illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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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...

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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 inRomeo 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.

Robert B. Pierce (essay date 1971)

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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 the deepest and most widespread feelings of his countrymen. To them political matters were not of merely theoretical concern; they dreaded the return of a chaos that they knew would involve them and their families in untold suffering. In our age we have trouble responding to or even understanding the eros that Elizabethans felt toward their autocratic queen. The principles of order and succession are abstractions, but in the Elizabethans they evoked the most intensely personal feeling.

No man could avoid showing the family in history plays since kings and princes are necessarily fathers and sons, husbands and brothers. But Shakespeare's special contribution is to make the language and episodes of family life relevant to the political themes of the plays. In a kind of drama shaped by Tudor political ideas, Shakespeare makes the family a microcosm of the state and an echo of its values. Marriage and the relationship of father and son, brother and brother, the noble and his house—these are the stuff of a personal drama. He relies on them to give immediacy to his panoramic views of the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms. Ready to his hand is a tradition of seeing in the family a symbol of the state, part of the Elizabethan habit of finding correspondences among all levels of existence. Hence there are traces of the family used similarly in other history plays of the period as well as in the chronicles, moral tracts, and even official pronouncements like the Homilies. But Shakespeare goes beyond his fellows by turning this use of the family into a formal principle, an important part of the whole structure of the plays.

His most conventional use of the family is in the images of family life that permeate the language of the plays. For all the growth of his poetic technique during the 1590s, in Henry V he is still inclined to make his references to family relationships abstract and rhetorical. The power of such utterances can be great. Henry V evokes the brutality of war with remarkable clarity when he warns the citizens of Harfleur of the violence facing them, the rape of their daughters and the murder of their infants and aged fathers. But neither the abstract content nor the formal syntax of such passages has changed greatly since Bedford's grotesque description in 1 Henry VI of the chaos to follow Henry V's death:

When at their mothers' moist eyes babes shall suck,
Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears,
And none but women left to wail the dead.


All the plays are full of generalized references to the doctrine of moral inheritance, to loyalty and order in the family, and to the impact of political order and disorder on the family. At their best these can be striking, and their frequency gives them cumulative effect over the whole span of history plays. Most important, they provide an undercurrent that complements more extensive uses of the family.

Closely related to this poetic technique is the emblematic episode or mirror-scene.1 In it one of the stock images, such as a father and son's estrangement through political strife, is given fuller dramatic expression in a brief action more or less detachable from the plot of the play. These scenes are simplest and most obvious in the early plays. Henry VI looks on at the battle of Towton in 3 Henry VI while a father discovers that he has killed his son and a son that he has killed his father. Here a weak monarch watches helplessly as the horrors of civil disorder pass from public to private life. Though the first tetralogy is full of such effects, Shakespeare may have grown tired of their comparative simplicity. In Richard II he dissipates the emblematic significance of York's denunciation of his treacherous son by tinging the scenes with savage comedy.

In the later plays such episodes are more a part of their dramatic context and less marked by a heightened, artificial style. Much less formal than the emblematic scenes of the Henry VI plays are those in 1 Henry IV in which the domestic happiness of the conspirators, especially Hotspur and his wife, provides ironic contrast with the national upheaval they are bringing about. The effect is all the richer for being less conspicuous, more appropriate to the overall tone and dramatic structure.

But these uses of the family are essentially figurative; they are not part of the central dramatic action as it expresses the characters and fates of the main agents in the historical narrative. Acting or refusing to act, men produce historical events, and the character that governs their political behavior reveals itself as well in their domestic lives. One frequent pattern of these plays is that the man and the statesman overlap, that virtues in the one are virtues in the other. Henry VI fails as king and husband; Henry V is victorious at Agincourt and in wooing Katherine.

If that kind of parallel defines the pattern of the Henry VI plays, the dramatic technique is more complicated from Richard II on. The principle of ethical similarity still holds, but Shakespeare turns part of his attention to other relationships between public and private life. As he comes to focus on men striving and failing or succeeding in their effort to be good kings, he explores the special pressure that being a king puts on the man. As a result the two realms—public and domestic—are no longer separate. In growing up and coming to terms with his father, Hal learns to be a king, and his personal development is made especially difficult by his position as heir apparent and by his father's questionable title.

Richard III culminates Shakespeare's first experiments with the history play. The three Henry VI plays are in a sense stepping-stones toward its achievement, though that should not obscure their independent merit. The chronicles gave Shakespeare a large amount of varied material, and the orthodox view of history gave him a theme and a dramatic pattern. In the scarcity of firm knowledge about the theater of the 1580s and 1590s, we can only guess how much he learned from other men; but it is apparent that two strands in dramatic tradition offered some of the techniques that he needed: the largely native morality play and the imported Senecan tragedy. Just as Sackville and Norton drew on them for Gorboduc, so Shakespeare with his immensely larger genius used them in dramatizing the England of the civil wars.

There is some plausibility in reducing the plays to one formula or the other.2 But if one argues, for example, that the heroine of 1 Henry VI is Respublica torn between the virtues led by Talbot and the vices led by Joan, he has let a convenient metaphor get out of control. Although both Respublica and 1 Henry VI deal with England's welfare, they are not very similar in technique. In the same way one oversimplifies Richard III's character in seeing him as Thyestes or Nero, an ordinary villain-king overcome by nemesis. Shakespeare creates a new, synthetic form even while he draws on elements of the older traditions. In Richard III the form reaches maturity.

Although the first tetralogy concentrates on public affairs, these two traditions provide a place for the family as a commentary on the political themes. The theme of inheritance is a natural part of Shakespeare's chosen subject, since the succession of the monarchy was the main element of fifteenth-century history in which the Elizabethans saw lessons for their own time. Also central to the history were the great noble houses with their demands for loyalty often conflicting with duty to the king. But even the elements of family life that seem most detached from great public events have an inner connection with them according to the doctrine of correspondences. Elizabethan audiences would notice that Henry VI's wife usurps the mastery in their marriage just as the Duke of York usurps the throne.

Still there are many other correspondences that can and do provide similar parallels; another reason accounts for the special prominence of the family. Politics was a matter of great concern to every man when Spain and the Roman Catholic church threatened England's life and the succession to the throne was in doubt, but even so politics was a mysterious and distant subject to much of Shakespeare's audience in the popular theater. Issues of state came alive for them when he showed their impact on the family. If ten thousand spectators wept to see Talbot die, it must have been in part because they could imagine how a father and son dying together must feel.3 When Richard III scoffed at his mother's blessing, they were amused and shocked, but they were not puzzled.

Therefore the primary function of the family in these plays is analogical. It shows the value of political order and the consequences of its perversion. There is a line of characters from Joan of Arc through Jack Cade to Richard III, anarchic figures who attack both the state and the family. These three repudiate their parents in one way or another, and both Joan and Richard earn a parental curse. In the same plays an exhibition of love and trust in the family contrasts ironically with the political disorder and typifies the nationwide harmony to be achieved under Henry Tudor. The filial piety of the younger Talbot, Warwick, and Richmond; Alexander Iden's contentment with his idyllic inheritance; the Duchess of York's noble grief at her family's destruction—all these evoke the same values as Richmond's unifying marriage.

Mirror-scenes are useful in bringing to bear the full symbolic weight of the family. In the Henry VI plays they are more or less peripheral, reinforcing themes established elsewhere; but in Richard III the episodes involving the wailing women are essential to show the gradually increasing power working against Richard. At first the women seem as ineffectual as Henry VI on the battlefield of Towton, but the mysterious figure Queen Margaret brings the power to curse. Also, as the Duchess of York comes to dominate Anne and Elizabeth, her strength of character helps them to find a moral stance in opposition to Richard. These three women reassert the values of love and family loyalty. They express the moral order of which Richmond is the physical power. These scenes are less simply emblematic than those in the Henry VI plays, more a part of the dramatic whole.

Thus Shakespeare finds an important place for the family in this group of political plays. But since its function is mainly thematic, the tendency is toward abstraction and generalization. The nuances of a personal relationship are largely irrelevant to the broad moral issues that he is dramatizing. Hence he cultivates a style of lofty impressiveness at the cost of immediacy. By the time of Richard III, after a period of experimentation, he has chastened the ritual parts of his poetry to a neo-Senecanism that suits these purposes exactly, a style somewhat like those in Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra and Ben Jonson's Sejanus, though richer and more exuberant than either.

Something is lost to the family by associating it with this severe style, a directness that makes Joan's father come to life in a few lines of 1 Henry VI. More and more as the tetralogy goes on, this free, realistic idiom is reserved for the villains like Joan, Jack Cade, and Richard III. Their earthy cynicism cuts across the decorum of language in a way that suggests their anarchy even while it gives them a remarkable vitality in evil. Our aesthetic enjoyment of them should not hide the fact that their anarchy is self-destructive. Although they are worthy antagonists of the nemesis that governs these plays, they are finally destroyed. And as nemesis comes more and more to be equated with Providence, they take their place as a part of the overall pattern.

Richard III is a brilliant achievement in its own terms, but it is an idea-centered play. Despite the great vitality of its protagonist, the building-blocks of the play are concepts rather than characters. The play, indeed the whole tetralogy, succeeds because these concepts are woven into a rich and meaningful pattern, one in which even the striking figure of Richard Crookback has his place. Hereafter Shakespeare's dramatic art will take a new turn, but no other Elizabethan play excels Richard III in its own mode. There is room for a deeper exploration of the family, but Shakespeare must devise a new form for the history play to admit such exploration and adapt it to a political theme. If a character developed as fully as Richard and having his vitality of language were placed in the family, not isolated from it, a whole new range of potentiality would open up.

King John and Richard II include some of Shakespeare's experimentation with the history play. In outline King John repeats some of the major themes of Richard III. It portrays an efficient usurper who loses control of events when his brutality toward the rightful heir to the throne mobilizes opinion against him. But the rigid moral antitheses of Richard III have no place in this play. In spite of a first impression of Machiavellian ability, John is no demon but a weak and vacillating man. Also the motives of idealism and commodity are mixed indiscriminately between his friends and enemies. Somewhere in the past is an ideal England, associated with Richard Coeur-de-Lion's glorious rule, but this present land has lost its legitimacy. Power, ability, and title to the throne are hopelessly fragmented, and it takes years of suffering before Englishmen can work out the salvation of their land through a combination of loyalty and practical sense.

Faulconbridge's words give a choric analysis of this political dilemma, and his position is a symbolic analogue of England's plight. Tainted by bastardy, he is thrust into a moral land of shadows in which every ethical choice is ambiguous. To claim his legal inheritance is to rely on a quirk of the law while denying his real self. To claim his moral inheritance from Richard I is to admit his bastardy, hurt his mother's reputation, and abandon himself to the perils of dependence on courtly favor. Still he chooses easily enough, and Shakespeare makes clear the rightness of his choice and his position in the play as moral commentator. He is the main embodiment of the shrewdness and patriotic fidelity that preserve England for its legitimate king, John's son.

Richard II is another study of a weakly evil king, and it starts the chain of guilt that ends only with Richmond's victory in Richard III. Still the pattern of guilt and disorder is overshadowed by interest in Richard's character as he reacts to adversity. Of special importance for the next three histories is the concern with how Richard's official role affects his understanding of himself. Here Shakespeare takes up with new interest the relationship between the public and private man. It is not true, as romantic critics like Yeats argued, that Richard's vices are only political and that he is a creature too spiritual for the dirty work of governing men. His cruelty as a king manifests itself in part by an attack on his own family, and he shows no signs of genuine personal attachment to anyone, even after he is humbled by grief. But the isolation that he himself has chosen is painful to him, especially since it forces him to confront the truth of his fall without any support. His tragedy is that his failure to live up to his royal office destroys him as a man.

Although the family has a part in both plays, in neither is its significance unequivocal. The pathos of Constance and Arthur or of Gaunt's regret for his son's banishment is in the vein of the first tetralogy, but they are isolated events in their plays, not part of a coherent pattern that mobilizes spiritual force against enemies of the family and political order. In these two plays there is something nostalgic and unreal about the values of the family, and so a character like York is slightly absurd in his rigid probity. When he defends Bolingbroke's inheritance before Richard and especially when he offers his son's life out of loyalty to Bolingbroke, now the new king, York's virtue is anachronistic. Its practical use is doubtful since it has no consequences in the action. In both plays the references to the family and episodes of family life often have a new poetic richness and power, but they are not integral to the dramatic structure. The antithesis of order and chaos, love and ambition, no longer gives shape to the action and symbolic meaning to the family.

In the Henry IV plays Shakespeare finds a pattern that allows him to relate the family to the state without reverting to the simpler parallels of the first tetralogy. All the themes from Tudor orthodoxy are still there. Shakespeare constantly implies the need for order and for the extension of personal virtues like love and loyalty to the public realm. But in turning to a new theme, the education of a prince, he adapts a popular dramatic form built on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Christ's parable uses family life as a symbol of man's relationship to God, and so it is easily adapted to the multiple levels of Shakespeare's concern. Hal is a son who breaks away from his father but finally returns to take his place in the family. At the same time he is a prince who gains insight into his land by escaping the court and seeing the taverns and back roads. This escape involves the peril of weakening his position as heir to the throne, but on his return Hal takes up his heritage and even brings new strength to it. In his reconciliation with his father the king, he reaffirms his commitment to the principle of order. After his coronation he promises the man who has dared to judge even him with justice, “You shall be as a father to my youth” (2 Henry IV, V.ii.118).

Of all the characters in the two Henry IV plays, only Hal chooses the values of the family with complete integrity and comprehension of the issues involved. Some of the others offer verbal tribute, using the formal language of the first tetralogy, but their actions belie their commitment. Thus the Percies demonstrate their unworthiness for rule by their disloyalty to one another. Only Hotspur is unwavering in his fidelity to the common cause, and he keeps his integrity by a thorough blindness to his partners' motives. His simple chivalric code, both admirable and slightly comic, is all that holds the Percy rebellion together. When his father betrays him and lets him take the field at Shrewsbury against hopeless odds, his death ends the Percies' effective power. Hal, reconciled with Henry IV, kills Hotspur in a single combat that acts out their duel for moral supremacy.

Opposite Hotspur, Falstaff has the clown's prerogative of parodying everything in the serious plot, including the family themes. He is the old generation masquerading as youth, and he pretends to be a father to Hal who must pass on to him the code of moral inheritance. The inheritance he offers is the code of Puritan highwaymen. To the extent that Falstaff is joking, Hal can play his game; but there is a serious claim to influence and favor in the knight's manner that Hal must finally reject. Liberal education though his friendship is, Falstaff is also a tempter toward anarchy. Hal's ironic detachment allows him to enjoy Falstaff without succumbing to his influence. The fat knight is a father to Hal's youthful spirits, but not to his moral commitments.

Central to Hal's growth toward fitness for the monarchy are the two confrontations with his father—especially the second, when the old king is dying. Here Shakespeare dramatizes Hal's attainment of personal maturity and with it his acceptance of his public role. As Henry talks with his son, his clarity of vision is dimmed by age, sickness, and the pressure of maintaining himself on a doubtful throne; but his selfless concern with England's future shows him at his best. For all his guilt, Henry has both shrewdness and virtue for his son to inherit. Hal acts with propriety and affection to calm his father's doubts, but the intensity of his feeling suggests that the estrangement has been real enough. He has sought to escape the court in part because he knows the strain of being in authority. Hence he takes the crown from his father's bed with full consciousness of its burdens. Ironically, Henry completely misunderstands Hal's act, but his misunderstanding leads to the confrontation that clears the air between them. Henry can die in confidence that his son will carry on the Lancastrian heritage. He even hopes that Hal has escaped the guilt of Richard's deposition and death.

The two Henry IV plays have a unity more like the Faerie Queene than the Aeneid. They form coherent patterns through a network of themes that weave in and out of a complex narrative, one that lacks even a protagonist as dominant as either of the two Richards. Hal's education occupies a central position between the political and comic plots, but it does not monopolize the interest of the plays. And even that theme allows for an extraordinary richness and complexity of development. Shown as it is in the Prodigal Son pattern, it includes psychological, political, and even religious meanings. It is as though Shakespeare turned to the other potentiality of correspondences so as to find multiple levels of meaning in one set of events.

The central concern of the Henry IV plays is still political, but the political issues are seen in a broader and more human way than in the first tetralogy. The abstractions of Tudor orthodoxy are less important than the problem of how a man can live up to his divinely appointed role. Shakespeare has given these doctrines a new depth by showing the human meaning of the great abstractions: order, majesty, patriotism, inherited nobility.

In Henry V Shakespeare undertakes to set forth an orderly state under an ideal king and to show that state conquering a mighty rival by the sheer impact of its virtue. Henry V is able to draw England together into a harmony and vigor that the French cannot rival. Such a theme being central, the family is not a primary concern, at least in the full development of the Henry IV plays. However, Shakespeare uses it as a public symbol, a touchstone by which to test the comparative merit of the English and the French, including their governors. Henry embodies the private virtues as well as the public, and the disorderly squabbles of the French king and the Dauphin illustrate the decay of the French commonweal.

Still Henry V is more than a political pageant. Henry himself is not just another Talbot because Shakespeare no longer allows his hero to have a merely public existence. However, it is through comradeship in arms rather than family life that we see most deeply into Henry's personal feelings. Much of his behavior is formal and public; only on the night before Agincourt does he reveal himself with the fullness of Shakespeare's mature craft. Powerful though that scene is and for all the exhilaration of the battle scenes, Henry V is a less interesting play than its two historical predecessors. Perhaps one reason is its return to a simpler and more formal way of using the family.

One conclusion should be apparent if this analysis is valid: the family as part of man's personal life is not opposed to what is needed for success in public affairs. It is true that a king must lose the sense of personal contact with others which private men can feel and that Shakespeare finds a deep pathos in this loss. However, the family can serve as an analogy to the state precisely because their ethics are parallel. It is the school of political nobility and skill, and it suffers when the governors of the commonwealth lack virtue. Because it and the state are parts of a larger organism, their healths are interdependent. This doctrine allows Shakespeare to develop a dramatic technique that modulates between the public and private worlds. His plays can have both scope and unity because he sees a larger unity in the nature to which he holds up the mirror. But the metaphysic of correspondences does not offer a dramatic technique fully developed for his use. His growth as a craftsman during the 1590s is in part an expansion of scope to take in more and more of man's life without losing unity and control. One side of that growth comes through the history plays as he learns to illuminate both the family and the political world by their relation to each other.


  1. For the term and concept see Hereward Price, “Mirror-Scenes in Shakespeare,” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway et al. (Washington, D.C., 1948), pp. 101-13.

  2. On occasion E. M. W. Tillyard and Irving Ribner do nearly that. Comparing Richard III with the Henry VI plays, Ribner comments, “England continues as a kind of morality hero torn between good and evil forces” (The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare [Princeton, N.J., 1957], p. 118). To call England or Respublica the heroine of the history plays describes their theme accurately enough, but it also makes certain misleading implications about their dramatic structure.

  3. See Thomas Nashe's apparent allusion to the popularity of this scene in Pierce Pennilesse, quoted in The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. John Dover Wilson, New Cambridge Edition (Cambridge, Eng., 1952), p. xiv.

C. L. Barber (essay date 1976)

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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 deal of it. I think our deepest sense in the greatest tragedies is the loss of what one can call the sacred-in-the-human. The qualm of awe we feel comes from the fact that the sacredness the tragedy generates is shown by the logic of the tragic action to be something that human life and society cannot sustain, something indeed that can be destructive, with tragic consequences.

This experience of sacredness does not, in my judgment, involve a religious, supernatural eschatology. On the contrary, it seems to me that Shakespeare's extraordinary relevance to the modern age that began in his period comes partly from his having so consistently done without any religious supernatural. He takes up into his tragedy human needs that might look to religious fulfillment, but the tragic situation he presents is the natural world. He thus presents what one can call the post-Christian situation. One way to put it is that he dramatizes the search for equivalents of the Holy Family of Christianity in the human family.

Shakespeare's art is distinguished by the intensity of its investment in the human family, and especially in the continuity of the family across generations. This investment is extended out into society and up into the royal family. Everything we know about his own family and his relation to it—and we know a great deal, really—is consistent in middle-class terms with what we find in the art, chiefly in aristocratic and royal terms.

The distinctive facts are that he was the son of a tenant farmer's son who rose to eminence in the thriving town of Stratford while Shakespeare was a child, married the youngest daughter and chief heir of his father's yeoman landlord, and then, when Shakespeare was twelve, fell into debt, withdrew from civic life, and lost the bulk of his wife's inheritance. Shakespeare as eldest son joined in the long, heartbreaking, unsuccessful legal struggle to recover his mother's inheritance; in the late nineties he was still involved in legal action in chancery. But meanwhile he had of course succeeded wonderfully, in middle-class terms, by his own role in a booming joint stock company. He pursued personal and family success, not in London nor in court terms, but in Stratford, by going through with his father's earlier application for a coat of arms to make his father and himself gentry, and by buying the property of New Place.1

One cannot, of course, derive Shakespeare's creative achievement from such facts. But one can, I think, see that the shape of his artistic development is consistent with them. A salient fact is that he did not make tragedy his central form of expression until after he had outdone his father in the rising middle class. Only then did he turn to dramatizing all-or-nothing, male-to-male oedipal conflict and the crucial stresses that relationship to the feminine brings into such conflict. The dramatization was in terms of all-or-nothing issues about rule and royalty, as the meaning of kingship had been developed in the history plays. But it was made in the commercial theater, an independent standing place from which Shakespeare could look with his awesome ironic understanding at the great world and its magic.

Another kind of security was also involved. The dramatist could now risk testing the possibility of becoming the ideal, omnipotent father of infancy: he could begin the major tragedies' expression of the longing for that figure of authority, of the parricidal rage, of the immense anxiety, of the feared destruction. The caste difference between middle-class author and royal subjects obviously contributed to the awe with which figures of authority were invested, in accord with the worshipful patterns of the secular hierarchy. His middle-class difference also contributed to the increasing ironic clarity with which the whole struggle was presented in successive tragedies as Shakespeare managed to get it increasingly under the artistic control of tragic form.

The shift into the preoccupations of the major tragedies can be summarized by the change from a special investment of self in Falstaff to such an investment in Hamlet. Falstaff, as William Empson long ago suggested, relates to Prince Hal somewhat as the speaker of the sonnets relates to the high-born young man, but with “a savage and joyous externalization of self-contempt.”2 Hamlet, endowed with wit, imaginative energy, and dramatic resource to the point where, like Falstaff, he tends to come out of the control of the play, is potentially the thing itself, a prince who encounters and must redeem the buried majesty of an ideal royal father, brought back as an immediate presence by the magic of theatrical power.

The matrix of sensibility that Shakespeare brings to his major tragedy can be seen by considering how in the works written before that period—more than half of his production—as well as in the romances after it, Shakespeare characteristically internalized relationships within the family constellation. Marlowe in his middle twenties had already launched heroic drama of titanic oedipal victory, envisaging in Tamburlaine a protagonist taking over a male identity capable of dealing with the stress of suffering beauty by mastering it in mastering the world. “Conceiving and subduing both” was necessary to Marlowe as a defense against surrender to transcendent beauty and power.3 Shakespeare was clearly far less immediately threatened by giving himself. He was not subject to the compulsive need we see in Marlowe to resort to a defensive cruelty, a need that limits the range of Marlowe's art while at the same time giving it its special intensity. How is it that Shakespeare could suffer so much more beauty? Or not need to suffer in giving himself to it?

Shakespeare's earlier work is shaped by a very strong identification with the cherishing role of the parents of early infancy. This is the role the poet adopts in cherishing the young man addressed in the sonnets. Such relationship is grounded most deeply in very early modes of relation, dyadic rather than triadic. Triangular relationships involve a predominantly negative resolution of the Oedipus complex. This orientation is consistent with the almost complete absence, in the early work, of confrontations between sons and fathers—the very thing that is to become central in the first major tragedies. In the early work, there is a very strong tendency to submerge or transcend conflict by identification, so that the sensibility is profoundly sociable. Concern for kinship and kindness extends benign family relationships out into larger contexts of society and nature and focuses on unkindness in violations of family and extended family. Figures of adult male authority in the older generation are characteristically weak or vulnerable, and they command loyalty or sympathy. Active male-to-male rivalry and violence is typically between brothers, or brotherly friends or enemies within the same generation. The chief source of menace, however, is in women. For behind the identification with maternal, cherishing attitudes, motivating it at deep levels, is the danger of being abandoned or overpowered. So a central preoccupation of the early work is with overpowering women—either being overpowered by them or overpowering them.

All these problematic stresses in the family constellation come into the major tragedies. But what is new is their presenting crises of heritage centered in the effort to achieve or maintain a positive resolution of the Oedipus complex, identification with heroic adult male authority. The first major tragedies, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, with Macbeth a little later, center in man-to-man confrontations, tragic struggles to take over heritage and male identity by destroying paternal figures of authority, attempts to destroy them so as to become them—only to find self-destruction in the process. In Hamlet and Macbeth, relationship to women that the hero cannot manage contributes decisively to the tragic failure. In the whole sequence, there is a shift from the slight role of women in Julius Caesar to a greater and greater emphasis on the protagonist's inability to cope with the demands made by or on women, from Othello, through Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. In Timon of Athens there is an abortive attempt to dramatize a man who tries to be the all-providing, feeding parent.

In the first three late romances, Shakespeare turns to dramatizing the fulfillment of the need men have to be validated by feminine presences, now presented as achieved in visionary reunions—reunions anticipated within tragedy in Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. A daughter restored leads to the recovery of a lost wife, Thaisa, Hermione. The finale is a tempest distanced and managed. Prospero gives up the daughter with whom he has been isolated in his cell as Lear dreamt of being isolated in a prison cell with Cordelia. By his “art” he masters a usurping younger brother as well as the temptation to talion violence: “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (Tmp. V.i.27-28).4 “In my end is my beginning.”

One can summarize the development by reference to different ways of coping with the incest taboo, which is necessarily an urgent problem in such family-centered art and the temperament that produced it. The early work is much preoccupied with diversions of sexual energy embedded in family ties—in cruelty on the one side and tenderness on the other. The Pandora's box of horrors opened in Titus centers on family relations, in blood ties and blood feud. The revenge play structure is used to enact a fantasy that separates overt sexuality, linked with violence, from the family and extreme family loyalty. The menace of maternal sexuality is dealt with by making Tamora, that “unhallowed dam, / Like to the earth, swallow her own increase” (V.ii.190-91)—which is brute sexuality embodied in her rapist sons “baked in this pie” (V.iii.60). The strongest feeling is directed by Titus to a daughter disfigured in a way that is at once sexually disabling and suggestive. Strangely, Titus the official martial hero becomes an embodiment of a maternally cherishing father; the sentimental farewells, after his death, center on his grandson: “Many a time he danced thee on his knee, / Sung thee asleep” (Tit. V.iii.162-63).

Much of the strangeness in the attitudes we find expressed in the sonnets toward the young man becomes comprehensible when one recognizes relationships to parental attitudes, and more deeply still, to childlike feelings of total dependence—in summary, to vertical relationships that originate in the transmission of heritage and identity, as they are now shaping relationships within a single generation or half-generation. The poems to him start out, after all, precisely with this subject. In urging the young man to have a child, the first seventeen poems encourage him to make for himself a renewing mirror image such as the poet soon makes for himself of the young man:

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another …

(Sonnet 3)

The lines describe almost exactly what Shakespeare himself does in later poems with the young man as mirror:

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date …

(Sonnet 22)

The poet's renewal by identification is compared to that of a parent with a child. In one sonnet it is a father:

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by Fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.

(Sonnet 37)

Or it is the youth's own mother:

Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.

(Sonnet 3)

Relationship by identification is less familiar from our conscious social experience than relationship to people as objects, because it is less accessible to observation. We observe our objects, but people whom we take into ourselves by identification are matter less for our observation than for our conservation. In fact, as Freud's later writings and more recent studies repeatedly insist, identification is particularly important not only in relationship to parents but generally as a means of dealing with the loss of objects by estrangement or death. And a person lost who has been internalized and so preserved, as well as grieved for, can often be found again in a new object. One of the most extraordinary sonnets makes explicit the beloved's function as heir to earlier attachments:

Thy bosom is endearèd with all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposèd dead;
And there reigns love and all love's loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought burièd.

(Sonnet 31)

The third quatrain specifies that those lost become “parts of” the poet now projected in the friend:

Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone.
          Their images I loved I view in thee,
          And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.

(Sonnet 31)

There is no reference here to parental figures; the earlier figures are “lovers” in the broad Elizabethan sense, but the kind of feeling for them, “dear religious love” calling forth “many a holy and obsequious tear” (ll.6 and 5), is consistent with original familial love.

The poet's identification of himself with the young man, and the passive dedication of himself to dependence on his love, is far more visible than the poet's identification with the cherishing parent, because for the most part the latter is expressed or embodied in the process of creating the sonnet. What is crucial for the whole view of Shakespeare's development in its early stages is that adopting the cherishing role permits a reception of heritage and the maintenance of a self grounded in it, without confronting centrally the problem of manliness. The poet in effect becomes the nurturing parent(s) in his/her/their earliest desirable function, the function that creates and validates life.

This way of maintaining heritage does not involve confronting the self-asserting male egotism of the father. I do not mean to suggest that such a “normal” development was outside Shakespeare's range of feeling and attitude. Freud and others stress that two-sided residues of the oedipal history are normally present in everybody, identifications with the father and with the mother in both their bisexual aspects.

In the comic mode, Shakespeare's strong family orientation comes out early in The Comedy of Errors. He transforms Plautus' libertine male comedy into a thoroughly domestic affair, ending with a moving family reunion presided over by a holy abbess who proves to be the mother. We have also the taming of a shrew, with the abbess' assistance—and soon Petruchio turns Katherina into a good household Kate.

As the festive form of comedy comes into its own, what is dramatized is release from family ties on a tide of communal, seasonal, holiday feeling presided over by benignly masterful young women. The younger generation leaves the family to go out into what Northrop Frye has called “the green world,” to go through something like a saturnalian revel, and in the process to experience a release from family sexual taboos. Release brings clarification about the claims of nature within the natural and generational cycle. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy that begins like a festive comedy and dramatizes the failure of the young lovers to escape from destructive family ties after their marvelous moment of release in a liminal world where they leave family names and ties behind.

In the histories of this very productive period, we have men largely without women; in Richard II the feminine presence is “the lap of this green land” on which men struggle. In life, we often first encounter an insuperable problem in thinking that we have solved it. In Henry IV and Henry V, Shakespeare dramatizes the successful positive resolution of the latent conflict of Hal with his usurper father, with all the resources of social control brought into play, as well as the ritual process of the sacrifice of “that father ruffian,” Falsaff (1H4.II.iv.45). Hal internalizes his father to become, officially, all king and a guiltless man, “the offending Adam” whipped out of him by “Consideration” (H5.I.i.28-29). But as Peter Erickson is showing, in work in progress at this writing, his unresolved passional needs keep coming out in ways that make the underside of him surprisingly like Hamlet. Another young critic, Richard P. Wheeler, who is exploring Shakespeare's development with the problematic comedies as a fulcrum, points out that the separation of genres in this period between male-dominated history and festive comedy with its delightful, enthralling heroines keeps separate areas that come together in the next period of more drastic, deeper conflicts.5

The problematic comedies have lost the confident reliance on a community feeling for sexuality as benign and sanctioned by natural rhythms. Sexuality instead is either disassociated from family ties and social sanctions and so a pernicious degradation, as in Measure for Measure, or else it is too closely bound up with having grown up together and remaining under the aegis of the older generation, as with Helena and Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well. Meanwhile, the major tragedies show violence erupting from the pull of family ties that are too close, “more than kin” (Ham.I.ii.65). The whole heroic identity is invested in “holy cords” (Lr. II.ii.76) that have an incestuous content, direct or displaced. The investment is at once ennobling and ironically destructive.

In the late romances, we have symbolic action that, instead of freeing sexuality from the ties of family, works to restore family ties by disassociating them from the threat of degradation by physical incest. The romance mode of presentation insists that the action is symbolic, even though the ecstatic reunions are also actual happenings within a playspace that has been enfranchised by a new understanding of the way magic can work. Murray M. Schwartz has developed the view that the tragedies use up the playspace in which the psyche makes the transition from the world as mother to the larger social world.6 Presences without which “the wine of life is drawn” (Mac.II.iii.95) are destroyed by the demand to become or possess them totally. The romances, in Schwartz's splendid formulation, restore the playspace. In the reunions of Pericles and The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare finds his way to his composite version of Dante's “Virgine madre, filia del tuo filio.”


If I were writing this essay in 1876 instead of 1976, it would be called “Shakespeare: Poet of the Family.” I want to sketch now very briefly how, as I see it, he dramatizes the investment of feeling and need in the human family, by relation to the way that investment is made in the religious worship of God and the Holy Family.

The creation of a new art form puts men in a new relation to their experience. The new repertory theater provided a new location for language and gesture. Human possibilities could be envisaged with the freedom of a special place apart, alternative to the church and to courtly situations. The new vantage point of the audience watching action on a stage made the drama a new organ of culture, a novum organum. It was an agent in the historical shift of the Renaissance and Reformation from a ritual and ceremonial view of life, with absolutist assumptions about meaning and reality, towards a psychological and historical view. The historical understanding Shakespeare develops sees absolutist assumptions motivating relative, dramatic events.

The new theater came into its own a generation after most of the symbolic actions of the Old Religion had been forbidden in England by the Protestant reformers around Elizabeth. Most of its visible embodiments, Christ on the Rood, the saints and the Virgin Mary in statues, paintings and stained glass, had been swept from the churches on orders from the Privy Council in the years immediately preceding Marlowe and Shakespeare's birth in 1564. One of the official homilies, in rebuking the people for not faithfully attending the new service, speaks of their “gross carnal imaginations” missing “the gay gazing sights” of the old worship. One homily denounced “our churches … full of great puppets, wondrously decked and adorned … you would believe our men saints were some princes of Persia with their proud apparel, and the idols of our women saints were nice and well-trimmed harlots.”7 Soon there were “gay gazing sights” in the theater, with living puppets and Marlowe's Tamburlaine, self-made prince of Persia, and his captured princess bedecked “with precious jewels of mine own, / More rich and valurous than Zenocrate's” (1 Tamb.,I.ii.292-93). But the trend was not simply secular. If the Old Religion's holy images had been partly secularized, the new theater's secular personages could be invested with meanings cognate to those that had entered into worship: “Now walk the angels on the walls of heaven / … To entertain divine Zenocrate” (2 Tamb., II.iii.2983, 85).8

I can imagine no way to prove it, but it seems to me that the very central and problematical role of women in Shakespeare—and in the Elizabethan drama generally—reflects the fact that Protestantism did away with the cult of the Virgin Mary. It meant the loss of ritual resource for dealing with the internal residues in all of us of the once all-powerful and all-inclusive mother. The threatening mother survived as an immediate, physical supernatural presence in Protestant countries after the benign Holy Mother had been drastically reduced in scope and presence—for the terrible mother was still conjured up and pursued with terrible persecution in the witch manias well into the seventeenth century. Keith Thomas, in his fine study Religion and the Decline of Magic, notes that the belief in witches survived in England after many Catholic resources of exorcism had been dispensed with.9

Witches proper are of course among Shakespeare's repertory of overpowering women: Joan La Pucelle in a history at the outset, the Weird Sisters in the most intense of all the tragedies. Macbeth, in its complex way, is an exorcism, for it presents the witches as the outstretched shadows of Lady Macbeth and understands their power as depending on masculine insecurity. But they are also objectively supernatural beings. After the Reformation, the benign supernatural figure of the Holy Mother could not be present in a comparable way. Not only was her image gone, but prayers like Sancta Maria Virgo were not taken over from the Lay Folks Prayer Book to the Book of Common Prayer: “Saint Mary, maid of maidens, mother and daughter of the king of kings … holy gate of heaven, set us all in peace, changing the name of Eve … show that thou art our mother.”10 Hermione is a statue in a chapel before she comes back down into life.

I do not agree with critics who see intimations of a Christian resolution in Shakespeare's tragedy. As I see it, he presents versions of the Oedipus complex tragically unresolved. His tragedies present the post-Christian situation where, with some of the expectations and values of Christianity, we do not have God and the Holy Family, only the human family. In this situation he makes us feel that human life is supremely valuable as well as terrible. The fact that Shakespeare could do this must be one main reason for the rise of bardolatry since the mid-eighteenth century.

The rites of passage of traditional Christianity, Catholic or Anglican, are regularly structured to take people through threshold moments of losing or changing family ties by turning their need for total relationship to Christ and God. This is very clear in the services of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial. Shakespeare's mature plays show people in passage from one stage of life to another, succeeding in comedies, failing in tragedies. Some tragedies start with the failure of ritual. In Hamlet it is burial. The service begins with “I am the resurrection and the life (saith the Lord)” to lead the bereft past loss with recognition that we are dust that returns to dust. Hamlet looks for his buried father in the dust; then the father returns from death to ask for a total, uncritical commitment. As in all the tragedies, there is a swerve back to the deepest family ties. And since on its positive side the tie to the father is the core of human and social values, Hamlet's Galilean turbulence is potentially creative as well as terribly destructive.

Lear begins with a failure of the passage that might be handled by the marriage service, as it is structured to persuade the father to give up his daughter. Regan and Goneril, though married, pretend to meet Lear's demand on them in all-but-incestuous terms. Cordelia defends herself by reference to the service:

Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.


Shakespeare presents social arrangements in the Christian terms of his society, and with a critical perspective that implies part of the Christian norm. But only part. The full Christian norm would deal with the need for a complete union in love, the need Lear looked for from Cordelia in his hope “to set my rest / On her kind nursery” (I.i.123-24), by redirecting it to divine objects, with the discipline of humility before God as the condition of being “one with Christ and Christ with us.” What a father would give up in the marriage service would ideally be given compensation in the communion service that immediately followed.

In Catholic worship, there would have been compensation also for him by relationship with the Blessed Virgin, Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven. The relationships toward which the incestuous love tends, to make the daughter a mother, whether by impregnating her or depending totally on her, are shown fulfilled in the traditional Christian scenes of the Annunciation and the Madonna with Child—fulfilled in a sacred way that expresses the latent wishes and protects against acting them out, against pursuing in human objects the total fulfillment reserved for the divine persons. So a Christian Lear might be provided with the Presence whose lack drives him to madness; his daughters might be spared the demand that they be that presence, that all their tenderness be arrogated to a father who asks them to make him, in effect, their god. In the two older daughters, resistance to the demand, in the situation of sibling rivalry, has atrophied their tenderness, making them sexually avid and demonically vengeful, eager to destroy the impossible old man who has destroyed their full humanity.

Obviously Lear's world is not Christian in this full sense. On the contrary, in the opening acts Shakespeare emphasizes pagan, pre-Christian references: “by the sacred radiance of the sun, / The mysteries of Hecate …” (I.i.109-10); “Hear, Nature, hear; dear Goddess, hear …” (I.iv.277). But as we go through Lear's suffering with him, and the sufferings of Gloucester and Edgar, Christian expectations come increasingly into play. By the time Cordelia returns, significantly without her husband, we share with at least part of our sensibility the need she comes to meet. As regularly happens in Shakespeare's mature work, religious language comes into play to express the investment in the family bond:

                                                            There she shook
The holy water from her heavenly eyes,
And clamor moistened. …


What the play presents, however, is not a Christian resolution, but the tragic consequences of this investment. In the scene of Lear's reunion with Cordelia—for me as for many the most moving moment in Shakespeare—Lear's summary image on coming back into sanity is shaped by Christian conceptions: “Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire” (IV.vii.45-48). And in Cordelia's “No cause, no cause,” we get a full expression of Christian love without a Christian supernatural.

How fully Shakespeare understood the destructive side of human bonds, the value of which he so movingly expresses, is manifest in his having changed the happy ending of all his sources. The English win, and among the English Edmund. Lear's great speech in response to that situation is often quoted by those who, caught up in the Christian feeling, want to see the play's ending as wholly redemptive, with intimations of a reunion of father and daughter in a hereafter:

Come, let's away to prison: …
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, …
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies …


Lear has undergone a discipline of humility and achieved something like Christian disillusion with worldly things, together with a sense of the wrong he did Cordelia. He has seen through royal vanity. But he still wants his daughter “to love [her] father all.” A chasm of irony opens as we realize that he is leading her off to death. His vision of prison amounts, almost literally, to a conception of heaven on earth—his heaven, the “kind nursery” after all.

To talk about what Shakespeare is appealing to (and controlling) in such a moment, one needs to understand the religious traditions or situation he is drawing on, but also the roots of potential religious feeling in the family. For he is presenting the modern situation where religious need, or need cognate to what has been dealt with by worship of the Holy Family, has no resource except the human family and its extensions in society, including the problematic ideal of kingship. William Elton's King Lear and the Gods11 shows how highly relevant religious thought of the period is to the play—notably the idea of a Deus Absconditus. The play's adumbration of religious ritual is exhibited in Herbert Coursen's fine new study of Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies.12

For my purposes, psychoanalysis is a useful supplement because it amounts, in some aspects, to a sociology of love and worship within the family, or as derived from the family, especially as experienced in infancy. The experiences of infancy were not, as such, a focus of much analytical attention in Shakespeare's period; our acute consciousness of them goes back to romanticism and develops along with the decreasing hold of religion. Infantile experience as such is also not a major concern of Shakespeare's art, since his culture little regarded it. Yet his plays find equivalents and shape action in ways that, with their central familial preoccupations, can be understood by reference to infantile residues. Thus it is useful, I think, to understand Lear's vision of prison as a regressive wish demanding that Cordelia join in it. In the large design of the play, this tendency of course connects with the childishness and playfulness, often charming and liberating in the midst of anguish, that floods through the Fool's part and flashes in moments of Edgar's impersonation of Mad Tom, as in Lear's own sprightliness in madness. The tendency also relates to Lear's confident assumption at the outset of relationship to a benign Nature, even as he asks the “dear Goddess” to convey sterility into the womb of Goneril—with all the developing ambiguities: Edmund's “lusty stealth of nature” (I.ii.11), Lear's incredulous “Is there any cause in Nature that make these hard hearts?” (

It is surely because the plays are centered so much in family that they can make comprehensible to the widest variety of auditors their enormous range of thought, lore, myth, and literary commonplace (as well as uncommon place). Such matters as the ambiguous status of Nature in the thought of the period, or again the fear that God has withdrawn from the world, need not be understood in systematic terms as we watch the play, fruitful as such understanding is in extending its significance. We understand distinctions that are potentially systematic by reference to the concrete social world and the family center of it: “Why brand they us / With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base? Base? / Who in the lusty stealth of nature …” (I.ii.9-11). So too with Deus Absconditus. One way the theological anxiety is brought home is that God's representative on earth, the king, begins the play by in effect absconding. And he is first and foremost a father. The first, most important order of understanding is “close to home.”

Shakespeare dramatizes the implication of fixation as Cordelia's death—also the result, of course, of a whole complex social process that has been set in motion by Lear's abdicating and dividing authority, by Gloucester's sensuality and credulity, by the brute fact of chance in war. Those who insist on seeing the play as Christian rather than post-Christian have to ignore or “transcend” the fact that the heavens do not respond to the repeated appeals made to them, as by Albany:

If that the heavens do not their visible spirits
Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.


Heaven's vault merely reverberates Lear's “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” as he enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms. And yet humanity does not simply prey on itself like monsters. Without attempting here to describe the play's extraordinary final effect of affirmation along with tragic loss, the argument I have been indexing needs to be completed by noting that Lear and Cordelia, while they are represented with marvelous understanding as human individuals, also become in effect icons. Lear with Cordelia in his arms is a pietà with the roles reversed, not Holy Mother with her dead Son, but father with his dead daughter. In the new situation, where it was necessary to do without the supernatural figures and refind them in secular manifestations, Shakespeare's art finds new intensity of grace possible in human life, and new intensity of tragic loss. As the plays become part of the ongoing culture, particular figures within particular family constellations become themselves icons important for us, “Presences / That passion, piety or affection knows”:

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia. …

In using the term “icon” about Lear and Cordelia, there is the difficulty that the Christian associations imply an image that stands for something holy which it only represents—for something beyond, transcendent. True, in a holy place an icon can come to be itself holy, something set apart—as with saints' relics, or the icons of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. But it does so in a context of worship and belief. In talking or writing about Shakespeare's use or adumbration of religious language and action, it is easy to slip into implying such a context. And so it is crucial to check the powerful tendency of the Christian vocabulary to imply the whole Christian situation—crucial because his art does so.

Lear and Cordelia do not stand for transcendent persons beyond them—for God and the Virgin. They are themselves finite persons in a finite world. The play generates sacredness about them by the same development that makes their tragic destiny. The sacredness in Shakespeare's tragedy goes with recognition of the human impossibility of being divine, realized by the dread attempt, which brings destruction. The attempt is to have a total relationship, satisfying the assumption of omnipotence of mind—or better, in Lear's case, omnipotence of heart.

To attempt this is to make no difference, to use René Girard's terms, no difference between a daughter and the all-providing mother. Othello makes no difference between the mother and the wife; he makes Desdemona sacred in this way and then destroys her, with Iago's diabolical prompting, on the assumption that if she is a secular woman she will make no difference between him and Cassio (the mother's handkerchief in Cassio's hand is confirmation). His expectations and demands are absolutes: “My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate” (Oth.II.i.189-91). Here again what is lost is the sacred-in-the-human as humanity creates and destroys it.


  1. Samuel Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) makes the significance of the evidence clearer than ever before.

  2. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935), p. 104.

  3. C. L. Barber, “The Death of Zenocrate: ‘Conceiving and subduing both’ in Marlowe's Tamburlaine,Literature and Psychology, 16 (1966), 15-24.

  4. Citations are to The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963, 1972).

  5. Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (forthcoming from the Univ. of California Press in 1980. See chapter 4.)

  6. Schwartz outlines his view of the development from the major tragedies through the late romances in Chapter 2 of [Representing Shakespeare: New Psycholanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980].

  7. Sermons or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1816), 2, pp. 8, 219-20. The first passage is cited by Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England, 5th ed. (rev.) (London: Burns and Oates, 1963), 3, p. 104.

  8. Citations are to The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946).

  9. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), pp. 493-501.

  10. I have taken phrases from several prayers to the Virgin Mary in The Prymer or Lay Folks Prayer Book, ed. Henry Littlehales (London: 1895), EETS original series, p. 105.

  11. William Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1966).

  12. Herbert Coursen, Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1976).

Derek Brewer (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12573

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 certainly not a sibling-figure). As usual, the general point of view being from protagonist to the rest, the emerging adult is central and parent-images marginal to him. It is unusual for Shakespeare that the story figures a mother-image. It is less unusual that there are two father-figures, as the actual literal level of the text makes clear, when Hamlet, mourning his dead actual father, refers to Claudius, his father's brother now married to his mother, as ‘uncle-father’.

The nature of Hamlet's problem is made clear in the very first interchange between him and Claudius. Claudius in his oily, odiously conciliatory manner says

But now, my cousin Hamlet and my son. …

Hamlet comments bitterly

A little more than kin and less than kind.

(I (ii) 64-5)

By ‘more than kin’ Hamlet refers to Claudius's being more than just a family relation—he has usurped the father's place. ‘Less than kind’ means ‘unnatural’, and also, perhaps, ‘unkind’ in the modern sense, but the word-play kin-kind emphasises the confusion and the perversion of role that Hamlet perceives in the father-image. Marriage (such as Claudius's) to one's deceased brother's wife was regarded by law and general feeling in the Elizabethan period as incestuous. Incest is almost universally felt to introduce the most fundamental and therefore disturbing confusion of roles and categories within the essential family. (It may be that much of our sense of category difference in the world is produced by our extraordinarily early sense of differentiation between mother and father, which has historically in Western culture been elaborately enriched until the present general collapse of the stability of marriage.) Hamlet, at any rate, bitterly plays upon the parental confusion which does not indeed require any reference to outdated Elizabethan law to be understood.

Both Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, go on to reason with Hamlet. The King in particular emphasises that while mourning is proper it is inevitable that fathers should die. Not to accept this inevitable process is

                    a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd; whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died today,
‘This must be so’.

(I (ii) 101-6)

Claudius as always speaks truth and sense, which of course does not make him in the least more lovable. He accuses Hamlet of failing to accept the first principle of adult reality; in effect, of failing to grow up, to accept maturity and responsibility. He is undoubtedly right in this. Hamlet is a young man distinguished in birth and talents, with the instability of highly gifted young men on the brink of maturity.

Why will not, or cannot, Hamlet grow up? Basically it is because of the confusion of identities in the family circle caused by his mother's incest. That is, the substitution of uncle for father, the perversion of the nature of the father from good to evil, makes it impossible for him either to identify with or clearly to reject the general image of the father because it is too mixed. He thus cannot recognise and accept his father's death, and this prevents his own emergence into independence. Symbolically this means that the father is dead and not dead. Apparently killed, he has come symbolically alive again in a totally unacceptable way, Hamlet's original father being to this new uncle-father as ‘Hyperion to a satyr’. That is why Hamlet cannot get over his death, and why he is so obsessed by his mother's wickedness. It is in effect she who has done this to him: she is the occasion of the death of his father (as the elder Hamlet) and yet in marrying Claudius she will not let his father die. She has corrupted the father-image. Her corruption is the latent cause of Hamlet's grief and the literal cause of his anger at her. There is no concealed, no displaced, latent, love for his mother in Hamlet. After the play-scene he tells himself he must use no violence towards her, only ‘speak daggers’. There is no ‘oedipal’ desire (even if there is in Oedipus). Her corruption extends to Claudius. Hamlet when sent to England says mockingly but revealingly to Claudius

          Farewell, dear mother.
Thy loving father, Hamlet.
My mother: father and mother is man and wife: man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother.

(IV (iv) 49-52)

So the confusion of the family circle is compounded. The uncertainty of feeling thus created extends to Hamlet's view of the ghost of his father. Since the audience sees and hears this figure he has objective existence, as far as Hamlet and the play are concerned, at a literal level. Shakespeare does not present him as a figment of Hamlet's disordered imagination, nor does the Ghost tell lies. Claudius undoubtedly did murder Hamlet's father. The ghost is not a devil, as Hamlet fears he may be (II (ii) 594-5), and the play-scene proves it. But Hamlet still cannot bring himself to carry out the Ghost's clear orders to revenge because he can neither accept the death of his true father, nor thrust off from himself the sense that after all his uncle is his father. In other words he cannot identify with an adequate father-figure, which in Shakespeare's culture, as in the New Testament, is the mark of full maturity (‘I and the Father are one’).

Another result of the trouble caused by an errant mother is that she arouses in Hamlet that disgust with physical sexuality that is never far below the surface in Shakespeare, though by a familiar reversal it often issues in its comic aspect as bawdy joking. Hamlet accuses his mother of a raging sexuality that is itself unnatural (III (iv) 65 ff). She has much offended ‘his’ father, and ‘would you were not my mother’ (III (iv) 10 ff). He dwells on the incestuous sweaty love-making with disgust, though in logic incestuous sexuality should be no more sweaty than legitimate conjugal love-making. Hamlet attributes Gertrude's corruption to all women, including Ophelia, whom he undoubtedly loves, but whom he rejects in the scene with her which Polonius and the King spy on, and whom he makes the subject of degradingly coarse jokes during the play-scene. Even more, Gertrude's corruption extends to Hamlet himself. Unable either to hate or to love the father, he feels, as part of his incapacity, that he himself is deeply corrupt and accuses himself passionately (III (i) 121 ff).

The course of the play shows Hamlet's terrible struggle to achieve the paradoxical necessity of the male protagonist to do what we have seen done by the heroes of medieval romance, that is, both to kill the father-image and to identify himself with it and be reconciled with the parent-images. He is frustrated by the confusion which has been created in the father-image by his mother's treachery. The hero never kills the true father-image, so that the true father is as it were the eternal father imprisoned within the protagonist's psyche, yet not identified with him. Hamlet's true father returns from the grave to tell him to kill the false, the hostile, father-image, who is Claudius. (A dead father is good, a living father is bad; a variant of the weak but good, or strong but bad, pattern.) The story shows Hamlet killing Polonius, hidden behind the arras, thinking that Polonius is Claudius. The action is direct, vigorous. But that is because the father-figure is unseen. That is, Hamlet cannot kill him openly, as he cannot kill Claudius openly when he finds him apparently praying, though in the latter case Hamlet gives an unconvincing rationalisation for his failure. Hamlet disobeys the clear orders of the Ghost (his true father) to kill Claudius, thus revealing an ambiguity towards the good father-image similar to his ambiguity towards the bad father-image. And in each case the mother's confusing relationship to the father is the cause of the ambiguity and confusion.

Hamlet fails to clarify the confusion, to identify himself with the true and good, to reject the evil and false. The confusion, the failure to establish a mature identity, drives him nearly mad, and Claudius sends him to England.

Nothing happens in the course of the story that clearly accounts for the new-found decisiveness that is reported by Hamlet himself of his voyage, when he so easily despatches the father-surrogates and hostile sibling-figures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But as soon as Hamlet leaves the centre of the stage two significant figures of his own age come to the centre of the action and at the latent level develop the pattern. These are Ophelia and Laertes. Ophelia is shown as mad in the scene immediately following Hamlet's last appearance on his way to England, and later in the very same scene her brother Laertes appears leading a revolt to avenge the death of his father, Polonius, upon Claudius. Of course Claudius easily deflects Laertes's purpose. At the symbolic latent level we may see Laertes as a ‘split’ of the protagonist, and the baleful father-figure easily foils him. At the literal level of verbal realisation Laertes is given a shallow character which makes the management of him easy. More significant is the much more extended scene, both before and after Laertes's irruption, of Ophelia's madness, which is marked by pathetically indecent songs. This must be associated symbolically with the sexual disgust felt by Hamlet at his mother's remarriage. Her madness symbolises the death of Ophelia as a possible beloved for Hamlet and it is soon followed by her actual death. It is the death of the feminine element. The problem of distinguishing the image of the beloved from that of the mother which is so obvious in so many medieval romances is given no prominence in this play, which is why an ‘oedipal’ reading of Hamlet, though it brings insights, must be unsatisfactory. Yet the problem exists as it were in a negative way. The taint that Hamlet finds in Gertrude extends to Ophelia and all women. Not only does the mother-figure impossibly confuse the images of the father, she makes undesirable any image of the peer or mate who must be found outside the family circle. Hamlet is trapped by the mother-image in a peculiarly horrifying way.

Yet there is always an escape, even from the family circle. There is always death. Ophelia dies. If Gertrude by extension taints, for Hamlet, Ophelia, Ophelia's death is the death of all women, and thus, symbolically, of Gertrude, of the mother-image itself. (In most Western tales the literal death of female figures is not by any means so frequent as that of male figures—women are less physically threatening than men, giants or dragons and therefore do not have to be eliminated.) Were the mother-image alone to die, or be got rid of, that would of course remove the tragedy and turn it to romance. But that is not the case. She only dies in the form of the young girl, and it is with the young, not the old, that life and the future live. So Ophelia's death, being that of the young, ensures the tragedy. Yet since it implies the whole feminine element, including Gertrude, the paralysing element in Hamlet's story, the corrupt feminine, is also dead. Since the feminine element is also the generative element of life that cannot turn Hamlet's course towards success. But it allows him to act when he wishes to act, if he wishes to act.

In the scene immediately following the last of Ophelia's madness Horatio is shown receiving a thoroughly business-like letter from Hamlet describing his adventures. From now on Hamlet is a different man.

He is not however a man of action, successfully emerging into the adult world. In a way he has emerged, but at the cost of all he holds dear, all that makes life purposeful and valued. On his return, apart from the quarrel with Laertes at Ophelia's grave, his last outburst of youthful emotion, of which he shows himself ashamed, he expresses nothing but calm resignation, all passion spent. There is a paradoxical maturity here. Gertrude is no longer significant to him—he totally ignores her at the grave-side while he expresses his previous love for Ophelia as greater than that of forty thousand brothers. It needed, alas, Ophelia's death, to clarify to the protagonist the height and depth of his love for the ‘princess’, and now it is for ever frustrated. Yet death has at least swept away the poisonous mother-image; Ophelia's death has paradoxically and symbolically redeemed Gertrude. Gertrude being insignificant, Hamlet is less confused about Claudius. Hamlet is burnt out, but Claudius will, in his own time, die. Hamlet has grown up and accepts the fact of death—all men's death, and thus that also of his father, and of himself:

there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man owes aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.

(V (ii) 212-16)

In the acceptance of death, including that of fathers, Hamlet has grown up. In so far as he has gone one stage further and already associates his own death with that of all men in the providential order he has been tragically forced to omit his own central period of maturity. He will die without having married Ophelia and without himself becoming a father-figure for whom death is appropriate. He dies too young, his promise unfulfilled.

For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal

(V (ii) 389-90)

says Fortinbras. Royalty is the normal image in fairy tales for achieved maturity, for being grown up. (Hamlet has earlier reckoned that he could be bounded in a nutshell and count himself king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams. Denmark is a ‘prison’ to him, and for Hamlet as later in King Lear the prison may be taken as a latent image for the stifling bonds of family relationship (II (ii) 240-58).) Hamlet's maturity then is only paradoxical, not unequivocal, and this is one source of the multiple impressions the play makes on so many readers, its almost infinite plasticity.

Hamlet is killed by the father-figure and does not achieve the princess. That is tragedy. The protagonist is at it were tricked into killing himself, for Laertes at the latent level may be regarded as a ‘split’ of Hamlet. Laertes's hostility to Claudius is easily deflected so as to cause him to kill Hamlet—an apt image (since one aspect of the protagonist kills the other) of the protagonist's failure completely to unify and identify himself, a counterpart of his failure to sort out the confusion of the father-image. That the young protagonist should be inveigled into self-destruction is the most painful tragedy.

Yet the paradoxical if barren maturity of Hamlet is exemplified by the way that he, like Samson (another folktale hero), brings down all in ruin about him. The protagonist does succeed in killing the father-image as he has already in effect shrugged off the mother-image. Claudius is killed by Hamlet and to that extent Hamlet is successful. Gertrude dies appropriately in error by the poison set out by Claudius himself. The mother-figure is rarely directly killed by the protagonist—a hard tradition still treats women in this respect less harshly.

The tragedy is more equivocal than most of Shakespeare's other tragedies but it is to be remarked again that Shakespeare's plenitude of power endows many characters with sometimes paradoxical life and is rich in ambiguities and ambivalences. If ever the multiple points of view of Gothic art are seen in literature it is in Shakespeare, even though this multiplicity sets in one general direction and is never purely relative or totally self-contradictory. There is always a hierarchy of values, an ordering of multiplicity, even where Shakespeare admits the possibility that no such objective order may exist (‘for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’, Hamlet II (ii) 249-50).

In Hamlet as in some other plays of Shakespeare, the inner story has many levels and aspects which are realised at the literal verbal level with extraordinary liveliness. Particularly noticeable is the wealth of traditional ‘sententious’ style full of proverbial or semi-proverbial human wisdom and reflectiveness, not meant ironically, and an unparalleled wealth of serious word-play, or puns. These traditional aspects of style, like the Gothic variety of story, have been constantly condemned by Neoclassical critics up to and including T. S. Eliot. As usually in Shakespeare, and especially in Hamlet, the traditional poet really is the spokesman of the traditional culture. There are in consequence many points about the play which have not been considered here; what has been analysed is the essential core.



The story of the old man who makes extreme demands for expressions of love from his daughters occurs in many variants, ultimately to be linked with the story of Cinderella. It had been told in relation to King Lear many times before Shakespeare's version as part of the pre-Anglo-Saxon history of Britain. It was well known in outline to his audience, in other words, a traditional story. It is normal for such a story that amongst the various versions names, circumstances, even segments of the plot could be changed within broad limits. In versions by Shakespeare's immediate predecessors Cordelia succeeds in restoring Lear to his throne and he dies happy. Only then is Cordelia herself overthrown; she dies in despair by her own hand. Such might indeed—give or take some oddities—be the arbitrary course of history, but Shakespeare gives us a tighter pattern, and draws it back more firmly within the family drama, to follow up what became almost an obsession with him.

Until King Lear, in the course of those plays in which the central core is some working out of the family drama, the protagonist is always the developing child (in the early sense—not an infant but a person seen in relation to parents). In King Lear Shakespeare's infinite variety gives us the father as protagonist, so turning the traditional pattern of the family drama inside out in an astonishing way. The tragedy of so aged a man can hardly be the failure to become adult! Or, to put it another way, his significant personal relationships cannot be with parent-figures. His tragedy is that of one who kills the thing he loves. His own death at so great an age is merely incidental. Cordelia is therefore the point at which the tragedy aims, just as, in the related but opposite case of Cinderella, Prince Charming is the point at which that story aims. But the tragedy is not the tragedy of Cordelia, any more than the happy outcome of the Cinderella story is the success of Prince Charming. The protagonist is all. The winning of the Prince is the sign of Cinderella's success, and the loss of Cordelia is the sign of Lear's tragedy. In Shakespeare's King Lear Cordelia is not the protagonist.

It would be possible to conceive of Shakespeare's version of the story of King Lear with the youthful protagonist normal to fairy tale. In this case we should have to think of the three sisters as a multiple protagonist, and we should have to give them personalities different from those with which Shakespeare has endowed them. We should see how the oppressive father makes an unwarrantable demand on the inclusive love of the protagonist. Two of the daughters equivocate, but the third, in her innocence or folly, answers according to truth and nature, and in the spirit of the Biblical injunction (Genesis II, 24) that a man shall leave father and mother and cleave to his wife. Though Cordelia is condemned by her father, she finds a Prince who marries her, as do her sisters. Thus all the daughters have escaped. This is a kind of version of Catskin, a success story. The oppressiveness of the father however is not so easily evaded. He sets up disharmony between the daughters, who may be seen as the various aspects of the protagonist, as Claudius does between Hamlet and Laertes. Yet two of the daughters successfully resist the father and imprison him. That aspect alone of the protagonist which is represented by Cordelia falls his victim, is won over to him, is imprisoned with him, and, like him, dies.

This version is not too far from the bare bones of Shakespeare's version, and is not unrelated to some modern productions that claim to be of Shakespeare's play; but it is enormously different in spirit. Every version must be taken in its own terms and Shakespeare has realised the story in King Lear, it need hardly be said, with a most significant change of perspective, by making the father-figure the protagonist. It is this shift of the general angle of approach which makes all the difference. We thus see the other characters from Lear's general point of view, as is normal in traditional story. I do not mean that we see them literally as he sees them. We, the audience, always have a fuller view of the whole, we see more, than any character, even (or especially) the hero, in a traditional story and especially a Shakespeare play. We always know, as Lear does not, that Cordelia is supremely good and that Goneril and Regan are wicked. We see characters intriguing together when Lear is not present. That does not alter the basic principle that the characters must be interpreted in relation to Lear, and not as if they were fully autonomous rounded characters acting in their own right. Thus Cordelia is supremely good and her sisters irredeemably wicked from the generalised point of view of the protagonist which is spread throughout the play and confirmed by the ending. We see only that aspect of Cordelia's character which is significant to the protagonist and for the inner pattern of the story. Shakespeare, as is his way (like the tellers of fairy tales, the Gawain-poet and the rest), normally makes it abundantly clear at the literal level which characters are good and which bad. A ‘naive’ reading of the literal level of traditional literature is the correct one. There are no moral puzzles based on character. Just as we are told that Cinderella is good, and as the Gawain-poet tells us that Gawain is good, and we must believe this or fundamentally misunderstand the story, so we must take Shakespeare's word for it that Cordelia is good. To present her as in any way hard-hearted, immorally inflexible, foolish, stupidly unwilling to humour the foibles of senile Daddy, is a violation of Shakespeare's traditional art, produced by unconsciously debased Neoclassical realism and literalism. The literal level must not be taken literalistically. The result may be a dangerous version of the tolerations of liberal humanism, when critics blame Cordelia for telling a deeply human truth, and palliate the vile crimes which her sisters do literally commit.

To avoid such distortions we return to the naive, the obvious, traditional reading, accepting the traditional principle of the centrality of the protagonist and the natural interpretation of other characters in relation to him, which does indeed mean accepting what Shakespeare writes (unless obviously ironic) at the literal level, without falling into literalism. It is always worth reminding ourselves that no symbolic interpretation may violate the direct literal meaning of the text. The only apparent exceptions are when there is clear evidence in the immediate context that irony is being used, or when a villain is speaking who can be shown to be lying (as with Goneril, Regan or Edmund). This principle is particularly important for the historical understanding of Shakespeare's plays, where in order to carry on the story, or to give basic information that in non-dramatic narrative is given by the author, the speeches of some characters must sometimes convey a considerable amount of information that is not a part of naturalistic characterisation or a naturalistic imitation of any ordinary interchange between two people. This kind of non-personalised narrative extends to descriptions of a given character's own state of mind, or moral quality, even when such description is put into the character's own mouth, that is, when it is self-description. The outstanding examples are soliloquies. We may take it as a further rule that characters always describe themselves truly, and do not mislead the audience. Yet there is little or no modern introspection, or moral confession, as an aspect of the character's own dramatic personality, in this convention. When Richard Duke of Gloucester, afterwards Richard III, says ‘I am determined to prove a villain’ (King Richard the Third I (i) 30) he is not engaging in subtle self-examination or special cynicism or modern nihilism. The words are no more part of his character than the blank verse in which he speaks reveals him to be a poet. Both the manner of expression and the metre are like the music in opera, part of the medium. In other words the character on the stage speaks always as it were with two voices, one his own, and one the narrating author's, and part of the experience of a reader versed in traditional narrative is concerned with distinguishing which of these two voices is at any moment predominant. For our purposes here it is enough to say that when a Shakespearean character describes himself the authorial voice is dominant, and thus what the character says, be he never so villainous, is true. When Gloucester says he is going to be a villain, that is the case and the author wants to make sure that we, the audience or readers, know it unequivocally. He is not telling us that Gloucester is especially cynical, or even, as some modern actors now play the line, so delightfully and humorously self-aware that we may forgive him anything. Equally, to return to King Lear, when Cordelia describes herself as ‘true’ and disdains to answer her enraged father's accusation of ‘untender’ (I (i) 105-6), we are to believe her, but not construe her self-description as a precocious self-awareness or, least of all, as a hard-hearted pride. To do so is to apply the inappropriate assumptions of Neoclassical naturalism. That Cordelia is neither proud nor hard-hearted, but true, is the whole point of the story. The audience or readers know it all the time, and the unfolding of the story is in part the narrative of how Lear also comes to acknowledge it. I am not arguing that Shakespeare makes no attempt to give light and shade to a character's personality. Cordelia herself, and the King of France, with a slightly more realistic touch, describe her personality further a little later in the scene, as one who is not only not a liar and flatterer but one who does not with ease express her deeper feelings. Shakespeare has indeed a genius for characterisation at the level of the verbal realisation, but it is often less naturalistic, more related to the underlying pattern, than we may at first realise, swept away as we are by the power of his art. The part of the pattern that we are concerned with in this episode is so powerful that we easily overlook the fundamental implausibility of the actual scene as presented. Far from worrying about the naturalistic presentation of a family row, we respond to the ancient spectacle of a father reluctant to let his daughter grow up and away, and the daughter's determination, in this case, to do so.

Cordelia has said:

                    Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov'd me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

(I (i) 94-103)

Lear's response is totally to reject her, but this is not a disaster for her at the latent level and it is significant that at the literal level the King of France immediately comes forward to accept her without a dowry. Cordelia has already symbolically broken away from the family circle even before an actual Prince Charming is supplied. Cordelia needs an actual mate no more than Gawain in order psychologically to grow up, though in the situation of resident suitors in the court we may detect the vestiges of a testing by the father of various suitors, and when the Duke of ‘wat'rish Burgundy’ refuses to accept her without a dowry it is a kind of failure of a test. Cordelia thus, as the King of France says, has only lost ‘here’ (i.e. at home) ‘a better where to find’ (I (i) 261), to find, like Catskin, a better home.

Lear's other daughters have equally clearly made the same transition, even though they hypocritically pretend not to have done so. As the story unfolds they ill-treat their father progressively worse. Although this is highly deplorable and merits the strongest condemnation in the play, it would not in itself constitute a tragedy even for Lear; it would be pathos, sorrow, the way of the world, wicked hypocrisy, and so forth, but not tragedy, and though in the working out of pattern and plot the part played by the wicked daughters is crucial we may leave them out of consideration in the central tragedy.

What then is the central tragedy in Shakespeare's King Lear? Although Lear is the protagonist, and does indeed develop more self-awareness, humility, and care for others, he dies. It might be enough to say that the death of the protagonist is sufficient to allow us to define a story as tragic, and as far as that goes it is true. But the death of so aged a man cannot be felt like that of one who is young, and cannot account for the deep emotional power of Shakespeare's story. Moreover, Lear is more than just an old man. He is a father and the story has centred on the family drama, although from an unusual angle. In the family drama death of parents is the happy ending; it is the death of children which is tragedy. We return then to Cordelia, but in a different light. The play is not about Cordelia. Her death is not her tragedy, but it is Cordelia's death which is Lear's tragedy. In a sense he kills her and in so doing kills himself.

We may express the tragedy at the symbolic level by saying that it lies with Cordelia's returning to her father, her voluntary rejection of her emancipation. On the literal level Lear does not ask her to return, but his plight calls her. She says

                    O dear father
It is thy business that I go about

(IV (iv) 23)

The Biblical echo, one of several in this play, does not establish Cordelia as a Christ-figure, or suggest any regular allegorical parallel in the action, but emphasises the seriousness and virtue of Cordelia at the literal level at this moment. She identifies herself with her father, as Christ did with his, and that is one of the supreme virtues for Shakespeare. Virtue is essential to tragedy. Moreover it is only as little children, we are told, that we can enter heaven. But we are not concerned centrally with Cordelia's virtue, only with the tragic recognition that it destroys Cordelia when the battle is lost and she and Lear are imprisoned together—a highly symbolical situation. The tragedy is the death of Cordelia, but her death is not a tragedy for her because she is not the protagonist. Her death is the tragedy for Lear because all the time she is what he wants and cannot have. He causes to be destroyed what he most values, and it is indeed a tragedy that he over-values his daughter's love. He will not let go when he must. It is characteristic of Lear that he only pretends to let go, as we see very clearly at the literal level when he first divides his kingdom:

                    Only we shall retain
The name and all th'addition to a king:
The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,
Beloved sons, be yours.

(I (i) 134-7)

Lear will retain the honour (name) and glory, and others can do the hard work. He gives up the practical reality of power while wishing to retain the prestige and personal advantage it gives. Life is not like this: he sets up a fundamental self-contradiction in political terms. He does the same in personal family terms, wanting love without responsibility, above all wanting to keep what cannot live if he retains it. That is Lear's tragedy at the latent and indeed at the literal level.

To say that Lear wants too much of his daughters is not at all to deny in Shakespeare's or in Christian or in general human terms that children should honour their fathers and mothers and do their duty to them. It merely asserts the ineluctable order and sequences of the family drama: that parents are older than their children and should behave accordingly. Disturbance of such order will lead to tragedy if it is not corrected or redeemed.



Shakespeare had by no means exhausted the potential of the family drama with King Lear. On the contrary he became obsessed with it. It even invaded his historical and political interests in Coriolanus. The late Romances, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, highly traditional and extremely non-naturalistic stories, all work in various ways at the problem we see first clearly formulated in King Lear—how to reconcile the fate of the father-figure with the successful survival of the young on whom the future depends. Shakespeare became less and less interested in general naturalistic plausibility as he mined the rich vein of the symbolic reality of these themes in his last plays. The wealth and variety of the material is too great for me to do more than suggest some of the many possibilities, and concentrate on only one play which has often given difficulty, Cymbeline. Some themes must be left almost totally aside, as for example the subordinate and at best ambivalent attitude to mothers, as in Coriolanus. The emphasis in the later plays on daughters as opposed to sons may perhaps be accounted for quite simply by the fact that Shakespeare was himself an elderly man with daughters, though to posit such a close connection between the actual existence of a writer and his work would be challenged by much modern criticism.

Broadly speaking the plots of the late Romances, rightly so called, seem to be a series of attempts to convey a pattern of reconciliation within the family circle after an apparently tragic breakdown. Pericles, based on the medieval romance by Gower, bluntly confronts the horror of a father's incest with his daughter, first in actual fact (within the fiction) which is not very interesting, then in a more disguised way which shows difficulties and transferences of feeling more subtly, though in a rambling version not all by Shakespeare. The Winter's Tale shows disharmonies between two families and between parents and children which are repaired by the love between the children. The Tempest, where the protagonist is again the father, shows fraternal treachery and disharmony repaired by reconciliation effected through a daughter. All these plays are full of romance and folklore themes. Shakespeare cared little for naturalism at any time, and by the end of his life he seems almost completely to have given up bothering even about local realism, or poetic verse, so interested was he in working out possible permutations of family relationships within the nuclear family, and in presenting families reconciled after being divided for many years by faults, jealousies, angers, mutual offence. This too is traditional, as I have shown, with the medieval English romances, but Shakespeare comes back to the topic from different points of view and enriches the story-structures in a remarkable number of ways, articulating them sometimes through many inter-linked events, weaving in themes, general concepts, descriptions, characterisation, local motivation, ‘sententious style’, wit, etc. etc. He even adds a touch of pantomime at times, and occasionally has a sort of detached fun with these stories as he does not with the tragedies. It is as if he takes seriously, and can therefore afford not always to be serious about, his own message in these plays, that all shall in the end be well, that there is a providential order, and joy cometh in the morning.

The stories are absurd from a Neoclassical and naturalistic point of view, and even in his own time drew Ben Jonson's criticism in his Prologue to Every Man in his Humour. No story is more absurd than that which centres on Imogen in relation to her husband Posthumus Leonatus, who makes the extraordinary bet with his Italian friends on his wife's chastity and is so easily deceived. Yet it is also worth recalling that even such a hardboiled and cynical story-writer as Boccaccio liked this story enough to use it in the Decameron (Day 2, Story 9), and the audience there calls it ‘beautiful’; though it is also true that after the coarse and brutal tenth story the ladies agree that the hero in the ninth corresponding to Posthumus was in comparison to the ruthless hero of the tenth a blockhead.

There is a sense in which all art, and thus all stories, should be regarded as ‘play’. Within this general quality some stories are more playful than others, either because they are in fact comic, which is not the case with Cymbeline, or because they have something extravagant or schematic, together with a happy ending, which allow us, and often the author, to be interested in the story without as it were worrying about it. Romance, with its deliberate artificiality and such well-recognised conventions as girls disguised as boys, lends itself particularly well to such playfulness, without losing its capacity to articulate our interests and our necessary daydreams. In his late plays Shakespeare exploited this romance element, allowing himself much casualness of execution and perhaps occasionally a touch of mockery.1

All these elements have to be accepted when we read or see Cymbeline. How disastrous the wrong assumptions about a work of literature can be to its understanding is illustrated by our greatest critic's summation of the play:

This Play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity.

To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecillity, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.

(Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh, London, 1908, p. 183.)

Johnson's own comments sum up implicit Neoclassical criteria that are often still with us, even in productions which make no attempt at that degree of local realism which Shakespeare's own stage practised. But the play can be taken as a traditional story and found not merely interesting but a penetrating analysis of aspects of the family drama as part of the human situation.

There are two main strands in Cymbeline, each based on a version of the family drama, and one of the chief purposes of the story is to draw these two strands together. The first concerns Imogen and the second the unknown princes Guiderius and Arviragus. All three are the separated children of Cymbeline. Cymbeline is not himself the protagonist, rather surprisingly since he gives his name to the play, and since Lear, Prospero, Pericles—all fathers of daughters—have such dominant parts. Cymbeline's folly and anger, of which he repents, are the motive forces of the action, and perhaps this was in Shakespeare's mind. Furthermore, although as the story turns out the centre of the action lies with the young people, of whom the most important is Imogen, the audience is given to know so much more than she that the exposition itself has a sort of paternal omniscience.

Even a blow-by-blow account of the action of the play at the most literal level would show how close it is to fairy tale. A more summary account emphasises this quality, though doing injustice to the plethora of event and intricacy of narration. There are naturally variants. At the opening of the story Imogen is already married, but it is against her father's will and her husband, Posthumus Leonatus, is immediately banished. So Prince Charming is already identified, and the story is to be how the union is validated. It is important for this version of the family drama to note that Posthumus has been bred up by the King himself as Imogen's ‘playfellow’ (I (i) 40-54 and 145) and so he has been almost as a brother to Imogen. Although in every way noble he has one deficiency, which though not personal will need to be remedied. He is without a family. This alone would show that he is not the protagonist, but in order to be fully integrated within the whole story he will eventually have to be established in a family setting, like any hero in a medieval English romance.

We are immediately made aware that there is a wicked stepmother, who deceives and manipulates the King. Shakespeare uses the simplest devices of asides and soliloquies to make us aware of her wickedness, and also to show us that all the other characters, except Cymbeline, are aware of it. Thus the poison she procures from the Doctor and gives to Imogen's servant is not what she thinks it is, because the Doctor knows she is wicked and has made it innocuous. Although Cymbeline rages at Imogen and the Queen is courteous, Imogen is not deceived by her, and we immediately recognise the basic pattern of the fairy tale with a female protagonist: wicked stepmother, father under her influence, innocent heroine oppressed at home.

There is a development in the number of characters. The Queen has a son, Cloten, by a previous marriage, who is in every way as ignoble as Posthumus is noble. Cloten is also a suitor to Imogen and pursues her even though she is married. He too is in a sort of ‘brotherly’ relationship to Imogen, again not by blood, but in his case by his mother's marriage to her father. I return later to his place in the family drama as it centres on the protagonist.

Imogen is now forced to leave the court. The causal mechanics of this at the manifest literal level are brought about by the Italian intrigue which enmeshes Posthumus Leonatus, but the fairy-tale pattern of heroine forced to leave home is clear, and Imogen, under threat of Cloten, feels that she has no choice but must even try to leave Britain (III (iv) 130-9).

Although Cymbeline says later that she is ‘the great part of his comfort’ (IV (iii) 5), and he has been enraged by her marriage, his anger was because she had evaded Cloten, and we obviously do not have here the Catskin-pattern in which the protagonist has to escape a dangerously doting father. The father is manipulated by his wife, whom he loves, but who hates the protagonist, and the protagonist is escaping from the wicked Queen, her stepmother. From the protagonist's point of view she is fleeing the hostile mother-image and seeking her mate. The pattern is close to that of Snow-White, although the overt rivalry in beauty between the Queen and the protagonist does not appear. I am not arguing that we have in Cymbeline an actual analogue to the interesting folktale of Snow-White; only for a certain similarity of deep pattern and effect, and I hope the lover of Shakespeare will forgive me if I also argue for a similarity in the play to the Seven Dwarves.

Imogen flees to Wales in hope of meeting the Roman ambassador Lucius and becoming his page. This will also bring her closer to her still beloved husband. Wales is also the abode, though Imogen does not know it, of yet more brothers. Guiderius and Arviragus have already been introduced into the narrative by Shakespeare as boys living in wild Wales with their father Belarius. Belarius tells them, as he has told them many times before, his history: that he was once Cymbeline's best general but was the subject of false accusations of treachery which Cymbeline immediately believed, and so Belarius was banished twenty years ago. The boys run up a mountain and Belarius immediately explains to himself that they are really the sons of Cymbeline whom he took with him in revenge. Samuel Johnson remarks of this passage:

Shakespeare seems to intend Belarius for a good character, yet he makes him forget the injury which he has done to the young princes, whom he has robbed of a kingdom only to rob their father of heirs.

The latter part of this soliloquy is very inartificial, there being no particular reason why Belarius should now tell to himself what he could not know better by telling it.

Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Raleigh (p. 182.)

This notes both the incompatibility frequently to be observed between action and character in the re-telling of traditional stories, and the ‘conventional’ authorial nature of much speech in Shakespeare. We must read with acceptance of the author's evident intention, that Belarius is a good character, and look for patterns rather than material causes. The pattern of the Belarius episode is not naturalistic, but will soon be recognised as illustrating a very widely held concept of the self. Although Belarius has moralised at great length in Shakespeare's favourite sententious vein on the superiority of the simple rustic life, Shakespeare has given him a deliberately artificial tone, for though what he says is true it has only a limited truth. Belarius has also told the young men about his own experience of the world, and as Belarius acknowledges, their royal nature expresses itself in eagerness to leave this dull quiet life and to win honour and fame. They rightly object to being kept in this ‘cell of ignorance’ as Guiderius, the elder, calls it. Arviragus complains that ‘We are beastly’ (III (iii) 33 and 40). The situation of the two youths is a beautiful and simple representation of what Rank called ‘the family romance of neurotics’—the notion many people have when young that our real parents are persons much more distinguished than those poor old souls who have the honour of bringing us up.2 The difference within this particular fiction is that ‘the family romance’ is not a mere fantasy, it is true. The youths really are sons of a King, and superior to their apparent father. Although the young men feel no hostility towards Belarius Shakespeare makes it plain that they are straining at the leash and must soon be away. They are at the point of emergence into adult life. It is characteristic for Shakespeare that the wife of Belarius, whom the young Princes at the moment believe was their mother, is dead. Being dead, her memory is loved and revered.

To this all-male family comes Imogen alone, in a boy's clothes, lost and deadly tired. The young men take her for a boy, but feel instant friendliness, being in fact her siblings of the opposite sex. Notwithstanding Imogen's apparently male sex it is agreed that when the men go hunting the ‘youth’ will stay at home to be their ‘huswife’, and it turns out that ‘he’ is an excellent cook! Snow-White too kept house for the Dwarves, to whom Guiderius and Arviragus are the equivalent. The Dwarves however in the fairy tale are insignificant in their own right, not to say comic, while these sibling-figures in Cymbeline have their own significance and contribute to the general pattern of children and parents in the play beyond their immediate relationship to the protagonist—which is however their primary function in the pattern.

We now come to the crucial episodes in the protagonist's story. The Queen had prepared poison for Imogen which she entrusted to the ever-faithful Pisario as sovereign remedy. Imogen has been carrying this, and takes it to revive herself after the rigours of her journey. It is not poison, but it casts her into a death-like trance. So far we are still close to the story of Snow-White, whom the Queen discovers in her retreat and to whom she gives a poisoned apple. In the fairy tale the Prince eventually moves the beautiful corpse, dislodges the piece of apple and so brings Snow-White into adult life. It is a pattern also reflected in The Sleeping Beauty. In Cymbeline the story-line is more complicated and subtle, though at the deepest and simplest level it is similar.

It is Cloten, not the fairy-tale Prince, Posthumus, who now comes into the picture. He has followed Imogen to Wales, and is disguised in Posthumus's clothing. Just after Imogen has met her unknown brothers, and has received succour from these disguised siblings, Cloten appears and in a soliloquy expresses his brutal lust for Imogen, whom he intends to rape and ‘spurn her home to her father, who may, haply, be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations’ (IV (i) 23-7). Besides this brutality of sexual desire Cloten has also expressed the intention of killing and decapitating Posthumus. Since we know Cloten to be a fool and a coward we do not worry unduly about his threats, but they provide a deeply interesting symbolic pattern, which we can follow with interest even if at the level of subconscious response.

I shall argue in a moment that Cloten's murderous lust is the deepest element in the whole drama, the knot which the whole story sets out to disentangle, though of course at a level deeper than that of characterisation and plausibility on the level of verbal realisation, which Shakespeare has to sacrifice. The full demonstration depends on slightly later scenes, but here it is important to recognise first that Cloten represents the Queen's hostility. The absence of any intention to marry Imogen, even were Posthumus dead, and the strange intention to return the violated Imogen to her father, express the mother-figure's powerful determination not to let the protagonist escape from home. That Imogen would have been raped shows how Shakespeare, like many traditional writers, including the Gawain-poet, does not consider that physical sexual experience is in itself significant of maturation. Gawain is mature, has escaped, without it, while Imogen, having been forced into it, would nevertheless still be entrapped within the family circle. That the mother-figure's hostility should be expressed in such powerfully male symbolism as rape reveals a strange ambivalence that I do not fully understand.

We proceed however to the deeper aspects of what Cloten represents, which are clarified by the immediately following events in the story. Cloten meets and challenges Guiderius and is killed and beheaded. Since he has boasted to Guiderius that he is the Queen's son (thus symbolically expressing that aspect of himself which embodies the Queen's hostility), Guiderius remarks

I have sent Cloten's clotpoll down the stream,
In embassy to his mother: his body's hostage
For his return.

(IV (ii) 185-7)

Symbolically, the Queen's hatred returns upon herself. Imogen's apparently dead body is then brought in, is mourned, and laid side by side with the headless Cloten's, which, it will be remembered, is wearing the clothing of Posthumus. Immediately all leave and Imogen wakes to think that Cloten's body is that of Posthumus. It is a grotesque situation. The speech in which Imogen expresses her nightmarish recognition, as she thinks, of her dead husband is surely one of the most difficult to play in all Shakespeare, for such is the balance of feeling that it is hard to avoid inappropriate laughter. Shakespeare's task was to make us sympathise with Imogen while knowing that there is now no real cause for grief. The death of Cloten has removed the essential danger. Why does Shakespeare run this extraordinary risk, create this apparently ‘unresisting imbecillity’?

Abandoning hope of plausibility we also rightly abandon ourselves, in this scene, to relief as well as sympathy, along with detachment. Something is in process of being solved, and the audience's attitude to Imogen, from its superior point of view, is that of a father who may smile at a child's present suffering because he knows that it will be brief, not damaging, and even good for it. What then is in process of being solved? It is clearly good that Cloten is dead, and we should follow the play's own lead that identifies him, with a difference, with Posthumus. Each has a sort of brotherly relationship with Imogen. They are obviously physically alike, and each loves Imogen in his own way. Cloten is all bad to Posthumus's all good; he is the mirror-image of Posthumus. At the deeper level of symbolic interpretation it is obvious that he is a ‘split’ of Posthumus. In the latent sense Posthumus and Cloten are the ‘joint’ Prince Charming at the beginning of the play. This is where Cloten's murderous lust is so important. If at the deepest level of symbolic interpretation we regard the whole story from the point of view of the female protagonist, we can see that murderous sexuality is for her an aspect of love, one that she cannot accept, that she has banished, but which she must come to terms with. Or, to put this complex matter in another way, sexual love has an aspect of aggressiveness which has to be tamed, or got rid of. To put it yet another way, the virgin has to learn to become a wife. This is an entirely traditional theme, represented in such stories as The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast. Chaucer puts the traditional attitude in his own more literal way:

For thogh that wyves be ful hooly thynges
They moste take in pacience at nyght
Swiche manere necessaries as been plesynges
To folk that have ywedded hem with rynges
And leye a lite hir hoolynesse aside
As for the tyme—it may no bet bitide.

The Man of Law's Tale, The Canterbury Tales II (B) 709-14

The point is made in the very text of Cymbeline. That is why Shakespeare uses the absurd story from Boccaccio about the chastity-bet. Implausible as that story is, it is a paradigm about the need to trust love to control the natural savagery of sexual desire. Posthumus himself says of Imogen (when raging against her apparently rapid betrayal of him with the villainous Iachimo, a mere acquaintance whom he has after all encouraged to try to seduce his own wife and whose word he immediately accepts):

Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain'd,
And pray'd me oft forbearance; did it with
A pudency so rosy, the sweet view on't
Might well have warm'd old Saturn: that I thought her
As chaste as unsunn'd snow.

(II (iv) 8-12)

One could hardly have it more clearly expressed in humane and civilised terms. Shakespeare in no way implies that this is false delicacy on Imogen's part, yet the story takes us, and her, beyond it. When we realise that, at a latent symbolic level below the level of literal consciousness, Cloten represents what is to the female protagonist the untamed, or unacceptably aggressive, sexual element in the lover's love for her, we can see that the daring, dangerous, confusion Shakespeare apportions to Imogen in lamenting the dead Cloten as if he were the dead Posthumus shows a progress in deep human relationship that could hardly be made otherwise. As usual in traditional art we are presented with significant juxtapositions placed in a pattern, not with a chain of material cause and effect, for these are movements of the mind and feelings. Least of all, of course, is there any attempt at discursive analysis, which must always be, like the present effort, secondary to the multiple effects of creative art, laborious, single-stranded and simplifying. At the deep level of symbolic interpretation which we are considering here we have to leave aside other elements of the play, including consideration of detailed characterisation at the level of verbal realisation. But it is the deeper level which ultimately controls the other elements.

Brotherly and lover-like relationships of the protagonist's are being explored and clarified. Her true brothers will foster her tenderly but without sexual feeling, and for all their love she is dead to them. Yet she has in a sense found them, and it is immediately after their appearance and rescue of her that Cloten appears, a false brother at the opposite extreme, a brother in the aspect of brutal sexual desire. True brotherly love kills him. The protagonist has not really lost her beloved, though she thinks she has. She has lost her fear of his aggressive sexuality. The decapitation of Cloten also suggests that the complex beloved has overcome his own sexual aggressiveness. This is made clear when Posthumus appears in the scene after next, lamenting his own previous angry command to Pisario to murder Imogen. There has been no sequential build-up of causal motive, no view of Posthumus which has led to this sudden repentance. We do not need it. Motivation and the analysis of character in its presentation is the function of the novel and Shakespeare rarely presents character through such means. We see his people in violently changed moods which are part of the general pattern he presents. The pattern now allows, indeed requires, Posthumus to repent of his anger towards Imogen, and this is natural, though not naturalistic, after the death of Cloten who represents the beloved's intemperance, greed and cruelty. Once these natural but morally reprehensible aspects of love are purged Posthumus can also repent of his possessiveness and self-regarding pride which his bet with Iachimo expresses. Absurd as that story is, it exposes, in its schematic way, an anatomy of husband's love as unduly proud, possessive, and egotistic—all counterparts of Cloten's mere physical desire without true love. But now Cloten is dead and in the pattern of the action these untoward elements of love are being purged.

It is also a part of the pattern that before Posthumus's repentance is shown, in the scene of Imogen's fainting over Cloten's body, she is taken up by the Roman Senator Lucius. We should expect a father-figure here, and lo, Lucius, who in terms of probability has taken to the ‘boy’ with astounding speed and trust—but who minds that?—says to Imogen that he will

And rather father thee than master thee.

(IV (ii) 398)

It is equally a part of the pattern that with the sexually hostile, false-brotherly element in the beloved killed, and with the re-establishment of a genial father-figure for the protagonist, the very next scene, only a few lines further on, should show us Cymbeline's court and immediately tell us that the Queen is so ill that her life is in danger. Cymbeline's own grief for Imogen is apparent. The death of Cloten symbolises the end of the Queen, for he is an aspect of her hostility, and a genial father-figure is correspondent with the wane of her powers.

Thus at the beginning of the long Act Five the ground is cleared for a satisfactory outcome and a grand reconciliation. Although the core is the relationship between protagonist and beloved much else happens.

Cymbeline has, on his Queen's advice, rejected the payment of tribute to Rome and Lucius is now at Milford Haven with a Roman army and a bloody battle is toward. Posthumus has come to fight with the Romans against his own countrymen, but in the same speech in which he expresses his repentance for what he has done to Imogen, he says

                                                                                                    'Tis enough
That, Britain, I have kill'd thy mistress; peace!
I'll give no wound to thee.

(V (i) 18-20)

He says he will disguise himself as a British peasant

                                                                                                    so I'll die
For thee, O Imogen, even for whom my life
Is every breath a death.

(V (i) 25-7)

Imogen and Britain are associated. There is a strong and agreeable patriotic element in the play which is more subtle and more closely connected with the inner theme than may at first appear.

As well as Posthumus, Belarius and the sons of Cymbeline also fight marvellously well in the ensuing battle, and it is largely owing to the bravery of these four that the battle is won and the Romans soundly defeated.

Posthumus however is assumed by the British to be a Roman and is cast into prison, where another most extraordinary scene (or what would be so if plausible appearances and naturalistic assumptions were the basis of the story) now takes place. He is visited by the apparitions of his dead father, mother and younger brothers—a splendid demonstration of family solidarity—who one by one reproach Jupiter, king of the gods, for allowing Posthumus to be banished because of his marriage, to be tainted by Iachimo, and now to be ‘in miseries’. Thus is the integration of Posthumus within his own family circle expressed. He is not the protagonist, and so has no inner psychic drama portrayed for him, but he is shown now to be fully worthy of the protagonist because a full sense of his own family has been openly established within the story. He is fully himself. This interest in hereditary identity is strong in medieval English romance. Posthumus says

Sleep, thou hast been a grandsire and begot
A father to me; and thou hast created
A mother and two brothers.

(V (iv) 123-5)

It is true that they have now vanished, but Jupiter has left a tablet on his breast containing a symbolic prophecy, that a ‘lion's whelp’ (Posthumus's full name is Posthumus Leonatus) shall be embraced by a piece of tender air, that previously lopped branches shall grow on a stately cedar tree (obviously Cymbeline), and that Britain shall thrive. All shall be well. Posthumus has been shown as united with his family, but he does not need, even if he must lament the absence of, his family. Fathers need heirs, but heirs, once established, do not need fathers. Furthermore, Posthumus has been fully established as from a different family and not in any sense a brother to the female protagonist. Brothers are excellent helpers and protectors but a female protagonist no more wants to marry them than to marry her father. Exogamy is the fundamental rule of traditional stories (E. R. Leach sees exogamy as the basic ‘motive’ for many Old Testament stories3). No doubt part of the horror of Cloten's sexual desire is his ‘brotherly’ relationship, and his death kills that element too in the general image of the beloved.

We proceed immediately to the great reconciliation scene, where all the persons of the drama are brought face to face, and proper family relationships are restored. The final necessity before all can be unravelled is the death of the Queen, source of all the woe. Of this we are immediately informed, as also that, with glorious improbability, she has in dying confessed all her past and even her intended future misdeeds. Cymbeline of course immediately believes what we all know to be true, and the unravelling and knitting up begins. Imogen, naturally enough, being now successful, sets the action going, though she is still disguised as a boy. She controls Cymbeline—a docile, rejoicing, no longer dangerous father-figure—and then brings Iachimo to confess his crime. We are not surprised to find that Iachimo is glad to confess, for that re-inforces the underlying pattern.

A word must be spared at this stage for Iachimo's role. On the level of the verbal realisation he is a thinly sketched character playing a role familiar in a schematic folktale. His unmotivated lust and malice are sufficiently matched in life, alas, to allow us to accept his treachery towards both Posthumus and Imogen without looking for further cause or deeper characterisation. His unmotivated repentance is equally acceptable in this final scene when all is being revealed and when repentance and pardon are the themes. In other words he fits well enough into a verbal realisation of a folktale kind. At the deeper symbolic level, adopting the principle that most characters are ‘splits’ or aspects of the three or four main characters, it is plain that Iachimo is another aspect of the beloved's aggressive sexuality, as Cloten is. Unlike Cloten, he is not brutal, but he is sly, dishonest, seductive, untrusting, cynical, sociable, superficial. He represents even on the literal level the jesting about private matters of psychic as well as physical integrity to do with sex that young men are seen to be prone to, with the easy degradation that it brings. This does not call for extirpation, like Cloten, but for repentance and after repentance, pardon. His repentance is called for by the protagonist and at the latent level we may say that the beloved now rejects, or is purged of, the more ignoble, untrusting, self-seeking elements of his love. At the literal level Posthumus's pardon of Iachimo re-inforces our sense of his manifest noble nature. At the latent level, taking Iachimo as a ‘split’ of the beloved, we may say that from the beloved's point of view it is important for people not only to repent, and forgive others, but also to forgive themselves, to forgive that aspect of the self which has sinned.

To return to the literal level, which is not inconsistent with this, Iachimo's praise of Posthumus's nobility allows us to accept Posthumus as good without priggishness, and Iachimo's revelation provokes Posthumus to reveal his own identity and in his own person to express the deepest repentance. This is what is needed. The beloved must repudiate all the hateful aspects of his love, for he too needs pardon. Imogen intervenes to moderate Posthumus's rage against himself, and thinking that ‘he’ scorns or mocks his desperate self-condemnation Posthumus knocks ‘him’ down. It is an aptly paradoxical last expression of his aggressiveness towards her, his beloved wife, or of what, at the deepest level, we may say that the protagonist feels is the beloved's aggressiveness towards her. The blow is a repetition, so to speak, of his previous offence. It also produces the full revelation that the ‘boy’ is his own wife in disguise, and the aggressive deed now made again explicit and conscious can be finally and fully recognised, repented of, forsworn, and pardoned.

The episode with Posthumus allows us to note again, as with the case of Belarius, the general point that in traditional stories the moral quality of the character and that of his actions may not at the literal level exactly co-incide. There can be no doubt that Posthumus, like Belarius as Johnson notes, and like such other Shakespearean characters as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing, Prince Hal at the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, even Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well, are meant to be taken as good men. The literal texts constantly tell us so. Yet if their actions are taken as proceeding from them by their own volition, as if they were characters in a nineteenth-century novel, they may be seen as ‘blockheads’, hypocrites, or worse. We must recognise that the stories have their own schematic structure, and that the personality of the character is added on the literal level ‘inorganically’, even, by naturalistic standards, inconsistently. In many cases the personality of the character, at the level of verbal realisation, is only slightly etched and shaded. The character is primarily a role, as in Posthumus's case. The richness of psychological insight lies in the presentation of several such characters which add up to what the twentieth century can understand as a fuller and truer psychic whole, with a mixture of good and bad. This is why we must insist that Posthumus himself, as a character in the action, plays fully the role of paragon, is essentially ideal, noble, brave, even if in his actions temporarily tainted by the wicked Iachimo, for which he must repent; and this is why we may also insist that, at the latent level, Iachimo and Cloten are both, like Posthumus himself, elements in the total image of the beloved, though these others are elements that need to be repudiated.

To return to the story, the revelation and reconciliation concerning the protagonist and the beloved lead to a sequence of others. This is one of Shakespeare's most exciting final scenes. It is an admirable example of the narrative interest of a traditional tale, where the audience knows the whole story and finds pleasure in seeing how the characters within the fiction learn its realities, so that eventually both audience and characters share the same truths of relationship. The image of the united family is dominant in the text. Cymbeline says of the recovery of his two sons and of Imogen:

          O what am I?
A mother to the birth of three? Ne'er mother
Rejoic'd deliverance more.

(V (v) 368-70)

The image of the mother which is adopted by the father validates re-birth and re-union. Cymbeline also recognises Imogen's devotion to Posthumus, and sees her, as we must, as the central rock, the protagonist, round whom all the characters are ranged:

Posthumus anchors upon Imogen;
And she, like harmless lightning, throws her eye
On him, her brothers, me, her master [i.e. Lucius], hitting
Each object with a joy; the counterchange
Is severally in all.

(V (v) 393-7)

Each reciprocates. Cymbeline calls Belarius ‘brother’, and Imogen calls him ‘father’. Posthumus is recognised as brother to Guiderius and Arviragus. Jupiter's symbolic tablet is interpreted, the ‘tender air’ being in Latin ‘mollis aer’, a word-play on ‘mulier’, ‘wife’, which signifies Imogen. It is towards this full recognition of Imogen as ‘wife’ by both Posthumus and Imogen herself, with all the many ramifications of that acceptance within the family, that the whole story has been working. This family drama is the web into which the woof of all characterisation (such as it is), and all the other elements, including the religious and the political-national themes, is woven.

It is worth then asking why the absolutely last action of the play should be religious and political. Why are we not left with the family? Important as such public themes are, they are not in themselves central to the essential personal drama and have been given only marginal treatment in the deployment of the story. The scene of Iachimo in Imogen's bed-chamber, for example, is far more extensively treated than these apparently grander, more general themes. Even more remarkable, it may seem, is the light-hearted manner in which, after much strongly-expressed patriotic sentiment about Britain's freedom from the Roman yoke, and so many deaths incurred in procuring it, independence should now be jettisoned, and Cymbeline proclaim his intention of paying tribute despite his victory. The rationalisation is that Cymbeline was persuaded to revolt by his ‘wicked Queen’. This is satisfactory in that it brings the political element in relation to the fundamental motivation of the inner drama, but does it fit into the deeper pattern?

The patriotism is genuine, but it is subsumed, not negated, in a higher ideal of equal alliance with Rome which publicly repeats, extends and validates the personal pattern of reconciliation and peace. That pattern is repeated again in the religious references. Cymbeline is a pagan, but a devout one, and his intention of praising the gods and his reference to ‘our bless'd altars’ are easily assimilated to Shakespeare's ordinary Elizabethan Christianity, which is a cultural donnée for all his plays. Religion and country, in Shakespeare's time normally, and even nowadays still for some, are closely identified, and are a normal extension of the family. A king may easily be thought of as ‘the father of his people’; he was thought of in Shakespeare's day as God's vicegerent on earth; God himself is ‘Our Father’. These generalities lie behind the images of re-birth and re-union worked out through the family drama, and complete them with a sense of universal peace, that extends from the inner psyche to the furthest stars.


These examples of the family drama in Shakespeare by no means exhaust his treatment of the subject. Beside the other late Romances and the mature comedies there are other examples to explore. The subject is strongest in romance, which gives most play to inner drama and to the devising of patterns of action; in the history plays, in so far as they depict what appears often to be so desultory, inconsistent, arbitrary and wasteful in ordinary life, the family drama is at work, but more interruptedly, and we are less close to the type of folkloric and mythic narrative, nearer to superficial appearances. But in some of the history plays the family drama plays a part. Coriolanus has been already mentioned, and the two complementary father-figures of Prince Hal, Henry IV and Falstaff, will be easily recalled. The family drama hardly appears in the Roman plays, nor in Othello or Macbeth. The notion of the family drama is not a universal key, and Shakespeare's infinite variety takes up other human interests in many plays. It is this absence in some which re-inforces our sense of the truth of the appearance of the family drama in those plays where it can be seen.


  1. Beside cf. Derek Brewer, “The Nature of Romance”, Poetica 9 (1978), 9-48, cf. N. Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1976. For a stimulating psychological study see M. M. Schwartz, ‘Between Fantasy and Imagination: A Psychological Exploration of Cymbeline’ in Psychoanalysis and Literary Process, ed. F. Crews, Cambridge, Mass., 1970, pp. 219-83.

  2. ‘The family romance of neurotics’, more briefly ‘the family romance’, seems to have been discovered by Freud but the concept was first formulated under Freud's inspiration by O. Rank, Der Mythus der Geburt des Helden, Leipzig and Vienna, 1909, repr. Gesammelte Werke, London, 1941, vol. VII, p. 224; translated by F. Robbins and S. A. Jelliffe, Robert Brunner, New York, 1957; cf. M. Robert, Roman des origines et origines du roman, Paris, 1972, p. 43. Cf. also Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, London, 1968.

  3. Cf. E. R. Leach, Genesis as Myth, London, 1969, p. 34.

Coppélia Kahn (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11961

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 for nurturance. Even the most pathologically solitary hero, Richard III, defines himself by systematically exterminating his family and violating its bonds in novel ways. It goes without saying that Shakespeare depicts all his women characters as sisters, daughters, wives, or mothers. Cleopatra is only superficially an exception, for her milieu of Egyptian fecundity binds her profoundly to the human family through sexuality and procreation. Yet, at the same time, an intense ambivalence toward the family runs through Shakespeare's works, taking the familiar shape of conflicts between inheritance and individuality and between autonomy and relatedness. As Meredith Skura observes: “The family is so important that characters cannot even imagine themselves without one, yet every family must bring on its own destruction.”1 That is, characters must break out of their families in order to grow up, and when they have founded families of their own, they must learn both to accept and then to let go of their children.

In this essay, I will set the Shakespearean quest for masculine selfhood in the context of the family and the life cycle. From the beginning of his career to the end, Shakespeare sought a dramatic and psychological strategy for dealing not only with our common ambivalence toward our families but specifically with the male passage from being a son to being a father. He found it through the romance, in one of its typical patterns of action that I shall call “the providential tempest.”2 The five plays following this pattern are The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, all directly or indirectly based on narrative romance. They depict the separation of family members in a literal or metaphorical tempest; the resulting sorrow and confusion; and the ultimate reunion of the family, with a renewed sense of identity or rebirth for its members. This pattern is that of a journey, and it suggests a passage through time as well as through space—the individual's passage from emotional residence within the family to independence and adulthood. As depicted in the plays, the tempest and shipwreck initiating the main action represent the violence, confusion, and even terror of passing from one stage of life to the next, the feeling of being estranged from a familiar world and sense of self without another to hang onto.3

The only female protagonists in these tempest plays are Viola and Olivia in Twelfth Night, and Viola plays a man's part in most of the action. Marina, Perdita, and Miranda of the romances are accessory to their fathers' development as characters, rather than characters developed for their own sakes, and their spheres of action are severely restricted. While Hermione is strongly defined, it is Leontes' identity crisis that the play stresses. Clearly, with the exception of Twelfth Night, the pattern I am describing—of separation from and reunion with the family—reflects a male passage, and the point of view within the five plays shifts significantly from that of son to that of father.

Reading these five plays as a group, we watch a process of identity formation highlighted in two significantly interrelated crises: that of the youth emerging from the family, more than a child but still not quite a man, and that of the father who has not yet fully accepted his fatherhood. Erik Erikson's division of the lifelong process of identity formation into stages can help us to grasp the tempest action as a symbol for the way family relationships shape the growing self.4 The great normative crisis of identity occurs in adolescence; it is then that instinctual and social imperatives for intimacy with the opposite sex and pressures toward a settled choice of work and way of life create a crisis, defined by Erikson as “a necessary turning point, when development must move one way or another.”5 These imperatives and pressures create a recoil, a “regressive pull” back into the family, into the identifications of the early, preoedipal stage of ego building. In effect, the adolescent reexperiences separation and individuation, but not solely through his mother.

Peter Blos characterizes adolescence as dominated by two broad affective states: mourning and being in love.6 Confronted with the great imperative of finding someone to love, the adolescent must give up the strongest love he has known thus far, his love for his parents. To give it up, he must mourn them, and in mourning them, he has recourse to the usual mechanism of mourning: he identifies with them, or one of them. But he does this indirectly, by merging narcissistically with persons who can mirror him as that parent once did. In effect, he recapitulates the symbiotic merger with the mother preceding separation and individuation.7 This recapitulation occurs in what Blos calls the transitory narcissistic stage of adolescence, which normally precedes the definitive stage, the search for a heterosexual object. It is characterized by an overwhelming hunger for a love object of the same sex, in which the real identity of the object, the parent of the same sex, is denied. Whether it is positive or negative, identification with this same-sex object is necessary, as part of the mourning process, before heterosexual love can exist.8 It is this process of mourning the loss of the parent by identification, and finding a new object of love after working through identification, that The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night depict.

The next three plays take up the process of maturing at a later turning point in which identity is again a generational issue. Though the father-protagonists of the three romances have broken away and formed families of their own, they return to fighting old battles with their internalized original families in the attempt to redefine themselves as fathers instead of sons. They struggle to accept their difference from and dependence on women and to take parenthood as the measure of their mortality. Shakespeare resolves this crisis through the father-daughter relationship, using the daughter's chaste sexuality and capacity to produce heirs as a bridge to the hero's new identity as father. In the history plays, it was the son on whom the father relied for a reaffirmation of his identity through the male line of succession. In these tempest plays, the patriarchal stress on lineage is softened, but not really changed; the daughter instead of the son carries on the father's line. But whereas the history plays bypassed the role of women in the definition of male identity, these plays recast it. The daughters don't inherit a patrimony in the same sense as the sons did; rather, they are the inheritance of purified female sexuality that the father-heroes pass on to their sons-in-law.

In the first group of plays, the fear animating the identity crisis is the fear of losing hold of the self—in psychoanalytic terms, the fear of losing ego identity. Often it is expressed as the fear of being engulfed, extinguished, or devoured in the sea or in some oceanic entity. The adolescent in the throes of establishing that continuity of self-image, that basic inner stability on which identity is based, fears losing his still-emergent self in another through erotic fusion, which at the same time he ardently desires. What Erikson separates into two stages, adolescence and youth, Shakespeare treats as one in these comedies through courtship, the traditional comic action.9 Courtship is a time of self-exploration through amorous adventure and testing, which leads to the final choice of a mate, signifying the transition from youth to maturity.

The second group of plays, the romances, are more oedipally oriented than the first. In them, incestuous threat or wish motivates action, rather than the fear of losing ego identity, or identity confusion more closely related to preoedipal formation. C. L. Barber characterizes the difference between the comedies and the romances thus:

The festive comedies move out to the creation of new families; Pericles and The Winter's Tale move through experiences of loss to the recovery of family relations in and through the next generation … where regular comedy deals with freeing sexuality from the ties of family, these late romances deal with freeing family ties from the threat of sexual degradation.10

That threat comes, in various ways, from the psychic remnants of old filial relationship, persisting into maturity and preventing fathers from fully accepting the sexual powers of women and their own implication in the cycle from birth to death. Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest all mirror anxiety about—and even disgust at—desire, female sexuality, and procreation.

Shakespeare also brings out the emotional structure underlying these crises of filial identity through a striking device of repetition or doubling.11 He first uses the twin as a double for the self in relation to the mother; then the daughter, repetition through generation, is a double for the self in relation to the father. Finally, in The Tempest he uses revenge—repeating what was done to you but reversing it onto the other—and the renunciation of revenge as a way of ending the contest of the self against time and against its own children.

Any psychoanalytic discussion of doubling is of course indebted to Rank and Freud, who first described it in literature as a neurotic manifestation of the Oedipus complex.12 Freud discusses the double as an example of “the uncanny,” a mental representation of something familiar and homelike but at the same time secret, strange, and sinful—a representation, in short, of our earliest sexual feelings and wishes with regard to our parents, which we later perceive as guilty, repress, and hide. The double expresses the idea that these filial ties are inescapable and will cling forever, no matter how hard we try to shake them off. The double's typical activity in the literary sources cited by Rank and Freud is to pursue and unnerve the hero with his persistent, baffling presence, which specifically prevents the hero from loving a woman. Intervening at crucial moments to poison the hero's attempts at intimacy, the double thus prevents him from becoming independent from his family.

Freud and Rank also stress the double's power to bind the hero to his oedipal past in another way. The double, they maintain, is a potential death bringer, a projection of the castrating oedipal father, while at the same time it represents the hero's beloved, narcissistically/overestimated self. The double makes the hero's life a torment, but the hero's life also depends on the double's existence. If the hero tries to kill his double, he too will die; they are symbiotically bound to each other.

By expressing his protagonists' struggles toward identity through doubles, Shakespeare brings out the fear of ego loss and the regressive narcissistic pull of the family that Freud and Rank stress. But he also uses the double as a means of negotiating the difficult passage from filial rootedness to independence, to suggest a normal resolution of identity crises. Defining himself in and then against his double, the Shakespearean protagonist discovers and affirms his sexual identity and loosens confining family ties, so that “twinship and kinship are replaced by selfhood.”13


Now the twin-sibling plays, Errors and Twelfth Night. In each, the protagonist feels an intense affection for his twin that inspires his crucial actions, and the confusion caused by being mistaken for his twin leads ultimately not only to the desired reunion with the twin but to a previously unsought union with a marriage partner. The double of these plays, the beloved twin, brings with him not just the morbid anxieties Freud and Rank find but also an ultimately benign confusion that acts as a catalyst for reunion, rebirth, and fulfillment. The twin is a compromise figure, a projection of contending desires; it is through the twin that the protagonist retains ties with the filial past but also through the twin that he finds a mate and breaks with that past to create his own future. Searching for his twin and mistaken for him, Antipholus of Syracuse (Antipholus S.) meets Luciana and falls in love; grieving for her twin and disguised as him, Viola meets Orsino and falls in love.

But in their searching and grieving, Antipholus S. and Viola are both regressing to the earliest stage of identity formation: identification with one perceived as being the same as oneself, which is distinct from object choice, love for someone distinct from and outside the self, predicated on an already formed ego. Identification is first experienced at the mother's breast, when the infant fuses with one who is not yet perceived as “not me.” It is also in infancy that the mother's face mirrors the child to himself, confirming his existence through her response to him before he has an inner sense of his separateness and permanence.14 Thus the twin, as narcissistic mirror, represents the mother as the earliest, most rudimentary confirmation of the self.

In Errors, the twins' very names stress the idea behind the whole action, that identity is formed in relationship to “significant others.” Shakespeare changed the names from Menaechmus (in his source, Plautus' Menaechmi) to Antipholus, from the Greek anti + philos: love against or opposed to.15 The entire family, we realize as the play proceeds, has landed in Ephesus as either the direct or indirect result of storm, shipwreck, and separation. As each character is introduced, we see that he feels uprooted and alienated from himself because he has lost that “other” closest to him. The dominant metaphor for this collective psychic state is being lost in or on the sea—precisely the event that caused the state. Shakespeare thus internalizes the external and conventional events of the romance plot.

The focus of psychological interest rests on Antipholus of Syracuse, the melancholy, questing brother who comes to Ephesus in search of a self as well as a family. His first soliloquy crystallizes the interior action of the family romance:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.(16)

(Err. I.ii.33-40)

One might argue that Antipholus seeks to repeat an oedipal triangle, with his brother taking his father's place. But as the action focuses exclusively on his relationship to his brother, it seems, rather, that he wants to make a mirroring mother of his brother. He envisions extinction—total merger with an undifferentiated mass—as the result of his search. The image of a drop of water seeking another drop stresses his need for his identical twin but also suggests the futility of this means of self-definition. As half of a single drop of water, will Antipholus be more “content” or have more of a self? And the image of that one drop falling into a whole ocean conveys the terror of failing to find identity: irretrievable ego loss.

I hesitate to place much weight on Antipholus S. himself as a character with a complex inner world. Rather, his speech adds a powerful psychological dimension to the farcical action as a whole: it encourages us to see the incipient confusion and the ensuing descent into madness as fantasies of identity confusion and ego loss in adolescence, attendant on the break away from filial identifications and into adult identity. Erikson notes that when “identity hunger” is extreme, young people:

… are apt to attach themselves to one brother or sister in a way resembling that of twins. … They seem apt to surrender to a total identification with at least one sibling … in the hope of regaining a bigger and better [identity] by some act of merging. For periods they succeed, but the letdown which must follow the artificial twinship is only the more traumatic. Rage and paralysis follow the sudden insight—also possible in one of a pair of twins—that there is enough identity only for one, and that the other seems to have made off with it.17

The irony for Erikson's adolescent and for Shakespeare's character is that seeking identification by narcissistic mirroring leads only to the obliteration, not the discovery, of the self.

That obliteration takes the form of the “errors,” the comic confusions of identity, which provide the mirth of the play. The metaphorical and dramatic forms the errors take, however—metamorphosis, engulfment, and enchantment—allow for a psychological reading along with a farcical one and continue the theme of identity confusion and loss of ego identity. Shakespeare shifts the scene of Plautus' comedy from Epidamnum to Ephesus in order to call on all the associations of that city with magic and witchcraft (well-known to his audiences through St. Paul's visit to Ephesus), and he gains a language in which he can express that theme.

Metamorphosis is first hinted at when Antipholus S., quite naturally fearing he has been robbed, voices deeper anxieties about the robbery of his very identity, by “Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body” (Err. I.ii.99-100). When at first he accedes, dazed and passive, to the new identity rather harshly attributed to him by his brother's wife, his response is parodied by that of his servant, who feels that he is being “transformed … both in mind and in my shape” to be an ape; to one who only plays a part, who isn't really who he seems to be (Err. I.ii.195-99). Then, falling in love with Luciana when she tenderly persuades him that he is someone else, Antipholus S. envisions her as a god, who would “create” him anew.

Calling her a mermaid and a siren, he picks up the oceanic imagery of his earlier soliloquy, and at this point the idea of metamorphosis shades into that of engulfment. Her sister would drown him, but she will rescue him. Metaphorically, she will save him from that obliteration of self, that inauthentic metamorphosis into another person, which her sister promised:

O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister's flood of tears;
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the waves thy golden hairs,
And as a bed I'll take thee, and there lie, …

(Err. III.ii.45-49)

In raptures he continues, while she protests that he, as her sister's husband, ought to be saying such things to her sister, Adriana. Identifying himself ever more closely with Luciana as “mine own self's better part, / Mine eye's clear eye, my dear heart's dearer heart”—even saying “I am thee,” he asks her to marry him (Err. III.ii.61-66). But again parody questions this instant surrender of self to another, when Dromio of Syracuse wails: “I am an ass, I am a woman's man, and besides myself” (Err. III.ii.76-77). He equates metamorphosis with possession by a woman and possession by a woman with loss of self in the form of engulfment. In a hilariously disgusting blazon of the fat cook Luce, he identifies parts of her body with countries and continents: “spherical, like a globe,” she gushes grease, sweat, and rheum, and “lays claim” to Dromio, believing he is his twin. Woman becomes identified with those engulfing waters in which Antipholus S. feared to “confound” himself in Act I. Dromio's fears of being lost in Luce prove contagious; by the end of Act III, Antipholus S. regards Luciana as a mermaid luring him to death by drowning, and he hastens to leave on the next ship.

The play now takes up a third metaphor for loss of ego identity: possession by spirits. The mistaken arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus (Antipholus E.) for debt is described as seizure by “a devil,” “a fiend, a fury,” and the courtesan in the play is called “the devil's dam” who appears, like Satan, as “an angel of light” to gain men's souls. Metaphor becomes dramatic reality when the conjurer Dr. Pinch arrives to exorcise Antipholus E. But his efforts, of course, are vain. The real deliverance from the bonds of error is by angelic power. Pauline word play runs through the scenes focusing on Antipholus E.'s arrest; mistakenly and to no avail, he seeks deliverance from the sergeant's bonds with the coins—angels—which will pay his debt.18 These echoes of Paul's miraculous deliverance from prison prepare us for the denouement at the abbey, wherein the evil powers of Lapland sorcerers and Circe's cup show themselves to be providence in disguise.

Counterpointing this series of metaphorical and dramatic projections of what it is like to lose or “confound” one's identity, one's relationship to others, and one's grasp of reality in general, are two other senses of reality. Both involve a sense of time. As an aspect of its concern with the development of identity as process rather than a fixed state, Errors fittingly stresses the importance of time in two ways. First, from the beginning of the play, time is the means by which the network of obligations and relations in ordinary life is maintained, allowing people to experience and reaffirm their identities constantly. When the twins are mistaken for each other, appointments are broken, people are late, and the network breaks down. Much of the comic action depends on this precise and mundane sense of time. Contrasted with it is the idea that time is an organic process analogous to conception, birth, and growth. It proceeds at a proper pace toward a destined goal, can neither be hurried nor stopped, and is controlled by God, like the tempest itself. Emilia's final lines firmly link this sense of time with a sense of identity as growth in time—the serious and realistic theme underlying the farce:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne'er delivered.

(Err. V.i.400-402)

Identity grows through time and through loss, confusion, and challenge. Errors are part of a process whereby youth grows into and out of the family to find itself.

In Errors, the twin provides an affective bridge from filial to individual identity; seeking the twin, the hero finds his mate, but only when he is able to distinguish himself firmly from his twin. In Twelfth Night, we move a step further from the family, and the twin and other doubles function at first as projections of emotional obstacles to identity and then, in Viola and Sebastian, as the fulfillment of a wish for a way around the obstacles. The play abounds in images of engulfment and devouring connected with the sea and love; often it is suggested that love, like the sea, is boundless and voracious, swallowing up the lover. As John Hollander points out, the play is saturated in watery media, just as two of the main characters (and several of the minor ones) are suffused by their desires.19 Images of the sea (reinforced by allusions to ships, sailing, and sea trading), of tears, rain, liquor, urine, and the humors surge forth. The images are first stated in Orsino's famous opening speech:

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute!

(TN I.i.9-14)

The idea of the sea is reiterated in the succeeding image of Orsino—like Actaeon, being torn apart by his desires. Orsino reverses the image in comparing his love to a woman's, saying:

Alas, their love may be call'd appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffers surfeit, cloyment, and revolt;
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much.

(TN II.iv.98-102)

Still, everything about Orsino proclaims that it is he who is consumed by desire and not the opposite. Skittish, giddy, “a very opal” of erotic whim, he himself is like the mutable sea. Similarly, when love comes stealing upon Olivia like the plague, her self-mortifying dedication to a dead brother vanishes instantly, and she becomes a bold wooer. When Orsino and Olivia love, they lose themselves in desire.

Interacting with this tendency to lose the self in surrender to Eros, however, is the attempt to retain identity, through a narcissistic mirroring similar to what Antipholus S. sought in Errors, and through distancing oneself from the object of desire. Viola copes with the supposed loss of her twin brother by in effect becoming him; when she disguises herself as a man, she is another Sebastian, her twin's twin. Viola is parallelled and contrasted with Olivia, another grieving sister; “to season a brother's dead love” she vows to water her chamber once a day with tears. Sequestered with the memory of her brother, she rejects Orsino's constant suits and punishes the world by withdrawing her beauty from it. When Viola falls in love with Orsino, she devotes herself to a martyrdom similar to Olivia's. As long as her disguise proves convincing, she can never confess or consummate her love, and, as Orsino's page, can only express it by furthering his suit to Olivia, her rival. Viola's disguise, it must be said, is to some extent necessitated by her circumstances, and unlike Olivia's attachment to her brother, it is a conscious assumption of a different identity that she maintains in tandem with her real one. Both move, however, from loving dead brothers to loving unattainable male figures, maintaining love with a distance that does not threaten their persistent ties to the family through their brothers.

Orsino's love parallels theirs in the sense that his object is hopelessly unattainable, and in the exacerbated self-consciousness and distancing it involves. His desire for Olivia can never be satisfied. Even though Orsino, like Olivia when she falls in love with Cesario, gives himself over to passion, the fact that he chooses an unyielding object with whom real intimacy is impossible argues his fear of losing himself in passion.

Thus, while all three characters fall madly in love, they all, in different ways, defend against Eros as a threat to the integrity and stability of the self. It is the narcissistic mirroring in which Viola and Olivia engage, however, that is most relevant to the Shakespearean family romance. The twin and the sibling, for Viola and for Olivia, are versions of a need for primary ontological reassurance. Like the mother, they are not fully differentiated from the self (they look the same, or similar, and are of the same blood), and thus they reaffirm the self at the most basic level but keep it from developing further.

However, the fact that mirroring is sought from a double of the opposite sex focuses the issue specifically on sexual identity rather than on identity per se, as in Errors. The errors of Twelfth Night are not merely those of mistaken identity, as in the earlier play, but errors that create an aura of doubt about the characters' sexual identity—for us rather than for them. Twelfth Night is frequently read as a play about masking, about the conscious and unconscious assumption of false identities and about levels of self-knowledge and self-deception;20 this theme is played out prominently through Viola's transsexual disguise.

For the greater part of the play, until Act V, scene 2, each of the three major characters is wholly certain of who it is that he or she loves: Orsino, unaware of his growing attachment to Cesario, ardently pursues Olivia; Olivia gives herself passionately to a man she knows as Cesario; and Viola is constant to Orsino. Viola's transsexual disguise, until she and Sebastian are mistaken for each other in the duel with Sir Andrew, works on us more deeply and disturbingly than it does on the characters it fools, precisely because it fools them and doesn't fool us. As we watch Viola mediating between Olivia and Orsino, inhabiting one sex with them and another with us, we are forced to conceive of several novel and conflicting ways in which sexual identity might be detached from personal identity; we are cut loose from our habitual assumption that the two are inextricable, that the person is defined by his or her sex. In effect, we experience that state of radical identity confusion typical of adolescence, when the differences between the sexes are as fluid as their desires for each other, when a boy might feel more like a girl than a boy, or a girl might love another girl rather than a boy.21

Consider these several possibilities. Olivia believes Cesario to be a man, but we know he isn't, and are titillated by the suggestion that Olivia, loving a woman instead of a man, isn't the woman she should be. Similar doubts arise with Orsino, who has unclasped his bosom so readily to a charming boy. At the same time, Shakespeare lets us see that both Olivia and Orsino are drawn to Viola because they find in her those characteristics of the opposite sex to which they are attracted. Orsino says:

For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man. Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
I know thy constellation is right apt for this affair.

(TN I.iv.30-35)

Olivia, musing on Cesario's statement that he is “a gentleman,” declares:

                                                                                                    I'll be sworn thou art;
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit
Do give thee five-fold blazon. Not so fast: soft! soft!
Unless the master were the man.

(TN I.v.295-98)

At some level, Cesario is a homosexual object choice for each of them, and at another, a heterosexual one. Yet “she” or “he” is the same person, one person. Creatures whose sexual identity is not simply and clearly male or female—hermaphrodites or eunuchs—threaten the binary opposition on which sexual identity, and much else in culture, is based. Without the strict differentiation of male from female, psychic integrity disappears and chaos impends. When Viola refers to herself as a “poor monster,” she but touches on the fearsome aspects of her disguise that have been evident to us as she moves ambiguously from Orsino to Olivia.

Yet, in the delicate comic irony of the scenes between Viola and each of the other two, Shakespeare reminds us through Viola's poignant double entendres of what Viola herself never forgets: that no matter how the duke and countess see her, she is not androgynous but irreducibly a woman. The fluid sexual proclivities of youth promise to clash with the reality principle, for that “little thing” she thinks she lacks of being a man is crucial.

The early introduction of Sebastian into the play, however, assures us that all will end properly with a mate of the opposite sex for both Orsino and Olivia. When Sebastian and Viola recognize each other as brother and sister in the last scene, and Olivia is reprieved from the shadow of our doubt that she might have been in love with a woman, Sebastian says: “So comes it, lady, you have been mistook. / But nature to her bias drew in that” (TN V.i.257-58). Nature's bias is usually regarded as a heterosexual one, but the line is actually ambiguous.22 “Nature's bias” can mean that Olivia followed nature in loving a woman for a short and perhaps necessary period, before actually marrying a man.23 Similarly, Orsino perhaps needed to see Viola as a girlish boy before he could accept her as a real and ardent woman. The dramatic device of identical, opposite-sex twins allows Orsino and Olivia to navigate the crucial passage from identification to object choice, from adolescent sexual experimentation to adult intimacy, from filial ties to adult independence, without even changing the objects of their desires.

Feste's song, “When that I was and a little tiny boy,” which concludes the play, states in its offhand, colloquial, cryptic way the conception of a man's life cycle in terms of psychosexual stages that underlies the action of Twelfth Night. Several interpreters have suggested that the “foolish thing” of the first stanza is the membrum virile.24 Before the speaker comes to “man's estate,” sexuality can be like a toy, playful and open to experimentation, fluid, spontaneous, and uncommitted. But man's estate in the second stanza implies status, responsibility, wealth, and property, which “knaves and thieves” may cheat him out of. He must leave sexual play behind and, in the third stanza, take himself a wife. Now the issue is “swaggering,” the pretense and display of courtship, as we have seen it in the play through Orsino's elegant embassies of love and Sir Andrew's pathetic attempts at valor, neither of which “thrive.”

The song skips over marriage and parenthood, coming to rest in the puzzling fourth stanza at the last stage of life, a decline into drunkenness and sleep,25 before ending with a sigh at the perpetual recurrence of the cycle: “A great while ago the world began … / But that's all one, our play is done.” Twelfth Night traces the evolution of sexuality as related to identity, from the playful and unconscious toyings of youthful courtship, through a period of sexual confusion, to a final thriving in which swaggering is left behind and men and women truly know themselves through choosing and loving the right mate.


With Pericles, written six or seven years after Twelfth Night and toward the end of Shakespeare's career, the family romance moves to its second stage: the protagonist as father, and his daughter as a different kind of double than the twin, one who repeats but reverses his experience and lifts him decisively out of the oedipal family of his past. Through her he becomes a father anew, accepting his fatherhood as his identity, and stops trying vainly to deny his mortality.

Pericles begins by plunging boldly into a representation of the oedipal family. The hero, seeking the hand of a princess, must win her by answering the riddle her father Antiochus has devised, or lose his head. The riddle simultaneously proclaims and hides the incest between father and daughter:

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother's flesh, which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He's father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child:
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

(Per. I.i.65-72)

Riddles occur at points of life crisis in folklore and literature because the riddle structure offers an expressive model for the reconciliation of essential dualities. It creates confusion and then establishes clarity, reaffirming the rules and essential distinctions on which social life depends.26 Underlying the riddle in Pericles is the ancient image of the uroboros, the mythical snake swallowing its own tail, nourishing itself from its own substance. In a Jungian sense, the uroboros is:

an expression of the archetypal domination of nature and the unconscious over life. … In this phase the Archetypal Feminine not only bears and directs life as a whole, and the ego in particular, but also takes everything that is born of it back into its womb of origination and death.27

It signifies the mystical and perhaps sinister unity of life and death in woman, a mortal creature who gives birth to another creature who will also die. In the specific context of incest that the riddle traces, however, this mystical continuity of life and death is perverted. The union between the princess and her father denies the ongoing process of producing life from one generation to the next; her womb, receiving the seed from which she herself was generated, is a haven of sterility and death instead of the source of life. The uroboros suggests the incestuous oedipal family doubling back upon itself, consuming generational differences instead of sending forth new generations. The riddle and the Antioch experience as a whole are thus a negative analogue for “the family romance in Pericles [which] brings together a separated father, mother, and daughter only to divide the generations again for reproduction and rule.”28 In particular, the riddle stresses the destructive confluence of father and daughter, which will be canceled out by the role Marina is to play as one who figuratively and positively “gives birth” to her own father.

Clearly the father-daughter incest of the riddle is a projection of the son's desire to possess the mother and is associated with Pericles as a son. Whether he answers the riddle or feigns ignorance, he is helpless in Antiochus' hands, and through the rest of the play, he is dogged with miseries—though he does nothing to deserve them. Not his character, but the action of the providential tempest demands that he suffer punishment for a guilty desire not dramatized as his. Antiochus' riddle-scheme impressively depicts the castration threat (the stage is decked with the heads of failed suitors), while Pericles' meek, passive response to it represents the son's desire to renounce his phallic challenge to the father and regain his love, in effect taking the mother's place.

Pericles' episodic voyages from place to place, and his successive experiences of loss, are symbolic confrontations with oedipal desire and oedipal fear. The recurrent father figures he encounters represent his continuing difficulty in resolving his image of the father and his position in relation to him. Simonides, on whose shores Pericles is washed up half-dead after the first tempest, is a jolly, generous, nurturant figure who at first delights in playing the possessive father as a joke, then gives his daughter Thaisa to Pericles with his blessing. Cleon, the governor of a kingdom decimated by famine, is aided by the hero with gifts of food; out of gratitude, Cleon takes in Pericles' daughter Marina after the second tempest, when her mother (Thaisa) supposedly dies. But Cleon proves spineless before his envious, scheming wife, who arranges for the girl's death; thus he betrays Pericles' trust. Cerimon, a holy, wise, and kindly magus, restores Thaisa to life by his art. Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene whom Marina redeems from carnal vice, charitably reunites her with her father and becomes his son-in-law.

Collectively, these figures bear an array of ambivalent traits: generous and impoverished, powerful and powerless, ascetic and fleshly. Throughout his encounters with them, Pericles can only bow his head, suffer, and endure. Only once does he show initiative and act a hero's part—whereupon the second tempest hits him. He is pointedly enjoined to learn patience, the virtue analogous to renunciation of the oedipal project. Unable to do so, he withdraws from the world in a deathlike trance, from which only his daughter can save him.

The shift from twin to daughter as the figure through whom the hero gains his final identity is crucial. What it means is that he breaks out of time conceived as a repetition of oedipal patterns and breaks into the future through his daughter and his own new family. The twin is the hero's physical and temporal double; born at the same time and looking just like him, he represents the hero's ties to the preoedipal past. But the daughter, of the opposite sex, born from but after the hero, the product of his union with a woman, is not his mirror image but his successor and opposite. Her fruitful chastity is the opposite of his mother's problematical oedipal sexuality, and (in Pericles and The Winter's Tale) reunion with her precedes reunion with his wife. Thus she validates his separateness from his own father, his fatherhood, his uniqueness.

Pericles falls conspicuously into two halves, the first tracing the hero's adventures, the second beginning some years later when his daughter approaches maturity and centering on her. Her life recapitulates his in that she too suffers several “tempests”. She is threatened with death by her foster mother, captured by pirates, and finally delivered to a brothel to become a whore. Her name and her character make her a walking symbol of the tempest action:

                                                                      Ay me! poor maid,
Born in a tempest, when my mother died,
This world to me is as a lasting storm,
Whirring me from my friends.

(Per. IV.i.18-20)

In addition, her oblique, cryptic, enigmatic mode of speech links her to the riddling, incestuous princess of Antioch. Plainly enough, her relationship with Pericles in the reunion scene is the reverse of the father-daughter incest of the play's beginning, her redemptive chastity paradoxically more truly fruitful than the princess' lust. Pericles calls her “Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget” (Per. V.i.195). Her purity banishes the shadow of oedipal sexuality and brings the hero back to his wife and to the world.


In an illuminating essay, C. L. Barber says that “the primary motive which is transformed in The Winter's Tale … is the affection of Leontes for Polixenes, whatever name one gives it.”29 Though Leontes is a mature man—king, husband, father—the nine-months' visit of his boyhood friend reveals that he is still split between two identities, the boy of the past and the father of the present. Following J. I. M. Stewart (who follows Freud) in interpreting Leontes' jealousy, I would argue that the hero's belief that his wife loves his best friend is his defense against the horrified realization that he too still loves that friend, his way of saying: “Indeed, I do not love him, she loves him!”30 Recall the appealing imagery used to describe the affection that “rooted” between Leontes and Polixenes in their boyhoods. It portrays a paradise of sameness and oneness, the complete untroubled identity of each with the other:

We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun,
And bleat the one at th'other: what we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence: we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd that any did.

(WT I.ii.67-71)

Clearly, Polixenes is Leontes' double, one of the same sex and age who only mirrors him; loving Polixenes is depicted as guiltless, Edenic, and asexual, as opposed to loving a woman. It is also a love that denies time; Leontes and his friend were “Two lads that thought there was no more behind / But such a day to-morrow as to-day, and to be boy eternal” (WT, I.ii.63-65).

The homosexual implications of this nostalgic fantasy are less important than what it suggests about Leontes' attitude toward his mature sexuality, his manliness. He would like to escape and repudiate it, because being a husband and father means entrusting one's sexual dignity to a daughter of Eve, ceding the future to one's children, and facing death. Being “boy eternal,” on the other hand, means being free of sexual desire, with its risks, its complications, and its implication in the procreative cycle, and being, though only in fantasy, immortal. In Polixenes' idyllic picture of boyhood, childish innocence is contrasted with adult sinfulness, and that sinfulness is then specifically associated with the women he and Leontes married, the “temptations” later “born” to them. The association of sin with the carnal pleasure legitimized by marriage betokens a guilt-ridden reluctance to accept, let alone appreciate, the natural desire of men for women—a reluctance soon rationalized in the violent misogyny through which Leontes voices his jealousy, the conviction that women are false through and through.

Having lost the mirror of his masculine identity in Polixenes, Leontes then seeks it in Mamillius, as he normally would in the patriarchal Shakespearean world. But his jealousy provokes him, ironically, to misinterpret the strong physical resemblance between himself and Mamillius. While Shakespeare makes it clear that this resemblance is the legitimate confirmation of Leontes' sexual union with Hermione, and the proof of her fidelity, Leontes finds Hermione's assertion of it another indication of female treachery:

                                                                      … they say we are
Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
(That will say anything) …

(WT I.ii.129-31)

In several significant ways, Shakespeare makes Mamillius a symbol of the union of male and female. His name associates him with the maternal function of nursing, and he is shown in the female company of his mother and her attendants. But he is also “a gentleman of the greatest promise” and universally acknowledged as the future ruler of Sicily, Leontes' heir. The news of his death arrives immediately upon Leontes' denial of the oracle, an act that spells Hermione's doom. That is, Mamillius dies when Leontes denies most absolutely his natural and legitimate sexual union with the feminine, with Hermione, of which Mamillius is the sign and seal. And he is driven to deny it because he cannot sustain it. Despite his age, his kingship, and his fatherhood, emotionally Leontes is stuck at the developmental stage preceding the formation of identity, the stage of undifferentiated oneness with the mother, on which his oneness with Polixenes was modeled.31 He cannot sustain a relationship with a woman based on the union of his and her separate identities, in which trust and reciprocity mediate that separateness.

Fittingly, in robbing Leontes of an heir, Mamillius' death deprives him of a supremely important aspect of his male identity. Just as Macbeth cannot rest content with kingship so long as he lacks heirs to pass it on to, so Leontes is incomplete without an heir, and his lack of one is the direct result of his inability to accept his dependence on feminine power and to sustain a trusting union with Hermione. With the deaths of Mamillius and (seemingly) Hermione, Leontes' delusion lifts, and he enters into a period of realization and repentance. At this point Shakespeare makes explicit, through the figure of Father Time, connections that have been implicit in the first half of the play: those between the human experience of time in the life cycle, women, and the formation of masculine identity.

Inga-Stina Ewbank shows how Leontes, crazy in his jealousy, acts with feverish haste, “goes against time and is therefore blind to truth.” In the tradition of Renaissance iconography appropriated by Shakespeare in this play, time is a father, an old man, just what Leontes does not want to be. Ironically, in defying Father Time, he denies his own fatherhood and deprives himself of a son and a future. He is plunged into seemingly endless mourning for his past actions. As Ewbank says, now Leontes “has to become aware of truth in a wider sense … through subjection to Time the Revealer.”32 It is in this second half of the play that women, Paulina and Perdita, gain effective dramatic power to nurture men; concurrently, time becomes the revealer, whose daughter is truth, rather than the destroyer, tempus edax, who seized Mamillius and Hermione. The play moves to “a world ransomed” (Bohemia), and through a number of parallels in dramatic structure and action, Shakespeare keeps alive his “primary motive,” Leontes' feeling for Polixenes, now changed into the wide gap of enmity dividing the once “twinn'd” brothers. But this time the younger generation, the sons and daughters, are to redeem (or in Shakespeare's metaphor “beget”) their fathers, restoring them to new identities as fathers.

Camillo's plot to present Florizel as his father's ambassador to Leontes provides the middle term by which the breaches between father and son, and brother and brother (Leontes and Polixenes), can both be healed at once. As Murray Schwartz argues: “By impersonating his father, Florizel can replace him without really replacing him.”33 But more important for the play's main action, the transformation of Leontes' affection for Polixenes, Florizel in the latter's place bridges the gap between the two men and makes them friends again, not as “twinn'd lambs” but as men who have erred, suffered, and lost. The king's greeting to his future son-in-law makes this change clear:

Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince;
For she did print your royal father off,
Conceiving you …
                                                  … Most dearly welcome!
And your fair princess—goddess! O! alas,
I lost a couple that 'twixt heaven and earth
Might thus have stood, begetting wonder, as
You, gracious couple, do; and then I lost
(All mine own folly) the society,
Amity too, of your brave father, whom
(Though bearing misery) I desire my life
Once more to look on him.

(WT V.i.123-25, 129-37)

Florizel and Perdita represent complementary modes of mediating separation and difference from significant others, a crucial task in identity formation. He fights his father, then reconciles with him. Perdita, on the other hand, does not fight but subsumes opposites into a transcendent reality. On the sexual level, she reconciles virginity and erotic appeal, modesty and abandonment; mythically, through the imagery and ambiance of Bohemia, she is associated with “things dying” and “things newborn,” with mother earth, the womb and tomb of all. She combines the qualities of the chaste preoedipal mother and the sexually desirable oedipal mother, symbolically uniting Leontes' divided attitudes toward women.

Significantly, though, Leontes' recognition of Florizel precedes his recognition of Perdita; he regains a son before he regains a daughter, thus recasting his relationship with his “brother,” Polixenes, before he goes on to recognize and recast his relationship with the feminine in Perdita and then Hermione. This sequence of reunions recapitulates the sequence of identity development for which I am arguing. The total identity of like with like which Leontes found with Polixenes was an effort to repeat the mother-child symbiotic unity and to avoid male identity. When Leontes “takes” Florizel “for” Polixenes as well as “for” Mamillius, he is accepting paternity, his and Polixenes', as the crucial component of his male identity—and paternity is equally based upon his separateness from the feminine and his union with it. To acknowledge Perdita as his daughter is to accept the sexuality he had wanted to repudiate; to acknowledge her as his heir is to accept the mortality he had wanted to escape. It is fitting that Leontes, as he clasps Hermione's hand (that crucial gesture again), characterizes his reunion with her in terms of the most primitive, elemental human activity, begun at the mother's breast:

                                                                                O, she's warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

(WT V.iii.109-11)


The island setting of The Tempest and the centrality of Prospero as demiurge make it a fantasy of omnipotence. Prospero not only controls; he creates. He devises scenarios of his deepest wishes and causes them to be enacted, redesigning his world so as to rectify or compensate for his past. The play's several interwoven actions—the courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda, the ordeal and illumination of the court party, the usurpations attempted by Antonio and Sebastian, and by Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo—are all foreseen or overseen by Prospero. They are his attempts to work through his oedipal past, to complete himself. As such, they are only partly successful. He redefines himself as man rather than magician, and regains his dukedom. But while he gives up his omnipotence in the end, he never recognizes and accepts his sexuality and his relationship to women as Leontes does. Unlike Pericles and The Winter's Tale, The Tempest does not depict the rebirth of a family as well as of a man, and thus Prospero's final identity lacks the fullness of that achieved by the other heroes.34

Unlike them, Prospero has no wife; strangely, he doesn't even allude to his duchess' fate in the otherwise detailed account of his past that he gives Miranda. Moreover, his only mention of his wife is highly ambivalent, at once commending and questioning her chastity: “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter” (Tmp. I.ii.56-57). In addition to Miranda, the only other woman in the play is Sycorax, the “foul witch” and bad mother who penned Ariel in a cloven pine and gave birth to Caliban the freckled whelp. Marina and Perdita as doubles of their fathers grow up independently from them, their qualities and powers developing spontaneously and freely. They then function as mothers to their fathers by “delivering” them to new identities as fathers. They also serve as doubles of their mothers, uniting chastity with fertility and countering their mothers' oedipally tinged sexuality. Miranda, on the other hand, has never left her father. She is his creation, exclusively nurtured, tutored, and controlled by him on the island. Her sexuality, like that of the other daughter-doubles, is firmly allied with the divine order behind nature. But it is Prospero who defines and guards that sexuality, subsuming it into his larger project for the settling of old scores and the resumption of his role in Milan.

On a larger scale, Prospero's subjugation of sexuality in Miranda is figured in the antithesis between Ariel and Caliban. Spirit and flesh, air and earth, god and beast: these facets of human existence, it is implied, are decisively sundered in Prospero as in his underlings, whom he keeps separate by anxious, vigilant control. Ironically, neither character is actually as distinct from the other or as one-dimensional as Prospero thinks he is; each has potential that the magus is too busy with his task of defensive control to notice. Though Ariel is not human and cannot feel, he knows what sympathy and love are and moreover, values them as a human being would:

                                                                                                                                            The King,
His brother, and yours, abide all three distracted,
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay …
                              … Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become a tender.
                                                  Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
                                                  And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art?

(Tmp. V.i.11-14, 16-24)

Prospero, who is human, has to be reminded that he has a heart by one who lacks it. The terms of endearment with which he plies Ariel and no one else are wasted on the spirit, who nonetheless has a touch of humanity. On the other hand, the savage and deformed slave on whose nature, Prospero claims, nurture will never stick, reveals a touching sensitivity to beauty and a capacity for wonder to which his master is oblivious. Caliban gives his heart, however foolishly, to Stephano and Trinculo, but at least he has affections. All that matters to Prospero, though, is that Caliban tried to rape his daughter; it was then that the magician abandoned the task of educating his creature and removed him from the cell to imprisonment in a rock (Tmp. I.ii.346-64). In the last scene, Prospero hardly gives Caliban's moral enlightenment its due, though he hints he'll pardon him and directs him back to the cell instead of the rock. Ariel finally gains his freedom, as Prospero gains his, in renouncing revenge, but Caliban is likely to remain confined on the island, as Prospero's sexuality remains confined in himself and in Miranda's chaste marriage.

Essentially, in coming from Milan to the island, Prospero went from childlike, self-absorbed dependency to paternal omnipotence, skipping the steps of maturation in between. Whether he surrendered the cares of state to Antonio or whether Antonio stole the state for himself (Prospero's self-contradictory account suggests both; see Tmp. I.ii.66-132), Antonio in effect served as his brother's parental provider before casting him out.35 Then, assuming dominion over the island, Prospero became free to pursue his studies in a boundlessly nurturant environment, without significant rivalry. The island was his virgin space: he was the first man on it. Having previously withdrawn from all competition in the world of men, under these special conditions he was given a second chance to eradicate his father's preeminence and priority in time, and become his father's equal, through preeminence and priority on the island. As Harry Berger argues, the island is like a child's microsphere, where he makes a model of his painful experiences so as “to play at doing something that was in reality done to him,” and thus “redeems his failures and strengthens his hopes.”36 This “playing” is a magical, wish-fulfillment form of delayed growing up for Prospero.

Specifically, he plays out rivalries which he never fully confronted before, using his brother as a stand-in for his father. He does so through a brilliant compromise between revenge and charity, which allows him to have his cake and eat it too. When Providence brings his treacherous brother and his brother's confederate Alonso to the island in a tempest, he re-creates for them his own near-fatal voyage “in a rotten carcass of a butt” years before. He subjects Alonso to the threat of usurpation and the seeming loss of his son, again versions of their actions against him. These trials would add up to a tidy revenge were they not sheer illusion, the product of Prospero's strenuous art, and were they not perpetrated for the sake of arousing “heart-sorrow and a clear life ensuing.” They are and are not revenge. For Prospero to take revenge in reality would be to repeat what was done to him and become mired in the family past, in a cycle of successive revenges. But not to take revenge would be passivity and impotence. By recognizing his own anger in the realization that “the rarer action lies in virtue than in vengeance,” and by stopping short of revenge, he breaks out of repetition, out of the revenge cycle, and out of his oedipal past. But he fails to re-create in any sexual relationship the life-giving love experience first known with the mother.37

Delineating the centrality of the rival sibling motif to the Shakespearean conception of masculinity, Joel Fineman argues that “branching pairs of siblings, real or virtual, male and female, rooted together in synonymous rivalry” are crucial to male identity. For since the male's first sense of self is implicated with the mother, in order to define himself he must separate decisively from her; he must establish a crucial difference. Fineman sees fratricidal rivalry as the adult rephrasing of this early, essential differentiation, and he regards it as essential to the next step in masculine identity formation, the oedipal conflict and its resolution.38 Among Shakespearean rivals, Prospero neither fights his brother to the death, as Claudius does King Hamlet, or Hal Hotspur, nor reconciles with him as does Oliver with Orlando, or Proteus with Valentine. Rather, he effects the unique compromise I have described. But that compromise brings him no closer to acknowledging his sexuality or to uniting with the feminine, because he has still not fully worked through his oedipal past, or perhaps because he has sublimated it too well in his art.

Presumably, Prospero's years on the island were devoted to two ends: perfecting his art and perfecting Miranda. Her chastity, like Marina's and Perdita's, functions as a denial of her father's past desires. By giving her to Ferdinand, the son of his brother's partner in crime, and ensuring legitimate heirs to his regained dukedom, he symbolically resolves his old rivalries and validates his new identity as duke. The summit of Pericles' and Leontes' lives is reunion with their daughters and then with their wives: recovery of what they denied and lost before. In contrast, the triple crown of Prospero's life is to give up revenge, then to give his daughter away, and finally to give up his art.

A final question suggests itself. All through the play, Shakespeare stresses in Prospero a superb combination of power and control. There are signs of strain in his tetchiness with Ariel, his disgust with Caliban, his obsession with Miranda's virtue, his hatred of Antonio. But on the whole, he commands his art in the service of giving vent to but transcending his violent feelings. Why must he renounce his art? Why can't he keep it and hold his dukedom too, since it has served his worldly and his personal aims so well? He gives it up because he doesn't need it any more, because with its aid he has accomplished the project of emerging from the family and becoming his own man, the Duke of Milan. The cost of this achievement, however, is sexual and social isolation.

A romance is a fiction of wish fulfillment. The plays I have discussed are all romances by virtue of their sources, or their nature as dramas, or both. They articulate the ambivalent wish to get free of the family and find a self outside it, while at the same time to stay within it, nurtured by its loves. All these plays seek a compromise between the two conflicting urges, and the compromise turns on the finding of a mate. From the male protagonist's point of view, this means that it turns on his ability to accept woman and sustain intimacy with her. She is at once the seal of his male identity and the obstacle to it; he fears her and he needs her. Without her, he can neither leave his family of origin and find himself, nor father his own family and play his part in the patriarchal world. At the cost of great suffering, Leontes wins the fullest acceptance of woman, and The Winter's Tale presents the richest vision of male identity defined within the family. Leontes is both, and equally, husband and father. Significantly, though, the family romance concludes with The Tempest, in which woman is most strongly repressed. Prospero's identity is based entirely on his role as father, and his family is never united or complete. The Shakespearean family romance, then, remains closer to the imperfect realities we live with than to the wishes we cherish.


  1. Meredith Skura, “Interpreting Posthumus' Dream from Above and Below: Families, Psychoanalysts, and Literary Critics” (Chapter 11 in [Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980]).

  2. See Frank Kermode's Introduction to the new Arden edition of The Tempest (London: Methuen, 1954) for a useful discussion of this motif in relation to its literary and historical sources and its intellectual background.

  3. Several Shakespearean critics have written perceptively on the tempest motif. First and notable is G. Wilson Knight, Myth and Miracle (London: Chatto and Windus, 1929) and The Shakespearian Tempest (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932), who finds the storm “percurrent in Shakespeare as a symbol of tragedy” and sees the opposition of storm and music as central to the canon. Others are Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965) and Douglas Peterson, Time, Tide, and Tempest: A Study of Shakespeare's Romances (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1973). So far as I know, no one has pursued the psychological interpretation of the tempest that I will present here.

  4. For Erikson's concept of identity, see his Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), 22-23, 50, 159-60 and passim; for the eight stages of psychosexual development, see his Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 247-75. I will be concerned here with three of the four stages succeeding latency: adolescence, characterized by a conflict between identity and role confusion; youth, by a conflict between intimacy and isolation; and maturity, by a conflict between generativity and stagnation.

  5. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, p. 16.

  6. Peter Blos, On Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (New York: Free Press, 1962), 100, but see 87-128 and passim.

  7. Symbiotic merger and the separation-individuation process are described and analyzed in Margaret S. Mahler, Fred Pine, and Anni Bergman, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation (New York: Basic Books, 1975).

  8. Blos, pp. 90-91.

  9. For a brief description of these stages, see Erikson, Childhood and Society, pp. 261-66; for a more extensive discussion, see Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, pp. 142-207.

  10. C. L. Barber, “‘Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget’: Transformation in Pericles and The Winter's Tale,Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969), 59-67.

  11. I am greatly indebted to John T. Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1975), for the ideas of the sibling as a double, of incest and revenge as forms of repetition, and the relation of doubling, incest, and revenge to the sequence of generations within the family.

  12. Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, ed. and trans. Harry Tucker, Jr. (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1971), first published in 1914, expanded 1925. See also Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey et al., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 17, pp. 217-52.

  13. Marjorie Garber, “Coming of Age in Shakespeare,” The Yale Review, 66 (1977), 517-33. Her understanding of sexual maturation in Shakespeare parallels mine at several salient points.

  14. See D. W. Winnicott's description of this process in Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1971), pp. 111-18. Paula Elkisch, “The Psychological Significance of the Mirror,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 5 (1965), 235-44, relates the need to see oneself in a mirror to narcissistic crises of identity; one who fears ego loss turns to the mirror for protection against it, trying to retrieve in the mirrored image his self, his boundaries. Morris W. Brody, “The Symbolic Significance of Twins in Dreams,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 21 (1952), 172-80, claims that twins in dream and folklore, whether of the same or opposite sexes, represent the dreamer and his or her mother in the fusion of the womb or of nursing; they symbolize the ambivalent wish to maintain union with the mother but at the same time not to be swallowed up in her, maintaining separation through duplication of the self.

  15. See R. A. Foakes, new Arden edition of The Comedy of Errors (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 2.

  16. This and subsequent quotations from the plays discussed here are taken from the new Arden edition (London: Methuen): The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes, 1962; Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, 1975; Pericles, ed. F. D. Hoeniger, 1963; The Winter's Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford, 1963; The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, 1954.

  17. Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, 178.

  18. Antipholus E.'s hoped-for redemption from arrest by money in the form of angels parodies the liberation of Peter from prison in Acts 12:1-11, and it adds a spiritual dimension to the subsequent liberation of Antipholus from the errors of mistaken identity and domestic dissension plaguing him.

  19. John Hollander, “Twelfth Night and the Morality of Indulgence,” Sewanee Review, 67 (1959), 222-35.

  20. See L. G. Salingar, “The Design of Twelfth Night,Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 118-35, and Joseph H. Summers, “The Masks of Twelfth Night,” in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), 128-37.

  21. Blos explains that in adolescence the withdrawal of love from the parents, or from their object representations in the ego, deflects love onto the self; the adolescent thus enters into the “transitory narcissistic stage” described in n. 6, which precedes attachment to a heterosexual object. In the boy, this narcissism may lead to a same-sex object choice based on an ego ideal. Blos cites Tonio Kröger's crush on Hans Hansen as an example; Mann says that Tonio “loved him in the first place because he was handsome; but in the next because he was in every respect his own opposite and foil” (quoted in Blos, p. 80). Helene Deutsch describes “a strongly bisexual tendency” in girls in early adolescence, which leads them to stress masculine traits, to suffer the same kind of homosexual crushes as boys do, or to have bisexual fantasies about a brother (often a twin) endowed with all the qualities the girl herself would like to have, or blamed for the impulses she represses and rejects. See The Psychology of Women: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation (New York: Grune and Stratton, 1944; rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 1, pp. 88-89).

  22. The editors of the new Arden edition of Twelfth Night, J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, comment that “Nature followed its inborn tendency, to mate female with male and so undo the effects of Viola's misleading disguise.”

  23. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), makes this suggestion.

  24. Hollander, p. 236; Leslie Hotson, The First Night of Twelfth Night (New York: Macmillan, 1954), 173.

  25. Furness and Halliwell in the Variorum edition, and Craik and Lothian in the new Arden edition, cite Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters for “beds” as denoting old age.

  26. Phyllis Gorfain, “Riddles and Tragic Structure in Shakespeare,” Mississippi Folklore Register, Special Issue: Shakespeare and Folklore, ed. Philip C. Kolin, 10 (1976), 187-209.

  27. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), 30.

  28. Phyllis Gorfain, “Puzzle and Artifice: The Riddle as Metapoetry in Pericles,Shakespeare Survey, 29 (1976), 11-20.

  29. Barber, “‘Thou that beget'st him,’” 65.

  30. J.I.M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London: Longmans, Green, 1949), p. 34. See also Sigmund Freud, “Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality,” Standard Edition, 18, pp. 221-33.

  31. See Sigmund Freud, “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood,” Standard Edition, 11; “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” Standard Edition, 14; and Murray M. Schwartz, “Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale,American Imago, 30, (1973), 250-73, and “The Winter's Tale: Loss and Transformation,” American Imago, 32, (1975), 145-99. Arguing that Leontes is motivated by a “fear of separation from idealized others” and that he attempts “to reunite himself with a fantasized ideal maternal figure,” Schwartz analyzes the paranoia of the hero's jealousy as a radical denial of separation. He sees the second half of the play as a successful reconstitution of continuity and union rooted ontogenetically in the mother-son symbiosis. His interpretation of the play's psychology is rigorous, comprehensive, and brilliant; I am greatly indebted to it.

  32. Inga-Stina Ewbank, “The Triumph of Time in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare's Later Comedies, ed. D. J. Gordon (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1971).

  33. Schwartz, “Loss and Transformation,” p. 178.

  34. Carol Thomas Neely, in “Women and Issue in The Winter's Tale,” a paper delivered at the Central Renaissance Conference in April 1975, firmly distinguishes Shakespeare's treatment of sexuality in The Winter's Tale from that in the other romances, which “hover uneasily between the extreme idealization of sex and its extreme degradation,” while in The Winter's Tale, “fully developed women characters play central roles” to free men from distorted sexual attitudes. I came upon her paper after writing this essay to discover that its view coheres with my own at many points.

  35. Karl M. Abenheimer, “Shakespeare's Tempest: A Psychological Analysis,” Psychoanalytic Review, 33 (1946), 399-415, suggests this interpretation.

  36. Harry Berger, Jr., “Miraculous Harp: A Reading of Shakespeare's Tempest,Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1970), 253-83, makes this point.

  37. Hans W. Loewald, Psychoanalysis and the History of the Individual (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), remarks that “ego development does not proceed in a straight line, does not consist in a movement further and further away from id. … One might come close to human time by saying that it consists in an interpretation and reciprocal relatedness of past, present, and future … an ascending spiral in which the same basic themes are re-experienced and enacted on different levels of mentation and action” (p. 23).

  38. Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles” (Chapter 5 in [Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980]).

Thomas McFarland (essay date 1981)

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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. As he grew old, Annesley's mind began to give way, and two of his daughters, Christian, who was the wife of Lord Sandys of the Essex Rebellion, and Lady Grace Wildgoose, petitioned to have the old man declared insane and his estate placed in the care of Lady Wildgoose's husband. Annesley's third daughter, who was named Cordell or Cordelia, opposed the action and in October 1603 sent a letter to Cecil on behalf of her “poor aged and daily dying father.” History does not inform us of the ending of this family turbulence, other than that, when Annesley died in 1604, Lady Wildgoose unsuccessfully challenged his will. Some scholars think that when the Fool comments on the alliance of Regan and Goneril in the second act of the play, he is obliquely alluding to the Annesley affair in the line “Winter's not gone yet, if the wild geese fly that way” (2.4.45).

To this prototype for the main plot of King Lear drawn from the quotidian reality of family life in Shakespeare's milieu we may add a fictional prototype for the subplot, drawn from the furthest reaches of Elizabethan familial fantasy. For the story of Gloucester and his two sons is taken from what Sidney called “this idle worke of mine,” “this child, which I am loath to father,” this “trifle, and that triflinglie handled,” that is, The Arcadia. Here, in 1590, in the tenth chapter of the second book, we read of

an aged man, and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorely arayed, extreamely weather-beaten; the olde man blinde, the young man leading him: and yet through all those miseries, in both these seemed to appeare a kind of noblenesse, not sutable to that affliction. But the first words they heard, were these of the old man … feare not, my miserie cannot be greater than it is, & nothing doth become me but miserie; feare not the danger of my blind steps, I cannot fall worse than I am. And doo not I pray thee, do not obstinately continue to infect thee with my wretchedness.

The young man then tells the observers how this doleful scene came about:

This old man (whom I leade) was lately rightfull Prince of this countrie of Paphlagonia, by the hard-harted ungratefulnes of a sonne of his, deprived, not onely of his kingdome (whereof no forraine forces were ever able to spoyle him) but of his sight, the riches which Nature graûts to the poorest creatures. Whereby, & by other his unnaturall dealings, he hath bin driven to such griefe, as even now he would have had me to have led him to the toppe of this rocke, thêce to cast himselfe headlong to death: and so would have made me (who received my life of him) to be the worker of his destruction.

The “toppe of this rocke” in this passage becomes, in Shakespeare's imaginative expansion, the powerful evocation by which Edgar deludes his blinded father (and more than one modern critic) into thinking he stands on the cliffs of Dover:

Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
.....                                                                                Half way down
Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark
Diminished to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge
That on th' unnumb'red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high.


Shakespeare's conception of what Edgar immediately afterward calls “the extreme verge” is thus directly linked to Sidney's fantasy, as we can see again in the play's expansion of the blind king's lament as formulated by Sidney: “my miserie cannot be greater than it is, & nothing doth become me but miserie. … I cannot fall worse than I am.” For Edgar in effect supplies a commentary: “Who is't can say, ‘I am at the worst’? / I am worse than e'er I was. … And worse I may be yet: the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’” (4.1.25-28).

King Lear, to take up Edgar's rhetoric of descent, is both a drama of “the extreme verge” and an extended trope of things getting worse. We might indeed say of its depiction of life that “This is the worst,” except that to say so would be to turn us to Edgar's wisdom and make us realize that Hamlet may descend beyond even that description. Certainly over both plays there broods Hamlet's disbelieving realization “That it should come to this.” In this statement, the sense of moving from hope to horror is accentuated by the stunning virtuosity of Shakespeare's rendering of happy past and terrible present by the pain-blurred pronouns of “it” and “this.”

Both plays augment their pain by fostering it in the matrix of family life. After this initial congruence, however, the familial similarities diminish. The family situation in Hamlet follows the model of Senecan tragedy, which in its turn had its eye upon Greek tragedy, especially the familial horrors of the house of Atreus. Seneca, who is a much more considerable dramatist than is at present fashionable to believe (Scaliger, who did not take these things lightly, ranked him with Euripides), considered human life to be hell on earth.1 In this line of genesis, the family situation in Hamlet, to adopt a modern perspective, can be not inappropriately summed up in the vision of R. D. Laing: “A family can act as gangsters, offering each other mutual protection against each other's violence. It is a reciprocal terrorism.” Or again:

From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to those forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father … have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world.2

The latter part of Laing's formula for modern youth, “a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world,” might serve as a rough description of the situation of Hamlet himself.

The model of the family in King Lear is different. The play itself might be seen as an exalted version of the “domestic tragedy” of the period—as an elevated form of such structures as A Woman Killed with Kindness or even Arden of Feversham. The situation in Hamlet, by contrast, is almost flamboyant; it has the specialness of things that happen only once, in the realm of the hypothetical, and to others than ourselves. It is significant that the play has been approached through such pairings as “Hamlet and Orestes” and “Hamlet and Oedipus.” When Freud first discerned the outline of the Oedipus complex, which he was forced to see as a flaw at the very root of human nature, he immediately illustrated it by reference to Hamlet. And the form of our contemplation of such shattering familial pain as that represented by Orestes and Oedipus is the aesthetic distancing described by Kant, whereby we take pleasure in catastrophic events such as hurricanes and erupting volcanoes provided we are simultaneously secure from their consequences. A shipwreck happens to others, not to us; and Oedipus, Orestes, and Hamlet find themselves in unthinkable situations that accentuate our own security as spectators. In this same context, we may note that of all Freud's insights into human nature, none has more fiercely engaged our protective mechanisms of resistance and denial than has his formulation of the Oedipus complex. It was not merely Malinowski who professed to find no such complex in the primitive societies he studied; almost every soi-disant rectifier of Freud begins by denying the universality of the Oedipus complex. It is as though we think it suitable for Oedipus, but not for us. We are not Prince Hamlet, nor were we meant to be.

The situation in King Lear involves a different model of experience, an image of family life that is neither flamboyant nor unique. On the contrary, it is in significant respects almost commonplace. Lear's pain and outrage are larger versions of the pain and outrage that almost all parents at some point and to some degree experience because of their offspring. Lear's agonized realization that “Age is unnecessary” is encountered again and again by aging parents and grandparents faced with loss of prestige and function, and possibly with transportation to homes for the elderly. Goneril's impatience with Lear's residing in her own domicile is an immensely larger version of a commonplace experience, that of the strains resulting when an aged parent takes up residence with a married child. “Let me not stay a jot for dinner; go, get it ready” (1.4.8-9), orders Lear imperiously, after the audience has just been informed of Goneril's instructions to “prepare for dinner” (1.3.27). This embryonic family clash, the experience of untold numbers of housewives and aging parents writ large, is the antipode of the poison coursing like quicksilver through the porches of ears that we find in Hamlet's context. “By day and night he wrongs me,” flashes Goneril, her very accents being those of the harried and hateful, but by the same token those of the commonplace and oft-repeated:

                                                                                I'll not endure it.
His knights grow riotous, and himself upbraids us
On every trifle. When he returns from hunting,
I will not speak with him. Say I am sick.
If you come slack of former services,
You shall do well; the fault of it I'll answer.


The same tone of quotidian exasperation permeates Goneril's spiteful references to her father's Fool:

Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool,
But other of your insolent retinue
Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth
In rank and not-to-be-endurèd riots.


Unlovable though she is, Goneril here speaks in tones with which many with numerous and long-staying guests can sympathize, and we do remember that previously she has taken care to ascertain at least one of the facts: “Did my father strike my gentleman for chiding of his Fool?” “Ay, madam,” comes the answer (1.3.1-3). Moreover, in the early part of the play's action she speaks in tones that at least attempt to justify her conduct:

                                                                                I do beseech you
To understand my purposes aright.
As you are old and reverend, should be wise.
Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires,
Men so disordered, so deboshed, and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shows like a riotous inn. Epicurism and lust
Makes it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a graced palace.


Lear reacts like many a parent, and entirely like his own self-indulgent early self; we do not here have his later “O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this,” but rather instant righteousness and thunderbolts:

                                                                                Darkness and devils!
Saddle my horses; call my train together.
Degenerate bastard, I'll not trouble thee:
Yet have I left a daughter.


In this instance, Lear's manipulation of the dynamics of family favoritism, which repeats the fatuity with which he had offered Cordelia “a third more opulent than your sisters” (1.1.86), elicits from Goneril the shrill and wonderful rejoinder—wonderful because it endures in the common situations of human experience:

You strike my people, and your disordered rabble
Make servants of their betters.


It is because of the repeated projection of such exquisitely nuanced appeals to the sensus communis (Kant says that “by the name sensus communis is to be understood the idea of a public sense, i.e. a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account [a priori] of the mode of representation of every one else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgment with the collective reason of mankind”) that the situation between Lear and his daughters cannot rewardingly be described in terms of the rhetoric of good and evil. Thus Maynard Mack's reference, in his King Lear in Our Time, to “the unmitigated badness of Goneril and Regan” seems somewhat beside the point. Moreover, his belief that the two sisters represent “paradigms of evil” leads in my opinion to a subtle misconception of the play's meaning. In the rudimentary morality dramas that in some sense form an adumbrative basis of King Lear, such figures would indeed be paradigms of evil; in the two-dimensional fairy-tale motif of Lear's processional entrance at the beginning and his arbitrary dividing of his kingdom into three (an action of the same order as Old King Cole summoning his fiddlers three), Goneril and Regan do assume the roles of wicked elder sisters to the Cinderella-like good third sister. But these are lower layers and starting points, not the profound process of the play itself. In that process, as I have elsewhere urged, good and evil are conceptions with little purchase.3

If we persist in using the conventional rhetoric of good and evil, we should, of course, certainly have to stigmatize Goneril, Regan, and Edmund as evil. But by that same schematism we should also be forced to think of Lear and Gloucester as good. How unfitting this latter conception would be can perhaps be indicated in brief by returning to the source of the subplot. In The Arcadia the son who is helping his blind father says: “noble Gentlemen … if either of you have a father, and feele what deutifull affection is engraffed in a sonnes hart, let me intreate you to convey this afflicted Prince to some place of rest & securitie.” What Sidney next writes should prompt our reflection on its probable function in Shakespeare's work: “But before they could make him answere his father began to speake, Ah my sonne (said he) how evill an Historian are you, that leave out the chief knotte of all the discourse? my wickednes, my wickednes.”

In the movement of the play, as opposed to the source, the wickedness of the father is finally no more relevant than the evil of the child. What we are presented instead is an image of the family in dynamic interaction, an image intensified and underscored by being doubled into parallel plots. The process of things getting worse is coordinate with a process of progressive deterioration and dereliction in family relationships. After all, the source of the play found in Geoffrey of Monmouth specifically includes the allegedly evil Goneril and Regan in the original unity of love: “He was without Male Issue,” says that source for King Lear, “but had three Daughters whose names were Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, of whom he was doatingly fond, but especially of his youngest Cordeilla.” It is hardly an exaggeration, indeed, to say that the subject of the play is, not the agony of the king, but the agony of the family; and in a very real sense the protagonist of the play is not Lear alone, nor even Lear and Gloucester in tandem, but the two fathers as the center of family relationships and the service relationships that pertain to them. Any impact on any strand of this web of relationships perturbs the whole; when Gloucester suffers, a nameless serving man lays down his life in sympathetic response.

The protagonistic function is thus dispersed, and the dispersal is both welcome and in a sense necessary because of the unattractiveness of age. Although the fact that Lear is a man standing on the outer edge of existence—“O, sir, you are old,” notes Regan, “Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine” (2.4.143-145)—gives him immense tragic authenticity and the play immense leverage at the tragic intersection of being and nonbeing, by the same token, his standing at the verge of nature's confine makes it difficult for us to identify with him. For an aged man is but a paltry thing, and Lear's prospects on his very verge are as bleak as those of Gloucester on his own extreme verge. The motifs of “very verge” and “extreme verge,” though emphasized by the aged fathers, actually pertain to all the characters and in truth to all human existence: in this life we all stand on the razor's edge, and death has a thousand doors. But it is Lear's definition as father that connects him with younger life and its attendant hope. His fatherhood draws him back into our common ken; his familial identity ropes him to the others as he teeters on the edge of the abyss.4 Indeed, even Regan's heartless remark quoted above would not have been made were he not her father.

The tension between Lear's two roles in life, one as king with its patina of symbolic paternalism, the other as father to a specific family, generates the tragic situation that arises in the play. Or more exactly, it makes up the tragic abscissa that, along with the tragic ordinate constituted by being's straining against nonbeing, delimits King Lear's tragic space.

Lear pervasively assumes at the outset that his status as king and his status as father are the same, and this initial confusion leads him into the fallacious assumption that power and love are interchangeable.5 It is not merely that he mistakenly believes that so much love can equal so much land, or that he carries the confusion between love and power into the further quantification of the hundred knights, appurtenances necessary to a king but irrelevant to a father. Rather, it is that he believes that the attributes he gives up as king are ones he can retain solely as father: “I do invest you jointly with my power, / Preeminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty,” he says to Goneril and Regan and their husbands:

                                                                                Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustained, shall our abode
Make with you by due turn. Only we shall retain
The name, and all th' addition to a king.


As Lawrence Stone observes, from a vantage ground atop a mass of sociohistorical data: “Shakespeare's interpretation of King Lear merely underscores the moral that a father who gives up real power, in the expectation of obtaining the love and attention of his children instead, is merely exhibiting a form of insanity. His inevitable disappointment would have come as no surprise to an Elizabethan audience.”6 Nor to a modern one either, we might append.

We see the same confusion of Lear's conception of himself as king and as father in his decision to divide his kingdom into three, a decision that violated the accumulated wisdom of Elizabethan statecraft. As Sir Thomas Elyot said in 1531, in The Boke Named the Gouernour:

Lyke as to a castell or fortresse suffisethe one owner or soueraygne and where any mo be of like power and authoritie seldome cometh the warke to perfection. … In semblable wyse doth a publike weale that hath mo chiefe gouernours than one.

He goes on to say that “if any desireth to haue the gouernance of one persone proued by histories let him fyrste resorte to the holy scripture; where he shall fynde that almyghty god commanded Moses … gyuynge onely to hym that authoritie without appoyntynge to hym any other assistence of equall power or dignitie.” After many examples of the ills attendant upon divided rule, he says,

But what nede we to serche so ferre from vs sens we haue sufficient examples nere vnto us? … After that the Saxons by treason had expelled out of Englande the Britons whiche were the auncient inhabitantes: this realme was deuyded in to sondry regions or kyngdomes. O what mysery was the people then in: O howe this most noble Isle of the worlde was decerpt and rent in pieces.

Elyot's political admonitions find confirmation in 1561 in Sackville's and Norton's Gorboduc, where the choric counselor warns:

To part your realm unto my lords, your sons,
I think not good for you, ne yet for them,
But worst of all for this our native land.
Within one land one single rule is best.
Divided reigns do make divided hearts,
But peace preserves the country and the prince.


In 1599, finally, to trace the unanimity of opinion into Shakespeare's own day, King James VI wrote to his son in the Basilikon Doron:

Make your eldest sonne ISAAC, leauing him all your Kingdomes, and prouide the rest with priuate possessiones: otherwayes by deuiding your Kingdomes, yee shall leaue the seede of diuisione and discorde among your posteritie.

Lear, in short, is behaving like a father and not like a king when he divides his kingdom. The inadequacy of his action purely as that of a father, as opposed to its patent folly as the decision of a king, is attendant, not upon the division as such, but rather upon the inequality of the division, that is, the doting promise to Cordelia to give her “a third more opulent than your sisters,” a third that directly validates Goneril's once resentful but by now matter-of-fact realization that “he always loved our sister most” (1.1.290).

An even more damaging result of Lear's confusion of kingship and fatherhood is his feeling that, like a monarch, but not like a father, he can abrogate the ties of kinship. But the family has its deep-rooted sanctities. The original sin of this dark cosmos is constituted by Lear's denial of family relation in his rejection of Cordelia:

Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this for ever.


Thus Lear's action, not in becoming angry with Cordelia, who has herself acted with some of the old man's willfulness, but in disclaiming paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood, is, if we like the rhetoric of good and evil, the beginning of the evil in the play's progression of events; it is an action of the same order as those of Goneril and Regan. Lear's own violation is eventually redeemed, and its purgation begins with his dawning realization that “I did her wrong” (1.5.24); whereas Goneril and Regan cannot escape their own selves and eventually begin to prey upon each other, in Albany's phrase, “like monsters of the deep.” Albany's terrifying image, which is the nadir of the play's animal references and alludes to the unspoken, dreaded boundary situation of possible descent from true human relation, is prefigured by Lear's violation at the beginning of the play. Thus France observes that Cordelia, as “the best, the dearest,” could not “commit a thing so monstrous” (1.1.217) as Lear's reaction suggests; and he refers to her “offense” as being of “unnatural degree / That monsters it” (1.1.218-220) if Lear is to be thought justified. The same misconception and foreshadowing attend also on Gloucester's early self-indulgence: “He cannot be such a monster,” he exclaims of Edgar; “Nor is not, sure,” replies Edmund smoothly (1.2.97-98). Still again, the image is refocused when Lear speaks of Goneril's ingratitude as more hideous “in a child / Than the sea-monster!” (1.4.262-263).

Thus Lear's initial confusion as to what pertains to a king and what pertains to a father sets in motion the tragic descent. That he does confuse these roles points us to a truth about the structure of the family as presented in this play. That structure, as we have suggested, is fundamentally different from the Senecan flamboyance of the family in Hamlet. The tradition there is one in which Titus Andronicus can at the very outset of his play execute Tamora's son Alarbus (“Alarbus' limbs are lopped,” report his sons matter-of-factly), despite her piteous pleas to spare him. Shortly thereafter Titus imperiously slays his own son Mutius. The play, adding the horrors of Ovid to those of Seneca, proceeds from this bloody beginning into a bizarre sequence of massacres along family lines. To reinvoke the phrase of R. D. Laing, this conception of the family exhibits on its face the contours of “reciprocal terrorism”; and it is this conception, though immensely refined, that obtains in Hamlet.

The family image in King Lear is much more like a different kind of ancient paradigm: that serene structure of mutual regard revealed in Plutarch's letter to his wife on the death of one of their children. Or to summon a modern reference to counterbalance Laing, the family image in King Lear is what in Christopher Lasch's rubric is termed “haven in a heartless world.” It is to seek a haven that Lear gives up his crown:

                                                                                Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and 'tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths.


“I loved her most,” he says of Cordelia, “and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery” (1.1.123-124).

That the family here is conceived of as a haven in a heartless world is not contradicted by the fact that the horrors later perpetrated within that family vie with and in certain senses even surpass those in Hamlet. For what we are talking about is, not the reality of family life, but merely the proffered image of the family. In truth, the conception of family as a haven in a heartless world can in certain respects lead to greater even though less visible destructions than can less affecting images, even as an explosion of dynamite is augmented if the explosive is covered. The offices of psychoanalysts are thronged with tormented patients who bear witness to this truth, and its dimensions are cogently revealed by the nineteenth-century diarist Amiel:

Oh, the family! If the pious, traditional superstition with which we envelop this institution would let us tell the truth about the matter, what a reckoning it would have to settle! What numberless martyrdoms it has required, dissemblingly, inexorably! How many hearts have been stifled by it, lacerated and broken. … The family may be all that is best in this world, but too often it is all that is worst. … The truth is that the family relation exists only to put us to the proof and that it gives us infinitely more suffering than happiness.

In this context we see Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all as victims of the family situation. Their inadequate action is somewhat like that of Joseph's brothers, rendered envious and malicious by their father's favoritism, or even like that of another family victim named Cain.

Despite their differences in image and provenance, the family structures in King Lear and in Hamlet both generate tragic intensifications. In one way, moreover, the two structures are identical. For both are broken families at the outset, and broken in complementary ways. In Hamlet there is no father, in King Lear no mother. We think of correlates everywhere in Shakespeare, so quickly, indeed, that we are overwhelmed by the intuition that a very substantial portion of Shakespeare's literary energy was discharged through varying apprehensions of the dynamics of family structures. Almost all these families are also broken. We think of Bertram and his mother the Countess Rousillon, will their situation, as well as that of Helena, depending on a dead father. We think of Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia, again with a dead father. We think yet again of Brabantio and Desdemona, with a dead mother, of Polonius and Ophelia, again with a dead mother, and, perhaps most compellingly of all and most germane to the situation in King Lear, of Prospero and Miranda, still again with a dead mother.

These relationships are for Shakespeare typically charged with the most electric emotions. It is perhaps not entirely accidental that his series of passionate sonnets to a young friend involves a recognition of the emotional bond between the youth and his mother, with apparently no father to consider: “Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,” he asks in the ninth sonnet, “That thou consum'st thyself in single life? / Ah, if thou issueless shalt hap to die, / The world will wail thee like a makeless wife; / The world will be thy widow and still weep.” But possibly the most unmistakable index of the centrality of family kinesis in Shakespeare's concern is the scene in the fourth act of King Lear where Lear is reunited with Cordelia. Such a theme of reunion, and especially of the reunion of a family—or, as here, the living heart of a family—mines the deepest and richest lode of Shakespeare's affirmation of life; and that truth is apparent in other places than King Lear. In the vast tropes of reunion and reconciliation that conclude the action of Shakespeare's last comedies, the most intense themes of joy appear, and they are invariably generated by the resurgence of a family relationship.7 Thus Leontes, having seemingly destroyed both his wife and his daughter, finds his daughter again in the lost Perdita and his wife again in the statue suddenly come to life. The language of joy in the familial reconstitution is almost overpowering; it is presented as a climax beyond even the reunion of friends as celebrated by the meeting of Leontes and Polixenes:

Did you see the meeting of the two kings? … Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of. There might you have beheld one joy crown another … their joy waded in tears. … Our king, being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter … then asks Bohemia forgiveness.

(The Winter's Tale, 5.2.41-54)

As the almost orgiastic description continues, the final points of reference are familial. For the clown says:

The king's son took me by the hand and called me brother; and then the two kings called my father brother; and then the prince, (my brother) and the princess (my sister) called my father father.

(The Winter's Tale, 5.2.143-147)

This joy is confirmed and if possible even surpassed in the familial reconstitution of Pericles. First Pericles is reunited with his daughter Marina:

O Helicanus, strike me, honored sir!
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tharsus,
And found at sea again!


                                                                                I embrace you.
Give me my robes. I am wild in my beholding.
O heavens bless my girl!


The reunion with the daughter Marina is followed by reunion with the wife Thaisa:

This, this! No more. You gods, your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports. You shall do well
That on the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen.


And yet not even in these outpourings of joy and wonder is the emotion as powerful as in the awesome reconciliation scene between Lear and Cordelia. Lear's awakening from madness into rationality is, on the literal plane, a moment of restoration, reconciliation, and reunion. But on the anagogical plane it is more; it is the reawakening of the dead into paradise. Lear's confused words on regaining consciousness reverberate with the sweetest topoi of Christian hope:

You do me wrong to take me out o' th' grave.
Thou art a soul in bliss.


When Cordelia asks, “Sir, do you know me?” Lear's answer is “You are a spirit, I know. Where did you die?” (4.7.48-49). Shakespeare's astonishing evocation of the varieties of human tears in the remainder of the passage achieves a finality that suggests the supervening state of paradise, which, in the words of the Book of Revelation hauntingly taken up by Milton, will wipe the tears forever from our eyes. Lear first speaks of tears:

                                                                                          I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.


The connection between scalding past and paradisal renewal is sealed by tears of watering restoration, as revealed by the virtuosity (never enough admired) of Cordelia's tear-choked replies “And so I am, I am,” and “No cause, no cause”:

                                                                                Do not laugh at me,
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
                                                            And so I am, I am.
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
No cause, no cause.


Art can hardly go beyond this. Both the literal and the anagogic planes are superintended by the Doctor, who naturally would stand by a sick man recovering consciousness (even though this doctor's sudden prominence is mysterious). But as I have elsewhere pointed out, this sudden figure takes up the function of the doctor from the English folk play or mummer's play, who, as E. K. Chambers records, abruptly appears to restore the slain duelist to life.

But doctors also assist at childbirth, and that additional function leads us to still another level of meaning in this supreme scene of reconciliation. For Lear is not merely the sick and confused man regaining consciousness and rationality. He is here not restricted even to the deeper motif of devastated mortal reborn to heaven's bliss. He is also, in palpable respects, the child entering the world for the first time; and Cordelia, hovering over his bed, is, in awesome psycho-dramatic recapitulation, the eternal mother brooding over the infant's crib. Earlier in the play age was equated with infancy in the statement “Old fools are babes again” (1.3.20), and just before the reconciliation scene there is insistent reference to our entrance into the world:

                                                                                          We came crying hither:
Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air
We wawl and cry. …
.....When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.


These images subliminally join with the tears of the restoration scene, for Lear's tears that scald like molten lead, though unforgettably part of the agony and guilt through which he has passed, are no more scalding than the infant's tears at birth. And the very indications by which we see Lear purged of his madness and spleen are also coordinate with the sense of infant joy and calm. The doctor informs us that “the great rage … is killed in him” (4.7.78-79). A “very foolish fond old man” who reiterates that “I am old and foolish,” who asks others to “bear with me,” to “forget and forgive” (4.7.60, 83-84), is a man who in essential respects resumes the relationships of his earliest life.

I have dwelt on this one supreme scene to make clear the enormous charge of emotion with which it is invested. Its recapitulation of the earliest family situation of mother and child, which receives additional emphasis from the absence of Cordelia's mother and Lear's wife throughout the play, leads us to understand how the scene can plumb such psychic depth. At the same time, we realize that the recreation of the child's union with the parent is precisely, in Freud's description, the impelling origin and ultimate goal in the sexual development of every human being.

This aperture of understanding provided by the third or recapitulative plane of the reconciliation scene reveals to us another aspect of the play's meaning as well. For it occurs to every careful critic that there is at least a surface anomaly in the play: King Lear, which is arguably the greatest of all human documents, largely dispenses with the sexual relationships of mankind. There is no proper vehicle here for love between the sexes. It is not simply that the nominal protagonist, Lear, is eighty years old; it is also that such interest seems deliberately to be evicted. The king of France, for instance, speaks in the idealistic language of Sonnet 116, paralleling its insistence that “love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds” with “Love's not love / When it is mingled with regards that stands / Aloof from th' entire point” (1.1.238-240). But after thus displaying his own true understanding of love, the king of France withdraws to his own country, taking love with him. The possibilities for love thenceforth largely devolve on Edmund, and they become, not an index of idealistic intensification, but a grotesque badge of deterioration: “To both these sisters have I sworn my love; / Each jealous of the other, as the stung / Are of the adder” (5.1.56-58). This seething sexuality is further removed from the nobly human by Lear's searing hallucination:

I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween the lawful sheets.
To't, luxury, pell-mell! for I lack soldiers.
Behold yond simp'ring dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure's name.
The fitchew, nor the soilèd horse, goes to't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend's.

There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet; good apothecary, sweeten my imagination.


And when Gloucester then comments, “O let me kiss that hand!” Lear's reply reverberates with sublime disgust: “Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.”

The disgust with which the horizontal and procreative activities of man are here viewed tends to strengthen the urgency of the vertical and familial affections. The same disgust is expressed by Shakespeare in other places: in his Sonnet 129, for instance, or in the poisoned imaginations of Leontes and Othello; most of all, perhaps, in Hamlet's interview with his mother:

                                                                                          Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty.


And when Gertrude asks, “What shall I do?” Hamlet answers that she should not

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft.


This vividly expressed sexual disgust functions in similar ways in both Hamlet and King Lear; it tends to displace Gertrude as paramour of Claudius and reinstate and emphasize, Gertrude as wife of the father, as matron of the family, as mother of the son. The sexual disgust of King Lear, in the same way, should be seen as not merely a profound expression of something in the man Shakespeare himself, although I have no doubt that it is that as well, but also as a deliberate eviction from the play of the only force that in both common experience and psychological observation challenges the satisfactions and securities of the family. For whatever Shakespeare's idiosyncratic disgust with human sexuality (as we see, for instance, in Sonnet 94), he was also capable of depicting sexuality in the most radiant terms, as Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra attest. We are reminded, nevertheless, that in both these plays the apotheosis of sexuality occurs explicitly at the expense of family solidarity. Yet by the same token, the fact that sexual disgust appears with jolting power in King Lear tends to reassert the primary importance of the ties of the family relationship.

If in King Lear the sexual interest largely devolves on Edmund and thereby becomes an insignia of deterioration, Edmund's position as bastard both threatens the normative structure of the family and reveals him as the initial legatee of family pain. He thereby becomes the leader, as it were, the first in line, of those who descend toward the disintegrative bleakness of the world of storm and night. But in his descent he is unable to purge himself and forge a new being. Hence Edmund also, like Goneril and Regan, is less rewardingly viewed as evil than as inadequate. Indeed, he is a figure invested with deep pathos.

Here again an examination of the two sources to which I referred at the beginning of this lecture is revealing. For the Annesley prototype differs from the other sources in that it alone presents the old man as infirm of mind (his daughter Cordell writes Cecil that her father's “many years service to our late dread Sovereign Mistress” deserved better than “at his last gasp to be recorded and registered a Lunatic”); it thereby enlists our universal or public sympathy with the plight of the old man and our outrage at the callousness of Lady Wildgoose. In the source for the subplot, however, something is absent rather than present; there is no bastard, and this fact paradoxically makes the figure of Edmund seem somehow more important in Shakespeare's design.

If, as I have been tacitly assuming and sometimes hinting, Shakespeare's almost obsessive preoccupation with dramatic structures of the family takes its enormous emotional force from his own family experience—however little the details of that experience may actually abide our question—then we will find interest in J. H. Padel's recent speculations about the relationship of the sonnets to the death of Shakespeare's son.8 Whatever the truth may be, it is intriguing that Shakespeare had a brother named Edmund, who also became an actor, and who fathered a bastard son named Edward. This is one of a number of nagging similarities, such as that between the names Hamlet and Hamnet, or between the maiden name of Shakespeare's mother and the forest of Arden where all troubles are healed, or still again the rumor, reported by Rowe, of a gift of a thousand pounds from Southampton to Shakespeare, which Empson thinks must somehow pertain to the thousand pounds owed Falstaff by Prince Hal. These nagging similarities do not constitute evidence, but we are somehow reluctant to put them out of our minds. My visceral feeling is that the presence of Edmund and Edward, brother and bastard, in Shakespeare's familial awareness somehow pertains to his creation of Edmund and Edgar, brother and bastard, in his most familial play.

The figure of Edmund stands in starkest tension to the hegemony of the family in the play itself. If we think of the processional entry of Lear and his retainers at the beginning as having some of the formulaic depthlessness of royalty on playing cards, or perhaps even more appropriately as possessing the depthlessness of some grouped and resplendent representation of royal appearances on a late medieval tapestry, then we can think of Edmund as an unwanted thread dangling from that tapestry, a thread that, when tugged at by the play's action, comes out, not alone, but rather begins to unravel the frozen hierarchies of the tapestry itself. The pregnant encounter that opens the play establishes both the frozen hierarchies and the unwanted thread, for there we see two friends, who happen to be earls, exchanging courtesies from their hierarchical security, and one bastard, introduced with unintentional callousness and condescension. The bastard stands outside the haven represented by the family, apparently fully accepting the situation as laid down by his inattentive and carelessly joking father. But when we see the bastard alone, we understand how little those grouped hierarchies actually answer to the structure of human need.

Edmund's pathos lies in his exclusion from significant human attention. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a single line that, standing in the very midst of his plain-dealing villainy, nonetheless reverberates as a universal cry of agony. At the beginning of the second act, having involved Edgar in their father's suspicions, Edmund says, “I hear my father coming” (2.1.29). We pause at Edmund's use of the adjective “my.” Edmund next tells Edgar to “draw, seem to defend yourself”; and then, as Edgar flees, Edmund says, “Some blood drawn on me would beget opinion / Of my more fierce endeavor.” He next calls out (the words now beginning to reverberate beyond the immediate situation): “Father, father! / Stop, stop! No help?” Gloucester enters, the torches he brings with him ironically prefiguring not only the torch of the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet but also that darkness of the evolving situation in which no torch will avail him. By torchlight he sees nothing: “Now, Edmund, where's the villain?” The deprivation of a lifetime is in Edmund's answer: “Look, sir, I bleed” (2.1.42). But here, as elsewhere, Gloucester looks past his son into the miasma of self-preoccupation: “Where is the villain, Edmund?” is his only answer to the poignant cry. Small wonder, then, when he is blinded in act 4 and the Old Man says, “You cannot see your way,” Gloucester's answer seems to be the voice of justice: “I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled when I saw” (4.1.17-19).

The pathos of Edmund's “Look, sir, I bleed” constitutes an emotional nadir for the play, and it erupts from the family situation, as does an opposite but complementary emotional zenith: Lear's eulogy of the dead Cordelia: “Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman” (5.3.274-275). The power of the specification lies in its diminuendo of observation contrasted with its crescendo of emotion; but its substance comes from the repeated observations of family interaction, the attention paid to Cordelia by her father. And this attention is starkly opposed to Gloucester's inattention to Edmund.

In largest description, indeed, the opposites that generate the play's moral movement can be viewed as the struggle between attention and inattention (“O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!”). The truth, both of the play and of human life, is that human inattention destroys the family as haven. But the family as haven, though it undergoes vicissitudes that reveal it to be largely illusion and absolutely so in terms of the insubstantial positings of the play's beginning, complements the idea of a heartless world. The bleakness of the King Lear cosmos stands in ironic tension to the posited security of family concern:

No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on, I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril.


The storm that harrows Lear compounds the irony of his familial illusion:

Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children,
You owe me no subscription.


The storm is only the bleakest intensification of the idea of an uncaring cosmos, a heartless world. The play throughout exists in what I have elsewhere called “a nightmare corner of thought.”

We may note, finally, that the mighty process by which familial haven is dissipated into heartless world results in the almost inconceivable power of the trial scene in the stormswept hovel, where the family is virtually turned inside out. The vast dialectical movement of the play's imagery and emotion is from insubstantial something toward and into nothing itself and out again to renewed and substantial something. The insubstantial something is the familial relationships and political and social hierarchies posited at the beginning; the nothing, brought alive by the repeated invocations of the word in the play's fabric of discourse and represented by repeated tropes of divestiture, from shelter to storm, from castle to hovel, from fine raiment to rags to nakedness itself, and, finally, from reason to madness, begins to reemerge as substantial something in the awesome trial scene. There the family situation is reversed. Cordelia is absent, having been replaced by the Fool. Goneril and Regan, the two other members of the family, are on trial on the mad but wonderful familial charge of having “kicked the poor king her father” (3.6.47-48). But Goneril and Regan are actually as “be-nothinged” as Cordelia, for Goneril is a joint stool, and Regan another, “whose warped looks proclaim / What store her heart is made on.”

From this point the often noted wonder ensues. The worldly situation of Lear and Cordelia, except for the momentary calm of their reconciliation, grows worse and worse, but their spiritual situation becomes better and better, until it rises to the transcendent heights of gilded butterflies, purged to the ultimate relationship of “We two alone.” All the sources concur in saying that Lear and Cordelia defeated their enemies and that Lear reigned once again over Britain. But in this play we have instead the choric cry of Edgar at the final battle: “King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta'en.” For worldly success would have worked against Shakespeare's final distillation of human meaning into the heavenly quintessence of family relationship. Father and daughter are more truly family than even husband and wife; and the familial nucleus of “We two alone” persists, in this greatest of Shakespeare's visions, beyond life into death itself.


  1. Commentators have said little on this matter, although the cumulative testimony of the plays is almost overwhelming. But compare a philosophical analyst's recent observation with respect to Seneca's statement that it is wrong to hate life too much: “The remark gives him away; his own view is based on a hatred of life. … Fundamentally Seneca's wise man is in love with death. He is looking out for a tolerable pretext to die.” J. M. Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969), p. 249. For Scaliger's judgment of Seneca, see J. W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (1893; reprint ed., Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1965), p. 7.

  2. The Politics of Experience (New York: Pantheon, 1967), pp. 59, 36. The reciprocal terrorism can be physical as well as mental, and it is certainly not limited to twentieth-century realities. Thus, for a single emphatic instance, Augustin Thierry records in his Récits des temps mérovingiens that, “in the year 561, after an expedition against one of his sons, whose rebellion he punished by having him burned at the stake together with his wife and children, Lothar, perfectly at ease in mind and conscience, returned to his house at Braine.” (I have used the translation by M. F. O. Jenkins.)

  3. “Reduction and Renewal in King Lear,” in Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare (New York: Random House, 1966).

  4. Compare, for example, William R. Elton: “Paralleled by Edgar's quest for identity, Lear demands his own identity of daughters, his retainers, his Fool, and himself. … From one point of view, indeed, Lear may be said sequentially to dissociate into his children, Goneril and Regan (selfish willfulness) and Cordelia (courageous adamancy), as Gloucester may be seen successively to dissolve into his components, Edmund (lust) and Edgar (pathos). Here, fatherhood, as in Dostoievsky's Karamazov family, involves not only the problem of identity but also that of identity in multiplicity. Thus, through self-alienation and division, characters generate proxies for themselves, as well as analogues of each other.” “King Lear” and the Gods (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1968), p. 280.

  5. Underlying the whole structure of Elizabethan attitudes about the nature of kingship was the implicit analogia of king with father (and of both with God). Thus, for instance, James VI composes his Basilikon Doron in the dual role of father counseling son and of king instructing subject (as we can see from the subtitle of the 1603 edition: His Maiesties Instrvctions to his Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince). Furthermore, though the analogy of king and father was so taken for granted that explicit statements are infrequent, oblique alignments abound, e.g. “A good King (thinking his highest honour to consist in the due discharge of his calling) employeth all his studie and paines, to procure and mainteine (by the making and execution of good lawes) the wellfare and peace of his people, and (as their naturall father and kindly maister) thinketh his greatest contentment standeth in their prosperitie, and his greatest suretie in hauing their hearts.” Or again: “Ye see nowe (my Sonne) how (for the zeale I beare to acquent you with the plain & single verity of al things) I haue not spared to playe the baird against all the estates of my kingdome: but I protest before God, I do it with the fatherly loue that I owe to them all, onely hating their vices, whereof there is a good number of honest men freed in euery estate.” Basilikon Doron, reprint of 1599 edition, pp. 29 (sig. E3), 64 (sig. 14). But however much, under the most benign interpretation of their possibilities, the roles of king and father may be thought to coincide, in actual fact the absolute power of a king ill accords with the loving flexibility of a father. The dynamics of the contrast are existential, not historical or time-bound by Elizabethan convention. Thus a prominent modern psychiatrist prefaces a well-known study of the genesis of schizophrenia within a family by a description of the father that timelessly describes Lear's own preoccupation with his appurtenances as a king: “The father … thought of himself as a great man and expected his family to support his narcissistic need for admiration. He was unable to recognize the needs of others or even realize that they viewed the world differently than he did.” Theodore Lidz, Preface to A Mingled Yarn: Chronicle of a Troubled Family, by Beulah Parker (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1972), p. xi. In this context, it is interesting to remind ourselves that James, unlike the Lear of the play's opening, insists that a king should be humble, because a king is simply an ordinary man called to eminence by God: “Foster true Humilitie in banishing pride,” and “when ye ar there, remember the throne is Gods and not yours, that ye sit in.” Basilikon Doron, pp. 115 (sig. Q2), 109-110 (sig. P3). In brief, whatever the identity of kingship and fatherhood in static conception, the formula that describes their functioning interaction is this: the more king, the less father; the more father, the less king.

  6. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 97.

  7. Though Stanley Wells has pointed out that the joyous reconciliation scenes in the last comedies are prefigured by such scenes in the Greek romances that lie behind them, we may take it as an axiom of Shakespearean interpretation that what Shakespeare chooses to retain from his source materials is as truly representative of his intent as are themes created by his imagination ex nihilo.

  8. “Shakespeare's Sonnets—Sonnet 146,” in Times (London) Literary Supplement, Oct. 21, 1977.

Marianne Novy (essay date October 1981)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5366

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 may overstate his case, but evidence suggests that he is onto something. Some of his harshest critics, like Alan Macfarlane and Randolph Trumbach, point to similar cultural traits in the England they describe in their own work, though they differ with him about origin, time span, and degree.2 It seems that the Elizabethan aristocracy and middle class strove at least to appear in control of their emotional attachments, though the cost might be suspicion and loneliness.

The world Stone recreates and the world Shakespeare creates are in sharp contrast. Plays characterized by the “psychic numbing” (p. 102) Stone attributes to Elizabethan society could never have held the stage for centuries, but beyond this, as C. L. Barber has noted, “Shakespeare's art is distinguished by the intensity of its investment in the human family.”3 Are Shakespeare's plays evidence that Stone must be wrong about the Elizabethans?4 Or was Shakespeare simply ahead of his time in his portrayal of the family?5 Or is there another kind of relationship between Stone's picture and Shakespeare's?

The relationship I am proposing is not a photographic likeness. It is not enough to say that the warm affectionate families in Shakespeare show that Stone is wrong, or that cold families prove him right. Rather, I would suggest that Stone has identified a cultural ideal of Elizabethan society that generates conflicts pervasive in Shakespeare's plays.

According to Stone, most Elizabethan aristocrats were egocentric. Letters of advice from father to son, a popular genre among the landed classes, “normally express a thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature, full of canny and worldly-wise hints about how to conduct personal relations which leave little room for generosity, faith, hope, or charity” (p. 96). Diaries, correspondence, and legal records from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries show an extraordinary amount of casual violence at all levels of society (p. 93).

The mortality rate for all ages and classes was high (infant mortality did not drop significantly until 1750) and Stone emphasizes practices that can be viewed as treating people as easily replaceable. Aristocrats often used marriage to gain money or power, and remarriage was frequent. Upper-class children were sent out to a succession of wet nurses (who were separated from the children they had borne) and children of all classes lived apart from their parents for the years that they were in fosterage or apprenticeship (pp. 105-14).

What these facts meant emotionally is not easy to say, and some of the evidence could be interpreted differently. If aristocratic fathers told sons not to trust anyone, perhaps sons provoked the advice by trusting people. If sermons warned parents not to love their children too much, and threatened that God might take away a child whose parents were too fond, some parents must have grieved intensely for their children; Stone himself suggests that apparent coldness may have been a defense against the constant possibility of emotional bereavement. He notes too that some people married for emotional reasons, and that Reformation theology and practice placed more emphasis on companionship and love in marriage than had pre-Reformation Catholicism (pp. 135-7).6

Nevertheless, Stone's work and that of other historians suggest that there was an ideal personality type valued by many Elizabethans—an ideal that on one hand kept feelings of attachment and grief under strict control but on the other was more ready to express feelings of anger. The model was primarily a masculine ideal, a point I shall return to later but because masculinity was more valued than femininity, the emphasis on control could influence women as well, and their deviations from it could be seen as signs of typically feminine weakness. Attempts to follow this model would lead both sexes to difficulties in establishing and maintaining relationships; consequent frustration could fuel the anger expressed; throughout life one might be influenced by an emotional dependence that one constantly denied. If emotional distance was an ideal for self-fashioning, to borrow Stephen Greenblatt's term, it could coexist with hatred and with (denied) love.7 Thus I do not agree with Stone's suggestion that Elizabethan “familial emotive ties were so weak that they did not generate the passions which lead to intra-familial murder and mayhem” (p. 95). Strong passions may still exist when they are displaced or controlled. I would emphasize, rather, Stone's admission of exceptions to his generalizations and push further the implications of those exceptions. In his review, Macfarlane suggests that Elizabethan society included “some loving parents and some cruel parents, some people bringing their children up in a rigid way, others in a relaxed atmosphere, deep attachment between certain husbands and wives, frail emotional bonds in other cases.”8 The contrasting elements in this mix would not remain inert; at least some people would notice the differences and would be affected by them. Rather than seeing Elizabethan England as Stone's mass of “psychic numbing” dotted with exceptions, I would reconstruct a society in conflict about emotions and a constant interplay in the experience of the individual between emotions and the ideal of control—an interplay that we see enacted in Shakespeare's theatre. There attempts at control are constantly played off against underlying emotions; attempts at distance are played off against suggestions of underlying dependence. Analyzing almost any speech, we can focus on either emotion or control much as we can focus on either figure or ground in looking at a painting—except that the more we focus on the amount of control exerted, the more powerful become the hidden emotions, the subtext, that we imagine.

If establishing or admitting emotional ties was difficult for many in Shakespeare's audience partly because of their ideals of control, this ambivalence may have contributed to the appeal of his plays. In the tragedies, the cost of either denying or affirming connections can be mortal; in the comedies, more connections succeed. But in the background of both genres are distances—literal and psychological—between parents and children, and disguises—literal and psychological—that attempt control and dramatize the difficulties of trusting and understanding.

Coriolanus is the tragic hero whose behavior Shakespeare most explicitly links to a childhood training in ideals of emotional distance. His mother tells us:

When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb …, I, considering how honor would become such a person, that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th'wall, if renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak.

[I. iii. 5-6, 9-14]9

He tries, as he says, to “stand / As if a man were author of himself, / And knew no other kin” (V. iii. 35-7) to the point of threatening to destroy his own native Rome and his family along with it, but at his mother's pleas he finally relents and takes her hand.10 The ideal of distance proves impossible to maintain and Shakespeare suggests throughout the conflict between Coriolanus's emotions and his ideal. Even when he cites the proverbs of emotional control, it is as part of his mother's earlier admonitions:

                    You were used
To say extremities was the trier of spirits:
That common chances common men could bear;
… You were used to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conned them.

[IV. i. 3-5, 9-11]

Coriolanus sounds like Stone's typical aggressive, egocentric aristocrat, molded by cold child-rearing practices; but unlike Stone, Shakespeare forces us to see the strength of the emotional bonds that remain underneath the cultural ideal; Coriolanus cannot simply keep on killing outside his family, but has to face his feelings toward them; has to face the anger behind his distance, and the dependence behind his anger.

King Lear also is about conflicts between distance and emotion in relations between parent and child. Lear cannot freely express his love for Cordelia, but must set up his intended gift as a reward for her performance in a contest he controls, and then disowns her for insisting on her autonomy and not playing her part properly. While his other daughters treat him cruelly, he strives to control himself and deny his emotional vulnerability; but these attempts break down in his madness. Only Cordelia can save him, and he breaks down again when she is lost forever; but in Lear's death, as he strains again for a word from her, it is clear they are inevitably bound to each other. With similar lack of insight, Gloucester dismisses Edmund with “He hath been out nine year, and away he shall again” (I. i. 31-2), and then doubts Edgar's love on the flimsiest of evidence manufactured by Edmund; he underestimates the anger of the one and the love of the other and the impact that both will have on his life. Edgar, his identity disguised, cares for his father in the blindness that his brother helped to cause. When Edgar reveals himself, Gloucester dies of mingled grief and joy, like Lear showing in his death the strength of his connection to his child.11

In one sense, Hamlet's initial manner is already an acknowledgment of his bond to his family; his mourning is an attempt to maintain the tie to the father that death has removed. But in this attempt to cling to his father he seems distant from his mother, and we can trace something of an analogous pattern to the one we have seen in Coriolanus and Lear. At first Hamlet speaks to his mother only in laconic irony—“Ay, madam, it is common” (I. ii. 74). But later when he speaks to her in her room, it becomes clear how much anger underlies this distance, and how much longing for love underlies the anger.

However, the relevance to Hamlet of the emotional distance Stone has described in Elizabethan England is even clearer if we look at the larger structure of the play. Hamlet is built around a conflict between an unfeeling society and a hero with strong feelings, which he tries to control—a conflict that parallels both the conflicts I postulated for Elizabethan England—the internal one between defenses and emotions and the external one between cooler and more emotional people. The mood of the Danish court sounds much like that of the suspicious Elizabethan court—even Polonius's advice resembles that of the many cynical fathers found by Stone. Hamlet must live among detached, manipulative, and suspicious people, and he defends himself from them partly by trying to mask his emotional intensity with emotional distance. He speaks enigmatically from the very beginning—“A little more than kin and less than kind” (I. ii. 65)—and puts on a more elaborate antic disposition after the ghost's revelation widens the gap between him and the rest of the court. He can trust Horatio, but no one else, and it is only after Ophelia's death that he can admit his love for her.

When trust is created in the tragedies, it is a precarious achievement in a perilous world. Othello's relationship with Desdemona breaks down in the context of threats analogous to those Stone suggests—distrust resulting from ideals of emotional control. Living down the stereotype of the passionate African and the unease of the exile, he too is a hero of strong feelings he strives to control. Throughout, the cynical and manipulative worldview has its spokesman in Iago. Emotionally detached from his own wife, he can influence Othello partly because of the basic sense of insecurity and distance which makes it difficult for Othello to believe in the initial success of his love, and partly because of Othello's ideals of coolness.12 From the beginning he has denied the presence of “heat” or “young affects” in his love. When his jealousy shows him his passionate attachment to Desdemona, he believes it is alien to his true character and plans to kill her to restore his self-control: “I'll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again” (IV. i. 200-2). When he discovers her fidelity, only his own death can restore that control, and his death is equally an attempt to reaffirm their relationship.

In the comedies, the conflicts between emotional distance and control do not require death for their resolution. Thus the distance between parent and child is often presented largely as geographic distance and physical disguise. Parent-child separation and parent-child rejection are kept apart (rather than being combined as they are in Othello and Lear). In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus of Ephesus speaks movingly of his separation from his parents, caused by the romance plot conventions of tempest and shipwreck. Here, and in the romances as well, such externally enforced family separation could dramatize the frequent separation of Elizabethan families by death and standard child-rearing practices. Feeling separation as rejection probably alternated with feeling it as beyond human control like tempest and shipwreck. The reticence that the Antipholus brothers keep in their reunion—they never speak directly to each other—may show that the ideal of emotional control continues its claims even at the happy ending. At the corresponding point, the Menachmi twins of Shakespeare's source speak to each other with feeling, and we might expect even more eloquence at the father-son reunion not found in the source, but we do not get it.13 This inarticulacy allows the actors to fill in with gestures, of course, and the audience with imagination; nevertheless it is interesting that it is the mother who has almost all the words of joy at the resolution, and that her imagery turns on childbirth:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you, my sons; and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne'er delivered.

[V. i. 402-4]

The disguises in Shakespeare's comedies can be related to emotional distance in a number of ways. The self-control that masculine disguise imposes on women is an analogue of the control that the masculine ideal imposes on men; the disguise suggests, too, that the women may share in that ideal of control. Rosalind begins As You Like It grieving for her banished father, but when she meets him she does not at once reveal the identity behind her disguise. “He asked me of what parentage I was. I told him, of as good as he; so he laughed and let me go” (III. iv. 33-4). For all of her warmth, Rosalind maintains some freedom and distance from her father until the last scene. But unlike Edgar's analogous delay in revealing himself, this one has no mortal consequences.

For the lovers in the comedies, disguise can dramatize the difficulties of establishing emotional connections, although it also fosters such connections by giving less risky ones time to develop. Rosalind's disguise may express ambivalence about abandoning herself to her love for Orlando; in many of the comedies, the characters' inability to see through disguise suggests their mixed feelings about forming close ties. Sherman Hawkins has noted the internal obstacles to love in what he calls the comedies of the closed world (Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night); Orlando's initial inability to speak to Rosalind suggests an internal obstacle in him as well.14 Proteus, Berowne, Bassanio, Orlando, Claudio, and Orsino all make mistakes about the identity of the women they finally marry. These mistakes, and analogous mistakes made by Phebe and Olivia, are, in part, dramatic images of the postures of emotional distance that can remain even when falling in love; many of these characters are comically self-centered or fascinated with an idealized image—often unattainable—more than with a human being. Often the degree to which the characters grow is open to question, and the conclusion relies primarily on the literal removal of disguise for the sense of overcoming barriers to relationship.

Most of the conversations between comic lovers involve either literal disguise or hostility. Either alternative externalizes such ambivalence as an audience may have about emotional ties. For an audience with a veneer of defenses, Beatrice and Benedick, who begin as mockers of love, consciously cool and rational, or Viola and Rosalind, who in their disguise can never express their love directly, make ideal protagonists; their mockery or concealment of love makes it impossible to dismiss them as pretending to love insincerely. The combination of verbal rapport and concealment in the text permits the audience here, as in the reunions of Comedy of Errors, to fill in with whatever depth they can imagine.

The importance of such disguised conversations in mediating emotional distance becomes more evident if we observe the problems of the problem comedies. There the disguised contact that forms the basis for the final marriages is physical, not verbal, and cannot be played out for the audience. Angelo and Mariana don't meet onstage until the final scene of Measure for Measure. Angelo and Bertram are more clearly split than the heroes of the earlier comedies between the general coldness of their personalities and the sexual drives that trap them into marriages with women for whom they express no personal warmth. The women love, but the couples can't work out the marriages by themselves; men in authority must impose them.

The romances, like the tragedies, treat difficulties deeper than premarital caution, but present more possibilities for reconciliation. Leontes looks at Hermione's statue and says, “Does not the stone rebuke me, / For being more stone than it?” (V. iii. 37-8). But, as his own heart has lost its coldness to Hermione, the statue comes to life. Here, as in the other romances, the ideal of emotional control breaks down much sooner than in the tragedies; the older characters express emotions of familial attachment more readily and the young fall in love more quickly. The first half of The Winter's Tale provides an anatomy of familial rejection that ties together difficulty in husband-wife and parent-child relations. While Stone, drawing on Freud, suggests that distance from parents in childhood is one of the causes of distance in marriage, causality may work in the other direction as well—Leontes abandons his daughter and loses his son because of his suspicion of his wife. But, on the other hand, Leontes, from the beginning, is able to express his feeling of love for his son, and his grief at his son's death helps him to see his misjudgment of Hermione and mourn for her.

Earlier I suggested that emotional control was more clearly an ideal for men than for women in Elizabethan society. Stone gives largely unexplored hints that patterns and norms of emotional warmth differed for males and females. The parents quoted as sounding distant from children are mostly fathers; furthermore, Stone sees fathers as colder to daughters than to sons, more likely to consider daughters as only a drain on their money. He also provides some evidence that women often wanted more emotional involvement in marriage than did men (p. 105). In this context, the emphasis on distance and manipulativeness in father-son advice letters looks different. Rather than expressing a general norm, it suggests an attempt to initiate the son into standards of coldness required by the conventional adult male.15

How much was this a conscious rejection of qualities associated with women? Popular thought often identified women with passion and men with reason, with an emphasis on the necessary subordination of the first to the second; since women, whether nurses or mothers, had primary responsibility for child-rearing, they were associated with everyone's first discovery of emotions.16 Many documents suggest that Elizabethan men were often suspicious of women, and this suspicion may also be connected with suspicion of feelings of attachment in general.

More historical research needs to be done on how the ideal of emotional distance in the Elizabethan family relates to distrust of women and qualities associated with women—how much it coalesces with emotional distance as a conventional ideal for Elizabethan men. In Shakespeare the connection is often explicit. His characters use language that associates women with expressions of emotional attachment; such language is especially frequent in bereavement. Laertes says of his tears for Ophelia's death, “When these are gone, / The woman will be out” (IV. vii. 187-8). When Sebastian thinks his sister Viola is dead, he says, “I am yet so near the manners of my mother that, upon the least occasion more, mine eyes will tell tales of me” (II. i. 35-7), and Claudius censures Hamlet's mourning by saying ‘“Tis unmanly grief” (I. ii. 94). When Lear struggles to deny the pain he feels at his daughters' rejection, he cries, “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart! / Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow” (II. iv. 54-5). Later he prays

Touch me with noble anger,
And let not women's weapons, water drops,
Stain my man's cheeks.

[II. iv. 271-3]

This pattern of associations often goes beyond words. Most of the rejections of children are rejections of daughters by fathers. Let us recall Leonato and Hero, Old Capulet and Juliet, Brabantio and Desdemona, Cymbeline and Imogen. Furthermore, fathers' rejections of daughters, like husbands' rejections of wives, usually result from suspicion of female sexuality—in one case (Perdita) the daughter is thought to be conceived adulterously, in the others, the fathers object to their daughters' wishes, real or apparent, to love men other than their fathers or their fathers' choices. By contrast, neither mothers nor fathers reject sons because of their sexual behavior.17 And on the other hand, verbal attacks on a mother's sexuality may suddenly appear in any threat of rejection from the family, even if the mother herself never appears in the play. Lear says to Regan: “I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb / Sepulch'ring an adult'ress” (II. iv. 126-7), and Isabella to Claudio: “Heaven shield my mother played my father fair, / For such a warpèd slip of wilderness / Never issued from his blood” (III. i. 141-3).

In general, attempts at self-control that inhibit relationships are more central to Shakespeare's male characters than to his female ones. This does not mean that all the women are warm and compassionate while all the men are cold and controlled, as the passage from Isabella's tirade should remind us; but the characters often speak as if such qualities have each an appropriate sex. Almost all Shakespearean tragic heroes and several heroes in the romances and problem plays distrust both female characters and qualities in themselves that they consider female.18 Yet they do love those characters and possess those qualities. They ultimately find it necessary to express their emotions beyond the cold ideals of their society. They learn, like Lear, that they must weep. Thus the plays implicitly criticize the view of manhood as opposed to feeling. Occasionally the characters themselves hint at different ideals, as Macduff does in his bereavements when he answers “Dispute it like a man” with “I shall do so; / but I must also feel it as a man” (IV. iii. 220-1). And in the romances a few of the men learn to reverse the disparagement of female characteristics, and can welcome family reunion with the imagery of childbirth that in The Comedy of Errors only a woman could use: Cymbeline says, on finding his children again, “O, what am I? / A mother to the birth of three? Ne'er mother / Rejoiced deliverance more” (V. v. 368-70).

Much of this could be observed by critics whose interest is not primarily historical.19 But much of the new social history shows that conflicting trends in marriage and the family are not simply a twentieth-century imposition on Shakespeare; it provides a cautionary note for any critic who would look for a psychopathology for Shakespeare in isolation from his society. Stone's view of Elizabethan England is one-sided, as other historians have shown, but he does help us see one side of a conflict important in Shakespeare's plays. Unfortunately, Stone himself does not see many connections between those plays and the patterns he discusses. He is more inclined to deny connections and make statements like, “Neither Othello, Oedipus, nor Cain were familiar figures in fourteenth-century England any more than they were, so far as is known, in the sixteenth century” (p. 95). He bases this statement on statistics of murders within the family, and in that literal sense it is of course true, though rather uninteresting. But surely Othello, Cain, and Oedipus have been meaningful figures to many people who have not killed their wives, brothers, or fathers—familiar to their dreams if not to their waking moments.

Living out the ideal of emotional control is a matter of degree, not of all or nothing. Under defenses, the potential for feeling still remains. Literature, and perhaps especially drama, can permit the vicarious experience of emotions latent but too threatening to acknowledge in everyday life.20 Eric Bentley has suggested that we go to the theatre to watch “human beings in living contact with each other”—whether in love or in hate.21 Art is a protected zone where we can afford a greater range of feelings of sympathy because we don't have to be torn about how far to act on them. At least one of Shakespeare's contemporaries wrote about this very phenomenon. In the forty-fifth sonnet of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, Astrophel tries to break through Stella's emotional distance from him by reminding her how she weeps at literary characters and pleading:

Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lovers' ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I, pity the tale of me.

As a communal art form, the theatre lends itself especially to the emergence of submerged attachments. So perhaps the same people who strove to control their own feelings at the loss of their children could drop their defenses while watching Lear, could listen to his accusation, “O, you are men of stones. / Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so / That heaven's vault would crack” (V. iii. 258-60), and understand his self-reproach, “I might have saved her; now she's gone forever” (V. iii. 271). Franz Kafka, another writer preoccupied with family, once declared, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”22 I believe that when watching Shakespeare's plays Elizabethan audiences, like modern ones, could feel frozen seas breaking.23


  1. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 99. Further references to Stone will be indicated by page numbers incorporated within the text. Others who make some similar observations about English Renaissance society include Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1975), and Zevedei Barbu, Problems in Historical Psychology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960).

  2. Macfarlane's review appears in History and Theory 18 (1979), 103-26, Trumbach's in Journal of Social History 13 (1979), 136-42. In The Origins of English Individualism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), Macfarlane says that “the majority of ordinary people in England from at least the thirteenth century were rampant individualists, highly mobile both geographically and socially, economically ‘rational,’ market-oriented and acquisitive, ego-centred in kinship and social life,” (p. 163) and notes the “loneliness, insecurity and family tensions which are associated with the English structure” (p. 202). In his review, Trumbach agrees with Stone that the quality of parental attachment improved in the eighteenth century, although he emphasizes that it was not absent earlier (p. 139); in his book, he postulates that the male aggressiveness and female hysteria that he finds more pronounced before 1750 result from lack of sufficient attachment to a primary mother figure: The Rise of the Egalitarian Family (New York: Academic Press, 1978), pp. 230-5. Other critical reviews are E. P. Thompson, “Happy Families,” New Society, No. 20, Sept. 8, 1977, Vol. 41, No. 779, pp. 499-501, and Keith Thomas, “The Changing Family,” TLS [Times Literary Supplement] (21 October 1977) pp. 1226-7.

  3. C. L. Barber, “The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 188.

  4. Stone's dismissal of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan drama and literature is noted in the reviews by Thomas (p. 1226) and Macfarlane (pp. 113-4).

  5. Conversation with Alvin B. Kernan, 1975. At this time Stone had written about the Elizabethan family in The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), “The Massacre of the Innocents,” New York Review 21, (November 14, 1974), 25-31, and “The Rise of the Nuclear Family in Early Modern England: The Patriarchal Stage,” The Family in History, ed. Charles E. Rosenberg (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), pp. 13-57.

  6. Macfarlane's review notes also that anthropologists have found no correlation between child mortality rates and parental affection, that Stone omits evidence of grief in the passages from The Diary of Ralph Josselin that he cites, and that even 14th-century writers sometimes describe marital love and affection (pp. 107, 115).

  7. Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Marlowe and Renaissance Self-Fashioning,” in Two Renaissance Mythmakers: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, ed. Alvin B. Kernan, English Institute 1975-76, new ser. 1. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977) pp. 41-69.

  8. Macfarlane, review, p. 125.

  9. All quotations from the plays are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  10. Greenblatt contrasts Coriolanus's attempt at self-fashioning with those of Marlowe's heroes on p. 55 of his essay. My view of Coriolanus has been much influenced by Janet Adelman's essay “‘Anger's My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus,” in Representing Shakespeare, pp. 129-49.

  11. See Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Scribners, 1969), pp. 310-53. I discuss these and other aspects of Lear in “Patriarchy, Mutuality, and Forgiveness in King Lear,Southern Humanities Review 13 (1979), 281-92.

  12. Cf. Stephen J. Greenblatt, “Improvisation and Power,” in Literature and Society, ed. Edward W. Said, English Institute 1978, new ser. 3 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 78-89.

  13. In V. ix of Plautus, The Twin Menaechmi, trans. Richard W. Hyde and Edward Weist, in Anthology of Roman Drama, ed. Philip Whaley Harsh (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960), p. 46, the following exchange occurs:

    Oh, welcome, beyond all hope, after all these years!
    Welcome, dear brother! Sought with such misery and toil, and found with joy at last!
  14. Sherman Hawkins, “The Two Worlds of Shakespearean Comedy,” Shakespeare Studies 3, ed. J. Leeds Barroll (Cincinnati: J. W. Ford, 1967), 65-9.

  15. Trumbach discusses related issues in his review and in Rise, pp. 237-85. See also Joseph E. Illick, “Child-Rearing in Seventeenth Century England and America,” in The History of Childhood, ed. Lloyd DeMause (New York: Harper, 1975), p. 312. For “the role of traditional patriarch” as a “false self,” see David Leverenz, The Language of Puritan Feeling (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1980), p. 105.

  16. See Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper, 1976).

  17. For example, when the Duchess of York curses Richard III (IV. iv. 195-6) and Volumnia says to Coriolanus, “This fellow had a Volscian to his mother” (V. iii. 178), the rejections are because of the sons' destructiveness, not their sexuality.

  18. See Madelon Gohlke, “‘I wooed thee with my sword’: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms,” Representing Shakespeare, pp. 170-87.

  19. Related points have been made, for example, by Edward Hubler, The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), pp. 106-7, and Maynard Mack, “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,” in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 275-96.

  20. See, for example, Simon Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 81, 133-4; Norman Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Norton, 1975), pp. 92, 98; Cavell, pp. 332-3.

  21. Eric Bentley, Theatre of War, abridged ed. (New York: Viking Compass, 1973), p. 216.

  22. Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Schocken, 1977), p. 16.

  23. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the session on “Marriage and the Family in Shakespeare” at the 1979 MLA convention. I am grateful to comments from participants there, especially Carol Neely, and from Coppélia Kahn and Richard Vann.

Max H. James (essay date 1989)

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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, forbids the simpleminded conclusion that the “crisis of the family” is only a late-twentieth-century phenomenon. Although their natures certainly vary from age to age, family problems are profound and pervasive in every age. In her poignant declaration, “Our house is hell,” Shylock's daughter, Jessica, speaks painfully but appropriately for almost all of Shakespeare's families, including those of Romeo and Juliet, or, more precisely, including that of Romeo and Juliet, for ultimately the play forces one to see family as metaphor: the entire populace of Verona as one family, all as unruly children—not merely the impetuous young lovers, but the parents and their relatives and friends, and the Prince—all requiring chastisement in love.


The family was undergoing significant change in Shakespeare's day. Although practically every assertion is met with a counterassertion in the increasingly controversial sociohistorical family studies, a growth industry in its own right, all agree on the fact of change in western-European families between 1500 and 1700, including those of England. The debate over the nature of the extended family versus the nuclear family as a part of that change is not relevant here, but the fresh enhancement of the power of patriarchy, reinforced by both church and state, is central to many of the family problems in Shakespeare's plays and especially pertinent to Romeo and Juliet. Patriarchalism was certainly not a new concept in Shakespeare's age; it was not unique to the Reformation, not even to Christianity, nor, for that matter, to the western world.

Patriarchalism has been a human phenomenon for centuries, in both east and west, unquestionably reinforced by both Judaism and Christianity as the Judeo-Christian culture emerged in the west. Nevertheless, patriarchy received powerful fresh impetus in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from both the rise of the national state and the Reformation. The authoritarian state articulated by the Tudors and the Stuarts delighted to parallel the role of the ruler, on the one hand to that of God, and on the other to that of a father. Shakespeare was but citing standard doctrine when he has Gaunt say:

God's is the quarrel, for God's substitute,
His deputy anointed in his sight,
Hath caus'd his death, the which if wrongfully,
Let heaven revenge, for I may never lift
An angry arm against His minister.

(Richard II, I.ii.37-41)

So was James I when, in a statement to Parliament on 21 March 1610, he declared that kings “are not only GODS Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon GODS throne, but even by GOD himself they are called GODS,” and “Kings are also compared to Fathers of families: for a King is truly Parens Patriae, the politic father of his people” (cited by Bergeron, who retained original spellings, 28). In commenting upon Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, Jonathan Goldberg remarks, “For him [Filmer], the king is quite literally the father of his country, for parents are ‘natural magistrates’ and children are ‘natural subjects’ … and kings simply act within the ‘natural law of a Father’ … in making their absolute claims to obedience” (85).

Similarly, the Reformation reinforced the patriarchal power of those in authority in several ways, but chiefly two. First, although the Roman Catholic Church unquestionably stressed the authority of the father and other authority figures, it also taught that the highest calling was celibacy, not married life, and, therefore, many thought the family was fundamentally a concession to human weakness. The Protestants stressed the centrality of the married state; the role of the father was not weakened by any implied inherently second-class condition of spirituality. Second, although the Reformation taught the priesthood of all believers, each having no ultimate mediator between God and man save Jesus Christ, yet fathers had a peculiarly heavy responsibility to act as the “priest” for those in their households, especially for women and children. The Reformation attempted to eliminate the demarcation between sacred and secular callings by declaring all callings sacred, and now responsibility rested not upon the church as an institution but upon individual believers; yet, within the “natural” patterns of authority set forth in the Bible—kings, fathers, husbands, masters—the power that had formerly been ministered through the church was to be administered throughout all segments of society by authority figures. When, in God and the King, Richard Mocket declared all subjects were children of the king and were thus ordered by the Fifth Commandment to honor and obey him, “James I was so delighted with this book that he ordered it to be studied in schools and universities and bought by all householders, thus ensuring it a very wide sale” (Stone, Family 152). Children learned in their catechism that the Fifth Commandment applied to authority figures in society as well as to their actual parents:

Show therefore in the first place who are meant by these titles of father and mother.
First our natural parents, by whom as the instruments of God, we have received our being and life. And then also all those which in any respect are in stead of parents unto us for the preservation, direction, and comfort of life.
Who are they, whom we ought to account to be to us in stead of parents, according to this commandment of God?
First, civil Magistrates in the commonwealth, such as are sovereign Kings and Princes, with their Judges and Justices, and in all public office under them. Secondly, Pastors and teachers of the word in the Church of God, with all that have government and charge of souls, together with them according to the same holy word. Thirdly, schoolmasters and teachers of the tongues, and other liberal Arts, as also such as have the wardship & government of fatherless children: and likewise masters of manual trades and occupations.

(Allen 120)

In these ways did both church and state drastically reinforce patriarchalism and force the people of Shakespeare's day, and Shakespeare himself, to think of the body politic as a family.


The family, therefore, is a natural metaphor for all of Verona in Romeo and Juliet, and that Shakespeare encourages that concept can be seen both early and late. It is not necessary to argue that Shakespeare consciously knew the fact that “civil” ultimately derives from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to rest” and from that, “home,” for one to see that “civil” is a key word in many Shakespearean plays, including Romeo and Juliet, where it occurs five times, more than in any other play except 2 Henry IV, where it also occurs five times. In the entire corpus of Shakespearean drama, the word appears fifty-one times, thirteen times meaning something like “well-mannered” or “well-behaved,” four times meaning “serious” or “grave” or “decorous,” and thirty-four times usually referring something very painful to contemplate: conflict, strife, or war where harmony and peace ought to reign. Thus it is used in the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet: “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (4). On occasions, the “civil war” is within the same individual, as in Sonnet 35, where “to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—/ Thy adverse party is thy advocate—/ And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence, / Such civil war is in my love and hate” (9-12). So it is also in King John when Pandulph hears that King Philip of France has “deep-sworn faith, peace, amity, true love” between his kingdom and that of John: “So mak'st thou faith an enemy to faith, / And like a civil war set'st oath to oath, / Thy tongue against thy tongue” (III.i.263-265). Within the entity of the individual, there should be unity, harmony, and peace, not strife. But strife too frequently prevails, destroying the “rest” of home; the place where peace should reign is itself the battlefield, as Venus argues with the reluctant Adonis: “So in thyself art made away, / A mischief worse than civil home-bred strife, / Or theirs whose desperate hands themselves do slay, / Or butcher sire that reaves his son of life” (“Venus and Adonis” 763-766).

Again and again, Shakespeare's characters lament “civil wounds” or “civil broil” or “civil brawls,” as in this play, or “civil war” as the curse of the community made up of “kindred,” the extended body politic, the extended family. And thus in “fair Verona,” because two households refuse to recognize that they are really one, the parents, pouting and quarreling, bring chastisement upon themselves and the entire city. They are, despite themselves, made one and forced to recognize their sibling relationship inside the larger family of the city. The foolish and wicked “parents' strife” from “parents' rage” has to be disciplined in and through their children, for the “iniquity of the fathers” will be visited upon the children. Romeo and Juliet, the intensely sweet young lovers whose love seems purer than driven snow, are impetuous and headstrong, consciously rebellious against the will of their parents, and, indeed, suffer the dire consequences of their hot-blooded rash rebellion, but they are simultaneously the very instruments through which the wise “heaven,” like a loving father, chastises the rash rebellion of their parents. “For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth: & he scourgeth every son that he receiveth. … Now no chastising for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: but afterwards, it bringeth the quiet fruit of righteousness, unto them which are thereby exercised” (Hebrews 12:6 and 11, Geneva Bible). And so all Verona finally comes to recognize its one-family set of relationships as “All are punish'd” (V.iii.295).


The chastisement of children was a major feature of child-rearing during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Both severity and frequency increased during this period, resulting from the enlarged power of coercion residing in the authority of fathers in particular and of other authority figures in general. Jean-Louis Flandrin cites the jurist Pierre Ayrault concerning the power of fathers: “domestic discipline, in which the father is like a dictator, has decreed that from his voice shall depend all that is subject to him” (130). Flandrin quotes Guillaume de Vair, the Guardian of the Seals, as writing “we should consider fathers as gods on earth,” and he declares that Jean Bodin carried that same concept only to its ultimate logical end by demanding that fathers of families be restored the power of life and death which had been theirs until abolished in late antiquity by Christian emperors (130). Aristotle viewed a household as “all persons subject to the authority of its chief—slaves and servants as well as spouse and blood relatives” (Herlihy 2). The Latin familia “designates everything and everybody under the authority (patria potestas) of the household head. Familia in classical usage is often synonymous with patrimony” (Herlihy 2).

Children were considered naturally stubborn and full of pride that had to be broken down. “During the period from 1540 to 1660 there is a great deal of evidence especially from Puritans, of a fierce determination to break the will of the child, and to enforce his utter subjection to the authority of his elders and superiors, and most especially of his parents” (Stone, Family 162). Flogging became the substitute for fines in the fifteenth century for the poor who were unable to pay their fines and, anyway, who were considered socially suitable for physical punishment. From the early sixteenth century, flogging became the standard punishment for academic shortcomings. Stone thinks the “greater evidence of brutality in the sixteenth-century home and school is a reflection of a harsher reality, not merely of a larger and more revealing body of written records” (164).

Beatings were usually of two forms—with a bundle of birches on the naked buttocks until the blood flowed, or with a ferula, a pear-shaped piece of wood with a hole in it, on hand or mouth, raising a painful blister. Punishment in the schools sometimes reached sadistic proportions, as apparently it did with Dr. Busby of Westminster School and with Dr. Gill of St. Paul's. Floggings were so much a part of university education that by the sixteenth century even the deans and tutors, not merely the college head, had authority to administer physical punishment. So much was flogging a part of education that “the characteristic equipment of the schoolmaster was not so much a book as a rod or a bundle of birch twigs” (Stone, Family 163). Masters regularly beat their servants and apprentices. On one occasion a female apprentice, stripped naked and strung up by her thumbs, was striped with twenty-one lashes (Smith, “Apprentices” 152), and on another, a boy was flogged until he bled, then salted, and finally held naked near a fire (Beattie 62).

In the home, beatings were usually applied by the women—nurses, governesses, or mothers—but also frequently by fathers as well. Robert Burton in the Anatomy of Melancholy complained that parents were often too harsh, too frequently chiding, striking, or whipping their children, causing the children to become cowed, unable to enjoy a single hour free from fear. In Shakespeare's lifetime, the severe chastisement of children was a matter of course, applied freely by parents, schoolmasters, and masters or heads of households. Although in Romeo and Juliet no actual flogging takes place, there is a strong hint that Capulet can scarcely restrain himself from flogging Juliet, when, in his extreme exasperation at her refusal to marry Paris, he cries out:

Hang thee, young baggage! disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what: get thee to church a' Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face.
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me!
My fingers itch.


The entire cultural setting conditioned Shakespeare and the viewers of his plays to accept severe chastisement as an essential part of life and to expect authority figures, each in his own sphere, to administer discipline and chastisement for correction. Physical chastenings were harsh and frequent. Escalus, Prince of Verona, utters his first words in the play as the authority figure administering discipline: “Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace, / Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel / … / If ever you disturb our streets again / Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace” (I.i.81-82, 96-97). And, just as Capulet is indifferent to the tears and pleadings of his child, Juliet, so is the Prince utterly unresponsive to the tears of his “children” at the banishment of Romeo: “Nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses; / Therefore use none. … / Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill” (III.i.193-194, 197). The Prince seems willing enough to play the father and to chasten his children/subjects, yet at the end of the play, he takes his own place as a whipped child for not being more consistently a disciplinarian, “for winking at your discords,” and of the family of Verona he declares, “All are punish'd” (V.iii.294-295). Moreover, the Prince also insists that the feuding Capulets and Montagues see the loss of their children as chastisement for continuing the “ancient grudge”: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate” (V.iii.292).


The sixteenth century was one of habitual violence, and “both feuding among kin factions and personal hostility of one individual towards another were … intense” (Stone, Family 94). Formal blood feuds among the aristocracy in England had been virtually eliminated by the thirteenth century, but blood feuds continued unabated in Italy and Germany and were endemic among Scottish nobility until virtually Shakespeare's own day. “For example, in the year 1478 there were serious feuds going on between the earl of Buchan and the earl of Atholl, between the master of Crawford and the lord of Glamis, and between the lord of Caerlaverock and the lord of Drumlanrick. There was also a lesser feud going on that involved the lords of Cathness, Ross, and Sutherland” (Given 73-74).

Violence, often ending in homicides, in homes and ale houses and frequently in the streets, characterized English life for centuries, through the Elizabethan era.

Although the formal, institutionalized blood feud had ceased to be a feature of English society by the thirteenth century, kinsmen on occasion still exacted revenge for the death of one of their relatives. In the second quarter of the century William of Radwell was hanged in Wiltshire on the accusation of William of Bowden Hill. If the suspicions of the jurors are to be believed, William of Radwell's kin came one night to William of Bowden's house and in retaliation killed both him and his son. … Simon Whetebred and Nicholas de Rede, both from Helmdon in Northhamptonshire, fought over a debt that Nicholas owed Simon. Simon fatally wounded Nicholas with a stick. When Nicholas' wife Isolda tried to raise the hue and cry to have Simon arrested, his sister Matilda enabled him to escape by throttling Isolda.

(Given 44-45)

The hot-blooded rashness of old Capulet and old Montague is as childish as the hot-blooded rashness of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare found a feud in his source, Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, but bitterness, suspicion, distrust, lesser feuds, and violence were an ongoing part of English social behavior during Shakespeare's lifetime. Stone recounts the conflict between Oxford, the father of an illegitimate son by Anne Vavasour, and Thomas Knyvett, her patron. These were men important in Elizabeth's court, both having or having had immediate access to the Queen. In the early months of 1582, rumors flew about Oxford's intention to kill Knyvett. They fought a duel in March and both were wounded. One of Oxford's men was killed. The followers of the two powerful figures met in Lambeth Marsh in June, and again some of Oxford's men were wounded. As Knyvett was disembarking on the slippery Blackfriars stairs, someone tried to kill him. In July, in a fresh outbreak, Knyvett slew an Oxford follower. In February of 1583, another Oxford follower died, apparently killed by a Knyvett man. In the next month, Oxford supporters killed Long Tom, a former follower of Oxford who had become a Knyvett man, and so the quarrel continued (Crisis 233).

The remarkably candid records of Simon Forman include many accounts of bitter conflicts, particularly his persecution by doctors. When he saw Shakespeare's plays, Forman kept notes for his own edification, for “practical use.” After viewing Richard II on 30 April 1611, Forman made this note for future reference, apparently about a passage no longer included as a part of the play:

Remember therein how Jack Straw by his overmuch boldness, not being politic or suspecting anything, was suddenly at Smithfield Bar stabbed by Walworth, the mayor of London, and so he and his whole army was overthrown. Therefore, in such a case or the like, never admit any party without a bar between; for a man cannot be too wise, nor keep himself too safe.

(Rowse 14)

Even trivial incidents could easily be turned into real battles between two families and their respective friends:

William of Bucknell, his brother Geoffrey, and William Swete took part in a penitential procession in Kent. As they passed the house of Richard of Brennesham, John Ruckling, one of their companions, shot an arrow at Richard's dog. Richard and his brother immediately rushed out of the house. They and some of their neighbors pursued the penitents into Littlebourne and wounded them. William of Bucknell died of his wounds three days later, and Richard of Brennesham and his brother promptly fled.

(Given 45-46)

The fanatic pursuit of Catholic recusants in Warwickshire by John Whitgift, Bishop of Worcester—recusants that included Shakespeare's father, John—must have been traumatic enough to seem somewhat like a feud to William, who was an impressionable twelve-year-old when the Grand Commission Ecclesiastical was appointed in 1576 to investigate infractions of the Supremacy Act. “Shakespeare's father had also private enemies, for in Trinity term (June 15-July 4), 1582, he petitioned the court of Queen's Bench for sureties of the peace against Ralph Cawdrey, William Russell, Thomas Logginge, and Robert Young, ‘for fear of death and mutilation of his limbs’” (Eccles 31). The religiosity of the sixteenth century did not diminish the sickening violence nor exclude the persistence of feuding attitudes, even when no blood was actually shed. According to Stone, John Gilpin discovered that many parishioners in the border area of Northumberland refused to enter a church where members of a family with whom they were feuding entered. Separately, they would listen to his preaching, but they would not worship together (Family 94).

The ferocious intensity of the feud impinging upon the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet does not come from Arthur Brooke's boring poem but from the persistent, pernicious freshness with which such enmities continued to afflict English life in Shakespeare's own day. The feud between the house of Montague and that of Capulet, in the conclusion of the play, turns out to be a family fight, somewhat like that of Cain and Abel, hence an “ancient grudge” and “ancient quarrel,” for when they have been chastened, Capulet cries out, “O brother Montague, give me thy hand” (V.iii.296).


The parents of Romeo and Juliet, like most other parents in Shakespeare's works, display an astounding ignorance of their children as persons, reflecting the lack of in-depth communication between parents and children characteristic of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Both families show some affection for their children, yet both sets of parents reveal an utter inability to communicate with their respective children. Montague remarks to Benvolio about Romeo's solitary behavior. When Benvolio asks, “do you know the cause?” Montague replies, “I neither know it, nor can learn of him,” and when Benvolio pursues further, “Have you importun'd him by any means?” Montague confesses complete failure, “Both by myself and many other friends” (I.i.143-146).

One might dismiss that single incident as being unique, the result of Romeo's infatuation with Rosaline—until the Capulets' quarrel with Juliet. There it is clear that parents try to talk to their children but not with them. Then, if one but recalls Baptista's ignorance of Bianca and Kate, Shylock's of Jessica, Brabantio's of Desdemona, and Lear's of all his daughters, to name only the most glaring examples, one sees a recurring pattern of a profound problem persisting throughout Shakespeare's many troubled families. Once more, the best understanding of the problem derives from the culture at large, from an examination of parent/child relationships. There one sees that distance and deference are the key words—distance, both physical and psychological, of parents from children and deference of children towards parents.

Children were physically separated from their parents when they were placed, often at early infancy, with a wet-nurse. Most frequently, the wet-nurse was not like Juliet's nurse, a live-in, but rather one who took the baby into her own home. The usual period of separation was about eighteen months, but Sir Robert Sibbald seems almost to boast that he nursed until he was more than two years old and was able to run up and down the streets, apparently having an indulgent country woman as his wet-nurse (Stone, Family 430). Another period of separation came at about the seventh year of the child:

“The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested toward their children,” wrote an Italian observer at the beginning of the sixteenth century, “for having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years. And these are called apprentices, and during that time they perform all the most menial offices; and few are born who are exempted from this fate, for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children to the houses of others, whilst he in return, receives those of strangers into his own. And on inquiring their reason for this severity, they answered that they did it in order that their children might have better manners. But I, for my part, believe they do it because they like to enjoy all their comforts themselves, and that they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children.”

(Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1:25)

Once this education period ended, the child was about ready to enter life on its own, and if the family were wealthy, perhaps to marry. If not, the child first might have to earn his or her own marriage portion.

The system of child-rearing itself caused extended periods of physical separation of parents from their children, but there was a deliberate psychological distance as well. Parents were warned by religious leaders against “being too fond of your children and too familiar with them at sometimes at least, and not keeping constantly your due distance: such fondness and familiarity breed contempt and irreverency in children” (Cobbett 219-220). Although Lawrence Stone observes that the psychological distance of parents from children was also a defense mechanism in an age of extremely high infant mortality, and that unconscious defense was no doubt present, the conscious reason parents insisted on psychological distance was to avoid “cockering” them, overly indulging them, and to bring them up in the discipline and instruction in the Lord exhorted by Paul in Ephesians 6:4 and by nearly all preachers and religious teachers. Deliberate psychological distancing resulted in a shocking lack of intimacy between parent and child. Richard Helgerson comments on the contents of a letter from Sir Henry Sidney to his twelve-year-old son, Philip: “One cannot help being struck by the impersonality of these precepts. We take up the letter expecting to penetrate the intimacies of sixteenth-century family life and find that there is no intimacy to be penetrated” (17).

It was essential that children be obedient and display due reverence toward their parents at all times; therefore, profound deference was expected of children, even after they had become adults. Juliet, appropriately deferential, addresses her mother with “Madam, I am here, what is your will?” (I.iii.5), and again, “Madam, I am not well” (III.v.68). Cobbett, and many other religious teachers, insisted that children must demonstrate their honor for their parents by actions of great respect—going to meet their parents when they approach, bowing to them, always speaking reverently to them, confessing faults and showing shame when rebuked by them, confessing unworthiness when corrected by them, never sitting in the presence of parents, or talking unless invited to speak, much less laughing, in their parents' presence, and certainly, therefore, never interrupting them when their parents were speaking. Many adult children, like Elizabeth Tanfield, Lady Falkland, knelt continuously when speaking to parents, even if the conversation continued for an hour or more, regardless of pain to legs (Pinchbeck and Hewitt 19).

Even though the Montagues cannot communicate with Romeo, worse devastation results from the Capulets' utter ignorance of Juliet as a person; they neither know her nor understand her, and she finds herself powerless to communicate with them. She tries to get the ear of her parents. Kneeling before her father, she pleads, “Good father, I beseech you on my knees, / Hear me with patience but to speak a word” (III.v.158-159). Capulet is implacable. She turns desperately to her mother, “O sweet my mother, cast me not away!” but her mother will not communicate: “Talk not to me, for I'll not speak a word” (III.v.198, 202). Their ignorance of their daughter and their inability to communicate with her lead to such a rupture of relationships that their emotional distance allows them to reject her totally: “Graze where you will,” threatens Capulet, shaking with rage, “you shall not house with me … hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, / For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee, / Nor what is mine shall never do thee good,” and Lady Capulet, with a cold finality that is even more frightening, announces flatly, “Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee” (III.v.188, 192-194, 203).


The central family conflict in Romeo and Juliet is rebellion, or, to use an only slightly milder term, disobedience. Both children knowingly rebel against the will of their parents, constantly conscious as they are of the bitter feud between the two families, but in the case of Juliet, it is a matter of direct rebellion against the authority of her father, who had made known his will for her to marry Paris. The play thus focuses on a growing cultural conflict between the traditional family-arrranged marriage and individual choice. Lawrence Stone traces four stages in the gradual shifts of attitude towards marriage: (1) marriages entirely arranged by the parents with little or no involvement of the children; (2) marriages arranged by parents, but with the children able to veto; (3) marriage choices made by the children but with parents having the power of veto; and (4) most recently, in this century, children making their own choices with little or no parental involvement, although some indirect parental influence often attempted (Crisis 670).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the gradual trend was from stage one to stage two, a trend that is evident within this very play, for in the initial discussion with Paris, Capulet makes it clear that Juliet herself is to have a say: “But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, / My will to her consent is but a part; / And she agreed, within her scope of choice / Lies my consent and fair according voice” (I.ii.16-19). Moreover, when Lady Capulet first approaches the subject of marriage with Juliet, she does so to encourage Juliet to examine Paris at the upcoming feast as a prospective husband. She cannot wait; soon after announcing, “The valiant Paris seeks you for his love,” she asks, “What say you? can you love the gentleman?” and urges Juliet to “Examine every married lineament, / And see how one another lends content; / And what obscur'd in this fair volume lies / Find written in the margent of his eyes” (I.iii.74, 79, 83-86). It is not surprising, therefore, that Juliet expects to have some say in her marriage choice: “I wonder at this haste, that I must wed / Ere he that should be husband comes to woo” (III.v.118-119). Juliet has been denied any input whatsoever, not that she wanted any in the Paris arrangements, except the right of veto.

Even though she had earlier been allowed to think she was to have some voice in her marriage choice, Juliet learns to her shocked dismay that old modes of thought are not easily altered. She is allowed no part in the decision. The somewhat plaintive but matter-of-fact memoirs of Anne, Lady Halkett, illustrate how jealously parents guarded marriage choices for their children. Anne was born in 1623, the year her father died, and, until she was twenty-one years old, she relates:

I may truly say all my converse was so innocent that my own heart cannot challenge me with any immodesty, either in thought or behavior, or an act of disobedience to my mother, to whom I was so observant that as long as she lived [her mother died in 1647] I do not remember that I made a visit to the nearest neighbor or went any where without her liberty.

(Memoirs 11)

The brother of a friend and son of “Lord H.” of France, to her own surprise, fell in love with Anne and, before she knew what was happening, spoke to her of marriage, something her mother had strictly forbidden. Anne found his passion violent, but she thought it would not last long, especially if not resisted (“a seeming complaisance might lessen it”), and so she promised him that she would not marry anyone until he married, a promise she found easy to make because she was not at that time inclined to marry anyone.

She was mistaken; his passion increased, and he urged that they marry secretly. She firmly resisted his overtures and

told him he need never expect I would marry him without his father's and my mother's consent. If that could be obtained, I should willingly give him the satisfaction he desired, but without that I could not expect God's blessing neither upon him nor me, and I would do nothing that was so certain a way to bring ruin upon us both.


When the parents were approached through a third party, unsurprisingly, they both objected, most particularly Anne's mother, even though the marriage would have been advantageous to Anne. The memoirs explain that Anne understood her mother's reasoning. It seemed dishonorable to allow Anne to win the affections of the son to her own advantage. Lord H. needed a marriage arrangement for this son that would bring in a considerable marriage portion, far more than Anne's mother could manage. The more it seemed that Anne might be manipulating the affections of the young man, the more strenuously the mother objected, and the more angry she became with Anne, even though Anne was wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.

The young man persisted, making it necessary for Lord H. to leave, taking his son with him. Now the mother was so angry with Anne that nothing could pacify her wrath. “After she had called for me and said as many bitter things as passion could dictate …, she discharged me to see him and did solemnly vow that if she should hear I did see Mr. H. she would turn me out of her doors and never own me again” (15, emphasis added). Obviously, Anne's mother, like old Capulet, reached the ultimate threat of disowning the child very quickly. Although Anne's lover persuaded his father to convince Anne's mother to allow a final farewell visit, once the mother thought they had returned to France, she upbraided Anne for causing all to think that Lord H. had been forced to whisk away his son to save him from Anne. In actual fact, the lover escaped his father's guard and once more returned secretly to Anne's home, insisting upon seeing her again. Perplexed beyond measure what to do, that night as she was passing through her brother's bedroom in order to reach her own, she laid her hand upon her eyes as was her custom when passing through his room while he was in bed, and suddenly she realized the answer to her dilemma: “If I blindfolded my eyes that would secure me from seeing him, and so I did not transgress against my mother” (18, emphasis added). Thus, Anne was faithfully obedient to the very letter of her mother's law, and, anyway, was the wholly innocent party in this painful affair, but she nevertheless was not spared her mother's ire. Her mother's anger increased to the extent that for fourteen months she refused her parental blessing and never spoke to Anne without additional words of reproach, “and one day said with much bitterness she did hate to see me” (20).

Against such deeply entrenched attitudes about the sanctity of total parental control over marriage arrangements, Juliet could not hope to prevail. The modern audience is shocked by the immediate violence of Capulet's wrath against Juliet. His anger springs from several sources simultaneously. First, he is as fond of Juliet as Lear is of Cordelia and is equally disbelieving of her response. He is completely surprised and taken aback that she is not elated, “proud,” and full of joyful gratitude, her grief over the death of her cousin Tybalt thus assuaged. Second, he cannot believe his ears that she dare, even momentarily, challenge his authority by so much as hesitation. He is almost as vehement in putting Tybalt in his place when Tybalt fails to give prompt and total compliance to his will to tolerate Romeo's presence at the feast. Capulet puts words in Juliet's mouth, words actually reflecting some of his own earlier concerns for her: “I'll not wed, I cannot love; / I am too young, I pray you pardon me,” and then picking up on his own word, “pardon,” meaning to give freely or thoroughly, he threatens to give her more freedom than she ever dreamed—total freedom, in fact: “Graze where you will, you shall not house with me” (III.v. 185-186, 188). The absolute authority of fathers was to be entirely unchallenged, even when they were wrong or when the child had greater wisdom. John Stockwood, in 1589, makes that abundantly clear in his pamphlet with the daunting title, A Bartholomew Fairing for Parentes … shewing that children are not to marie without the consent of their parentes, in whose power and choice it lieth to provide wives and husbondes for their sonnes and daughters. He emphatically asserts:

The question here is not, what children in regard either of age or wit are able for to do but what God hath thought meet & expedient. … For there are many children found sometimes far to exceed their fathers in wit and wisdom, yea in all other gifts both of mind & body, yet is this not good reason that they should take upon them their father's authority.”


To rebel against the father's authority in the matter of marriage, regardless of the age or wisdom of the child is rebellion against God as well. Third, Juliet's father is angry because he has already given his word to Paris, and he simply will “not be forsworn” (III.v.195). It is a matter of honor and integrity, similar to that of the mother of Anne, Lady Halkett. Finally, there is a fourth reason for Capulet's outrage toward Juliet, outrage he declares that

makes me mad!
Day, night, work, play,
Alone, in company, still my care hath been
To have her match'd; and having now provided
A gentleman of noble parentage,
Of fair demesnes, youthful and nobly [lien'd],
Stuff'd, as they say, with honorable parts,
Proportion'd as one thought would wish a man.


His outrage continues. Part of it represents his disgust with Juliet's ingratitude for all his concerned efforts on her behalf. Yet embedded in it, too, is the primary reason for arranging marriages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: for the improvement of status (“of noble parentage”) and for material gain (“of fair demesnes”).

The crassness with which people of Shakespeare's time considered children chattels and arranged marriages as a matter of buying and selling is virtually beyond belief today. Nevertheless, that view of children had the full weight of religion behind it. John Stockwood stresses that as a major reason why children must not marry without their parents' consent: “The children are worthily to be reckoned among the good and substance of their fathers, and that by a more especial right than anything else, the which belongeth unto their possession,” and children simply must not arrange their own marriages “for it standeth with great reason, that the owner dispose of the goods, and not contrariwise the goods of the owner, which were in deed a thing very absurd and contrary to all reason” (21-22).

Nowadays, the sympathy of the audience is entirely with Romeo and Juliet, but “in Tudor England the prevailing conception of marriage was practical rather than romantic, and … the insistence on the duty of the children to obey their parents contributed to the conception” (Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1:48). When John Stockwood wrote A Bartholomew Fairing in 1589, he believed the plague England had just experienced was the judgment of God upon England because so many children had disobediently married without their parents' consent. The powerfully appealing love affair and marriage of Romeo and Juliet was so effectively portrayed by Shakespeare as, perhaps, to help change societal attitudes in later years, but at the time the Tudor audience would have viewed their actions quite ambivalently. The disobedience of children, in their minds, deserved punishment.


The rebellion or disobedience of children deserves punishment, even when they are adults, for a part of the ambivalent response to Romeo and Juliet results from the fact that their disobedience is young and virtually innocent compared to the “ancient grudge” and “cank'red hate” of their parents, outbreaks of enmity continued in utter disobedience to and rebellion against their “father,” the Prince. The antitheses in the play between youth and age, love and hate, eros and thanatos have not gone unnoticed, but the particular contrast between the rash rebellion of the parents in continuing the feud and the rash rebellion of the children in marrying without parental consent needs further treatment.

So much stress is laid upon the ancient nature of the quarrel as to make it seem almost primordial. It is in relation to the feud that both Montague and Capulet are described as being “old,” and, since friends as well as relatives are drawn into feuds, that the feud has continued from virtual antiquity is underscored by the fact that “Verona's ancient citizens” have had to “Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments / To wield old partisans, in hands as old” (I.i.92-93, emphasis added). The constant ringing of the word “old” adds a hoary aura to their hate, as though their bitter enmity springs from and perpetuates the malignant malice theologically termed original sin, the malice that sadly characterizes many human relationships in all ages, not merely the age of Shakespeare.

The original cause of the feud is unknown, perhaps very slight if “bred of an airy word” refers to the initial source rather than to the most recent “three civil brawls.” In the sixteenth century, as Stone observes, people quarreled over “prestige and property,” causing bloodshed over status as surely as over money (Crisis 223). Honor, and its closely related concept of reputation, was a cherished cultural value; the impulsive readiness to repay a real or imaginary injury was thought a sign of spirit, and loyalty to family or friend in a quarrel a moral duty regardless of the worthiness of the cause. Poor diet and ill health produced constant irritability; men and, among the lower classes, women all carried weapons and were ready to the point of eagerness to use them—perhaps as a release from the frustration, tedium, and boredom of their daily lives. Sampson's opening swagger, “we'll not carry coals,” suggests an eagerness to interpret the slightest “airy word” as an insult. The pettiness of the thumb-biting attempt to provoke a quarrel is not in the least beneath the childishness to which even nobility were willing to stoop in Shakespeare's day. The Earl of Lincoln, during a quarrel with a neighbor, placed a load of human waste on the windward side of his neighbor. Henry Howard, later to become the second Vicount Bindon, repeatedly galloped by the Sheriff of Dorset in order to splash him with mud and finally deliberately knocked his hat into the mud puddles (Stone, Crisis 224-225). Childishness in quarrels was not at all uncommon.

Moreover, one should remember that the play opens with an emphasis upon the breaking out of the “ancient grudge” into “new mutiny,” with at least two “civil brawls” occuring prior to the one on the streets of Verona with which the play begins, for “Three civil brawls … By thee, old Capulet, and Montague / Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets” (I.i.89-91). It is also not surprising that Mercutio, “kinsman to the Prince,” is involved in the feud. Stone comments on the feuds, during the reign of Elizabeth, between the Stanhopes and the Markhams, between the Fiennes and the Dymocks, between the Danvers and the Longs, between the Muschampes and the Collingwoods, and between the Mansells and the Heydons. All of these, Stone says, pulled in, through family alliances, many other important people (Crisis 229). Queen Elizabeth tolerated a great deal of violence of that sort and even deliberately manipulated violent factions among the aristocracy in such a fashion that they acted as checks, each upon the other. When some special interest of the state was threatened, however, Elizabeth could act vigorously enough, as she did when the religious loyalty of the Earl of Shrewsbury was called into question (236).

In Romeo and Juliet, the fresh outbreak of the “ancient grudge” is termed “mutiny,” with the Prince as outraged as Capulet was with Juliet when the brawls continue, and the fighting is not immediately halted, even in his own presence. His term for them is “Rebellious subjects,” and his exasperation increases as the conflict continues. Although it is Tybalt who hates the word “peace” as “I hate Hell,” one cannot escape the conclusion that he but reflects the intensity of the hatred of the heads of these two families. The impetuous rashness with which they have at each other on the street, and the cold calculating determination of Lady Capulet to “send one to Mantua” to poison Romeo, even though the Prince has already administered justice, manifest the deep-seated disobedience to the fatherly authority of the Prince. Their continued rebellion deserves a more severe chastisement than the almost incidental disobedience of Romeo and Juliet resulting from their love for each other. Moreover, if the bypassing of parental consent by the young people were rebellion against God, as Shakespeare's audience would have felt, how much more would an audience that heard in church nearly every Sunday the Homily on Obedience of 1547 view the continued rebellion of the two families against the authority of the Prince as rebellion also against God. “The power of kings in their realms was likened unto God in the universe; of corporal heads over the other limbs of the human body; and of fathers over families. … Order and obedience were indivisible. And just as order was the principle by which God's will was manifest, so were disobedience and rebellion the manifestation of disorder and defiance of God's will” (Ashton 35-36).

Just as David's rebellion against God in the matter of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah was mirrored in the rebellion of Absalom against both David and God, so was the rebellion of Romeo and Juliet but a dim reflection of the more culpable mutiny of the parents. The exquisite beauty of the love of Romeo and Juliet for each other, in sharp contrast to the “cank'red hate” of their parents, practically purifies their actions, especially since they receive the blessing of Friar Lawrence. The modern audience, however, imbued with the myth that romantic love is self-justifying, feels that contrast more keenly than one in Shakespeare's time would have done. Stone quotes Bacon about the mischief done by passionate love acting sometimes like a Siren and sometimes like a Fury. Since passionate love is a human phenomenon, as Stone says, “like influenza,” Bacon warned that if one catches it, he should at the least keep that passion separated from the serious business of life. Stone also quotes the brother of Dorothy Osborne who says in effect that since passions cause more trouble than they provide satisfactions, one should minimize them if he wishes to be happy (Crisis 594). Even in this play, Juliet expresses distrust of “this contract,” representing their impetuous passionate love: “It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden, / Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be / Ere one can say it lightens” (II.ii.118-120). Yet, surely in any culture of any age, the play powerfully persuades one of the reality of their love, particularly in contrast to the artificiality of the infatuation Romeo formerly felt for Rosaline, another contrast of old and young, “old desire” versus “young affection.”

Against the black enmity of their parents, their love, like Juliet herself “hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—/ Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!” (I.v.45-47). Their love is born in the festering charnel house of familial disobedience and ends literally in a tomb, surrounded by the bones of “buried ancestors” and Tybalt “fest'ring in his shroud.” The “ancient grudge” comes to an end through the chastening of the forgivable rash disobedience of the young, for nothing less than their deaths could be sufficient chastening for the rash disobedience of the old, deaths so beautifully bright that they make “This vault a feasting presence full of light” (V.iii.86).


Like the slaughter of the innocents to assuage the rage of Herod, resulting in “mourning, and weeping, and great lamentation: Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:18, Geneva Bible), so Romeo and Juliet, albeit chastened for their own disobedience, become sacrificial lambs, taking away the deep-rooted and malignant hate of their parents, the very instruments through which the parents themselves are chastened—“Poor sacrifices of our enmity!” (V.ii.304). Shakespeare's plays are filled with troubled families about all of whom it may be said, “Our house is hell,” but in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the family as a metaphor to demonstrate how young and old alike are disobedient children requiring the correction of chastisement.

Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.
O brother Montague, give me thy hand.


Works Cited

Allen, Robert. A Treasvrie of Catechisme, or Christian Instruction. London, 1600.

Ashton, Robert. Reformation and Revolution 1558-1660. London: Granada, 1984.

Bergeron, David M. Shakespeare's Romances and the Royal Family. Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Cobbett, Thomas. A Fruitfull and Usefull Discourse touching on the Honour due from Children to Parents, and the duty of Parents toward their Children. London, 1656.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality in Early Modern France. Translated by Richard Southern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Given, James Buchanan. Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century England. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1977.

Goldberg, Jonathan. James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Helgerson, Richard. The Elizabethan Prodigals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.

The Memoirs of Anne, Lady Halkett and Anne, Lady Fanshawe. Edited by John Loftis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Pinchbeck, Ivy, and Margaret Hewitt. Children in English Society. 2 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Rowse, A. L. Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1974.

Stockwood, John. A Bartholomew Fairing for Parentes. … London, 1589.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

———. Family and Fortune: Studies in Aristocratic Finance in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

Bruce Young (essay date spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14282

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 plays historically. Despite its pervasive presence in Shakespeare and its frequent appearance in historical documents, however, students of history and of literature have largely ignored the parental blessing. Even those who mention it, I believe, have missed much of its significance. Shakespeare's parental blessings, I will show, have much richer and more complex implications than recent studies suggest. Recognizing how Shakespeare and his contemporaries perceived the parental blessing significantly increases our comprehension of important aspects of the plays, aids in both staging and editing scenes in which the blessing appears, and expands in useful ways our general understanding of family life in Renaissance England.

The ritual has received little scholarly attention. During the past twenty-five years, a few authorities—L. L. Schücking, Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewitt, Lawrence Stone, Ralph Houlbrooke, and one or two others—have made brief reference to the custom. Besides being brief and sometimes superficial, most of these relatively recent accounts have seriously distorted our understanding of the parental blessing and its meaning for Shakespeare's contemporaries. Schücking treats it as a quaint custom demonstrating the “unconditional subordination” of children in the period.1 Pinchbeck and Hewitt mention the custom as evidence of “the awful authority of parents” and link it with a child's fear of and distance from parents.2 Stone calls the custom “a symbolic gesture of submission” and uses it to support his thesis that in sixteenth-century England, more than at any other time, “the husband and father lorded it over his wife and children with the quasi-absolute authority of a despot.”3 Houlbrooke, one of many historians of the family who have challenged Stone's description of family life in the period as inaccurate and overly negative, gives a somewhat more satisfactory account of parental blessings, but still emphasizes their association with parental authority.4

Students of Shakespeare have given even less attention to the ritual. In an article on kneeling in Shakespeare, John Onuska devotes three pages to instances of children kneeling before parents. David Bevington draws on Onuska's article in making a brief reference to the parental blessing.5 Coppélia Kahn lists parental blessings among several customs of Shakespeare's England that she sees as “routine, visible reminders of patriarchal power.”6 All three writers view the blessing ritual mainly as a symbol of parental power and filial subordination. All three refer to Stone's paragraph-long discussion of the custom and clearly depend on Stone for their understanding of the custom's historical context.7 None of the three shows any evidence of independent research into what the parental blessing would have meant to Shakespeare's contemporaries, or how exactly it would have been performed.

I believe that Stone and those who depend on him are essentially wrong about the parental blessing. Because Stone has been almost the exclusive source of information on the blessing (and on family life generally) in recent Shakespearean studies, the occurrences of the ritual in Shakespeare's plays—when not ignored entirely—have been fundamentally misunderstood. Shakespeare's treatment of the blessing is generally positive, and a survey of historical evidence on the subject suggests that Shakespeare's understanding was probably not much different from that of his contemporaries. On some issues, I believe recent comments on the ritual are dead wrong. To connect the ritual primarily with “tyranny” or “despotism,” as Stone has done, is to level significant differences—differences the Renaissance was careful to maintain—between parental authority used appropriately and lovingly and parental authority abused with destructive or coercive effect.

Moreover, the parental blessing was not exclusively or primarily an expression of “patriarchal power,” at least if that phrase is understood as referring only to men. Mothers and fathers both gave blessings. Both had what Houlbrooke calls “quasi-sacerdotal” authority.8 Nowhere have I found evidence that blessings by fathers were deliberately privileged over those given by mothers. In Shakespeare's plays, mothers' blessings occur almost as often as fathers', and the blessings performed by women are at least as potent, both in the theater and in the plays' imagined worlds, as those performed by men. Of the blessings actually performed or spoken on stage, mothers give eight or nine, fathers give twelve. In other references to blessings, four to six are given by women, nine to eleven are given by men. Blessings in the plays have similar functions and use similar words, whether given by men or women.9

I am not arguing that the ritual had no association with parental authority or filial duty. But other elements were at least as important. In particular, the ritual was viewed as signalling, even reinforcing, the intimate and loving bond that ideally existed between parent and child. By performing the ritual, parents conveyed to their children divine influence—“blessing”—intended to enhance the children's happiness and prosperity. The blessing, given “with great Solemnity and Affection,” was essentially an expression of good will, not an instrument of domination.10 Though parents offered their good wishes and influence by virtue of their authority as parents, they did not normally perform the ritual in order to assert their authority and use it to dominate or coerce their children.

Understanding Renaissance attitudes associated with the parental blessing can significantly affect how we interpret many of Shakespeare's plays. It can also influence how we perform and edit them. Editors who normally supply stage directions sometimes fail to note that kneeling or other gestures should take place on the stage, either because they are not aware that a blessing occurs in a particular passage or because they do not understand the exact nature of the ritual. Of course, whether editors should supply stage directions at all is a controversial question. But whatever editors do, readers and directors would benefit from knowing when Shakespeare would have imagined certain kinds of stage business occurring and what form that stage business would likely take. Sometimes the text itself is explicit enough that readers and directors can reconstruct the gestures fairly well without historical evidence. But in some instances (such as All's Well That Ends Well 1.1.59-70), anyone without extra-textual understanding of the parental blessing will simply not realize that a blessing is taking place. An early quarto or folio alone, in other words, will not reveal at what points Shakespeare would have imagined a blessing being performed.

Moreover, without historical awareness a certain degree of confusion about how the blessing is to be performed is inevitable. In many modern productions, the gestures originally associated with the blessing are either omitted or replaced with something more vague—usually some sort of embrace. I am not arguing that directors should feel compelled to use the gestures Shakespeare would have had in mind, but only that they should have the option of doing so, an option historical awareness alone can give them. Further, I believe that the parental blessing is an important part of what Alan Dessen has called the Elizabethan theatrical vocabulary, and I agree with him that “to recognize the original conventions is often to recover distinctive Shakespearian metaphors and meanings and to expand our awareness of the full range of his best plays.”11 Having seen parental blessings performed on stage with varying degrees of fidelity to the original custom—and having served as dramaturg for a recent college production of The Winter's Tale in which a blessing takes place—I find that the gestures associated historically with the custom have a simple, impressive power on stage that is absent from the less memorable and distinctive, but more “modern,” gestures often used. Given the benefits of understanding the custom—including the recovery of authentic Elizabethan performance practice and the offering of a wider range of options to directors and readers—it seems to me imperative that editors make clear, in one way or another, when a blessing is taking place and what form it should take.


The parental blessing was widely practiced in Renaissance England. It took place daily, at least in “well-ordered” households, with children kneeling before their parents, both father and mother, and asking for a blessing. To quote a source published in Latin in 1588, describing the custom as practiced in England—

It is customary among us for children daily, morning and evening, on bended knee, to ask a blessing of each parent.12

William Perkins, writing in 1603, suggests the words a child might have used in asking for a blessing:

Parents in their families teach their children to say, Father I pray you bless me, Mother I pray you bless me.13

Peter Erondell gives similar wording: “I beseech you Mother pray to God to blesse me and give me your blessing, if it pleaseth you.”14 Each parent would respond to the request by calling on God to bless the child, either with a simple phrase like “God bless you” or with more elaborate wording such as that suggested by Erondell: “I pray the strong Almightie God to increase his graces in you, and to blesse you,” or “I pray God to blesse you all my Children, and to increase his graces in you.”15

While speaking words such as these, a parent would normally use one or both hands to signify the conferring of the blessing. Renaissance writers describe several different forms of the ritual, suggesting that the precise gestures may have varied from person to person or from time to time. Richard Whitforde, writing in 1533, describes the parents holding both hands up, palms together, looking toward heaven as they give the blessing.16 Richard Hooker, the great Anglican theologian, describes another form: what he calls the “imposition of handes.17 This would mean the placing of one or both hands on the head of the child who is kneeling before the parent.18 The same gestures are described by an eighteenth-century traveler visiting England, with the added information that children may kiss the hands that have blessed them:

Well brought-up children, on rising and going to bed, wish their fathers and mothers “Good morning” or “Good evening,” and kneeling before them ask for their blessing. The parents, placing their hands on their children's heads, say “God bless you,” or some such phrase, and the children then kiss their parents' hands.19

In another form of blessing, supported by pictorial and literary evidence, the parent holds one or both hands above the head of the recipient, not actually on it, or even holds both hands aloft, about level with the shoulders, with the palms forward, one hand held to the left and the other to the right of the person giving the blessing. This last gesture was considered especially appropriate for bestowing a blessing on a group.20

This variety of ritual forms is reflected in Shakespeare's plays. Cordelia refers to a hand or hands being held “o'er” her. It is not clear whether she expects the hand to actually touch her head (Lear 4.7.57). Shakespeare's plays also reflect the variable use of either one or both hands in blessing. Though contemporary descriptions more often refer to parents' “hands” (e.g., Hooker, Legg), “hand” is referred to in the singular in Titus Andronicus 1.1.163 (also “arm” in Richard III 1.4.236).21 In Lear, the quarto gives “hands” where the folio gives “hand” (4.7.57). Even if the singular “hand” is a typesetting error (as some editors have asserted), it would have been an error easily overlooked by those familiar with the custom in several slightly different forms.22

As for the child's gestures, the plays indicate that a child might have rested on one or both knees when kneeling for a blessing. The singular “knee” is used in Coriolanus 5.3.50, 75; 1 Henry VI 4.5.32; and Richard III 2.2.105. The plural is used in three instances where pleading is a strong element: Lear 2.4.155 (Lear's offering to reverse the usual order and kneel before his daughters—possibly for a blessing; cf. 3.2.11-12), Two Gentlemen of Verona 3.1.228, and Romeo and Juliet 3.5.168 (these last two refer, not to requests for a blessing, but to a daughter's kneeling to plead to her father). The non-Shakespearean evidence also makes reference to either one or two knees.23Dives and Pauper, written in the early 1400s but well known into the next century, cites with approval the tradition that one should kneel with both knees to God, but with only one to man.24 Yet kneeling with both knees for a parental blessing seems to have been a common, though not universal, practice. Perhaps parents, as God's representatives in the home, were thought of as occupying a special place above that of other mortals.

This daily kneeling and asking of a blessing was apparently expected of children and youths as long as they lived with their parents and seems to have been viewed as a normal part of daily life, not as an unusual custom limited to the extremely pious. One piece of evidence for how common the practice was is its use in The French Garden, a bilingual text written by a Frenchman to help the English learn French. The author, Peter Erondell, includes in his picture of a typical English day a dialogue in which a daughter asks for and receives her mother's blessing. Supplementing the blessings given by parents were those given by other relatives (especially grandparents) and by godparents.25 But such blessings apparently took place less often.

Besides being practiced morning and evening, the parental blessing seems to have been practiced on special occasions, for instance, at times of parting and reunion.26 While parents and children were separated, blessings might be requested and bestowed by letter.27 Parents who were soon to die might also bless their children, about whose futures they would have felt particularly anxious at this time of final parting. Thomas Bentley asserted in 1582 that “it is the duetie of all godly parentes … when they lye in their death beddes to call their chyldren before them, and to blesse them, and to give them ghostly admonitions, and godly lessons.”28 Alice Thornton's description of her mother's death in 1659 reveals how emotionally intense a deathbed blessing might be:

… she embraced us all severally in her armes, and kissed us, powring out many prayers and blessings for us all; like good old Jacob, when he gave his last blessing to his children. …29

An early seventeenth-century work imagines a father on his deathbed, with “his Children kneeling before him,” to whom he gives his final blessing and counsel. In this work, as in Shakespeare, a person's last words are presented as having special wisdom, even prophetic power.30

In addition to evidence of younger children requesting blessings, there are also accounts of persons who maintained the practice into adulthood. One was Sir Thomas More, in the early 1500s, who, “whensoever he passed through Westminster Hall to his place in the Chancery,” if he saw his father, would go to him “and there reverently kneeling down in the sight of them all, duly ask his father's blessing.”31 Nicholas Ferrar, in the early seventeenth century, did likewise: “at first approaching his mother,” he “knelt upon the ground to ask and receive her blessing.”32 And there may have been many others, as is suggested by an Italian source describing the practice in London: we are told that the kneeling and asking of a parent's blessing “happens in the public streets and in the most frequented and conspicuous places of the city, no matter what their age.”33 Yet the custom was more strongly associated with younger children. One writer describing Thomas More's practice of the custom notes that “men after theire mariages thought themselves not bound to these duties of younger folkes.”34

The practice of giving parental blessings goes back at least to the fourteenth century in England, and probably much earlier. A poem written during the early 1300s—The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter—purports to be a mother's instructions and blessing to her daughter.35 Though the poem does not describe the mother's gestures, it apparently refers to the same kind of formal ritual described in later sources. Other sources describing the practice in England range from the 1400s to the later 1600s, with some allusions in the eighteenth century. The custom appears to have been practiced by Catholics and Protestants, Puritans and non-Puritans, with little variation in form or meaning into the early seventeenth century.36 During the eighteenth century, however, the practice, though not entirely abandoned, seems to have undergone modification—probably becoming less formal and less frequent.37

Bishop Robert Sanderson, writing in 1657, lamented the growing neglect of such ceremonies as the parental blessing. He offered as one reason for this neglect the association commonly made between these ceremonies and “popish” practices: “These last two seven years”—that is, since 1643—“the having of God-fathers at Baptism, Churching of Women, Prayers at the burial of the dead, Children asking their Parents blessing, &c., which whilome were held innocent; are now by very many thrown aside, as rags of Popery.38 The decline of parental blessings thus seems to have been connected with the religious and social upheavals of the Puritan revolution during the seventeenth century. Specifically, the decline may reflect Calvinist anxiety about attempts to “bind” God through ritual, and may also have something to do with the objections many had during this period against kneeling. Such objections were directed especially against kneeling for communion or before figures of authority—in effect, against kneeling before anyone or anything except God himself. There are references during the seventeenth century to such attitudes among Presbyterians, Quakers, and others. Quaker Robert Barclay, for instance, asserts in a book first published in 1675 that “it is not lawful for Christians to kneel, or prostrate themselves to any man, or to bow the body, or to uncover the head to them.”39 To kneel before another human being, even parents, would have been considered sacrilegious by some religious liberals of the seventeenth century, and would also have been disapproved of by political liberals, who rejected many of the traditional forms of reverence to superiors.

The Renaissance had preserved such acts of reverence as one way of expressing and symbolizing its belief in and desire for social coherence and harmony. The parental blessing, with its emphasis on familial relationships and its linking of past and present and of heaven and earth, was tied to the traditional view of society and the cosmos in which individuals were seen as members of larger organisms. The English Civil War, along with other events, prompted many to seek their own social and religious paths, rather than those determined by family or tradition. The words Shakespeare gives Richard, Duke of Gloucester—“I have no brother, I am like no brother; / … I am myself alone” (3 Henry VI 5.6.80, 83)—though the words of a villain, have some affinity with the ideal, increasingly attractive since the Renaissance, of unique individuality. The decline of parental blessings may thus be a sign of something more massive taking place not only in England, but in the Western world as a whole: the shift from the traditional order of the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance worlds to the modern order with its new stress on individualism and freedom. Accompanying and probably related to this shift was an increasing hostility or indifference toward ritual, a growing feeling that ritual—which brings the supernatural into the life of this world—is offensive to reason. The apparent hostility Lawrence Stone and others have expressed toward the blessing ritual reveals, among other things, their alignment with the modern world view. Besides failing to take seriously the custom's supernatural dimension, those who view it negatively usually assume that submission and reverence are necessarily weak and unfortunate attitudes—expressions (as judged from this hostile point of view) of the “slave morality” that Nietzsche criticized.40 The chronological snobbery of what I am calling the “modern” viewpoint is nicely expressed in a nineteenth-century editor's casual reference to “our foolish ancestors,” who took a parent's blessing or curse seriously.41

The custom of giving parental blessings may have been practiced widely throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and it has analogues in many ancient cultures.42 But by Shakespeare's day, England seems to have been the only nation of western Europe in which the formal practice of requesting and giving parental blessings was part of daily life. John Donne questioned in a sermon, “Children kneele to aske blessing of Parents in England, but where else?”43 And lest Donne be thought the victim of English pride, we can turn to other sources—for instance, the report presented to the Venetian Senate in 1622 by that city's ambassador to England describing what it calls “the admirable custom of the country, well worthy of imitation for every child on first meeting his parents each day to kneel and ask their blessing.”44 The French writer Peter Erondell wishes the custom were practiced in his country:

I mervaile verie much that French-men (which bring up and teach their Children so well) doe not make them aske their parentes blessing (I mean their fathers and mothers) seeing that it is a thing that hath bene used by the holy Patriarches. …45

I have found an obscure reference to a parental blessing in a German folktale, and Schücking asserts that the practice was known in Germany during the Middle Ages.46 Moreover, the practice seems to have been common in Jewish households since ancient times and has persisted even into the twentieth century.47 I have yet to establish any direct historical link between the parental blessing as practiced elsewhere—in some cases clearly extending back thousands of years—and the blessing as practiced in Renaissance England. But some sort of connection is likely; and in any case, as we shall see later in this paper, Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought of the custom as being linked to the ancient past.

The gestures associated with the blessing have had symbolic meaning in many ages and cultures. Kneeling suggests humility, respect, and dependence. The head has been thought of as, in some special sense, the seat of individual identity and dignity. And the hands have been universally associated with social and emotional bonds between individuals and also with power, including the power to transform and bestow benefits.48 In the parental blessing as it was practiced in Shakespeare's time, the child's kneeling was in part a recognition of the parent's superior authority and maturity and an expression of respect for the parent's age, status, and (in some cases at least) virtue and wisdom. By kneeling, children also acknowledged a parent as one of the sources of their own being and identity. The ritual thus symbolized and affirmed the intimate connection, physical, spiritual, and emotional, between parent and child and brought to mind the duties of both: the parent's duty to educate, nourish, love, and discipline the child; the child's duty to love, honor, obey, and (when necessary) care for the parents.

Though subordination—that is, location at a lower point in a hierarchical system—was certainly one of the notions conveyed by the child's kneeling, this subordination did not necessarily imply unconditional submission to a parent's wishes; it certainly did not mean that the child's agency and identity were entirely subsumed within those of the parent.49 Yet subordination would have implied respect for the parents' wishes and some degree of dependence on their advice and aid. As Prince Hal puts it, speaking to his father, kneeling is a “prostrate and exterior bending” that witnesses a “most inward true and duteous spirit” and implies respect and a willingness to obey (2 Henry IV 4.5.146-48).50

Besides these symbolic, social, and emotional functions, kneeling served the practical function of enabling the parent to conveniently place hands on the child's head. The child's kneeling also effectively stationed the parent between the child and the heavens as a kind of quasi-priestly intermediary ready to bestow heavenly influence on the child. That is how Richard Hooker depicts the parent's role in giving a blessing, which he compares both with blessings described in the Bible and with blessings given in his own time by ministers. “The imposition of handes,” he says, betokens “our restrayned desires to the partie, whome wee present unto God by prayer.”51 George Herbert went even further to suggest that, because of “the dignity wherewith God hath invested” the person performing the ritual, a “blessing”—whether given by parents or by a priest—“differs from prayer, in assurance, because it is not performed by way of request, but of confidence, and power, effectually applying Gods favour to the blessed.”52 Hooker's use of the phrase “restrayned desires” indicates that, besides viewing the parental blessing as a sacred act, he also sees it as a sign of the parent's feeling of responsibility and love for the child and of the connection between them. The hands, laid upon the child's head, not only serve as an instrument for conveying heavenly power, but also effect physical contact between parent and child and thus enable the blessing to serve as an expression of parental affection. During or after a blessing, parents might also show affection by kissing their children, especially younger ones. Some parents also joined kisses and embraces with the blessing of their adult children. For instance, shortly after Nicholas Ferrar's ordination as a deacon, his mother “devoutly blessed him” while at the same time “falling upon his neck, most tenderly weeping, & kissing him most affectionately.”53

The blessing also allowed children to express affection for their parents, for instance, by kissing their parents' hands, an action that is sometimes made explicit in Shakespeare's depiction of the ritual (e.g., The Winter's Tale 5.3.118).54 Many children valued the blessing highly and apparently saw it as a way of both showing filial devotion and receiving assurance of their parents' love. Shortly before Sir Thomas More's death, his daughter Margaret, thinking she might “never see [her father] in this world after,” eagerly sought him out for “his final blessing,” which she received “on her knees reverently,” afterwards embracing and kissing him. Her father was so moved by “her most natural and dear daughterly affection” that he again “gave her his fatherly blessing and many goodly words of comfort besides.”55 Over a century later, Alice Thornton quoted her brother as saying to their mother, “Forsooth, I cannot have your prayers and blessing for me too often.”56

The sense of Hooker's phrase “restrayned desires” is probably that in the blessing ritual the affection felt by parent and child, though strong and deep, is restrained within formal bounds, directed in a controlled, ceremonial way. The ritual expresses deep feeling, but gives that feeling shape and social, even mythic, significance, so that it fits meaningfully into the order of human society and the cosmos. For besides symbolizing the bond of love and identity between parent and child, the parental blessing was viewed as a sacred act linking a particular family and its life with the order of the universe and the powers of heaven. Further, the ritual was seen as a way of linking a child with the family in the larger sense of lineage and even with the whole human lineage going back to the beginning of time.

Given the power associated with the blessing, it was sometimes used by parents as a means of enforcing obedience. Most parents probably expected “duty and observance from their children” in return for the blessing.57 In extraordinary cases, parents might charge a child “upon their blessing” to follow certain instructions.58 Some withheld blessing in response to their children's disobedience or even cursed or threatened to curse their disobedient children.59 Yet blessing seems to have been used only occasionally as a means of explicit pressure, and instances of formal cursing—seriously believed to have supernatural power—seem to have been remarkable for their rarity. Parenthood, Debora Shuger has reminded us, was thought of in the Renaissance primarily as a nurturing role, and parental love was felt to be instinctive and powerful.60 Blessing was one way parents were able to convey that love and to act for their children's welfare. If parents' blessings had not been viewed as positive, loving acts, it is unlikely so many Renaissance children would have requested them, as they often did with obvious sincerity.


Shakespeare's plays include thirty to thirty-five references to parental blessings, sometimes with two or three references in a single play. The exact number depends on how many times we are to imagine a blessing being withheld, even when no explicit reference to a blessing has been made. There are also five or six cases of a parent's cursing a child, a practice related conceptually to a parent's blessing.

In twenty-two of the references, the ritual marks a joyful reunion or reconciliation or otherwise represents a positive affirmation of the parent-child bond.61 In many cases, the parental blessing is not only willingly, but earnestly sought by a child (e.g., Richard II 1.3.69-77; Lear 4.7.56-57). The parents normally respond to the request with words that express a generous, even fervent desire for the child's welfare and happiness.62 Sometimes a child seeks a blessing just before parting from a parent.63 Sometimes after separation the blessing serves to reestablish and confirm a special bond of affection and concern between parent and child, and often the closeness of identity between parent and child is emphasized.64

Some of these “positive” instances of blessing involve a certain degree of irony. Polonius sends a spy to watch his son after having sent him away with a blessing. Hamlet speaks of a mother's blessing in a scene where he has just expressed extreme anger and bitterness toward his mother.65 Perhaps the most clearly ironic use of the parental blessing is in Richard III. When Richard—already responsible for the death of Clarence—kneels before his mother, his heart is hardly in the ritual; yet seeing his mother, he says, “Humbly on my knee / I crave your blessing.” She responds, “God bless thee, and put meekness in thy breast, / Love, charity, obedience, and true duty!” Richard replies “Amen!” but adds in an aside—

                    and make me die a good old man!
That is the butt-end of a mother's blessing.
I marvel that her Grace did leave it out.


Besides contributing grim humor to the scene, the parental blessing here symbolizes a bond that ought to be present but is not, thereby heightening dramatic tension and emphasizing Richard's hypocrisy, as well as his skepticism and self-involvement. Shakespeare makes a point of balancing Richard's hypocritical request for a blessing with another parental blessing near the end of the play: the giving of a blessing to Richmond, Richard's antagonist, “by attorney”—that is, through his step-father—“from [his] mother” (5.3.83-85). The normality of the relationship between Richmond and his mother makes a revealing contrast to the abnormality of Richard's familial relationships. The blessing also serves as a prophetic foreshadowing of Richmond's victory over Richard, who by the end of the play receives his mother's curse (4.4.188).

There is irony too in the blessing the Countess of Rossillion gives her son in All's Well That Ends Well. The blessing, which most editors and directors have apparently failed to notice, takes place in the first scene, just before Bertram leaves for Paris. The ritual begins when Bertram says, “Madam, I desire your holy wishes”; his mother replies, “Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father / In manners as in shape!” She then gives six lines of motherly advice, reminiscent of Polonius' advice to Laertes, also given in connection with a parental blessing (1.1.59-70).66 If acted out ritually on the stage, with Bertram kneeling and his mother placing her hands on or above his head, this blessing will be dramatically impressive and will inevitably affect how viewers experience and interpret the play. The ritual emphasizes a crucial moment of interaction between mother and son. It sounds a theme at the opening of the play—the theme of grace versus gracelessness—that will stay longer in an audience's memory if it is seen as well as heard. The giving of a blessing serves as a prototype for events that come later in the play: the blessing is the first instance among several of a gracious woman appealing to heaven to bless Bertram.

Besides increasing the scene's dramatic effectiveness, the blessing ritual in this first scene also complicates—and thereby enriches—an audience's interpretation of Bertram and of the play. As with Richard in Richard III, Bertram's receiving a parental blessing may be set in ironic contrast to his subsequent gracelessness. Yet Bertram, unlike Richard, gives no hint when the blessing takes place of being insincere in the humility and reverence he shows toward his mother. Bertram says very little, and perhaps his restraint can be taken as evidence that he feels ambivalent as a son. But the scene certainly does not exclude the possibility of his being at least passively willing to receive blessing and instruction, respectful of tradition and familial bonds. His request for a blessing can thus be taken as a sign of his essential, though yet undeveloped and untested, goodness, perhaps even as a foreshadowing of his eventual redemption, or at least movement toward redemption.67

Despite the ironies in some of the situations just mentioned, the blessing itself carries essentially positive connotations in the twenty-two occurrences I have cited. And though the idea of filial duty is certainly present to some degree in most of these occurrences, the parent's desire for the child's welfare is almost always a more important element. Sometimes this desire is expressed through the giving of advice (e.g., All's Well 1.1.64-68; Hamlet 1.3.58-80).68 This advice, though it implies the parent's maturity or authority, is hardly coercive and is joined with good wishes and affection for the child. Indeed, the great majority of blessings in Shakespeare's plays express strongly felt love on the part of both parent and child. And in some cases, paradoxically, parents humble themselves in some sense before the child or receive renewed life from the child to whom they had earlier given life. Hamlet makes his mother's reformation the condition for his seeking blessing from her (Hamlet 3.4.170-72). Titus Andronicus calls his daughter “the cordial of mine age” after she requests his blessing (Titus Andronicus 1.1.166). Lear similarly sees Cordelia as a source of life and healing, and he kneels to her when she asks for a blessing (Lear 4.7.46-48, 5.3.10-11). Children have restorative power in several other plays, including The Winter's Tale (1.1.39, 1.2.170-71, 4.4.1-3, 5.1.152, 5.3.125-28), Pericles (5.1.195, 204-13, 223, 5.3.44-48), and The Tempest (5.1). One phrase from Pericles is especially striking: shortly before giving her his blessing, Pericles calls his daughter Marina “Thou that begget'st him that did thee beget” (5.1.195).69

Though filial duty and parental authority are not the dominant notes in the twenty-two references I have so far discussed, five or six of Shakespeare's blessings are tied closely to the ideas of duty or authority: Coriolanus 5.3.50-52 (Coriolanus wants to show himself more dutiful than “common sons”), 2 Henry IV 4.5.146-48 (Hal kneels to his father as an expression of his “inward true and duteous spirit”), Cymbeline 3.5.30-32 (Imogen's appearance—and presumably kneeling—before father and step-mother is called “the duty of the day”), and As You Like It 1.1.3-4. Especially in this last case, parental authority is a clearly positive force: the father's charge, given “on his blessing,” ought to motivate Oliver to treat his brother better. In Richard III Clarence similarly refers to the blessing his father gave to all three sons, charging them “to love each other” (1.4.235-38).70 In two other episodes, harder to classify, fathers concerned to protect their sons want to use their blessing to keep the sons from going into battle. In 1 Henry VI 4.5.32-55, Talbot charges his son, “upon [his] blessing,” to leave battle; the son refuses, and Talbot finally yields to the son's wishes. In Cymbeline 4.4.43-50, Belarius' adopted sons ask at once for a blessing and for permission to go to battle, but assert their intent to proceed, if necessary, even without their “father's” blessing. Again, the father yields.

In a few cases, the parental blessing—or a parody of it—functions to depict familial disorder. In King Lear, for instance, Lear kneels before his daughters, in an ironic reversal of the usual form of blessing, and he does so to express his hurt and outrage and to ridicule what he considers Regan's undaughterly request that he apologize to Goneril. “On my knees,” he says with mock humility, “I beg / That you'll vouch-safe me raiment, bed, and food” (2.4.155-56). For the audience, Lear's kneeling symbolizes not only his anger, but also the overturning of the natural order, the topsy-turvy world created by filial ingratitude and cruelty and by Lear's departures from his proper role as father.

The blessing also appears in distorted form in Coriolanus, where it may be taken as suggesting the unhealthy domination of parent over child. Coriolanus kneels twice to his mother, once fairly early in the play (2.1.169-71) and later in the climactic scene where he has determined not to submit to her. As it turns out, he is unable to resist (“Nature”—that is, natural affection and loyalty—is too strong in him), and he ends by bidding his knee “sink … i' th' earth” (5.3.22-52). In the same scene, his mother uses the custom to manipulate her son. Interestingly enough, she does so, not by giving a blessing, but rather by kneeling as if she were asking for one. She kneels before her son—like Lear, reversing the order of nature—but it is clear that she does so, deeply offending him by “this unnatural scene” (as he calls it) of a mother humbling herself before her son, so that he will feel compelled to grant her request (5.3.53-62, 183-89). It is a turning point for Coriolanus and, as he realizes, will lead to his downfall.71

Apart from some of these parodies of the blessing ritual, the only clearly negative allusions to the custom involve a parent's withholding blessing, or cursing a child. These allusions, indeed, show parental tyranny or lack of generous good will. But they do so precisely because a blessing is positive, suggestive of harmony and mutual love. The cursings occur in 1 Henry VI 5.4.25-33 (after Joan has refused to acknowledge the shepherd as father and receive his blessing); in Richard III 4.4.188 (when Richard is cursed by his mother); possibly in Winter's Tale 4.4.458 (though it is not likely the shepherd means seriously to curse Perdita); allusively in 2 Henry VI 3.2.155 and King John 3.1.256-57; and most memorably in Lear 1.1.204, 1.4.300, 2.4.146, 170. Blessings are withheld, sometimes with an implied cursing, in Winter's Tale 2.3.67, 154-57; Romeo and Juliet 3.5.158-203; and possibly Othello 1.3 and Midsummer Night's Dream 1.1—though in these last two the idea of blessing or cursing is not explicitly introduced. Othello is an interesting case, since Brabantio in effect gives his blessing—certainly his ex post facto permission (1.3.175-78, 189-98). But of course his clear dissatisfaction (lines 240, 292-93, etc.) constitutes a kind of implied cursing.

Some might argue that these harsher modes of tyranny take over when a child refuses to submit “voluntarily” and that kneeling for a blessing represents such a submission. But in fact, in none of the twenty-two cases I listed as clearly positive does the child submit to a specific command or wish expressed by the parent. Indeed, in several cases, the parent is acknowledging or submitting to—or is asked to submit to—a request made by the child or by someone else on the child's behalf. Nor is withholding a blessing necessarily coercive. In Winter's Tale 2.3, Paulina presents a new-born daughter to Leontes and “commends it to [his] blessing” (line 67). Instead of taking the child in his arms and praying for divine protection—as Henry VIII does in giving the infant Elizabeth her first father's blessing (Henry VIII 5.4.10-11)—Leontes refuses to acknowledge the child as his and even threatens her life. His horror of being linked with “another's issue” leads him to imagine seeing Perdita grow up to “kneel / And call [him] father,” as if requesting a blessing (Winter's Tale 2.3.155-56). Rather than pressuring the child to act or refrain from acting, Leontes' refusal to bless his daughter is an attempt to distance himself from her, a refusal to acknowledge the responsibility and love, as well as the physical and social bond, that would be implied by a blessing. If he were to give a blessing, the act he would be performing would clearly be—for both his daughter and himself—positive, even redemptive. Leontes' withholding of a blessing helps set in motion a series of terrible, tragic events; and similarly, in Lear (where coercion is involved), the cursing of Cordelia leads to disaster. In both plays, the failure to bless is disastrous because it amounts to a failure of generosity and love, a cutting off or denial of the living connection between parent and child symbolized by the blessing ritual. Even its negative uses, then, effectively emphasize the positive side of the parental blessing, for it is the ritual's distortion or absence that signals or produces disaster.

It seems to me that a fair appraisal of Shakespeare's use of parental blessings would be something like this: twenty-two to twenty-five references to blessings are positive and non-coercive; five to seven emphasize filial duty or parental authority, but are not really coercive; three or four are mixed, hard to place in either category; and nine to twelve references are to acts (cursing or withholding blessing) that are clearly negative and to some degree coercive. Though the blessing did not have exclusively positive associations, Stone's connecting it with “the utter subordination of the child” and Kahn's description of it as an “extreme” expression of patriarchal power hardly seem accurate reflections of Shakespeare's use—or his contemporaries' experience and understanding—of the custom.72

Besides reflecting Renaissance attitudes, Shakespeare uses parental blessings for a variety of theatrical purposes: for instance, to convey information, create comic effects, and bring plots to climax and resolution. In Cymbeline 3.5.30-32 Imogen's absence from court is first noted when she fails to appear for “the duty of the day,” a ceremony that probably involved kneeling and receiving a blessing. Two examples of comic uses of the motif are found in Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice. In the first, Launce acts out the request for a father's blessing with his shoe standing in for his father (2.3.23-26). In The Merchant of Venice—in a scene that intentionally echoes Jacob's receiving a blessing from his blind father Isaac (Genesis 27)—Launcelot Gobbo has to ask his “sand-blind” father for a blessing repeatedly before being acknowledged and finally says: “Pray you let's have no more fooling about it, but give me your blessing. I am Launcelot, your boy that was, your son that is, your child that shall be” (2.2.78-86).73

Probably Shakespeare's most moving use of the parental blessing is in the plays where it expresses reconciliation and reunion in a family that has experienced conflict and separation. This is its function in the “romances”: Marina kneels before Pericles, who says, “Now blessing on thee! rise th' art my child,” and before her mother, who says, “Blest, and mine own!” (Pericles 5.1.213; 5.3.48); Imogen kneels before Cymbeline and says, “Your blessing, sir” (Cymbeline 5.5.266); and Ferdinand kneels before his father Alonso, who cries, “Now all the blessings / Of a glad father compass thee about!” (Tempest 5.1.179-80).

Shakespeare uses this reconciling and reuniting function of the parental blessing to help create two of his most powerful scenes—the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia in King Lear and the final scene of The Winter's Tale. In King Lear, as we have seen, Lear earlier kneels before a daughter to express his anger and grief, cynically reversing the usual order of things. The parental blessing appears again later in the play, this time also with complications, but now conveying the positive values and feelings normally associated with the practice. After awakening from madness and despair to find himself before Cordelia, Lear begins to kneel, perhaps thinking her a “soul in bliss,” certainly (once he knows who she is) wanting to express his shame and sorrow and ask for forgiveness. But Cordelia, wanting to honor him as father and to forget past offenses, resists having him kneel, seeing in that gesture a reversal of the proper relationship between them. She is the one who ought to kneel, and so she does, asking for a father's blessing:

                                        O, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hand[s] in benediction o'er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.


Though Shakespeare uses contemporary attitudes here, he has achieved an unusual effect by transforming the customary ritual in one important respect. What his audience would have seen is not a child kneeling before a standing parent, but rather a parent and child kneeling to each other, both offering themselves to the other. Their kneeling is a potent symbol of what their relation has become, no longer proud domination on the one hand and virtuous resistance on the other, but on both sides love, submission, and forgiveness, and a desire to bless and be blessed by the other.74 This image of parent and child kneeling to each other is repeated later in the play when, before being led to prison, Lear says to Cordelia, “When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness” (5.3.10-11).

In King Lear, as in Renaissance life outside the theater, the blessing ritual draws much of its power from its association with the sacredness of the parent-child bond, one of the “holy cords” that Kent calls “t' intrinse t' unloose” (2.2.74-75). The connection between parental blessings and the blessings given by the biblical patriarchs—Isaac and Jacob especially—further enhances the sense of the sacred associated with the practice. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were quite aware of this connection and saw it as giving the practice both antiquity and the authoritative sanction of a sacred text. In his discussion of parental blessings, Richard Hooker cites the specific precedent of Jacob or Israel: “Thus when Israel blessed Ephraim and Manasses Josephs sonnes, he imposed upon them his hands and prayed. …”75 The fourteenth-century poem I referred to earlier ends with this blessing:

Nou thrift and thedom mote thou have, mi leve swete barn.
Of alle oure forme-faderes that were or arn,
Of patriarches and prophetes that evere weren on live,
Here blessinge mote thou have, and wel mote thou thrive.(76)

Over three centuries later, much the same attitude still prevailed. A seventeenth-century commentary on the Bible, after describing Isaac's blessing of Jacob, suggests that parental blessings had their origin in the biblical practice:

And faithful Parents do well in imitation hereof to bless their children, and to teach them to come and crave their blessing to this day.77

Especially relevant to Shakespeare is a reference to the ancient practice in an earlier dramatic version of the Lear story, The True Chronicle History of King Leir. Shakespeare used this, in fact, as a source for his own play and specifically borrowed from it the idea of kneeling and blessing. The earlier play makes explicit what is only implicit in Shakespeare—the sacred nature of the act of blessing—by having Leir cite the blessing given by Jacob to his son Judah. These are the words Leir speaks to Cordella (as she is called here) as he blesses her:

The blessing, which the God of Abraham gave
Unto the trybe of Juda, light on thee,
And multiply thy dayes, that thou mayst see
Thy childrens children prosper after thee.(78)

Among the significant features of this blessing is the idea, borrowed directly from the Bible, of prophecy as part of the parental blessing. This association of the parental blessing with prophecy was apparently common in Renaissance England. Writer after writer on the subject repeated the idea, “the blessing or curse of the Parents, hath almost ever a Propheticke power joyned with it.”79 The power of a parent's blessing or curse is also alluded to in Cymbeline, As You Like It, 1 Henry VI, and elsewhere. As presented by Shakespeare, however, the parent's cursing of a child or withholding blessing is a destructive and often clearly sinful act, disastrous for both parent and child. The terrible events in Lear, The Winter's Tale, and perhaps Othello and Romeo and Juliet can be in part attributed to a parent's cursing, or failing to bless, a child. By contrast, the giving of a blessing is often part of a creative, healing process in which divine powers may be at work.

Of all the parental blessings in Shakespeare's play, perhaps none conveys a sense of the sacred more powerfully than the one at the end of The Winter's Tale. The sense of the sacred comes from several sources—the description of the oracle and its island earlier in the play, the awe-inspiring moments of birth and death, the chapel where Paulina takes Leontes and Perdita at the end of the play and the resurrection that supposedly takes place there, the words “miracle” and “wonder” that echo through the closing scenes, and the word “grace,” used throughout the play to suggest beauty, gracefulness, virtue, favor, graciousness, generosity, forgiveness, and unconditional love. All of these are possible meanings of the word grace, and all stem from its basic meaning of “gift”—especially a divine gift—since that gift may be one of sanctity or beauty or may be the impulse to imitate heaven's bounty and give freely and graciously. All of these meanings have gathered around the word by the time it occurs in the final scene where the parental blessing is given.

The first hint of a parental blessing comes early in the scene when Perdita kneels before what appears to be a statue of her mother and says,

                                        And give me leave,
And do not say 'tis superstition, that
I kneel, and then implore her blessing. Lady,
Dear queen, that ended when I but began,
Give me that hand of yours to kiss.


The reference to superstition, especially joined as it is here with kneeling before a “statue,” may reflect the anxiety felt by some during the seventeenth century as to whether kneeling for a parental blessing might be among the “reliques of Popish … superstition.”80 (Compare Paulina's later reference to “unlawful business.”) But surely the primary associations Perdita's words and gestures should evoke are the filial love and reverence of a daughter for her mother as she kneels for a mother's blessing.

Later in the scene, as the statue apparently comes to life and it becomes clear that this is the living Hermione, Paulina turns to Perdita and says, “Kneel / And pray your mother's blessing.” To the mother she says, “Turn, good lady, / Our Perdita is found.” Hermione then asks heaven to bless her daughter:

                                        You gods, look down
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter's head!


The power of this blessing depends partly on the words used—the rhythms, the imagery, the word “grace” with its accumulated meanings. And of course it depends on the situation—the years of separation and the restoration of a bond between mother and daughter that was broken just after Perdita's birth. But the power of the blessing comes also from the gestures used: the kneeling of Perdita, Hermione's lifting of her hands to appeal for heaven's graces (a gesture not specified by the text or by editors, but surely appropriate), and her placing of her hands at the same time on or above her daughter's head to symbolize the bestowing of those graces on her—and to symbolize also the bond now newly created between her daughter and herself.

What Hermione and Perdita do in this scene—and what Lear and Cordelia do as well—is both a reflection of Renaissance practice and an allusion to customs of great antiquity, highly charged with religious associations. It is also an affirmation of the bond linking parent and child and of the connection between this bond and the powers that rule the cosmos. Specifically, in The Winter's Tale the parent's blessing serves as an image of what has happened through the whole course of the play, what happens most clearly as the play closes: from their sacred vials, the gods are pouring “grace” in all its senses into the world of human life. What we feel at the end of this play is something very close to what Shakespeare and his contemporaries felt when they used the word “blessing” or “benediction,” especially when referring to a parent's blessing: a feeling of coherence and connection, a sense of sanctity and renewal and heaven-empowered love. What Shakespeare adds, or at least makes clearer than it would have been in many of the blessings given daily in Renaissance England, is the role the child has in blessing the parent. Especially in Lear and The Winter's Tale, where children teach and heal their parents, the blessing ritual functions as a reciprocal act. As they kneel, Lear and Cordelia bless and heal each other. Hermione calls for heavenly grace to descend upon her daughter, yet at the same time Perdita conveys grace—love, regenerative power—in return. It is as if Perdita, especially now that Hermione can see and touch her, brings the resurrection of her mother to completion, gives birth to the woman who bore her.

In modern productions, the gestures originally associated with the ritual are usually absent. In their place, an embrace of some kind is often used. Though an embrace certainly can and should follow the blessing, it seems to me that the gestures originally associated with the ritual possess great power, even for a modern audience. As I witnessed a recent college production of The Winter's Tale for which I served as dramaturg, I was surprised—despite having insisted on the historically authentic gestures and having anticipated their effectiveness—at how powerful I found them. Even in early rehearsals, with actors dressed in modern street clothes, the blessing was immediately, unexpectedly striking. I believe the blessing's effect came from several sources. The impressive formality of the ritual allowed it to contain and give shape to the emotional power of a reunion of mother and daughter and, by delaying the release of the emotions in more expansive form, actually heightened their power. The sense of the sacred was even more strongly present than I had anticipated. As she performed the ritual, Hermione became a priestess-like figure, endowed with heavenly authority, stationed between the heavens and her kneeling daughter. Hermione's hands, placed on Perdita's head, besides serving as instruments to convey heavenly power, also suggested the physical and emotional connection between mother and daughter. There was something simple, honest, and immediate about the ritual that invited me—and I believe others—to share a moment of intimate human contact and to feel the bonding effect of that moment. I believe the scene left a deeper and more memorable impression than it would have without the solemnity and formality of ritual.


Parental blessings come at some of Shakespeare's most powerful dramatic moments, and they express some of his most important themes and values. They may convey love, submission, reconciliation, reunion, and a sense of the sacred; or they may be used ironically to express the opposite, or humorously for the sake of satire or entertainment. Understanding the custom's historical background can enhance our appreciation of Shakespeare's stagecraft and of his patterning of ideas and imagery. Specifically, such background can help us imagine how the scenes might be played and can offer invaluable help to directors who aim for authenticity or dramatic power.

The historical background has other uses as well, especially that of helping us see Shakespeare's plays in relation to social and intellectual changes taking place at the same time they were being written and first performed, including the movement toward democratic individualism, toward less formality in social relations, and toward an attenuated sense of the sacred. The parental blessing ritual—now so unfamiliar to us—can be especially helpful to us in our efforts to see the plays against this “background” of social change.

Shakespeare's treatment of the ritual can also help us see it as something quite different from the instrument of domination it has recently been taken to be. Indeed, in many instances, from quite different kinds of plays, the parent who is asked to bless is anything but dominating. Furthermore, in several plays—especially Richard III, All's Well That Ends Well, and The Winter's Tale—the blessing is associated with the power of women. In some plays this association may be explained by the father's absence through death. But in The Winter's Tale, with both parents alive and especially given Leontes' failure to bless Perdita as an infant, the deliberate foregrounding of a mother's blessing has unavoidable implications for issues of gender. The emphasis on a mother's blessing, in this and other plays, helps strengthen women's association with generosity and sacred power. Perhaps because the authority to perform the ritual derives from natural powers and relationships—and perhaps, too, because blessing, like cursing, is viewed as possessing supernatural power—the blessing ritual symbolizes women's access to a power independent of, and in some ways superior to, that found in the political structures within which Shakespeare's men operate. (That would help explain Richard III's powerlessness, even fear, in the face of the women who curse and try to bless him.) Especially in The Winter's Tale, the parental blessing also functions as a means one woman has of expressing her solidarity with another. And in several plays it serves as an instrument women use to instruct and influence men.

I would argue that, far from being aberrant in his use of the blessing ritual, Shakespeare is reflecting attitudes of his time.81 He is more imaginative, more generous, more aware of the personal interiority of women and children than many of his contemporaries. Yet in using the blessing ritual as an instrument of female power and as a way of expressing mutual, and mutually deferential, love between parents and children, Shakespeare draws on, and often expands on, attitudes he shared with many of his contemporaries. The plays thus join with other historical evidence in calling into question one of Lawrence Stone's central assertions: that parental blessings functioned mainly to reinforce patriarchal power, whether this is taken to mean a parent's power over a child or a man's power over a woman. The main function of the blessing appears, in fact, to have been that of expressing love and symbolizing, even effecting, the sense of connectedness and belonging that was highly valued in Renaissance England.

For certainly it is a myth—and by that I mean a false or erroneous notion—that parents and children of the Renaissance did not love each other. Mountains of evidence, both literary and documentary, make the opposite inescapably clear.82 But that love was likely to be ceremonious rather than chummy. Parents and children of the Renaissance felt affection for each other and felt it powerfully, but they often expressed it as “ceremonious affection,” to use a phrase from King Lear (1.4.59). Perhaps no custom expressed such ceremonious affection more clearly and repeatedly than did the parental blessings practiced by the families of Renaissance England. I suspect that is one reason Shakespeare chose to use it—and was able to use it to such powerful effect—in so many of his plays.


  1. Levin L. Schücking, The Puritan Family: A Social Study from the Literary Sources (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 72-73.

  2. Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewitt, Children in English Society, vol. 1 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), 18-19.

  3. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 171; The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 591. See also The Family, Sex and Marriage, 7, where Stone asserts that, in the family type that dominated in England from 1580 to 1640, the father was “a legalized petty tyrant within the home.”

  4. Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450-1700 (London: Longman, 1984), 31, 41, 145, 168, 182, 188, 203.

  5. John T. Onuska, Jr., “Bringing Shakespeare's Characters Down to Earth: The Significance of Kneeling,” Iowa State Journal of Research 56 (1981-82): 36-38; David Bevington, Action Is Eloquence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 153-54.

  6. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 16.

  7. Onuska and Bevington both refer to Stone's Family, Sex and Marriage, 171. Though on general issues Kahn cites the same book, she gives as her source on the parental blessing a paragraph from an earlier essay by Stone that is virtually identical with the paragraph in The Family, Sex and Marriage: “The Rise of the Nuclear Family in Early Modern England,” in The Family in History, ed. Charles E. Rosenberg (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 41. Stone himself and most of the other historians who discuss the parental blessing base their discussion on a handful of sources and neglect what I believe is abundant evidence for a different interpretation.

  8. The English Family, 145.

  9. Compare, for instance, Henry VIII 4.2.133 and Cymbeline 5.5.350-51; Winter's Tale 5.3.121-23 and Tempest 5.1.201-2; Richard III 5.3.84 and Richard II 1.3.78; Titus Andronicus 1.1.167 and Richard III 2.2.109; King John 3.3.71 and Hamlet 1.3.57; Hamlet 1.3.57-81 and All's Well 1.1.64-72; and Merchant of Venice 2.2.92-93 (“thou art mine own flesh and blood”), Pericles 5.1.213 (“th' art my child”), 5.3.48 (“Blest, and mine own!”), Cymbeline 5.5.264 (“my flesh? my child?”), and The Winter's Tale 5.3.123 (“mine own”). All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  10. The quoted phrase is from Matthew Henry's An Account of the Life and Death of Mr. Philip Henry, 2nd ed. (1699), 56.

  11. “Shakespeare and the theatrical conventions of his time,” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 98. The notion of a distinctive Elizabethan theatrical “vocabulary” is discussed throughout this article—e.g., p. 85 (“the original theatrical language or logic of presentation”)—and in Dessen's book, Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  12. Thomas Stapleton, Tres Thomae (Douay, 1588), 12. I have translated from the original Latin: “Solent enim apud nos liberi quotidie mane ac vesperi benedictionem flexo poplite ab utroque parente petere.” See also Thomas Becon, Works (1564), fols. 519v, 524v.

  13. A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men (1603), in The Works of William Perkins, ed. Ian Breward (Appleford, Eng.: The Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), 469.

  14. Peter Erondell, The French Garden (1605; rpt. Menston, Eng.: The Scolar Press, 1969), sig. E7v.

  15. Erondell, sigs. E7v, P5v. Compare the simpler “God bless thee, my son!” in Misogonus (1577), in Six Anonymous Plays, 2nd series, ed. John S. Farmer (Guildford, Eng.: Charles W. Traylen, 1966), 233.

  16. Richard Whitforde, A Werke for Housholders (1533). Whitforde—a priest writing before England's break with Rome—advises that “the father or mother holde up bothe handes, and joynynge them both togyder, loke up reverently and devoutly unto the heven” (sig. D4v) and also suggests that parents use the sign of the cross.

  17. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, vols. 1-3 of the Folger Library Edition of The Works of Richard Hooker, gen. ed. W. Speed Hill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977-1982), 2: 321.

  18. In blessings given with only one hand, the right hand would probably have been used.

  19. César de Saussure, A Foreign View of England in the Reigns of George I. and George II., quoted in J. Wickham Legg, English Church Life from the Restoration to the Tractarian Movement (London: Longmans, Green, 1914), 168.

  20. See John Weemes, The Christian Synagogue (1630), 296-97, for a discussion of the gestures used by priests in ancient Israel to bless groups. David Calderwood—noting similarly that “if many [were to be blessed], then the Priest lifted up both his hands, as high as his shoulders, toward or over them, and blessed all together”—argued that such gestures were still appropriate (A Defence of our Arguments against Kneeling [Amsterdam, 1620], 44). For pictorial evidence for various forms of blessing, see Reiner Haussher, Rembrants Jacobssegen (Opladen, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1976); “Bénir” and “Imposition des mains,” in Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 1926 ed.; Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman (London: Lund Humphries, 1971, 1972), vol. 1: plates 376, 444; vol. 2: plates 423, 429; George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 65.

  21. Lewis Theobald first added the commonly used stage direction to Hamlet 1.3.57 describing Polonius' “laying his hand on Laertes' head.” (See “Textual Notes” to Hamlet in The Riverside Shakespeare, 1188.) Theobald's singular “hand” probably reflects his own early eighteenth-century awareness of what was by then a dying custom.

  22. The passage in Lear seems to have been set by Compositor E, “who had a marked tendency to omit or add a final ‘-s’” (see MacD. P. Jackson, “The Transmission of Shakespeare's Text,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], 180). Furthermore, the uncorrected state of the folio (Fa) reads “yours hand,” probably a “compositorial metathesis, followed by (in Fb) correction without reference to copy” (see Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987], 538). The evidence is thus fairly strong that the folio, as well as the quarto, should read “hands.”

  23. See Legg, 168-71; Becon, fol. 524v (“bow the knee”); Philip Stubbes, A Perfect Pathway to Felicitie (1592), sig. C4 (“fall downe upon thy knees”); and Francis Beaumont's play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, ed. Andrew Gurr (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), in which a mother says to her son: “Downe on thy knees, thou shalt have my blessing” (p. 33; 1.4.11-12).

  24. Dives and Pauper, ed. Priscilla Heath Barnum, vol. 1, EETS 275, 280 (London: Oxford University Press, 1976, 1980), part 1: 106.

  25. See Legg, 168-69.

  26. Hugh Rhodes, writing in the sixteenth century, advised: “When that thy parents come in syght, / doe to them reverence. / Aske them blessing if they have / bene long out of presence.” See The Boke of Nurture, or Schoole of Good Maners (1577), in Manners and Meals in Olden Times, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, EETS o.s. 32 (1868; rpt. New York: Greenwood, 1969), 73.

  27. Houlbrooke, English Family, 31, 145. For examples, see Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Norman Davis, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 43, 540; James M. Osborn, Young Philip Sidney 1572-1577 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 11-14; The Ferrar Papers, ed. B. Blackstone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), 261, 263, 264, 276, 303; Diaries and Letters of Philip Henry, ed. Matthew Henry Lee (London, 1882), 335, 348, 353-55, 359, 363, 365.

  28. The Monument of Matrones (1582), “The Sixt Lampe of Virginitie,” 37.

  29. The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton, ed. Charles Jackson, Surtees Society 62 (1875), 112-13.

  30. The Fathers Blessing (1616; adapted from James I's Basilicon Doron), 5-9. Shakespeare presents the dying John of Gaunt as a kind of prophet (Richard II 2.1.1-68); see especially lines 5-6 (“they say the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony”) and 31 (“Methinks I am a prophet new inspir'd”).

  31. William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More, in Two Early Tudor Lives, ed. Richard S. Sylvester and Davis P. Harding (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 221.

  32. Dr. Peckard's life of Nicholas Ferrar, in Christopher Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography, 3rd ed. (London, 1839), 4: 173. Compare George Herbert, who, at age thirty-three, asked for his mother's blessing just before explaining why he was not going to follow her advice (Izaak Walton, The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Robert Sanderson, intro. by George Saintsbury [London: Oxford University Press, 1927], 279).

  33. Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, 1621-1623, vol. 17, ed. Allen B. Hinds (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1911), 451.

  34. Ro. Ba., The Lyfe of Syr Thomas More, Sometymes Lord Chancellor of England (1599), ed. Elsie Vaughan Hitchcock and P. E. Hallett, EETS o.s. 222 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), 59-60.

  35. The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter; The Good Wyfe Wold a Pylgremage; The Thewis of Gud Women, ed. Tauno F. Mustanoja (Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1948).

  36. The lack of evidence from the late 1500s and early 1600s for any noticeable increase in emphasis placed on the custom, along with the custom's already venerable antiquity and its pious observance by an early sixteenth-century figure like Sir Thomas More, makes it difficult to accept Lawrence Stone's thesis that deference toward parents—including the deference shown through the blessing ritual—grew markedly from 1530 to 1640 (Family, Sex and Marriage, 171).

  37. See Legg, 168-71 for eighteenth-century evidence of parental blessings. Houlbrooke asserts that even “during the seventeenth century the blessing was coming to be bestowed more informally, with a bedtime kiss, for example, or restricted to solemn occasions” (The English Family, 145). The blessing John Cannon received from his father in 1712 is much less formal than the ritual common in Shakespeare's day, perhaps because John was ill at the time, but probably also because of changes in the way blessings were usually given. According to Cannon, his father “laid hold of my hand & gave me his benediction & praised God that he had found me alive” (χρονεχὰ [χρονικὰ] Seu Annales or Memoirs of the Birth Education Life and Death of Mr Iohn Cannon Sometime Officer of the Excise and Writing Master at Mere Glastonbury & West Lydford in the County of Somersett, n.d., MS in the Somerset Record Office, Taunton, 102). I owe this reference to R. A. Houlbrooke, who has examined the manuscript quoted here.

  38. Robert Sanderson, 36 Sermons (1657), 8th ed., ed. Izaak Walton (1689), 73-74.

  39. Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1675), 7th ed. (1765), 515. Defenses of kneeling sometimes mention the parental blessing or other cases of “civil” kneeling. See Thomas Morton, A Defence of the Innocencie of the Three Ceremonies of the Church of England (1618), 300; John Burges, An Answer Rejoyned to that Applauded Pamphlet … (1631), 478; William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622), 439. Gouge's discussion makes it clear that objections to the practice of giving parental blessings were being raised by the 1620s. Even as early as the 1500s, conflict between conscience and parental authority was leading some to question the validity of parental blessing and cursing; for instance, Julius Palmer, who was to be executed under Queen Mary, responded to his mother's curse by saying that he had God's blessing (see Houlbrooke, The English Family, 168). By the 1620s, Puritan writers like John Downame were arguing that, when “considered as religious gestures,” such actions as bending the knee “are proper and peculiar to God alone” (A Guide to Godlynesse [1622], 123). See also William Bradshaw, A Proposition Concerning Kneeling (1605; rpt. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum; Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1979), 9 (“the Idolatrous kneeling of Papistes”); William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship (1633), 79, 88, “An Addition” 40-41 (requiring kneeling and other ceremonies is a burden to conscience and a restriction of Christian liberty); and others. Note also Samuel Butler's description of “An Hypocritical Nonconformist,” whose “mortal Hatred to Ceremonies” derives from seeing them as “Signs of Submission,” in Characters, ed. Charles W. Daves (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970), 54.

  40. See the “Ninth Article” (or chapter) of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1885), trans. Marianne Cowan (South Bend, Ind.: Gateway Editions, 1955), especially pp. 201-6.

  41. H. N. Hudson, quoted in the New Variorum ed. of King Lear, ed. Horace Howard Furness (1880; rpt. New York: American Scholar Press, 1965), 302 n. 58.

  42. For evidence of the custom among early Christians, see St. Ambrose, The Patriarchs (De patriarchis), in Seven Exegetical Works (vol. 65 of The Fathers of the Church), trans. Michael P. McHugh (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1972), 241. Francis X. Weiser claims that the “custom of parental blessing … was a universal tradition in all [European] countries before the Reformation” (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs [New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958], 139), but as performed elsewhere the custom may not have coincided in form and frequency with the English practice. As Weiser describes the custom in Religious Customs in the Family (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1956), 27-28, parents bless their children, usually on special occasions, by making the sign of the cross on the children's foreheads. For examples of non-European (and non-Christian) blessings, see Ernest Crawley, Oath, Curse, and Blessing, ed. Theodore Besterman (London: Watts, 1934), 4-6.

  43. The Sermons of John Donne, ed. Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter, vol. 9 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), 59. Compare the assertion of Fynes Moryson that among the customs used in England and “in no other Kingdome that I knowe” is “for Children at morning and evening to aske their Parents blessing, and extraordinarily their Godfathers when they meete them” (Shakespeare's Europe: Unpublished Chapters of Fynes Moryson's Itinerary, ed. Charles Hughes [London: Sherratt & Hughes, 1903], 479). Thomas Stapleton also referred to it as a peculiarly English custom (Tres Thomae, 12).

  44. Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, 17: 451.

  45. The French Garden, sigs. E7v, E8v.

  46. The Grimms' German Folk Tales, trans. Francis P. Magoun, Jr., and Alexander H. Krappe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1960), 607; Schücking, The Puritan Family, 73.

  47. See Philip Birnbaum, A Book of Jewish Concepts, rev. ed. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1975), 108-9; Joseph H. Hertz, The Authorised Daily Prayer Book, rev. ed. (New York: Bloch, 1963), 402-3; and Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979), 61, 209.

  48. See David P. Wright, “The Gesture of Hand Placement in the Hebrew Bible and in Hittite Literature,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 106 (1986): 433-46. For Renaissance discussions of the uses and significance of the hand (“the instrument of instruments”), see William Austin, Haec Homo (1638), 114-18 and J[ohn] B[ulwer], Chirologia: or the Naturall Language of the Hand (1644).

  49. Even on an issue so crucial as a child's potential marriage partner, the consistent counsel of moralists of the period was that a parent's advice and consent be sought, but that the child's wishes always be respected. The legal requirement was that, “without Consent [i.e., of the bride and groom] there cannot be any Matrimony” (Henry Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals or Matrimonial Contracts [1686; written before 1624], 51). Shakespeare presents the same position in Romeo and Juliet (1.2.16-19), The Winter's Tale (4.4.404-10), and elsewhere. Of course, both in Shakespeare and in Renaissance life outside the theater, parents sometimes exceeded their proper authority. See Bruce Young, “Haste, Consent, and Age at Marriage: Some Implications of Social History for Romeo and Juliet,Iowa State Journal of Research 62 (1987-88): 459-74.

  50. Compare Thomas Becon, who, writing in the mid-1500s, described “bow[ing] the knee” to ask for a blessing as one way of showing “honorable reverence toward [parents], as parsons representing the majestie of God” (Works, fol. 524v); and James Cleland, who wrote in 1607 that, “The bowing of the knee declareth that we submit our selves to him [before whom we bow], & that we wil not remaine equal, but wil humble, and make our selves inferiour” (The Institution of a Young Noble Man [1607; rpt. New York: Scolars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1948], 1: 178).

  51. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2: 321.

  52. The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), 286. Strong Calvinists, by contrast, emphasized that it was actually God (not the parent or priest) who gave blessings.

  53. John Ferrar, A Life of Nicholas Ferrar, in The Ferrar Papers, ed. B. Blackstone, 26. For the kissing of younger children in conjunction with the blessing ritual, see Two Horrible and Inhumane Murders done in Lincolneshire (1607), in Reprints of English Books, 1475-1700, ed. Joseph Arnold Foster (Claremont, 1948), 4: 16. Shakespeare has a parent kiss an infant child while blessing her in Henry VIII 5.4.9-11. As both this scene and one in The Winter's Tale (2.3) suggest, infants may sometimes have been blessed. An infant, of course, would not have knelt, but apparently would have been held and perhaps kissed when given a blessing.

  54. Note also the kissing of parents in Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.3.26, 28.

  55. William Roper, Life of Sir Thomas More, 251.

  56. The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton, 64. See also Paston Letters, 1: 540 (John Paston asks his mother by letter for her daily blessing), and the play Misogonus (published in 1577), in which a son reunited with his father cries out, “Bless me, my father!” (Six Anonymous Plays, 233).

  57. The phrase is from John Mayer's discussion of parental blessings in A Commentary upon the Whole Old Testament (1653), 1: 201.

  58. For instance, Magdalen Herbert “upon her blessing charged [her son Edward] never to learn Swimming,” for fear he might drown (The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury Written by Himself, ed. Horace Walpole [London, 1770], 10). A niece of Nicholas Ferrar's was charged by her mother “on her blessing to returne a true aunsweare” concerning a disputed matter (The Ferrar Papers, ed. B. Blackstone, 286-87).

  59. For example, in 1644 the mother of Anne Murray (later Lady Halkett) became so angry with her daughter for disobedience that “for fourteene months shee never gave mee her blesing” (The Memoirs of Anne, Lady Halkett and Ann, Lady Fanshawe, ed. John Loftis [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979], 20). Wills sometimes used the threat of a curse or the withholding of blessing to ensure that instructions were followed. For example, Henry VIII's will “charg[es] and command[s]” his son Edward to be advised by specified counselors “on Peyn of our Curse” (Foedera, Conventiones, Literae, et cujuscunque generis Acta Publica, 2nd ed., ed. Thomas Rymer [1728-35], 15: 115). I owe this reference to R. A. Houlbrooke.

  60. See chapter 6 in Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

  61. See Titus Andronicus 1.1.161-68; Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.3.23-29; Richard III 2.2.104-11, 5.3.83-85; King John 3.3.69-71; Merchant of Venice 2.2.77-95; Hamlet 1.3.52-82, 3.4.170-72; All's Well 1.1.59-70; Lear 4.7.56-58, 5.3.10-11, 5.3.196; Coriolanus 2.1.169-71, 5.3.68-76; Pericles 5.1.204-13, 223, 5.3.44-48; Cymbeline 5.5.264-69, 347-56, 368-72; Winter's Tale 5.3.42-46, 118-23; Tempest 5.1.178-80; Henry VIII 4.2.131-38, 5.4.9-11.

  62. See the instances already cited from Titus Andronicus; Richard III; King John; Richard II; Hamlet 1.3; All's Well; Coriolanus 2.2, 5.3.68ff.; Pericles; Cymbeline 5.5; The Winter's Tale; The Tempest; and Henry VIII.

  63. E.g., All's Well 1.1; Cymbeline 4.4.43-50; Hamlet 1.3.52-54; King John 3.3.69-71. Despite current associations of “asking a parent's blessing” with asking for approval or permission, these requests by Shakespearean characters for a blessing before departure are not equivalent to asking permission, which has usually already been granted. Once “leave” is given, the blessing is then given as a source of protection, power, and love to equip the child, as it were, for the journey.

  64. The parent-child bond is confirmed in Coriolanus 2.1.169-71, Cymbeline 5.5.352-56, 368-72, and elsewhere. Blessings emphasizing closeness of identity include Coriolanus 5.3.68-76; Cymbeline 5.5.264-66; Richard II 1.3.69-76; Pericles 5.1.213, 5.3.44-48; and Winter's Tale 5.3.42-46, 121-28.

  65. But a blessing is not mentioned until mother and son have achieved some measure of reconciliation. Urging her to repent, to cleanse her heart, Hamlet says to Gertrude, “When you are desirous to be blest, / I'll blessing beg of you” (3.4.171-72). Here, the parental blessing is used to suggest the straining of the bond between mother and son, but even more to indicate that the bond, despite the strain, still exists.

  66. If I were a director (or editor) I would want to make it clear that Bertram is to kneel as he says the words, “Madam, I desire your holy wishes”—he is asking for her blessing—and that his mother should use her hands, either holding them above him or placing one or both on his head, until she reaches her final phrase, asking that the blessings of heaven “fall on [Bertram's] head,” at which point we may consider the blessing finished, and Bertram will stand again. Though neither the original text nor the vast majority of editors specify through stage directions or other means what gestures are to be used, the situation and the characters' language should make it clear to those who know of the custom that a blessing is taking place. That the Countess is giving a mother's blessing, involving the usual gestures, is confirmed by the words she uses near the end of the ritual: “What heaven more will, / That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down, / Fall on thy head!” (1.1.68-70). (Compare similar imagery in Cymbeline 5.5.350-51; Winter's Tale 5.3.121-23; Tempest 5.1.178-81, 201-2; and Henry VIII 4.2.131-33.) Though The Riverside Shakespeare, among many others, gives no stage directions indicating a blessing at this point, G. Blakemore Evans has stated that he would add stage directions for kneeling and blessing if he were to edit the play again (Letter to the author, 20 April 1985).

  67. For a fuller discussion of the blessing motif in Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well, see Bruce Young, “Ritual as an Instrument of Grace: The Parental Blessing in Richard III, All's Well That Ends Well, and The Winter's Tale,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

  68. In these two plays, Shakespeare draws on the common association made in his time between the parental blessing and the giving of advice. See (among others) Nicholas Breton, The Mothers Blessing (1602), William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Certaine Precepts, or Directions, for the Well Ordering of a Mans Life (1617), Elizabeth Joceline, The Mothers Legacie, to Her Unborne Childe (1624), Dorothy Leigh, The Mothers Blessing, or the Godly Counsaile of a Gentle-woman (1616), John Norden, The Fathers Legacie; with Precepts Morall and Prayers Divine (1625), and Sir Walter Raleigh, Instructions to his Sonne and to Posterity (1632).

  69. For other references to parents' deference to their children, see the discussion, below, of Belarius and Talbot, who yield to their sons' wishes (Cymbeline 4.4.44-50; 1 Henry VI 4.5.32-55).

  70. An exactly similar use of the parental blessing is found in a letter by Agnes Paston (written about 1465) in which she gives her blessing to her son John on the condition that he show himself “kynde and wyllyng” to his brothers' welfare (Paston Letters, 1: 43).

  71. The kneeling of a parent before a child is also alluded to in Addition III to Sir Thomas More (lines 8-12). Indeed, the kneeling imagery here has been used as evidence for Shakespeare's authorship of the passage.

  72. Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 171; Kahn, Man's Estate, 16.

  73. A piece of traditional stage business would have old Gobbo stand behind, not in front of, his kneeling son, so that when he reaches toward him to give the blessing he mistakes the hair hanging from Launcelot's head for a beard. See Arthur Colby Sprague and J. C. Trewin, Shakespeare's Plays Today (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1970), 22. Old Gobbo's “mistake” would explain his lines, “What a beard hast thou got! Thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail” (2.2.93-95) and would further emphasize his connection with the biblical Isaac, who hoped to recognize his son Esau by feeling him (Genesis 27:21).

  74. Performances of Lear do not always have Cordelia kneel in this scene, either because of the director's failure to know that she would kneel for a blessing or because of a desire to avoid “the disastrous blunder of the two kneeling together or the one after the other” (King Lear [London: Samuel French, 1967], 188). In the BBC video production (directed by Jonathan Miller, BBC-TV/Time-Life Inc., 1982), Cordelia gives no sign of kneeling or wishing to kneel. George Ian Duthie and John Dover Wilson, in their edition of King Lear (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 258 n. 57, note a stage tradition in which “Lear only kneels.” J. L. Styan, on the other hand, assumes that Cordelia kneels and argues in favor of Lear's kneeling (Shakespeare's Stagecraft [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967], 61). Olivier's television production of Lear (directed by Michael Elliott, Granada Television International, 1983) demonstrates the emotional power of having Lear and Cordelia both kneel.

  75. Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2: 321.

  76. The Good Wife, 170. I have partly modernized the spelling.

  77. Mayer, A Commentary upon the Whole Old Testament, 260. The association of parental blessings with biblical precedents is also made by Bentley, The Monument of Matrones, “The Sixt Lampe,” 31; Erondell, The French Garden, sig. E8v; John Richardson, Choice Observations and Explanations upon the Old Testament (1655), sig. H2v; Gervase Babington, Certaine Plaine, Briefe, and Comfortable Notes, upon Every Chapter of Genesis (1596), 204, 211; and Shakespeare himself (Merchant of Venice 2.2.77-95).

  78. The True Chronicle History of King Leir, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, vol. 7 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 394.

  79. James I, Basilicon Doron (1603), 76. STC 14354. Compare Mayer, 268: “it is a thing imprinted in nature, and confirmed by often experiments, that the Parents blessing or cursing are of great force.” Mayer and others distinguish, however, between the truly prophetic blessings of the ancient patriarchs and the “ordinary blessings” of contemporary parents (Mayer, 260; Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, 438).

  80. William Ames, A Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship, 94.

  81. For non-Shakespearean representations of women's solidarity, expressed through a mother's blessing, see the fourteenth-century poem The Good Wife and the seventeenth-century dialogue The French Garden (Erondell, sigs. E7v, E8v). For representations of mothers instructing their children, including sons, see Nicholas Breton, The Mothers Blessing; Elizabeth Joceline, The Mothers Legacie, to Her Unborne Childe; and Dorothy Leigh, The Mothers Blessing, or the Godly Counsaile of a Gentle-woman. Non-Shakespearean representations of a child's power to renew a parent include Misogonus, where, after giving his son a blessing, a father says, “Thou art the length'ner of my life, the curer of my care” (p. 233). When Margaret Roper showed “daughterly love and dear charity” to her father, Sir Thomas More, by requesting his blessing and then kissing and embracing him, she seems to have had a heartening effect on him similar to that felt by Lear and Hermione in the scenes in which they are “reborn” (William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More, 251-52).

  82. See Houlbrooke, The English Family; Alan Macfarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin (New York: Norton, 1977); and many Renaissance documents, including letters and diaries. Excerpts from some of these may be found in English Family Life, 1576-1716, ed. Ralph A. Houlbrooke (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989) and A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children over Three Centuries, ed. Linda Pollock (London: Fourth Estate, 1987).

Marianne Novy (essay date 2000)

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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. Writing this history has not proved to be simple. Lawrence Stone's view that family relations in early modern England were distant is countered by evidence of affection, and in particular of grief at death in the family, in research collected by Alan Macfarlane, Keith Wrightson, Linda Pollock, Michael MacDonald, and others; yet if Stone is wrong, that does not necessarily mean that ways of imagining the family, and of imagining the self within the family, are constant over time.1 In the late twentieth century, it is obvious that the family is taking on many new models, as single parenting, stepfamilies, and blended families become increasingly common and adoption often goes international and/or comes out of its mid-twentieth-century closet. Many families, we all now know, do not fit the model of the nuclear family that midcentury sociology assumed was our norm, and even nuclear families frequently need day care. Whether or not it takes a village to raise a child, it is clear that children are often raised by multiple parents of whom some are not the traditional married mother and father who conceived them. (I use the term “multiple” in contrast to this apparently self-sufficient couple—while aware that such a mother and father are obviously also multiple rather than single.)

Early modern England was another time of multiple parenting. Not only was there a high parental death rate with frequent remarriages, there were many other institutions that involved children's presence in households outside their birth families. Many infants were sent away to wet nurses for several years; older children were often sent away to apprenticeships in other households, and aristocratic families practiced informal exchanges of children, partly as a way of reinforcing their alliances.2 Unlike modern England and America, early modern England had no formal laws permitting adoption—the institution that today most clearly raises questions about multiple parenthood—but informal adoption of various kinds frequently appears in the theater as well as in the prose romances that were the popular fiction of that time.3

In this essay I read Pericles in relation to the multiple parenting in its first audience's time. In Pericles, as in two other of Shakespeare's last plays, The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline, children are relinquished, abandoned, or taken from their parents and raised by others. Each play ends with the reconstitution of the family of birth. The emphasis on the similarity or affinity of long-separated relatives is strong, and the separated children are noticeably different from what their surroundings would seem to promise. The dominant way of reading family themes in Pericles has, quite plausibly, been to emphasize its mythology of blood—and yet there are other elements that make it possible to read in it some tribute to the effects of nurture and some emphasis on the family as a construction. Although the plot clearly defines the birth parents as the real parents, and some foster parents in Pericles are murderous, it also presents an actively benevolent foster parent.4

I want to discuss four closely intertwined aspects of the treatment of multiple parenting in Pericles: the splitting of parents into good versus evil, the emphasis on physical resemblance in the birth family, modes of recognition by separated members, and the discussion of heredity versus environment, or in the plays' terms, nature versus nurture. Pericles clearly poses evil foster parents against good biological parents. Thinking his wife Thaisa is dead, Pericles gives the newborn Marina to his friends Cleon and Dionyza to raise—emphasizing that they should give her education according to her noble rank; because she outshines their daughter in weaving, sewing, and singing, Dionyza plots Marina's murder, and only the chance kidnapping of pirates saves her—to be sold to a brothel.

The term “parent” or “foster parent” is never used in the play to describe the relation Cleon and Dionyza have to Marina; the key word is “nurse.” Pericles plans to leave his daughter “at careful nursing” (3.1.80); when Dionyza thinks about how she will tell Pericles that his daughter is (as she thinks) dead, she says, “Nurses are not the fates, / To foster it, not ever to preserve” (4.3.14-15).5 This usage both connects the couple to the common practice of wet-nursing, and points up their opposition to Marina's good foster parent—her nurse Lychorida.6 The murder plot occurs after Lychorida's death; Dionyza tries to gain Marina's confidence by saying, “Have you a nurse of me” (4.1.25).

Lychorida is a shadowy figure, who appears only in the scene where Marina is an infant, but it was she who passed on to Marina the story of her birth, and an admirable image of her father's courage and patience.

My father, as nurse says, did never fear,
But cried, “Good seamen!” to the sailors,
Calling his kingly hands, hailing ropes;
And clasping to the mast, endured a sea
That almost broke the deck.


Furthermore, Lychorida's importance in transmitting memories is explicitly honored in the recognition scene, when Marina says,

My mother was the daughter of a king,
Who died the minute I was born,
As my good nurse Lychorida hath oft
Delivered weeping.


The emphasis on the nurse's repetition of memories about Marina's parents and ancestry is a significant contrast to earlier versions of the Pericles story. In the ninth-century Apollonius of Tyre, it is only when the nurse is dying that she tells Marina's prototype her ancestry: The girl exclaims, “If any such thing had happened to me before you revealed this to me, I should have been absolutely ignorant of my ancestry and birth.”7 In Gower's Confessio Amantis (1554), there is no reference to what the nurse says about parentage, but in Twine's The Patterne of Painefull Adventures (1594), and in George Wilkins's The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre (1608), as in the ninth-century version, the girl thinks of the murderous surrogates as her parents until the nurse, at the point of death, enlightens her.8 In these several sources and analogues, the daughter's initial lack of knowledge of her origins is like that of Perdita in The Winter's Tale and Guiderius and Arviragus in Cymbeline, though the foster parents in these plays are—apart from the stepmother queen in Cymbeline—beneficent. This alteration by Shakespeare not only gives more emphasis to the nurse as a purposeful bearer of family memory but also means that Marina does not have to undergo the identity revision necessary on discovering that people she thought of as her parents are not simply foster parents but also intended murderers.9

Heredity is dominant over environment in Pericles, but environment is not as weak an influence as generalizations sometimes assume. Nature and nurture, one could infer, combine to contribute to Marina's superlative musical skills: Cleon teaches her, but when her achievements far surpass those of his daughter, one might remember that Thaisa's father Simonides had, after all, called Pericles “music's master” (2.5.30) and said, “my ears were never better fed / With such delightful pleasing harmony” (27-28).10 More important, one might read the supremacy of nature over nurture in the way Marina's goodness escapes the bad influence of Cleon and Dionyza, as well as in the way she shows the courage and patience that the nurse has told her her father exemplified, but one could also credit Lychorida's influence. None of these points is explicit—the spectators can analyze Marina's virtues and talents however they wish.

In the other two romances, characters are more emphatic on the issue. Belarius believes that his sons' true identity appears in their ambition and desire to fight. “How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature! … their thoughts do hit the roofs of palaces, and nature prompts them / In simple and low things to prince it much / Beyond the trick of others” (3.3.79-86). As Susan Baker has noted, the fact that Belarius himself knows they are princes can be seen as influencing his upbringing of them, and so one can argue that it is he who so prompts them, not nature; similarly, one could argue that Lychorida's image of Pericles' courage is more important in influencing Marina's courage than her heredity.11

Pericles emphasizes physical similarity between biological family members, but it is not clearly the crucial issue in their reunion. When Pericles is unknowingly reunited with his daughter, he comments on how similar she is to his wife: “my queen's square brows; / Her stature to an inch; as wandlike straight; / As silver-voiced; her eyes as jewel-like / And cas'd as richly” (5.1.111-114) and he says he will believe her because “thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed” (127-128). But, as we will see in a minute, if he does guess who she is, he does not acknowledge it for many lines and questions after this point.

It is worth noting that a textual emphasis on physical similarity has a complicated effect in the theater; Anne Barton remarked of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night that it would be an extremely rare theater company that would have two characters as similar as Viola and Sebastian are supposed to be; so, in many cases of family resemblance in these plays, the play's language is in tension with the stage picture in which the actors are not really identical.12 Perhaps the issue is analogous to the issue of how the Elizabethan audience saw boy actors as female characters: Most of the time most of them focused on the female character, but for some of them most of the time and most of them some of the time (cued by textual self-consciousness) awareness of the actor's sex might surface occasionally. The plays are providing much material for twentieth-century reflections on gender as a construction; they may also provide some material for twentieth-century reflections on family relationships as a construction as well. The audience, guided by the dialogue and the plot, will want Marina to look like Thaisa, and will probably imagine that they look similar, if this is at all possible. Sometimes these characters are doubled in performance, which means that the experience of the reunion scene between Pericles and Marina is less of an imaginative construction; but then we would still have to use our imagination about the similarity between Marina and Thaisa in the last scene, however it is staged.13

The tension between recognition and lack of recognition of family members in Pericles' reunion with Marina is complicated. When Pericles' ship accidentally arrives in the same city as the daughter he thinks dead, they are unknowingly brought together with the idea that she will cheer him up from his paralyzing melancholy. The dejected Pericles, unresponsive to anyone else, resists speaking to her at first—perhaps even pushes her away—then begins to talk to her slowly and with rather incoherent echoes of her words: “My fortunes—parentage—good parentage—To equal mine” (5.1.100-101, making the suggestion of their relationship more explicit than in her words, which named their griefs, not their parentage, as equal). After a few more questions he says, “My dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one / My daughter might have been” (110-111). He asks questions about her origin and education, to which she replies enigmatically. When she says she thinks her story is too improbable to tell, he says, “I will believe thee, … for thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed” (125, 127-128). Yet even when she says “My name is Marina” (145), reveals that she was born at sea, and names her dead nurse Lychorida, he cannot acknowledge that she is really his daughter. At various places in this long dialogue, he wonders if she is flesh and blood, or if this is a dream; and when she finally identifies herself as daughter to King Pericles, he does not respond directly to her until he has consulted with Helicanus; then finally, almost one hundred lines after the first hint that he recognizes her, he welcomes her as “Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget” (5.1.200), and even after that wants confirmation about her mother's name. For the audience, his caution dramatizes his melancholy, but also the importance of her return to him, on which the play focuses for this long poetic scene. As Pericles says, “truth can never be confirm'd enough” (206). The spectators know that his sense of her similarity to his lost wife is indeed a true guide to her identity—but the plot, in a sense, stops, to maintain suspense about whether he will trust this partial recognition and when the questions that he asks will lead him to security about it.14

No line in this scene gives Marina's reaction to her discovery that Pericles is her father, or to her reunion with him. This scene is written to make us imagine his point of view much more than hers; critics seldom discuss the question of when she recognizes him. Terence Cave argues that she “believes that she is healing a disturbed mind, so that his agitation as the truth gradually sinks in seems to her only a symptom of that disturbance.”15 This is the most likely interpretation, since she has never seen him since her infancy and asks him his name after he greets her as his daughter.

On the other hand, I could imagine a Marina who has been told that this is Pericles and deliberately takes her time in leading him to this recognition, but has a purpose in introducing herself by talking about her ancestry and the loss of her parents. This is not, after all, the inevitable way to assuage the grief of a melancholy stranger. She hints the connections that Pericles will eventually trace out—“She speaks, / My lord, that, may be, hath endured a grief / Might equal yours … ancestors / Who stood equivalent with mighty kings” (5.1.89-91, 103-104). His echoes of her words—“My fortunes—parentage—good parentage—To equal mine” (5.1.100-101)—make the suggestion of their relationship more explicit than she did, though it takes him many lines to acknowledge it. These two different versions of Marina—ironically—might well appear the same on stage, for her consciousness is not explored in the dialogue as Pericles' is.

The final scene is particularly notable for the way in which the embraces of the family reunion are evoked in imagery that both emphasizes the familial physical connection and pictures family members as losing their identities in each other. In the language, first Pericles disappears in Thaisa, then she disappears in him, then Marina merges back into Thaisa, reversing Lychorida's early description of her as “this piece of your dead queen” (3.1.17-18):

[to the gods] You shall do well
That on the touching of her lips I may
Melt and no more be seen. O come, be buried
A second time within these arms! [They embrace.]
                                                                                                                                            My heart
Leaps to be gone into my mother's bosom.


These images of death and disappearance in reunion reenact and reverse the earlier apparent deaths of Thaisa and Marina.16 Pericles continues the physical imagery of family connection while returning all to visibility by saying, “Flesh of thy flesh, Thaisa / Thy burden at the sea, and call'd Marina / For she was yielded there” (49-51).17

This play began with a scene in which Pericles, in his first quest for a bride, discovered that the princess he sought was living in incest with her father; the ending transforms this malignant mingling of identities in the family to a benign version. Physical ties are emphasized—flesh of flesh, heart and bosom, lips and arms. At the same time, the ending occurs in the Temple of Diana. Both Marina and Thaisa are emphatically chaste, and the night-oblations that Pericles promises to Diana in thanksgiving sound to at least one critic, Janet Adelman, like a disturbing attempt to erase sexuality from the reunited family.18 Marina's ancestry is now confirmed as noble, and accordingly she is married to Lysimachus, who was impressed with her purity when they met in the brothel, but there is little emotional weight given to their relationship. The heart of the play is with the parent-child bond, emphasized as a bond of flesh and blood—and yet the parents and their daughter Marina are to be separated again at the end, when she and Lysimachus are to rule in Tyre while Pericles and Thaisa are to go to her family home in Pentapolis. However joyful parent-child reunion is, however long delayed, in this play it is still fragile—none of the other romances of family reunion is so emphatic that the family is again separated at the end. Perhaps this is another way to measure the strength of the threat of incest here.

Throughout this play, the language of birth and conception echoes repeatedly—most often in literal references to characters' origins.19 Thus it reinforces the play's “mythology of blood” and its emphasis on biological relatedness. On the other hand, it is striking how often this language is used metaphorically—in the cross-gendered imagery that imagines Pericles delivering—“I am great with joy and shall deliver weeping” (5.1.109)—and Marina begetting her father, but also in in the reference to how Lychorida “delivered weeping” memories of Thaisa.20 Birth and parenthood are not only literal in this play. Arguably it celebrates rebirth and good foster parenthood—along with birth and parenthood. A memorable line when the young Pericles declares his love of Thaisa puts “fostering” and “blood” together and suggests fostering may be seen as just as basic.

What, are you both pleased?
                                                                                                    Yes, if you love me, sir.
Even as my life my blood that fosters it.


The family separations and reunions in Pericles, like those in the other romances, have many possible relations to early modern family psychology. They glamorize the shorter-term family separations common in his culture: Here the wet-nursing of baby aristocrats, and their later child exchange to learn manners, and also the training for work of children of other classes are transformed into the more dramatic separations of abandoning, kidnapping, and shipwrecking. Gail Paster writes, in The Body Embarrassed, that Perdita's experience is “a version, romantically heightened, of what happened soon after birth to countless babies in the wet-nursing culture … inexplicable extrusion from the birthing chamber, enforced alienation from the maternal breast, and a journey to the unknown rural environment of a foster family lower in station than its own. Even though the birth parents knew where they had placed their baby and occasionally visited it, the physical and social separation of the two environments was virtually as complete as it is here.”21 For much of the plot, it seems that Marina's experience is the nightmare version of this, though finally all ends well. These romance plots also provided a fantasy compensation for the more permanent separations caused by frequent mortality, which was much higher than ours for both parents and children, and highest, it seems, in London, where the plays were performed. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the life expectancy at birth in London was only 22.3, and “by age twenty forty-seven per cent of women born in London had suffered the death of their fathers.”22 Furthermore, infant and child death rates were, in general, high in early modern Europe. “An infant in the first four months of life had in general a 20 to 40 per cent chance of dying before his or her first birthday … the chances of surviving to age twenty were in general no better than fifty-fifty.”23

Members of the original audiences in different family circumstances probably differed to some extent in their responses to these plays, just as do members of the audience in different circumstances today. Paster has argued, for example, that the emphasis on the difference in behavior between Perdita and her foster family and on characters' identification of her with nobility “offers a powerful counternarrative for the specific fears and repressed anxieties of the wet-nursed child.”24The Winter's Tale might also soothe the anxieties of parents of wet-nursed children—while Pericles would heighten those anxieties considerably before they were ultimately dispelled.

On the other hand, what of the many audience members whose parents had died early and who had been raised by at least one stepparent, or by foster parents? How important was it to them to emphasize their connections with their deceased parents? How much did their stepparents take on parental roles in their imagination? In Pericles, more than any other of the romances, they could have found the negative pole of any ambivalence they had about substitute parents dramatized, before they enjoyed the wish fulfillment of the reunions with birth parents. But to the extent that they loved their surrogate parents, they might also have drawn another kind of satisfaction—as could parents who were raising stepchildren—from the fact that actors seldom have as much similarity as the characters they are playing are supposed to have. The doubleness of effect—characters are biologically related, and the text tells us to see them as similar, actors are not related, and probably do not look very similar—is analogous to the doubleness in the meaning of family terms such as “father” and “mother” that stepfamilies and adoptees have to deal with.25 The term “role” is used in connection with parenthood, in ordinary language today, almost as much as it is used in relation to sex and gender. Is there a theatrical aspect to parenthood? Or is this usage a sign of inauthenticity? What are the strengths and limitations of the formulation “The real parents are those who act like parents”? Should parenthood be defined by nurturing behavior (what would most often be considered metaphorical parenthood) or by biology? Does Pericles act like a parent when he leaves Marina at Tharsus? For much of the rest of both plays, penance is the only way he has of acting like a parent, a role that Pericles has never played with his daughter until their reunion. From what we hear, Lychorida seems the most parental character—though her parental qualities are presented mostly by Marina's memories of her words, particularly her words about Marina's birth parents.

The plots of the romances—somewhat like contemporary American adoption law—are largely structured to limit a family to one “real” set of parents, male and female, and the conclusion of Pericles—following such a brief appearance of the good foster parent, Lychorida, and the vividness of the wicked foster parents—stays close to this model. But knowing something about the frequent uses of nursing, fostering out, and other varieties of child care beyond the nuclear family in Renaissance England may help to explain one of the most vexed aspects of this play: Why is Pericles not only grief-stricken, but also virtually immobilized and apparently also in need of prolonged penance after he hears about his daughter's death from Dionyza, since he acted in good faith believing that she and Cleon were responsible people?

With infant and child death rates so high, it may well be that parents whose children died while in someone else's house had a particularly complicated sense of self-blame—they were following the accepted pattern in their society, but was that why their child had died? Within England, Gottlieb argues, while wet-nursing was often criticized, sending children away after age seven was not openly questioned—but at least one Italian observer felt that this showed “the want of affection in the English.”26 When Pericles, concerned about returning to Tyre in time to get its crown, assumes that he must give Marina to others to raise in their home, instead of taking her and Lychorida or another nurse with him—when the years he stays away pass quickly in Gower's Act Four Chorus—perhaps those whose children had died, or who feared their children might, while away, had particular reasons for interest in his story. (Both the death of children and their boarding out might have been especially frequent in 1608-1609, the probable first year of Pericles' performance; plague closed the theaters part of that time.)27 Perhaps it was because the occasion for disaster seemed such ordinary behavior—rather than the insane jealousy of Leontes, for example—that Pericles may have been one of the most popular Shakespearean plays of its day.28


  1. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Alan MacFarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London: Hutchinson, 1982); Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  2. Beatrice Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 145, 160. Gottlieb claims that apprenticeship often began around age seven, but Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos finds that ten, twelve, or later were much more likely ages, though younger children could be boarded out for reasons such as schooling, outbreaks of plague, poverty, or parental death; see her Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 54-64. Her view of apprentices' age is supported by Paul Griffith, Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England 1560-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 33.

  3. Jack Goody, Development of the Family and Marriage in England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73.

  4. Barbara Estrin, The Raven and the Lark: Lost Children in Literature of the English Renaissance (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1985), while noting that such plots in literature “predicate that the biological parents are superior to the adoptive ones,” also writes that “the good of art appears in the adoptive sections where the supremacy of inheritance is superseded by the idealization of the replacement,” 14.

  5. All quotations from Pericles are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

  6. Dionyza's words resonate ominously with some contemporary cases of infanticidal nursing, mostly of illegitimate children: see Keith Wrightson, “Infanticide in Earlier Seventeenth-Century England, Local Population Studies 15 (1975): 10-22. Thanks to Frances Dolan for sending me a copy of this article.

  7. See Elizabeth Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations (Bury-St. Edmunds: D. S. Brewer, 1991), 145.

  8. See Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, VI (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 396-405, 445-453, 518-529. Wilkins's Pericles alone motivates this secrecy, by telling the nurse that Marina should be “brought uppe as the daughter of Cleon and Dyonysa, lest that the knowledge of her highbirth, should make her growe prowd to their instructions,” 524.

  9. Unlike Marina's prototype in these sources, Perdita, Guiderius, and Arviragus have no lines commenting on their discovery of a different set of parents, and the foster parents and birth parents in each play make alliance by the end.

  10. F. D. Hoeniger, “Introduction,” in Pericles, ed. Hoeniger, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1963), lxxviii, notes that Pericles' role as music teacher is emphasized in the sources.

  11. Susan Baker, “Personating Persons: Rethinking Shakespearean Disguises,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992).

  12. Anne Barton, “As You Like It and Twelfth Night: Shakespeare's Sense of an Ending,” Shakespearian Comedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 14, ed. D. J. Palmer and Malcolm Bradbury (New York: Crane, Russak and Co., 1972), 176.

  13. Compare the way Paulina in Winter's Tale enumerates details in the baby girl's face that are like Leontes (2.3.101-103), making the audience imagine a resemblance inevitably impossible to see.

  14. From the early example in Greek tragedies such as The Libation Bearers, recognition scenes often contain a prolonged questioning which heightens emotions as it suspends the recognition in time: see Marianne Novy, “Recognition Scenes and Their Thematic Significance in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies,” Dissertation, Yale University, 1973, 9.

  15. Terence Cave, Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 289.

  16. As Janet Adelman points out, they also rearticulate, benignly, “the deadly mergers of the beginning—the collapse of mother, wife, and daughter in Antiochus's daughter's body and the attendant collapse of Pericles's masculine identity;” Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 197.

  17. I have commented on this imagery further in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 178-179, where I note that recognition scenes in Shakespeare's comedies generally have less physical imagery.

  18. Adelman, 197-198.

  19. Doreen Delvecchio and Antony Hammond give a list of examples: see their “Introduction” to Pericles, Prince of Tyre, ed. Delvecchio and Hammond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 47-49.

  20. For an interpretation of the cross-gendered imagery emphasizing female power and male nurturance, see Novy, 171-172, 175; for the view that it involves male appropriation of female procreative power that excludes women, see Adelman, Suffocating Mothers, 197-198 (which also emphasizes the repression of sexuality), and Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986), 165.

  21. Gail Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 273.

  22. Dubrow, “The Message from Marcade: Parental Death in Tudor and Stuart England,” in Attending to Women in Early Modern England, ed. Betty S. Travitsky and Adele F. Seeff (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 147-167, esp. 157.

  23. Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World, 133. Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England 1550-1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 168, has argued that Winter's Tale in particular is a displaced, aestheticized resolution of anxiety about infanticide. Such anxiety is less displaced in Pericles.

  24. Paster, 276.

  25. In her forthcoming book, Heather Dubrow makes an analogous comment about the relationship of step-parenting to role-playing.

  26. Daniele Barbar, “Italian Relations” (1551), in Molly Harrison and O. M. Rooyston, eds., How They Lived, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1963), pp. 267-268; in Gottlieb, 162. She notes criticism of this pattern eventually developing in England, beginning with William Penn, and argues that “some people were genuinely puzzled by why they were doing what was expected” (161).

  27. See Hoeniger, xxv.

  28. Hoeniger notes that “There are few plays by Shakespeare for which as much evidence is available to testify to their popularity on the stage during the early decades of the seventeenth century,” lxvi-lxvii.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691


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 Romance.” In Shakespeare's ‘Rough Magic’: Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 210-29. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1985.

Centers on the sympathetic ethos of the family drama depicted in King Lear by studying the relations between Gloucester and his sons as they are played out in theatrical performance.

Boose, Lynda E. “An Approach through Theme: Marriage and the Family.” In Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's ‘King Lear,’ edited by Robert H. Ray, pp. 59-68. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986.

Investigates the familial relations depicted in King Lear, noting the drama's patriarchal context and the mythic/archetypal patterns it invokes.

———. “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics.” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 707-42.

Surveys the contributions of contemporary feminist scholars to the broadening of critical discourse on such subjects as marriage, gender, and the family in Shakespearean drama.

Clare, Anthony. “Titus Andronicus.” In Shakespeare in Perspective. Vol. 2, edited by Roger Sales, pp. 308-16. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1985.

Contends that Titus Andronicus fundamentally concerns itself with family relationships, loyalty, honor, and the exploitation of family ties for violent ends.

Deer, Harriet A. “Untyping Stereotypes: The Taming of the Shrew.” In The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 63-78. New York: Plenum Press, 1991.

Maintains that Shakespeare questioned established systems of family value and the patriarchal assumptions underlying Elizabethan marriage customs in The Taming of the Shrew.

Fortier, Mark. “Married with Children: The Winter's Tale and Social History; or, Infanticide in Earlier Seventeenth-Century England.” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 4 (December 1996): 579-603.

Focuses on Shakespeare's critique of the nuclear family in The Winter's Tale.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Fatherly Authority: The Politics of Stuart Family Images.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, pp. 3-32. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Outlines the patriarchal formulas inherent in Renaissance conceptions of the family, drawing evidence from visual representations of family life produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Orgel, Stephen. “Prospero's Wife.” Representations, no. 8 (fall 1984): 1-13.

Uses the topic of Prospero's absent wife in The Tempest to consider other significant or problematic absences in the drama, as well its generally unstable representation of families.

Robinson, Randal. “Family by Death: Stage Images in Titus Andronicus and The Winter's Tale.” In From Page to Performance: Essays in Early English Drama, edited by John A. Alford, pp. 221-33. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995.

Compares similar visual sequences in The Winter's Tale and Titus Andronicus in order to elucidate the pathological family dynamics of the latter drama.

Schwehn, Mark R. “King Lear Beyond Reason: Love and Justice in the Family.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, no. 36 (October 1993): 25-33.

Concentrates on the figure of Edgar in King Lear in order to explore the link between themes of family, justice, love, and charity in the drama.

Wheeler, Richard P. “Deaths in the Family: The Loss of a Son and the Rise of Shakespearean Comedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 127-53.

Speculates on the consequences that the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet may have had on the dramatist's representation of familial relationships in his subsequent plays.

Wiseman, Susan. “The Family Tree Motel: Subliming Shakespeare in My Own Private Idaho.” In Shakespeare, The Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video, edited by Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, pp. 225-39. London: Routledge, 1997.

Touches upon the connection between themes of paternity and family in Gus Van Sant's film My Own Private Idaho and examines the film's intertextual relationship to Shakespeare's Henry IV plays.


Errors and Labors: Feminism and Early Shakespearean Comedy


Fate and Fortune