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Article ID: 13716

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Handfasting in Shakespeare

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: April 11th. 2010
Times Viewed: 2,225

Far from being (as I have heard some allege) a modern Wiccan invention intended to provide a Neo-Pagan alternative to civic or (non-Neo-Pagan) religious marriage, the custom of the Handfasting is in fact authentically medieval (dating at least to the time of the Elizabethans or the second half of the 1500s) . As such it is reflected in some of Shakespeare’s plays, study of which may prove interesting to Wiccans or Neo-Pagans who may be curious to investigate genuinely antique examples of the Handfasting tradition.

According to Charles Nicholl, in The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street (Viking, 2007, p. 251-261) , a review of the period during which the great play-writer rented lodgings on the upper floor of a house owned by a family of French expatriates- handfasting served as a vital part of the Elizabethan wedding process. Handfastings under the first Queen Elizabeth were private ceremonies in which a couple pledged themselves to one another (or ‘plighted their troth’ to one another, in the parlance of the period) prior to marrying ‘or real’ in the church, overseen by a Christian priest, in the Name of Jesus. Essentially handfasting to the Elizabethans was a ritual in which a couple married each other, which took the place of time until the couple married each other (again) in the church.

As the attitude of the age held handfasting to be a binding commitment (apparently signaling, among other things, the time when amorous congress became permissible) , the church wedding itself might be seen as superfluous. Indeed it seems as if the rite of handfasting must have been the original Pagan wedding ceremony, hi-jacked by the Christian ceremony, which the church treated as the one that ‘counted’. Undoubtedly from the Elizabethan perspective, both handfasting and church-wedding simply gave them two festive occasions with which to celebrate the union of a woman and man, or a wife and husband. (We won’t go into the fact that- during the time of the first Elizabeth, never mind now- union between two women or two men were not seen as ‘legitimate’.)

An odd tendency amongst Elizabethan play-writers is their proclivity towards creating very Pagan environments for plays; King Lear fits into this category, as the show is set in pre-Christian, Romanized Britain. Therefore we find much invocation of Roman Deities, such as Lear’s reference to the “sacred radiance of the sun [and] the mysteries of Hecate and the night” (I.i.111) and in his vow, “By Jupiter this shall not be revoked!” (I.i.181)

An equally paganistic work is As You Like It (c. 1600) , called Shakespeare’s finest comedy. Set in the Forest of Arden during a drowsy summertime, the play depicts a lifestyle spent in the contemplations of Nature as restorative and beneficial. A romantic work, the show is filled with comic confusions and misunderstandings, as the various characters sort out who is best partnered with whom; the play’s finale is marked by a mass marriage of eight young lovers into four couples (all hetero, by the way- not a Gay couple in the crowd- just saying) .

Such a country-oriented comedy can only conclude with a nature-oriented wedding, and so we find a ceremony with striking Pagan tones to it at the end of AYLI, not the least of which is the officiating of the Greco-Roman Marriage-God Hymen (also known as Hymenaios and Hymenaeus; it is either the Deity or a priestly stand-in) . In simple point of fact- the wedding that concludes As You Like It is a Pagan handfasting.

The simplest thing in the world might appear to be to raid the text outright, mining it for indisputably four hundred year-old handfasting-materials. The problem is that a large number of lines are so specific to the characters and circumstances of Shakespeare’s show that they become unworkable in any other context. Nonetheless the play’s last scene commences as Hymen ushers out Rosalind and Celia (two of the four brides) .

Hymen: “Then is there mirth in heaven when earthly things made even atone together [when earthly things are reconciled into harmony]. Good Duke [a reference to Rosalind’s father], receive thy daughter. Hymen from heaven brought her, yea, brought her hither, that thou [the Duke] mightst join her hand [Rosalind’s] with his [her boyfriend Orlando] whose heart within his bosom is.” [Hymen supervises as the Duke joins his daughter Rosalind’s hand with that of Orlando, the hot guy with whom she has been in love since the first act.]

Rosalind tells Orlando: “To you I give myself, for I am yours.” Orlando replies to Rosalind: “If there be truth in sight, you are my Rosalind.” [This is a bit of a gag, as Rosalind has spent the better part of the play disguised as a boy.]

Hymen [contemplating the small crowd before him]: “Here’s eight that must take hands to join in Hymen’s bands whiles a wedlock-hymn we sing.”

[A portion of this section might be removed to stand alone as a handfasting-blessing: “You and you no cross shall part; you and you are heart in heart.” By ‘cross’, Hymen means ‘obstacles’, as in “something that ‘crosses’ one’s path¨; it is the same sentiment expressed in ‘uncrossing’ spells or with ‘uncrossing’ candles, whereby one seeks to be ‘uncrossed’ in one’s energies. Hymen does not mean ‘cross’ like ‘Christian Cross’.]

A joyful song follows that might be appropriate as a ‘for-real’ early seventeenth century handfasting element [it is probably not strictly necessary to sing the song; speaking it aloud as poetry is surely sufficient]: “Wedding is great Juno’s crown- O blesseƒVd bond of board and bed! Tis Hymen peoples every town; high wedlock then be honoreƒVd! Honor! High honor and renown to Hymen- god of every town!” (V.iv.115-152)

Essentially the song glorifies Hymen as the ‘God of every town’, who ‘peoples every town’, meaning that as he is the Patron of marriage, he is also the Patron of the marital act that produces babies. We see here the really frank and earthy nature of the Elizabethan people. We also hear wedding praised as “great Juno’s crown¨ which blesses the ‘bond’ of “board and bed” - meaning in all likelihood the extent of the new couple’s household furnishings, the household table (‘board’) and the bed of matrimony. “BlesseƒVd” and “honoreƒVd” are both pronounced with an Elizabethan fillip at the end, meaning with the “ed” suffix emphasized. They therefore become “bless-sed” (as in “blessed be” which we pronounce a la Elizabethan, or “bless-sed be”) and “honor-red” (pronounced ‘on-or-red’) . Doing so gives one (one notes) a rhyme between ‘honoreƒVd’ and ‘board and bed’.

As Hymen concludes the Pagan Wedding or Handfasting Ceremony of AYLI with ‘Hymen’s Song’, or ‘Hymen’s Poem’ (if like myself you don’t trust yourself to carry a tune with proficiency) , a Wiccan or Neo-Pagan High Priestess or Priest called upon to facilitate a modern Handfasting might do likewise, upon legitimate citation of Elizabethan handfasting tradition, as per Shakespeare’s finest comedy.

Another handfasting rite is seen in the masque (a small, ceremonial play, often featuring Classical Deities) conjured by the magic-user Prospero to celebrate his daughter Miranda’s love-match with Ferdinand (son to the king of Naples) in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c.1610) . (This work belongs to the body of Magic-User Plays of the English Renaissance, in that its lead character Prospero in many ways is the ultimate Renaissance mage.) After sternly warning the youth against “breaking [Miranda’s] virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be minist’red” (IV.i.15) , the wizard summons ‘spirits’ to perform the blessing mini-play of the masque.

Whether populated by actual Deities or by ‘spirits’ masquerading as Deities, the masque is very intriguing from a Pagan point-of-view, as Prospero summons the Rainbow-Goddess Iris to serve as the ‘contact-divinity’ through whom the Immortals Ceres and Juno are “drawn down” to impart blessings upon the ‘troth-plighting’ of Miranda and Ferdinand. Basically the Wedding-Masque of The Tempest is a “drawing-down” ceremony.

Iris calls forth Ceres, “most bounteous lady, [with] thy rich leas of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats, and pease”, a contract of true love to celebrate; and some donation freely to estate on the blest lovers.

Ceres appears and Iris announces that, “High’st Queen of state, great Juno comes!”

Juno: “How does my bounteous sister? Go with me to bless this twain [Miranda and Ferdinand], that they may prosperous be and honoreƒVd [again with the Elizabethan fillip] in their issue [she wants their children to be a blessing upon them].”

Juno sings [but again, I feel speaking these lines as poetry, should one decide one wishes to make use of them in a handfasting-ceremony, would be acceptable]: “Honor, riches, marriage-blessing, long continuance, and increasing, hourly joys be still upon you! Juno sings her blessing on you!”

Ceres [technically singing as well]: “Earth’s increase and foison [‘good harvests or crops’] plenty, barns and garners never empty; vines with clustering bunches growing; plants with goodly burthen bowing; spring come to you at the farthest in the very end of harvest! Scarcity and want shall shun you; Ceres’ blessing so is on you!”

Then in a symbolic and chaste enactment of the marital union, Iris calls Nymphs, called Naiads, to “leave your crisp channels” and come “help to celebrate a contract of true love.” She then summons “You sunburnt sicklemen of August weary [guys toiling in the fields, cutting down the grains with sickles], come hither from the furrow and be merry. Make holiday; your rye-straw hats put on and these fresh Nymphs encounter every one in country footing [dancing].” (IV.i.)

A particularly rural kind of scene is performed in conclusion of the wedding-masque that serves as handfasting ritual for the young lovers in The Tempest as watery Nymphs are summoned by the shimmering Messenger to the Goddesses, to dance with hard-handed farmers and field-workers in an acting-out of the eternal Dance between females and males.

If one felt so inspired, I bet one could conclude a friend’s handfasting with a brief play calling down Deities to impart their blessings upon the handfasted couple, before concluding with a ritualistic dance between svelte aquatic sprites and some muscular, sweaty, dirty day-laborers. If so, I would urge the justification: but that’s how they handfasted in 1610. Just check out The Tempest and you’ll see.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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