ABSTRACT

By beginning with Thomas Carew’s epithalamium and Bottom-as-Pyramus’s lament at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I mean to foreground how early modern literary depictions of marriage represented the wedding night as simultaneously foundational to domesticity and inherently, inescapably violent. Carew, in keeping with the epithalamic tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, celebrates the “fi ght of love” between bride and groom in the bridal bed and explicitly identifi es the bride’s bleeding as the intended result. Pyramus and Thisbe, of course, announces its discordance with the occasion of an aristocratic wedding from the start: this “tedious brief scene” of “very tragical mirth” (5.1.56-7) serves, as many scholars have observed, as a dramatic counterpoint to the (presumably) happy couples anxiously awaiting nightfall by providing a tragic but parodic vision of young, rebellious lovers.3 The appearance of Thisbe’s bloody mantle only minutes before the new husbands and wives head off to bed seems to present the bloodied wedding sheets of consummation in miniature, reminding the couples not only of the perils they have avoided but also the dangers awaiting the three women, as Hippolyta, Hermia, and Helena will be expected to play the role of bleeding bride soon enough. The assumption inherent in this latter point, that a bloody cloth orbiting around an early modern stage wedding likely represents bloodstained sheets, is endorsed by the many studies that take as their subject the “bloody napkin” (4.3.94) in As You Like It, Desdemona’s “strawberry-spotted” (3.3.436) handkerchief in Othello, and/or the “bloody cloth” (5.1.1) carried by Posthumus Leonatus in Cymbeline.4 It is their proximity

to weddings or new marriages that distinguishes these bloodied cloths from similar stage properties such as the handkerchief stained with the blood of York’s son in 3 Henry VI (1.4.79-81)5 or even the bloody bandages covering Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear (4.1.10).6 Given the context of weddings and consummation, these particular properties clearly form a group, and together they indicate that bleeding is an expected and even necessary part of making a marriage.