Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 707. Tuesday, 2 November 1993.
Date: Tuesday, 02 Nov 93 10:50:35 -0400
Subject: Nubility 'Mongst the Tudor Nobility
Arthur F. Kinney, in his review of Ann Jennalie Cook's _Making a Match:
Courtship in Shakespeare and his Society_ (SQ, Summer '93) states that Cook's
discussion about marriagable ages in Tudor times "gives the final lie to
Juliet's youth [she was 14 when married] as conventional."
Well, it really doesn't, if one limits oneself to a consideration of the age of
marriage of young women in England who were of the same socio-economic class as
Juliet in Italy. Not ALL of these women married for the first time at the age
of 14 or less, but it was so common a phenomenon that no one in Shakespeare's
audience would have raised an eyebrow upon learning of Juliet's age. And Cook
herself expressly notes this: she writes (at page 17) that "*except among the
gentility* [emphasis supplied], the average age when women first married was
the mid-twenties," and (at page 25) "if one looks for examples of extremely
youthful marriages, they are easy enough to find," and she provides a number of
examples, all from "the gentility": Mary Bucknell was 13 when she married Sir
Ralph Verney, Katherine Grey was 13 when she married Lord Henry Herbert, and
Alice Barnham was 14 when she married Sir Francis Bacon. Other examples of
girls being married off at an early age - examples which would be well-known to
Shakespeare's audience - are Frances Walsingham, who married Sir Philip Sidney
when she was only 14 or 15; Mary Browne (the mother of the third Earl of
Southampton) who married the second Earl of Southampton when she was 13; and
Elizabeth Sidney (Sir Philip's daughter) who was 14 when she married the Earl
of Rutland. Also, Anne of Denmark was only 14 when she married James VI of
Scotland, later James I of England.
These unions, of course, were entered into for economic, not romantic, reasons
- which is exactly why they were more characteristic of the moneyed rather than
of the nonmoneyed classes. Sometimes, these unions were formalized when the
parties were still pre-pubescent, in which cases the bride and groom may not
have lived together until they had reached physical maturity, but in those
cases where the teen-aged brides had reached the age of puberty, the
consummation of the marriage was not delayed because of the girl's age.
And so, the fact that Juliet, the daughter of a rich family, was only 14 when
slated for a marriage with a rich young noblemen, was not a circumstance which
would have surprised or taxed the credulity of anyone in Shakespeare's
audience; to the contrary, it WAS, among the well-to-do, if not conventional,
at least very common, and something to which Cook's book does not purport to
"give the final lie."