As a fundamental and near universal social taboo, the threat of incest is a motif featured in a considerable portion of Shakespeare's works, and has elicited scholarly interest with increasing regularity, especially among contemporary psychoanalytic and cultural critics. Most commentators acknowledge that Shakespeare was primarily interested in presenting moral and theological arguments against conjugal relations between family members, as they have been understood in the Christian tradition, and in dramatizing the negative psychological effects of incestuous desire. In addition, certain historical factors, such as the social tension between the commission of an unnatural act of incest and the requirements of legitimate monarchical succession are of particular concern in several works, including Richard III and Henry VIII. In both cases, these titular kings sought to marry close family relations for the ostensible purpose of securing the authenticity of their royal heirs; and, while Richard's desire of union with his niece has generally been viewed as an abominable act—one among many of the tyrant's atrocities—Henry's undertaking to marry his brother's wife evokes a degree of ambivalence and even justifiability in Shakespeare's writing, critics contend. Overall, such issues form only a minor component in a few of the historical dramas, whereas the problem of incest takes on a much larger scope in several of Shakespeare's tragedies and late romances. In works such as Hamlet, King Lear, Measure for Measure, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, Shakespeare addressed the incest taboo with varying degrees of directness, from Hamlet's accusations against his mother that she has climbed into “incestuous sheets” with his uncle, to a more subtle handling of the theme in regard to the aging patriarch Prospero and his nubile daughter Miranda. Overall, critical discussion of the incest motif has tended to vary according to the genre with which it is associated. As Richard A. McCabe points out in his 1993 survey of the topic, unnatural sexual unions in the tragedies tend to set loose the retributive forces of nature, destroying those involved. In romance, however, the motif is ordinarily depicted as a “sublimation of forbidden desire,” according to McCabe, which is typically surmounted or reconciled by the close of the drama. Focusing on a spectrum of incest threats oriented between father and daughter in Shakespearean drama, notably in Pericles, The Tempest, and King Lear, Jane M. Ford (1998) observes that a sexualized tension of this sort informs no less than twenty-one of the plays. To Ford, the father's success in renouncing his unconscious desires determines the outcome, whether it be tragic (as in the case of King Lear) or harmonious (The Tempest).
By far Shakespeare's most express representation of incest has been in the contexts of his late romances. Among these, Pericles, with its forthright depiction of an incestuous relationship between Antiochus and his daughter, has elicited the majority of critical interest on the subject. Concentrating on this drama, which he sees as indicative of Shakespeare's “late plays of reconciliation,” W. B. Thorne (1971) defines a structural polarity between incest and fertility in the work. After tracing the story's origins from folk tradition—with its emphasis on the conflict between an aging father (Antiochus) and a young suitor (Pericles)—Thorne explains how the vital forces of youth and fecundity, represented by Pericles and especially his child Marina, are arrayed against those of age and barrenness, symbolized in the unnatural union of Antiochus and his daughter. Providing another interpretation of the metaphorical dimension of incest in Pericles, Anthony J. Lewis (1988) highlights the analogy between sexuality and eating in the drama, exploring the link between incest and cannibalism: incest as a consumption of the mother. In response to this problem of unnatural and destructive behavior within a family, Lewis observes, Shakespeare offered the sustainable and nurturing relationship between parent and child embodied by Pericles and Marina. By the late twentieth century the orthodox view of Pericles tended to highlight the shock value associated with the early discovery of Antiochus's incest, and to the see the remaining movement of the play as an effort to counter this horror and achieve a reconciliation. Representing this position, Alexander Leggatt (1991) acknowledges that while the drama is episodic and structurally incoherent in parts, it demonstrates a complex and sustained treatment of the incest theme, which exists as an organizing principle and grants an aesthetic unity to the work. In addition to Pericles, critics note that other late Shakespearean romances, including Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, feature the subject of incest as a significant structural element. In his study of Cymbeline, R. E. Gajdusek's (1974) focuses on the triad of Cymbeline, his daughter Imogen, and his stepson Cloten, Cymbeline's preferred suitor for Imogen. Throughout, Gajdusek contends, the numerous potential incest threats, most of which align in the figure of Cloten, are avoided as Imogen successfully marries another, and the drama steers a path toward redemption.
Turning to Shakespearean tragedy, several contemporary critics have confronted the compelling display of incestuous desire and its ruinous consequences in Hamlet and King Lear. For Jason P. Rosenblatt (1978), Prince Hamlet's charges of incest against his mother, Gertrude, who chooses to marry Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, shortly after her husband's death, provides a focal point to the drama. Eschewing the standard, Freudian interpretation of the problem, which generally glosses the situation in terms of Hamlet's repressed Oedipal desires, Rosenblatt provides a theological evaluation of the dilemma. By offering Scriptural evidence concerning unions between widows and the brothers of the deceased, which were traditionally considered viable only in cases without heirs or issue—a fact contradicted by the existence of Hamlet—Rosenblatt presents a justification for the prince's antipathy toward Claudius and his mother as perpetrators of incest. With regard to an entirely different and unspoken form of incest, Mark J. Blechner (1988) presents a psychoanalytic understanding of King Lear, viewing the play as a tragedy between a father and daughter. Prompted by Cordelia's refusal to publicly announce her love for him above all others, Lear quickly descends into a rage as his long-repressed desire for his youngest child is defied, according to Blechner, leading to the ultimate destruction of father and daughter alike.