‘Till death do us part’ is a phrase that does not appear in any of the plays or poems of Shakespeare, although we probably feel that it should.
It is one of the most famous, and most used, phrases, still spoken frequently by young people making their marriage vows– four times in every church wedding – twice by the priest and repeated once each by the bride and the groom, or the two brides or two grooms. It is part of the marriage service in The Book of Common Prayer, where the happy couple swear that they will love each other through thick and thin, forsaking all others, and stay together until death separates them.
The Book of Common Prayer was first published in 1549, some fifteen years before Shakespeare’s birth. It was exclusively a Church of England handbook, produced after Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from the Roman church, in which he named himself the head of the Church of England. It sets out the church rites for baptism, marriage, communion, and funeral; it dictates the proper cycle of prayer for each day of the Christian year.
Shakespeare would have been very familiar with the contents of the book. Simply attending weddings, funerals and baptisms would have drummed them into him by the time he had grown up. Moreover, it goes far beyond being a prayer handbook – it is concerned with salvation, the fate of the soul and the avoidance of damnation. Those things would have struck the young William Shakespeare, whose subsequent plays dealt with those concepts.
Being the voracious reader that he was, Shakespeare would not have left it just at attendance at church – he would have read the book carefully and responded intellectually to its ideas. And so The Book of Common Prayer was very influential in the creation of Shakespeare’s great plays.
Macbeth is clearly focused on The Book of Common Prayer. As Macbeth contemplates the murder of the king, Duncan, he is deeply concerned with the fate of his soul. He knows that salvation would be out of the question if he went ahead with it, and he can hardly bear to dwell on the thought of going to hell.
In his central soliloquy – If it were done when ‘tis done – he wishes as he stands there, so far untouched, that he could jump over the afterlife, because murder would be easy if he could, but as it stands, killing Duncan will land him in hell:
If the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.
The intensity of this moment is wonderful: he knows what he is doing and what the result for him will be, but his ambition is so profound that he is about to risk eternity in hell in a state of damnation. He is about to make that deal to spend eternity in hell, just to wear the crown and sit on the throne. Shakespeare quotes from the Prayer for those we love – the phrase “the life to come.”
As Macbeth sets off for Duncan’s room he imagines he is seeing a dagger pointing in that direction. He prays for his footsteps to be silent so that heaven won’t hear him:
Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which ways they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout.
Shakespeare uses the words “walk” and “ways”, echoing the rite for marriage’s quotation from Psalm 128 – “Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord and walketh in his ways.”
The words “walk” and “ways,” and their combination in phrases such as “ways they walk” and “walk in his ways” are very common in the Bible, particularly the psalms. The Book of Common Prayer sets out the uses and applications of the psalms: the rite for marriage, for example, includes a cycle of psalms. Psalm 128 opens this cycle, and the phrase “walk in his ways” was a common text for wedding sermons.
In this way, the prayer book links the phrase, “walk in his ways” to marriage, which is a central condition in the play – the marriage of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare brings out the irony of this sacred phrase being echoed by a murderer, encouraged by his equally murderous wife, who bullies and threatens him into committing the crime.
Their marriage falls apart and they both die in miserable ways, separated by their individual guilt and perhaps reunited in hell.
There are other allusions to the prayer book in the play, notably, from the funeral service – the phrase ‘Man that is born of a woman,” which jumps into focus with the witches promise that no man of woman born will harm Macbeth, and Macduff’s revelation at the moment of Macbeth’s death that he was not born of a woman in the sense that he was ripped from his mother’s womb before his due time.
Shakespeare’s plays are filled with couples professing their undying love for each other and couples being parted by death, always done with beautiful poetry, but nowhere does he repeat that actual phrase, “till death do us part” from The Book of Common Prayer.