The institution of marriage in the Renaissance Period was both
secular and sacred. Secularly, it served as a union of two parties interested in acquiring property, money or political alliances. Marriage was also sacred in that it bound the love of a man and woman and sought procreation. William Shakespeare's work vividly displays the sacredness of love and marriage. Popular critics of his time considered Shakespeare the greatest love poet of all time. It was once said "he represented in an inimitable and masterly manner all the phenomena and manifestations of love." A working knowledge of both marriage and inheritance procedures in the Renaissance Period affords a better understanding of Shakespeare's works. No property right was more significant than the right to succeed to landed estate. No right was more symbolic of the status of women, too. First, land descended to the eldest son to the exclusion of his siblings. But if there was no son, land went to the daughter. If there were more than one daughter then they were all equal heiresses. Common law gave a limited preference to males, as it gave daughters preference over collateral males, such as the nephew, or uncle, or male cousin. The younger son often received no inheritance after the bulk of it was given to the eldest son, so many times they sought higher education in order to provide for any family they might have in the future. The next to be considered for the inheritance of a deceased landowner was the widow. The widow had a large common law right which became very well protected in the 16th century. She was entitled to a third of her husband's land for life because of her right of dower. A husband could leave his wife less by specifying it at the time of his marriage. But by the time of Edward I, the dower became an irreducible third and husbands could instead now specify more dower. The legitimate heir, however, did reserve the right to object to this if he did. Over time the widow's third became a well protected right that extended over any land her husband had ever held during their marriage. If a husband wished to alienate land he had to get his wife's consent. If he alienated without her consent she could claim dower against the purchaser. Interestingly enough, a woman could not contract herself out of dower because it would put her rights at the mercy of the dishonest and those who would wish to take advantage of her. Shakespeare created lovers whose main concern was not what they would inherit, but rather the love felt for each other. One's inheritance was of great importance to a family's well being and, in many cases, survival. This was not usually the concern of many of Shakespeare's main characters. Many of his couples, such as Lysander and Helena, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello and Desdemona married for love rather than financial conveniences and inheritances. Shakespeare based his most unforgettable plots on love versus societal norms. Courtship of Shakespeare's time held two major forms. First, and most commonly, parents and friends were the matchmakers. They selected the possible spouse, performed careful examination of his economic prospects, and then brought the couple together to find out if there were any strong feelings of dislike between them in order to ensure that the couple would get along well in marriage. Parents did not advocate "forced" marriages because the best marriages were those that were equally consensual and desired by both parties. Freedom of choice varied for each child in a family. Each child had a certain amount of freedom in choosing their mate, depending on their different role. The eldest son was under the greatest pressure since he inherited the bulk of the estate. His marriage was often critical to the family's survival because they depended on him for financial support. Because a daughter's only real future lay in marriage, she had less freedom over her choice in a mate. Her family had to make sure she would be provided for. The youngest son had the most freedom because he often had to make his own fortune, as the inheritance was all but gone by the time he was old enough to provide for himself. The family did not depend on him and therefore had less interest in whom he married. If there were no signs of aversion between a couple then the planning of the marriage would commence. After the couple consented, the settlements were signed and a formal church wedding was arranged. The second form of courtship was handled for the most part by the parties involved. A man attracted to a certain woman would ask her family for permission. Keith Wrightson suggests in his documentation of 17th century marriage practices that "it seems reasonable to conclude that among the greater part of the common people marriage partners were freely chosen, subject to the advice of friends and a sense of obligation to consult or subsequently inform parents if they were alive and within reach." If the man was both financially and personally acceptable, permission was granted and courtship continued with visits, gifts, and expressions of love. In Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, he gives evidence to couples matched by their own will. The play begins with Theseus and Hippolyta talking of their upcoming marriage. Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour Draws on apace; four happy days bring in Another moon^Öbut O, methinks, how slow This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires, Like to a step-dame or a dowager Long withering out a young man's revenue... (I.i. 1-6) Theseus demonstrates here that the entry to marriage is of his own desire rather than a match made by parents. Hippolyta is equally as happy as Theseus over their union and chooses Theseus herself. Knowing that couples were usually matched by parents, Shakespeare went against societal norms and often displayed love as being the sole desire of the couple. This often became his central theme; lovers doomed by their disapproving families. Before a couple could officially be considered married by the church and common law, there were four basic requirements. First, the bride's family had to consent and a dowry be offered. Second, both parties had to be of equal social class. The third requirement was for the parties to publicly declare the wedding and to have witnesses. Finally, the couple had to consummate the marriage. In Measure for Measure, Claudio and Juliet are married by common law standards. However, they were married in secret and not in public, therefore, Claudio is arrested for impregnating Juliet without being legally married. I got possession of Julietta's bed. You know the lady; she is fast my wife, Save that we do the denunciation lack Of outward order. This we came not to, Only for propagation of a dow'r Remaining in the coffer of her friends, From whom we thought it meet to hide our love (I.ii. 146-52) It was very important that marriage be witnessed. When it is found that Claudio disregarded this requirement, one of the main concerns of the play becomes whether or not he will die for it. Shakespeare emphasizes the risks and consequences of not following the requirements to marriage by presenting Claudio's life in danger at the start of the play. The church-sanctioned age for marriage was at a minimum 14 years for men and 12 years for women. The average age, however, was around 21 years for the eldest son and 20 for women. In Shakespeare's most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, the readers are able to see the significance of age in marriage. Juliet's mother, Lady Capulet, demonstrates the fact that it was possible to marry off a daughter at the extremely young age of 14 years old. Juliet is 13 when the plays starts and Lady Capulet is already in great haste to marry her off. Therefore, she feels it most pertinent to talk the matter over with her daughter immediately: ...younger than you, Here in Verona, ladies of esteem, Are made already mothers. By my count, I was your mother much upon these years That you are now a maid-- (I.iii. 69-73) Lady Capulet felt that it was high time Juliet be married. The reader can see here the emphasis on the considerably young age of Juliet but realize, as well, that it was definitely conceivable in that time period. Shakespeare uses the knowledge of the church-sanctioned age to create Romeo and Juliet, and point out the characteristics of young lovers. Shakespeare's time period marked a time where marriage was an important aspect of people's lives. The ways in which people were matched and married was very evident in many of his works as he strove to depict love and the relationships that developed between men and women. The procedures to inheritance are an important aspect of marriage in that it gives people a better understanding of the reasons behind the way marriages were handled around the Renaissance era. Shakespeare's work can be used in comparison to other poets of different times to attest to the continuity of the fundamental features of marriage over the centuries. His work still has a compelling effect on its readers today because it focuses on the sincerity of the heart, often defying basic rules of society, even in modern times.
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