What is the matter with Shakespeare’s families? Why do so many of his tragic plays involve injuries and betrayals committed between parents and children, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers? How do these plays respond to changes in the understanding and organization of the family during the English Renaissance?
Historians such as Lawrence Stone have identified the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries as a crucial period in the history of the family in Britain. At the beginning of this period, most marriages were arranged, not by the two people getting married, but by their parents and other relatives. The primary purpose of marriage, especially among the upper class, was to transfer property and forge alliances between extended family networks, or kin groups. A marriage might provide a way of combining adjacent estates or of concluding a peace treaty. In fact, people used the term family to refer to all of the people living in one house, under one head, including servants as well as parents, children, and other “blood” relations. Gradually, during these centuries, these understandings of marriage and family changed. The conjugal (or marrying) couple became more important and, increasingly, people came to think of the family as centered on parents and their children—what we refer to as the nuclear family.
In sixteenth century England, most marriages were arranged, not by the two people getting married, but by their parents and other relatives. . . Over the next two centuries, these understandings of marriage and family would change.
Historians attribute these changes, in part, to the Protestant Reformation. Protestant religious leaders rejected the Catholic Church’s policy that clergy could not marry. Instead, Protestants developed the idea of “holy matrimony” and wrote extensively about the spiritual and political as well as personal significance of marriage. As literary critic Mary Beth Rose explains, Protestant writers “equate[d] spiritual, public, and private realms by analogizing the husband to God and the king, the wife to the church and the kingdom.” These Protestant writings provided religious support for changes in family structure that were also due to wider socioeconomic changes, such as population growth, urbanization, increasing mobility, and greater trade.
While historians might look to this period for the emergence of the modern family, it is important to note some distinctly pre-modern legal and social conventions which lasted into the nineteenth century. Under the English system of coverture, a woman’s identity was covered by her husband’s when she married. A married couple was regarded by the law as a single entity and that entity followed the will of the husband. Mothers had no legal rights over the guardianship of their children and any property that a woman possessed at the time of marriage came under the husband’s control. Numerous married women may have found ways to work around the law and to exercise legal and economic power, but these conventions had a significant impact on women’s status, rights, and opportunities.
The social and cultural transformation of the family took place gradually and unevenly. Works by Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers rarely provide a straightforward expression of either older or newer beliefs about the family and marriage. What their texts can show us, instead, are the conflicts and contradictions that emerged as writers examined family relationships during this period. The following collection of documents provides some historical context for Shakespeare’s plays. The documents include advice manuals and crime literature as well as Biblical family trees, all of which shed light on the many ways that Renaissance people thought about and participated in the family.
Please consider the following questions as you review the documents
- How did Renaissance writers define the family? Which relationships seem to them the most important? What makes these relationships important? To what extent do writers seem concerned with emotions like love or happiness and to what extent do they seem more interested in ideas of duty, property, lineage, or Christian faith?
- What are the obligations of family members to one another, according to these documents? How do the writers expect husbands, wives, parents, children, and siblings to behave toward one another? What differences or contradictions appear between these writers?
- What are the perceived threats to the family? How should these threats be addressed?