“It’s not so hard to be married. I’ve done it three or four times.”

Inspired by the Sondheim Symposium, my college friend Katharine Pitt offered a guest post based on her own experiences acting marriages in Shakespeare (She’s pretty awesome, so I’m sure she won’t mind me inserting a plug for Slings and Arrows in the intro to her post).  I think all the rest you need to know is she’s awesome (bears repeating), the photos below were taken by William Sacco (captions courtesy of Katharine), and everything that follows is hers.  Take it away, Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate!

“Everything’s different…”

I’ve been married three times.

Six times actually, if you count the dead and divorced. Seven, if you believe Helen and Paris made things official.

Yes, that’s right, I did college theater. I’ve never been a married person but I’ve played one onstage. For myself and most of the people I know – unemployed 22-year-olds – that is the extent of our experience with the ties that bind.

I played Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, and Emilia during my last three months of college. Marriages in Shakespeare are fascinating to me because so few of them end well. All three of the women I played in Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello die violent deaths and in each case their husbands are responsible for their sudden ends: Lady Macbeth kills herself when her husband abandons her, Gertrude is poisoned by her husband, and Emilia is stabbed by her husband.

Some scholars connect these tales of woe to Shakespeare’s personal life and claim that he had an unhappy marriage himself. At eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years his senior who was pregnant with their first child. Despite having two more children, the couple lived apart for most of their married lives and Shakespeare famously left Anne Hathaway his “second best bed” in his will. Ouch.

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We will never know the truth about Shakespeare’s marriage, but that hasn’t stopped the historians, gossips and playwrights from speculating about the state of his sheets for the past four hundred years. (“Was he gay? Was he a woman? Did he have a secret love child with the dark lady who was fostered by Essex and Marlowe’s Capulet cousin”?!)

However, there are reasons to believe that the fraught marriage described by scholars is not entirely accurate, including the fact that William and Anne continued to have children after their shotgun wedding and that Shakespeare’s “second-best bed” was probably his own bed.

Although the ultimate success of Shakespeare own marriage may be open to interpretation, the marriages in his plays are universally disastrous, particularly for the women.

“…nothing’s changed…”

At the beginning of Macbeth, Lady M is a dominating figure, browbeating her husband into killing Duncan, and taunting him when he shows weakness. At the end of the play, she is broken and alone, talking to shadows and lost to the world.

Gertrude dies when her husband, who claims that he murdered his brother at least partly for her sake (the whole “being king” thing also had something to do with it), allows her to drink the poison meant for her son. Love meets Death and Death wins. Emilia dies when her husband stabs her after she reveals his responsibility for Desdemona’s death (another husband-wife murder.)

Both Gertrude and Emilia have about ten minutes of lying-dead-onstage time at the end of Hamlet and Othello, so I had a-lot of time to think about why exactly I was curled up on the floor, breathing shallowly and trying to avoid being stepped on. (Besides actor masochism)

Emilia, Gertrude, and Lady Macbeth die because they love their husbands too much. Emilia loves her husband so much that she tolerates his abuse and covers for his mistakes. When she finally recognizes his murderous intentions, he kills her.

Gertrude loves her husband so much that she chooses his well being over that of her son. When she finally recognizes that Claudius has in turn chosen his throne over her life, she has about ten seconds to deal with that revelation before the poison kills her. Lady Macbeth loves her husband so much that his abandonment after Duncan’s murder leaves her desolate. When she finally recognizes that her husband is lost to her forever, she kills herself.

Despite the differences between Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, the arc of of love -> recognition -> death remains the same for Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, and Emilia. Despite major differences in family life (Gertrude is a mother, Lady Macbeth was a mother, and Emilia will never be a mother) and status (Gertrude is queen, Lady Macbeth becomes queen, and Emilia will never be queen), all three women share the same fault (love) and the same fate (death).

“…only maybe, slightly, re-arranged”

So, what lessons can I take away from the experience of playing these three women? Hopefully not, “Never marry because you will die sad and lonely” because that would just be sad. I think a better answer is rather a) be grateful I don’t live in a Shakespearean tragedy and b) sh*t happens.

In both real life and in the theater, people grow apart. Things go wrong in marriages, and the solution isn’t always as simple as “Well, don’t kill the King of Scotland next time, okay?” My parents were divorcing while I was working on these three roles and as far as I know, neither of them has ever killed anyone. Relationships break in our world and in Shakespeare’s. We are just lucky that more marriages on our side end with splitting assets rather than heads.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://reluctantliberal.wordpress.com Reluctant Liberal

    I think “sh*t happens” is something of a cop out. Sh*t tends to happen to women a lot more than to men, and it tends to happen especially in hyper-masculine environments. There’s been a big curfuffle in the past few weeks about sexual harassment against women gamers in the past few weeks, and a few months ago people were talking about the fact that there are about 19,000 sexual assaults in the US military every year, and only about .1% will ever result in a criminal conviction. (see NPR’s The Takeaway from 6/22/2012. No seriously, look up this story)

    So can we please not look at abusive relationships and call it “loving too much.” I get where that interpretation comes from, but let’s call a duck, a duck and face abuse for what it is.

  • Ryan

    I would disagree that marriages ending poorly in Shakespeare’s works is all that odd. The thing is, his most famous works were tragedies- a genre in which marriage tends to end quite poorly. I think you will find that in his comedies that deal with marriage, they end much much better, if a little oddly at times…

    • leahlibresco

      In the comedies, the featured marriages usually occur at the end, so we don’t get to see what they look like to live out.

      • Steve

        I’m sure Benedick & Beatrice lived happily ever after… though on second thought…

        • Niemand

          Extraordinarily unlikely. Benedick already dumped Beatrice for unknown reasons at least once before and will likely do so again, marriage or no.

      • deiseach

        I’d disagree that Emilia’s death came about because she loved her husband too much; there was the rumour, after all, that she had an affair with Othello (even though she laughs this off, and I believe her) – that marriage seems to me to be one that has cooled and is in trouble even before Iago sets out to get Othello. It’s easier for them both to continue on a marriage in name only, where Emilia is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting and they pretty much live apart. Iago kills Emilia because she won’t back him up in his lies about Desdemona and Cassio, and that’s not – to me – a sign that she “loves him too much” (if she was madly in love with him still despite it all, she would help him get away by conniving in his plan).

        Lady Macbeth, also, dies not merely because she has been abandoned by Macbeth: she’s used to him being gone on military campaigns, after all, and we do get the impression from the early scenes that she’s the one who wears the trousers in that marriage (her ambition eggs him on to go through with the murder of Duncan and later of Banquo). The strain put on them by committing these murders, and covering them up, and having to consolidate their grip on power by striking against any dissenting voices is what does their marriage in; the sleep-walking scene shows that her mind is troubled and her suicide is as much out of madness and guilt as it is out of dashed romance.

        The only one in the tragedies I would say that definitely loved her husband too much is Desdemona; even when she’s dying of a crushed windpipe, she gasps out that she was the one who did it, not him.

        In the comedies, for one, I think we see in “The Merchant of Venice” that Portia and Nerissa are likely to come out well in married life; Bassanio may have only married her because she was a rich heiress and he was a dowry-hunter, but he seems to be growing up at the end of the play into someone better, who will value his wife. I’m not so sure about Jessica and Lorenzo and what will happen when they finish squandering her father’s fortune and all the money is gone.

        And Miranda and Ferdinand’s marriage in “The Tempest” is a sign of renewal and hope and a fresh start not alone for them, but for their families and their realms. So I think Shakespeare wrote unhappy marriages in tragedies and happy marriages in comedies, and that’s as much as you can say about his views on marriage. Well, okay, maybe he shows it in the dialogue of Portia and Brutus in “Julius Caesar”:
        PORTIA
        I should not need if you were gentle, Brutus.
        Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
        Is it excepted I should know no secrets
        That appertain to you? Am I yourself
        But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
        To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
        And talk to you sometimes?
        Dwell I but in the suburbs
        Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
        Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.

        BRUTUS
        You are my true and honorable wife,
        As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
        That visit my sad heart.

        PORTIA
        If this were true, then should I know this secret.
        I grant I am a woman, but withal
        A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife.
        I grant I am a woman, but withal
        A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
        Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
        Being so fathered and so husbanded?
        Tell me your counsels. I will not disclose ‘em.
        I have made strong proof of my constancy,
        Giving myself a voluntary wound
        Here in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience,
        And not my husband’s secrets?
        BRUTUS
        O ye gods,
        Render me worthy of this noble wife!

      • Ryan

        Fair point, but that, too is a genre feature. A tragedy ends in a funeral and a comedy ends with a wedding…
        I’m just saying that the way the marriages end up probably has nothing at all to do with William Shakespeare, his marriage, or his opinion of marriage given that they follow the conventions of comedies, tragedies, or the established stories of the historical plays… I guess the assertion is just that those details of the plays probably have nothing to do with his personal life…

        • http://delphipsmith@livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

          the way the marriages end up probably has nothing at all to do with William Shakespeare, his marriage, or his opinion of marriage given that they follow the conventions of comedies, tragedies, or the established stories of the historical plays

          I agree. People with happy childhoods write books about abuse, librarians write books about paranormal romances with werewolves, etc. It seems pointless to try to ascribe personal history to an author’s works, particularly from someone as prolific and whose works were as diverse as Shakespeare.

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      I really have to agree with Ryan on this one. Marriages look bad in tragedies because most things do, and while we don’t get to see what happens with marriages in most comedies because it’s at the ending, I really don’t think we can say that Shakespeare’s plays show us a particular image of marriage just based on how the tragedies turn out. It’s fairly strongly implied that marriages in comedies /will/ end well; otherwise, the clear signs that Touchstone’s marriage in /As You Like It/ won’t end well wouldn’t stand out so much.
      Or, more accurately, I think, there are multiple versions of marriage active in his plays, all drawing on discourses about marriage at the time–there’s Touchstone’s satire, Desdemona’s tragedy, Rosalind and Orlando’s optimistic humour, and the idealistic version in /The Tempest/. And then whatever was going on in /Taming of the Shrew/. My goodness. It’s been a long time since I’ve read /Julius Caesar/ all through, but I seem to recall Portia and Brutus to be fairly well wed. And Oberon and Titania reconcile at the end (though, yeah, that whole thing with Theseus and Hippolyta was creepy). So I would say that there is a thoroughly mixed bag when it comes to Shakespearean marriages, which is what you’d expect from someone who likes to represent a variety of kinds of relationships.

  • Niemand

    I tend to think of Lady Macbeth as someone who is very young or at least very naive and doesn’t quite understand what all her calls for blood mean on the ground. Think of her as similar to a young recruit who volunteers to fight, all enthused about killing the Evil Enemy, but who hasn’t ever actually seen someone get a bloody nose in real life and is freaked by the reality of war and goes into PTSD the first time he kills someone in combat.

    • deiseach

      I don’t think Lady Macbeth is that young; she mentions that she has had children (but there is no hint of surviving offspring, so perhaps they died young or even without issue themselves). The murder is more disturbing because, as you say, this is the first time she herself has had blood on her hands – her husband is the one who is the soldier.

      But it’s also a murder, not a fight in battle or self-defence. It’s an offence against hospitatilty (which was and, in some areas today still is, a very big deal), it’s an act of treason, it’s unprovoked and it’s even, in a sense, parricide (the king is father of his country and the Macbeths, as his subjects, are his children) – lampshaded by her saying “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t. ”

      She is ruthless enough (or hepped up enough on the adrenaline of the moment) to take the bloody dagger from Macbeth – who seems to be in shock, and that from a hardened warrior who’s killed his share of men, shows how big a deal this murder of Duncan is – and smear the blood on the drugged servants so that they get the blame for the killing, and indeed she reproaches Macbeth after this “My hands are of your colour; but I shame/ To wear a heart so white. ”

      It’s only later that the full horror and guilt of the deed wear away at her. I agree that she does get “freaked by the reality” of what she has done, but I don’t see much naïveté in her character; rather, it’s the ongoing and cumulative strain of living under suspicion and hostility as they struggle to hold on to the power they have grabbed and avoid the vengeance of Duncan’s sons and their supporters, with no-one they can share their secret with but each other – and being separated at the crucial times – that brings her down.

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  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    “Emilia, Gertrude, and Lady Macbeth die because they love their husbands too much.”
    Have you (here interpreted as Ms. Pitt, but anyone can play) read “The Improvisation of Power,” the chapter on Shakespeare (/Othello/, specifically) in Greenblatt’s /Renaissance Self-Fashioning/? Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare invents one of the few truly subversive characters in Desdemona. She is subversive because she is submits too much: she loves her husband and puts herself in submission to his authority to excess, and in so doing she breaks (or at least stresses) the system (by exposing its contradictions, unfairness, etc.; you’d need to read it). This is why she must die. While I don’t think Greenblatt meant to do this (or maybe he did; he’s a wily fox sometimes), the subversion-through-submission thing sounds kind of like that Jesus guy’s schtick.


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