Shakespeare would not have shared our bemusement with Sarah Cook's marriage to Musa Komeagae, a waiter. Britain has been outraged, a sure sign that it is also confused. What were her parents doing, smiling at the wedding? Why did they let her do it? The girl must be very sad, disturbed or misguided, we are told, she needs saving from herself. A society hyper-alert to the dangers of child abuse is put on guard to protect Sarah Cook from the exploitation that threatens her.
We are in serious danger of over-reacting. Attitudes towards the acceptable age at which we should marry are largely determined by culture. As people marry later, partly because of longer life expectancy and extended years of fertility, it becomes more incomprehensible that anyone could wish to tie the knot in their teens, let alone before the age of 16. We turn a blind eye to young people having sex at an early age, but we find the idea of them marrying young unacceptable because we do not think they are emotionally ready for such a commitment.
Yet some children today mature, both physically and emotionally, much earlier than their counterparts a couple of generations ago. And many young people are more strident in making their wishes known and more confident in acting upon them. These developments are unpalatable for those who wish to preserve children in the image of their own youth.
It is true that Juliet's father revealed hopes that strike a modern chord. He wished to "let two more summers wither in their pride, ere we may think her ripe to be a bride". But his daughter's youth was not the major obstacle to her alliance with Romeo. Likewise, it seems Sarah Cook's marriage in Turkey, although illegal there just as it would be here, is far less frowned upon than it would be if it had taken place in Essex. Young marriages are traditional in rural areas of Turkey, although the earliest allowed is at 14 years and then only with special permission.
All this suggests Sarah Cook's case should be treated with more sensitivity. She needs protection in case everything goes dreadfully wrong and she has to flee home. But it would be a mistake for her husband to be tried for rape given that all parties, including the two families, consented to the marriage. Equally, talk of placing Sarah in a children's home is heavy-handed and legalistic. Whatever the imperfections of her life in Turkey, council care is no solution. Indeed, it may be the worst possible place for her.