Folk-lore of Shakespeare, by T.F. Thiselton Dyer, , at sacred-texts.com
The style of courtship which prevailed in Shakespeare's time, and the numerous customs associated with the marriage ceremony, may be accurately drawn from the many allusions interspersed through his plays. From these, it would seem that the mode of love-making was much the same amongst all classes, often lacking that polish and refined expression which are distinguishing characteristics now-a-days. As Mr Drake remarks, 1 the amatory dialogues of Hamlet, Hotspur, and Henry the Fifth, are not more refined than those which occur between Master Fenton and Anne Page in the "Merry Wives of Windsor," between Lorenzo and Jessica in the "Merchant of Venice," and between Orlando and Rosalind in "As You Like It." These last, which may be considered as instances taken from the middle class of life, together with a few drawn from the lower rank of rural manners, such as the courtship of Touchstone and Audrey, and of Silvius and Phoebe, in "As You Like It," are good illustrations of this subject, although it must be added, that in point of fancy, sentiment, and simplicity, the most pleasing love scenes in Shakespeare are those of Romeo and Juliet, and of Florizel and Perdita.
The ancient ceremony of betrothing seems still to have been in full use in Shakespeare's day. Indeed, he gives us several interesting passages upon the subject of troth-plight. Thus, in "Measure for Measure," (iii. 1), we learn that the unhappiness of the poor, dejected Mariana was caused by a violation of the troth-plight:—
Isab. Can this be so? did Angelo so leave her?
Duke. Left her in her tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonour: in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them, but relents not."
It is evident that Angelo and Mariana were bound by oath, the nuptial was appointed; there was a prescribed time between the contract and the performance of the solemnity of the Church. The lady, however, having lost her dowry, the contract was violated by her "combinate" or affianced husband—the oath, no doubt, having been tendered by a minister of the Church in the presence of witnesses. In "Twelfth Night" (iv. 3), we have a minute description of such a ceremonial; for when Olivia is hastily espoused to Sebastian, she says—
This, then, was a private ceremony before a single witness, who would conceal it till the proper period of the public ceremonial. Olivia, fancying that she has thus espoused the page, repeatedly calls him "husband;" and, being rejected, she summons the priest to declare (v. 1)—
The priest answers—
Again, in the "Winter's Tale" (iv. 4), which contains many a perfect picture of real rustic life, it appears that occasionally the troth-plight was exchanged without the presence of a priest; but that witnesses were essential to the ceremony
To the argument of Polixenes, that the father of Florizel ought to know of his proceeding, the young man answers—
And then the father, discovering himself, exclaims—
Here, then, as Mr Knight remarks, 2 in the publicity of a village festival, the hand of the loved one is solemnly taken by her lover, who breathes his life before the ancient stranger who is accidentally present. The stranger is called to be a witness to the protestation, and so is the neighbour who has come with him. The maiden is called upon by her father to speak, and then the old man adds—
The friends are to bear witness to it—
[paragraph continues] The impatient lover then again exclaims—
The shepherd takes the hand of the youth and the maiden. Again the lover exclaims—
The ceremony is left incomplete, for the princely father discovers himself with—
It appears, therefore, that espousals before witnesses were considered as constituting a valid marriage, if followed up within a limited time by the marriage of the Church. However much the Reformed Church might have endeavoured to abrogate this practice, it was unquestionably the ancient habit of the people. 1 It was derived from the Roman law, and still prevails in the Lutheran Church.
Besides exchanging kisses, 2 accompanied with vows of everlasting affection and whispering lovers’ reassurances of fidelity, it was customary to interchange rings. In Shakespeare's plays, however, espousals are made with and without the use of the ring. Thus, in the case of Ferdinand and Miranda, we read of their joining hands only ("Tempest," iii. 1)—
In the passage already quoted from "Twelfth Night" (v. 1) there seems to have been a mutual interchange of rings.
Some, indeed, considered that a betrothal was not complete unless each spouse gave the other a circlet. Lady Anne, in "Richard III." (i. 2), is made to share in this misconception:—
In "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (ii. 2), we read:—
A joint,or gimmal ring, was anciently a common token among lovers; an allusion to which is made by Emilia in "Othello" (iv. 3): "I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring." Their nature will be best understood by a passage in Dryden's "Don Sebastian," 1690 (act v.):—
They were generally made of two or three hoops, so chased and engraved that when fastened together by a single rivet, the whole three formed one design—the usual device being a hand. When an engagement was contracted the ring was taken apart, each spouse taking a division, and the third one being presented to the principal witness of the contract. 1 Hence such a ring was known as a "Sponsalium Annulis," to which Herrick thus refers:—
The term is used by the Duke of Anjou, in "1 Henry VI." (i. 2):—
Again in "Henry V." (iv. 2), Grandpré tells how:—
Most readers of the "Merchant of Venice," remember the mirthful use which Shakespeare makes of lover's rings. Portia says (iii. 2), when giving her wealth and self to Bassanio.
The last act, too, gives several particulars about lovers’ rings, which in Elizabethan England, 1 often had posies engraved on them, and were worn by men on the left hand. Gratiano, for example, says:—
Again Bassiano exclaims:—
In "Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare gives numerous allusions to the customs of his day connected with courtship and marriage. Indeed, in the Second Act (2), we have a perfect betrothal scene:—
Although Katharina is only his spouse, and Baptista not yet his father-in-law, Petruchio in accordance with fashion calls her "wife" and him "father." The spouses of old times used to term one another "husband" and "wife," for, as they argued, they were as good as husband and wife.
Formerly there was a kind of betrothal or marriage contract prevalent among the lower orders, called "hand-fasting," or "hand-festing," said to have been much in use among the Danes, and which is mentioned by Ray in his "Glossary of Northumbrian Words." It simply means hand-fastening or binding. In "Cymbeline" (i. 5), the phrase is used in its secondary sense by the Queen, who, speaking of Pisanio, declares that he is—
In the "Christian State of Matrimony," 1543, we find the following illustration of this custom: "Yet in this thing almost must I warn every reasonable and honest person to beware that in the contracting of marriage they dissemble not, nor set forth any lie. Every man, likewise, must esteem the person to whom he is 'handfasted' none otherwise than for his own spouse; though as yet it be not done in the church, nor in the street. After the handfasting and making of the contract, the church-going and wedding should not be deferred too long." The author then goes on to rebuke a custom, "that at the handfasting there is made a great feast and superfluous banquet." Sir John Sinclair, in the "Statistical Account of Scotland," (1794, xii. 615), tells us that at a fair annually held at Eskdalemuir, Co. Dumfries, "it was the custom for the unmarried persons of both sexes to choose a companion according to their liking, with whom they were to live till that time next year. This was called 'handfasting,' or hand-in-fist. If they were pleased with each other at that time then they continued together for life; if not, they separated, and were free to make another choice as at the first."
Shakespeare has given us numerous illustrations of the marriage customs of our forefathers, many of which are interesting as relics of the past, owing to their having long ago fallen into disuse. The fashion of introducing a bowl of wine into the church at a wedding, which is alluded to in the "Taming of the Shrew," (iii. 2), to be drunk by the bride
and bridegroom and persons present immediately after the marriage ceremony, is very ancient. Gremio relates how Petruchio,—
It existed even among our Gothic ancestors, and is mentioned in the ordinances of the household of Henry VII., "For the Marriage of a Princess:—'Then pottes of ipocrice to be ready, and to be put into cupps with soppe, and to be borne to the estates, and to take a soppe and drinke." 1* It was also practised at the magnificent marriage of Queen Mary and Philip, in Winchester Cathedral, and at the marriage of the Elector Palatine to the daughter of James I., in 1612–13. Indeed, it appears to have been the practice at most marriages. In Jonson's "Magnetic Lady" it is called a "knitting cup"; in Middleton's "No Wit like a Woman's" the "contracting cup." In Robert Armin's comedy of "The History of the Two Maids of More Clacke," 1609, the play begins with,
Maid. Strew, strew.
Man. The muscadine stays for the bride at church:
The priest and Hymen's ceremonies tend
To make them man and wife."
Again, in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Scornful Lady," (i. 1), the custom is referred to 2:—
We find it enjoined in the Hereford Missal. By the Sarum missal it is directed that the sops immersed in this wine, as well as the liquor itself, and the cup that contained it, should be blessed by the priest. The beverage used on this occasion was to be drunk by the bride and bridegroom and the rest of the company.
The nuptial kiss in the church was anciently part of the marriage ceremony, as appears from a rubric in one of the Salisbury missals. In the "Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare has made an excellent use of this custom, where he relates how Petruchio (iii. 2)
Again, in "King Richard II." (v. r), where the Duke of Northumberland announces to the king that he is to be sent to Pomfret, and his wife to be banished to France, the king exclaims—
Marston, too, in his "Insatiate Countess," mentions it—
The practice is still kept up among the poor; and Brand 1 says it is "still customary among persons of middling rank as well as the vulgar, in most parts of England, for the young men present at the marriage ceremony to salute the bride, one by one, the moment it is concluded."
Music was the universal accompaniment of weddings in olden times. 2 The allusions to wedding music that may be found in the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and other Elizabethan dramatists, testify, as Mr Jeaffreson points out, that, in the opinion of their contemporaries, a wedding without the braying of trumpets, and beating of drums, and
clashing of cymbals, was a poor affair. In "As You Like It" (v. 4), Hymen says—
And in "Romeo and Juliet" (iv. 5) Capulet says—
It seems to have been customary for the bride at her wedding to wear her hair unbraided and hanging loose over her shoulders. There may be an allusion to this custom in "King John" (iii. 1) where Constance says—
At the celebration of her marriage with the Palatine, Elizabeth Stuart wore "her hair dishevelled and hanging down her shoulders." Heywood speaks of this practice in the following graphic words—
It has been suggested that the bride's veil, which of late years has become one of the most conspicuous features of her costume, may be nothing more than a milliner's substitute, which in old time concealed not a few of the bride's personal attractions, and covered her face when she knelt at the altar. Mr Jeaffreson 1 thinks it may be ascribed to the Hebrew ceremony; or has come from the East, where veils have been worn from time immemorial. Some again connect it with the yellow veil which was worn by the Roman brides. Strange, too, as it may appear, it is nevertheless certain that knives and daggers were formerly part of the customary accoutrements of brides. Thus, Shakespeare, in the old quarto, 1597, makes Juliet wear a knife at the friar's cell, and when she is about to take the potion. This custom, however, is easily accounted for, when we consider that women anciently wore a knife suspended from their girdle. Many allusions to this practice occur in old writers. 2 In Dekker's
[paragraph continues] "Match Me in London," 1631, a bride says to her jealous husband—
In the "Witch of Edmonton," 1658, Somerton says—
Among other wedding customs alluded to by Shakespeare we may mention one referred to in "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), where Katharine, speaking of Bianca, says to her father—
it being a popular notion that unless the elder sisters danced barefoot at the marriage of a younger one, they would inevitably become old maids, and be condemned "to lead apes in hell." The expression "to lead apes in hell," applied above to old maids, has given rise to much discussion, and the phrase has not yet been satisfactorily explained. Steevens suggests that it might be considered an act of posthumous retribution for women who refused to bear children, to be condemned to the care of apes in leading strings after death. Malone says that "to lead apes" was in Shakespeare's time one of the employments of a bear-ward, who often carried about one of these animals with his bear." Nares explains the expression by reference to the word ape as denoting a fool, it probably meaning that those coquettes who made fools of men, and led them about without real intention of marriage, would have them still to lead against their will hereafter. In "Much Ado about Nothing" (ii. 1), Beatrice says, "Therefore I will even take sixpence in earnest of the bear-ward, and lead his apes into hell." Douce 1 tells us that homicides and adulterers were in ancient times compelled, by way of punishment, to lead an ape by the neck, with their mouths affixed in a very unseemly manner to the animal's tail.
In accordance with an old custom, the bride on the wedding night had to dance with every guest, and play the amiable, however much against her own wishes. In "Henry VIII." (v. 2), there seems to be an allusion to this practice, where the King says—
In the "Christian State of Matrimony" (1543), we read thus:—"Then must the poor bryde kepe foote with a dauncers, and refuse none, how scabbed, foule, droncken, rude, and shameless soever he be."
As in our own time, so, too, formerly flowers entered largely into the marriage festivities. Most readers will at once call to mind that touching scene (iv. 5) in "Romeo and Juliet," where Capulet says, referring to Juliet's supposed untimely death—
It seems, too, in days gone by to have been customary to deck the bridal bed with flowers, various allusions to which are given by Shakespeare. Thus, in "Hamlet" (v. 1), the Queen, speaking of poor Ophelia, says—
In the "Tempest" (iv. 1), we may compare the words of Prospero, who, alluding to the marriage of his daughter Miranda with Ferdinand, by way of warning, cautions them lest—
In the Papal times no new married couple could go to bed together till the bridal-bed had been blessed—this being considered one of the most important of the marriage ceremonies. "On the evening of the wedding day," says Mr
[paragraph continues] Jeaffreson, 1 "when the married couple sat in state in the bridal-bed, before the exclusion of the guests, who assembled to commend them yet again to Heaven's keeping, one or more priests attended by acolytes swinging to and fro lighted censors, appeared in the crowded chamber to bless the couch, its occupants, and the truckle-bed, and fumigate the room with hallowing incense." In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (v. 1), Oberon says:—
Steevens in illustration of this custom quotes from Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale" (ed. Tyrrwhitt), line 9693:—
The formula for this curious ceremony is thus given in the Manual for the use of Salisbury:—"Nocte vero sequente cum sponsus et sponsa ad lectum pervenerint, accedat sacerdos et benedicat thalamum, dicens. Benedic, Domine, thalamum istum et omnes habitantes in eo; ut in tua pace consistant, et in tua voluntate pernaneant: et in tuo amore vivant et senescant et multiplicentur in longitudine dierum. Per Dominum.—Item benedictio super lectum. Benedic, Domine, hoc cubiculum, respice, quinon dormis neque dormitas. Qui custodis Israel, custodi famulos tuos in hoc lecto quiescentes ab omnibus fantasmaticis demonum illusionibus. Custodi eos vigilantes ut in preceptis tuis meditentur dormientes, et te per soporem sentiant; ut hic et ubique depensionis tuæ muniantur auxilio. Per Dominum—Deinde fiat benedictio super eos in lecto tantum cum oremus. Benedicat Deus corpora vestra et animas vestras; et det super eos benedictionem sicut benedixit Abraham, Isaac, et Jacob, Amen.—His peractis aspergat eos aqua benedicta, et sic discedat et dimittat eos in pace." 2
In the French romance of Melusine, the Bishop who marries her to Raymondin blesses the nuptial bed. The ceremony is there presented in a very ancient cut, of which Douce has given a copy. The good prelate is sprinkling the parties with holy water. It appears that, occasionally during the benediction, the married couple only sat on the bed; but they generally received a portion of the consecrated bread and wine. It is recorded in France, that, on frequent occasions, the priest was improperly detained till midnight, while the wedding guests rioted in the luxuries of the table, and made use of language that was extremely offensive to the clergy. It was therefore ordained, in the year 1577, that the ceremony of blessing the nuptial bed should for the future be performed in the day-time, or at least before supper, and in the presence of the bride and bridegroom, and of their nearest relations only.
On the morning after the celebration of the marriage, it was formerly customary for friends to serenade a newly married couple, or to greet them with a morning song to bid them good morrow. In "Othello" (iii. i), this custom is referred to by Cassio, who speaking of Othello and Desdemona, says to the musicians:—
According to Cotgrave, the morning-song to a newly married woman was called the "hunt's up." It has been suggested that this may be alluded to by Juliet (iii. 5) who, when urging Romeo to make his escape tells him—
In olden times torches were used at weddings—a practice, indeed, dating as far back as the time of the Romans. From the following lines in Herrick's "Hesperides," it has been suggested that the custom once existed in this country
Shakespeare alludes to this custom in "1 Henry VI." (iii. 2), where Joan of Arc, thrusting out a burning torch on the top of the tower at Rouen, exclaims—
In "Tempest," too, (iv. 1), Iris says—
According to a Roman marriage custom, the bride on her entry into her husband's house was prohibited from treading over his threshold, and lest she should even so much as touch it, she was always lifted over it. Shakespeare seems inadvertently to have overlooked this usage in "Coriolanus" (iv. 5), where he represents Aufidius as saying to Coriolanus:—
Lucan in his "Pharsalia" (lib. ii. 359), says:—
Once more, Sunday appears to have been a popular day for marriages; the brides of the Elizabethan dramas being usually represented as married on Sundays. In the "Taming of the Shrew" (ii. 1), Petruchio after telling his future father-in-law "that upon Sunday is the wedding-day," and laughing
at Katharine's petulant exclamation, "I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first," says:—
Thus, Mr Jeaffreson, speaking of this custom in his "Brides and Bridals," rightly remarks,—"A fashionable wedding, celebrated on the Lord's Day in London, or any part of England, would now-a-days be denounced by religious people of all Christian parties. But in our feudal times, and long after the Reformation, Sunday was of all days of the week the favourite one for marriages. Long after the theatres had been closed on Sundays, the day of rest was the chief day for weddings with Londoners of every social class."
Love charms have from the earliest times been much in request amongst the credulous anxious to gain an insight into their matrimonial prospects. 1 In the "Merchant of Venice," (v. 1), we have an allusion to the practice of kneeling and praying at wayside crosses for a happy marriage, in the passage where Stephano tells how his mistress
The use of love potions by a despairing lover to secure the affections of another was a superstitious practice much resorted to in olden times. 2 This mode of enchantment, too, was formerly often employed in our own country, and Gay, in his "Shepherd's Week," relates how Hobnelia was guilty of this questionable practice:—
In the "Character of a Quack Astrologer," 1673, quoted by Brand, we are told how "he trappans a young heiress to run away with a footman, by persuading a young girl ’tis her destiny; and sells the old and ugly philtres and love-powder to procure them sweet-hearts." Shakespeare has represented Othello as accused of winning Desdemona "by conjuration and mighty magic." Thus Brabantio (i. 2), says:—
And in the following scene he further repeats the same charge against Othello:—
Othello, however, in proving that he had won Desdemona only by honourable means, addressing the Duke, replies,—
It may have escaped the poet's notice that, by the Venetian law, the giving love-potions was held highly criminal, as appears in the code "Della Promission del Malefico," cap. xvii., "Dei Maleficii et Herbarie."
A further allusion to this practice occurs in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (ii. 1), where Puck and Oberon amuse themselves at Titania's expense. 1
An expression common in Shakespeare's day for any one
born out of wedlock is mentioned by the Bastard in "King John" (i. 1)—
The old saying also that "hanging and wives go by destiny," is quoted by Nerissa in the "Merchant of Venice" (ii. 9). In "Much Ado about Nothing" (ii. 1), Don Pedro makes use of an old popular phrase in asking Claudio, "When mean you to go to church?" referring to his marriage.
A solemn and even melancholy air was often affected by the beaux of Queen Elizabeth's time, as a refined mark of gentility, a most sad and pathetic allusion to which custom is made by Arthur in "King John" (iv. 1)—
There are frequent references to this fashion in our old writers. Thus, in Ben Jonson's "Every Man in His Humour" (i. 3), we read:—"Why, I do think of it; and I will be more proud, and melancholy, and gentlemanlike than I have been, I'll insure you."
321:1 "Shakspeare and His Times," 1817, i. p. 220.
324:1 On entering into any contract, or plighting of troth, the clapping of the hands together set the seal, as in the "Winter's Tale" (i. 2), where Leontes says—
So, too, in the "Tempest" (iii. 1)—
And in the old play of "Ram Alley," by Barry (1611), we read, "Come, clap hands, a match." The custom is not yet disused in common life.
324:2 "The Stratford Shakespeare," 1854, i. p. 70.
325:1 Knight's "Stratford Shakespeare," p. 73.
325:2 Cf. "King John" (ii. 2)—
326:1 See Nares’ "Glossary," ii. p. 363; "Archæologia," xiv. p. 7; Jones's "Finger Ring Lore," 1877, pp. 313–318.
327:1 See Jeaffreson's "Brides and Bridals," 1873, i. pp. 77, 78.
329:1 Sops in wine.
329:2 See "Brand's Pop. Antiq.," 1849, ii. pp. 136, 139.
330:1 "Pop. Antiq.," ii. p. 140.
330:2 "Brides and Bridals," 1873, i. p. 252.
331:1 "Brides and Bridals," i. p. 177.
331:2 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," 1849, ii. pp. 131–133.
332:1 "Illustrations of Shakspeare," p. 203.
334:1 "Brides and Bridals," i. p. 98; see Brand's "Pop. Antiq." ii. p. 175.
334:2 See Douce's "Illustrations of Shakspeare," pp. 123, 124.
336:1 See Brand's "Pop. Antiq." 1849, ii, p. 159.
337:1 See "Merry Wives of Windsor," iv. 2.
337:2 See Potter's "Antiquities of Greece"; Brand's "Popular Antiquities," iii, p. 306.
338:1 See p. 215.
339:1 See Nares’ "Glossary," ii. p. 563.