"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is Marriage Outdated?

Shakespeare had a very bad view of marriage.  For him it was a matter of business and social order for both kings and commoners and had little if anything to do with love.  The best couples in Shakespeare are surprising. Petruchio and Kate (Taming of the Shrew) are a very well-matched couple, despite the fireworks between them as he ‘tames’ her.  Before they go off together at the end of the play, Petruchio says to his two friends:

“Come, Kate, we’ll to bed./We three are married, but you two are sped” (V.1)

He understands that his marriage will be a good one because both he and Kate have found the ideal mate.  Kate, who has been frustrated, angry, and shrewish at her bourgeois father and grasping sister, feels fulfilled when she meets the vital, virile, and confident Petruchio.  Petruchio, a former Lothario who could have married any one of a thousand women, finds his soul mate in Kate.  While other men have thought her a vixen, a harridan, and a curst virago, he sees her passion, energy, vitality, and female power.

The Macbeths are a good couple, until the murder of the kind unravels both of them; but they have what might be called a sharing and respectful relationship.  Brutus and his wife, Portia (Julius Caesar) love each other, and Brutus speaks tender lines to her when she expresses her concern for him.  Portia clearly loves Caesar as a man and he responds like Brutus at his wife’s solicitousness.   Romeo and Juliet loved each other, and the play is the only one without the complications of villainy, treachery, and power. That’s about it.

Although the Comedies all end up in marriage, one always has the feeling that the couples will end up in divorce.  The women have run rings around the men, have settled for their mates because of wealth and status, and as women did in those days, grinned and bore it.  Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice and others are marvelously wicked in their disdainful playing with their suitors; and the plays are remembered for their hijinks and energy, not for the satisfying marriages they make.  Even Cleopatra who is often thought of in terms of love, cared only for Antony, as she did Julius Caesar and the son of Pompey the Great, for political protection and power.

The women in the Histories are she-bears, fiercely protective of their son.  Margaret (Henry VI) and Constance (King John) are perhaps the most famous for their ferocity and tenacity. Constance is thought mad (shrewish) because of her insistence on the rights of her son and for the love she bore him:

Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey's wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, 'tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver'd of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity. (Act III.iv)

Shakespeare wrote famously about jealousy.  Although Othello is best known, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida, and The Winter’s Tale are just as explicit, if less complex and intriguing.  There are vicious screeds against women in all these plays, and even the heroic Othello tells the nobles of the court that he killed Desdemona to save other men from her treachery.  Posthumus immediately believes the worst of his betrothed and when he feels that his suspicions are confirmed, launches into a tirade not only about her but about all women.

Jealousy, of course, has played an important social and economic role in human society.  Kings and their subjects needed to know who was and wasn’t the rightful heir to the throne; and commoners rightfully refused to work for a son that wasn’t theirs.  Women have been less jealous because they know whose children they bear, but that does not stop them from corralling their breadwinners when they see them stray.

If one is to believe Shakespeare, marriage rarely produces happiness; but plays a primordially important social role.  The children of married couples are traceable, their lineages an open book to be consulted by suitors and future in-laws.  The old adage has always been true – one marries a family, not an individual.  Even the least traditional parents today are at least curious about the pedigree of the new family.  Perhaps they are less interested in assessing actual wealth, but social status, education, breeding, culture, and world view.  Although we live in a society which lays the world’s claim to individualism, we still balk at the quick and surprising marriage of our children.  Family does matter, and so, then does marriage.

Marriage, with its conventions and strictures, is the crucible within which the most passionate, intimate, and deep-seated needs are expressed.  It is the very frustration and demands of marriage which force maturity.  Marriages have been a fascination for authors since the days of Aeschylus and Sophocles.  No better depiction of marriage and jealousy occurs than in Strindberg’s The Father. Modern day writers like O’Neill and Edward Albee have seen marriage as the source of power.  Although Desire Under The Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra are melodramatic works of grand guignol they are plays about family and the power generated within them.  Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is all about family and how Thomas Sutpen underestimated the forces within it.  The list of literary sources for depictions of marriage and family is endless.

Once again, marriage may not produce happiness, but it may be an essential spiritual and/or psychological element of society.  Tantrism speaks of powerful sexual energies, the male lingam and the female yoni, and the powerful energies released in sexual union.  The Chinese philosophy of ying-yang expresses this need for complementarity in a more esoteric way.  We may not enjoy the conflicts, disharmonies, and discords which will always occur in marriage, but we may need its confines, tensions, pressures, and releases to become fully human.

Even though the family is much less the essential economic structure it once was – that is, women have a far greater degree of economic dependence than they once did and can walk if things get unpleasant; and what remains of the family can survive quite well – it is hard to imagine a society without that social unit, with men and women pairing off as random, unaffiliated individuals.  Most radical free-love, anti-establishment Sixties hippies have come down to earth, gotten married, conferred legitimacy on their children, fought with their wives and husbands, stayed together or gotten divorced, but have stayed within conventional social boundaries.

In an article in The Guardian (1.2.13) Hannah Betts provides a short review of marriage, admitting its staying power, but regretting its permanence. 

Throw in Henry VIII, Lawrence Stone's "companionate marriage", psychoanalysis, feminism, the waning of religious belief, and sexual revolution, and marriage becomes an overstuffed melting pot-cum-petri dish for culture's most festering anxieties. Small wonder that on Wednesday – known as "divorce day" by lawyers, when couples return to work after the not so festive season and initiate proceedings – thousands of Britons will cease striving to fathom their own definition.

Betts refers to early Christian asceticism and the ideal of virginity, the Roman and Greek conclusion that eroticism and sexual adventure could take place only outside of marriage.  Marriage has become a political issue for the Roman Catholic Church, and its recent reactionary remarks about the nature of the institution and the roles of men and women within it, belie the Pope’s supposedly spiritual sentiments. 

As Simon Goldhill, (Love, Sex, and Tragedy) elaborates: "Marriage, a white wedding in church, might seem the place where things are clearest and easiest. But the service is actually testimony to the long-running crisis in thinking about sexuality, which stems from Christianity's first attempts to distinguish itself from classical culture." This is part of what leads to the institution's being a "still unresolved crisis in how modern life is to be lived", in which the issue of gay marriage is merely the latest installment.

The issue of marriage is a social and economic one and always has been.  The Catholic Church is irrelevant on this and related issues of sexuality and propriety.  Traditional religious marriage may indeed disappear as more and more people become “Nones”; and civil unions may become the norm.  Whatever its trappings, nomenclature, or configuration, there will always be some kind of legal, legitimizing unions between reproductive couples.  Our need to know whom we are marrying will not disappear so easily. 

On a more personal level, and referring to the works of Shakespeare and the other authors mentioned above, people will always want to form stable unions, especially in an increasingly complex and atomized world.  Psychological demands formed in childhood, sharpened as age and frustration sets in, need a supply.  We need to marry our fathers and our mothers, to play out dramatic and dynamic struggles that are part of our human nature.  We dread the dissipation of those energy surges of marriage, those powerful, unexplainable releases of tension. As above, we seem to look for Tantric and ying-yang expressions of self. 

One of my favorite plays is Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee.  No play can match it for its marital fireworks, desperate orchestration of primal needs and passions.  What makes the play so compelling is the fact that at the beginning of the play we feel that George and Martha hate each other; but by the end we realize they need each other and perhaps it has been a good marriage after all.

Marriage, civil unions, and their spawns will never disappear.  Divorce rates will rise and fall like the stock market as people evaluate their prospects, needs, and time; the number of single parents will vary, but will always remain low because in the case of child-rearing, it really does seem to take two to tango.  Young people will always live together without marriage, but will predictably conclude some kind of legal arrangement before their first child is born. While some still see the fantasy vision of Margaret Meade and her loving, communal Trobriand Islanders as a human ideal; or wish that the Sixties would return and provide a harmonious, not acrimonious, sexual milieu, I am sorry to say their idealism is just that.  Legal social contracts – whether religiously or secularly concluded – will be the operational norm for years to come.

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