Elizabethan Marital/Gender Legality

OK, we’ve only glossed over this so far in this month’s discussion of The Taming of the Shrew… but let’s take a couple of days and discuss matters of Elizabethan marital and gender legality, and the role of women during Shakespeare’s day.

As women were considered second-class citizens but first-rate property, female children were seen as a way to change both her and her family’s social status (via either economic or political alliances).  This being the case, arranged marriages were common.  With consent from parents, male children could marry at 14, female at 12 (either gender could marry without consent at age 21), though few married that young.  The average age of grooms was in the late 20s, mid 20s for women.

To arrange for a more advantageous match, fathers of brides would be expected to provide the groom with their “Marriage Portion”… the dowry.  This provision of money, goods, and/or property was meant to pay for the care of any children if the bride were to die before the husband (especially in childbirth, which was relatively common in those days).

Once the dowry agreement was accepted, the union needed to be publicized in what was called the “Crying of the Banns” (II.i.181)… this was a verbal announcement of the intent to marry, that took place on three consecutive Sundays or holidays; this allowed for objections from the populace or previously entered marriage contracts to be brought to light.  If the wedding need to take place more quickly than three weeks (as Shakespeare himself did, or as happens in our play), then both parties (and the local Bishop) would enter into a Marriage Bond, which would allow for the wedding to take place after only one reading of the Banns.  Any wedding that was not publicized via the Crying of Banns or using the Marriage Bond would be seen as illegal and illegitimate.

Once married, the law gave the husband full rights over the wife.  But in return, the husband was expected to care for the wife, and NOT to inflict bodily harm.  While wife-beaters may or may not be brought to court, the court of public opinion would not be kind, with the husband in question subject to “Rough Music,” in which members of the community would gather round the culprit’s house and bang on pots and pans in order to put him to shame or to drive him out of town.

If there was no love match, then the only advantages for the woman to marry were the stability of a home and the opportunity to be in charge of that home (domestically speaking).  And if that was not enough, then it is completely understandable for the woman to have a fearful courtship.  But that fear needed to be overcome, since all women were expected to marry: older unmarried women were the ones, inevitably, to be accused of witchcraft.

Not many opportunities, then.

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