When the Supreme Court concluded the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges hearings with a 5–4 vote to legalize same-sex marriage, the majority and dissent disagreed as on the place of marriage in constitutional law, a question related to divergent views of the institution’s historical purpose. The majority insisted that marriage has always been about love and companionship, the dissent that it has always been procreation. The two sides did, however, find one striking point of agreement: the Justices were unanimous in their conviction that marriage is a relationship of unique virtue and dignity. This general agreement that marriage has always been a sign of virtue and dignity overlooks a key moment in the history of marriage as well as the that of the founding of the United States as an independent nation — that of the early Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation is conventionally understood as elevating conjugal love above lifelong celibacy. In this view, Catholics had distrusted marriage as a sign of attachment to the world, the flesh, and the devil and seen virginity the mark of a pure, uncompromised faith that set the clergy apart from the laity. By contrast, this story goes, Protestants deemed marriage the highest spiritual state for clergy and laity alike.
This narrative of the rise of companionate marriage overlooks much of the actual writing of leading reformers like Luther and Calvin as well as the views of many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants. To be sure, there were many popular pamphlets supporting clerical marriage as part of the institution of Protestantism in England. And Luther, Calvin, and other Reform theologians did insist on the holiness of clerical as well as lay marriage. But their reasoning was more complex and less celebratory than we have supposed.
In fact, following St. Augustine, Protestant Reformers affirmed that, in Luther’s words, since the fall, “the sin of lust… flows beneath the surface” of matrimony. Whereas our prelapsarian parents could Augustine argues, control their sexual organs as voluntarily as their hands and feet, postlapsarian humanity cannot follow the command to “go forth and multiply” without also indulging the shameful passion that followed original sin.
Accordingly, the Protestant claim that marriage may be holier than virginity rested on the conviction that although celibacy remained the spiritual ideal, it was possible only for the chosen few who, by singled out by God’s special grace, were “eunuchs for heaven,” preternaturally free from carnal desire. For the vast majority of humanity, attempts to remain celibate would result only in secret masturbation, fornication, and resentment toward God. Marriage, if followed, was a sign of holiness because it offered a humble, public acknowledgment of one’s innate human depravity and absolute dependence on God’s grace for salvation. In England, doubt over the spiritual status of sex even within marriage was manifested in the refusal of many Protestants, including Elizabeth I, to accept communion from married clergy.
We get one expression of this ambivalence about marriage in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Rather than celebrate marriage, Measure for Measure treats it as a form of salutary public shame. The title of this play, as we know, derives from Matthew 7:1–2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Most obviously, this sentiment addresses the hypocrisy of Angelo, who has been left by the Duke of Vienna to enforce long-ignored laws prohibiting fornication and prostitution. Angelo abuses his authority, demanding that the novice nun Isabella sleep with him in exchange for the pardon of her brother, Claudio, who along with his pregnant betrothed, Juliet, has been condemned to death for premarital fornication. Isabella consults with a Friar who is, unbeknownst to her, the Duke in disguise. The Friar/Duke arranges a bed-trick in which Mariana, Angelo’s discarded fiancée, will replace Isabella; Angelo, according to this plan, will believe he has slept with Isabella and pardon Claudio. Angelo, however, refuses to honor the bargain. Amidst multiple pardons and punishments that converge in the play’s conclusion, the Duke pardons Claudio and Juliet, and orders Angelo to marry Mariana. He thereby transforms hypocrisy and sin into legitimate matrimony.
At least, that would be the Duke’s account of the play’s conclusion. Yet insofar as Angelo is one of three characters compelled to marry, he is aligned with Lucio, a gentleman forced to marry a prostitute, and Isabella, whom the Duke himself is determined to marry. The forced marriages with which Measure for Measure concludes not only yoke together partners who do not love each other; read in light of Protestant theology, they also punish Angelo, Lucio, and Isabella for refusing the humility that characterizes the true Christian. According to patristic and Reform writing, even if the avowed celibate didn’t succumb to secret sin, those who maintained physical virginity could still be guilty of pride in their own purity. In ordering all of the major characters to marry, the Duke compels them to recognize the sinful humanity they share with the pimps, perverts, prostitutes of Vienna.
Measure for Measure was first performed in 1604, just three years before English Protestants made their initial attempt to establish a permanent settlement in America. Attention to the theological resonances of this notorious problem play allows us to appreciate the paradoxical relevance of Christian theology to a queer challenge to the idealization of marriage as an institution. For, unlike Obergefell opinions, or the (imagined) American mainstream they address, the English who funded and participated in the colonization of the Americas were aware of a deeply held suspicion that the sexual impulse could not be sanctified by marriage; it could only be confessed. Attention to the complex history of marital ideology—Measure for Measure is but one example—can help us to think anew about the sexual values we take for granted, as well as the politics they imply.
Featured image credit: Golden bond by Abhishek Jacob, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr