(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Richard A. McCabe (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: McCabe, Richard A. “Shakespeare.” In Incest, Drama and Nature's Law, 1550-1700, pp. 156-90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, McCabe surveys Shakespeare's subtle and varied use of the incest motif in his histories, tragedies, and romances.]


‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments’: the nobility of the sentiment survives the bitterness of its context, conjuring up visions of spiritual union transcending all the fleshly ‘impediments’ prevalent throughout the Shakespearean canon. In Much Ado About Nothing the Friar warns Hero and Claudio...

(The entire section is 16566 words.)

Jane M. Ford (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Ford, Jane M. “The Triangle in William Shakespeare.” In Patriarchy and Incest from Shakespeare to Joyce, pp. 36-53. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Ford explores Shakespeare's resolution of the father-daughter incest threat in a number of his plays, particularly King Lear, Pericles, and The Tempest.]

Thou simular of virtue/
That art incestuous.

William Shakespeare, King Lear

Although variations on the father/daughter theme are central to at least twenty-one of Shakespeare's plays (Boose 1982, 325), the focus here is on four of the plays that illustrate basic patterns...

(The entire section is 7211 words.)

W. B. Thorne (essay date 1971)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Thorne, W. B. “Pericles and the ‘Incest-Fertility’ Opposition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (winter 1971): 43-56.

[In the following essay, Thorne offers an analysis of Pericles as representative of Shakespeare's “late plays of reconciliation,” arguing that the drama's central principle of fertility is structurally counterpointed by the incest motif.]

Though a comprehensive analysis of Pericles must be advanced only tentatively, because of the critical doubt about Shakespeare's share in its creation, its thematic structure seems not unlike that of the bulk of Shakespearian comedies. In fact, it presents a sophistication of...

(The entire section is 7450 words.)

R. E. Gajdusek (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gajdusek, R. E. “Death, Incest, and the Triple Bond in the Later Plays of Shakespeare.” American Imago 31, no. 2 (summer 1974): 109-58.

[In the following excerpt, Gajdusek traces the multiple incest threats and their symbolic implications in Cymbeline.]

Cymbeline, the succeeding play [to Pericles], is … fundamentally concerned with incest. Posthumus' father had died before his son's birth, his mother while in birth labor, and from the first moments of life their son has been raised as though he were the son of Cymbeline beside Cymbeline's own daughter, Imogen. He is therefore, if not by blood, then by breeding, brother to Imogen. Attacked by...

(The entire section is 4827 words.)

Anthony J. Lewis (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lewis, Anthony J. “‘I Feed on Mother's Flesh’: Incest and Eating in Pericles.Essays in Literature 15, no. 2 (fall 1988): 147-63.

[In the following essay, Lewis probes the metaphorical link between incest and the cannibalistic devouring of kin in the thematic contexts of Pericles.]

The problems which have, historically, plagued critics of Pericles stem not so much from its doubtful origins—its exclusion from the First Folio and the attendant questions of authorship—as from the sense that the play is, finally, meaningless. For Ben Jonson Pericles was “a mouldy tale,”1 all the more exasperating for its considerable...

(The entire section is 8876 words.)

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Leggatt, Alexander. “The Shadow of Antioch: Sexuality in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” In Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama, 1580-1680, edited by Louise and Peter Fothergill-Payne, pp. 167-79. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Leggatt considers Shakespeare's inspired treatment of sexual themes in the otherwise episodic and somewhat incoherent drama Pericles, with particular emphasis on the incestuous relationship of Antiochus and his daughter.]

When incest appears in Jacobean drama it is generally treated as a fundamental violation of nature, a criminal passion that horrifies even those who are...

(The entire section is 5285 words.)

Jason P. Rosenblatt (essay date 1978)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenblatt, Jason P. “Aspects of the Incest Problem in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 3 (summer 1978): 349-64.

[In the following essay, Rosenblatt presents a theological interpretation of Hamlet's accusations of incest against his mother and uncle in Hamlet, and also stresses the symbolic connotations of incest as a metaphor for political and religious corruption in the drama.]

The more or less current status of some non-theological interpretations of the incest prohibition in Hamlet attests to the ingenuity with which guilt can be assigned. Sophisticated ethical systems are always interesting, and critical emphasis has shifted...

(The entire section is 8605 words.)

Mark J. Blechner (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Blechner, Mark J. “King Lear, King Leir, and Incest Wishes.” American Imago 45, no. 3 (fall 1988): 309-25.

[In the following essay, Blechner contends that King Lear is “a love-tragedy between father and daughter,” and provides a psychoanalytic appraisal of the play as it dramatizes the consequences of Lear's long suppressed incestuous passion for Cordelia.]

Shakespeare's King Lear is often thought to be one of his most beautiful but most problematic plays. For nearly four centuries, literary artists and critics have agonized over the work, puzzled by its seeming irrationality and its loose dramatic structure. The poetry in the play is...

(The entire section is 6131 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Asp, Carolyn. “‘The Clamor of Eros’: Freud, Aging, and King Lear.” In Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, edited by Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz, pp. 192-204. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Observes Lear's “latently incestuous” passion for his daughter within a Freudian psychoanalytic study of King Lear.

Barber, C. L. and Richard P. Wheeler. “‘The Masked Neptune and / The Gentlest Winds of Heaven’: Pericles and the Transition from Tragedy to Romance.” In The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, pp. 298-342. Berkeley: University of...

(The entire section is 790 words.)