(Shakespearean Criticism)


Whether in relation to history, tragedy, or romance, the depiction of family is a ubiquitous element in Shakespearean drama. Indeed, some critics contend that the subject of family relations figures prominently in at least two-thirds of Shakespeare's plays, while others claim that the theme of family is a fundamental concern of the entire Shakespearean canon. Several scholars have made strong arguments for a career-spanning development in Shakespeare's depiction of the complexities of family interaction, highlighting such tragic works as Hamlet, which features the young Danish prince's agonized internal struggles with the death of his father and incestuous remarriage of his mother, and King Lear, a piece predicated on the disastrous paternal love of a foolish king for his youngest daughter. Overall, critics have studied Shakespeare's multifaceted evocation of the family in its many forms, from mildly dysfunctional to brutally horrifying. At one extreme, Titus Andronicus demonstrates the bloody severing of family bonds through the misdirection of an honor-bound, fatherly love. At the other extreme, Shakespeare's romances, such as Pericles and The Tempest, feature a widened appreciation of the delights of familial love as a source of human reconciliation and redemption. Studying the Shakespearean depiction of family, Derek Brewer (1980) observes that a number of the tragedies and all of the late romances are obsessed with images of parents. In regard to Hamlet, King Lear, and Cymbeline, Brewer traces the arc of Shakespeare's fascination with the family drama as an archetypal, symbolic narrative of brothers, sisters, parents, and children, and the psychological, social, and cultural forces that bind them. Bruce Young (1992) chronicles another element of the Shakespearean family drama by investigating formal blessings offered from parents to children. Contradicting feminist suppositions, Young argues that such blessings frequently offer genuine expressions of familial love rather than merely reinforcing patriarchal hierarchies.

C. L. Barber is generally credited with focusing contemporary interest on the subject of Shakespeare's tragic families. In his 1976 essay, Barber observes that in the major tragedies, and subsequently in the late romances, Shakespeare consistently approached the problems of family interaction. Barber's analysis of the Shakespearean family tragedy hinges on moments of failure in Christian ritual, failures that often signal the dissolution of tenuous emotional bonds, as represented in the familial strife of Hamlet and even more thoroughly in King Lear. Focusing his study principally on the latter drama, Thomas McFarland (1981) first follows the plot of King Lear as it elevates the mundane realities of family relations to emblematic and tragic levels. Lear, as both monarch and paternal figure, according to McFarland, embodies a confused tension between fatherhood and kingship, and represents a displacement of sexual urges that signals the tragic ends of both himself and his beloved daughter Cordelia. Nevertheless, McFarland finds in the strong bond between Lear and his youngest child the “quintessence” of the Shakespearean family distilled in a symbolic transcendence over death. Offering an alternative approach to family in King Lear, Lynda E. Boose (see Further Reading) examines the archetypal paradigm demonstrated by Lear in his authoritarian demand that his three daughters present him with displays of their love. With this action, according to Boose, Lear unleashes sublimated threats of incest and the concentrated violence of patriarchal domination, forces that culminate in the play's ensuing tragedies. Offering an additional interpretation of King Lear, Mark R. Schwehn (see Further Reading) shifts emphasis to the drama's subplot involving Gloucester and his two sons, the legitimate Edgar and bastard Edmund. Schwehn suggests that Shakespeare mingled themes of paternal and filial love with the drama's representation of divine justice, and argues that the imperfect, earthly reconciliation between Edgar and Gloucester mirrors the transcendent reunion of Lear and Cordelia. Studying an earlier tragedy, Max H. James (1989) illustrates Shakespeare's use of family as metaphor in Romeo and Juliet. James finds that the adolescent lovers of the play's title, unable to marry due to the quarreling of their respective families, symbolize a form of disobedience or rebellion. This disobedience, James concludes, highlights the destructive potential of family bonds as they intersect with passionate love.

Not all of Shakespeare's family portraits end in tragedy. In his histories and late romances, Shakespeare presented differing perspectives on the dramatic rules of family interaction. As C. L. Barber and others have observed, in the gap between the English chronicle history plays composed in the late sixteenth century and the romances of the early seventeenth century, Shakespeare revealed new complexities and innovations in his depiction of the family. Robert B. Pierce, in his 1971 survey of the English histories, notes that family plays a significant role in each of these dramas. In observing these works, from King John to Henry V, Pierce discovers that Shakespeare patterned his depiction of the English royal line in such a way as to reinforce the principal, political themes of these plays. Symbolically, the family parallels the state in Pierce's analysis, and stands against the forces of anarchy and political disorder. According to Pierce, this distinction is further highlighted in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, in which Prince Hal, through his choice between his father King Henry IV and father-surrogate Falstaff, selects from among the orderly or chaotic values of family that best suit his development as a man and as a future king. Turning to the genre of romance, a number of critics have noted Shakespeare's deepened, psychosocial understanding of family relations in his late dramas. Considering five of these works, including Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, Coppélia Kahn (1980) explores the Shakespearean romance as a form of wish fulfillment, and particularly probes the desire of male protagonists to free themselves from the constraints of family while continuing to enjoy a nurturing, familial love. Focusing on the theme of multiple and substitute parenting, Marianne Novy (2000) examines Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, stressing the representation of good versus evil parents, familial recognition, and issues of nature versus nurture.

Derek Brewer (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brewer, Derek. “Some Examples from Shakespeare.” In Symbolic Stories: Traditional Narratives of the Family Drama in English Literature, pp. 112-47. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1980.

[In the following excerpt, Brewer analyzes the dynamics of the Shakespearean family drama, using Hamlet, King Lear, and Cymbeline as representative examples.]


Twelfth Night gives us an imaginative world with no significant parent-images. By contrast Hamlet and the late Romances are obsessed with them. If any one has trouble with parents Hamlet has. He is the only protagonist (Horatio is a shadowy ‘split’ and...

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Marianne Novy (essay date October 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Novy, Marianne. “Shakespeare and Emotional Distance in the Elizabethan Family.” Theatre Journal 33, no. 3 (October 1981): 316-26.

[In the following essay, Novy probes the issue of emotional barriers between family members in Shakespeare's plays.]

One of the most startling ideas in Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 is the claim that most people in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England “found it very difficult to establish close emotional ties to any other person.”1 As he reconstructs it, the Elizabethan family was characterized by “distance, manipulation, and deference” (p. 117). Stone...

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Bruce Young (essay date spring 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Bruce. “Parental Blessings in Shakespeare's Plays.” Studies in Philology 89, no. 2 (spring 1992): 179-210.

[In the following essay, Young studies the ways in which parental blessings in Shakespearean drama reflect early modern attitudes toward parents and children, and argues that Shakespeare's blessings, rather than simply reiterating patriarchal authority, often symbolize love and familial affection.]

At least eighteen of Shakespeare's plays present or refer to parents formally blessing their children. This practice, visually striking because of the gestures involved, serves a variety of thematic and dramatic purposes and also helps situate the...

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C. L. Barber (essay date 1976)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Barber, C. L. “The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 188-202. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Barber argues that Shakespeare offered a “post-Christian” resolution to the symbolic representation of family interaction in his tragedies, particularly in King Lear.]

The loss that we feel in Shakespeare's greatest tragedies is not just the loss of human beings, though that is part of it; nor yet the loss of heroic human beings, though that is a great...

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Thomas McFarland (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: McFarland, Thomas. “The Image of the Family in King Lear.” In On ‘King Lear,’ edited by Lawrence Danson, pp. 91-118. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, McFarland considers the dramatization of family structure in King Lear.]

King Lear develops its action along a pattern supplied simultaneously by poetic fantasy and by historical reality. In the main plot, the relationship between Lear and his daughters is prefigured in the record of a distressed family situation of the late Elizabethan period. Brian Annesley, who for many years had been a gentleman pensioner to Queen Elizabeth, had three daughters....

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Max H. James (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: James, Max H. “Chastened Children: Family as Metaphor in Romeo and Juliet.” In ‘Our House Is Hell’: Shakespeare's Troubled Families, pp. 1-19. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, James interprets Shakespeare's demonstration of family conflict in Romeo and Juliet as a metaphorical study of disobedience and strife among young and old.]

Shakespeare's families are deeply troubled, with scarcely a single whole and healthy family to be found in the entire corpus of his plays. The swelling tide of historical and sociological studies of family life in earlier ages, including the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries,...

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Robert B. Pierce (essay date 1971)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Pierce, Robert B. “Conclusion.” In Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State, pp. 241-56. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Pierce summarizes Shakespeare's representation of the family in his English history plays.]

The family is so basic a human institution that in almost any play or group of plays it has an important role. Shakespeare's history plays are primarily concerned with the public life of his nation, the terrible hundred years of civil strife and wars against the French that haunted the imagination of Elizabethan England and that earlier time of crisis in the reign of King John. His plays express...

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Coppélia Kahn (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kahn, Coppélia. “The Providential Tempest and the Shakespearean Family.” Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 217-43. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Kahn investigates the role of the family in the process of male identity construction as depicted in five Shakespearean romances.]


Shakespeare rarely portrays masculine selfhood without suggesting a filial context for it. Of all his heroes, only Timon has neither kith nor kin—but through his obsessive giving he tries vainly to make all Athens his family, dependent on him...

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Marianne Novy (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Novy, Marianne. “Multiple Parenting in Pericles.” In ‘Pericles’: Critical Essays, edited by David Skeele, pp. 238-48. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.

[In the following essay, Novy discusses thematic issues associated with family separation and recognition, and the social dynamics of child development suggested by the presence of substitute parents in Pericles and two of Shakespeare's other late romances.]

For about forty years, with the combined influence of women's history and the French “mentalites”/Annales School led by Philippe Aries especially important, we have been learning that the family as an institution has a history....

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Belsey, Catherine. “The Serpent in the Garden: Shakespeare, Marriage and Material Culture.” Seventeenth Century 11 (1996): 1-20.

Studies Shakespeare's complication of the Christian ideal of marriage in his late romances, particularly in Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale.

Berger, Harry, Jr. “Against the Sink-a-Pace: Sexual and Family Politics in Much Ado About Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 302-13.

Evaluates the patriarchal ideology of marriage demonstrated in Much Ado about Nothing.

———. “Text against Performance: The Gloucester Family...

(The entire section is 691 words.)