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Functions of Marriage in Renaissance Drama

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3442 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Evaluate the Functions of Marriage in Renaissance Drama

Marriages throughout Shakespeare’s plays are used to highlight character behaviours give us an indication of whether plays will end in resolution or tragedy. Dolan proposes that Shakespeare’s plays “offer us no one model of the relationship between spouses, no norm” (7). In each of Shakespeare’s plays, we witness arranged marriages, marriages made out of love, and even elopements; yet, marriage functions in highlighting character motivations, and foreshadowing both how these unions will fail, and the characters’ fates as a result

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To fully understand the profound effect that the functions of marriage have on the plot and its characters, this essay will evaluate how marriages in Renaissance Drama function to show that marriages are doomed to fail, and characters can suffer as a consequence. Two plays, the first, Antony and Cleopatra, highlights how marriages are doomed to fail due to lack of commitment, ultimately foreshadowing and leading to the deaths the title characters. The second, The Merchant of Venice, similarly foreshadow failing marriages, particularly in the marriages of Bassanio and Portia, and Jessica and Lorenzo, but hint to martial breakdown rather than confirming it. Focus will also be placed on the instances of marriage found across the two plays; politically and commercially advantageous marriages, betrayal and lack of commitment in marriages, and elopements and marriages not legally recognised.

Politically and commercially advantageous marriages can function in Renaissance Drama to highlight character goals and motivations, such as Antony’s opportunistic marriage to Octavia for an alliance with Caesar, and Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia for financial gain. These marriages function to highlight how these forms of marriage are doomed for failure due to the characters’ motivations.

The function of the political marriage between Antony and Octavia is to show the beginning of Antony’s hamartia, understood to be the errors made by the tragic protagonist, as outlined by Aristotle (Heath, xxxiii). Antony’s soliloquy expresses his knowledge of the importance of this marriage, but hints at what his goal is; “And though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’th’ East my pleasure lies” (2.3.38-39). The rhythm of the first line in iambic pentameter alerts readers to Antony’s intention to keep the peace with Caesar. The change in rhythm highlights Antony’s political astuteness. However, the rhythm contrasts to the next line; it only has eight beats compared to the first ten beats. With Antony’s lust for Cleopatra causing him to abandon his duties as a Roman politician, it is foreshadowed that he will ultimately return to what he truly desires; Cleopatra. The successful function of this political marriage highlights Antony’s confession that the marriage is doomed to fail because of his flaw; his lust for Cleopatra. From a contemporary perspective, it was not unusual for men to be immoral outside of marriage (Linley, 99). The function of this political marriage successfully shows how such forms of marriage were shown in Renaissance Drama to highlight character motivations and fates.

Marriage, similarly in The Merchant of Venice, functions to hint how marriage will fail, but never shows a marital breakdown. However, marriage functions to similarly highlight Bassanio’s motivations for financial gain. In describing Portia to Antonio, he tells him, “In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair, and fairer than that word, / of wondrous virtues.” (1.1.160-162). What is important to note is how Bassanio mentions how Portia is “richly left” (1.1.160) first. Bassanio’s mention of her wealth may be his motivation for pursuing Portia since Bassanio has large debts, and his “chief care / Is to come fairly off from the great debts…” (1.1.127-128). Critics, because of this, have compared Bassanio and Portia to Shakespeare and his mysterious wife, Anne Hathaway, respectively. Many men during the Renaissance period, searched for a woman with good financial standing to secure their financial status (Scheil, 165-166). The marriage between Bassanio and Portia reflects how many marriages were made out of financial gain and security.

Furthermore, his comparison to her hair “like a golden fleece” (1.1.170) is a clear allusion to the Greek myth of Jason trying to win the unobtainable but valuable golden fleece. The simile describing Portia’s hair places her as a commodity and is further reinforcing this allusion, marking her as a wealthy woman that is difficult to marry. Such a marriage in Shakespeare’s play functions in Renaissance Drama to show the goals and motivations for marriage, clearly shown through the character of Bassanio. His future wife becomes an example of a commodity in a commercial exchange disguised as marriage.

Portia is displayed to be an object bound under her father’s will to be “as chaste as / Diana unless [she] be obtained by the manner of [her] father’s will” (1.2.91-92). The comparison to the goddess Diana, affiliated with virginity, shows she is valued only by her suitability to as a wife. The word “obtained” (1.2.92) even holds connotations that she is simply a prize to be won, rather than a woman to be married. Women’s position in marriage, however, was not uncommon during the seventeenth century. Newman explains in Lévi-Strauss’s The Elementary Structures of Kinship that “marriage is not established between a man and a woman…but between two groups of men, and the woman figures as one of the objects in the exchange” (103). Even in death, Portia’s father still has a hold over his daughter and controls the matter in what way she marries. This form of marriage further highlights the strong effect of how marriage functions within Renaissance Drama; showing such marriages built on a will and through an exchange of goods like this may fail.

Caesar dictates in a similar way how his sister marries; the language in his address to Antony reads like a trade deal to solidify an alliance; “A sister I bequeath you…” (2.2.159). The verb choice “bequeath” (2.2.159) meaning to ‘hand over’ places Octavia as an item to be owned by Antony rather than an equal in marriage. Octavia further stands as an item with Antony referring to his marriage as “the business” (2.2.178) as pointed out by Fitz (187). Both these marriages of political and commercial means highlight character motivations as shown in wider Renaissance Drama, only for them to foreshadow their failure. 

Marriage functions in Renaissance drama as a technique of foreshadowing to show how unions will end in ruin and these are shown through the lack of commitment in spousal relationships. In Antony and Cleopatra, the marriage between Antony and Octavia lacks any commitment from the husband, foreshadowing the end of both Antony and the marriage.

Enobarbus is one of the first to foreshadow the marriage crumbling. Acting as the Greek chorus, found throughout many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, he points out Antony’s hamartia in marrying Octavia. He tells Menas that Antony “will to his Egyptian dish again: then shall the / sighs of Octavia blow the fire up in Caesar…” (2.6.122-123). Enobarbus’s referral to Cleopatra in this manner symbolises Cleopatra as something Antony can indulge in, one in which Antony is tempted. This temptation to return to what he most desires is foreshadowed to lead to his death and the end of a political alliance, particularly in the violent imagery of Caesar’s anger rising like a rampant fire. Enobarbus’s insistence that Antony will go to where his passion lies shows the lack of commitment in his marriage to Octavia. This marriage is purely political, but it contrasts to what he desires. Therefore, it is agreed upon, so Antony avoids conflict with Caesar, yet, this marriage to Octavia leads him to a tragic fate. (Linley, 101). The marriage with Octavia strongly suggests that Antony’s marriage will end in ruin, and ultimately, he will suffer as a consequence. Unhappy marriages in Renaissance Drama often work to highlight this to significant effect. Similarly, Bassanio’s marriage to Portia is further hinted to fail due to a lack of commitment.

The central conflict involving the lack of commitment in marriage is the interpreted attraction between Antony and Bassanio, and the strain that places upon Bassanio’s marriage with Portia. The lack of commitment is seen through Bassanio’s willingness to sacrifice all to save Antonio’s life; he declares, “I would lose all – ay, sacrifice them all / Here to this devil – to deliver you” (4.1.284-285). This declaration only highlights Bassanio’s love and commitment to him compared to his marriage with Portia. Heavy emphasis on sacrificing everything for Antonio is indicated by the dashes and puts more emphasis on whom he would sacrifice them to; Shylock. Despite the personification of Shylock as a devil showing Bassanio’s intense hatred for him, at the same time, he is willing to give everything to him if it meant that Antonio’s life was spared. This waning commitment to Portia only highlights how their marriage is shaky, and how marriage functions to hint to failure in such unions in Renaissance Drama.

This lack of commitment is highlighted further in Bassanio’s struggle. Lack of commitment between Bassanio and his wife is shown further in his struggle to gift his ring to Portia, disguised as the young judge. Despite its value, Antonio still insists on Bassanio sacrificing his vows to Portia for his sake; “Let…my love withal / Be valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment” (4.1.448-449). The symbolism of this ring holds importance from what we saw earlier in the play; they represent Bassanio’s commitment to Portia, much like an ordinary wedding ring. However, Antonio insists their relationship be elevated above that commitment to see the young judge rewarded. It seems, without hesitation, Bassanio quickly commands Graziano to “Give him the ring…” (4.1.451). Bassanio’s parting with the ring highlights the stronger commitment he has with Antonio. Hinley highlights that “there is something he values more than he values the ring symbolic of his relationship to Portia” (236). Thus, the conflict between Bassanio’s marriage and his relationship with Antonio functions to signal a possible failure of a marriage and only highlights that even beyond an ending of reconciliation, marriage functions to point to marital problems in Renaissance Drama.

Unarranged marriages in Renaissance Drama can highlight incompatibility and failure of marriages and even point towards the deaths of the characters in their plays. This foreshadowing can be seen through the unarranged union between Antony and Cleopatra. Despite no mention of a ceremony in the play, there are indications of a form of marriage; how Cleopatra calls Antony “husband” (5.2.283) and how Caesar refers to them both “in chairs of gold / Were publicly enthroned” (3.6.4-5). Several critics believe that Antony’s return in history, similar to the character in Shakespeare’s play, is when he chose to marry Cleopatra (Ager, 140). This essay, however, will address their unarranged marriage as one based on cohabitation, rather than through a legal recognition of it, as outlined through Roman and Greek law (141-142).

Therefore, in following the interpretation that Antony and Cleopatra married, this unarranged marriage functions to set up both tragic heroes for their imminent death. After Cleopatra’s apparent betrayal after the first naval battle against Caesar, it is blamed on her fleeing and contributes to the failure of both Antony and Cleopatra’s marriage and to Egypt itself. Antony laments, “Egypt, though knew’st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’ strings, / And thou shouldst tow me after” (3.11.57-59). With Cleopatra personified as Egypt, this serves to show Antony knows that he is bound both to Cleopatra and Egypt itself, and how Cleopatra commands his actions in both love and war. The imagery of the warships only heightens this reading further, showing Antony’s fall from a veteran war hero, only to become subject to Cleopatra’s whims and desires. Escolme’s view on the matter places the blame entirely on Cleopatra for driving Antony towards his fall (60), yet, it cannot be denied that Antony is at fault for being so besotted by her, as he follows her out of battle. It is from these lines that the audience and readers know that their marriage and their lives are ultimately fated to fail, and strongly supports how this function of marriage in Renaissance Drama leads the marriage to fail and the characters’ tragic fates sealed.

Antony and Cleopatra’s unarranged marriage further functions to foreshadow their deaths and the marriage’s failure as we see the effects of Cleopatra’s apparent betrayal when she flees yet another naval battle. The imagery of how Antony’s “heart / Makes only wars on thee” (4.12.14-15) compares to how Antony still loves and devotes himself to Cleopatra, yet, he wishes to rebel against it after the harm she has created in their marriage. Because of this, Antony is more concerned with fighting against Cleopatra, meaning their unarranged marriage is doomed to fail, and the play becomes likely to end in ruin.

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Contrastingly, unarranged marriage does not function to hint the deaths of the characters in The Merchant of Venice, though, there is no doubt that there is foreshadowing that the elopement between Jessica and Lorenzo will encounter problems and fail. This failure contrasts to the set-up of their relationship throughout the play. Jessica “ashamed to be [Shylock’s] child” (2.3.16), hopes for Lorenzo to be able to take her away from this situation. She declares, “I shall end this strife – / Become a Christian and thy loving wife” (2.3.19-20). The idea of the elopement between Jessica and Lorenzo is almost fantasised to end happily, yet, Graziano and Salerio discuss the depth of Lorenzo’s love and how long it will last. The two ponder over Lorenzo’s tardiness to help Jessica escape, to which Salerio explains; “Oh, ten times faster Venus’ pigeons fly / To seal love’s bonds new made…” (2.6.6-8). The imagery of Venus’ pigeons, symbolised in literature as birds pulling the goddess Venus’s chariot, is almost placed as a fantastical image of the young lovers in stark contrast to Lorenzo’s tardiness. In other words, if he were so eager to take her as a wife, Lorenzo would “run before the clock” (2.6.5) and be early to aid Jessica’s escape. The marriage is only hinted to end in tragedy further when Graziano points out how bored Lorenzo may become of Jessica:

GRAZIANO. Where is the horse that doth untread again

         His tedious measures with the unbated fire

         that he did pace them first? All things that

   Are with more spirit chased than enjoyed. (2.6.11-14).

The comparison between Lorenzo and a horse retracing his steps concludes that the image of Lorenzo’s “unbated fire” (2.6.12) of love for Jessica will not be as strong or ecstatic as it was when chasing her. This comparison gives the impression that after their elopement, the two won’t be as in love with one another as they ere be before they got married.

Furthermore, the marriage seems doomed in the final act of the play as Jessica and Lorenzo make mention of several lovers. There is unease in the several lovers that the two speak of, all of which were tragic relationships. Lorenzo’s allusion to one pair of lovers, Dido and Aeneas, can foreshadow a possible abandonment of Jessica; “Stood Dido with a willow in her hand / Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love / to come again…” (5.1.10-12). Lorenzo’s allusion to the story of Aeneas abandoning his lover Dido could hint to the later abandonment of his marriage. Hirsch agrees that “the fact that all these famous relationships ended in tragedy despite their legendary acts of love…suggests that Jessica and Lorenzo are set to follow suit” (126). Marriage, once again, functions to hint that Jessica and Lorenzo’s marriage will fail, rather than show the disintegration of it like Antony and Cleopatra’s.

Conflict within marriage may not be at the forefront of the plots found here (Randal, 69), but there is no doubt the functions of marriage play crucial parts in Renaissance Drama, as presented by the various forms of marriage between the two plays studied. Each of the marriages seems to either hint or lead to a disastrous failure of marriage, reveals character motivations, and hints to an unresolved or tragic ending.

The political and unarranged marriages in Antony and Cleopatra are assured to fail and lead to both title characters’ tragic deaths. The Merchant of Venice’s marriages made in pursuit of wealth, the shaky commitment to vows, and the elopements, are hinted, beyond the play’s ending, to fall apart, rather than ever being shown. Overall, marriage functions strongly in Renaissance Drama to both hint and show failure, to highlight character motivations that ultimately hint to the failure of marriage or the tragic end of protagonists. It serves highlights that not all marriages in Renaissance Drama end in a fairy-tale ending; rather, they, along with the plays, leave a sense of unease for readers and audiences alike.


Primary Sources

  • Shakespeare, William. “Antony and Cleopatra.” The Norton Anthology. 3rd ed. Edited by Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 2786-2864. Print
  • Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Anthology. 3rd ed. Edited by Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 1339-1393. Print

Secondary Sources

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  • Aristotle. and Heath, M. Poetics. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print
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  • Hirsch, Brett D. “‘A Gentle and No Jew’: The Difference Marriage Makes in The Merchant of Venice.” Parergon, vol. 23 no. 1, 2006, pp. 119-129. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/pgn.2006.0076
  • Linley, Keith. Antony and Cleopatra in Context: The Politics of Passion. London: Anthem Press, 2015. Print
  • Newman, Karen. “Reprise: Gender, Sexuality and Theories of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.” The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Nigel Wood. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996. pp. 102-124. Print.
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  • Scheil, Katherine West. Imagining Shakespeare’s Wife: The Afterlife of Anne Hathaway. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Print.


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