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5 facts about marriage, love, and sex in Shakespeare’s England

Considering the many love affairs, sexual liaisons, and marriages that occur in Shakespeare’s plays, how many of them accurately represent their real-life counterparts? Genuine romantic entanglements certainly don’t work out as cleanly as the ending of Twelfth Night, where Sebastian and Olivia, Duke Orsino and Viola, and Toby and Maria all wind up as married couples. However, Shakespeare’s imaginary theatrical arrangements frequently collided with significant thoughts and beliefs of 16th-century England, such as a woman’s duty as a wife and the social standing of “bastard” children.

  1. In the late 16th century, the legal age for marriage in Stratford was only 14 years for men and 12 years for women. Usually, men would be married between the ages of 20 and 30 years old. Alternatively, women were married at an average of 24 years old, while the preferred ages were either 17 or 21.
  2. Of Shakespeare’s eligible female characters who refuse marriage and husbands, not one of them remains single. Katherine, Beatrice, Olivia, Isabella, and Emilia all resist becoming wives, yet they all end up married by the end of their respective plays (although Isabella’s silence to the Duke’s proposal is open to interpretation).
  3. The marriage ceremonies in Shakespeare’s plays are invariably offstage affairs. Given the London authorities’ annoyance with the perceived blasphemies conducted in theatres, staging any religious ceremony in a public playhouse would have been an invitation for trouble.
  4. Many of Shakespeare’s plays include plots that centered on male jealousy. Examine the triangle involving Ford, Mrs. Ford, and Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or the conflict between Menelaus, Paris, and Helen in Troilus and Cressida. Other plays that hinge of male jealousy include Much Ado About NothingOthelloCymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale.
  5. Roughly 2-4% of children born between 1590 and 1640 in England were illegitimate, meaning they were born out of wedlock or were “bastards.” Shakespeare incorporates many bastards into his works, such as the Bastard of Orleans (1 Henry VI), Philip the Bastard (King John), Don John (Much Ado About Nothing), Thersites and Margareton (Troilus and Cressida), and Edmund (King Lear).

Featured Image: Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses by “H.E.” (1569). Hampton Court Palace, The Royal Collection, United Kingdom. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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