Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Much A-Don't About Dating

Hero's wedding in Much Ado About Nothing
Hero's wedding in Much Ado About Nothing
Hero's wedding in Much Ado About Nothing - an example of love in Shakespeare's plays

The wedding of Hero and Claudio ends in disaster. (L-R) Billy Finn, Rachel Leslie, Roxi Victorian, and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman in Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre, 2009. Photo by Carol Pratt.

As Valentine’s Day draws near, many people will be turning to Shakespeare to find that perfect expression of love with which to woo the object of their affection. But Shakespeare has more to offer than just pretty phrases—indeed, his plays provide us with a wealth of examples of wooing and wedding (though not always happily).

When Shakespeare was writing, England was undergoing a cultural shift regarding attitudes towards love and marriage. While money, class, and political considerations still held an important place in negotiating unions, particularly in the upper classes, changes in religion and the modernization that accompanied the Renaissance led to more emphasis being placed on mutual affection. It’s no surprise, then, that many of Shakespeare’s plots are driven by early versions of the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets girl trope that dictates so many modern romantic comedies—though, granted, with a lot more girl-dresses-as-boy or boy-kills-girl thrown in.

So what are some of the do’s and don’ts of dating that can be learned from Shakespeare’s plays? Well, to start, it helps to be realistic about Shakespeare’s couples. We actually see very few happy, stable romances in Shakespeare while at the same time finding quite a number of pitfalls to be avoided. For example, some obvious examples of what not to do include:

  • Don’t marry someone you’ve only just met
  • Don’t fake your own death
  • Don’t kill yourself

And, since all of the above examples come from Romeo and Juliet, we might also add “don’t be 14” to the list. Which brings us to another little note about early modern courtship: while betrothals among young children were not uncommon at the top levels of society (think: the royals), humbler marriages often occurred at ages more in keeping with modern times. Granted, Shakespeare was 18 when he wed Anne Hathaway, but she was 26. His elder daughter Susanna was 24 when she married John Hall, and his second daughter Judith was 31 when she tied the knot with the disreputable Thomas Quiney.

Early moderns: they’re just like us!

Returning to the plays, while there are many don’ts (don’t suspect your wife of cheating just because she lost a handkerchief; don’t try to further your partner’s career with witchcraft; don’t drug your partner so they sleep with a magically transformed stranger….), we can find a few examples of “do’s.”