What’s love got to do with it?
Believe it or not, love -- as we see it now -- is not exactly as it has been seen throughout the ages.
First of all romantic love is a relatively new invention. Sure, the Romans had romantic poetry -- only let’s be honest here, for a little while, it was more like erotic poetry. The shadings of love and sex were as confused as they are in the modern romance novel. Hold on to that, it might come in handy.
In Rome though, as far as I can tell, the ideas of romance and love were separated, at least for the patricians, even if there were some touching legends of old married couples in love who asked to die together.
In Shakespeare’s time the idea that Romeo and Juliet would choose to marry because they were in love with each other was a little scandalous and at the same time the vanguard of a new way of doing things.
Sure, forget all the stuff about the families at each other’s throats and all, those two crazy kids in love would still be shocking if all they wanted to do was marry in defiance of those that their families would prefer they pair with.
You see, in Shakespeare’s time human society had a little more… give. There was more wealth, enough not to live so close to the bone (while all of them were still unimaginably poorer than anyone today, mind you), so there was a bit more room to indulge in romantic fancies and marry someone because you fancied them, instead of for solid qualities, like a woman being able to hold a pig under each arm, or a man being able to plow a field all by himself if the ox was feeling poorly.
Okay, I’m joking – a little – but the truth is that for most of human history humans have married for reasons other than a nicely turned ankle, or a fascinating smile.
Life being brutish, short, and frankly all work and no play, it was more important to marry someone who could help in your trade or even bring a bag of money to expand the business. Marriages were often arranged within professional groups. If you were the daughter of a craftsman, you’d probably have a marriage arranged to his lead apprentice. If you two loved each other, so much the better, but generally getting along well and not fighting too much was enough.
The nobility was always interested in “love” in the romantic sense. Look at how far Henry VIII went to get Anne Boleyn. (And again there note the confusion between love and great sex.)
Most of the time, though, they married the person that suited their income and station and had affairs on the side.