In Shakespeare’s time betrothal and marriage was very different from the way and traditions that exist today, as were the interactions that were allowed between men and women before marriage. Marriage was most of the time not based on love but on the prospects that each individual brought to the marriage like economic stability, social standing, and status, and the ability to help the other climb the social ladder, rather than the attraction of the betrothed to each other.

Betrothal’s were often made by two sets of parents directly after the birth of one or both of the two betrothed party’s. This was something that happened often to children who were taken in to someone’s home as a ward, “A wardship, that is, to be named guardian to a ward, was extremely valuable because the recipient could not only subsequently marry his own child to a wealthy heir, but also during the child’s minority, he was entitled to the income from the ward’s lands.” (Callaghan pg. 324). Wards would inherit their parents money while still young making them good prospects for marriage, “Wards were Children who inherited their parents estate during their minority. During the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the court of wards dealt with these cases, not, it must be emphasized, to ensure the emotional welfare of the children, but to ensure that property and power relations were properly maintained.” (Callaghan Pg. 324). Wards were children in wealthy families who had either one or both parents die while the child was young. Children would often become wards while both parents were still alive for many different reasons such as the parents didn’t want the child, they could not afford to take care of the child, or the parents couldn’t care for the child properly, “At night was brought to me a letter from my Lord to let me know his determination was, the child should go live at Horseley, and not come hither any more so as this was a very grievous and sorrowful day to me.” (Clifford pg. 357). Wards were usually taken in for the economic prospects to the child of the ward’s guardian, “That interest in an upcoming marriage might be primarily economic is nowhere more evident than in the category of ‘wards,’ where feudal marriage held unyielding sway.”(Callaghan pg. 324).

Even marriage of two infants was a popular thing for parents of the time, “Marriages of infants were lawful and not uncommon. But such a marriage though so called, was not quite a marriage unless the parties confirmed it as such after reaching ages of consent—fourteen for a boy, twelve for a girl.” (Callaghan pg. 326). This was usually done because the prospects that one of the betrothed had a large enough inheritance to make the marriage economically stable. This might also be done to ensure that power in a certain family stayed a certain part or member of that family. This was often done when someone took in a ward, “Humphrey was very young indeed at the time of the marriage to Martha, barely fourteen, and yet Bagot claimed the he had him married in infancy to his daughter Lettice….The Marriage of Humphrey and Lettice was never confirmed.” (Callaghan Pgs. 325-326).

When two people were not betrothed from birth or as wards, but fell in love at an older age the marriage was subject to the parents and in order for the marriage to be followed through and seen as a legal and lawful marriage it had to have consent from the parents of both parties involved: “…[I]t shall plainly appear, that not only the consent of father & mother is chiefly requisite in the case of marriage, but also in the former ages and more ancient times of this world, always declining from better to worse, that the choice it self of wives for the sons, and husbands for the daughters, rested wholly in the power & authority of the parents, in so much that not only the better sort of the godly referred the whole care of their bestowing this way unto provident election of their fathers and mothers.” (Stockwood pg. 260). Parents were heavy involved in the marriage of their children, and those getting married often did not have a say in who they were betrothed and married to, especially in the case of the women, because it was thought that young women did not know how to pick a proper husband on her own since she was not experienced enough to know who was right for her, “…it becometh not a maid to talk where her father and mother be in communication about her marriage, but to leave all that care and charge wholly unto them which love her as well as her self doth. And let her think that her father and mother will provide no less diligently for her than she would for herself, but much better, by the reason they have more experience and wisdom.” (Vives pgs. 322-323).


The characters of Bassani and Portia in The Merchant of Venice are examples of the way in which courtship and marriage worked in England in Shakespeare’s time for those of the upper class in London. Portia is being traditional and following her father’s wishes to find a man that he will approve of for marriage, even though her father is deceased. Before he died, Portia’s father set up a set of riddles that her suitors had to solve in order to be betrothed to her in marriage. Her father died before she found a suitor that solved the riddles but Portia still honored her fathers wishes and did not pick one of the suitors that tired and failed because she did not like any of the suitors that tried, “NERISSA: If he should offer to choose, and choose the right casket, you should refuse to perform your father’s will if you should refuse to accept him. PORTIA: Therefore, for fear of the worst, I pray thee, set a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket, for if the devil be within and that temptation without, I know he will choose it. I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge.” (1.2.67-73). When Bassanio, as a suitor, opens the correct casket Portia chooses to accept him as her husband to be respecting her father’s wishes:


Myself and what is mine to you and yours

Is now converted. But now I was the lord

Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,

Queen o’er myself: and even now, but now,

This house, these servants, and this same myself

Are yours, My lord’s. I give them with this ring

Which when you part from, lose, or give away,

Let it presage the ruin of your love

And be my vantage to exclaim on you. (3.2.166-74)

Often if the parents did not agree with the marriage the couple getting betrothed would marry in secret and run away or tell the family after it happened. One example being that, “In 1587, Richard Bagot discovered that his daughter Margaret had secretly married William Trew, a member of the household of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert, earl of Essex.” (Callaghan Pg. 317). If this happened the parents would often disinherit or threaten to disinherit them, “That was far from the case, and it is Mary who, in the next letter, is said to have had the strongest objections to the marriage of her son Simon to Henry Skipwith’s daughter, Jane, and was prepared to disinherit her son of the lands that were part of her own jointure, that is those over which she retained control after her own marriage.”, but there were rare times when these threats turned out to be empty, “Despite these threats and protestations, Simon did marry Jane and was not disinherited, and we know this because in Richard Rugeley’s funeral certificate, dated 5 July 1623 (quoted in Salt V, 257), Simon was called the son and heir, and was said to married Jane Skipwith and by her had issue, a son who died young. The Parents who did not agree with the partnership might try to annul the marriage rather than disinherit the child, “Like Capulet, he can barely contain his rage in the following letter to another son-in-law, and in his fury, Bagot clearly wants to contest the legality of the marriage on the grounds of its being clandestine.”, but these attempts did not always work, “Margaret and her father, however, were not ultimately estranged, and eventually, with the intervention of various other members of the family, peace was restored.” (Callaghan pg. 317).

One example of a couple in Shakespeare that married secretly would be Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. Jessica and Lorenzo loved each other but she was a Jew and he was a Christian, which meant Shylock, her father, would never approve of the marriage, so they ran away and eloped. Before they left Jessica took most of her father’s money and most of the family heirlooms, so that they would have some sort of financial stability, “LORENZO: So are you, sweet, Even in the lovely garnish of a boy. But come at once, for close the night doth play the runaway, And we are stayed for at Bassanio’s feast. JESSICA: I will make fast the doors, and gild myself With some more ducats, and be with you straight.” (2.6.45-51). Shylock very much wanted disinherit Jessica for what she did but he could not because she already had almost all of his money. He also finds out that she is now spending all of his money very quickly, making him very upset and angry and so he decides he must somehow get that money back and disinherit her:


SHYLOCK: I thank thee, good Tubal. Good news, good news! Ha, ha! Heard in Genoa?

TUBAL: Your daughter spent in Genoa, as I heard, one night fourscore ducats.

SHYLOCK: Thou stick’s a dagger in me. I shall never see my gold again. Fourscore ducats at a sitting? Fourscore ducats? (3.1.78-81).

A second example in Shakespeare of couple getting married against their parents wishes is Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. Their parents and families have been feeding with each other and one night Romeo and Juliet see each other and fall madly “in love” with each other. They then elope two days later, “FRIAR LAURENCE: Come, come with me, and we will make short work; For. by your leaves, you shall not stay alone Till Holy Church incorporate two in one.” (3.1.35-37). Juliet even decides to runaway and go with Romeo to Mantua when he is banished there for killing Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, “FRIAR LAURENCE:…In the meantime,, against thou shalt awake, Shall Romeo by our letters know our drift, And hither shall he come, and he and I Will watch thy waking, and that very night Shall Romeo bear thee hence to Mantua.” (4.1.113-17). But this never happens due to miscommunications and both Romeo and Juliet committing suicide over their love for the other.

The men were more involved in the choice of who they would marry than the women were and they were encouraged to pick women who were quiet and kept to themselves, but it was also discouraged that they married educated women because educated women were seen as bad and would lead to a very poor marriage in which the wife would not submit to her husband, “ …that the … choice of his wife [be] … grounded upon some of these promising likelihood, videlicet, that she be of a sober and mild aspect, courteous behavior, decent carriage, of a fixed eye, constant look, and unaffected gait, the contrary being oftentimes signs of ill portent and consequent.” (Niccholes pg. 338). These were signs that men would look for in their wives because if the woman he chose was loud and boisterous, instead of meek and mild, then this would mean that the wife would be rebellious, not submitting to her husband as being the one in charge of her and she would be unfaithful and adulterous with other men after getting married. The wife would basically become the husbands property after marriage and everything she owned was now his, “The wife comes under the power of her husband upon marriage; her movable property held before the union becomes his, as does anything she acquires

afterward.” (Kaplan pg. 315).

As can be seen the way betrothal and marriage worked very differently in the time of Shakespeare than the way it does today. Parents were very involved in the picking of the spouses for their children based on economic stability and social standing rather than how well they got along or how compatible they were. Marriage was not based on love and attraction the way it is today. In order for someone to be betrothed their parents had to give approval or they had to be betrothed from infancy or birth before they could get married or they eloped and faced the impending consequences of either being disinherited or the marriage being forcefully annulled. Shakespeare in many ways illustrates these things in the many young married couples in his many plays.


Works Cited
Callaghan, Dympna. Correspondence of the Bagot Family, in Family life in Contexts of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Ed. Dympna Callaghan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2003. 315-342. Print.

Clifford, Lady Anne. Excerpt From The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford, in Family life in Contexts of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Ed. Dympna Callaghan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2003. 357-376. Print.

Kaplan, M. Lindsay. Women and Marriage, in Love and Gender in Contexts of The Merchant of Venice, The Merchant of Venice, Ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2002 312-315. Print.

Niccholes, Alexander. Excerpt From A Discourse of Marriage and Wiving, in Love and Gender in Contexts of The Merchant of Venice, The Merchant of Venice, Ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2002 336-339. Print.

Stockwood, John. Excerpt From A Bartholomew Fairing for Parents, in Loving and Marrying in Contexts of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Ed. Dympna Callaghan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2003. 260-272. Print.

Vives, Juan Luis. Excerpt From The Instruction of a Christian Woman, in Love and Gender in Contexts of The Merchant of Venice, The Merchant of Venice, Ed. M. Lindsay Kaplan. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2002 336-339. Print.