Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 773. Friday, 12 November 1993.
Date: Thursday, 11 Nov 93 20:51:59 -0400
Subject: Marriage in Shakespeare
Al Cacicedo is quite right in arguing that 16th & 17th century English
history informs Shakespeare's plays.
For example: Shakespeare's audience knew that Gertrude committed
a grave sin, because most people remembered that the basis for the annulment
of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was the conclusion of
the Convocation of English Clerics, on 5 April 1533, that a marriage of
a man to his deceased brother's wife was forbidden by divine law which
no Pope could waive (Scarisbrick, _Henry VIII_, pp. 311-312) (as the
Pope had purported to do in giving Henry VIII a dispensation to marry
his deceased brother's wife); also, many in Shakespeare's audience may
have known that Henry VIII sought to invalidate his marriage to Anne of
Cleves on the ground that she had been promised, in words of the
present tense, to the son of the Duke of Lorraine (Letters and Papers
of Henry VIII XV, No. 821(5), p. 387); and later, Henry attempted to
invalidate his marriage to Catherine Howard because she had been
previously betrothed to Francis Dereham (ibid., XVI, No. 1328, p. 611).
(In both cases, he was unable to substantiate his claims, and had to
resort to other methods to divest himself of these wives.)
I cannot understand how anyone, seeking a source, explanation, or
reason, for stories, customs or mores in Shakespeare's plays, would not
turn first to the literature, practices and laws of Shakespeare's England.