The following was written as a brief hypothetical Playbill note which would frame Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice through a specific contextual lens-in this case, that of marriage.
The Present-Tense Pact: Marriage at the Time of Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice is a play of pacts. At the crux of the play rests the legally binding agreement between between Antonio and Shylock over the lending and repayment of three thousand ducats over the course of three months. In order to seal this bond, Antonio and Shylock must solicit the presence of a notary and a contract is made. A simple procedure that works similarly today, but The Merchant of Venice is also about pacts of a different kind, pacts that function in far less simplistic manners today than they did in Shakespeare’s. This “pact” I speak of is that of marriage.
Marriage features prominently at the end of many Shakespearian comedies and the courtship that precedes it is ripe for dramatic play. The romantic comedy that ensues from placing one individual in a position of affection towards another who may in turn place his or her affections elsewhere creates the automatic perception of a throughline as courtship stories inevitably ended in marriage. There is rarely another conclusion—even a non-marriage would constitute a strong outcome if not unsatisfying—the play having nurtured the audience towards marriage through the “wooing and winning” involved in the courtship narrative.
The Merchant of Venice is not strictly a comedy, of course, yet highlights the matrimony of several couples. While the play does end on a rather cheerful note celebrating these happy unions, it certainly lacks the pomp and circumstance of some of Shakespeare’s other ceremonious endings. Perhaps this is because for all of Shakespeare’s emphasis on its dramatic weight, marriage was not always so grand an event in his time. In fact, the rules regarding its instigation were not so much delineated during most of the Elizabethan Era. Matrimonial law was a hotly contested issue for both the Church and the state of England from the middle of the 16th century onward. Finally in 1597 and again in 1604, the Church created a set of standard practices in order to combat the overwhelming ambiguity surrounding marriage touching on the wedding service procedure, registration, and licenses.
Nevertheless, the customs of local communities and other accepted practices varied wildly, but the most consistent of these appears to be the spousal contract created through the mutual, verbal conset of two parties to marry. This would have to be done in present tense words, per verba de praesenti—a practice we continue today with the present tense phrase “I do.” Even in the absence of witnesses, unlike Antonio and Shylock’s monetary legal agreement, the union could still be considered both “binding and indissoluble.”
With The Merchant of Venice, written around the same time as the Church’s first canonical revisions regarding marriage vows, Shakespeare may very well have been demonstrating the boundaries and multitudinous traditions of courtship that were taking place across England. Lorenzo and Jessica—the Christian and the Jew—elope happily, while Bassanio and Portia engage in a much more formal process culminating in their marriage too. In the end, for both couples—in spite of differing manners of courtship—their marital bonds are sealed.