Thursday, December 19, 2013

Whither Shakespeare? Part VII - Were Young People Really So Rebellious in Shakespeare’s Time?

In Shakespeare, when parents choose their child’s marital partner, the child rebels – sometimes successfully, sometimes tragically.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the powerful Duke of Milan wishes his daughter, Silvia, to marry the wealthy Thurio.  Silvia heads for the forest.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia is commanded by her father and by Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to marry Demetrius.  She loves Lysander.  Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ann Page’s mother and father have each picked an inappropropriate husband for Ann.  Ann prefers her own choice, Fenton.  While everyone is gathered in forested Windsor Park to torment Falstaff, Fenton and Ann sneak away to secretly marry.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, steals his money and runs away with the lover of her choice, leading Shylock to cry, "My daughter, my ducats."

In Cymbeline, Imogen, the daughter of the king, secretly marries her beloved, the unfortunately named, Posthumus.  The king wanted her to marry his stepson, Cloten.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca and Lucentio marry secretly while her father arranges a marriage to another suitor. 
In All’s Well that Ends Well, the King of France commands his son Bertram to marry Helena.  He marries her, but vows never to consummate the marriage until she can “show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to.”  He then joins the army and head to war.
And, as everyone knows, in Romeo and Juliet, while Juliet’s parents plan her marriage to Paris, Romeo and Juliet marry secretly in Friar Lawrence’s cell.  Everything goes badly for them, but generally in Shakespeare, the disobedient children end up with their own choice of spouse.

Is the rebellious child only a device for creating dramatic conflict or was Shakespeare reflecting a trend of his time?

Lawrence Stone in his book, The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800 (1977) argues that, in Shakespeare’s day, when parents chose an unacceptable spouse, children would rebel.

Traditionally marriages were made by parents wanting to secure or expand their property and position in society.  Since these were not love matches, mistresses were common, mistresses were frequently included in wills, and the kings of England openly fathered numerous children outside of their official marriages.  However, the Puritan movement was gaining strength in England throughout the 16th century.  Puritans preached that marriage was a sacred bond and keeping a mistress was an offence against God.

Increasingly those of marriageable age thought, if I cannot have an extramarital lover, then I had better marry someone I love.  This challenge to parental authority was an unintended consequence of Puritanism -- and also a wonderful source of plot material for Shakespeare.

No comments:

Post a Comment