Romeo & Juliet and the Reality of Elizabethan Marriage

Photo by Cynthia Smith on Unsplash

Romeo & Juliet might be the best known of Shakespeare’s plays, especially in terms of how many people know what happened in it. Even without seeing or reading it. West Side Story and an entire slew of books take the story and put it in new places, in new situations.

That doesn’t, though, mean that most people understand it. The worst error is to call it romantic; not only is Romeo & Juliet not a romance in the modern sense, but it’s a tragedy in which the lovers are supposed to be that dumb.

And the other thing people misunderstand; they see Juliet’s age (‘not yet fourteen’) and think that her being married off at that age was normal. It fits with our image of the past as being a place where everyone got married young, had as many babies as possible, then died.

So, let’s take a look at this.

The Reality of Marriage in Elizabethan England

The vast majority of people in Elizabethan England got married…in their twenties.

Sources vary on what the exact age was, but most ordinary, regular people appear to have gotten married in their middle to late twenties. Rich people got married younger.

It was legal to marry at 12 for girls and 14 for boys, but that didn’t mean it happened very often. In the rare circumstances when it did, it was pretty much always for political or financial reasons.

The reason why most ordinary people waited to get married was a simple one: Money. Setting up a household cost money, and you had to save up first. Just like people today wait until graduating from college or what have you.

Oh, and about those very young marriages. Common wisdom in Elizabethan England was that it wasn’t safe for a girl younger than 16 to birth a child. As they didn’t have fantastic birth control, when a young girl was married, they didn’t consummate it right away. Catherine of Aragon was 15 when she married Arthur and she would have been no younger than sixteen if she had conceived right away. However, she stated that the marriage to the sickly prince wasn’t consummated, and the likely reason was not his illness but because they were waiting for her to mature before risking a pregnancy.

There’s some indication that these girls would be regularly examined and talked to by a midwife to assess whether it was safe for them to conceive and carry. At the very least, they knew to make sure a girl was cycling regularly.

So, What’s Going On With Romeo & Juliet?

So, if that’s the case, then why is Juliet’s dad trying to marry her off at 13? A clue is in the lines between her father and her mother that go

“Younger than she are happy mothers made

“/And too soon marred are those so early made

This is clearly an argument about whether Juliet is ready for marriage. Her father is saying yes, her mother is saying no. But it clearly states that the playwright himself knew that childbirth at such a young age was dangerous. There’s two things generally brought up as a reason for their ages.

  1. Shakespeare’s play was itself a retelling! It was a retelling of a poem written by a guy named Arthur Brooke in 1562, called “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.” Oh, oops…that one was a translation of a French story. Oops again, translated from Italian. In other words, one could make the argument that the ages were a reflection of a story set in the past.
  2. At the time, English people had a rather low opinion of Italian people. They were considered to be licentious and prone to blood feuds. The play was based on a story originally written in Italy and set in Italy. One theory is that to the audience, it would have been just proof of the way those Italians are.

But there’s also another possibility. The entire point of Romeo & Juliet is, like most tragedies, to show the audience people who are thoroughly messed up and make a ton of mistakes.

Elizabethan tragedy was about catharsis but it was also about schadenfreude. “At least I wouldn’t do that.”

It’s entirely possible that the attempt to not just marry Juliet off but get her breeding at 13 was meant to be shocking to audiences at the time.

That Elizabethan audiences would have been as bothered by this as we are, and that it was quite deliberate. Romeo & Juliet is about not starting feuds, not continuing feuds, but it’s also about treating your kids properly! Juliet’s dad trying to marry her off at a ridiculously young age is one of the inciting incidents of the tragedy.

So the play may well have had as one of its messages, “And don’t try to marry off your kids before they’re old enough to have a lick of sense.”

And that’s my theory…but it’s always worth remembering two things:

  1. People in the past weren’t dumber than we are, they just had better libraries.
  2. Our image of the past is often exaggerated and combines an entire bunch of things that shouldn’t have been combined.

Either way, no, Elizabethan girls weren’t being routinely “wedded and bedded” at the age of 13.

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades. https://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

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