Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare
Critics have long recognized the centrality of family relationships in Shakespeare's drama, but the shifting affections of fathers and daughters has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention only in recent decades. The focus of the critical literature has primarily centered on a few early romantic comedies, the late romances, and King Lear, in which daughters struggle to negotiate a passage into adulthood and marriage with their fathers' blessing, while the fathers struggle to relinquish these young women to other men—their future husbands.
Much of the reversal in critical sympathies may be attributable to the influence of feminist criticism. The earlier appraisals, dating to the 1970s and early 1980s, are typically more sympathetic to the fathers, finding the struggles between them and their daughters to be among the expected hurdles of normal family life, even if the particular plots in which they appear are atypical for Shakespeare, The later readings, however, are more likely to find a tyrannical possessiveness in excess of normal parental affection in the father's behavior—or, as the case may be, a capriciousness, coldness, or disloyalty unwarranted by the daughter's exemplary conduct. While some critics discern an incestuous desire for the daughter in the father's motivation, others see the father's possessiveness as a love corrupted by the power a patriarchal society confers on him. In these cases, the daughter takes on the aspect of a heroine, becoming the focal point of the play she inhabits.
As Shakespearean fathers came under less indulgent scrutiny, other father-daughter relationships began to attract more attention. In the most recent scholarly literature, Juliet and old Capulet, Ophelia and Polonius, and Desdemona and Brabantio move to the whims of patriarchy, willingly or not. To the extent that these daughters are helpless to change the terms of their fate, their tragedies have come to be presented as indictments of sexist oppression. The question that lies just under the surface of such analyses, then, concerns a post-modernist critical evaluation of Shakespeare, as some feminist scholars claim him to be a proto-feminist, while others assert that he remains within a tradition of patriarchy.