The Wedding Ring Tradition
Significance of Rings To Shakespeare
During Shakepseare's time, the wedding and engagement rings indicated commitment. The rings Portia and Nerissa gave to Bassanio and Gratiano, that they were never to remove, were just that. "I give them with this ring, Which when you part from, lose, or give away, Let it presage the ruin of your love And be my vantage to exclaim on you" (3.2.171-4). The rings stood for the man's commitment to his wife just as rings Bassanio and Gratiano would give to Portia and Nerissa at their weddings would stand for the wives' commitment.
Rings were common mainly among the richer parts of society, who could afford such a token. Mary Queen of Scots sent a diamond ring to Thomas Duke of Norfolk to indicate her willingness to marry him. However, peasants would give smaller tokens or none at all. It was usually the case that everyone in a village knew who was married, so no symbol was necessary. In the case that a man wishes to break a wedding contract, he must give back double all of the tokens he has received, usually a collection of small items. This made it even less practical for the poorer people in society to give rings.
The fact that Portia and Nerissa gave rings to Bassanio and Gratiano is mainly an indication of their wealth. The commitment could have been symbolized by any token given to the men, but using a ring also shows that they are wealthy. Elizabethans would know that the ring itself was of no consequence to the marriage, but rather what it stood for was important.
Origin Of The Tradition
Engagement rings initially served a double purpose. In the days when brides were purchased, these rings were partial payment for the bride in addition to symbolizing the groom's intentions and woman's agreement. Diamonds were first found in Medieval Italy and due to their hardness symbolized enduring love.
The wedding ring dates from the times of the ancient Egyptians and is meant to smbolize undying, unending love. The first rings were made of hemp and rushes, but needed frequent replacing. The Romans used iron and today gold and silver are common choices because of their durability and symbolism of beauty and purity. Rings were used as a symbol of marriage up until today, however, the exclusive use of rings is a fairly recent concept.