Our modern day attitudes to marriage differ greatly from the Elizabethan attitudes that are displayed in William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Most noticeably is the fact that Paris went to Capulet to ask for Juliet’s hand in marriage before he even approached Juliet, something that happens very rarely, if ever, nowadays.
I think the main reason for the difference in marriage between Shakespeare’s time and modern day is that women now have a lot more rights and say in their life than then. This is most noticeable in the way that Capulet decides, after Tybalt’s death, that it would be in Juliet’s best interests to marry Paris, in what seems to be the act of a loving father trying to make his daughter happy. But when Lady Capulet tells Juliet that she will ‘Marry (Paris), my child, early next Thursday morn,’ Lord Capulet having decided who to and when without consulting Juliet. T
he fact that marriage is even thought for Juliet, who is a girl of only 13 or 14 years old is in sharp contrast with today, as it is not legal to get married until you are 16 in Britain and in a recent MORI survey just over half the people surveyed believed that the best age for a man and woman to get married is mid-late twenties. The reasoning for getting married so young was due to the fact that the life expectancy in Elizabethan times was much shorter. When Capulet appears after Juliet having said no to the proposed marriage, Lady Capulet says, in fear of her violent husband, an unthinkable statement for a mother nowadays, ‘I would the fool were married to her grave’.
I think this statement illustrates the power of wealthy fathers at the time that a mother says that she would rather her daughter were dead than for her to disagree with Capulet’s wishes. When Lord Capulet hears of what is considered Juliet’s disobedience, but what would considered her right if she was living now, he shows his true colours and becomes extremely threatening and violent. He verbally abuses Juliet calling her a ‘mistress minion’ and a ‘green-sickness carrion’. He then threatens Juliet that if she does not do as he wishes, and marries Paris, he would let her ‘hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ but he would ‘not acknowledge thee’. This was a very serious threat to Juliet as if her father was to disown her she would be forced to live out on the streets as a prostitute as no man would marry her and she would therefore have no means of support or money.
Another big difference between love and marriage in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and now is the idea of courtly love. This was a set way that the upper class should behave in relation to love and what we would call dating. It is a European tradition that originated in the Middle Ages and was still popular in the 16th Century. We see this displayed in Romeos obsession with Rosaline, he falls for a Capulet, someone unattainable. He then goes around depressed and talking in riddles and rhymes about his love for her that do not make any sense. His passion for her is only greatened by her show of disinterest in him, he continues in this vain until he meets Juliet and he experiences true love. This practise is totally unheard of in modern times and would seem to us as absurd, as nowadays if a woman was to act disinterested the man would more than likely loss interest in her and concentrate his attentions on someone else.
The last major difference in attitudes to marriage between the Elizabethans and us is the way in which the Catholic Church approaches marriage. Friar Lawrence, who seems to be the equivalent to a modern day parish priest as he is the one who both Romeo and Juliet go to for confessions, agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet without their parents consent. This action would not only seem ludicrous nowadays but at Romeo and Juliet’s age it is also illegal. He also does not tell them to go away and think about it or to consider what a big step they were about to take. Now the church have premarital courses for engaged couples to make sure that they are definitely ready to get married and also couples nowadays get married a lot longer after they get engaged in contrast with the 16th Century.
Although Friar Lawrence’s actions may have been affected by his hope that this was a chance to end the feud between the Capulet’s and the Montague’s and the fact that he could be remembered for being the one who brought the two families together. We can see that he is thinking of this when he says ‘For this alliance may so prove to turn your households’ rancour to pure love’. The play also addresses the fact that the ‘pair of star-crossed lovers’ only achieved their aim of being together truly, when they died in each other’s arms. This asks the question does true love only come with death, this can be backed up with the fact that their death brought peace to their feuding families, a case of love, brought about by death, defeated a hate that went back longer than anyone could remember.
In conclusion marriage in Shakespeare’s time was very different to marriage today in three main ways; the age that you get married, the reasons for getting married and whether or not you choose whom you marry. I think the reason for this is that women are treated as equals now and are not socially and financially dependant on men – their fathers or their partners, so they can choose whom they marry and when they marry. But the most important difference now is that people can choose to marry the one they love and not the one who will support them or who their father deems to be right.