Customary in Elizabethan times, women often did not have the luxury of choosing the man that they would marry. Even worse, a woman would often have the additional misfortune of being denied the basic privilege of meeting her eventual husband, only finally being able to meet her soon-to-be significant other on the very day of their prearranged wedding. Even under these oppressing circumstances, it was still in every woman’s best interest to get married, regardless of social standing. Those who remained single were shunned by the rest of society, often being ostracized to the point of being outcasted as a witch. Marriage is typically thought of to be one of the most memorable moments in one’s life, and despite these circumstances, women still romanticized the event, building it up to be an incredibly majestic moment. For some, this worked. Unfortunately, there are also many instances where this was not the case and the marriage turned quickly turned sour. For example, one of the most high profile marriages during Elizabethan times was that of King Henry VIII and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Unseen by each other until the day of their marriage, the couple’s preordained fate turned out to be a faulty one as King Henry VIII quickly arranged for the marriage to be dissolved, freeing him to marry the 17 year old Catherine Howard as a result. Between the glorification of maternity and the frequently ensuing misery between its two constituents, it appears that there is a strong discrepancy between the two most polarizing outcomes of marriage.
Shakespeare uses two of his most notable plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure as platforms for his commentary on these two opposing realities of the arranged marriages that were tradition in his time. In order to make his message even more poignant, Shakespeare makes the bold choice to not merely make these into reoccurring themes, but casts a spotlight upon them by making these revelations the climax each respective play. By doing so, Shakespeare leaves his audience with lingering questions regarding his intended message about marriage and what the eventual fates of the characters were.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, marriage is portrayed as a privilege and a reward bestowed upon the Duke’s subjects, asserting the act as a consummation of true love. Shakespeare accomplishes this by resolving all of the relationships that have been damaged throughout the play at the end of Act IV, leaving the entirety of Act V open to be used as a celebration of the concept of true love and happiness. After sorting out the drama and blatant ridiculousness between Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia that had permeated the play up until that point, Shakespeare uses the play-within-the-play, “Bottom’s Dream”, as a vessel for the ensuing celebration of love that comprises the vast-majority of the play’s closing act.
Assuming a much more whimsical and comedic view of love throughout the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream treats love as an all-encompassing force that regular people cannot control. This idea is perfectly shown by the fairly Oberon in Scene I of Act II (lines 169 – 172):
“Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew'd thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”
This passage explains that when the herb is sprinkled into a person’s eyes, they will immediately fall in love with the very next living creature they lay their eyes upon. The play celebrates this idea throughout, specifically glorifying the concept of “love at first sight”. Between the usage of this “fairy dust” and the simultaneous marriage of three couples that concludes Act IV, it is obvious that Shakespeare intended for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a celebration of the lighthearted side of love.
Despite this glorification of arranged matrimony