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The difference in Shakespeare’s plays between a tragedy and a comedy is defined as whether or not the characters end in marriage or end in death. The comedies often showcase the promise of a marriage, or even sometimes multiple marriages, with proposals happening in the midst of fun and elaborate parties including songs, dances, and frivolity. Then of course those happy marriages are starkly contrasted with those we see in Shakespeare’s tragedies where marital relationships are marred by jealousy, suspicion, or betrayal. Shakespeare’s works give us a glimpse into what marriage customs were for turn of the 17th century England, but they are far from providing any kind of definition what was normal. In order to explore the history of marriage customs for Shakespeare’s lifetime and understand better what we could expect to see if we had attended a 17th century marriage in England, we are sitting down today with our guest, and expert in the history of marriage traditions, George Monger.  

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George P. Monger is a freelance heritage conservation consultant, folklorist, and writer. His published works include the first edition of ABC-CLIO’s Marriage Customs of the World and Discovering the Folklore and Traditions of Marriage. He has contributed to many other publications, journals, and magazines.

Read More about George Monger and his work here

George Monger has spent over forty five years working in the Heritage sector in the United Kingdom first at the Museum of Mankind(British Museum) then at the Museum of East Anglian Life before becoming a freelance conservation consultant (the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been one of his clients) and is also a freelance folklorist and writer. His Marriage Customs of the World (2nd ed) was published by ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, California, in 2013. Lives in Stowmarket, Suffolk, England and married with three adult children and two grandchildren who can wrap him round their little fingers.

I’ll be asking George Monger about:

  • Shakespeare’s own marriage is said to have occurred due to Anne Hathaway being pregnant with Susanna. George, what is the history of shotgun marriages in Shakespeare’s lifetime and does it make sense for Shakespeare to have gotten married because his wife was pregnant?  
  • We can’t discuss marriage without discussing ages of marriage. In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers are quite young, with Juliet only 13 at the time of her marriage to Romeo. What was the most common age for a man and woman to marry in Shakespeare’s lifetime? Was 13 years old radically young for Shakespeare’s audience?  
  • What does it mean for a couple to have been handfasted in public prior to their marriage ceremony, and is that the same as “reading of the banns”?
  • …and more!

John R. Gillis, For Better, for Worse: British Marriages 1600 to the Present. Oxford University Press. 1985

Lawrence Stone The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 Penguin Books 1990.

Macfarlane, Alan. 1986. Marriage and Love in England, 1300–1840. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Goody, Jack. 1983. The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Additional Links That May Be Of Interest:

Marriage painting. Long believed to be between Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his pregnant wife Giovanna Cenami, now considered possibly between his cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and another woman. | by Jan van Eyk, 1434 | Public Domain | Source

Marriage Customs included Pregnancy Before a Wedding

William Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, were pregnant with their first daughter, Susanna, when they were married in 1582. Modern scholarship has often questioned whether the marriage was predicated on the pregnancy, but as George Monger shares this week, the marriage ceremony was often just a ceremony. The actual bond between husband and wife was committed officially with the betrothal, making a pregnancy before the formal ceremony quite common, and normal.

It wasn’t so much a shotgun marriage as a normal sort of process. It could have been they were betrothed, or espoused, and there are were two forms of espousal. And betrothal was a binding ceremony almost as important as the marriage ceremony itself. The espousal/betrothal ceremony was incorporated into the church of England marriage ceremony service today. So they might have been espoused.  

  1. Espousal en presente – bethrothed in the present
  1. Espousal en futura — promised to one another in the future

[Espousal] was a promise to marry, but it was almost a marriage limbo. They were promised in marriage, and they could actually have the conjugal rights if it was epousal en futura, but if they took their conjugal rights, they couldn’t get out of it later on. It was sealed. [Pregnancy before the marriage ceremony] wasn’t something that people would have frowned at, because it was all part of the setup.  

Marriage Customs Supported Weddings Between Teenagers

In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers are quite young, with Juliet only 13 at the time of her marriage to Romeo. Today’s audiences look at this story with disdain, or at least with a shrug of the eyebrows, because it is well outside what’s considered wise or prudent for a teenager to get married today. However, for Shakespeare’s lifetime, arranged marriages between children were quite common, and getting married while you were still a teenager was the expected timeframe.

Certainly not [out of the ordinary], especially among the upper classes like Romeo and Juliet, it was not uncommon for children to be betrothed at a young age. They would be looking for marriage when they achieved puberty, so it wouldn’t be an uncommon thing.  

Closeup of the groom and bride hands being bound during a 2007 handfasting ceremony in British Columbia involving Ivannia and Jon | photo by Kam Abbott of Nanaimo, Canada | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. | Source

Hand fasting and Reading of the Banns

Getting married in Shakespeare’s lifetime was a very public and communal affair. The townspeople not only had a say in your marriage all together, but they also pitched in to help pay for the food and feasting that occurred after the ceremony in celebration.

[There are documented cases of the townspeople] running people out of town if they didn’t want you to get married. Among merchant classes and upward towards the aristocracy, and certainly the monarchs it wasn’t the couples who made the decision at all, it was all arranged for them.  

Close detail of a 16th century wedding ceremony from the Book of Hours. | Juin : de 30 à 36 ans, Le temps du mariage
Livre d’heures à l’usage de Paris | France, 1522. | Paris, BnF, département des Estampes, Ea 25 fol ÉQUIVALENT BnF, Arsenal, 4-T-943 © Bibliothèque nationale de France | Source

White Dresses Were Not Worn, But Flowers & Decorations Were Plentiful

When a man and woman were married, the ceremony was a very special occasion. However, the traditions of wearing a white dress or a tuxedo were not present for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Instead, the man and woman would have worn their best clothes and attendants would have been similarly dressed in their finest and best, often adorned with symbolic flowers or plants, like rosemary.

The bride and the groom would wear their best clothes, but not necessarily white. The ability to keep things all white from getting dirty was very difficult, so the common brides would not have worn all white dresses, didn’t come into society unitl the 19th century.  

Marriages Were Often Accompanied by Feasts and Dances and Songs

Once a marriage was completed, it was customary for the town, family, and friends, to celebrate at an elaborate feast with plentiful foods and drinks, often provided by the attendees themselves. The celebration was long and vivacious, not unlike wedding ceremonies we have today.

Penny Weddings is a phrase, now considered obsolete in Scotland, where volunteers donated all parts of the wedding to the bride and groom. It is very comparable to what we think of as crowdfunding today, only it was for the benefit of the married couple.

Alexander Carse painted a portrait called “the Penny Wedding” in 1819. Shown here:

1819 “The Penny Wedding” by Alexander Carse (about 1770-1843) Scottish Artist. Now at the National Galleries Scotland. Source

There’s also a portrait of a Penny Wedding done by Sir David Wilkie in the 18th century, and while it is presumed to be in the public domain due to age, the Royal Trust has the image listed as copyrighted, so I will link you to that here.

The New York Public Library also has a print of “the Penny Wedding” and it looks very similar to Wilkie’s painting, but it is done like a page in a book. You can see that here.

George points out this week that when it comes to community wedding participation,

“Penny Weddings where all the attendees contributed money towards the wedding and setting up home. Other money raising events also happened such as selling segments of the brides’ garters to help raise money. These were ways for the community to help. A similar custom from Wales and Cumbria was ‘Bidding’ where money was given to the couple at pre wedding events (there would be a separate bride and groom bidding event) – these contributions would be noted and the couple would be expected to give a like contribution at another wedding (either at the contributor’s wedding or at a wedding nominated by the contributor).”

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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!