Marriage in the English renaissance
In the Renaissance, marriage as an institution was far different and much longer process than it is today.
Marriage for the lower and upper classes generally observed similar rites and rituals. It was a contract first and foremost to continue the lineage, and for the upper classes, this rarely involved love. Courting outside of one’s class was strictly forbidden and punishable by death in some circumstances. In Elizabethan times, marriage followed a strict set of protocols that signified maturity and ‘coming into one’s own’. Many business dealings between the marrying families were undertaken to ensure longevity of familial lines. The institution of marriage also ensured the loose morals and passtimes of youth (visiting brothels or implied/applied homosexuality) were replaced with a focus on family and the important task of producing an heir.
In Twelfth Night, we see Sebastian giving up his implied relationship with Antonio and other frivolities to honour Olivia’s status. The order is similarly restored when Viola reveals her femininity to focus on having a serious and transparent relationship with Orsino. The final scenes of the play restore order, thus marriage is presented as a stabilising and necessary undertaking if one is to remove chaos.
By getting married and establishing a family, the young couples in the play satisfy their mutual yearning for one another by abiding by the social codes of marriage. We assume the marriages in Twelfth Night are abundantly blessed as the couples seem to also be marrying for love, and not just as a financial transaction in certifying and guaranteeing the transferral of property and material.
Courtship and hand-fasting
The first stage of marriage was a courtship, which also involved friends and family. After courtship came a promise to marry and a hand-fasting ceremony during which, the couple would join their hands to symbolise their union.
After exchanging these promises, the couple were able to call themselves husband and wife even though they were not married yet. They were then required to call the banns (a public announcement of the intended marriage) in church for three successive Sunday before they could continue to the final step. The banns were designed to allow time for anyone to reveal any reason why the couple should not or could not be married (hence, having a clean and decent-living history was a must - especially for women).
The final step was the wedding day, when family and friends would celebrate the union of the couple. There is a feast with wine and dancing. The marriage is complete when the couple consummated their union (and hopefully produced an heir shortly there after!).
Twelfth Night pokes fun at all the overly elongated marriage preparations of the time.