of how parents insisted on being involved in choosing a suitable partner (for daughters and for sons), with one man in 1594 being recorded as tossing his daughter out of the house as a harlot because she married her chosen husband without his consent.

For middle to upper class families, marriages of their children were often still arranged for material and political gain. For many, the marriage was not considered lawful without a parent's consent, as well as the official reading of the banns in church before witnesses.

No sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed, no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage.


As You Like It, Act V Scene ii

Romeo and Juliet: Representing the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. (1884) by Frank Dicksee [Public domain] Source

Brides were not young 


Unlike Romeo and Juliet has lead us to believe, marrying young was not the fashion in Elizabethan England. While some wives did marry quite young (Margaret Beaufort was famously married off at age 12), most couples intentionally waited to marry until they could prove they were independently able to care for themselves.

Even the daughters were expected to go into a marriage contract with either a dowry, or as was Anne Hathaway's case, substantial land and holdings to recommend you as a prospect. This expectation of independent wealth sufficient for the starting of a family was in response to the rapid growth of the poor during the 16th century, and the social expectation was that by getting married, you did not want to add to that burden. For this reason, most  people did not get married until their early to mid twenties.



Brides Did Not Wear White

This idealized painting of a medieval marriage shows how modern culture can sometimes influence our interpretation of the past.

People in the 1800s, when the painting was done, would wear white to a wedding. However, the woman this painting is depicting would have worn any color she preferred, as the white dress was not a custom until much later.

As we interpret Shakespeare's plays, it's important to remember that 16th century English brides did not wear white dresses, either. The custom of wearing white did not arrive in England until the Victorian Era. Prior to that, brides wore their best dress to their wedding. Their hair would also be worn down, and flowing over their shoulders to symbolize their virginity.

According to Elizabeth I's dress code laws, married women had to wear their hair up and covered by a hood or net. Source.

“To Arms! Sweet bridal hymn, that issuing through the porch is rudely challenged with the cry ‘to arms'” by Edmund Leighton in 1888 [public domain]

“…our day of marriage shall be yours; 
One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.”


Two Gentlemen of Verona Act V Scene iv

A Fête at Bermondsey or A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey. c. 1569 Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder [Public domain] “This painting illustrates a panorama of society in the reign of Elizabeth I of England, who may be the lady being escorted from the church at the right.” Source

Marriages were often celebrated with a feast. 

This custom was popular in Elizabethan England but dictated like so many things on whether the family, or couple, could afford to host a feast. If the parents of the couple were still living, they would host the feast on behalf of the couple with guests coming over to celebrate. There would be all manner of fancy food served, with ingredient reserved only for special occasions. The modern idea of a wedding cake comes from traditions like this one in Tudor England.

This image shows a traditional Easter fruitcake made with marzipan (marchpane). 

One hugely popular ingredient reserved for special occasions was marchpane, called marzipane today. This sugar confection is not unlike what we think of as a “base” recipe, in that it can be used to create everything from a simple cookie to an elaborate decoration. The almond flour, sugar, and rose water create a dough that can be easily molded and, once baked, holds even a complicated shape. There are historical accounts of marchpane being used to construct very elaborate and creative cakes for festive occasions. In modern baking, it's alot like fondant in that way. 

The fancy, and reserved for special occasions, status given to marchpane is one reason the servant in Romeo and Juliet asks that a piece be saved for him. The marchpane was the star of the celebratory feast. 

Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane

First Servant

Romeo and Juliet Act I Scene v

I am unable to locate the title for this painting. It depicts an Elizabethan feast. I believe the woman at the end of the table looks like a bride from a well established family.  If you have more information, please provide details in the comments. We would love to learn more! Source

If you have seen the tv show Outlander, set in 18th century Scotland, the custom portrayed when the lead character gets married to the English lady where the friends and family of the Scottish highlander all stay over at the couple's new house well into the night to see the couple off to bed was a real tradition. This custom of “seeing them off” was well established in England during Shakespeare's lifetime. 

Books Frances Recommends:

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