Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage

Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage

Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage

Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage


This interdisciplinary study combines legal, historical and literary approaches to the practice and theory of marriage in Shakespeare's time. It uses the history of English law and the history of the contexts of law to study a wide range of Shakespeare's plays and poems. The authors approach the legal history of marriage as part of cultural history. The household was viewed as the basic unit of Elizabethan society, but many aspects of marriage were controversial, and the law relating to marriage was uncertain and confusing, leading to bitter disagreements over the proper modes for marriage choice and conduct. The authors point out numerous instances within Shakespeare's plays of the conflict over status, gender relations, property, religious belief and individual autonomy versus community control. By achieving a better understanding of these issues, the book illuminates both Shakespeare's work and his age.


Shakespeare, in common with many of his fellow dramatists and with his society in general, was fascinated by law. His and other Elizabethan drama also focused a great deal of attention on complex, often legal, issues surrounding contemporary marriage. So the subject of the present study – Shakespeare, law, and marriage – is a large one.

Before turning to matters having specific bearing on that subject, this Introduction will outline some of the historical reasons for the great importance of the law of marriage, and indeed law in general, in everyday Elizabethan life. Observations of the litigiousness of Shakespeare's age will lead to descriptions of some of the more important jurisdictions active in the period. We will then offer examples (chosen because reflected by Shakespeare) of some of the innovations made by Elizabethan jurisdictions, and some of the dynamically changing relations between them. The impression we hope to convey is that of a legal situation that was not static, but which rather expressed the pressing social desires and needs of the age.


There are now new possibilities and a new need for a study of Shakespeare, law, and marriage. Shakespeare scholars are increasingly interested in the insights that can be gained by studying the laws and legal institutions of Shakespeare's world. We welcome this development, and indeed hope to contribute to it and to demonstrate its advantages in practical ways. At the same time, new studies have advanced the investigation of early modern English law and its essential contexts. Some of the legal–historical materials often used by Shakespeare scholars have become distinctly dated, and so we will update older discussions of the Elizabethan laws of marriage by reference to new, or to very new, work. Also, other older but still very valuable legal–historical studies will be re-addressed here in relation to their applications in Shakespeare studies. This is because certain confusions . . .

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