4x4th Estate: Marriage

As the V&A celebrate marriage in their Wedding Dress exhibition, 4th Estate looks at marriage from Shakespeare’s happily-ever-after comedies to the ‘it’s complicated’ world of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare

The lovers - A Midsummer Night's Dream

Though meant for the stage, Shakespeare’s rich use of language is almost better appreciated when read, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream with its endless declarations of love presenting some of his most delectable poetry. As a Shakespearean comedy it, of course, ends in marriage and the play charts four couples as they prepare for the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. As Theseus looks forward to his forthcoming marriage and the lovers fight tooth and nail, literally, for their fair ones’ hand in marriage. All the while the lovers chase each other through the forest, the Fairy King and Queen are settling their own marital dispute. The stand offs between Oboron and Titania as they both stubbornly refuse to concede to the other results in Oboron resorting to magic, leading to much confusion as the characters fall in love with anyone who crosses their path. The play ends on Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding day as they celebrate their own and the lovers’ nuptials, so not much of their married lives are seen. The only noticeable difference is that, once married, Hermia and Helena lose their powerful and feisty voices in deference to their husbands and by the end of the play Titania too has succumbed to her ‘Lord’. Only Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, retains her own opinionated voice. A brilliantly amusing play that explores the ridiculousness of courtship, ending with the happily ever after of loving marriage, but if you look below the surface Shakespeare’s support of marriage and everlasting love is more sarcastic than it at first appears.

Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett and Rhett as Georgia burns

Set in Georgia in the throes of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell’s novel follows Scarlett O’Hara, the charming and flirtatious daughter of an Irish plantation owner, who uses marriage either as a weapon for revenge or to gain financial and social independence. After being disappointed by her favoured suitor Ashley Wilkes, who chooses to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett seeks revenge by accepting Melanie’s brother, Charles. After his rather unheroic death from measles, Scarlett is left a mother and a widow and moves to Atlanta. Forced to flee the city as it is besieged by the Yankees, Scarlett marries again to save her plantation home, Tara, as new husband Frank can afford to pay Tara’s taxes. It is not until Frank’s death that Scarlett begins to see her actions to be heartless and comforted by her old acquaintance, Rhett Butler, she agrees to marry him – for fun. Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship spans her three marriages and follows their stubborn refusal to admit their love for each other. Mitchell’s characters are blind and obstinate in their love. One of the most frustrating and tumultuous love stories, Rhett and Scarlett prove that the story is far from over on the day of the wedding.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Brave New World book cover

Brave New World represents the antithesis of marriage, in a world where steady relationships are viewed as abnormal, undesirable and fundamentally dangerous, marriage is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Except, it seems, the main characters of the novel, Lenina and Bernard.  Lenina shows her humanism very early on as she exclusively dates one man for several months, something that her friend Fanny becomes increasingly concerned about. Yet she is still repulsed by Bernard’s dreams of complete exclusivity and effective marriage. For while sex outside of marriage, far from being taboo, has become as common as shaking hands, this brave new world has destroyed the concept of marriage and real emotional intimacy is hard to find.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot cover

Three students, locked in a triangular relationship, leave university for the big wide world in 1982. But first, Madeleine, the English major, must decide between Mitchell, her safe, conventional ‘family-friendly’ choice, and her other friend Leonard, an unpredictable victim of bipolar disorder. After marrying Leonard, Madeleine must learn to cope with his illness whilst she continues work on her dissertation. As she explores the 19th century ideals of marriage and its permanence Madeleine finds herself wondering whether marriage need be permanent. As Eugenides dips into the study of semiotics in Madeleine’s work, he also questions the meaningfulness, not only of language, but the institution of marriage in an age fraught with divorce. Though not quite a picture of Huxley’s dystopian world, The Marriage Plot demonstrates how marriage is no longer the fixed and rigid arrangement it used to be. If Rhett and Scarlett had been living in the 21st century they’d have been divorced long before Part IV.

Words by Kristina Hill

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