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The pathetic counsels, therefore, which Shakspere is here supposed to breathe in his maturer years, have reference only to his own giddy and unfirm fancies. We are of opinion, with regard to this matter, that upon the general principle upon which Shakspere subjects his conception of what is individually true to what is universally true, he would have rejected instead of adopted whatever was peculiar in his own experience, if it had been emphatically recommended to his adoption through the medium of his self-consciousness. Shakspere wrote these lines at a time of life (about 1602) when a slight disparity of years between himself and his wife would have been a very poor apology to his own conscience that his affection could not hold the bent; and it certainly does happen, as a singular contradiction to his supposed“ earnestness in pressing the point as to the inverted disparity of years, which indicates pretty clearly an appeal to the lessons of his personal experience," * that at this precise period he should have retired from his constant attendance upon the stage, purchasing land in his native place, and thus seeking in all probability the more constant companionship of that object of his early choice of whom he is thus supposed to have expressed his distaste. It appears to us that this is a tolerably convincing proof that his affections could hold the bent, however he might dramatically and poetically have said,
“ Then let thy love be younger than thyself,
Or thy affection cannot hold the bent :
Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour." There can be little doubt that the ancient ceremony of betrothing had not fallen into disuse at the period of Shakspere's marriage. Shakspere himself, who always, upon his great principle of presenting his audiences with matters familiar to them. introduces the manners of his own country in his own times, has several remarkable passages upon the subject of the troth-plight. In “Measure for Measure” we learn that the misery of the “poor dejected Mariana" was caused by a violation of the trothplight :
“Duke. She should this Angelo have married; was affianced to her by oath, and the nuptial appointed : between which time of the contract and limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was wracked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister. But mark, how heavily this befel to the poor gentlewoman : there she lost a noble and renowned brother, in his love toward her ever most kind and natural ; with him the portion and sinew of her fortune, her marriagedowry ; with both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming Angelo.
Isabella. Can this be so ? Did Angelo so leave her?
Duke, Left her in 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." Angelo and Mariana were bound then “by oath ;" the nuptial was appointed ; there was a prescribed time between the contract and the performance of the solemnity of the Church. But, the lady having lost her dowry, the contract was violated by her “combinate” or affianced husband. The oath which Angelo violated was taken before witnesses; was probably tendered by a minister of the Church. In “Twelfth Night” we have a minute description of such a ceremonial. When Olivia is hastily espoused to Sebastian, she says,
“Now go with me, and with this holy man,
* Life in "Encyclopædia Britannica.”
And underneath that consecrated roof,
This was a private ceremony before a single witness, who would conceal it till the proper period of the public ceremonial. Olivia, fancying she has thus espoused the page, repeatedly calls him “ husband ;” and, being rejected, she summons the priest to declare
“What thou dost know
The priest answers,—
“ A contract of eternal bond of love,
But from another passage in Shakspere, it is evident that the trothplight was exchanged without the presence of a priest, but that witnesses were essential to the ceremony.* The scene in the “ Winter's Tale" where this occurs, is altogether so perfect a picture of rustic life, that we may fairly assume that Shakspere had in view the scenes with which his own youth was familiar, where there was mirth without grossness, and simplicity without ignorance :
O, hear me breathe my life
Pol. What follows this?
Do, and be witness to't.
And he, and more
* Holinshed states that at a synod held at Westminster, in the reign of Henry I., it was decreed “that contracts made between man and woman, without witnesses, concerning marriage, should be void if either of them denied it."
But, my daughter,
I cannot speak
Shep. Take hands, a bargain ;
O, that must be
Come, your hand;
Come, come, he must not :-
“ Mark your divorce, young sir." Here, then, in the publicity of a village festival, the hand of the loved one is solemnly taken by her “servant ;" he breathes his life before the ancient stranger who is accidentally present. The stranger is called to be 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,
“Take hands, a bargain.” The friends are to bear witness to it :
“I give my daughter to him, and will make
Her portion equal his." The impatient lover then again exclaims,
“ Contract us 'fore these witnesses." The shepherd takes the hands of the youth and the maiden. Again the lover exclaims, –
“Mark our contract.” The ceremony is left incomplete, for the princely father discovers himself with,
“Mark your divorce, young sir.”
We have thus shown, by implication, that in the time of Shakspere betrothment was not an obsolete rite. Previous to the Reformation it was in all probability that civil contract derived from the Roman law, which was confirmed indeed by the sacrament of marriage, but which usually preceded it for a definite period,—some say forty days,-having perhaps too frequently the effect of the marriage of the Church as regarded the unrestrained intercourse of those so espoused. In a work published in 1543, “ The Christian State of Matrimony," we find this passage : “Yet in this thing also 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 ;” and he adds words which imply that the Epithalamium was at this feast sung, without a doubt of its propriety, “ certain weeks afore they go to the church,” where
“All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minister'd."
The passage in “The Tempest” from which we quote these lines has been held to show that Shakspere denounced, with peculiar solemnity, that impatience which waited not for “ all sanctimonious ceremonies." * But it must be remembered that the solitary position of Ferdinand and Miranda prevented even the solemnity of a betrothment ; there could be no witnesses of the public contract; it would be of the nature of those privy contracts which the ministers of religion, early in the reign of Elizabeth, were commanded to exhort young people to abstain from. The proper exercise of that authority during half a century had not only repressed these privy contracts, but had confined the ancient practice of espousals, with their almost inevitable freedoms, to persons in the lower ranks of life, who might be somewhat indifferent to opinion. A learned writer on the Common Prayer, Sparrow, holds that the Marriage Service of the Church of England was both a betrothment and a marriage. It united the two forms. At the commencement of the service the man says, “I plight thee my troth ;” and the woman, “I give thee my troth.” This form approaches as nearly as possible to that of a civil contract; but then comes the religious sanction to the obligation,—the sacrament of matrimony. In the form of espousals so minutely recited by the priest in “Twelfth Night,” he is only present to seal the compact by his " testimony.” The marriage customs of Shakspere's youth and the opinions regarding them might be very different from the practice and opinions of thirty years later, when he wrote “ The Tempest." But in no case does he attempt to show, even through his lovers themselves, that the public trothplight was other than a preliminary to a more solemn and binding ceremonial, however it might approach to the character of a marriage. It is remarkable that Webster, on the contrary, who was one of Shakspere's later contemporaries, has made the heroine of one of his noblest tragedies, “ The Duchess of Malfi,” in the warmth of her affection for her steward, exclaim
“I have heard lawyers say, a contract in a chamber
Per verba præsenti is absolute marriage."
This is an allusion to the distinctions of the canon law between betrothing and marrying—the betrothment being espousals with the verba de futuro; the marriage, espousals with the verba de præsenti. The Duchess of Malfi had misinterpreted the lawyers when she believed that a secret “contract in a chamber” was “absolute marriage,” whether the engagement was for the present or the future.
It is scarcely necessary to point out to our readers that the view we have taken presupposes that the licence for matrimony, obtained from the Consistorial Court at Worcester, was a permission sought for under no extraordinary circumstances ; still less that the young man who was about to marry was compelled to urge on the marriage as a consequence of previous imprudence. We believe, on the contrary, that the course pursued was strictly in accordance with the customs of the time, and
* Life of Shakspeare by Mr. de Quincey, in the “Encyclopædia Britannica."
of the class to which Shakspere belonged. The espousals before witnesses, we have no doubt, were then considered as constituting a valid marriage, if followed up within a limited time by the marriage of the Church. However the Reformed Church might have endeavoured to abrogate this practice, it was unquestionably the ancient habit of the people. It was derived from the Roman law, the foundation of many of our institutions. It prevailed for a long period without offence. It still prevails in the Lutheran Church. We are not to judge of the customs of those days by our own, especially if our inferences have the effect of imputing criminality where the most perfect innocence existed. Because Shakspere's marriage-bond is dated in November, 1582, and his daughter is born in May, 1583, we are not to believe that here was “haste and secrecy.” Mr. Halliwell has brought sound documentary evidence to bear upon this question ; he has shewn that the two bondsmen, Sandels and Richardson, were respectable neighbours of the Hathaways of Shottery, although, like Anne herself, they are described as of Stratford. This disposes of the “ secrecy.” In the same year that Shakspere was married, Mr. Halliwell has shewn that there were two entries in the Stratford Register, recording the church rite of marriage to have preceded the baptism of a child, by shorter periods than indicated by Shakspere's marriage-bond ; and that in cases where the sacredness of the marriage has been kept out of view, illegitimacy is invariably noted in these registers. The “ haste” was evidently not required in fear of the scandal of Stratford. We believe that the course pursued was strictly in accordance with the custom of the time, and of the class to which the Shaksperes and Hathaways belonged.
The bells of some village church near Stratford are ringing for a wedding, in the last days of November, 1582. The out-door ceremonials are not quite so rude as those which Ben Jonson has delineated ; but they are founded on the same primitive