The troth-plighting ceremony has a natural homespun theatricality, to which the playwright and matchmaker Mr Shakespeare would surely have responded on that day in October 1604. And not long after the betrothal of Stephen and Mary, there was a troth-plighting scene being played at the Globe theatre:
SCARBORROW: This hand thus takes thee as my loving wife. CLARE: For better, for worse.
SCARBORROW: Aye, till death us depart, love.
CLARE: Why then I thank you Sir, and now I am like to have what I long looked for - a husband.
The scene is from The Miseries of Enforced Marriage by George Wilkins (242-6). It was written in the latter part of 1605, precisely when Stephen and Mary were lodging with Wilkins in St Giles. The formulae of troth-plighting were common knowledge, so one cannot argue any direct connection or intended reference. But the proximity is tantalizing.
Later in the play, learning the news of Scarborrow’s subsequent marriage to another woman (the ‘enforced marriage’ of the title, which reflects the facts of the Calverley case on which the play is based), Clare speaks poignantly of the ‘wrong / Done to a troth-plight virgin like my self’:
O perjury, within the hearts of men
Thy feasts are kept . . .
He was contracted mine, yet he unjust
Hath married to another: what’s my estate then?
A wretched maid, not fit for any man,
For being united his with plighted faiths,
Whoever sues to me commits a sin
. . . Who’ere shall marry me
I am but his whore, live in adultery. (800-822)
This is not a reflection of the Belotts, though the opening sentence may well be a reflection of Shakespeare (by which I mean it sounds like Wilkins trying to sound like Shakespeare). And the unhappy paradox of Clare’s situation - she is both married and unmarried; she must remain a virgin or else be a whore - has a touch of the Shakespearean problem plays. The paradox is probably faulty: the contract has been broken by Scarborrow, so she need no longer be bound by it.10 But Wilkins was not a writer to trouble over details.
The play also contains a more humorous (and more typically Wilkinsian) version of a betrothal, as described by the reprobate Sir Frank Ilford. A father is anxious to make a match for his daughter, and having discussed the possibility with an eligible young man, he sets the charms of the daughter herself to work on him:
Then putting you and the young pug to, in a close room together . . . where the young puppet, having the lesson before from the old fox [her father], give thee some half a dozen warm kisses, which after her father’s oaths takes such impression in thee, thou straight call’st: By Jesu, mistress, I love you. When she has the wit to ask: But sir, will you marry me? And thou in thy cox-sparrow humour, replyest: Aye, before God, as I am a gentleman will I, which the father overhearing, leaps in, takes you at your word, swear[s] he is glad to see this, nay he will have you contracted straight, and for a need makes a priest of himself. (101-13)
This is Wilkins at his best - emphatic, rapid, scarcely grammatical: a little sketch of a young man trapped inadvisedly into marriage. It is written just as he might tell it, in his cups, to assembled cronies and molls in the tavern. Again one senses a refraction of reality - a kind of slapstick version of Stephen Belott, coerced by the Mountjoys and Shakespeare into marriage: ‘nay he will have you contracted straight’.
Every contact leaves traces, and these passages from the Miseries seem to be traces of the known contact between Wilkins, the Belotts and Shakespeare. They are not references or in-jokes, as such, but they come to us direct from Cripplegate in 1605, from a space where the legible world of authors and texts coincides with the usually unrecorded world of lodgers and neighbours and wives and in-laws.
Clare as ‘troth-plight virgin’ touches on a more genuine question of the time - was it permissible for a plighted couple to have sex? When the preacher Bullinger fulminates about the sowing of ‘ungracious seed’ - in other words, prenuptial sex - he is expressing the godly Protestant view that betrothed couples should abstain from sex until after the church wedding. But this was a precept often ‘honoured in the breach’. A study of the subject shows a ‘wide spectrum of opinion on the question of sexual relations between espoused couples’, and some evidence that attitudes split along both class and gender lines, the upper classes and women being more resistant to the idea of sex before the wedding, while ‘young men [and] the lower ranks’ were more likely to approve it.11 At the heart of the question was an inherent contradiction. If a betrothal constituted a binding marital contract - if it was, in effect, a marriage - then why was it not permissible to enjoy conjugal relations immediately? The trend to a more relaxed view is disapprovingly observed by Bullinger. Too often, he says, ‘wicked uses and customs’ prevail. ‘At the handfasting there is made a great feast and superfluous bancket, even the same night are the two handfasted persons brought and layed together, yea, certain weeks afore they go to the church.’
What Shakespeare’s view was we do not know, though some lines in the late romance The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610) are suggestive. Ranting about his wife’s supposed infidelities, Leontes says:
My wife’s a hobby horse, deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench that puts to
Before her troth-plight . . . (1.2.276-8)
The ‘flax-wench’ - the flax-worker, who combed and spun the plant for linen and thrashed it for linseed - is here a general pejorative for a low, sluttish girl. She has a bad reputation because she ‘puts to’ - has sex - before her troth-plight. The logic of the phrasing suggests that having sex afterher troth-plight would have been acceptable. Many families interpreted it this way, and what we know of the Mountjoys does not suggest they would be sticklers for sexual abstinence.12
A particular phrasing in Shakespeare’s deposition may reflect on this. He says that ‘afterwards’ - in other words, after the betrothal - the marriage of Stephen and Mary was ‘consummated and solemnized’. The order of those two verbs could suggest that sexual consummation preceded the church wedding. So perhaps there was a ‘bancket’ that night in Silver Street - Mr Mountjoy’s narrow-necked purse permitting - and afterwards Stephen and Mary were ‘layed together’ in a chamber upstairs, quite possibly in that ‘old feather-bed’ which was later part of their meagre inventory of household goods.
The play of Shakespeare’s which reflects precisely on this matter of prenuptial sex is Measure for Measure, which we know Shakespeare was writing in 1604, and which was first performed at court on St Stephen’s Night, 26 December 1604, a few weeks after the wedding of Stephen and Mary at St Olave’s. In Measure there are two troth-plights; they both occur before the action of the play begins, but they are both important fulcrums of the plot, and like so much in the play they balance each other out. The first is between Claudio and Julietta. As Claudio is dragged off to prison under the new morality-laws of Vienna, he complains of injustice because his supposed crime of ‘lechery’ was actually committed with his betrothed fiance’e:
Upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta’s bed:
She is fast my wife
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order: this we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends. (1.2.134-40)
Claudio’s crime is precisely that he has sexually consummated a de praesenti contract before it was solemnized by a church wedding. This particular twist was introduced by Shakespeare - the equivalent couple in his source-plays was not betrothed - and is ideal for his purposes, since it makes Claudio technically but not morally guilty. Many in the audience would sympathize with his view that he was married to Julietta in all but the ‘outward order’ of the church wedding, and was therefore free to take ‘possession’ of her bed.13
At the other end of the play, the hypocritical Deputy, Angelo, having attempted to get Isabella to give him sex in return for her brother’s pardon, is tricked into bed with his own former fianc’e, Mariana, to whom he was plighted some while previously. He is Mariana’s ‘husband on a pre-contract’, the Duke explains, and this is confirmed by the lady herself: ‘I am affianced this man’s wife as strongly / As words could make up vows’; and, speaking to Angelo himself, ‘This is the hand which with a vow’d contract / Was fast belock’d in thine.’ He is forced to marry her at the end, having rendered their de futuro contract indissoluble by his unwitting consummation of it.
The language of these scenes - ‘contract’, ‘affianced’, ‘hand . . . fast’, ‘vows’ - is precisely the language Shakespeare was using at Silver Street in his role as marriage-broker and betrother. One notes also the ‘dower remaining in the coffer’ - faintly prophetic of the withheld dowry that will dog the marriage of Stephen and Mary.
All’s Well that Ends Well is linked in theme and tone with Measure and was probably written shortly after it in c. 1604-5. This is in many ways the classic Silver Street play - subtle, haunting, ambiguous, autumnal. It is set in southern France - the old Navarre romance again - and centres on the relationship between Bertram, the young Count of Roussillon, and the physician’s daughter Helena, a lowly figure in his household. Her love for him is hidden until, having healed the dying King with an old ‘recipe’ of her father’s, she is rewarded with a free choice of the young beaux at court for a husband. She chooses Bertram, to his horror, and despite his reluctance they are betrothed immediately by the King. This is not just a play which uses a betrothal as a plot-fulcrum. It is a play wholly about the betrothal - it is the story of what leads up to it, of how it comes about, of how it is tested to the utmost, and degraded, and finally - through complex entanglements and trickeries: that ‘fictive knot’ of tragicomedy - of how it leads to a true loving union.
I remarked earlier that a play which features a young Frenchman being pressed into marriage, written at a time when the author was himself pressing a young Frenchman into marriage, is likely to carry some kind of resonance between the fictional and the biographical. In the play it is the King who persuades Bertram to marry, and who performs the handfasting of the young couple. (A contemporary speaks of Shakespeare playing ‘kingly parts’,14 so it is not impossible he actually played the King in All’s Well.) His words are a compressed poetic synopsis of actual words spoken by Shakespeare in the late summer of 1604 -
Here, take her hand,
Proud, scornful boy, unworthy this good gift,
That dost in vile misprision shackle up
My love and her desert . . .
Check thy contempt.
Obey our will which travails in thy good.
. . .
Take her by the hand
And tell her she is thine.
And the scornful boy complies unwillingly: ‘I take her hand.’ The couple are thus betrothed or plighted -
Good fortune and the favour of the King
Smile upon this contract, whose ceremony
Shall seem expedient on the now-born brief,
And be perform’d tonight . . . (2.3.150-82)15
‘O my Parolles,’ cries Bertram afterwards to his dubious hanger-on, Monsieur Parolles. ‘They have married me!’
Around this central betrothal runs an undercurrent of more dubious marriage-advice supplied by the wonderfully dreadful Parolles. To Helena he offers the demeaning but not entirely unrealistic counsel that it is better to get herself a husband while she is young, and her virginity is still ‘vendible’.
Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose by’t. Out with’t! Within the year it will make itself two, which is a goodly increase, and the principal itself not much the worse . . .’Tis a commodity will lose the gloss with lying; the longer kept, the less worth. Off with’t while ’tis vendible; answer the time of request. Virginity like an old courtier wears her cap out of fashion, richly suited but unsuitable . . . Your old virginity is like one of our French wither’d pears: it looks ill, it eats drily - marry, ’tis a wither’d pear: it was formerly better. (1.1.143-58)
The extended comic metaphor of her virginity as capital, and sex as a productive investment of it (a very city-comedy formulation), shades uncomfortably into an imagery of desiccated female genitalia. He concludes bluntly, ‘Get thee a good husband and use him as he uses you.’
But to Bertram Parolles is a counsellor against marriage. He quotes the old proverb, ‘A young man married is a man that’s marred,’ and (with more off-colour vaginal imagery) speaks in favour of the manly pursuits of soldiery:
PAROLLES: He wears his honour in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms
. . .
To other regions!
France is a stable, we that dwell in’t jades.
Therefore to th’ war!
BERTRAM: It shall be so . . .
Wars is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife. (2.3.275-88)
Then later Parolles is a broker and witness of Bertram’s false offer of marriage to Diana - ‘I did go between them . . . I was in that credit with them, at that time, that I knew of their going to bed, and of other motions, as promising her marriage’ (5.3.253-9). Compare the phrasing used by Noel Mountjoy: ‘Mr Shakespeare was employed . . . to make a motion to him of a marriage.’
This ‘equivocal companion’ Parolles, discoursing with cynical eloquence on the pro and contra of marriage, is another reflection of Shakespeare’s role as a marriage counsellor in the Mountjoy household - a somewhat sour version of it.16
Parolles is pure Shakespeare - there is not a trace of him in the source-books. As Dr Johnson notes, he ‘has many of the lineaments of Falstaff and seems to be the character which Shakespeare delighted to draw, a fellow that had more wit than virtue’.17 He is an elaboration of the braggart or miles gloriosus of the old Roman comedies - a phoney, vacuous, meddling figure, yet like the cynical wastrel Lucio in Measure he seems central to the play, or rather to our involvement in it. These rogues have a charm which is deliberately withheld from the protagonists; they express the ‘mingled yarn’ of experience. Our first introduction to Parolles suggests this idea, as Helena says:
I know him a notorious liar,
Think him a great way fool, solely a coward,
And yet these fix’d evils sit so fit in him
That they take place where virtue’s steely bones
Looks bleak i’ th’ cold wind. (1.1.98-102)
Parolles is indeed exposed as a liar, fool and coward. The scene of his shaming is painful, but is swiftly cancelled by his defiantly resilient soliloquy at the end of it -
If my heart were great
’Twould burst at this. Captain I’ll be no more,
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live . . . (4.3.319-23)
This Monsieur Parolles - ‘Mr Words’ - is a man of loud opinions and big gestures, but no substance. As Lafeu says of him, ‘There can be no kernel in this light nut: the soul of this man is in his clothes - trust him not.’ I sometimes think he is Shakespeare’s own mocking self-portrait: the actor with nothing inside him.18