Sunday, August 03, 2008

Shakespeare's Matrimony

I wasn't going to post this here as it's a bit too 'school essay' - it was written for a different site. But, having just gone through a couple of performances of The First Part of the Contention (Henry VI, Part 2) I thought I better put down some markers -

Marriage has become such a common theme in Literature, and the works of Shakespeare so well known, that it is hard for us to realise that back in Elizabethan England ideas about marriage were very much up in the air.

Until the Reformation, the ideals of virginity, chastity and widowhood; of platonic relationships; of friendship - all rated higher than marriage.

With the coming of Protestantism, ideals changed.

Shakespeare was at the forefront of portraying these changes and many of his plays could be said to act as promotional tools for the act of marriage.

If Stanley Wells and his friends are right, Shakespeare's first two plays are both comedies - The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.

It is interesting to see how Shakespeare tackles the themes of the marriage debate in these plays - and it reveals several interesting aspects of the plays, some of which are much misunderstood.

The Two Gentlemen is a play about friendship - Valentine and Proteus start the play off with a dialogue making it very clear these two are ideal, youthful friends. What happens during the play undermines this ideal - deliberately so.

The thing that weakens their love for each other is love for a female: Shakespeare seems to be asking us if this is inevitable - will inter-gender love overpower, necessarily, intra-gender love?

But nothing is as simple as that in Shakespeare - Valentine has a one-to-one relationship with Silvia; Proteus already had an attachment to Julia, and then switches to the (un-reciprocated) love of Silvia. This, despite the exchange of rings and other tokens.

One is reminded of the idea of the fickleness of love at this point - and in several plays Shakespeare has young men switching their attentions (Demetrias, don't forget; and Romeo). Love is a necessary condition for a relationship, but is not sufficient.

Another doubt is raised by the way in which Valentine 'loves' Silvia - I am not alone in thinking there is almost a 'Platonic' basis to it - he is in love with an ideal, not with a real human.

The 'clown' Lance with his letter has progressed a little further than either of the two 'Gentlemen': His contract itemising the qualities of a potential wife widens the conditions; thought ought to be given to issues such as money and temperament, to weaknesses as well as strengths - it is very much a dead end in this play, the youth of the main protagonists seems to exclude them from making a sensible decision.

But Shakespeare hasn't quite finished with his exploration of the theme of friendship - there is one horrendous moment, towards the end of the play, where, after Proteus has attempted to force himself on Silvia, been stopped, and repented his sins, Valentine 'gives' Silvia to him.

Julia faints at this point - and well she might.

We need to realise that, far from condoning this action, the audience is meant to be as outraged as Silvia must be, as shocked as Julia. Portraying such a gross act Shakespeare is again questioning the ideal of friendship.

The Two Gentlemen quickly resolves itself into marriage - but we are left with an empty feeling. There is something not quite right in the pairings and the anything-but-gentlemen seem to get off lightly.

Perhaps Shakespeare felt so too, because his next play, The Taming of the Shrew, shows the successful pairing of a well matched couple - and some less than satisfactory fringe partnerships.

I've already written about Katherine and Petruccio (in Katerina's Just Desserts) and don't want to go over the same ground, but I do think it is important to point out their relationship is about a mutual sharing and suitability. What isn't talked about much is love.

There is a 'love' relationship in the play though, Lucentio and Bianca. At the time of their marriage, their are still issues to resolve - Bianca's refusal to come at the request of her husband is meant to signify the incompleteness of the match-making.

So too is the widow's refusal - where the marriage is based on financial, rather than emotional, compatibility.

What Katherine and Petruccio have done before this point, is worked through all the conditions needed to secure a successful and fecund marriage.

But there are other marriages in the Shrew - Sly, who appears in the Induction, is "married" twice, once to the page boy, and once to a real wife.

We ignore the Induction at our peril.

Sly is a drunk who is so full-up he falls asleep in the street. He is married to a 'shrew' (if we accept 'A Shrew' as indicating further additions to the Folio text) and who can doubt they deserve each other? This is a funny version of the need for a mutual relationship in marriage. Worth noting about Sly's real marriage is the apparent 'respect' he has for his wife - she is not 'madam' but a name - he wants to keep her as Alice or whatever .... surely an indication of social difference and criticism of the aristocratic?

Sly's other marriage is a reminder to the audience that what you are watching is not real, there is a pretence going on here - you are being presented with a dramatic fiction. All of the marriages Shakespeare represents on stage need to be viewed in this light - none are real, all are explorations of limited aspects of the state of matrimony.

Just how all this fits with Shakespeare's first History play I'll let you know in the next post.

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