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.