Marriage and Family in Shakespeare’s England
The social and cultural transformation of the family took place gradually and unevenly.
By Dr. Hana Layson
Manager of School and Educator Programs
Portland Art Museum
Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 07.16.2012, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.
What is the matter with Shakespeare’s families? Why do so many of his tragic plays involve injuries and betrayals committed between parents and children, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers? How do these plays respond to changes in the understanding and organization of the family during the English Renaissance?
Historians such as Lawrence Stone have identified the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries as a crucial period in the history of the family in Britain. At the beginning of this period, most marriages were arranged, not by the two people getting married, but by their parents and other relatives. The primary purpose of marriage, especially among the upper class, was to transfer property and forge alliances between extended family networks, or kin groups. A marriage might provide a way of combining adjacent estates or of concluding a peace treaty. In fact, people used the term family to refer to all of the people living in one house, under one head, including servants as well as parents, children, and other “blood” relations. Gradually, during these centuries, these understandings of marriage and family changed. The conjugal (or marrying) couple became more important and, increasingly, people came to think of the family as centered on parents and their children—what we refer to as the nuclear family.
Historians attribute these changes, in part, to the Protestant Reformation. Protestant religious leaders rejected the Catholic Church’s policy that clergy could not marry. Instead, Protestants developed the idea of “holy matrimony” and wrote extensively about the spiritual and political as well as personal significance of marriage. As literary critic Mary Beth Rose explains, Protestant writers “equate[d] spiritual, public, and private realms by analogizing the husband to God and the king, the wife to the church and the kingdom.” These Protestant writings provided religious support for changes in family structure that were also due to wider socioeconomic changes, such as population growth, urbanization, increasing mobility, and greater trade.
While historians might look to this period for the emergence of the modern family, it is important to note some distinctly pre-modern legal and social conventions which lasted into the nineteenth century. Under the English system of coverture, a woman’s identity was covered by her husband’s when she married. A married couple was regarded by the law as a single entity and that entity followed the will of the husband. Mothers had no legal rights over the guardianship of their children and any property that a woman possessed at the time of marriage came under the husband’s control. Numerous married women may have found ways to work around the law and to exercise legal and economic power, but these conventions had a significant impact on women’s status, rights, and opportunities.
The social and cultural transformation of the family took place gradually and unevenly. Works by Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers rarely provide a straightforward expression of either older or newer beliefs about the family and marriage. What their texts can show us, instead, are the conflicts and contradictions that emerged as writers examined family relationships during this period. The following collection of documents provides some historical context for Shakespeare’s plays. The documents include advice manuals and crime literature as well as Biblical family trees, all of which shed light on the many ways that Renaissance people thought about and participated in the family.
The Protestant Reformation fueled efforts to translate the Bible into modern, vernacular (or spoken), European languages from its original Hebrew, ancient Greek, and Latin. Only the clergy and a small elite knew how to read ancient languages. The lack of modern translations reinforced the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure, which Reformation leaders opposed. Protestants believed it was important for laypeople (or church members)—including women—to be able to read God’s word themselves. In 1604 King James directed a group of nearly 50 scholars to undertake a new translation of the Bible into English.
It was not the first English translation of the Bible—two others had appeared in the previous century—but it was the first designed specifically to conform to the teachings of the Church of England. Their translation, eventually known as the King James Bible, was published in 1611. By the next century, it had become the standard translation used in Anglican and Protestant churches. The edition presented here opens with 34 pages of Biblical genealogy—family trees which trace an unbroken line of descent from God, Adam, and Eve on the first page to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on the last.
Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 at the age of 70 after 44 years on the throne. Then and now, writers give Elizabeth much of the credit for England’s remarkable prosperity, stability, and cultural achievement during her reign. She shielded the country from the religious wars then tearing apart Europe, and she defeated the Spanish Armada, a great fleet of ships poised to invade England, in 1588. Above all, she was an extraordinarily skillful politician who effectively ruled England in the face of considerable resistance to the idea of a female monarch. Elizabeth did not promote other women to positions of authority or encourage the extension of greater rights to women. But, she provided a powerful model of female independence and self-determination.
She carefully crafted her public image, whether as the Virgin Queen devoted to England or as the military commander leading her troops into battle, in ways that provide an important context for Shakespeare’s representations of women and the family. “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman,” Elizabeth famously declared, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
Advice to Husbands, Wives, Parents, and Children
During the Renaissance, as now, advice books were very popular. Following the Protestant Reformation, many of these books (often called conduct manuals) addressed the subject of marriage and the duties of husbands, wives, parents, and children to one another. Some of the most popular are excerpted here. William Gouge was a prominent English Puritan pastor. He explains in the preface to Of Domesticall Duties that the book was based on a series of sermons he delivered to his congregation. He adds, somewhat defensively, that the sermons were criticized as being too harsh on women and seeks to explain his positions at greater length here.
Dorothy Leigh’s The Mother’s Blessing was originally published in 1616 and went through at least 20 editions. The book is addressed to Leigh’s sons from her deathbed, which made the book’s publication more acceptable at the time. It was considered improper for women to publish their writing or to offer moral and religious instruction.
Finally, The Advice of a Father was published anonymously later in the seventeenth century. Like Leigh, this author explicitly addresses his son, but offers plenty of evidence that he had a wider audience in mind.
Crimes Against the Family
Seventeenth-century executions were elaborate public rituals attended by hundreds, or even thousands, of spectators. Public officials approached executions as an opportunity to vividly demonstrate the importance of obeying the law. At the moment of death, the condemned criminal was held up as an example of the consequences of crime. Printers increasingly took these events as opportunities to sell inexpensive pamphlets recounting the convict’s life. Like the executions themselves, these publications had a specific, instructional purpose, but also contained sensational elements that could overshadow the intended lesson.
The Life and Death of John Atherton is a pamphlet published several months after Atherton’s execution. Atherton had been a Protestant bishop in the Church of Ireland which was affiliated with the Church of England. Atherton was executed for buggery, or sexual acts with another man, a church official who was also hanged. However, the pamphlet devotes little attention to this crime, emphasizing instead a lifetime of various misdeeds. (Note: A prelate is a high-ranking cleric, or church official.
A benefice is financial support provided to a member of the clergy.) A Full Account of a Most Tragycal and Inhuman Murther describes the case from Holland of Claes Wells, who was convicted of murdering his entire family.
Shakespeare’s King Lear remains one of the darkest and most compelling explorations of family relationships in English literature. The play opens with the aging King Lear offering to divide his kingdom between his three daughters according to how persuasively each can express her love for him. Two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, lavishly proclaim their devotion. But the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to participate in the competition and Lear disowns her. Terrible events unfold as Goneril and Regan betray Lear, he descends into madness, and Cordelia, the daughter who does truly love him, is imprisoned and executed.
The documents presented here include the title page of a 1619 edition of the play (inaccurately identified as 1608 on the title page) as well as an illustration of the first scene, created almost 200 years later. In the late eighteenth century, the London printer and engraver, John Boydell, commissioned artists to create paintings illustrating the works of Shakespeare. He then produced engravings based on their paintings and published them together with Shakespeare’s plays. This plate is based on a work by the Swiss-born Romantic painter Henry Fuseli. The caption quotes Lear’s famous lines to Cordelia: “Thy truth then be thy dower! . . ./ Here I disclaim all my paternal care,/ Propinquity and property of blood,/ And as a stranger to my heart and me/ Hold thee from this for ever.”