- Courtships, Marriage Customs, and Shakespeare's Comedies
In 1612 William Shakespeare gave evidence in the Court of Requests at Westminster in the case of Stephen Belott versus Christopher Mountjoy; it is the only occasion on which Shakespeare's spoken words were actually written down. The case centered on whether Mountjoy had promised to give Belott, who was his apprentice, £60 on marrying his daughter (which he had done in 1604), with the further assurance of a legacy of £200. Shakespeare had been a lodger in the Mountjoy household at the time and had acceded to the request of Marie Mountjoy, Christopher's wife, to do what he could to persuade Belott to undertake the match. His deposition as a witness must have been disappointing to both parties: he recalls that both had behaved honorably, but he could not remember the precise details of any promises that had been made. Charles Nicholl, in his The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, builds what might be called a detective story or an imaginative biography on Shakespeare's deposition in this case and speculates as to how it might have influenced the way he treated questions of courtship and marriage in the plays he was writing at the time, especially All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. 1
Loreen L. Giese's book is a different kind of venture into similar territory. She has previously edited London Consistory Court Depositions, 1586-1611 for the London Record Society. She now makes detailed use of that material to explore the courtship and marrying behaviors of historical couples during the same twenty-five-year period and compares what she found with [End Page 634] the evidence from two of Shakespeare's comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona (probably written around 1594) and Twelfth Night (probably written around 1601). The extent and richness of the depositions makes this book a valuable addition to the research conducted in this area in recent years by historical and literary scholars such as Ian W. Archer, Laura Gowing, and Richard M. Wunderli. It also brings a new perspective to more traditional studies of courtship in Shakespeare such as those by Ann Jennalie Cook, William G. Meader, and Marianne Novy. 2 While acknowledging that the matrimonial enforcement suits may not be typical and are often frustratingly incomplete in respect of outcome, Giese builds a convincing picture of how real people both behaved and interpreted each other's behavior.
Both at the beginning and at the end of her book, Giese describes "the way of marriage" (3) in the early modern diocese of London as "more like a maze than a way" (162), and her description of a very wide range of behaviors, few of which appear to have been obligatory, is quite a revelation. In four substantial chapters-"Choosing a Spouse," "Determining Marital Suitability," "Courting Behaviours: Talking, Tokens, and Touching," and "Contracting Couples: Vows, Hand Holding, and Gift Giving"-she demonstrates that the depositions indicate that, especially in these cases where courtships and marriages proceeded in the face of confusion or conflict, there was often genuine difficulty in deciphering intent and commitment, since words, gestures, and gifts were all subject to interpretation in different ways by the parties involved. Even the gift of a ring could be ambiguous, surprisingly so in the light of its significance, then and now, in the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer. Giese finds many examples of rings given before marriages as signs of goodwill as well as during and after marriages as signs of confirmation. She also notes that, in these depositions, rings were only the third most common gift exchanged prior to marriage, preceded by items of clothing and personal accessories (the most common) and money (89-91).
Giese finds that women were not always passive participants during courtship: many women from a range of social classes enjoyed autonomous roles, manipulating procedures to their advantage, initiating suits and exchanges of gifts, and choosing to accept or deny a particular suitor, just as indeed the female characters...