Marriage is one of Shakespeare’s most prominent themes: it may well be his most prominent. Almost every play contains either a marriage proposed, a marriage abandoned, or a marriage enacted in one way or another. True, as Lysander observes in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the path of true love ‘never did run smooth’, but in many ways this is Shakespeare’s theme: the obstacles that have to be overcome to reach that state of marital bliss which his plays present as so elusive that, as Harold Bloom observes, the only happy marriage in Shakespeare is the Macbeths.
It is a truism to point out that the structure of the comedies depends entirely on the successful conclusion of a problematic romance. This is the play’s destination, the happy ending that was always both unlikely and inevitable, and the examples are legion: nobody will be surprised at the end of ‘Much Ado’, for example, that Beatrice and Benedick have found a way to admit to one another that they are ready to become man and wife, despite their earlier reluctance to admit their feelings. Bertram and Helena in ‘All’s Well’ reach a similarly happy ending, though the obstacles they overcome to get there are to do with social status rather than amour propre. But the effect is the same.
‘Measure for Measure’ reaches the same conclusion: Isabella will marry Vincentio, and as it happens, Angelo will marry Mariana, and Claudio will marry Juliet. This is fairly common ground in Shakespeare’s comedies: they rarely end with just the single marriage. ‘Twelfth Night’, for example: Olivia will marry Sebastian, Orsino will marry Viola, and Maria will marry Sir Andrew. The obstacles have been overcome, and nature may take its course. More important, perhaps, the audience will go away happy, content to see the loose ends tied up – symbolically at least. Similar multiple marriages conclude ‘The Merchant of Venice’, with Portia marrying Bassanio, Nerissa betrothed to Gratiano and Lorenzo together with Jessica – despite the obstacles she has had to overcome. It is striking that all these marriages are contracted in the last act of the play – indeed, they were always effectively the last word.
It is worth remembering that we see none of these marriages in practice, in action: the play ends when the knot is as good as tied but we are not shown how successful or otherwise the contract turns out to be. Again, these are not isolated examples in this respect: take Isabella and Ferdinand in ‘The Tempest’, Imogen and Posthumus in ‘Cymbeline’, Orlando and Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ alongside Audrey and Touchstone, Hermia and Lysander in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and Helena and Demetrius in the same play. The familiar principles apply: obstacles have to be met and overcome, romance will triumph in the end and the play will close on that note of suspended optimism, not to be put to the test by events.
But what of those marriages that we are shown? How do they fare? It’s a mixed picture. Successful and supportive marriages in Shakespeare are rare. The Macbeths were mentioned above, and certainly Lady Macbeth’s knowledge of her husband is extensive and insightful, and her ability to help and support him at key moments (for example, the appearance of Banquo’s ghost) is admirable. On the other hand, her influence is lamentable, and anyway, any initial closeness between them dissipates markedly as the play progresses: witness his reaction when he hears of her death – ‘She should have died hereafter’, a less than heartfelt response. Other (rare) examples of supportive marriages include Claudius and Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’ – a recent marriage, one imagines – along with the exceptionally contentious and problematic relationship between Petruchio and Katherina in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, a relationship which seems to prosper on Petruchio’s cruelty and Katherina’s apparent willingness to leave her dignity at the door.
Destructive marriages are more common. Antony and Cleopatra are clearly deeply if uneasily in love but their relationship brings no benefit to either – and neither can be described as transparent with the other. In ‘King Lear’, Albany and Goneril drift from a relationship of supportive criminality to a marriage destroyed by her lust for Edmund. In ‘Henry VIII’, Henry’s hard heart hardens further despite the immense dignity shown by his first wife Katherine, while in ‘Richard III’, Anne’s role as Richard’s wife and queen is simply to emerge as another of his victims. Insofar as ‘Arden of Feversham’ is by Shakespeare, it is worth noting here that this play is written around the extra-marital affair of a middle-aged woman and ends with her trial and conviction for her husband’s murder.
Even so, not all Shakespeare’s marriages fall victim to this level of sexual incontinence – despite the examples of Goneril and Alice. In ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, for example, the married women attractive to Falstaff – Mistresses Ford and Quickly – are better than their husbands suspect, and easily resist the fat knight’s advances. Similarly, in ‘Edward III’, the Countess of Salisbury retains her spotless reputation despite the king’s predatory designs on her virtue. Two late plays reinforce this spirit of loyalty and enduring commitment – Pericles and Thaisa are finally reunited in ‘Pericles’, as are Leontes and Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’. A note of optimism, then, though it is worth remembering that these last two relationships were spent largely apart.
A final nuance in this field is worth observing. Shakespeare seems to have had what we might call a weakness for cross-cultural marriages. There is a surprising number of marriages proposed or enacted in these plays in which the participants have different cultures or heritages. Antony and Cleopatra constitute one example, their passionate romance straddling East and West. But they are far from an isolated example. Othello and Desdemona is a further case in point – Othello’s outsider status in the society to which he now ambiguously belongs being one of the themes of a play whose subtitle is ‘The Moor of Venice’: in short, the outsider. Desdemona, by contrast, daughter of a senator, is born to the Venetian purple.
There are many other examples: among the History plays, Hal and Katharine are a case in point – the triumphant English victor at Agincourt and the daughter of the defeated King of France, struggling with her English. Blanche and Louis in ‘King John’ represent a second example, and Henry VI with Margaret of Anjou a third. A further case is Mortimer and Glendower’s daughter in ‘Henry IV Part One’: she speaks no English and he no Welsh. In many of these cases, it is striking that male victors marry defeated females – a pattern reproduced in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which features Theseus Duke of Athens and his putative wife, the defeated Hippolyta. The same pattern recurs in ‘Titus Andronicus’, where the defeated Tamora is to be married to the Roman Saturninus, but is challenged in ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, where the defeated Theban Palamon is married to the triumphant Athenian Emilia. Strictly speaking, the marriage between Lorenzo and Jessica in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is cross-cultural, and it is Jessica (‘I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife’) who will have to abandon her cultural background in the Jewish faith if she is to fit in.
The contemporary critic will naturally recoil from drawing too many conclusions about Shakespeare’s practice as a writer from what we know of his life. Yet in writing about marriage, Shakespeare knew whereof he speaks since he was himself famously married to a wife he saw very rarely. Either way, there is a kind of disconnect in his portrayal of the state of marriage in his plays: quite simply, what was once feverishly desired turns out to be a somewhat painful experience in practice. There again, isolated in London, Shakespeare had little experience of married life at its most supportive and rewarding, and this perhaps informs the somewhat negative portrayal it receives in his plays.