A. The sacred marriage in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
On the Elizabethan stage it was forbidden to present any Christian doctrine explicitly (Dawkins 2000), presumably so as to avoid the sectarian controversies that had wreaked havoc in English politics. An arena that in living memory had been dominated by Catholic “mystery plays” was suddenly secularized by royal decree. English drama rose to the occasion with great success. Yet the transition may not have been as sharp as it seems. In the language of love, dramatists had a well-known predecessor, namely the Song of Songs, which also did not use the word “God” or speak in religious terms. Yet as the Elizabethans saw it, it was all about the relation of God to humanity, a “sacred marriage” between the two.
The term "sacred marriage," hieros gamos in Greek, originally applied to a fertility ritual, to honor the gods of the crops. A god and a goddess were imagined to celebrate their nuptials: Hera and in Greece, Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Inanna and Dumuzi in Sumer, etc. In its oldest form, men and women impersonating the gods might have had ritual sexual intercourse, or one man and one woman would perform this act; perhaps one or both would be ritually sacrificed (Frazier 1958). Songs and stories were composed to express in myth what was the ritual was about.
With the advent of priests and poets in the great civilizations of antiquity, there came imaginative literary variations on the myths, yet with an echo of the old rites. The marriage of two gods, or of god and humanity, continued to have its appeal, although neither partner might be claimed divine or even married. Thus we have the Hebrew Song of Songs, which from affinities to Egyptian and Mesopotamian love poetry scholars hypothesize may have been adapted from these cultures without any indigenous Hebrew fertility rite (Murphy 1990). Without any reference to the sacred specifically, it appears in a Bible replete, as we shall see, with apocalyptic utterances about the Lord God and his Bride Israel. The Song is then interpreted in terms of this divine marriage, by Christian and Jew alike. .
Let me give examples that will be of use later. The Hebrew Bible’s sense of the hieros gamos, which the rabbis applied to the Song of Songs, occurs in Hosea and Isaiah. Hosea speaks of a new covenant between the Lord and his people: “I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness, and thou shalt know the Lord,” says God through Hosea (2:20). “Know” refers to the consummation of a marriage, as in “Adam knew Eve”; but it has a more spiritual sense as well, of communion. Isaiah, similarly, speaks of a time when Israel shall:
forget the shame of thy youth, and shall not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband: the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel: The God of the whole earth shall he be called. (Isaiah 54:4-5)Besides these specific mentions of marriage, other Hebrew Bible passages speak reproachfully of Israel “whoring” with other gods (Ex. 34:15, Ps. 73:27). This image treats her as a woman whose sole partner should be the Lord.
The Song itself does not speak of Israel and the Lord at all, or even of a marriage. It poetically describes the love of a young woman and a young or at least very athletic man. In the view of the rabbis, the man was the Lord God of Israel and the woman his chosen people, the Israelites. The Song expressed their devotion to each other, the need for the people of Israel to have faith in their God, and the eventual fruitfulness of their spiritual union (Murphy 1990).
Then Christianity came along, whose basic texts, in the dominant tradition, are those that became the New Testament. These texts interpreted the marriage as between the Lord and the people of all nations. Indeed, Isaiah had paved the way in speaking of the husband as “God of the whole earth” (54:5).
Orthodox Christianity, of course, did something that Isaiah did not do: it concretized the Bridegroom in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus at Mark 2:19, Jesus speaks of the disciples as “children of the bridechamber”; he himself, the text implies, is the bridegroom. (I shall discuss the actual text in a later section.) Paul, more explicitly, says to his converts, “I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). In the same vein, when discussing marriage, he compares Christ to the husband and the Church to the wife (Eph. 5:23-25). The Book of Revelation speaks in similar terms (19:7-9, 21:2, 22:17); this time the marriage is of the New Jerusalem and the Lamb. All of this redefines the rabbinic tradition expressed in Isaiah and Hosea..
In the New Testament itself, I have found only one reference to Bride and Bridegroom that reflects the wording of the Song specifically (cited in Lavin and Lavin 2000). In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist refers to Christ as the “bridegroom” in the famous text in which the Baptist is asked if he is the savior. He answers:
Ye yourselves bear witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice; this my joy therefore is fulfilled. (John 3:28-29, King James Version)The latter part, about the friend who hears the bridegroom, seems a reference to Song of Songs 8:13: “Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice.” (I will discuss the significance of this reference in understanding the Song towards the end of thisessay.)
In the 2nd century, Origin, basing himself on these references to “Bridegroom” and “Bride” and others in the established canon, wrote a long commentary on the Song, comparing the Woman to both the soul and the Church, and the man to Christ and the Word. Only about a third of this commentary survived, but it had immense influence despite the condemnation of his later works as heretical.
In the 4th century, Augustine referred to the sacred marriage between Christ and the Church in his analysis of Christ's crucifixion. In the background is the story of Adam and Eve, who originally lived in a garden similar to that in the Song of Songs, but were expelled into a land of suffering and death. Now God himself has come down to earth, to enter into a new marriage. God's marriage bed is the cross, where as Christ he takes on himself the suffering of the people--in Augustine's words, "He lovingly gave himself up to the torment in place of his bride" (quoted in Jung 1967, 269). God's bride, the Church, is a community of souls defined by its faith in Jesus as opposed to its identification with Judaism or any pagan faith. Augustine adds, "..and he joined himself to the woman forever." As in the traditional Jewish understanding, this is a union of the divine with the human, of the male as god with the female as human, rather than the union of god and goddess. And the new life being promoted is of a purely spiritual nature, the fruit of a spiritual marriage between God on the cross and humanity. This marriage is for God an act of extreme suffering, but the result, Augustine says, is joy for those who choose to become the bride of Christ.
All of this language was applied in Shakespeare’s day not only to the Song of Songs, but to the ordinary marriages of men and woman. Erasmus, an Augustinian by training and a devotee of Origen by later study, used the same language as Augustine and Origin to explain the sacred significance of marriage, as a surrendering of each of the pair to the other in a secular prefiguring of the soul’s surrender to Christ
In the Middle Ages, the Song was the easily the most quoted book in the entire Bible (Kendrick). Commentators followed Origin in seeing the woman of the Song as the soul, and the man as Christ, the Word of God. To illustrate, let us take the first lines of the Song:
The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s:For the interpretation, first let us hear St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. (1:1-2, King James Version)
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” Who says this? The bride. Who is she? The soul thirsting for God...The passion of love excels among the gifts of nature, especially when it returns to its origin which is God. And there are no names as sweet to express the affections of Word and soul as those of bridegroom and bride, seeing as these have all things in common, have nothing which either claims, nothing in which the other has no share. (Harper 1907, xliv)The Church, in Bernard’s view, is simply “the unity-or rather unanimity-of many souls” (Bernard 1952, 16). “Church” is a shorthand for the combined souls of the believers. Illuminated manuscripts of the time showed the sponsa (wife) and sponsus (husband), as Christ and his bride the Church, as in Fig. 1 (Camille 1998, 23), a 12th century illustration to Bede’s commentary on the Song.
In the 16th century St. Bernard’s tradition, in both interpretation and austerity, was renewed by reformers in the Roman Catholic Church such as Teresa of Avila and her friend John of the Cross. Teresa writes:
My Lord, I ask nothing else in this life but "to kiss me with the kiss of Your Mouth," and to do this in such a manner that I should not be able to withdraw from this union, even if I wished it. (Bloom 1988, 7)John of the Cross, in a poem introducing The Dark Night of the Soul, says similarly:
O night that guided me,
O night more lovely than the dawn,
O night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion,
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
(Bloom 1988, 7)
Before Protestantism, the general public was not able to read the Song for itself, because it remained in Latin. To translate it into the languages that people actually spoke was considered heresy. William Tynsdale, the first translator of the Bible into English, in fact fled England when a Catholic monarch, so-called “Bloody” Mary, ascended the throne. The Catholic Church eventually caught up with him and burned him at the stake for his pains (Geneva Bible 1969, editor’s introduction).
Under Elizabeth, however, the Bible was not only allowed but required of any household above a certain economic level. The most popular translation-and the one quoted by Shakespeare--was the Geneva Bible, put together by English Calvinists in the safe haven of Geneva, Switzerland. Now the laity could read the Song, although the approved Calvinist interpretation appeared in the margins. King James I took offense to some of these notes; the marginal comments stopped in the version he sponsored, leaving only brief comments at the top of the page.
When lay readers of the Geneva Bible turned to the Song, they found erotic imagery carefully interpreted in the traditional way. Consider the following, spoken by the woman (I quote from the King James Version, which in these lines is virtually identical to the Geneva Bible, with the advantage that its current edition modernizes the spelling):
Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south;According to the Geneva Bible the “north wind” and “south wind” are the Holy Spirit, which the faithful soul wishes to descend upon her (1969, 282). Then when the beloved complains that “my head is filled with dew,” apparently meaning he is wet, that expresses Christ’s patience with sinners. When the lover responds by putting myrrh on her fingers, she is attempting to “anoint” Christ with her “good works”; but what is required is her whole heart and devotion before he can accept her as his bride. Later in the Song the beloved speaks, describing the parts of his lover’s body in sensuous terms, starting with the feet, moving up to the navel and the breasts, and ending with the hair (7:1-3). Our commentator says that this expresses “the beauty of the Church in all her members. She is assured of Christ’s love toward her” (282). My point is not to ridicule such interpretations. It is take them seriously, in as much as they show a major way erotic imagery was taken at the time. Shakespeare’s audience was accustomed to seeing sacred interpretations of very sensuous language.
Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out
Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
I sleep, but my heart waketh; it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh,
Saying, "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled;
for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night."
I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dripped with myrrh,
and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself and was gone..
(Song of Songs 4:16, 5:2, 5:5-6.)
Modern commentator looking at the Song see other things: “Open to me” suggests a sexual invitation; in fact the word in Hebrew translated as “open to” is the same as the word translated as “knew” in the sentence “Adam knew Eve” (Bloch and Bloch 1995). Handles and locks also have sexual connotations, as does the act of “withdrawing.” These connotations were not lost on Elizabethans, as we know from the jokes in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare himself had used the language of the Song of Songs in a purely sexual way in his poem Venus and Adonis, when he has Venus say to the reluctant Adonis, who just wants to go boar-hunting (ll. 231-4):
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:Shakespeare no doubt offended many with this appropriation. In fact it is a little beneath him, as a poet who revels in ambiguity. Elizabethans were quite capable of listening on three levels at once: the literal meaning of the words--which I would call the ego-level--the spiritual, and the intimately sensual.
Feed where thou wilt, on mouutain or in dale;
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
A problem with applying the Geneva Bible’s or any standard Christian interpretation of the Song to Romeo and Juliet is that the relationship is not even metaphorically between a female mortal and a male god. To be sure, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry” (II.ii.113), but he speaks in terms almost as exalted: she is a “bright angel” (II.ii.26). They each speak of the other in sacred terms.
Medieval commentators seemed to realize this problem, and some advanced a solution. Not only was the Bride the soul, it is symbolically the Virgin Mary, who at death is bodily lifted up to heaven and put at the right hand of Christ his as Bride. A visual example is a mosaic done at the direction of Pope Innocent II, who was a friend of Bernard of Clairvaux, in about 1140-1142 (Fig. 1a, below; Lavin & Lavin 2001, 29).
The writing held by Mary says “His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me,” a quote from Song of Songs 2.6, repeated at 8.3. The writing that Christ holds says, “Come, my chosen one, I will put my throne in you” (in Latin: Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum) (Lavin & Lavin 2001, 27-28). This latter sentence “has no other source than the Divine Office,” the Lavins say; perhaps it is a litany by Innocent II himself. The sentence means that Christ is empowering Mary to rule with him in heaven. But as the Lavins notice, the wording also suggests “their adult connubial union.” The sexual imagery of the Song is carried over into words accompanying the image of Christ, as spoken to his mother Mary.
The Lavins show another way that illustrators implied a sexual relationship between Christ and Mary. They put Christ’s right leg between her legs (Fig. 1b, left below: Lavin & Lavin 39), a pose associated with secular marriage (Fig. 1c, right below; Lavin & Lavin 25).
Along these lines, a Hebrew text from the 1st century describes some of the aspects of God as the sun, moon, and planets. This fits what the woman says of herself and her companion: "I am black.. because the sun hath looked upon me" (1:6); and also "My beloved is white and ruddy...His head is as the most fine gold" (5:10-11). These images suggest night and day, and their chief lights, the moon and the sun. Then the marriage is a hieros gamos between sun and moon, which esoteric Judaism preserves within a monotheistic framework.
From this perspective, human love at its most sensuously beautiful is a metaphorical approximation to divine love between God's own complementary aspects or emanations. Those who appreciated the Song from an esoteric perspective seemed to have this idea in mind: A 13th century Jewish text from Spain quotes a saying of the sages: "When a man unites with his wife in holiness, the divine presence is between them." (Matt 1997, 155).
With the invention of the printing press, Kabbalistic interpretations of the Song were given limited publication, and these were followed by more widely read commentaries by such esoteric Christian thinkers as Pico, Bruno, and Agrippa. Before them, the Catholic Church had itself made a few attempts to see God bisexually. For example, the standard Latin translation of the Bible used in the Middle Ages, the Vulgate, gave the male figure breasts.
Osculetur me osculo oris sui Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.The Greek translation used by the Vulgate identified the Hebrew word dodeyka, literally meaning “your love-making,” as meaning breasts, a word which in Hebrew has the same root (Murphy 1990). The King James Version, which went to the Hebrew, translates the word as “your love,” so that the line reads “for your love is better than wine.” This translation goes the other way and desexualizes the Hebrew.
quia meliora sunt ubera tua vino. for your breasts are better than wine.
(Matter 1990, xvi-xvii)
The 12th century Bernard, using a variant of the Vulgate, dutifully analyzes the line in terms of breasts. He says that while it is unclear whose breasts these are, the bride’s or the bridegroom’s, one valid interpretation is that they are “the breasts of the Bridegroom-that is, of Christ” (1950, 32). What they offer is “the milk of Thy loving-kindness” (33). In a similar vein, illuminated manuscripts sometimes give Christ sexually ambiguous features. I have not found any with breasts, but the Rothchild Canticle of 1320 has an illustration of the wound in Christ’s side that suggests the female, while the woman on the opposite page carries a very masculine spear (Fig. 1d; Camille 1998, 38).
Liturgies and other sacred poetry probably also used feminine imagery occasionally to refer to Christ or God. In these various ways, seeing God in both feminine and masculine imagery would have worked its way into public consciousness. The soul could yearn for God using the words and images of longing for both sexes--and also imagine its own sexual longings in sacred terms.