Exploring the Bawdy Court Ethos in Measure for Measure's Design: Putting the Church Courts’ Newly Stringent Laws Governing Sex and Betrothal on Trial

Cynthia Greenwood


When Measure for Measure was staged in 1604, English common law recognized a couple’s right to form a valid marriage through nothing more than mutual consent. As B.J. Sokol and Mary Sokol point out, these marriages, known as spousals, granted men and women “a remarkable autonomy” and control over their marital destiny, however theoretical. But illogical as it may seem, the church courts (known as the “bawdy courts”) had the authority to fine these same couples for entering into a clandestine marriage and failing to solemnize it in the church. In effect, a spousal in Shakespeare’s England was often regarded as a valid, albeit illicit, marriage. 

Measure for Measure raises questions about the validity of the respective marital states and sexual transgressions of three betrothed couples¾Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana, and Lucio and Kate Keepdown. Through the intricacies of its main plot, the play raises moral questions about the sexual acts of the first two couples, regardless of the fact that both couples are “betrothed” or “espoused” under marital pre-contracts that would have been deemed valid under English common law (outside the play’s fictional realm of Vienna.) The play’s treatment of the sins of these couples resembles the bawdy courts’ judgments upon actual couples that were charged with crimes associated with clandestine marriages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This paper will argue that Measure for Measure’s salacious courtroom ethos, which simulates the censure of the bawdy courts through its judgment of two betrothed couples¾Claudio and Juliet, and Angelo and Mariana¾drew attention to England’s byzantine marriage laws, while also implicitly challenging the church courts’ increasingly punitive judgments against sexual misconduct following changes to canon law in 1604.



Shakespeare; Measure for Measure; Early Modern Marriage; Bawdy Courts; Measure for Measure; Spousals; Clandestine Marriage;

Full Text: PDF

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Plaza: Dialogues in Language and Literature