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W. B. Thorne (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7450

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 fertility and spring themes which supply the dramatic impulse in The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The basic difference between Pericles (indeed all the late plays of reconciliation) and the earlier comedies is that the dramatic moment of Pericles deals not only with individuals and the fertility theme, as applied to the struggle between the young and the old, but also to whole lifetimes, to generations, and to the effect of the principle of fertility upon the entire life of each man.

Unlike a representative tragedy, which is frequently the history of a single individual, the late plays of reconciliation treat, as Janet Spens points out, “of the story of a group of people, usually a family and always consisting of two generations.”1 In Pericles, for instance, the action covers the space of about sixteen years, and in The Winter's Tale Leontes and Hermione undergo sixteen years of ritual penance. Though the basic device of the comedies had always been the conflict between the old and young generations, the factor which differentiates the approach of the late comedies from that of the early ones, for instance The Taming of the Shrew, is that the device of the personification of polar impulses is adapted to the life of a single individual, to both his youth and his age, and is extended to his posterity. Though we first see him in the springtime of his youth, Pericles, like Lear, suffers a bitter winter of separation, not only from his child, but also from his wife and all that is dear to him. As the play unfolds, we have the feeling that the human story is being enacted before us, with the scapegoat, his suffering, and all the paraphernalia traditionally effective in cleansing society of its evil. What is born in Marina, as M. D. H. Parker explains, like what is to be born in Perdita, Miranda, and Cymbeline's lost sons, is a new humanity, “from which redemption flows back to the old.”2 This plot situation represents a sophistication of the basic comic device of the antipathy between the young and the old, and the device of the flippant young suitor who outwits the kill-joys and the representatives of “age” and “society”. It casts this alloy into a new mold, purifying it, to a large extent, of the grosser comic elements and consciously forming it into a new dramatic construct. The associations of the traditional suitor and his efforts to triumph over rivals and the maiden's father contribute accretions of meaning impossible without a knowledge of the play's dramatic predecessors among the folk. E. M. W. Tillyard says of these plays of reconciliation, in Shakespeare's Last Plays:

We find in each the same general scheme of prosperity, destruction, and recreation. The main character is a King. At the beginning he is in prosperity. He then does an evil or misguided deed. Great suffering follows, but during this suffering or at its height...

(This entire section contains 7450 words.)

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the seeds of something new to issue from it are germinating, usually in secret. In the end this new element assimilates and transforms the old evil. The King overcomes his evil instincts, joins himself to the new order by an act of forgiveness or repentance; and the play issues into a fairer prosperity than had first existed.3

The concept of the lost child, wife, or husband is, of course, not new to the Shakespearian canon, nor to Shakespearian comedy, for it had appeared as early as The Comedy of Errors, and is thematic in As You Like It. Consequently, Pericles seems constructed upon a familiar foundation, though disguised with apparently unfamiliar friezes and frescoes. Critical opinion is at last recognizing that the same ideas, preoccupations, situations, devices, and themes inform Shakespeare's comedies from the very earliest to the latest.4 This view is directly opposite to the traditional opinion that Shakespeare began with satirical comedies of a classical pattern, turned for pragmatic reasons to romantic comedies, then, as his outlook darkened, created the “dark” comedies, forerunners of the great tragedies, and, then, in the mellowed “sear, the yellow leaf” of old age, resolved his bitterness in the artistic patterns of reconciliation in the late comedies. The modern view now recognizes that Shakespeare manipulated a limited number of dramatic devices and themes, many of them borrowed directly from the native drama, though he consistently gave to them a fresh “local habitation and a name.” Even the use of Gower as prologue or presenter is a device, similar to that of the folk-drama, which acts like the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew to give the flavor of ritual or a morality play to Pericles. Gower's speeches punctuate the action, and his opening remarks emphasize the fertility imagery and the ritualistic nature of the play to follow, its educational or beneficial effect upon the audience. Pericles, moreover, is a “festival tale” presented for the good and welfare of the community, and Gower indicates in the first Chorus that:

It hath been sung at festivals
On ember eves and holy-ales,
And lords and ladies in their lives
Have read it for restoratives.
The purchase is to make men glorious:. …

(I, Chorus, 5-9)

F. D. Hoeniger suggests, in the critical commentary appended to the Arden edition of Pericles, that “Gower is employed in a manner quite unlike that of the chorus of Greek or Senecan tragedy. The ultimate origins of this device are rather to be looked for in mediaeval religious drama.”5 He also argues that, like the Chorus of Henry V, Gower acts as both prologue and epilogue, appears on the stage before each act, influences the imaginative processes of the minds of the spectators, and, finally, is both presenter and, to some degree, interpreter. Hoeniger's conclusions concerning the nature of the play are of more than common interest to the present discussion, for he is convinced that Pericles is so significantly indebted to folk-drama that not only its story-material and its presenting chorus, but also its essential dramatic form, are medieval in nature and influence. The evidence is so clear, he feels (p. xviii), that Shakespeare may have known a folk-lore version of the tale which is now lost to us. Seeing Pericles primarily as a Shakespearian miracle play, he explains (p. lxxxviii) that:

The play is curiously, and I think significantly, like the vernacular religious drama in its later, more developed, and less rigid, forms, especially the Saint's play. One could argue that from plays of this kind, with which Shakespeare was surely acquainted, most of the broad structural features of Pericles are derived. They are at any rate paralleled; among them the device of the choric presenter in the person of a poet, the building up of the action out of a large number of loosely related episodes, the treatment of the play as a “pageant” rather than a work of highly concentrated action around a central conflict, the tragicomic development of the action, the large part taken in it by supernatural powers, and the construction of the whole so as to serve an explicit didactic end.

Richard Wincor, in his article “Shakespeare's Festival Plays”, suggests that “Shakespeare's last plays may best be understood by comparing them to the old festival plays that celebrate the return of spring after a barren winter.”6 He was not, of course, aware in 1950 that fertility themes had, all along, supplied the structural and thematic framework of the bulk of Shakespearian comedy. Independent of other analysis upon the festival themes of the early comedies, he postulates that the most important of the rites associated with the traditional folk-drama is the mock death and cure, frequently administered by a doctor or venerable medicine-man who through sympathetic magic encourages the operation of nature (p. 221). Echoing ideas advanced as early as 1916 by Janet Spens, he suggests that Shakespeare's late comedies seem to be indebted to this old pattern of the mock death and the renouveau, which have so many subtle affiliations with primitive fertility ritual. In Pericles, Thaisa, Marina, and Pericles himself undergo a form of mock death, a device which Shakespeare has already experimented with in Much Ado About Nothing. Marina's release from the brothel where pirates placed her is regenerating, like a renouveau, as is her effect upon the sorrowing King, who awakens to her celestial music and later is able to hear the music of the spheres.

Wincor also suggests that Pericles begins with an interesting example of nature veneration, a corollary to the fertility theme. By committing incest with his daughter, Antiochus offends the very foundation of nature herself, for his is an evil and barren union. So “unnatural” is this union that father and daughter are eventually destroyed by avenging gods. The relationship in the brothel which Marina escapes is equally an offense against the principles of nature, for in it the vital spirit of life is wasted without reciprocating spirituality. As an ironic counterpart to the temple of Diana, in which Thaisa is voluntarily immured, the brothel serves as a setting to magnify the rich jewel of Marina's purity and virtue. Her healing presence, however, affects not only Pericles, but also those who frequent the brothel, and the pander himself. Thus, focussed in this symbol and the brothel scenes in general is the familiar polar dramatic construction and the reversal of opposites which it can afford.

John Arthos, in his article “Pericles, Prince of Tyre: A Study in the Dramatic Use of Romantic Narrative”, argues that other devices used in the play are also interestingly close to folk-lore.7 The device of a man who must solve a riddle in order to win a desirable young “virgin” has its parallel in folk-legend, and Shakespeare certainly uses the device again in The Tempest, when Ferdinand is forced to fulfil an irksome task to win Miranda. He has already used the device in The Merchant of Venice and the early comedies, but in them, of course, it is in another form. It occurs in the early comedies whenever a self-possessed, flippant young man must use a clever device or subterfuge to outwit a rival, a father, or a husband in order to win the maiden.

For Pericles, however, the traditional folk opposition of the old father and the young suitor has been modified to accommodate the incestuous daughter-father relationship. Essentially, the same situation is present as that supplying the comic structure of The Taming of the Shrew or The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Pericles is endeavoring to win from the father, Antiochus (who opposes the match), his young, desirable, supposedly-virgin daughter. The traditional situation is complicated by the fact that it is merged with the rivalry between the old and young suitors, also reflected in The Taming of the Shrew. Antiochus, the old father, is also an “old suitor”, and will risk all to prevent a desirable young man from carrying his daughter away. It might be argued, of course, that this motive is always in the psychological background of the father-suitor rivalry, and touches upon a basic emotional reaction, unavoidable in such human relationships. But this argument seems merely to reinforce the “folk nature” of the device.

The “incest” motif, as we see later, destroys for Pericles the value of that which he sought and hoped to win, and serves to blight his life until the rediscovery of his wife and daughter at the end of the play. The critical consequences that each adventure has for the young suitor's soul serve to ally the action with that of morality plays with a folk background and to bring to the forefront of our attention the question of Pericles' ability to survive the evils with which he is confronted. He is not in control of his fortunes; rather he endures them, and at the end of the play, when he is soothed by the beauty of Marina's song, he seems restored to life, much as is Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and he hears the music of the spheres.

The opening of the play seems deliberately deceptive. The audience's interest is captured by the romantic device of the suitor who endeavors to win an attractive young woman away from some representative of age, who seeks to keep her by placing almost insurmountable obstacles in the path of suitors. Almost immediately, Antiochus' daughter enters, appareled like a pageant personification of Spring, and appears a dazzling beauty, the epitome of virtue and honor:

                                        See where she comes, apparel'd like the spring.
Graces her subjects, and her thoughts the king
Of every virtue gives renown to men!

(I. i. 13-15)

“All that glisters is not gold”, alas, and soon we learn that she who seemed to be a representative of fertility, like the other women in the comedies, is really a representative of age and winter, because, through her incestuous relationship with her father, she confounds the seasons and offends the very laws of nature. Pericles' suit for her hand seems to be a momentary plunge into the unnatural, a plunge into sin and death, and he seems to feel guilt when he realizes the meaning of his brush with death, for he had been willing to sacrifice life itself, only to win a tainted prize. Like Hamlet, he recognizes the danger in plumbing to the depths of the soul of a King, and he is uncertain how much of the “offence” is his own. Though the play does not on the surface discuss the extent of his involvement in the sin of Antiochus, the following action indicates that Pericles has been “tainted” by the incest with a stain which he must eradicate through his own behavior.8 His necessary penance seems to follow the principle of misrule, which assumes that a plunge into “disorder” will eventually produce a new and more precious “order”.

At any rate, Pericles becomes a “scapegoat” figure, the King who must sacrifice himself for the welfare of his people. To divert the hand of vengeance and prevent it from striking at the innocent lives of his subjects, he sets out on a sea-journey, almost as an Everyman on a mission of penance, and relieves the sufferings of other peoples. His first action after taking leave of Tyre is one of charity: he seems to journey deliberately to Tarsus so as to relieve its sufferings from famine. Morality themes and devices become quite recognizable, as Pericles labors to erase the stain upon him, the result of tampering with rotten fruit. In a similar vein, G. Wilson Knight suggests that at this point the action seems to be “a little morality drama on the theme of good works and indeed recalls the parable of the ungrateful man in the New Testament; for, after being let off by Providence functioning through Pericles' charity, Cleon and Dionyza are to prove criminally ungrateful.”9

Pericles' first adventure in the court of Antiochus gives him experience of disillusion and a realization of evil. His perilous life-journey is rather reminiscent of the plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the ritual paraphernalia of the test, temptation, the journey, and penance. Both characters are faced by sexual evil, and both are to some extent tainted by it; furthermore, in both, the concept of spring and fertility plays an important role and provides to a degree the resolution. At least the play presents a cyclical representation of life and time, for it dramatizes a substantial summary of an individual's lifetime, a life cycle crowned by the abiding values of human generation, of forgiveness, charity, and spiritual renaissance. In it we find transmuted the values of fertility and springtime, in affirmation of the operation of the seasonal cycle in the spiritual life of mankind.

The great themes of the last plays are transmitted, it seems, in the familiar framework of the earlier comedies, through the manipulation of devices already well tried and tested on the boards. On the principle of the dramatic polarities of the early comedies, Pericles is organized in two contrasted parts, much in the fashion of the traditional opposition of winter and summer; it opens with the wintry bitterness of incest, tempest, shipwreck, loss and penance, after which it presents “spring festivity, youth and love, reunion and music”,10 a pattern to be repeated in The Winter's Tale. The seasonal concept is mirrored not only in the divisional structure of the action, but also in the life history of the main characters. Birth and regeneration round out the familiar concepts of repentance and penance, and pageant figures personify youth and age and the spiritual regeneration which assures that “death shall have no dominion”.

The play begins with a striking contrast between the barrenness of death in the riddle scene and the spring imagery used to describe the daughter of Antiochus. The opening scene sets up immediately the pageant opposition between life and death, summer and winter, as Pericles stands amidst the death's heads of previous suitors, “deathlike dragons”, which warn him that

Before thee stands this fair Hesperides,
With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touched;. …

(I. i. 27-28)

This situation has its ironic counterpart later in the play when the truly innocent and virtuous Marina is displayed amidst the setting of the brothel, with all its implications of infertility. Because the incestuous daughter is described as a personification of spring, a garden bearing luscious fruit, and nature's darling, “clothed like a bride”, we are quite likely to assume that she is to be the representation of fertility in the play. But we are mistaken, of course, and soon learn that the “glorious casket” is “stored with ill”. This clear opposition with which the play opens is but the first of a series of symbolic confrontations of the principle of death, age, and winter with the principle of life, youth, and spring. Pericles is daring death in a false cause, for which he is to pay a severe penalty, though at the outset he deems even “death no hazard in this enterprise.” The temptation to taste that for which he is not prepared is made quite clear in Antiochus' speech:

Her face, like Heaven, enticeth thee to view
Her countless glory, which desert must gain,
And which, without desert, because thine eye
Presumes to reach, all thy whole heap must die.

(I. i. 30-33)

Like Leontes, Pericles is to lose both wife and child and suffer a bitter winter of penance. In fact, as Knight suggests in The Crown of Life (p. 14),

The stories of Pericles and The Winter's Tale are remarkably alike. In both the hero loses his wife and daughter just after the birth of his child; in both the idea of a child's helplessness is synchronized with a sea-storm of the usual Shakespearian kind; both the wife and child are miraculously restored after a long passage of time; and the revival of Thaisa, and the restoration of Marina and Hermione are accompanied by music. These plays are throughout impregnated by an atmosphere of mysticism. Hermione is restored to Leontes in a “chapel” to the sound of music, Thaisa to Pericles in the temple of Diana, with the full circumstance of religious ceremonial.

In these plays, Shakespeare is also dealing with similar themes, one of which is a mystical recognition of a force of life that conquers death. Opposed to the principle of spring in life (love, marriage, birth) is the tempest force, focussed in the storm that parts Pericles from Thaisa, and dissipated in the passions of Antiochus, Cleon and Dionyza, the pirates, and the bawds.

Though he seems “innocent” in the opening lines of the play, Pericles' plea to the gods

That have inflamed desire in my breast
To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree
Or die in the adventure

(I. i. 20-22)

indicates that he has been tainted by an unhealthy desire, and that even his proximity to the incestuous evil has infected him. The associations with the tampering with forbidden fruit are strong in the context of this passage and cling tenaciously to the device of the “test”. They are, moreover, reinforced by the animal imagery, which likens Antiochus and his daughter to vipers and serpents and supports the connotations of the tempter and the breeding poison. Pericles is about to be tested by life, and because of his faults he is required to spend a winter of penance, like Berowne, to render himself worthy of his wife and child. Unlike the “martyrs, slain in Cupid's wars”, Pericles gains from his experience:

Antiochus, I thank thee, who hath taught
My frail mortality to know itself
And by those fearful objects to prepare
This body, like to them, to what I must;. …

(I. i. 41-44)

As a corollary to this theme of “initiation” or “experience”, the opening scene describes Pericles as a combatant, a novice preparing for the test:

Like a bold champion I assume the lists,
Nor ask advice of any other thought
But faithfulness and courage.

(I. i. 61-63)

He prepares himself with qualities of the heart and soul, only to discover “what our seemers be.” Knowing finally that there is sin within, he wisely will not touch the gate, and determines to flee the danger of Antiochus' sin and guilt.

Scene two presents an entirely different Pericles from the one who flouted danger in the cause of love. His life is blighted by self-torment, by the danger of Antiochus' fear, and by his threat to the safety and peace of the people of Tyre. His own speech, in which he likens himself, as King, to the “tops of trees Which fence the roots they grow by and defend them” (I. ii. 31-32), begins the association of Pericles with the concept of the scapegoat and the noble figure who takes upon himself the dangers and sins of his community. To stop the tempest-force of Antiochus' evil before it lays to wrack and ruin his kingdom, Pericles determines to flee and thereby divert the hand of vengeance. As Thaliard explains to his countrymen, Pericles puts “himself unto the shipman's toil, With whom each minute threatens life or death” (I. iii. 24-25). By this he means that Pericles, supposedly fearing that he had committed some error or offense, punishes himself to show his sorrow by submitting himself to the perils of a sea voyage. This explanation carries the play to the brink of the penance inflicted upon Berowne by Rosaline in Love's Labour's Lost. The ritual penance imposed upon Berowne, however, occurs after the play is through; in Pericles,Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale we see a record of the penance itself and its miraculous result.

The scenes in Tarsus repeat the “appearance-reality” theme begun in the opening of the play and reinforce the idea of the effect of fortune upon human life. Just as Tarsus had experienced an unexpected fall from good fortune, so Pericles is further battered upon life's seas and cast ashore without retainers or “pelf”. The fishermen-clowns, whom he encounters soon after, prove his benefactors and supply him with knightly accoutrements to enable him to compete for the hand of yet another desirable young maiden and enter in the tourney for her love, clothed in garments from the sea. This combat, like its symbolic counterparts in the earlier comedies, is to eventuate in happiness and fertility, for it represents a foil to the evil of the Riddle Scene. The description given Thaisa by her father parallels that of the daughter of Antiochus, though it lacks, of course, the irony of the first. The triumph of the “mean” knight in the Tournament scene proves the moral given voice by the good Simonides: “Opinion's but a fool that makes us scan The outward habit by the inward man” (II. ii. 56-57).

The Banquet scene following upon Pericles' victory presents Thaisa as “queen o' the feast”, and Simonides as the image of Pericles' dead father, of whom he says, “None that beheld him but, like lesser lights, Did vail their crowns to his supremacy” (II. iii. 41-42). Thus both Simonides and Thaisa act as ideal foils to the pernicious evil of Antiochus and his daughter, whose act has offended great creating Nature herself. This system of parallels supports the divisional structure of the entire play, constructed loosely upon a system of winter-summer oppositions which readily lend themselves to a discussion of the fluctuation of fortune, and themes of repentance, reconciliation, and regeneration.

The device of the decision by Thaisa to refuse marriage for a twelve-month is reminiscent of the position taken by the Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost:

One twelve moons more she'll wear Diana's livery.
This by the eye of Cynthia hath she vowed,
And on her virgin honor will not break it.

(II. v. 10-12)

Reported by Simonides, this unexpected development, a temporary frustration of the audience's hopes for a romance between Thaisa and Pericles, represents a deliberate distortion of the typical plot situation used by Shakespeare in the earlier comedies. It is true that, in this case, the woman is closed to all “resort”, but this time it is voluntary on her part, and the young man involved seems not to care. In Pericles, this familiar device is used as a subterfuge to dismiss the other suitors and to pave the way for a match between Pericles and Thaisa. For his own purposes, the King plays a temporary representative of winter, a kill-joy, who, like Brabantio in his hysterical denunciation of Othello's unnatural influence upon his daughter, cries, “Thou has bewitched my daughter, and thou art a villain.” For a time, he plays the irate father who wishes to conserve his “consent” and bestow his daughter upon another. Like Prospero, Simonides keeps up a pretence of aged harshness, accusing Pericles, as Prospero accuses Ferdinand, of treachery,11 and put Pericles through the motions of the conventional romance love-trial.

Act Two culminates in the happiness of marriage, and the association of the marriage-feast, midnight, and the sleeping house (telescoped as the description is into the opening choric speech of Gower in Act Three) reminds one of the last scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Puck's invocation of the blessing of the fertility spirits. Act Three commences with the fertility theme of the conception of a child, Pericles is discovered to be a king in his own right, and he and his “Queen with child” set sail for Tyre. The first scene of this act bursts dramatically upon the audience with the menacing force of a tempest oppressing a woman laboring in childbirth, and eventually presents the husband and wife, overcome by their mutual loss, giving themselves over to a kind of ritual death and asceticism.12

The “sea-tossed Pericles” once more has cause to lament the cruelty of fortune which results in the apparent death of his wife in her travail. The “fresh new seafarer”, his daughter Marina, has, as Pericles exclaims, “as chiding a nativity As fire, air, water, earth and heaven can make” (III. i. 32-33). The device of carrying out death is reflected in the seamen's superstition, which requires that the corpse of Thaisa be despatched from the ship immediately upon her supposed death. When Cerimon, the magical medicine man, commands that Thaisa's coffin, fresh from the sea, be opened, he discerns life and uses his skill to awaken her, for “Death may usurp on nature many hours, And yet the fire of life kindle again The o'erpressed spirits” (III. ii. 82-84). To music, a familiar effect in Shakespeare, the “corse” stirs to life and “'gins to blow Into life's flower again” (III. ii. 95-96). As Knight explains in The Crown of Life (p. 51), music is used regularly in Shakespeare as the antagonist to tempests and to winter. It is used in the court of Simonides and again by Marina to give spiritual rebirth to her actual father.

This mock death of Thaisa, like that of Hero and Hermione, provides the “activating circumstance”, as students of the novel would have it, of the penance necessary for regeneration and rebirth. In most of the examples of mock death and revival in Shakespeare, the emphasis is definitely not upon the character undergoing the death; rather it is usually on one of the other characters who is most affected by it. It is really no more than a means to an end, both structurally and thematically, in the drama as a whole. The mock death and revival of Hermione and Imogen is sufficient indication of this fact. The ritual penance later adopted by Pericles also compares to that in Love's Labour's Lost. Upon landing at Tarsus, Pericles swears an oath to let his beard grow in sorrow and penance until his new daughter, Marina, be of age and married. Thaisa, too, in Ephesus swears eternal chastity and takes on a “vestal livery” to live out her days in a temple of Diana, the goddess of chastity. This device is also to be seen in Much Ado About Nothing and in The Winter's Tale, in which Hermione accepts voluntary celibacy almost as a rite of purification until the Oracle is fulfilled. This ritual isolation has a folk flavor to it which reminds one of fairy tales and moralities. As T. W. Craik elucidates in The Tudor Interlude, “Repentance and regeneration, which is a principal theme of most early moral-interludes, is often accompanied by a change to a more sober costume.”13 Moreover, a white sheet was often worn by public penitents.

In Act Four the death of Lychorida, the old maid, wrings grief-stricken words from Marina, now grown, who exclaims tearfully:

The purple violets, and marigolds,
Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave
While summer days do last. Aye me! Poor maid,
Born in a tempest when my mother died.
This world to me is like a lasting storm,
Whirring me from my friends.

(IV. i. 16-21)

The association of flowers with Marina is designed to oppose the tempest and winter imagery, which, as she acknowledges in the above speech, seems to be her motif and the guiding force of her life. The tempest imagery, however, increases in symbolic force in this scene, as Marina describes her grief and the hour of her birth to Leonine, the murderer.

In scene two, Marina reaches the nadir of her sufferings. The Brothel Scenes represent an ironic counterpart to the fertility imagery so usual in Shakespearian comedy. Like the incest theme, they represent sexuality perverted and barren, and in them Marina opposes anti-fertility, though, like her mother, she is still a daughter of Diana, and, therefore, committed to chastity. There is a curious ambivalence to the concept of chastity in Shakespeare. In the comedies it is treated for all the world as a latent fertility, pure and unsullied and waiting for fulfillment. As lovely as the daughter of Antiochus, Marina's beauty appears at first to be her downfall, and she regrets it. However, in these scenes, the power of sweet innocence and virtue is strongly asserted, and Marina becomes an instrument of the forces of fertility, with beneficial healing powers. Learning the report of Marina's death, Pericles again accepts a ritual death and imposes upon himself further penance of sackcloth. At this point, the concept of winter opposed to spring is mirrored in Dionyza's inscription on Marina's tomb:

The fairest, sweet'st and best, lies here,
Who withered in her spring of year.
She was of Tyrus the King's daughter,
On whom foul death hath made this slaughter.
Marina was she called; and at her birth,
Thetis, being proud, swallowed some part o' the earth.
Therefore the earth, fearing to be o'erflowed,
Hath Thetis' birth-child on the Heavens bestowed;. …

(IV. iv. 34-41)

Trapped in her “unholy service” in the brothel, Marina is a representative of spring and fertility who heals false sexuality and guides it in healthful directions. She, with her needle, imitates nature in all its fecundity, and dances “As goddesslike to her admired lays.”14 The holiness and mystic force of her goodness transcend the taint of her surroundings, and she emerges untouched by the rottenness, the evil which abounds there. Unlike Pericles, she is not involved in the “offence”, and the upward movement of her fortunes begins when she leaves the brothel to teach her arts to others. Pericles, lost and appearing quite by accident at the appropriate moment, arrives in Mytilene during the annual feast of King Neptune. The sable banners of his ship draw Lysimachus, the governor of Mytilene, only to learn that Pericles exists in a form of ritual death, speaking to no one, aware of no one, and miraculously existing on very little food. The ship itself is presented as funereal, and Pericles is displayed like a corpse, affected by an unnatural lethargy. At this sight, Lysimachus offers the arts and skills of Marina to effect a cure of the suffering King:

She, questionless, with her sweet harmony
And other chosen attractions, would allure,
And make a battery through his deafened parts,
Which are now midway stopped.

(V. i. 45-48)

Marina's song and speech shatter the death-like sleep of Pericles, and the scene presents her as a spiritual Cerimon, as she, with “sacred physic”, the skills and arts of Nature herself, attempts to bring about Pericles' recovery. In her symbolic relationship to her father, she stands very much like Perdita, who similarly gives “physic” to the nation. She presents something of a riddle to Pericles, a riddle which he must answer to receive his spiritual renaissance. In reply to his question whether she is of the shores of Mytilene, Marina replies in terms of a riddle:

                                                            No, nor of any shores,
Yet I was mortally brought forth, and am
No other than I appear.

(V. i. 104-106)

Pericles conceives her tale to be in the nature of a dream and cannot believe his senses. When she discovers to him the truth of her parentage, Pericles exclaims

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.—Oh, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget;. …

(V. i. 192-97—my italics)

This exclamation begins the very real evidences in the play that Shakespeare intended his audience to regard Pericles' behavior as that of one who has been truly reborn. He springs up, crying, “Give me fresh garments”, and throws off the garments and pose of a penitent.15 His joy and exuberance seem reminiscent of the traditional behavior of the mummers (even of Bottom) who leap up reinvigorated after a mock death.

Thus with this scene, the ritual of renewal replaces the ritual of death, and ritual asceticism gives way to the marriage festival. The last scene records the reuniting of those who had been parted. In the temple of Diana at Ephesus, Pericles, obeying his vision of the goddess herself, tells the tale of “a tempest, A birth, and death” (V. iii. 33-34). After recognizing his wife, he exclaims,

This, this. No more, you gods! Your present kindness
Makes my past miseries sports.

(V. iii. 40-41)

The play ends with Pericles removing all symbols of his past penance and grief and ordering the marriage festivities of Marina and Lysimachus. As in Love's Labour's Lost, after the death of old Simonides, Pericles and Thaisa take his place and determine to spend their “following” days in that kingdom, while Marina and Lysimachus rule in Tyre.

The action has now come full circle. The tempest which carried Pericles first to Pentapolis later parts him from his wife. The child who is born at sea is later returned to her father again at sea. The first misfortune of Pericles, his shipwreck on the shores of Pentapolis, was dispelled by music and marriage festivities, and his second misfortune, the loss of wife and child, is similarly dispelled, and his winter of grief and suffering begins and ends with a riddle. The penance has wrought its effects, and the main characters are in a sense reborn, having experienced a sort of spiritual renaissance which overcomes and transcends all past evil.

The use of a happy ending to a serious purpose in Pericles is not new: the earlier comedies, more serious works than is sometimes recognized, present, as Knight points out, stories of “error dispelled, mistaken identity set right, reunion after separation”,16 and they frequently show strong morality endings, as in The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Examination of both the early and the late comedies indicates beyond the shadow of a doubt that the basis of the folk concepts found in Shakespearian comedy is completely serious. The late comedies especially participate in a view of life that assumes the principle of fertility and sexuality to be the controlling power of the universe, and the battle which it wages yearly with the antagonistic principle to be crucial to the continued operation of Nature herself. Certainly, the religious nature of the reunion in the temple of Diana serves to focus the ambivalence of the Diana-chastity-fertility imagery and completes a system of winter-summer, penance-regeneration concepts which animates Pericles. Though the operation of these folk concepts is very general in Pericles, they are present and do afford a good introduction to their clearer operation in Cymbeline,The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.

In Pericles and the other late plays of reconciliation, there is a curious shift of emphasis from the young to the old, though the traditional structural polarity of the folk oppositions and the rebellion of the young against their elders and the dictates of society are retained. The late plays represent, therefore, a sophisticated extension of the themes and devices of the early plays, not a venture into the unknown, as has so often been argued, and they place their emphasis, not upon the joyous and successful rebellion of young lovers but upon the ritual significance of the King, the central character, whose figure symbolizes the health and well-being of his whole kingdom. The corollary in the late comedies to the early comedies' view of the necessary regenerative qualities of love and springtime in youth is the concept of the King as scapegoat, as King of the Waste Land, who must bear a sterile period in his life which will be ultimately beneficial to his kingdom. Pericles, Leontes, and Cymbeline suffer a bitter winter of separation from all that is humanly dear to them; they experience a penance which has considerable effect upon their communities, Pericles especially acting as the kingly scapegoat for his subjects. The focus of these late plays is, therefore, not only upon the effect of love upon young lovers but also upon the effect of the young and their love upon the entire continuum of life, so that the whole community benefits from the action dramatized.

This change in the late plays, so frequently assumed to be the result of a tired and bored dramatist toying with the themes which had engrossed him in his youth, seems rather to be a deliberate artistic shift in emphasis, an extension of the searching beam of the dramatist's world vision, and not a metamorphosis or a development of a radically new method or style. Previously, in the early comedies, the focal point of interest had been in the young and the social reconciliation which they make with their society, after they have had their brief fling of romantic misrule. In the later plays, even as early as As You Like It, Shakespeare extends the field of interest to embrace the older generation, which had formerly occupied a more or less flat role, stereotyped and virtually unchanging. In doing so, he retains the familiar situations of the early comedies, so that the comparisons between them and the late plays may be virtually endless.

Whereas the early plays had illustrated the vital forces of life acting upon the young and invigorating them with all that is admirable in human life, the late plays repudiate the romantic notion that this phenomenon is limited only to the young, and display its operation in both generations, bringing both towards a central reconciliation, a personal, as well as a social one. To achieve this end, Pericles and The Winter's Tale dramatize not only the youth but also the maturity of the central character, the King who must play a symbolic role in the archetypal struggle between the forces of winter and summer in the life of his kingdom. Cymbeline and The Tempest, on the other hand, compress the time span and present the youth of Cymbeline and Prospero only by simple exposition, a device which serves to shift the pendulum slightly back, towards the focus upon the young in the early comedies. Whereas the early plays celebrate the natural and the healthy, the late plays punish the unnatural, and the father himself usually acts for a time as the kill-joy, who had been a stereotyped comic figure in the early comedies. These plays of reconciliation still include, however, the struggle between the young and age, winter, asceticism, or society, and the setting up of an artificial world apart from the normal. Like the early plays, their resolution is always the same; the unity and health of the community are assured for yet another year.

Pericles and the other late comedies are, therefore, remarkable not for their differences from the early comedies, but rather for their basic similarities to them, for their mature reassessment and enlargement of basic themes from folk and classical drama. These late plays deepen and intensify a comic vision evolved directly from the early comedies. They take as their province, however, an examination of a larger portion of the continuum of life, and provide a larger perspective from which the audience may evaluate the action, for they suggest that the various seasons and stages of life are necessary for continued life, that a temporary withdrawal or change has vitalizing and regeneratory results. They acknowledge from the outset the central tenet—which the early comedies had been dedicated to illustrate—that youth must have its day, that spring must inevitably follow upon winter, and that love's regenerative qualities cannot safely be denied; but, like the songs of winter and summer in Love's Labour's Lost, they remind us that there is a place for all the seasons, that each has its validity and significance, and that the seasonal metaphor may be seen operating throughout all of man's life. In their dénouements, and frequently earlier, they illustrate a spring-like renouveau of the spirit, paralleling the tremendous vitality of youth during the season of love, and they suggest that this experience is equally valuable and equally decisive in the totality of human affairs. The late plays therefore include the love-experience of the young, but they do not wait until the dénouement to set this vital element in perspective to the continuum of life. The young are apparently regarded as the old reborn, and the continuity of life becomes one of the central interests in the late plays. In these plays, the two generations are balanced equally in the dramatist's scale and found equally desirable and equally necessary in the wheel of life, and they recognize a process of “continuing accommodation” which is symbolized in the concluding scenes by marriage and feasting.


  1. An Essay on Shakespeare's Relation to Tradition (Oxford, 1916), p. 101.

  2. M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life: A Study of Shakespeare and the Idea of Justice (London, 1955), p. 181.

  3. Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1951), p. 26.

  4. See Sitansu Maitra, Shakespeare's Comic Idea (Calcutta, 1960), p. 50. See also Northrop Frye, “Characterization in Shakespearian Comedy”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], IV (1953).

  5. F. D. Hoeniger, ed., Pericles (London, 1963), p. xix.

  6. SQ, I (1950), 219.

  7. SQ, IV (1953), 258.

  8. See I. i. 15-24. Here Pericles alludes to the ungovernable passion awakened in him for Antiochus' daughter.

  9. The Crown of Life: Essays in Interpretation of Shakespeare's Final Plays (London, 1948), p. 37.

  10. G. Wilson Knight, The Shakespearian Tempest: With a Chart of Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe (London, 1953), p. 222.

  11. Knight, Crown of Life, p. 51.

  12. Arthos, p. 260.

  13. The Tudor Interlude: Stage, Costume, and Acting (Leicester, 1958), p. 78.

  14. See Act V, Chorus.

  15. See ll. 192-265, especially ll. 223-231.

  16. Crown, p. 70.


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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.

Jason P. Rosenblatt (essay date 1978)

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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 accordingly from Claudius' sinfulness in marrying his murdered brother's widow to Hamlet's more obscurely sullied nature. Ernest Jones, taking a Freudian, Oedipal approach, stresses Hamlet's incestuous desire to supplant his father in his mother's affection: Hamlet's hatred of Claudius thereby becomes “the jealous detestation of one evil-doer towards his successful fellow.”1 Roy W. Battenhouse stipulates a definition of incest as narcissism (“a love which circles about the self”)2 and then applies it to Hamlet. Dover Wilson refers to Scripture in adducing evidence of Hamlet's “sullied flesh,” but even he misapplies the relevant verse. The Prince “is, wishing that his ‘sullied flesh’ might melt as snow does. For his blood is tainted, his very flesh corrupted, by what his mother has done, since he is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”3

The verse Wilson quotes actually refers, of course, to the relation of wife to husband rather than to that of son to mother: “Then the man said, This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She shalbe called woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shal man leave his father and his mother, and shal cleave to his wife, and they shalbe one flesh” (Genesis ii. 23-24; see also Matthew xix. 4-6 and Mark x. 6-8).4 Hamlet is so familiar with these verses that he can sport with them at the King's expense. He correctly applies them to the conjugal relation when he bids farewell to Claudius as his “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. iii. 49-51)5

Alluding to the indissoluble bond between Gertrude and the murdered King Hamlet, Hamlet's reply is calculated to discomfit a man who has ignored the impediment of affinity in the first degree collateral by taking his brother's wife. In the fourth century, St. Basil, relying on these verses, had condemned marriage between a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law.6 Twelve centuries later, Nicholas Harpsfield handled the argument that “he that marrieth his brother's wife taketh his brother's flesh and blood to marriage, the which thing plainly is against the law of nature; for seeing the husband and wife be one flesh and blood, truly he that taketh his brother's wife taketh also the flesh and blood of his brother.”7

Aside from carrying the logic of incest to its conclusion by fusing Claudius, Gertrude, and his dead father, Hamlet reminds the King of the very basis of affinity. As Calvin notes in the Institutes, “man and woman are made one flesh only by carnal copulation.”8 By the eighth century carnal intercourse (unitas carnis) had replaced the marital contract (justae nuptiae) in establishing identity of relationship between oneself and the relatives of one's spouse, thus putting affinity on a plane with consanguinity.9

Hamlet's reply to his “uncle-father” suggests that a traditional conception of incest need not lack ingenuity, particularly if it draws on the special resources available to an obsessed mind. At the end of the play, when the Prince, in a final, terrible pun on “union,” dispatches the “incestuous, murd'rous, damnèd Dane” to seek his union with Gertrude in the hereafter (V. ii. 315-17), he gives full expression to an outrage first registered in the low tones of the opening aside. “A little more than kin, and less than kind!” (I. ii. 65)—Hamlet's first words, in their binary aspect, ingeniously parody the antitheses of Claudius' first speech; they also declare an absolute spiritual opposition to the King, whose trespass has obscured familial identities once clear and firmly fixed.


Hamlet's argument against Claudius rests on a text in Leviticus: “Thou shal not discover the shame of thy brothers wife: for it is thy brothers shame” (Lev. xviii. 16; see also xx. 21). The act of uncovering that convicts Claudius of incest engrosses Hamlet's attention: the flash of “incestuous sheets” (I. ii. 157) and the image of the King “in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed” (III. iii. 90) expand in the closet-scene to the duration of an act, performed “In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed” (III. iv. 93).

Though Claudius may be “as shrewd and relentless at catechizing himself as he is at manipulating others,”10 he never adverts to the sin of incest. Even during the prayer scene (III. iii), when he frankly acknowledges responsibility for the sins attendant upon a brother's murder, he remains silent on the question of incest. His silence may derive, not from shame that prevents him from facing a peculiarly offensive act, but rather from a conviction that in this instance, at least, his behavior was unexceptionable. For Hamlet, no less than Richard II, “sets the word itself against the word.”

The Scriptural passage opposed to Hamlet's central text and associated with Claudius is from Deuteronomy:

When brethren dwell together, and one of them dieth without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry to another; but his brother shall take her, and raise up seed for his brother. And the first son he shall have of her he shall call by his name: that his name be not abolished out of Israel.

(Deut. xxv. 5-6)11

A galaxy of authorities were available to sanction a man's marriage to a deceased brother's relict. St. Augustine refers to this tradition as a way of resolving an apparent contradiction in Scripture, by which St. Joseph is identified first as the son of Jacob (Matthew i. 16), then as the son of Heli (Luke iii. 23). Earlier, Augustine had implied that Heli was the adoptive father: “The Law, however, also adopted the children of the deceased by ordering that a brother marry the wife of his childless, deceased brother and raise up seed for his deceased brother.”12 Renaissance expositors likewise insisted that a brother “in so doing, did no wrong, sed officium praestabat defuncto fratri, but did performe a good office to his deceased brother.” They observed that “the law doth not only permit a widow to marie againe: but if her husband died before he had any children, it commanded the next kinsman that was living and free to marie her, that he might raise up seed to his brother deceased.” They were careful to note, however, that “when God commanded to doe this, he willed them not to doe this to satisfie lust … but onely that the elder brother might be a tipe of Jesus Christ, who should never wante a seede in the Church.”13 On the authority of Deuteronomy, then, Renaissance theologians insisted that “the brother not only might, but then was bound to marie his brothers wife.”14

Hamlet's very existence, of course, keeps the relationship of Claudius and Gertrude within the scope of the Levitical prohibition. Only a childless widow might remarry; thus, the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius, in addition to denying the dead King any claims upon his widow, insults the living prince by ignoring his birth, which should have blocked the union. I will return to this point, which is of some importance in explaining Hamlet's depression. Meanwhile, we should note Shakespeare's mastery in portraying Claudius, from the very start, as a caricature of the virtuous brother of Deuteronomy.

The true levirate marriage is a secondary union, an extension of an existing marriage. By virtue of the moral bonds between brothers, it exists to preserve the individual identity of one brother beyond his normal lifespan by the sacrifice of at least part of the individuality of the other.15 This kind of self-sacrifice is rejected by Onan, who is slain by God for his refusal to raise up seed to his dead brother Er (Genesis xxxviii). In Deuteronomy (xxv. 7-10), less severe punishments were provided for refusals such as Onan's, perhaps in recognition of a brother's natural reluctance to give up the right to found a family of his own.

Claudius' marriage to Gertrude, far from the true levirate relationship described in Deuteronomy, is an example of widow-inheritance, a very different, and more primitive, kinship institution, in which the identity of the deceased is supplanted by that of the successor. King Hamlet's life, crown, and queen are taken by Claudius, who has violated every token of his brother's identity. Yet these two spiritually opposed kinship institutions are superficially similar. The features they share include the principle of equivalence of siblings (because one brother replaces another)16 and the non-equivalence of genitor and pater. Where a legal fiction in Deuteronomy counts the son of the levir as the descendant of the dead elder brother, this fiction operates in reverse in the case of widow-inheritance and makes the surviving brother the “owner” of the children begotten by the brother now deceased.17

If Claudius can “smile and smile,” it is partly because blurred distinctions between two superficially similar institutions afford him, if not a true refuge, at least a role to play. A Tudor audience's knowledge of the true levirate would have been sharpened by the controversy surrounding the marriage and subsequent divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine, the childless widow of Henry's brother Prince Arthur. All of us know that Claudius is a sham, but this more specialized knowledge might help us to see more clearly what type of sham he is. We know that Claudius' marriage to Gertrude is

                                                                      such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words.

(III. iv. 46-49)

I would like to suggest, more specifically, that the King's role is a travesty of the levir's. The validity of his marriage to Gertrude actually depends on the absolute severance of the earlier marital union by death and obliteration of all his brother's claims. Yet Claudius opens the play's second scene by pretending that he keeps those claims alive. Far from remaining silent on the matter of his brother's death and his own recent nuptials (for even the true levirate links a funeral with a wedding), he refers to “our dear brother's death” (I. ii. l), “our late dear brother's death” (I. ii. 19), and “our most valiant brother” (I. ii. 25). Gertrude's equivocal status, similar to that of the sister-in-law / wife of Deuteronomy, is forthrightly acknowledged: “our sometime sister, now our queen” (I. ii. 8). Even the figure of freshness Claudius suggests in his opening words (“Though yet … the memory be green” [I. ii. 1-2]) is Biblical; see Jeremiah xvii. 7-8 and Hosea xiv. 8.

In taking the Queen as his wife, Claudius also takes Denmark, the estate Gertrude holds in jointure (I. ii. 9). He prefers to dwell on his role as protector of the land won from King Fortinbras by “our most valiant brother” (I. ii. 17-25). Reminding us that one of the most important conditions attached to the levirate bond is that “the inheritance must be preserved, and kept” for the dead brother's son,18 Claudius says:

                    We pray you throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father, for let the world take note
You are the most immediate to our throne,
And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son
Do I impart toward you.

(I. ii. 106-12)

This solemn proclamation of Hamlet as heir must have seemed to the court at Elsinore a “confirmation of the inheritance” of the dead brother's estate.19 It is clear, for example, that Rosencrantz can scarcely credit Hamlet's complaint that he lacks advancement: “How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark?” (III. ii. 327-28). Yet the condition of the levirate bond that the inheritance be preserved is designed to prevent family property from being broken up and passing into strange hands. Its purpose is to protect a son who is at the time of the marriage unborn. Hamlet, however, already exists and he is of age. Claudius is thus in reality “preserving” an inheritance that he has stolen.

Since the only clear exception to the Levitical prohibition is the case of marriage with a widow whose husband has died without offspring, the presence of Hamlet in the second scene is utterly destructive of Claudius' status as levir. Yet Claudius sounds unperturbed. In his treatment of Hamlet in this scene, he seems to be exploiting the principle of the non-equivalence of genitor and pater that is common to both the true levirate and widow-inheritance. As Nicholas Harpsfield notes, a principal reason for the levirate marriage “was that the brother deceased might continue his name and family by his brother's child (which should be counted not his brother's but his own), and that he might avoid the shame and infamy wherewith they were noted … in the old law which had no children.”20 In Deuteronomy's statement that “he shall call [the child] by his name” (Deut. xxv. 6), “his” refers to the dead brother. The child is to “be counted and called the seed of the dead man, not of the living.”21

Claudius' determination to play paterfamilias with Hamlet goes beyond the common custom whereby an adoptive father refers to a stepson as a son. The King's inheritance of the empire and the Queen involves collateral ownership of the son. Claudius thus attempts to exploit the legal fiction of widow-inheritance which makes Hamlet his son. His rhetoric, however, is furnished by the conventions of the true levirate. His first words to the Prince remind us of Deuteronomy xxv. 6: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—” (I. ii. 64). For Hamlet this is one more example of Claudius' obscene unification of a natural duality—of what Stephen Booth calls “the excessively lubricated rhetoric by which Claudius makes unnatural connections between moral contraries.”22 Claudius, who would like to see things differently, does not sound ashamed to be Hamlet's “uncle-father” (II. ii. 366). Indeed, he concludes his conversation with the Prince by placing an additional stress on the already complicated relationship: “Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son” (I. ii. 117).

The relationship of father to son has been defined in this scene by Polonius and Laertes. The son requests leave to return to France, and the father grants it. Now Claudius, in a 31-line lecture on fathers and sons (I. ii. 87-117), acts like a father by refusing to grant Hamlet leave to return to Wittenberg. Hamlet rejects this sham by proclaiming obedience to his mother: “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” (I. ii. 120; my italics).

Giving the dead a “name” is a subsidiary element of the levirate institution, based on Deuteronomy xxv. 6. In his explication of the verse, John Weemse considers the question of giving the name of the dead man to the child begotten by his living brother:

For Deut. 25. 6. the words in the originall are these: Primogenitus quem pepererit stabit super nomen fratris sui, shall succeed in the name of the brother: Therefore it may seeme they were called after the elder brothers name.23

In a figural reading of this passage, influenced by Origen, Augustine, and Ambrose, among others, Henry Ainsworth identifies the dead brother as Christ and his living sons as Christians, who bear his name: “For the church of Israel was his wife … who bare him no children by the Law. … But the Apostles (his brethren, Joh. 20. 17) by the immortall seed of the Gospel, begat children unto him not that they should be called by any mans name, 1 Cor. 1.12.13 but to carry the name of Christ.”24

The coincidence of an identical name for his dead brother and his dead brother's seed (“Hamlet our dear brother,” “my cousin Hamlet, and my son”) contributes to making Claudius' situation superficially similar to the levir's. Of course a moment's thought reveals the true face behind the King's temporary and imperfect disguise. His own name, in fact, suggests incest and manipulation, for the Roman Emperor Claudius married his niece Agrippina, an act considered incestuous according to Roman law, which he therefore changed.

The levirate, presupposed in patriarchal times and institutionalized in Deuteronomy,25 is the only law in the Pentateuch in which the punishment consists of public degradation. The man who refuses to marry his sister-in-law has silenced his brother; hence the law speaks metaphorically of an Israelite's name being wiped out. Claudius, of course, is a fratricide who has the audacity to rely on the law of fraternal succession in order to supplant his brother. And when he succeeds in his plot against young Hamlet, he blots out his brother's name, just as he has earlier blotted out his brother's life.

The true levirate is an exception to the Levitical prohibition. The Bible “forbiddeth such commixtions for lust, but for the succession of mankind [it] commandeth.”26 Like other social institutions and ritual activities, the levirate appears in this light as a denial of the power of death. The common birth of brothers is the principal base in nature for the institution. By subverting the levirate institution, Claudius allies himself with the power of death. The solitary human organism born at a particular time and place is the biological base for his position, which opposes continuity: “Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die” (I. ii. 72); “you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his” (I. ii. 89-90). Little did King Hamlet know that his marriage with Gertrude more nearly resembled a primitive sort of adelphic polyandry than a Christian institution. Similarly, behind the rhetoric of the levirate lies the reality of incest, the violation of Leviticus xviii, a “decalogical” code forbidding the promiscuous unions practiced among the Canaanites.27


Our knowledge of the conflict between verses in Leviticus and verses in Deuteronomy and their respective commentaries sets the stage for a deeper understanding of the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius in the play. The clash may be as private as a duel in a lady's chamber:

Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Mother, you have my father much offended.

(III. iv. 10-11)

But that the scale of the conflict is larger is dramatized by Claudius' strategically-placed reminder of the court's participation in his marriage decision:

                              Nor have we herein barred
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks.

(I. ii. 14-16)

Later, the private domestic conflict expands beyond even national boundaries, encompassing the entire universe. Hamlet tells Gertrude:

                              Heaven's face does glow,
And this solidity and compound mass,
With heated visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.

(II. vi. 49-52)

Hamlet's capacity to weight personal conflict with the gravity of universal implication distinguishes it from its sources. Political and religious implications of incest are absent from Saxo's Historiae Danicae and Belleforest's Histories tragiques. In these versions of the Hamlet story, incest is a general term of abuse, always coupled with fratricide to emphasize unnatural villainy. Though the term is used dyslogistically in Hamlet (“that incestuous, that adulterate beast”; “thou incestuous, murd'rous, damnèd Dane”), it is also seen as a specific offense: marriage to a deceased brother's widow. In moments of uncontrollable rage, Hamlet emphasizes this offense directly: “married with my uncle, my father's brother” (I. ii. 151-52); “You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife” (III. iv. 16; see also line 30). In moments when his rage is kept under control, Hamlet names the offense more indirectly, noting that it imposes on his family a hyphenated set of unnatural mixed relations: “my uncle-father and aunt-mother” (II. ii. 366-67).

But if incest in Hamlet is a specific, particular offense, it is also symbolic of a more general religious and political corruption. Hamlet's opening soliloquy suggests that the incest of the King and the Queen is emblematic of goodness in thrall to evil, of the state in thrall to a usurper. The Ghost warns that the kingdom is polluted:

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.

(I. v. 82-83)


An allusion in Der Bestrafte Brudermord hints at some of the larger implications of incest in Hamlet. In that play's closet scene, Gertrude, her heart wrung by Hamlet, complains:

Had I not taken in marriage my brother-in-law, I should not have robbed my son of the crown of Denmark. But what can be done about things that are done? Nothing, they must stay as they are. Had not the Pope allowed such a marriage, it would never have happened.

[my italics]28

Gertrude's reference to a papal dispensation from the impediment of affinity in the first degree collateral might remind us of the “great matter” of King Henry VIII, which furnished Shakespeare with the plot of his last history play. For at certain moments in Hamlet the imagined world of the play seems to shade into the real world of Shakespeare's England.29

Henry VIII's decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn had generated a conflict international in scope and warlike in intensity. Henry rested his case on the fact that Catherine, his wife of eighteen years, was the widow of his deceased brother, Prince Arthur, who had died in 1502 at the age of fifteen. In the eyes of the English people, the divorce struggle pitted Henry against Emperor Charles V and the Pope (for Julius had originally granted the bull of dispensation that permitted the marriage, and Clement VII now defended that decision). By implication, however, the struggle also amassed other polarities: Anne and Catherine, their respective daughters Elizabeth I and Mary I, England and Spain, Protestantism and Catholicism. Of special interest here is the extent to which these oppositions were brought into focus by the apparent conflict between Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Henry's decision was authorized primarily by the text of Leviticus, which he interpreted as a divine prohibition the Pope was not permitted to set aside. Henry's many learned enemies in England and on the Continent based their counteroffensive on the verses in Deuteronomy treating levirate marriage.

In that quarrel, a great deal depended on the translation of Ah (frater in the Vulgate), used indifferently to mean “brother” in the Hebrew and Vulgate texts of both Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Tudor history would invite Claudius' alliance with the unacceptable (but correct) Douai translation of Deuteronomy xxv. 5: “his [the deceased brother's] brother shall take her [the wife of the deceased].” Hamlet's (and Shakespeare's) Protestant Bibles, however—the Coverdale (1535), the Geneva (1560), and the Bishops' (1568)—all distorted this verse into compliance with a Henrician emphasis on the unacceptability of the levirate.30 These Bibles interpreted “brother” in the strict sense in Leviticus, while they took it to mean cognatus, a relative, in Deuteronomy. For them, the crucial phrase in Deuteronomy read: “his [the deceased man's] kinsman shall go in unto her [the widow], and take her to wife, and do the kinsmans office to her.” A note on this verse in the Geneva Bible explains the substitution of “kinsman” for the literally correct “brother”:

Because the Ebrewe worde signifieth not the natural brother, & the worde, that signifieth a brother, is taken also for a kinseman: it semeth that it is not ment that the natural brother shuld mary his brothers wife, but some other of the kinred, that was in that degre which might mary.

The Geneva gloss's political bias becomes clear when it is compared with the relevant text of a partisan sixteenth-century English tract on the divorce. The form of the anonymous “Glasse of the Truthe” is that of a Socratic dialogue between a lawyer and a divine, with the divine speaking for Henry (and the author). Here they consider the word “brother”:

THE Lawyer
Why, I pray you, is there more mystery of that word in the Deuteronomye than in the Levityke?
THE Divine
Yea, forsooth; for in the Levityke it can nor may be taken for other than for the very brother, the text being judge itself. But by the Deuteronomyke, as many taketh it, is meant the next of the blood after the degrees prohibite; though he be but kinsman. …(31)

The divine adds that “the taking of this word” in Deuteronomy is “so highly entreated in many other works … that it were but a loss of time to commune any more of it.”32

If “kin” and “brother” are politically charged terms, then Hamlet's first words, addressed to the audience, may help us to establish a context for the conflict that will follow. Claudius, playing the levir, emphasizing relation, calls Hamlet his cousin and his son—with cousin a term “frequently applied to a nephew” (OED), as in “Where is my cousin your son?” (Much Ado About Nothing, I. ii. 1-2). Hamlet's aside—“A little more than kin, and less than kind”—may be construed as alluding to the version of Deuteronomy that he (and the audience) accepts, where a kinsman may marry a man's widow but a brother may not.

A brief excursus into Henry's great matter, ending with Shakespeare's own treatment of the subject in The Life of King Henry VIII, will perhaps help us to understand some of the problems raised in Hamlet by a marriage that admits impediments.


Formulations of Henry's urgent problem in terms of contrasting Scriptural verses abound in the sixteenth century.33 Pressing for divorce, Henry put his case to universities at home and abroad (“all famous colleges, / Almost in Christendom,” Henry VIII, III. ii. 66-67). Though he managed to get favorable replies, the one hard place in their various determinations was “the dispensation by the law of Deuteronomie, of stirring up the brothers seed.”34

Under political pressure, what would otherwise be only an interesting theological crux became a vexed question, and the note of urgency we find in many of the sixteenth-century tracts is one we associate with polemic rather than with exegesis. The adherents of Leviticus xviii. 16 could exploit two fears that plagued Englishmen: Catholicism and the influence of Spanish power. Boundaries between religion and politics were so fluid that it is impossible to tell whether or not Thomas Beard was deliberately punning when he attributed the marriage of Henry and Catherine to the desire “to have this Spanish affinitie continued.”35 In any event, his subsequent comments on the “unfortunat marriage,” “unjustly dispensed withall by the Pope,” indicate his displeasure with both the incestuous union and the alliance with Spain.

Many partisans were able to fuse personal, religious, and political sentiments—to see the events neatly—as in the quip that “the King divorced from Lady Katharine, and from the Pope, both at the same time”;36 or, as in the claim of the Roman Catholic Jean de Lorin that “the perverse interpretation of this chapter [Leviticus xviii] was Fundamentum schismatis Anglicani: the very foundation of the schisme of England.”37

Some of the participants in the divorce dispute, conscious of mixed attitudes, achieve an admirable degree of control in their writings. Recognizing that each side's arguments are determined as much by political as by moral considerations, they treat dissenting opinions with a tolerance bred of sophistication. Thus Hugh Latimer notes the extent to which shifting political currents have influenced interpretations of the crucial Biblical verses: “Yea, men think that my lord himself [Dr. John Stokesly, Lord Bishop of London] hath thought in times past, that by God's law a man might marry his brother's wife, which now both dare think and say contrary; and yet this his boldness might have chanced, in pope Julius's days, to stand him either in a fire, or else in a fagot.”38 Bishop Latimer himself accepts the validity of the Levitical prohibition; but he emphasizes his fellowship with those who disagree with him, and he laments the “dissension in a Christian congregation” caused by extremist views.39

When Shakespeare treated the matter of Henry's divorce directly, in The Life of King Henry the Eighth, he dramatized the modulation of received opinion into compassionate generosity. By 1613, the contradictory attitudes toward the divorce given full treatment in the play would probably have been conventional. They are striking nonetheless. Shakespeare's Katherine, a foreigner and a Roman Catholic, solicits our sympathy throughout the play. Against the latinizing Wolsey, she appears as a plain-speaking Englishwoman (III. i. 42-46). Here, as in Hamlet, the conflict of Biblical verses is at least strongly implied. For Henry the question is “Whether our daughter were legitimate, / Respecting this our marriage with the dowager, / Sometimes our brother's wife” (II. iv. 177-79).

In this play, the conflict between verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is subordinated to still another conflict relevant to Hamlet. Like the marriage of Gertrude in Der Bestrafte Brudermord, Katherine's marriage to Henry was dispensed by the Pope from the impediment of affinity in the first degree collateral. Katherine thus refuses to be bound by the Church of England and submits her case to the Church of Rome. She tells the various English bishops and cardinals:

I do refuse you for my judge and here,
Before you all, appeal unto the pope,
To bring my whole cause 'fore his holiness
And to be judged by him.

(II. iv. 116-19)

A question vehemently debated by Protestants and Catholics was the dispensability of God's word in Leviticus. The Reformation leaders held that the Levitical prohibition was fixed for all time by divine law, that no dispensation could validate Henry's marriage to his dead brother's widow, and that in general the practice of papal dispensations was motivated by the desire for profit.40 The Parliamentary “Act concerning the King's succession” (1533) declared that the Pope could not dispense from the impediment of marriage with a deceased brother's widow.

The Protestant Andrew Willet, in Synopsis Papismi (1594), sets down the starkly opposed doctrines of “Protestant” and “Papist.” He holds, with Calvinist opinion definitely accepted by the Church of England, that the Levitical law forbidding the marriage is “natural and perpetual”:

We may affirm that it is utterly unlawful for any Christian man to marry within the degrees prohibited: neither can any human power dispense with such marriages, but the equity of that law being grounded upon nature is in force for ever.41

Opposing Catholics, as Willet notes, held that the Levitical law was in large measure judicial and therefore dispensable. The opinions of two great Catholics, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and the Dominican jurist, Francisco de Vitoria, hold special interest, since they can be applied to the case of Claudius. Fisher considers the question of marriage with a dead brother's wife who has had children by him, and concludes that in such a case a papal dispensation is possible, valid, and licit. A fortiori, he says, such a dispensation is even easier in the case of a dead brother's childless widow.42 Vitoria holds that in the absence of human law, marriage with such a widow is lawful, whether she be childless or not.43 One of the reasons given to support the dispensability of the Levitical prohibition is the absolute severance of the marital union by death.44

Though the fate of Shakespeare's Katherine is bound up in these doctrinal matters, mechanistic duality is complicated in the play by human feeling. Katherine, in her patience, has been compared favorably with Hermione in The Winter's Tale.45 Indeed, a virtually allegorical servant named Patience attends Katherine: “Patience, be near me still, and set me lower” (IV. ii. 76); “Softly, gentle Patience” (IV. ii. 82); “Nay, Patience, / You must not leave me yet” (IV. ii. 165-66). This bearing of such emphasis in a Protestant play might have reminded the audience of a long narrative poem on the divorce, The History of Grisild the Second, written by Queen Mary's chaplain William Forrest, which identifies Catherine with the eponymous heroine.46

The only way that Shakespeare can balance sympathy for Katherine with unequivocal acceptance of the divorce is by emphasizing Henry's sincere concern for the next generation. Katherine's failure to produce an heir would have weighed powerfully with Shakespeare's audience:

                                                            … her male issue
Or died where they were made or shortly after
This world had aired them. Hence I took a thought
This was a judgment on me, that my kingdom
(Well worthy the best heir o' th' world) should not
Be gladded in't by me. …

(II. iv. 189-94)

Henry's distress in the play is generated by concern for this children—for those who died in the womb or shortly after birth, and for his daughter Mary, whose marriage to the Duke of Orleans was impeded by the question of her legitimacy.

In Shakespeare's Henry VIII, the child Elizabeth, symbol of England's future, purifies the union of Henry and Anne Boleyn. The play concludes with the pageantry of Elizabeth's christening and with Cranmer's prophecy, filled with Biblical images and phrases. Frank Kermode has properly noted that Katherine's tragedy “must not be allowed to detract from the pleasure the auditors are expected to feel at the end of the play, which is of course related to the happy dynastic progress of English history since that birth, a progress which might have been very different if Henry had not put away Katherine.”47

That the birth of Elizabeth transforms an otherwise sinful union into a virtuous one is confirmed by Andrew Willet in his commentary on Leviticus xviii. Willet repeats the most vicious slanders against Henry, including his purported involvement with Anne Boleyn's mother. He relishes the ribald counsel of Francis Brian, Henry's Vicar of Hell, and rehearses the accusation that Henry “had first carnall knowledge of the mother and then of the daughter; and that he made his owne bastard daughter his wife.” Then, abruptly, he rejects all the scandals: “The renowned fame, and prosperous raygne of the issue of this Marriage, our late most noble Soveraigne, Queene Elizabeth, doth cleare this suspition, and stop Papists slaunderous mouthes.”48


The figure of Elizabeth affords us a convenient opportunity to return from the court of Henry VIII to the court at Elsinore, though in returning we relinquish absolute distinctions between the world of history and the world of a play. Elizabeth's silent, powerful presence connects the history play that celebrates her birth to the more fictive drama written for an audience she rules. Critics of Hamlet have observed that an audience being asked to convict Claudius and Gertrude of incest is at the same time being asked to remember the circumstances of Elizabeth's birth and to take the Henrician side in the Scriptural controversy. On the question of incest, Bertram Joseph notes, “The subjects of Elizabeth were likely to have been very much alive to it, for she owed her throne and her legitimacy to her father's belated insistence on the sinfulness of his union with Catherine of Aragon, his dead brother's widow.”49

One royal brother marrying another brother's widow is the single strong likeness in the cases of Henry and Claudius. The differences may be more important. Henry dissolves a marriage of almost twenty years on the suspicion of incest (“no Marriage … but rather an incestuous and detestable Adultery, as the Act of Parliament doth term it”).50 This suspicion depends on a perhaps overly rigorous interpretation of the Levitical prohibition. Claudius, on the other hand, marries in defiance even of the most permissive interpretation of either Leviticus or Deuteronomy. More important, Henry's stated motive for dissolving the union is concern for a child yet unborn, symbol of England's line. By contrast, Claudius and Gertrude, posting with “dexterity to incestuous sheets,” have in effect denied Hamlet's very existence.

Elizabeth's birth is the ultimate vindication of Henry's decision to divorce Catherine, and it turns the questionable union with Anne Boleyn into a virtuous one. Hamlet's birth is a diriment impediment to Gertrude's remarriage, and it turns what would otherwise have been a virtuous union (at least according to Deuteronomy) into an incestuous one. The true levirate requires that the widow be childless. Hamlet's existence has thus freed Gertrude from the obligation to marry Claudius, but she has not chosen freedom. Where a Freudian, Oedipal view of incest presumes Hamlet's envy of his father, a Scriptural view of the incest prohibition might posit instead a relationship of concord between father and son, both of whom require from Gertrude the loyalty that would confirm their existence. The union of Gertrude and Claudius confirms instead the death of love, and it constitutes an insult to Hamlet, who might as well never have been born.

Gertrude might have been innocent of the sin of incest had Hamlet never been born, and it is tempting to suggest that this fact cuts both ways. Certainly before Act V, scene ii, in which Hamlet interprets his rescue, and thus his continued existence, as a sign of Divine Providence, he can be heard complaining against the limitations imposed by fate on human will. Sometimes these complaints focus upon the problem of “birth, wherein [men] are not guilty, / Since nature cannot choose his origin” (I. iv. 25-26). Many of the death-wish passages in the play express Hamlet's desire never to have been born: “O cursèd spite / That ever I was born. …” (I. v. 189); “… it were better my mother had not borne me” (III. i. 124). Laertes speaks truer than he knows when he says of Hamlet: “his will is not his own. / For he himself is subject to his birth” (I. iii. 17-18).

It is difficult to refrain from developing the point that existence is indeed problematic for Hamlet—that he feels tainted, even before the Ghost has appeared to him, because Gertrude's incestuous guilt is somehow involved with his birth. Some of the play's best critics have, after all, remarked on its ability to contain contradictory systems of value, and on the Prince's extraordinary self-consciousness, his habit of considering all sides of a problem. Nor is it surprising that the play has been subjected to such a large share of existential cant: Hamlet encounters his existence as gratuitous; he feels de trop; he stands in for superfluous twentieth-century man. Finally, in Hamlet's trenchant identification of his mother in the closet-scene, the accusation of incest and the wish never to have been born are uttered in the same breath:

You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And (would it were not so) you are my mother.

(III. iv. 16-17)

Yet this idea accords too well with the anachronistic modern tendency to see Hamlet in the closet-scene as somehow, like old Norway, “impotent and bedrid.” To be sexually impotent yet confined to (and obsessed with) the bed is like being unable to assassinate the King yet confined to his court. Such a view, emphasizing Hamlet's helplessness, would obscure the truth: it is not Hamlet's birth that has made the marriage incestuous; rather, it is the action of Gertrude and Claudius in marrying.


I should like to end this article on somewhat firmer ground by suggesting that our knowledge of the sixteenth-century conflict between Protestants and Catholics over the dispensability of the text in Leviticus helps us better to understand Hamlet's absolute allegiance to the word. Claudius, in the prayer-scene, acknowledges his own “shuffling” (III. iii. 61), recognizes his failure to circumvent divine law, and comes close to entering into a deeper awareness of the inwardness of true renovation, before falling silent and finally confessing failure. His case has merit only in this corrupt world, where power and wealth buy out the law (III. iii. 57-60). For Hamlet, of course, God's Levitical prohibition against incest is absolute, fixed for all time, and indispensable by any worldly authority. The “better wisdoms” of Denmark, “which have freely gone / With this affair along” (I. ii. 15-16), are merely a sign that “shuffling” and temporizing are general in the state.

It is interesting to remember in this connection that belief in the absolute severance of the marital union by death supports the Catholic position of dispensability. We have already seen that Claudius, from the start, relies on the power of death to break King Hamlet's hold on Gertrude. Nicholas Harpsfield affirms the Pope's right to dispense from the Levitical prohibition and brands as untruth the Protestant idea that the wife is the flesh of her dead husband:

This unity is to be counted while the husband and wife do live and no longer, for as long as they live the wife's privie member is accounted his according to the saying of St. Paule. The woman hath no power of her owne body, but the husband. … Now the husband being dead, it is no longer his member, and therefore no discovering of his foulness, but it is now the foulness of him that hath married her.51

Hamlet, of course, considers the marital bond that makes Gertrude and King Hamlet one flesh to be indissoluble, even by death (IV. iii. 50-51). One imagines that he would oppose any second marriage, holding that “a good widowe ought to suppose, that her husbande is not utterly dead, but liveth, both with life of his soule, which is the very life, and beside with her remembraunce. For our freends live with us … if the lively image of them be imprinted in our harts. … And if we forget them, then they die towards us.”52

His father's namesake, Hamlet embodies the act of memory that keeps the old King alive; he reminds us constantly that such memory is an ethical imperative.53 This is what animates his appeal to Gertrude's conscience in the closet scene. Earlier, he has relied on the tenacity of memory to maintain and strengthen his resolve to avenge his father's death (I. v. 95 ff.). One can imagine the pain with which Hamlet hears the player-king complain, perhaps in a line that Hamlet has “set down” and inserted himself, that “Purpose is but the slave to memory” (III. ii. 180). We can well understand, even without recourse to a sixteenth-century controversy, why Hamlet must remember. Yet this specific debate on the dispensability of the incest prohibition provides doctrinal justification for both remembering and not remembering. Hamlet and Claudius thus stand even more starkly opposed to one another.

It has not been the purpose of this article to belittle twentieth-century interpretations of incest. Jones's study of the workings of repressed desire on Hamlet's “unconscious” continues to be valuable—though Claude Lévi-Strauss's more recent definition of incest as “the overvaluation of kinship” is droll in a public-relations sense that Claudius himself would have appreciated. I have only sought to suggest that a theologically orthodox interpretation of the incest prohibition can lead to increased understanding of the play. Conflicting Scriptural passages, together with their commentaries, help to identify Claudius' role as a travesty of the levir's role. They also help to explain the intensity of Hamlet's antipathy toward his “uncle-father and aunt-mother.”


  1. Hamlet and Oedipus (1949; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954), p. 99.

  2. Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), p. 231.

  3. What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1937), p. 42.

  4. Unless otherwise noted, all parenthetic Biblical references in the text are to the Geneva Bible (1560). For evidence of Shakespeare's use of this version in Hamlet, see Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge (London: SPCK, 1935), pp. 66 ff.

  5. My source for all quotations from Shakespeare is The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  6. See “Affinity,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967); “Affinité,” in Dictionnaire de Droit Canonique, I, cols. 264-85; and “Affinita,” in Enciclopedia Cattolica, I, cols. 366-68.

  7. A Treatise on the Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon [1556], ed. Nicholas Pocock (Westminster: Camden Society, 1878), p. 98.

  8. Institutes of the Christian Religion (IV. xix. 37), ed. John T. McNeill and Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), II, 1484.

  9. For canon law on questions of affinity and consanguinity, see Chapter VII of J. J. Scarisbrick's magisterial biography Henry VIII (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1968), pp. 163-97, to which this paper is heavily indebted. See also the entries, cited in note 5, on “Affinity,” “Affinité,” and “Affinita.”

  10. Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), p. 33.

  11. This is the Douai-Rheims translation (1582, 1609).

  12. Saint Augustine, Retractationum, Patrologia Latina (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1877), XXXII, 633: “Lex autem filios etiam mortuis adoptabat, jubens ut fratris defuncto semen ex eadem frater uxorem, et fratri defuncto semen ex eadem suscitaret.”

  13. Seriatim: Cardinal Cajetan, cited in Andrew Willet's Hexapla in Leviticum (London, 1631), p. 425; William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622), p. 186; John Weemse, An Exposition of the Ceremoniall Lawes of Moses (London, 1632), p. 195.

  14. Note on Mark xii. 19 ff., in The New Testament, tr. the English college then resident in Rheims (Antwerp: D. Veruliet, 1600), p. 121.

  15. R. G. Abrahams, “Some Aspects of Levirate,” in The Character of Kinship, ed. Jack Goody (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), p. 167.

  16. Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, “Introduction,” in African Kinship and Marriage, ed. Daryll Forde and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), p. 64. Abrahams, cited above, treats the difficulties faced by social anthropologists who try to discriminate between widow-inheritance and the true levirate. He sees “an element of paradox in this situation, where such different institutions are said to be demonstrative of a single principle” (p. 166).

  17. S. R. Driver, Deuteronomy, The International Critical Commentary, gen. eds. S. R. Driver, Alfred Plummer, C. A. Briggs (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), pp. 281-84.

  18. Andrew Willet, Hexapla in Leviticum, p. 425.

  19. Nicholas Harpsfield, A Treatise on the Pretended Divorce, p. 87.

  20. Ibid., p. 145. See also Sir James George Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (London: Macmillan, 1910), I, 502.

  21. Henry Ainsworth, Annotations Upon the Fifth Booke of Moses, called Deuteronomy (1619; rpt. London, 1639), p. 114.

  22. “On the Value of Hamlet,” in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin, Selected Papers of the English Institute (New York and London: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969), p. 149.

  23. An Explication of the Judiciall Lawes of Moses (London, 1632), p. 121. See also the anonymous sixteenth-century tract, “A Glasse of the Truthe,” in Records of the Reformation: The Divorce 1527-1533, ed. Nicholas Pocock (Oxford: Clarendon, 1870), II, 391.

  24. Annotations Upon … Deuteronomy, p. 115. See also Harpsfield, Treatise on the Pretended Divorce, p. 142; Martin Luther, Lectures on Deuteronomy, Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1960). Luther allegorizes the text of Deuteronomy, identifying the widow with the “synagog,” the deceased brother with Christ, and the levir with the Christian community that teaches in Christ's name: “thus, although we teach people, we teach only in the name of Christ, and children born by the Word shall not be called Pauline or Apollonian or Petrine but only Christian” (p. 250).

  25. John Diodati, Pious and Learned Annotations upon the Holy Bible (London, 1651), Deut. xxv. 5: “this thing was in use before Moses time by some ancient custome ordained by God, and passed over from father to son, Gen. xxxviii. 8: but here it is established by the written law. …”

  26. Willet, Hexapla in Leviticum, p. 510.

  27. Martin Noth, Leviticus: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1965), p. 134.

  28. Fratricide Punished, III. vi., in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), VII, 145-46.

  29. For other examples of such shading in Hamlet, see E. A. J. Honigmann, “The Politics in Hamlet and ‘The World of the Play,’” in Hamlet: Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 5, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1963), pp. 129-47; and William Empson, “Hamlet When New,” Sewanee Review, 61 (1953), 18 ff.

  30. William Tyndale's correct translation of the verse in Deuteronomy is an admirable exception: “the wyfe of the dead shall not be geven out unto a straunger: but hir brotherlawe shall goo in unto her and take her to wife” (Five Books of Moses called The Pentateuch, 1530). Indeed, Tyndale's exegetical integrity enforces a position of moderation on the question of Henry VIII's divorce. Given the tenor of his exposé of prelatical abuse in his earliest known work, The Practice of Prelates (1530), one would expect Tyndale to defend the divorce on the grounds of the Levitical prohibition. Yet even in this anti-Catholic polemic, he contends at some length that the terms of the levirate marriage in Deuteronomy should protect Catherine's status as the King's lawful wife. He notes that the texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy “seem contrary, the one forbidding, the other commanding, a man to take his brother's wife”; he concludes that the levirate “is not a permission, but a flat commandment.” See Henry Walter's Parker Society edition of The Practice of Prelates (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1849), pp. 323-27.

  31. [Anonymous], “A Glasse of the Truthe,” in Records of the Reformation, II, 393-94.

  32. Ibid., p. 394. See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, trans. C. W. Bingham (1850; rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), III, 177. For the Catholic position, see John Fisher, De Causa Matrimonii Serenissimi regis Angliae liber (Alcalá, 1530), fol. 7 ff. Fisher cites the following authorities who understand that the Deuteronomical precept applies to a real brother: Origen, Hesychius, Damascene, Chrysostom, Eusebius, Raoul de Flaix, Rabbi Moses the Egyptian, Lyra, Alphonsus, Jerome, Hilary, and Africanus.

  33. See contemporary formulations by Juan Luis Vives, Apologia sive Confutatio … (1531); “A Glasse of the Truthe,” Records of the Reformation, II 391; Harpsfield, Treatise on the Pretended Divorce, p. 37. Scarisbrick, in Henry VIII, pp. 163-97, cites many additional contemporary sources. Among the Church Fathers who treat the problem, see Saint Augustine, Questionum in Heptateuchum, Patrologia Latina, XXXIV, 705; Saint John Chrysostom, De non iterando conjugio, Patrologia Graeca, XLVIII, 609-20; Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1951), p. 84.

  34. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587; rpt. London: J. Johnson, 1808), III, 771. See the “Determinations of diverse universities …,” pp. 767-72.

  35. Thomas Beard, The Theatre of Gods Judgements (London, 1597), p. 329. In his commentary on Leviticus xviii, Gervase Babington forces the laws against sexual contamination into a nationalist context. He sees the French, Italians, Spanish, and Turks as modern equivalents of the Canaanites. See his Comfortable Notes upon the Five Bookes of Moses, Works (London, 1622), p. 393.

  36. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1563; rpt. London: Stationers Company, 1684), II, 276.

  37. Jean de Lorin, cited (and disputed) by Willet, Hexapla in Leviticum, p. 447. See also Lorin's Commentarii in Leviticum (Lugdun: H. Cardon, 1619). pp. 546 ff.

  38. Hugh Latimer, Sermons and Remains, ed. George Elwes Corrie, Parker Society (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1845), p. 340.

  39. Ibid., p. 341.

  40. See George Hayward Joyce, S. J., Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), pp. 527 ff.

  41. Andrew Willet, Synopsis in Papismi (London, 1594), p. 755.

  42. De Causa, fol. 38v. See also Harpsfield, who cites John Bacon on this point, in Treatise on the Pretended Divorce, p. 21.

  43. De Matrimonia [1531], Relecciones Teologicas, ed. Luis G. Alonso Getino (Madrid, 1934), II, 440-504.

  44. Fisher, De Causa, fol. 37v. Harpsfield, Treatise on the Pretended Divorce, pp. 99-100.

  45. King Henry VIII, ed. R. A. Foakes, Arden Edition (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), p. 80 n.

  46. William Forrest, The History of Grisild the Second: A Narrative, in Verse, of the Divorce of Queen Katharine of Aragon, ed. W. D. Macray (London: Whittingham and Wilkins, 1875).

  47. Frank Kermode, “What is Shakespeare's Henry VIII About?” Durham University Journal, NS 9 (1947-48), 54.

  48. Willet, Hexapla in Leviticum, pp. 447-49.

  49. Conscience and the King (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953), p. 46. A lucid explanation of the incest prohibition appears in Joseph Quincy Adams' edition of Hamlet (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside, 1929), pp. 199, 278-79. See also Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge, p. 205; John W. Draper, The Hamlet of Shakespeare's Audience (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1938), p. 114; Richard Flatter, Hamlet's Father (London: Heinemann, 1949), p. 26.

  50. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, II, 277.

  51. Treatise on the Pretended Divorce, p. 99.

  52. Juan Luis Vives, The Instruction of a Christian Woman, trans. Richard Hyrde (1529; rpt. London, 1592), p. 424.

  53. The most recent of the many studies treating memory in the play is Theresa Suriano Ormsby-Lennon's “Piccolo, Ma Con Gran Vagghezza: A New Source for Hamlet?” Library Chronicle, 41 (1977), 119-48, esp. 135-39.

Richard A. McCabe (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16566

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 that should either of them know of ‘any inward impediment’ forbidding them to be ‘conjoined’ they must utter it on peril of their souls (iv.1.11-13). The Tudor marriage service lies behind both passages but provides an inadequate gloss on either. In the world of Shakespearean drama the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘nature’ is not that simple. In Much Ado insistence upon the letter of the law evokes a false impediment whereas Sonnet 116 dispenses with impediment altogether in the interests of an unworthy, fickle lover. In All's Well that Ends Well we learn that ‘all impediments in fancy's course / Are motives of more fancy’ (v.3.213-4), that impediment may provoke rather than prohibit desire.

Shakespeare's acquaintance with Tudor chronicle history can only have served to deepen this dilemma. The Book of Homilies holds it axiomatic that rebellion constitutes an ‘unnatural’ crime of the sort for which incest provides a perfect metaphor.1 The association is ancient: in Euripides's Andromache mating kin and murdering kin are placed on a par.2 Shakespeare's Henry VI watches in dismay as civil war ‘begets’ monsters, much as incest was popularly supposed to do.3 Yet, leading a rebellion against the ‘anointed’ king, the Duke of Richmond marches into ‘the bowels’ of his motherland ‘without impediment’ (v.2.3-4).4 Far more is involved than a mere lack of resistance since the whole tenor of the play suggests that Richmond's cause is also ‘without impediment’, that he and England are the ‘true minds’ whose union must not be frustrated by the admission of other kinds of ‘truth’, even that of lineal descent.5 ‘What heir of York’, asks Richard III, ‘is there alive but we? / And who is England's King but great York's heir?’ (iv.4.471-2). But the play is not listening. We are given to understand that although the argument be right, the arguer is wrong. All of Richard's personal relationships are shown to be unnatural. He is truly akin not to York (upon whose issue he ‘preys’), but to himself alone: ‘Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I’—a bizarre by-product of the deepening ‘individualism’ of Shakespeare's characterisation (v.3.184).6 In his person the victorious House of York conducts a civil war within a civil war, ‘brother to brother, / Blood to blood, self against self’ (ii.4.62-3). As a result, kinship terminology degenerates into cynical pun: ‘cousins indeed! And by their uncle cozen'd’ (iv.4.223). Similarly, all attempts to reinforce familial ‘kindness’ stagger under a series of ancestral recriminations stretching back over three generations to a society ‘kind in hatred’ (iv.4.173), observing ‘no law of God nor man’ (i.2.70). The only ‘natural’ behaviour is unnatural behaviour, and Richard is presented as the ultimate expression of England's unnatural history, the ultimate despiser of the laws of kin. The language of butchery and incest fuse:

What though I kill'd her husband and her father?
The readiest way to make the wench amends
Is to become her husband, and her father.


Levitical degrees will not impede someone who uses ‘odd old ends stol'n forth of Holy Writ’ to ‘clothe’ his ‘naked villainy’ (i.3.336-7). Having destroyed his brothers and his nephews, Richard plans to wed his niece in violation of centuries of Christian tradition, but not necessarily … of current papal practice.7 According to Edward Hall, ‘all men, and the mayden her selfe moost of al, detested and abhorred this unlawfull and in maner unnaturall copulacion’.8 Raphael Holinshed concurs, declaring the plan ‘not onlie detestable to be spoken of in the remembrance of man, but much more cruell and abhominable to be put in execution’.9 The suspect relationship between Pandarus and Cressida springs to mind. But Richard's defence is powerful: reason of state was one of the major factors facilitating dispensation. Nevertheless, it is the nature of the relationship (as popularly conceived) that renders his interview with Elizabeth so much less satisfying than that with Anne. His brother's wife is being asked to become his ‘mother’—his natural mother having cursed his birth—by pandering to his incestuous relationship with her daughter: ‘What were I best to say?’, she asks, ‘her father's brother / Would be her lord? Or shall I say her uncle?’ (iv.4.337-8). The implications for English history are profound. When Richard asserts ‘I will beget / Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter’ (iv.4.297-8), no less is threatened than the perpetual pollution of the royal line. Henceforth all English monarchs will be the offspring of incest, all that is ‘unnatural’ will be institutionalised within the monarchy and Richard will take a lasting revenge upon ‘dissembling Nature’.10 As reported by Hall, Richmond's speech before Bosworth Field drew an elaborate parallel between Richard and Nero: ‘for he hath not only murdered his nephewe beyng his kyng and souereigne lorde, bastarded his noble brethern and defamed the wombe of his verteuous and womanly mother, but also compased all the meanes and waies that he coulde invent how to stuprate and carnally know his awne nece under the pretence of a cloked matrimony’.11 Thus the ‘unnatural’ crime of rebellion—that great Tudor insult to its own ideology—is justified as a fortunate fall into unblemished sovereignty:

O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal House,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace.


Though related through a common ancestor, the distance between the parties is such that their marriage fulfils the Augustinian goal of re-establishing kinship at the very point at which the two houses are set to diverge into estrangement of blood.12 By contrast, Richard's proposed ‘conjoining’ would compel one branch of the royal house to feed upon itself (‘Myself myself confound’), debilitating the royal blood and calling into question the legitimacy of all future monarchs. The fact that marriage to Elizabeth constitutes a political act for Richmond as much as for Richard is tacitly overlooked. What was denied to the one is allowed to the other: Tudor reason of state ‘dispenses’ with the unnatural crime of rebellion but aggravates its sexual equivalent, the ‘unnatural’ crime of incest. Holinshed's editorial additions to Hall's account propound the official view that ‘although … the right might seeme to remaine in the person of Richard duke of Yorke … it thus well appeared, that the house of Yorke shewed it selfe more bloudie in seeking to obteine the kingdome, than that of Lancaster in usurping it’.13 In theory, therefore, Richmond performed Hamlet's task in preventing the ‘royal bed’ of England from becoming ‘a couch for luxury and damned incest’, and in Henry VIII his son is represented as redeeming it a second time in the wake of a papal dispensation almost as foul as that for which Richard had petitioned.14 That such a dispensation should have been procured by Richmond himself, for reasons of state, is an irony upon which Shakespeare refuses to dwell.15

With the benefit of hindsight Hall assured his readers that ‘all wyse men in the Realme moche abhorred’ the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, but Shakespeare's heroine is correct in asserting that few such misgivings were voiced at the time.16 Henry VII was indeed ‘reputed for / A prince most prudent’, and Ferdinand ‘was reckon'd one / The wisest prince’ that ever ruled in Spain. The ‘wise council’ summoned by both to ‘debate this business’ deemed the marriage ‘lawful’ (ii.4.43-51).17 Throughout the course of the play the sole motivation Henry allows in promoting his ‘divorce’ is ‘conscience’. The word is used no fewer than twenty-four times but in a bewildering variety of tones and contexts. The matter is complicated by clear intimations of the king's interest in Anne Boleyn (i.2) well before the subject of incest is broached (ii.1). Thus the Lord Chamberlain's declaration that ‘marriage with his brother's wife / Has crept too near his conscience’ evokes Suffolk's sarcastic aside, ‘no, his conscience / Has crept too near another lady’ (ii.2.16-18). Courtly observers ‘cannot blame his conscience’ when they perceive Anne's beauty (iv.1.47). The aristocracy is all but unanimous in blaming the royal ‘scruple’—itself a potentially pejorative and demeaning word first introduced in conjunction with ‘malice’ (ii.1.157-8)—upon Wolsey's political machinations. ‘All that dare / Look into these affairs’, we learn, ‘see this main end, / The French king's sister’ (ii.2.39-41).

But this analysis, though politically plausible, is wrong. Henry's overriding concern, as here presented, is the legitimacy of issue. According to his own account of the matter, his conscience ‘first receiv'd a tenderness / Scruple and prick’ when doubt was raised concerning the legitimacy of Princess Mary.18 ‘Methought’, he asserts,

I stood not in the smile of heaven, who had
Commanded nature, that my lady's womb,
If it conceiv'd a male-child by me, should
Do no more offices of life to't than
The grave does to th'dead.


This is somewhat disingenuous since the relevant Levitical texts speak of childlessness and not specifically the lack of a male heir.19 Katherine is right in pointing out that the union has been blessed with issue. Sympathy for her cause culminates in the mystical apotheosis of act iv scene 2 which confirms her personal integrity, but within the larger dramatic structure personal considerations are qualified by public ones. Katherine complicates matters by appealing to the Pope whom she regards as the spiritual equivalent of Hermione's Delphic Oracle. By contrast, Anne relies upon the Protestant martyr, Cranmer. Furthermore, the play's many expressions of hostility to Anne are themselves qualified by the aura of epiphany cast over the birth of her daughter Elizabeth, particularly in Cranmer's final prophetic vision (v.4.14-62). It is Anne not Katherine who produces an heir worthy of the English crown (v.4.22-3). Yet such is the complexity of the drama that Elizabeth's sexuality undermines her father's arguments:

Is the queen deliver'd?
Say ay, and of a boy.
OLD Lady:
Ay, ay my liege,
And of a lovely boy: the God of heaven
Both now and ever bless her: 'tis a girl
Promises boys hereafter.


The dramatic power of this exchange cannot be overstated. The old lady's reply at first appears to lend providential validation to royal policy when suddenly the illusion shatters. Henry may compel his subjects to ‘say’ whatever he wishes, but he cannot alter reality either spiritual or physical. Cranmer's prophecy of the wonders attendant upon a female heir insulates fate from human interference. Henry has been the pawn, not the grandmaster. Perhaps more than any other history play, Henry VIII is pervaded by a keen sense of proleptic irony. As everyone knew, Anne's sumptuous coronation served merely as the prelude to ignominious execution, and the birth of England's virgin queen promised no boys hereafter but an end to the Tudor dynasty.

The word ‘truth’ is used throughout the text almost twice as often as ‘conscience’ but even more problematically. The prologue asserts the ‘truth’ of its material, referring to it as ‘our chosen truth’ and the adjective rings heavily. Essentially what the play affords is a series of ‘choices’ between apparently conflicting ‘truths’ with no clear indication of how such a decision might be made. The truth of political expediency finds marriage with a brother's widow lawful in the reign of Henry VII but unnatural in the reign of Henry VIII. The truth of historical hindsight necessitates the rejection of Katherine, even as the truth of personal integrity upholds her. ‘Chosen’ truth would seem to depend upon the nature of the chooser. Katherine relies upon the belief that, ‘heaven is above all yet; there sits a judge / That no king can corrupt’ (iii.1.100-1). Commenting upon the prejudices of his Council, Henry remarks that ‘not ever / The justice and the truth o'th'question carries / The due o'th'verdict with it’ (v.1.129-31). In such circumstances ‘'tis well there's one above'em yet’ (v.2.26). The reminiscence of Katherine's words seems deliberate, as does the displacement of God by Henry himself. The king's ‘good opinion’ makes or breaks courtiers. Cranmer's ‘opinion’ on the divorce is found consonant with divine law largely because it facilitates a course of action too far advanced to be abandoned (iii.2.64): Henry weds Anne long before the status of Katherine is determined thereby ‘bastarding’ his daughter as surely as ‘usurping Richard’ had disowned his nephews.

Wolsey is dismissed for making his ‘opinion’ his ‘law’, but Henry does the same only more successfully (iv.2.37). At the outset of the play the king too appeals to Rome as ‘the nurse of judgement’ (ii.2.93), but like his romantic counterpart, Leontes, decides that there is ‘no truth’ in this oracle. He may well be right since papal politics seem just as labyrinthine as his own. In other circumstances Wolsey might himself have become pope and made his opinion ecclesiastical law. ‘Heaven’ expresses no judgement either way; Katherine's apotheosis is a private vision powerless to effect policy. We have reached the point at which royal opinion determines natural law and the mentality of the House of Tudor seems disconcertingly similar to that of its ‘unnatural’ opponents. Man, it would appear, is primarily a political animal and natural law a political concept. Theoretically ‘nature’ sustains hierarchy, but in the real world the autocrat defines nature. ‘Nothing’, comments Montaigne, ‘is more subject unto a continuall agitation, then the lawes. I have since I was borne, seene those of our neighbours the English-men changed and rechanged three or foure times, not only in politike subjects, which is that some will dispense of constancy, but in the most important subject, that possibly can be, that is to say, in religion.’20 The further one proceeds towards an Erastian state the less tenable become traditional distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Constancy may be ‘dispensed’ with in both spheres as may incest—and dispensations from incest. Where royal opinion is law, there is no catching the conscience of the king.


Were one to read the acts and scenes of Hamlet in reverse order, attempting to trace the hero's tragic malady to its root, the investigation would proceed past the Ghost and the first soliloquy to the single line which serves to introduce us to the consciousness of the prince: ‘a little more than kin, and less than kind’ (1.2.65).21 Various meanings of ‘kind’ are brought into play: natural, affectionate and loving. In the normal course of events, one expects more ‘kindness’ from kin than from strangers, but in so far as ‘kind’ also carries connotations of romantic love the rule is quite contrary: ‘the neerer we are in bloud, the further wee must be from love; and the greater the kindred is, the lesse the kindnes must be’.22 Claudius is Hamlet's closest male relative but, by marrying his mother, he has contrived to overlay consanguinity with affinity thereby becoming ‘a little more than kin’. This ‘little more’ defies conventional classification and results in the unnaturally hybrid concepts of ‘uncle-father’ and ‘aunt-mother’ (ii.2.372). In respect of both civil and canon law the union is incestuous, however the ‘better wisdoms’ of Denmark have ‘freely’ sanctioned the whole questionable ‘affair’ (i.2.15-16).23 Shakespeare's contemporaries would doubtless recall the Henrician parallel laboured in Der Bestrafte Brudermord where Gertrude claims to have petitioned and received a papal dispensation.24 Hamlet regards the marriage as incestuous long before he meets the Ghost whose own obsession with violated kinship serves to exacerbate an already critical situation: ‘I am thy father's spirit … / ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast … / upon my secure hour thy uncle stole … / let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest … / nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught.’ The same emphases appear in the source material. In Saxo Grammaticus Ambleth accuses Fengo of having ‘defiled his brother's queen with infamous desecration … and crowned fratricide with incest’.25 Belleforest portrays Fengon as ‘charging his conscience with abhominable guilt, and two-fold impietie … incestuous adulterie and parricide murder’.26

The precise nature of the defilement involved depends upon the ‘incorporation’ of husband and wife as ‘one flesh’. By agreeing to wed her ‘sometime’ brother, Gertrude corrupts her former partner's ‘blood’ as surely as does his murderer. As another Shakespearean wife expresses it, in a comedy whose ‘errors’ impinge uneasily upon Hamlet's tragic themes, ‘if we two be one, and thou play false, / I do digest the poison of thy flesh, / Being strumpeted by thy contagion’.27 From this point on there rages a ‘hectic’ in the ‘blood’ and the resulting relationship can never, in theory, be anything more than a sensual parody of that which it supplants (iv.4.69). And as for the family, so for the state. Since it is the ‘royal bed’ of Denmark which has been defiled, Claudius can no more prove father to his people than to Hamlet. The mystical ‘union’ of monarch and state suffers in its corporal counterpart and the incest is, like Macbeth's murder, metaphysical as well as carnal.28 Since Gertrude is ‘th'imperial jointress to this warlike state’, the odour of corrosion and decay, physically centred in Old Hamlet's corpse, is everywhere palpable in the body politic.29 As in Oedipus Tyrannus, ‘nature’ reacts against such violation but far less overtly. In the Greek play the natural order admits of no ambiguity, while here it is very much a matter of human perception, for ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’ (ii.2.249-50).30 A single word does double duty for ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’. Through the imagery of sickness, weeds and poison, the Theban plague is internalised. The country abounds in ‘sick souls’, its language in sick bodies. The spiritual and intellectual landscape suffers a fall equivalent to that of Eden: ‘'tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely’ (i.2.135-7). The ‘green’ memory of Old Hamlet bristles with thorns, yet Gertrude remains blithely unaware of those ‘that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her’ until her son alters her perception (i.5.87-8).

However, if the ‘taint’ of incest provides an ‘objective correlative’ for Hamlet's melancholia, it is a taint apparently experienced by no other member of the court, nor is allusion ever made to any sense of popular revulsion amongst the masses.31 It would therefore seem that Hamlet is a man of received ideas fated to operate in a world of received indifference. For this very reason, his has been described as the ‘voice of nature’ in an otherwise unnatural environment, a description that does scant justice to the complexity of his make-up, let alone to that of ‘nature’ itself.32 Apart from the Ghost, which remains self-evidently ‘unnatural’ while simultaneously appealing to ‘nature’, the word ‘incestuous’ is employed by no one except Hamlet, and it remains unclear whether Gertrude has indeed infringed a law of nature, or merely an idealised, subjective conception of nature untenable in the light of actual experience. The status of her relationship with Claudius remains to the end as ‘questionable’ as everything else in the play. Protestant theologians would doubtless have declared it unnatural, Catholic theologians would not—and it is from the Catholic afterworld that the Ghost purports to return, like the spectre of England's own spiritual past.33 The entire play may not unjustly be seen as an attempt to exorcise that unquiet spirit once and for all.34

Throughout all five acts, appeals to allegedly ‘common’ natural principles falter in the face of apparently autonomous individual ‘complexions’.35 Since ‘nature cannot choose his origin’—any more than Hamlet could choose or reject his parentage—‘particular men’ may not be called to account for ‘some vicious mole of nature in them … wherein they are not guilty’ (i.4.24-6). ‘Natural’ tendencies may actually be vicious tendencies. At times we seem to be operating in an Ockhamist universe of ‘discrete entities sharing no common nature’.36 This being the case, no single voice may be regarded as that of natural order. Rather, each speaker expresses the contradictions of his own particular temperament in a language peculiar to himself. Thus the Ghost appeals to Hamlet's better ‘nature’ in order to instigate murder ‘most foul, as in the best it is’ (i.5.27), whereas in John Pickering's Horestes (1567) Nature opposes all such revenge.37 While boasting of its own ‘natural gifts’ it also confesses to ‘foul crimes’ committed in its ‘days of nature’ thereby severely qualifying, if not negating, Hamlet's retrospective idealisation.

The play's radical scepticism centres in its hero: ‘To be or not to be?’ remains an unanswered, existential question.38 Characteristically, only Polonius is certain of discovering ‘where truth is hid though it were hid indeed within the centre’. For the rest, subjective certainty is no guarantee of objective truth. Each and every mind finds its own emotional ‘correlative’ by interpreting experience in the light of its own temperament, just as each and every spectator finds a personal relevance in the play within the play. In the final analysis, Hamlet's assessment of his mother's fall has less to do with the intricacies of canon law than with his own emotional need to evoke from within himself the profound sense of revulsion which accusations of incest traditionally facilitate. As a result, he acts for much of the play like a man caught between the conflicting dictates of Stoicism and scepticism, the one assertive of natural virtue, the other dismissive of natural law. Both philosophies enjoyed considerable contemporary vogue. While Montaigne was writing his sceptical essays, Justus Lipsius led a revival of Stoicism destined to exercise a powerful, contrary influence over seventeenth-century thought.39 Hamlet's dilemma is meticulously attuned to that of his age.

Introducing the subject of his brother's death, Claudius draws a very provocative distinction between the opposing dictates of prudence and emotion equally applicable to his union with Gertrude. ‘So far hath discretion fought with nature’, he informs us, that ‘remembrance’ of himself qualifies remembrance of the dead. That is to say, reason of state dispenses with natural scruple just as the title of ‘queen’ supersedes the ‘sometime’ title of ‘sister’. Contemporary moralists held that with regard to kinship regulations, ‘we should enquire what Gods Law doth forbid or allow, before we give or withhold our assent. But our affections usually outstep our discretion.’40 Hamlet could scarcely be expected to appreciate Claudius's outlook since ‘it is common for the younger sort / To lack discretion’ (ii.1.116-17). On the contrary, he later finds that ‘indiscretion’ often serves us well (v.2.8). Denmark would appear to be a largely Erastian state in which the ‘great command o'ersways the order’ in matrimony as in burial (v.1.221). Ideally, positive law was supposed to act as the social expression of natural law, but the choice of a name for Claudius (alias Fengo or Fengon) argues otherwise. The Emperor Claudius was universally denounced by canon lawyers for having divorced positive law from its natural counterpart in pursuance of incestuous designs upon his niece. The result was a dissociation of worldly ‘discretion’ from natural truth catastrophic to the former.41 Belleforest provides a wry commentary on the ‘better wisdoms’ which supported Claudius's Danish counterpart: ‘insteed of pursuing him as a parricide and an incestuous person, al the courtyers admired and flattered him … which was the cause that Fengon, boldned and incouraged by such impunitie, durst venture to couple himselfe in marriage with her whom hee used as his concubine during good Horvendiles life.’42

Despite such political cynicism, the paradoxical notion that the monarch might legitimately transcend the law continued to exert a strong influence over leading political theorists. Since political benefit was one of the primary considerations taken into account by the papal court in the matter of dispensation, Claudius may well feel perfectly justified in marrying his sister-in-law—although such a complacent accommodation to incest should lose him the sympathy of a Protestant audience by analogy with the case of Henry VIII.43 Ostensibly, the crime that weighs upon the king's conscience is murder not incest, but the two are actually inextricable even in terminology: Claudius, for example, denies ‘direct’ or ‘collateral’ involvement in Polonius's death (iv.5.203). From the moment he refers to Gertrude as ‘our sometime sister, now our queen, / Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state’ (i.2.8-9), an indissoluble link is forged between ‘my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen’ (iii.3.55) reminiscent of Saxo's Fengo who ‘crowned fratricide with incest’. More subtly, Claudius's self-contempt is conjured up through images of venereal disease: ‘the harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art’ (iii.1.51). Like Cain he has killed his brother, like Cain he has wed his ‘sister’. Gertrude is part and parcel of Claudius's ‘rank’ offence and he is intelligent enough to realise that, although the ‘wicked prize’ frequently ‘buys out the law’ in the ‘corrupted currents of this world’, the matter is different ‘above’: ‘there the action lies / In his true nature’ (iii.3.57-62). At precisely this point in the play the problem of the marriage is kept powerfully to the fore by Hamlet's renewed allusion to the ‘incestuous pleasure’ of the praying Claudius's bed (line 90), an allusion developed at far greater length in the ensuing interview with his mother.

The Old Testament allows marriage with a brother's widow only in the interests of Levirate, the practice of raising up issue to a deceased brother's name.44 Such was the defence put forward by the advocates of Catherine of Aragon. In Hamlet, however, the case is quite contrary. Not merely does the old king have issue, but the sources have been altered to allow his son to bear his name thereby leaving Claudius to enact a reversal of Levirate. If possible, he would appropriate his brother's family to himself: ‘But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son … / think of us / As of a father … / our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son … / thy loving father, Hamlet.’ Under normal circumstances the death of a father—the ‘common theme’ of all life—should mark the son's attainment of seniority, in this case both personally and politically. But Claudius's marriage to Gertrude and ascension to the throne reimpose parental subjection upon Hamlet at the very point of liberty. Thus, as is often the case, ‘allusions to incest … exemplify the tension inherent in the power relations between male generations in a patriarchal society’.45 In this sense Hamlet is ‘too much in the sun’, but as the play proceeds Claudius attempts to undo the offices of Levirate entirely by depriving his brother of issue through Hamlet's murder. His position vis-à-vis his brother's wife closely resembles that of Marston's cynical Herod Frappatore.46 The correspondence is especially close because Claudius too has seduced his brother's wife during her husband's lifetime, just like their common biblical exemplar. Citizen comedy is well invoked in this regard since Gertrude behaves less like the ‘queen’ Hamlet demands she be than a city wife (iii.4.14)—in fact, like those complained of in Michaelmas Term: ‘I knew a widow about Saint Antlings so forgetful of her first husband that she married again within the twelve-month; nay, some, by'rlady, within the month’ (v.1.60-2). ‘Within a month’, remarks Hamlet, ‘she married’ (i.2.153-6). The contrast with the ‘mobled queen’ is staggering. One is reminded of Michel Foucault's assertion that ‘the bourgeoisie's blood was its sex’, a point Hamlet anticipates.47 ‘At your age’, he shouts, ‘the heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble, / And waits upon the judgement, and what judgement / Would step from this to this?’ (iii.4.69-71). There is no majesty, no depth, in Gertrude's perception of affairs: the wider implications of ‘our o'er-hasty marriage’ elude her. ‘What have I done’, she can ask in genuine amazement, ‘that thou dar'st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?’ (iii.4.39-40). Above all it is this emotional shallowness that infuriates her son. Not Oedipus but Orestes is his mythical prototype.48

Hamlet's theory of the player's art is directly relevant to his attitude towards Gertrude and his stepfather. He would have the players ‘hold … the mirror up to nature’, looking beyond appearances to essentials, moral essentials: ‘to show virtue her feature … and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’ (iii.2.22-4). He would have them, and their audience, employ ‘discretion’ in a sense intended neither by Claudius nor Polonius, ‘with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature’ (lines 18-19). He would not have them ‘out-Herod Herod’, even when performing before a king who has also stolen his brother's wife. Better patterns than the Mystery Plays exist among their audience—indeed their audience is their theme. Unlike those whose hearts must ‘break’ in silence, ‘the players cannot keep counsel: they'll tell all’ (lines 137-8). In a play dealing with incest and murder they perform a play illustrative of the true nature of such deeds. Thus the Player King's opening speech cuts to the heart of the Danish problem in its insistence upon the ‘commutual’ nature of wedlock's ‘sacred bands’ from which arise both consanguinity and affinity. His allusion to thirty years of married life may be intended to recall Hamlet's age since their son has never known a time, until now, when Old Hamlet and Gertrude were not so ‘united’. By insisting upon the sanctity of marriage vows, even after death, the Player Queen relates second marriage to political betrayal: ‘such love must needs be treason in my breast’ (line 173). Since the play is called ‘The Mousetrap’ and Gertrude is Claudius's ‘mouse’ (iii.4.185), the line is presumably intended to elicit some evidence of her complicity in her husband's murder. It is noteworthy, however, that as the action proceeds the Player Queen takes no part in the assassination, and in the dumb show ‘seems harsh awhile’ to the murderer before accepting his love. Adultery is not shown, merely shallowness: ‘but die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead’ (iii.3.210). In this manner the play manages to echo the emphases of the Ghost whose assault upon Claudius is direct, upon Gertrude oblique. It serves as an analogue to the Danish tragedy rather than a reenactment.49 While supposedly representing the past it also predicts the future, the murder of an uncle by a nephew. Hamlet has the vicarious satisfaction of killing Claudius in play, but a more substantial satisfaction remains: ‘You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife’ (lines 257-8).

Freudian interpreters have not neglected this line. By coupling it with Hamlet's fear lest ‘the soul of Nero’ enter his ‘firm bosom’ they derive a reading indicative of sexual excitement immediately preceding his interview with Gertrude.50 Perhaps at no point in the play, however, is the parallel with Orestes more vital to its explanation, nor less incompatible with the exemplum Hamlet himself chooses: in the anonymous Nero of 1624 the emperor proposes to perform the role of Orestes on stage having ‘done that already, and too truly’.51 Hamlet's attitude to Gertrude is ambivalent but not in the simplistic sense imagined by Ernest Jones. Rather, he has become, in the words of Victor Hugo, ‘that sinister thing, the possible parricide’.52 But implicit in the impulse to destroy is the impulse to reclaim and this can only be by alienating Gertrude from Claudius, by ‘getting the love’ of his uncle's wife. As David Leverenz argues, ‘the destruction of good mothering is the real issue … While acknowledging Hamlet's parricidal and matricidal impulses, we should see these inchoate feelings as responses, not innate drives’.53 Incest is his theme throughout the interview, not his motive: ‘you are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife, / And, would it were not so, you are my mother’ (iii.4.14-15). It is not the adultery per se but the relationships perverted in the adultery that matter. This is not to say that Hamlet remains sexually unaffected by what he does. Quite the contrary, disgust with his mother poisons his affection for Ophelia by rendering kinship itself contemptible.54 To propagate the species is to ‘breed’ maggots in a dead dog, to perpetuate the ‘thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ (iii.1.62-3)—surprisingly the sole use of the word ‘heir’ throughout the play.

At the very moment Hamlet might have broken free of the ‘nuclear’ family, its ‘contagion’ drags him back, forcing him, as Leviticus expresses it, to uncover his mother's ‘nakedness’ and see what he has exposed (18:7). If the ‘mirror’ held up by the Player Queen was comparatively gentle, ‘I shall set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you’ (iii.4.18-19). Since flesh ‘sullies’ soul, the sexual ambivalence of that ‘inmost part’ is unavoidable. Such is the inescapable perversion of the context that verbal intercourse inevitably enacts a sort of semantic incest: ‘Hamlet’, remarks one commentator, ‘talks sense to his sensuous mother verbally raping her with all the resonant imagery of the play.’55 One relishes the ambiguity of ‘sense’. Yet, contrary to Ernest Jones's belief that Shakespeare exhumed his imagery from buried infantile fantasies, the corresponding passages in Belleforest are equally gross.56 There Ambleth denounces Geruth as ‘a vile wanton adultresse’ who ‘incestuously’ receives her husband's murderer ‘like a mare that yieldeth her bodie to the horse that hath beaten hir companion awaye’.57 Underlying both the impulse to destroy and the impulse to reclaim is the impulse to pull free. Yet in attempting to exorcise kinship, Hamlet merely raises the ghost he would lay—literally and metaphorically. His relationship with Gertrude reaches a satisfactory conclusion only in the last words he directs towards her in the play, indeed in the very last word, ‘wretched Queen, adieu’ (v.2.338).58 Clearly associated with this pursuit of liberation is the persistent death-wish which haunts him as surely as does the Ghost. Ironically, it too is a form of ‘consummation’, a promiscuous ‘compounding’ of the flesh ‘with dust, whereto 'tis kin’ (iv.2.5). One recalls Charles's query in As You Like It, ‘where is this young gallant that is so desirous to lie with his mother earth?’ (i.2.188-9). The very structure of the tragic family enforces the sort of sexual intimacy it is designed to restrain.

Both Hamlet and his forerunners employ ancient vituperative techniques whereby moral turpitude is exposed through the relentless exposition of its sexual symptoms. They must ‘be cruel to be kind’—such is the ‘physic’ of satire, the roots of which run deep into the malady of the satirist himself, the wounded surgeon who plies the steel. Yet to some extent at least the outburst proves cathartic. Hamlet will not allow Gertrude to lay to her soul such ‘flattering unction’ as would ‘but skin and film the ulcerous place, / Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen’ (iii.4.146-51). He undertakes what Sir Philip Sidney regarded as the very function of tragedy ‘that openeth the greatest wounds, and sheweth forth the Ulcers that are covered with Tissue’.59 Having urged Hamlet not to ‘taint’ his mind against Gertrude—while making it virtually impossible for him to do otherwise—the Ghost now reappears, urging him to ‘step between her and her fighting soul’ (line 113). Yet forgiveness is mingled with cynicism. Since reformation of ‘nature’ requires mutilation of the ‘heart’—‘throw away the worser part of it’ (line 159)—no total recovery seems possible. It is the supreme irony of the ‘closet’ scene that Gertrude, so often condemned for actions ‘that a man might play’, is exhorted to become a player queen, to ‘assume’ a ‘virtue’ she does not possess (line 162). At last, Hamlet seems resigned to his mother's corruption and that of Mother Nature, a fitting prelude to the graveyard episode and to the transformation of the court itself into a graveyard just one scene later.

Throughout acts four and five Gertrude ‘plays’ a dual role, faithful to Hamlet's confidence, loyal to the villain who is its subject, while Claudius himself, having failed to ‘father’ Hamlet, appropriates Laertes instead. Only in her dying moments does the queen finally choose between husband and son to warn Hamlet of the poisoned ‘union’ lurking in the wine, a perfect emblem for her bond with Claudius, as Hamlet recognises:

Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.


This is the first and only time the term ‘incestuous’ is publicly applied to either partner of the royal marriage, and it occurs, significantly, only after Gertrude's death. Hamlet betrays her to herself, but not to her subjects. His final farewell to the ‘wretched Queen’ casts her more as victim than as criminal, poisoned like Old Hamlet and the Danish state by the ‘witchcraft’ of her second husband's ‘wit’. A ‘union’ begun in poison ‘dissolves’ in poison amidst a fitful restoration of relationships to some belated norm. Hamlet and Laertes end as ‘brothers’, the kinship they might have shared had marriage with Ophelia proved possible, a significant development in a tragedy founded upon fratricide but greatly diminished by the second ‘fratricide’ that provokes it. In the concluding moments it is important to Hamlet to believe that heaven has proved ‘ordinant’ in all his affairs, that he has not laboured under the curse of some arbitrary fate, but operated with the aid of ‘special providence’, and the benign father behind it, to eradicate ‘this canker of our nature’ before it came ‘in further evil’ (v.2.69-70).60 But the ‘accidental judgments’ and ‘casual slaughters’ of which Horatio proposes to speak defy such sublimation, as do ‘the carnal, bloody and unnatural acts’ which constitute the history of the Danish court. The ‘quarry cries on havoc’ not design, and everything in the play seems calculated to give the lie to Laertes's observation that ‘nature is fine in love’ (iv.5.161).61 Pervaded by images of self-defeat, of engineers hoist with their own petard, of mistaken purposes fallen upon their inventors' heads, of poisons fatally returning (like incestuous offspring) to their point of origin, of moral coil and spiritual recoil, Hamlet is the ultimate tragedy of family bondage, the quintessence of haunted dust.


According to Proverbs, ‘he that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart’ (11:29). Should any biblical text underlie the structure of King Lear it is surely this. Troubler of his own house, Lear inherits a storm he has himself invoked and is served throughout by a ‘fool’ paradoxically wise-of-heart.62 Only upon identifying himself as ‘old and foolish’ does he too manifest a belated potential for similar wisdom.

So far as family relationships are concerned, the opening scene is one of the most embarrassing in the Shakespearean canon. Indeed from Cordelia's viewpoint embarrassment is its theme.63 She is the first to speak in an aside, the first to invite sympathy with a mind in perplexity: ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent’ (i.1.62).64 Such familiar asides are more often the hallmark of deception than truth—one might rather have expected either or both of her sisters to betray their natures in similar fashion. Yet a sort of deception is, in fact, in progress. By alerting us to her inner conflict, Cordelia tells us more than she tells Lear. We may feel reassured that her love is ‘more ponderous’ than her tongue, he does not.65 Nor can he decently expect to. A father cannot hope to be so intimate with his daughter as to ‘hear’ her asides, forcing the patterns of her thought to echo his desires. Love's reticence is arguably as precious as its language, but Lear's insistence upon verbalising family emotions criminalises Cordelia's silence, traditionally regarded (particularly in matters sexual) as woman's proper eloquence: ‘Which of you shall we say doth love us most’ (line 51).66 By setting his children in overt emotional—or rather verbal—competition, he distorts the very passion he would elicit, creating the unnatural circumstances in which both utterance and silence produce deception. The conspicuous absence of a mother figure centres the king's entire emotional needs, paternal and sexual, upon the three young women who stand before him, and his ‘darker purpose’ may perhaps be darker than he knows.67 In the old chronicle play he remarks, ‘how deare my daughters are unto my soule, / None knowes, but he, that knowes my thoghts and secret deeds’.68

Since inheritance is their primary goal, neither Goneril nor Regan have the slightest compunction in acceding to Lear's request. The new climate of verbalised emotion suits them perfectly.69 Cordelia's belief that filial love transcends words is for Goneril merely a convenient rhetorical device: ‘Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter … A love that makes breath poor and speech unable’ (i.1.55-60). In the event it is her love that proves ‘unable’ to translate itself into action. Despite her careful use of the words ‘child’ and ‘father’, the tenor of her speech is most unfilial and a succession of critics have commented upon its implicit sexual connotations.70 But the romantic imagery degenerates as the play proceeds. Goneril loves her father ‘dearer than eye-sight’. ‘Pluck out his eyes’ (iii.7.5), she advises, à propos of his saviour Gloucester whom the old man later mistakes for ‘blind Cupid’ (iv.6.139).

Because Lear has invited competition, Regan's speech provides a revealing gloss upon the erotic potential of her sister's language: ‘In my true heart / I find she names my very deed of love; / Only she comes too short’ (i.1.70-2). If this ‘deed of love’ is not quite the ‘act of darkness’ condemned by Poor Tom, it certainly suggests it. ‘I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are’ observes the Fool, and the scene seems designed to make the audience marvel too (i.4.189). In the chronicle play Gonorill invites the king to ‘commaund what ever you desire’.71 Few daughters can, in their husbands' presence, express themselves ‘alone felicitate’ in their father's love, but less important than such protestations is their ready acceptance.72 By countenancing the exclusivity of his daughters' remarks, Lear effectively relegates his sons-in-law to a poor second place. When he describes Burgundy and France as ‘great rivals in our youngest daughter's love’—the same daughter he loved ‘most’ and upon whose ‘kind nursery’ he had thought to set his ‘rest’—the precise nature of the rivalry is questionable. ‘The implied relationship’, comments Lynda Boose, ‘is unnatural … effecting a newly incestuous proximity to the daughter, from whom the marriage ritual is designed to detach him’.73

This emotional ambiguity lends force to the precision of Cordelia's response in that she seems to be at pains to avoid an equivalent semantic ambiguity. In Holinshed, where Lear's plan is to award the entire kingdom to the daughter who best pleases him, Cordelia asserts that she loves him as her ‘naturall father’.74 In the chronicle play, more pointedly, she tells him to expect ‘what love the child doth owe the father’.75 In Shakespeare this is preempted by Goneril's ‘as much as child e'er lov'd, or father found’, a remark which ‘comes too short’ for Regan's tastes. Cordelia's traditional reply is thus debased before she has a chance to make it. Her anxiety is therefore intensified—‘what shall Cordelia speak?’—since Lear demands not merely an expression of affection but, by implication, an expression of greater affection than ‘child’ has ever made or ‘father’ ever received. He anticipates such a unique verbal tribute with obvious relish: ‘what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?’ (i.1.85-6). Only in direct response to this question does Cordelia answer ‘nothing’ and, given the tenor of her sisters' remarks, nothing is all that can decently be said.76 At this point, however, the play confronts a peculiarly paradoxical element in male injunctions to female ‘silence’, an enigmatic virtue wisely tendered only to the emotionally self-assured, a category into which few of Shakespeare's tragic heroes may be said to fit. In fact, female silence often proves less tolerable than female garrulity. Cordelia has the worst of both worlds in saying too little and too much. By emphasising the ‘bond’ between parent and child, she reminds Lear of the ‘natural’ limits of filial affection, of the prohibitions as well as the privileges of kinship, ‘no more, no less’:77

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.

(lines 96-8)78

The echo of the marriage service is unmistakable in a play of inverted ceremonies and pious frauds, ‘haunted’, as Stephen Greenblatt says, ‘by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out’.79 Lear is being told that a daughter cannot be a substitute wife, that filial love, honour and obedience cannot be translated into their erotic equivalents. She will not permit her prospective husband to be usurped like Cornwall and Albany: ‘That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty’ (101-2). It is important to Lear to secure Cordelia's total affection before she vows allegiance to any other: he will not so much as introduce France or Burgundy until this has occurred. ‘Marriage’, observes Lévi-Strauss, ‘is an arbitration between two loves, parental and conjugal … to intercross they must at least momentarily be joined.’80 Lear seeks to exploit this moment of intersection by appropriating exclusive personal rights to Cordelia's emotions before the obligatory public ritual of ‘giving her away’.81 Her response dashes all such hopes: ‘sure I shall never marry like my sisters, / To love my father all’ (103-4).

This is ‘untender’ only in the sense that the primal directive is untender: ‘therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).82 Many Renaissance commentators would regard Cordelia as allowing too much to filial devotion.83 According to William Gouge, for example, ‘the bond of mariage is more ancient, more firme, more neere … what wrong then doe such parents unto their children, as keepe them, even after they are maried, so strait under subjection, as they cannot freely performe such duty as they ought to their husband, or their wife?’84 It was generally felt that the union of man and wife necessitated the division of parent and child. By ignoring the need for such separation, Lear contrives unnatural ‘divisions’ of his own ruinously detrimental to family and state alike. ‘Better is a poor and a wise child’, comments Ecclesiastes, ‘than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished’ (4:13). By demanding ‘all’, Lear condemns himself to ‘nothing’: ‘Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood’ (i.1.113-14). Even the rejection bespeaks possessiveness.

Commenting upon Lear's ‘darker purpose’, S. L. Goldberg detects ‘a sign of some need in him so voracious that it could never be wholly satisfied’.85 Such voraciousness is implicit in his choice of language: he has become a ‘dragon’ and henceforth dragon-like men who ‘gorge’ their ‘appetite’ on their own ‘generation’ shall be ‘as well neighbour'd’ to his affections as his ‘sometime daughter’ (i.1.117-20). The thought association is bizarre, yet incestuous sinners were commonly regarded as ‘feeding’ on their own flesh.86 As a man ‘more sinned against than sinning’, however, Lear imagines himself beset by ‘pelican daughters’ thereby degrading an ancient symbol of self-sacrifice into a peculiarly disturbing image of parricide. In the old chronicle play Leir asserts himself ‘as kind as is the Pellican, / That kils it selfe, to save her young ones lives’, but Shakespeare's pelican is not prepared to give his blood, preferring to be fed rather than to feed.87 Everything is inverted. As France insinuates, the terms in which Cordelia is rejected for upholding the rule of exogamy are those normally reserved for the incestuous: ‘her offence / Must be of such unnatural degree / That monsters it, or your fore-vouch'd affection / Fall into taint’ (lines 218-21). ‘Taint not thy mind’, warns Old Hamlet's ghost. The appeal in both cases is to nature, but since the setting is now pagan there exists no supreme guarantor of nature's ultimate benignity.

In a celebrated essay John F. Danby argued for two conflicting theories of nature in King Lear, but in fact there are almost as many conceptions of the natural as there are characters to conceive it.88 ‘Allow not nature more than nature needs’, argues the destitute Lear, ‘man's life is cheap as beasts’ (ii.4.268-9). In the immediate context this axiom serves him well, but regarded from the viewpoint of kinship to allow nature more than its ‘needs’ is to precipitate a degeneration to bestiality. Animal imagery pervades a play in which man is no longer creation's ‘paragon’, but merely a ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ worse off than most (iii.4.110). He should be able to determine natural law through the use of reason becoming ‘a law unto himself’ in the absence of revelation (Romans 2:16), but Calvinist observers thought otherwise.89 ‘The disposition of mankind’, ventured Heinrich Bullinger, ‘being flatly corrupted by sin … knoweth not God … but rather is affected with self-love … and seeketh still for its own advantage.’90 From this conflict arose a series of paradoxes whereby virtue and depravity are simultaneously natural and unnatural and some characters function to ‘redeem’ nature from what others regard as its natural state. The play defies explication in terms of Danby's neat dichotomy: ‘nature's above art in that respect’ (iv.6.86).

The protracted debate as to whether King Lear is a Christian or a pagan play has tended to centre upon the redemption or otherwise of the central figures.91 Poetic justice in the present world, however, was never a Christian tenet, yet many commentators have done to Lear by interpretation what Nahum Tate did by adaptation.92 During the course of the play virtually every shade of opinion from materialistic atheism to astral determinism is mooted by one character or other but less as professions of ‘doctrine’ than as expressions of mood. Both Edmund and Edgar need their respective outlooks in order to construe their respective experiences. Indeed the one is a product, or a construct, of the other. The ‘good’ which Edmund means to do ‘despite’ his ‘own nature’ illustrates how shallow his conception of that nature really is. Central to the play's concern is man's desperate need to impose some pattern upon the bewildering vicissitudes of contingency, even if it be no other than the embracing of contingency itself: ‘the wheel is come full circle, I am here’ (v.3.174).

The lesson Lear learns in the storm is profound—for a narcissist. While the flattery of daughters inflates his self-esteem, their contempt induces his self-loathing. As the incestuous overtones of the opening scenes give way to a sense of universal kinship with beggars, the revelation is not so much Christian as practical: we are seldom loved as much as we love ourselves and such affection cannot be purchased from other self-lovers—‘thy half o' th' kingdom hast thou not forgot, / Wherein I thee endow'd’ (ii.4.182-3). ‘With all my worldly goods’, says the bridegroom to his bride, ‘I thee endow.’ Once again the language calls the kinship into question. The subsequent outpouring of vicious anti-feminism in madness—an oblique strategy for simultaneously centralising and distancing the deviant—is such that one might suppose Lear the victim of sexual insult. His daughters' ‘ingratitude’ is insistently evoked through the sort of abusive, scatological imagery more appropriate to a cuckolded husband.93 And the relentless onslaught upon female sexuality continues ultimately to that ‘precious square of sense’, to the ‘forfended place’: ‘there is the sulphurous pit—burning, scalding, / Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!’ (iv.6.130-1). This has little to do with ingratitude. Lear knows nothing of his daughters' private affairs when he denounces an unspecified ‘simular of virtue’ which is actually ‘incestuous’ (iii.2.54-5)—in fact two are ‘contracted’ to the one man, an incestuous motif Edmund completes when he announces that ‘all three / Now marry in an instant’ (v.3.228-9). Lear's preoccupation with adultery and fornication is partly occasioned by a desperate desire to distance himself from the ‘degenerate bastards’ who have betrayed him, but fascination with his daughters' sexuality precedes the storm, indicating a fatal ambivalence in his view of natural propriety. Thus he invokes ‘Nature’ to render Goneril childless, to make barren her sexual relationship with Albany (i.4.287-8). He would ‘anatomise’ Regan, cut her open to ‘see what breeds about her heart’ (iii.6.77-8).94 One way or another he will be intimate with his daughters. As the blinded Gloucester stumbles into ken like the outcast Oedipus, every facet of the play recalls the familial violations of ancient tragedy. The presence of an Antigone figure in both plot and subplot bids fair for Colonus, yet the outcome eschews apotheosis through subtle techniques of structural surprise.

In approaching her reconciliation with Lear, Cordelia attempts to dispel the unnatural atmosphere of the preceding scenes, supplanting the confrontational language employed by her relatives with a form of diction expressive of her own peculiar understanding of the familial ‘bond’. As Lear had stripped her of his benediction (literally his ‘good saying’) she now invites him to extend his blessing anew, a ritual highly valued in Jacobean households where ‘reverence’ was commonly regarded as the bulwark of kinship.95 By acknowledging her once more as ‘my child Cordelia’, Lear would seem to have regained his sense of propriety were it not that other matters distract him: ‘Am I in France?’ (iv.7.76). Actually, ‘the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took / Our youngest born’ has never been far from his thoughts (ii.4.214-15). Ironically, however, the daughter who seemed to promise least delivers most. Lear is not in France. Rather, Cordelia has effectively abandoned her husband in her father's interest thereby affording him the ‘kind nursery’ he had sought all along. ‘Have I caught thee?’ (v.3.21), he enquires, and ‘caught’ has an ominous ring: ‘A fox, when one has caught her, / And such a daughter, / Should sure to the slaughter’ (i.4.326-8). Lear speaks as though he had finally lured Cordelia into the sort of total commitment demanded in the opening scene. Once she appears to love him ‘all’ his vision of future bliss excludes all thought of France: ‘We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage … / He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven, / And fire us hence like foxes’ (v.3.9-23). A fox and a daughter indeed. But Cordelia's personal attitude remains constant. Once again she asserts that she is not the first ‘who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst’. Typically she makes no comment upon Lear's idyllic vision of intimate incarceration. Later, as he crouches beside her lifeless body, he discovers to his horror that she persists in saying ‘nothing’. A pathetic inevitability informs his final words: ‘Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!’ (lines 310-11).

It shall, perhaps, remain forever unclear whether Edgar's injunction to ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ endorses or condemns Cordelia's determination to insist upon the obligations of her ‘bond’, ‘no more, no less’—as does Shylock in different circumstances. Somehow such obligation seems at odds with feeling although ‘nature’ pertains to both since there are both ‘natural’ emotions and ‘natural’ laws. Ideally they should not conflict, and yet they do. If Cordelia ‘felt’ other than she said, Edgar's words tell against her. If her ‘heart’ went with her words, as she claims, she spoke what she felt despite some unspecified obligation to speak otherwise. But in what circumstances should we speak what we ‘ought’ to say and not what we feel? By speaking what Lear imagines they ought to say, Goneril and Regan secure full independence. By speaking as she herself thinks fit, Cordelia binds herself to him irrevocably.

In seeking the repose of an offspring's ‘kind nursery’ the parent reverts to childhood and makes such demands as only a child can be forgiven for making: ‘all’ or ‘nothing’.96 Commenting upon the reconciliation scene, Victor Hugo detected a ‘profound’ subject, ‘maternity of the daughter towards the father … so admirably rendered by the legend of that Roman girl, who in the depths of a prison nurses her old father. The young breast near the white beard.’97 Under such extreme circumstances traditional distinctions between the sacred and the profane tend to collapse, for ‘the art of our necessities is strange, / And can make vile things precious’ (iii.2.70-1). During the course of the play Shakespeare conducts an anatomy of parental and filial emotions almost as brutal as that to which Lear would submit Regan. But the ‘cause in nature’ that makes for such hard or yielding hearts remains elusive.


Whereas tragic incest unleashes the destructive forces of nature, its ‘romantic’ counterpart endeavours resolution through a sublimation of forbidden desire, an assumption of the temporal and profane into the eternal and sacred frequently symbolised by the intervention of some deus ex machina.Henry VIII fits well into this pattern of providentially political drama which develops suggestions merely adumbrated in the concluding act of Hamlet. Like an El Greco canvas, Shakespearean romance sublimates physical distortion into spiritual vision, dispelling the cynical atmosphere of such ‘city’ comedies as Measure for Measure. In a world order in which ‘our natures do pursue / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane / A thirsty evil’, all relationships partake of perversion (i.2.120-2). Thus Isabella can accuse her brother of ‘a kind of incest’ in seeking ‘to take life’ from his sister's sexual ‘shame’ (iii.1.138-9). In the late romances, however, the imagery is reversed: Pericles joyously ‘takes life’ from Marina without the slightest imputation of guilt.98

The contrast is particularly striking since the same father-daughter relationship that preoccupies the final plays lies at the root of Isabella's problem. As Marilyn Williamson remarks, ‘with the ruler's authority based in the family, incest is a terrifying spectre, directly raised in Pericles and hinted at in The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline’.99 Since Isabella expects Claudio to act in accordance with family honour, the disappointment calls his legitimacy into question thereby undermining all confidence in genealogy. Furthermore, since the male heir represents the father, it is as though the idealised patriarch himself has attempted to ‘seduce’ her. In Cymbeline the same fear of universal illegitimacy proceeds from suspicion of Imogen's faith: ‘We are all bastards’ (ii.4.154)—but no less than the President of the Immortals assures Posthumus that this is not the case. As a result, the potentially dangerous attraction of ‘Fidele’ to her brothers Arviragus and Guiderius is resolved into proper sibling affection through ‘rare instinct’ (v.5.382), Imogen escapes the clutches of her corrupt stepbrother to marry a man virtually raised as her brother, and Cymbeline reconciles himself to his daughter's independence.100 Where previously doubt reigned, there is now divinely assured certainty, but the certainty of containment rather than that of triumph. Of all Shakespearean plays Measure for Measure and Cymbeline have perhaps the most overtly contrived conclusions, yet their structural ‘tone’ is quite distinct. As Isabella departs to wed a bogus friar to whom she refers throughout the play as her ‘good father’, crucial questions of motivation and intent remain unanswered.101 We never learn whether her mother ‘play'd her father fair’, nor whether her own much-vaunted chastity served merely to keep all but ‘fatherly’ suitors at bay.

Pericles constitutes the most forthright contribution to the drama of father-daughter incest since the medieval Dux Moraud. Whatever the problems of authorship the extant text is structurally and stylistically coherent: the final act is carefully designed as the thematic obverse of the first, and the gradual progress from damnation to redemption is meticulously executed.102 The source was a dark fable of incestuous lust enormously popular in European literature. Of the many versions Shakespeare might have consulted, however, the Confessio Amantis must count as the foremost owing to the choric role assigned to Gower.103 The eighth book of the Confessio introduces the tale of Apollonius of Tyre in relation to the kinship prohibitions governing marriage. Accounts of Amnon, Lot and Caligula immediately precede it. In the early days of the world, we are told, it was ‘no Sinne / The Soster forto take hire brother’, and in succeeding generations cousins were commonly allied. Subsequent prohibitions reflected the increasing complexity of human society and current church laws restricting marriage to the ‘thridde’ degree take due account of social convenience and the irrational character of sexual desire which, left to its own devices, ‘spareth no condicion / Of ken ne yit religion’.104

According to Gower's version of events Antiochus forced his daughter into an ‘unkind’ relationship which, through the passage of time and force of habit, came to appear ‘no sinne’ to the participants until it eventually provoked divine retribution with ‘thondre and lyhthnynge’. The rest of the story concentrates not on incest, but on providence, tediously contending that true marriages are made in heaven.105 By transforming this wandering narrative into a continued fable of familial relationships played out across the turbulent sea of human sexuality, the play elevates Pericles to the mythic status of an emotional Everyman proceeding through courtship, marriage and parenthood to bereavement and old age—his persistent shipwrecks recalling the careers of Ulysses, Jonah and St Paul. In this manner the various episodes of an outrageously improbable fable serve as potent analogues for a series of common psychological states.106 Indeed the episodic nature of the structure, accentuated by its archaic expositor, seems designed to invite thematic interpretation. Such a procedure is not unique to Pericles. Gower's moralistic, gnomic tone closely resembles that of Barnaby Barnes's ‘Guicchiardine’ who plays a similar role in The Devils Charter (1607), a crude attempt to chronicle the incestuous lives and loves of the House of Borgia. But the contrast is more instructive than the superficial similarity. Barnes produces an exploitative piece of anti-papal propaganda, debasing Bronzino's powerful imagery of incestuous love: after ‘Venus and Cupid … kisse together’ upon the ‘gratious mouth’ of the Pope's catamite the language never quite recovers.107Pericles, however, is essentially explorative and the Antiochus episode is notable for its restraint. The incestuous relationship is characterised not by gross carnality, but by a peculiarly oppressive, stifling atmosphere of decadent eroticism suggestive of sterility and decay. ‘The Civill Law’, remarks Bishop Lake, ‘calleth it a funestation of a mans selfe, and indeed, the persons are dead in sinnes and trespasses that make such a coniunction.’108

Pericles's adventure in the court of Antiochus is presented as a bizarre perversion of familiar courtship rituals with the traditional paternal guardian incongruously cast as a rival lover. Lurking beneath the surface is a suggestion of similar, suppressed tensions in all such ordeals as the sexual component of parental love struggles with its own possessiveness.109 The resulting conflict often expresses itself in an obsessive insistence upon choosing a son-in-law after the father's own image, a preoccupation wittily parodied by Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream (i.1.93-4).110 One wonders how many of Shakespeare's audience anticipated in the final benediction of the midsummer fairies the birth of the notoriously ill-fated Hippolytus and with it the incestuous contamination of the house of Theseus?111 Antiochus represents an extreme embodiment of the ‘Egeus complex’ and, allowing for differences of era and circumstance, his characterisation is remarkably consistent with the modern psychological profile: insecure, tyrannical, brooding and pathologically jealous.112 As in many well-documented case studies, the daughter's attitude is strangely ambivalent. Whereas she seems to acquiesce in her father's demands there are contrary indications that she might welcome release: ‘of all, 'say'd yet, may'st thou prove prosperous!’ (i.1.60).113 Notable also is the absence of the mother figure whose role she has supplanted or usurped: ‘I am no viper, yet I feed / On mother's flesh which did me breed’ (lines 65-6). Because father and mother are ‘one flesh’, as Hamlet maintains, the princess becomes ‘an eater of her mother's flesh, / By the defiling of her parent's bed’ (lines 131-2).114 Father-daughter incest commonly occurs in families where the mother is dead, absent or abnormally passive. …115

The intense dramatic economy of the first scene, by contrast with the flaccid exposition of the source material, lends to the entire episode an enigmatic quality that only the language of a riddle can adequately capture. Apparently exclusive social categories coalesce: the princess is ‘daughter’ and ‘bride’ to the one man; the prince who would be ‘son to great Antiochus’ finds himself preempted by his prospective father-in-law (i.1.27). Hyperbolic images of beauty prove upon closer inspection to be images of corruption: plucking the ‘golden fruit’ of the ‘fair Hesperides’ entails a fall equivalent to that in Genesis, where the primary law of kinship was universally held to originate (lines 28-9). This being the case, the dramatist has subtly refused to name either Antiochus's wife or daughter thereby forcing us to refer to them through the very relationships the crime violates. The semantic distortions of the riddle correspond to the emotional distortions of the family. Although the association between riddles and incest is ancient their functions vary considerably.116 In folklore generally, the solving of a riddle secures salvation through the resolution of apparently incomprehensible material into common sense. Thus the riddle may function as a guarantor of providential design.117 In the present instance, however, even this expectation is reversed. Because the family is incestuous, the suitor cannot win the lady in the normal way. Not to solve the riddle entails death, but solving it incurs the same penalty.

What the riddle reveals line by line is not the fact of incest—which is transparent—but its nature. In all other versions of the legend, the ‘I’ of the puzzle refers to the father.118 Its displacement would appear to shift responsibility from the parent to the child—‘I sought a husband, in which labour / I found that kindness in a father’ (i.1.67-8)—but actually succeeds in exposing the resulting ‘kindness’ for the ‘unkind’ abuse that it is.119 Antiochus has perverted his daughter's natural desire for sexual experience by appropriating it to personal use.120 There results a chaotic confusion of motives and identities which threatens to confound the entire social order: ‘He's father, son, and husband mild; / I mother, wife, and yet his child’ (lines 69-70). The effect is all the more disturbing in that the choice of vocabulary evokes parodic reminiscence of the miraculous relationships obtaining within the holy family—‘mild’, for example, is a common epithet of both the Virgin and her son. One medieval lyric celebrates her status as ‘spouse of the great creator, sister, dower and daughter, parent of her father, daughter of her son’. Another rejoices in the ‘marvel’ (‘prodigium’) whereby ‘the Father transforms His daughter into His mother’.121 The topos continues into Renaissance verse, supplying the invocation to the Virgin in Donne's ‘Annunciation’ as ‘Thy Makers maker, and thy Fathers mother’ (line 12). In the family of Antiochus, marvel (‘prodigium’) has degenerated into monstrosity (‘monstrum’). William Herbert's ‘Orison to the Virgin’ illustrates the spiritual riddle underlying the carnal obscenity:

Thou wommon boute fere,
Thine owne fader bere,
          Gret wonder this was,
That on wommon was moder,
To fader and hire brother,
          So never other nas.(122)

Rosemary Woolf aptly comments that ‘people in the Middle Ages were far more sensitive to the absolute quality of the family hierarchy than we are, and therefore less likely to consider some inversion of it merely grotesque or quaint’.123 The riddle in Pericles constitutes a demonic inversion of a conceit applicable to one sublime family and to that alone. It debases the sacred while distorting the secular.

To modern sensibilities the implied equivalence of son and son-in-law in the riddle seems forced, but the Renaissance view was quite contrary: ‘whereas we call persons fathers-in-Law, mothers-in-Law, and so brothers and sisters, we must not understand it of meere positive Law, but it is a secondarie Law of nature, unalterable, saving onely by God … and affinitie doth in some sort equall consanguinitie, as grafted branches doe those that are naturall.’124 Pericles himself understands the point well: ‘you're both a father and a son, / By your uncomely claspings with your child’ (i.1.128-9).125 By similar inference the princess has become her father's ‘mother-in-law’. The notion is, of course, absurd but the absurdity is the point.126 From ancient times such genealogical topoi have been employed to illustrate the social inanity of incest, the emotional and sexual solipsism of infolding the family upon itself. But as in King Lear, a still darker purpose underlies the confounding of mother, wife and child: a demand that the daughter be a substitute mother as well as a substitute spouse.127 The worst form of filial ‘maternity’—a most ‘unkind’ nursery—is demonstrated in the nameless princess, the best in Cordelia and Marina. ‘And yet his child’: the last twist of the problem strikes its most tragic note by suggesting the endurance of basic kinship patterns underlying all the confusion. How such a situation ‘may be’ is never explained; the rest of the play concentrates on how best it may be avoided (through the good offices of Diana) as Pericles progresses from the barren, incestuous house of Antiochus to the hospitable, exogamous house of Simonides.128

If the princess has a name that name is incest—the word that ‘resolves’ the riddle, traditionally ‘unspeakable’ and appropriately left unspoken—and in desiring her Pericles unwittingly desires what she symbolises. In retrospect it becomes clear that much of her fascination resides in the mystery that surrounds her. Hers is the sin that dare not speak its name: the severed heads of her former suitors surround her ‘with speechless tongues and semblance pale’ (i.1.37). Pericles's ‘inflam'd desire … / To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree’ (lines 21-2) involves a revelation of evil so corrosive as to contaminate its discoverer. After such knowledge there can be little innocence. A ‘dull-ey'd melancholy’ (i.2.3) settles on Pericles's thoughts, ‘doubting lest he had err'd or sinn'd’ (i.3.21).129 Like Hamlet before him, he has discovered incestuous corruption at the very heart of the family, an ‘unweeded garden’ in place of Eden. To the extent that he has loved something horrible and ‘could still’ but for the knowledge of such horror, his desire has polluted him (ii.1.77). Even at this late stage Antiochus must warn him to ‘touch not, upon thy life’ (line 88), an intervention which preserves him from the heavenly fire which ‘shrivels up’ both father and daughter ‘even to loathing’ (ii.4.9-10). ‘You would thinke’, remarks Bishop Lake, ‘that the case of the one were more favourable then the other … The daughter may plead the power which her father had over her … but this is no Plea at Gods barre.’130

Marilyn French suggests that ‘the entire movement of the play is a flight from the implications of the first scene’, but the opposite is the case.131 By persistently focussing upon father-daughter relationships the play repeatedly returns us to the implications of the first scene, relentlessly confronting us with a series of potentially incestuous situations. In Gower, for example, Simonides has a wife whose advice he seeks in arranging his daughter's marriage.132 In Pericles the mother figure is excluded in order to reproduce at Pentapolis the familial order obtaining at Antioch. Yet where Antiochus fails Simonides succeeds. Following his recent experience Pericles has every reason to dread ‘the kings subtlety’, particularly as Simonides plays the heavy father in order to protect Thaisa.133 Significantly, however, news of Antiochus's death is interposed between the two courtship scenes at Pentapolis (ii.4), thereby implying that the riddle of Antioch is truly ‘resolved’ here. The ‘pleasure’ Simonides takes in Thaisa is entirely licit. Her marriage, he asserts, ‘pleaseth’ him so well ‘that I will see you wed; / And then, with what haste you can, get you to bed’ (ii.5.91-2).

Simonides's generosity elevates Pericles from the role of son to that of father, from which point onwards the problem of letting go becomes his own.134 In Gower, Thaisa is Pericles's daughter not his wife, and the transposition of the name indicates the potential insecurity of the emotion. The romantic plot exacerbates the danger by confronting Pericles with an unknown daughter whose name encodes the ‘riddle’ of her existence, not born ‘of any shores / Yet … mortally brought forth’ (v.1.103-4). Once again the mother figure is marginalised since Thaisa renounces sexuality even as Marina reaches sexual maturity. Although separated from her father for most of the play, Marina's subsequent history reflects upon their relationship.135 Pericles establishes this association himself when he declares that his hair shall remain ‘unscissor'd’ ‘till she be married’ (iii.3.27-9). The more ambiguous phrasing supplied by George Wilkins highlights the potential innuendo of the remark: ‘vowing solemnely … his head should grow uncisserd … till he had married his daughter at ripe years’.136 Not surprisingly, the listeners are perplexed at ‘so strange a resolve’. When father and daughter finally meet at Mytilene all the conventional conditions for fatal union seem to apply.

During the intervening period, however, Marina has developed an independent moral character. Unlike Antiochus's daughter she cannot be ‘provoked’ into sin because she has already resisted a series of ‘father’ figures including the country's governor (1 Chorus 26). Instead of precipitating incestuous desire her resemblance to Thaisa prompts enquiry into her parentage, and her penchant for plain speaking dispels the studied mystification of the first scene. Thus her simple expression of identity—an act impossible at Antioch—‘resolves’ the central riddle of the plot: ‘My name is Marina’ (v.1.142). In so doing it achieves a complete sublimation of the darker tendencies apparent throughout the play: ‘O, come hither, / Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget’ (lines 194-5).137 The paradox is carefully crafted in the light of the earlier riddle to indicate a return from ‘monstrum’ to ‘prodigium’. In The Sarum Missal, for example, the Virgin is exalted as ‘You, who, to the astonishment of nature, did give birth to your holy father.’138 If Antiochus's daughter is intended as a parody of the Virgin, Marina serves as her redemptive analogue, a role frequently assigned to virgin daughters in the late plays. Like the nameless princess Marina too is both ‘mother’ and ‘child’, but will never become the ‘wife’ who mediates between them: in the very scene of reunion she is consigned to Lysimachus. Whereas Pericles had abandoned his first love as a ‘fair viol … play'd upon’ before her time (i.1.82-5), he now hears the music of the spheres betokening a re-establishment of traditional order (v.1.230-3). As in The Winter's Tale, the reward for honouring the daughter is rediscovering the wife, presumably implying that paternal self-discipline safeguards marital union. Or, put another way, reconciliation with the wife, and the advancing years reflected in her face, ensures renunciation of the daughter. Whereas the exclusion of a mother figure is a notable feature of tragedies such as King Lear, the heroes of all four late romances either reunite with lost wives (Pericles and The Winter's Tale) or find ‘motherly’ instincts within themselves (Cymbeline and The Tempest): Cymbeline wonders to find himself ‘a mother to the birth of three’ (v.5.370) and Prospero conjures the archetypal matriarchal figures of Juno and Ceres out of his own dark imagination (iv.1.73-117).139 The result for Pericles is that the strange ceremony of bondage undertaken at Tharsus can finally be undone: ‘and what this fourteen years no razor touch'd / To grace thy marriage-day I'll beautify’ (v.3.75-6). Gower can justly conclude the play by contrasting the vice of Antiochus with the virtue of Pericles, but their perilous association doubtless lingers in the minds of the audience. Like romance itself, ‘natural’ instinct is a precarious artificial construct. Racial exogamy is itself deemed unnatural in Othello (i.3.60-4), and the fates of Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida reflect the manifold perils of ‘marrying out’.

The process of attempted sublimation is clearer still in The Winter's Tale which deftly avoids the incestuous tragedy of its source while at the same time exploring its familial implications.140 With Perdita cast as an exposed foundling destined to return home in accordance with the Delphic Oracle, reminiscence of the Oedipus legend is inescapable. The taut, interlocking structure of the first three acts, in which Leontes conducts a relentless investigation into the affairs of his own family, seems designed to infuse the structural subtext of Oedipus Tyrannus into that of the Shakespearean play. Because Leontes and Polixenes consider themselves ‘brothers’ rather than merely friends, having been ‘trained together in their childhoods’ (i.1.22), the taint of incest hangs over the drama from the outset.141 As has often been observed, perceived relationships can have deeper psychological implications than actual genealogical ties. Leontes's jealousy is greatly exacerbated by the supposed stigma of fraternal betrayal and the pollution it implies. Thus ‘to mingle friendship far, is mingling bloods’ (i.2.109). The resemblance between Hermione and Katherine of Aragon is far from coincidental. Both queens must defend themselves against allegations of intimacy with their husband's ‘brother’ even though circumstances of state have forced such relationships upon them: ‘How thou lov'st us, show in our brother's welcome’ (line 174). Only at the end of the play does Leontes overcome this Henrician obsession (as Henry reversed his own opinion to legitimise Mary) by acknowledging the innocence of both parties: ‘look upon my brother: both your pardons, / That e'er I put between your holy looks / My ill suspicion’ (v.3.147-9). The overall structure of the play gestures towards that of Oedipus at Colonus.

In Pandosto the returned foundling excites the sexual interest of her father who, ‘being about the age of fifty, had, notwithstanding, young and fresh affections’. ‘Broiling at the heat of unlawful lust’, he even contemplates rape. Upon learning the girl's true identity, however, and realising too late that ‘contrary to the law of nature he had lusted after his own daughter’, he commits suicide thereby ‘closing up the comedy with a tragical stratagem’.142 Shakespeare's adaptation is far more subtle. Leontes too recognises the resemblance between Perdita and Hermione and even alarms Paulina by jesting of the ensuing attraction (v.1.222-7).143 Yet the lesson of earlier acts alerts him to potential danger. In Florizel he sees again his lost ‘brother’ Polixenes and will not perpetrate against the son the very crime of which he had falsely accused the father (lines 125-9). As a result, the Oracle is fulfilled in a manner quite contrary to the Oedipal implications of the fable articulated in the source. Like Pericles, Leontes gives away his daughter almost in the very moment of reunion and is similarly rewarded. The two friends become fathers to each other's offspring not through ‘incest’ or adultery, but through the ‘mingling of bloods’ occasioned by affinity—through the very process of ‘grafting’ which Polixenes defends and Bishop Lake endorses (iv.4.92-7).144 The confusion of genealogy which bedevils the House of Antiochus is supplanted by a tense comedy of ‘preposterously’ integrated kinship (v.2.139-48).145

Regarded from the viewpoint of Antiochus and his daughter, Prospero and Miranda represent the apparent transcendence of incestuous desire in circumstances which might well have promoted it. Unlike their counterparts in other plays, they never suffer separation but are rather forced unnaturally together. Apart from Caliban, Prospero is the only man Miranda can remember seeing, and she is the sole companion of his exile. His influence over her is greater than that of any other Shakespearean father and he could, if he so wished, bend her will to his. Instead, he intends her for Ferdinand should her own desires comply. Indicative of his attitude is his opposition to Caliban's animal lust:

                                                                                                    I have us'd thee,
Filth as thou art, with human care; and log'd thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.


In so far as Caliban represents a central facet of human nature, his restraint denotes a victory over Prospero's personal appetites: ‘this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine’ (v.1.275-6). The line-break is noteworthy: ‘this thing of darkness, I’ is an acknowledgement all human beings must sometimes make.146 One recalls the description of Antiochus, ‘black as incest’ (i.2.76). It is Prospero who shares a ‘cell’ with Miranda, the ‘nonpareil’ of feminine beauty, and Prospero alone who could attract her.147 His insistence upon her physical charms coupled with his treatment of Ferdinand evoke disturbing memories of Antioch before resolving into the genial tones of Pentapolis. Nowhere is the ‘arbitration’ between parental and erotic love so finely handled.148 Thus Prospero can move from speaking of Miranda in exclusive terms as ‘my dear one’ (i.2.17) to the intermediate state of ‘his and mine lov'd darling’ (iii.3.93) and finally to the resignation of ‘she is thine own’ (iv.1.32). This is not to deny that her marriage serves his purposes, but rather to recognise in those purposes a generosity of spirit unusual in one so powerful and so wronged. In this manner The Tempest, amongst many other achievements, provides through an act of generosity the ultimate resolution to the tortured father-daughter relationships dominating King Lear,Pericles,Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale: ‘Be free, and fare thou well!’ (v.1.318). But freedom is itself so akin to bondage that it remains unclear whether incest is a mere digression in the great romance of the western family or an essential expression of its emotional structure.

The distinctive quality of Shakespeare's use of the incest motif is its restraint and subtlety, its perception of private sexual undertones in the public rhetoric of family and state, its detection of the inevitable compromises exogamy makes with incest and, on a wider scale, ‘natural’ order with all sorts of forbidden desire. In Pericles incest is ‘vile’ but the art of our emotional necessities is strange enough to make vile things ‘precious’. By exploring various configurations of family bonding (father-daughter, brother-sister or mother-son) deftly counterpointed against appropriate mythical subtexts, Shakespeare achieves the release of Renaissance tragedy from filial bondage to its own classical progenitors and prototypes. In the final analysis the paradigms of Oedipus, Orestes, Antigone and the rest are inadequate to the circumstances of Hamlet, Leontes and Cordelia. The tragic Shakespearean family, unlike its ancient analogues, meets its fate in the conflicting forces of its own emotional bonding rather than the operations of hostile gods. Activating the fragile faultlines of those relationships, the recurrent problem of incestuous desire threatens the foundations of the entire social edifice. The comforting didacticism of earlier tragedy is no longer operative since it presumed an agreed definition of, and acquiescence in, ‘natural’ values. The marginal must now be subsumed into the central; some things of darkness must be acknowledged ours.


  1. Certain Sermons Appointed by the Queen's Majesty, edited by G. E. Corrie (Cambridge, 1850), pp. 570-2.

  2. Andromache, lines 170-7.

  3. 3 Henry VI (ii.5.55-102).

  4. All quotations are from King Richard III, edited by Anthony Hammond (London, 1981).

  5. Richmond is the spiritual heir foretold by the saintly Henry VI. See 3 Henry VI, iv.6.65-76; Richard III, iv.2.94-7.

  6. The reading ‘I and I’ is also possible. See Richard III, edited by Hammond, p. 340. Coriolanus too determines to defy ‘instinct’ and ‘stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin’ (v.3.34-7).

  7. See Henry A. Kelly, ‘Canonical Implications of Richard III's Plan to Marry his Niece’, Traditio, 23 (1967), 269-311.

  8. The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (London, 1548/50), ‘Richard the Thirde’, fol. xlixr.

  9. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1807-8), iii (1807), p. 429.

  10. See The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, edited by M. D. Faber (New York, 1970), pp. 341-2, 350-2.

  11. Union of the Two Noble Famelies, ‘Richard the Thirde’, fol. lvir.

  12. See S. T., iiia (Supp.) 54.4.

  13. Holinshed, Chronicles, iii, pp. 447-8.

  14. See above, p. 51.

  15. Popular moralists such as Thomas Beard regarded the break with Rome as a divine judgement on the dispensation. The Theatre of Gods Iudgements (London, 1597), p. 330.

  16. Union of the Two Noble Famelies, ‘Henry the Eyght’, fol. cicv.

  17. All quotations are from King Henry VIII, edited by R. A. Foakes (London, 1968: first pub. 1957). Even those who originally opposed the match accepted the dispensation. See Henry A. Kelly, The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII (Stanford, 1976), p. 30.

  18. On Henry's conscience see Holinshed, Chronicles, iii, pp. 736, 738, 766-7.

  19. Leviticus 20:21. See Holinshed, Chronicles, iii, p. 738.

  20. Essays, translated by John Florio, edited by L. C. Harmer, 3 vols. (London, 1965: first pub. 1910), ii, p. 296.

  21. All quotations are from Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins (London, 1982).

  22. John Lyly, Mother Bombie (iii.1.20-2).

  23. Bertram Joseph, Conscience and the King: A Study of ‘Hamlet’ (London, 1953), pp. 45-9, 93-100; Roland Mushat Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600 (Princeton, 1984), pp. 77-82, 162-6.

  24. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, edited by Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (London, 1957-75), vii (1973), pp. 145-6.

  25. Sir Israel Gollancz, The Sources of ‘Hamlet’ with Essay on the Legend (London, 1926), p. 139. Hereafter Gollancz.

  26. Ibid., p. 189.

  27. The Comedy of Errors, ii.2.142-4. See also iii.2.1-28. In Julius Caesar Portia reminds Brutus of ‘that great vow / Which did incorporate and make us one’ (ii.1.272-3).

  28. For the monarch's mystical union with the state see William Camden, Annales or, The History of the most Renowned and Victorious Princesse Elizabeth, translated by R. Norton (London, 1635), p. 16. Other critics deny a political aspect to the incest. See Naseeb Shaheen, ‘The Incest Theme in Hamlet’, NQ [Notes and Queries] n.s., 32 (1985), 51. See also E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘The Politics in Hamlet and “The World of the Play”’, in ‘Hamlet’, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 5 (1963), pp. 129-47.

  29. John Hunt, ‘A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in Hamlet’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 39 (1988), 27-44. For the thematic significance of ‘jointress’ see Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London, 1987), pp. 119-20.

  30. See H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of ‘Hamlet’ (London, 1964: first pub. 1956), pp. 253-6.

  31. See J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in ‘Hamlet’ (Cambridge, 1935), p. 307.

  32. Robert Speaight, Nature in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1955), p. 38.

  33. See Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (Cambridge, 1943), pp. 50, 94-107.

  34. For theatrical ‘exorcisms’ see Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, 1988), pp. 94-128.

  35. Calvin made individual conscience the primary guide to natural law. See John T. McNeill, ‘Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers’, The Journal of Religion, 26 (1946), 168-82 (180, 182).

  36. Gordon Leff, Medieval Thought: St Augustine to Ockham (London, 1959: first pub. 1958), p. 285.

  37. The Interlude of Vice (Horestes) 1567, edited by Daniel Seltzer (Oxford, 1962), sigs. b4r-c1r. See Geoffrey Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), pp. 113-15.

  38. For the sceptical background of the play see John Owen, The Five Great Sceptical Dramas of History (London, 1896), pp. 279-348; Graham Bradshaw, Shakespeare's Scepticism (Brighton, 1987), pp. 95-125.

  39. The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, edited by Quentin Skinner, Eckhard Kessler and Jill Kraye (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 360-74, 678-84.

  40. Bishop Arthur Lake, Sermons with Some Religious Meditations (London, 1629), part 2, p. 13.

  41. Otto Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society 1500 to 1800, translated by Ernest Barker, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1934), i, p. xxxviii.

  42. Gollancz, p. 189.

  43. See above, pp. 52-5.

  44. This paragraph is particularly indebted to Jason P. Rosenblatt, ‘Aspects of the Incest Problem in Hamlet’, SQ 29 (1978), 349-64.

  45. Louis Adrian Montrose, ‘“The Place of a Brother” in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form’, SQ 32 (1981), 28-54 (37).

  46. The Fawn, ii.1.173-83; iv.1.23-89. See above, pp. 144-7.

  47. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth, 1984: first pub. 1976), p. 124.

  48. For Oedipus see Adrian Poole, Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (Oxford, 1987), pp. 113-25. For Orestes see Frederick Wertham, ‘The Matricidal Impulse: Critique of Freud's Interpretation of Hamlet’, in Faber, ed., The Design Within, pp. 111-20.

  49. See Dieter Mehl, The Elizabethan Dumb Show: The History of a Dramatic Convention (London, 1982: first pub. 1964), pp. 110-20.

  50. For the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet see The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey and Anna Freud, 24 vols. (London, 1953-73), i, pp. 265-6; iv, pp. 261-6; vii, pp. 309-10; Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (London, 1949), pp. 45-100. For more recent developments in post-Freudian psychology see Walter N. King, Hamlet's Search for Meaning (Athens, Georgia, 1982), pp. 100-34. For excellent analyses of the limitations of such theories see F. L. Lucas, Literature and Psychology (London, 1951), pp. 37-53; Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (London, 1951), pp. 34-57.

  51. Neroand Other Plays, edited by Herbert P. Horne et al. (London, 1888), pp. 30. For the political significance of Nero see Martin Butler, ‘Romans in Britain: The Roman Actor and the Early Stuart Classical Play’, in Douglas Howard, ed., Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 139-70 (pp. 146-8).

  52. Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, translated by A. Baillot (London, 1864), p. 199.

  53. David Leverenz, ‘The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View’, in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Approaches, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore, 1980), pp. 110-28 (p. 111).

  54. See Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (London, 1983: first pub. 1981), pp. 153-8.

  55. Joel Fineman, ‘Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles’, in Representing Shakespeare, edited by Schwartz and Kahn, pp. 70-109 (p. 90).

  56. Psychological interpretations invariably decline into hypothetical analyses of Shakespeare's own psychology. See Avi Erlich, Hamlet's Absent Father (Princeton, 1977), pp. 13-18.

  57. Gollancz, p. 211.

  58. Janet Adelman claims that Hamlet ends ‘securely possessed’ of Gertrude as ‘an internal good mother’. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Tempest’ (New York, 1992), p. 34. My own view is less sanguine.

  59. For catharsis see Peter Alexander, Hamlet, Father and Son (Oxford, 1955), pp. 74-6, 82-7, 113. For Sidney see Elizabethan Critical Essays, edited by G. Gregory Smith, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1904), i, p. 177.

  60. For the importance of this concept see Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by Philip Edwards (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 56-8.

  61. For general and special providence in Hamlet see Joseph, Conscience and the King, pp. 136-60.

  62. See Enid Welsford, The Fool (London, 1935), pp. 253-70.

  63. See Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge: In Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 58-68.

  64. All quotations are from King Lear, edited by Kenneth Muir (London, 1964: first pub. 1952).

  65. See L. C. Knights, ‘King Lear’, in Shakespeare Criticism 1935-1960, edited by Anne Ridler (Oxford, 1963), pp. 255-89 (pp. 264-5, 280).

  66. For the female virtue of silence see Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London, 1985), pp. 179-80; Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 18, 54; Carol Cook, ‘“The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor”: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing’, PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] (1986), 186-202 (190-3). John Bayley observes that ‘the off-key note of everything human in Lear comes from the primal violation of family silence’, Shakespeare and Tragedy (London, 1981), p. 27.

  67. See Coppélia Kahn, ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear’, in Rewriting the Renaissance: the Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago, 1986), pp. 33-49; Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of ‘King Lear’ (Berkeley, 1972), pp. 50-65, 132-3, 191-2, 220-1, 273-4, 287-300.

  68. King Lear, edited by Muir, p. 221.

  69. For the inheritance issue see Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (London, 1984), p. 199. Lear's actions contravene conventional Jacobean wisdom. See Ralph A. Houlbrooke, The English Family 1450-1700 (London, 1984), pp. 189-90, 195.

  70. Goneril's protestations far exceed filial ‘reverence’ for which see William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622), pp. 431-6.

  71. King Lear, edited by Muir, p. 222.

  72. See Lucas, Literature and Psychology, pp. 63-6.

  73. Lynda E. Boose, ‘The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare’, PMLA 97 (1982), 325-47 (334).

  74. Holinshed, Chronicles, i, p. 447.

  75. King Lear, edited by Muir, p. 223.

  76. See Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton, 1983), pp. 108-10.

  77. For the family ‘bond’ see Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London, 1977), p. 183.

  78. In The Phoenix, Middleton's heroine seeks to restrain her incestuous uncle by asserting ‘in that love which becomes you best I love you’ (ii.3.46). For competing senses of affection and self-sacrifice in ‘love’ see Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), p. 154.

  79. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 119. For inversions of the marriage ritual see Boose, ‘The Father and the Bride’, 332-5; C. L. Barber, ‘The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness’, in Representing Shakespeare, edited by Schwartz and Kahn, pp. 188-202 (pp. 197-8).

  80. Elementary Structures of Kinship, translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer and Rodney Needham (Boston, 1969), p. 489.

  81. For the father-daughter relationship see Houlbrooke, The English Family, pp. 185-7.

  82. The text gained additional authority from triple repetition in the New Testament: Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7; Ephesians 5:31.

  83. See Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 (Oxford, 1986), pp. 182-3; Jean-Louis Flandrin, Families in Former Times: Kinship, Household and Sexuality, translated by Richard Southern (Cambridge, 1979), p. 166.

  84. Of Domesticall Duties, p. 113.

  85. An Essay on ‘King Lear’ (Cambridge, 1974), p. 18.

  86. Jack Goody, ed., Kinship (Harmondsworth, 1971), p. 68. For the image of the barbarous Scythian see Parker, Literary Fat Ladies, p. 69.

  87. King Lear, edited by Muir, p. 226.

  88. Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London, 1961: first pub. 1948), pp. 20-53. See Bush, Shakespeare and the Natural Condition, pp. 17, 75, 95-8, 118.

  89. In Troilus and Cressida Hector enunciates the law of nature in respect of marital duty only to act otherwise (ii.2.174-94).

  90. The Decades of Henry Bullinger, translated by H. I., 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1849-52), i (1849), pp. 193-209 (p. 194). Bullinger relates the etymology of ‘incest’ to ‘cestus’, the ‘marriage-girdle’, and gives the German equivalent as bloutschand, ‘corrupting or defiling our own blood or kindred’ (p. 417).

  91. For the best discussion see William R. Elton, ‘King Learand the Gods (Kentucky, 1988: first pub. 1966). See also Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, pp. 116-28.

  92. See, for example, Roy W. Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and its Christian Premises (Bloomington, 1969), pp. 269-302.

  93. See Mark Kanzer, ‘Imagery in King Lear’, in Faber, ed., The Design Within, pp. 219-31 (p. 223).

  94. For the uses of ‘anatomization’ see Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1991), p. 10.

  95. Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, pp. 437-9; Houlbrooke, The English Family, p. 145.

  96. See Reuben A. Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (Oxford, 1971), pp. 382-415 (p. 388).

  97. William Shakespeare, p. 209.

  98. See Barbara Melchiori, ‘Still Harping on my Daughter’, English Miscellany, ii (1960), 59-74 (62-3).

  99. Marilyn L. Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit, 1986), p. 113.

  100. See Judiana Lawrence, ‘Natural Bonds and Artistic Coherence in the Ending of Cymbeline’, SQ 35 (1984), 440-60 (447).

  101. See Marc Shell, The End of Kinship: ‘Measure for Measure’, Incest, and the Ideal of Universal Siblinghood (Stanford, 1988), pp. 139-71.

  102. See G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life (London, 1965: first pub. 1967), pp. 32-3, 74-5; Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York, 1965), pp. 38-9.

  103. All quotations are from Pericles, edited by F. D. Hoeniger (London, 1963), pp. xiii-xxiii.

  104. The English Works of John Gower, edited by G. C. Macaulay, EETS [Early English Text Society], ES, 81-2, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1900), ii, pp. 388, 390.

  105. Works, ii, pp. 395, 413, 440.

  106. For a structuralist analysis see Phyllis Gorfain, ‘Puzzle and Artiface: The Riddle as Metapoetry in Pericles’, SS [Shakespeare Survey], 29 (1976), 11-20. See also Roger D. Abrahams, ‘The Literary Study of the Riddle’, TSLL [Texas Studies in Literature and Language], 14 (1972), 179-97.

  107. The Divil's Charter: A Tragedie, edited by R. B. McKerrow (London, 1904), p. 35.

  108. Sermons, part 2, p. 37.

  109. See D. W. Harding, ‘Shakespeare's Final View of Women: Father and Daughter in Shakespeare's Last Plays’, TLS [Times Literary Supplement] (30 November, 1979), pp. 59-61.

  110. See Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage, pp. 180-93; Mark Taylor, Shakespeare's Darker Purpose: A Question of Incest (New York, 1982), pp. 84-119.

  111. Louis A. Montrose, ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Shaping Fantasies of Elizabethan Culture: Gender, Power, Form’, in Rewriting the Renaissance, edited by Ferguson et al., pp. 65-87 (p. 77).

  112. See Karin C. Meiselman, Incest (London, 1979), pp. 90, 91, 96, 145, 149, 158, 159, 216; Herbert Maisch, Incest, translated by Colin Bearne (London, 1973), p. 61.

  113. In George Wilkins's version the princess wants Pericles to succeed. The Painfull Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre, edited by Kenneth Muir (Liverpool, 1953), p. 17.

  114. In Gower the father is the cannibal, Works, edited by Macaulay, ii, p. 394. See Goody, Kinship, p. 68.

  115. Meiselman, Incest, pp. 108, 116-17. Bishop Lake emphasises the enormity of the crime against the mother, Sermons, part 2, p. 37.

  116. See Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore, 1985), p. 35.

  117. Gorfain, ‘Puzzle and Artiface’, 17.

  118. P. Goolden, ‘Antiochus's Riddle in Gower and Shakespeare’, RES, 5-6 (1954-5), 245-51.

  119. Richard Hooker asserts the moral culpability of the father in all such cases. Works, edited by John Keble, seventh edition, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1888), i, p. 238. For contemporary instances see Paul Hair, ed., Before the Bawdy Court (London, 1972), p. 189; F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts (Chelmsford, 1973), p. 37.

  120. In Wilkins's version the daughter is raped. The Painfull Adventures, edited by Muir, pp. 10-12.

  121. ‘Summi sponsa creatoris, / Soror, dos et filia, / Parens patris, nata prolis.’ For this text and topos see Medieval English Lyrics, edited by R. T. Davies (London, 1963), p. 319; ‘Convertit genitor in matrem filiam’, in The Latin Poems Commonly Attributed to Walter Mapes, edited by Thomas Wright (London, 1841), p. 192. I am indebted to Professor John Scattergood for calling this material to my attention.

  122. Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, edited by Carleton Brown, second edition, revised by G. V. Smithers (Oxford, 1952), pp. 18-19.

  123. Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1968), p. 133.

  124. Bishop Lake, Sermons, part 2, p. 35.

  125. Compare Wilkins, The Painfull Adventures, edited by Muir, p. 19.

  126. Goolden, ‘Antiochus's Riddle’, p. 245.

  127. Meiselman, Incest, pp. 86-7; Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, 1981), pp. 212-13.

  128. See John F. Danby, ‘Pericles, Arcadia, and the Scheme of Romance’, in Shakespeare's Later Comedies, edited by D. J. Palmer (Harmondsworth, 1971), pp. 175-95 (p. 191).

  129. See Knight, Crown of Life, pp. 38, 40. For Pericles's guilt or pollution see also G. A. Barker, ‘Themes and Variations in Pericles’, in Shakespeare's Later Comedies, edited by Palmer, pp. 196-215 (pp. 210-11). For a different perspective see John P. Cutts, ‘Pericles’ “Downright Violence”’, Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 275-93.

  130. Sermons, part 2, p. 37.

  131. Shakespeare's Division of Experience, p. 294.

  132. Works, edited by Macaulay, ii, pp. 404, 407, 411.

  133. See Danby in Shakespeare's Later Comedies, edited by Palmer, p. 182.

  134. Echoes of King Lear are insistent. See ii.1.1-11, 59-62, 71-7; iii.1.22-7; iii.2.5-6; v.1.35-43, etc.

  135. C. L. Barber detects in Dionyza's treatment of Marina ‘the possibility of a mother's destructive jealousy of a daughter’. ‘“Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget”: Transformation in Pericles and The Winter's Tale’, SS, 22 (1969), 59-67 (63).

  136. The Painfull Adventures, p. 68.

  137. See Boose, ‘The Father and the Bride’, 340.

  138. The Sarum Missal, edited by J. Wickham Legg (Oxford, 1916), p. 172. The translation is that of Woolf, The English Religious Lyric, p. 131.

  139. See David Sundelson, ‘So Rare a Wonder'd Father: Prospero's Tempest’, in Representing Shakespeare, edited by Schwartz and Kahn, pp. 33-53 (pp. 39-40); Stephen Orgel, ‘Prospero's Wife’, in Rewriting the Renaissance, edited by Ferguson et al., pp. 50-64 (pp. 54-5, 61).

  140. Taylor, Shakespeare's Darker Purpose, pp. 24-48.

  141. For the same detail in Pandosto see The Winter's Tale, edited by J. H. P. Pafford (London, 1966: first pub. 1963), p. 185. All quotations are from this edition. For the theme of brotherhood see Peter B. Erickson, ‘Patriarchal Structures in The Winter's Tale’, PMLA, 97 (1982), 819-29 (823-4).

  142. The Winter's Tale, edited by Pafford, p. 225.

  143. See Georgiana Ziegler, ‘Parents, Daughters, and “That Rare Italian Master”: A New Source for The Winter's Tale’, SQ 36 (1985), 204-12.

  144. Sermons, part 2, p. 35.

  145. See Parker, Literary Fat Ladies, pp. 67-9.

  146. All quotations are from The Tempest, edited by Frank Kermode (London, 1964: first pub. 1954). See p. xlii. See also Melchiori, ‘Still Harping on my Daughter’, 66-72; Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 157.

  147. Taylor, Shakespeare's Darker Purpose, pp. 184-6.

  148. Lévi-Strauss, Elementary Structures of Kinship, p. 489.

R. E. Gajdusek (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4827

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 her father for her marriage to Posthumus, Imogen explains the cause of her act:

It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus;
You bred him as my playfellow.

Incest is compounded, for Cymbeline urges upon his unacceptably married daughter separation from Posthumus and marriage with Cloten, his new queen's son. In doing so he argues for his daughter's marriage to his own stepson. Acting as though there were no incest transgression because there is no blood relation between Imogen, Posthumus, and Cloten, the participants variously ignore the fact that in many societies their familial relationships are sufficient to fall firmly under the full strength of the incest taboo.

Additionally, the incest threat is not one kept carefully beyond the perimeters of blood relation. When Imogen goes to the forest costumed and disguised as a man, Fidele, she inhabits the cave of Belarius and of Cymbeline's two authentic sons, Arviragus and Guiderius. The brothers are powerfully attracted to the handsome youth she seems to be. As Imogen, she would be sister to the brothers and protected by the incest taboo; as Fidele, her only protection is that of costume and artifice. It is her artificial illusionistic barrier that stands between her and the threat of incest.

One also sees in Cymbeline's rage against his daughter's escape from his will and authority by her own wilful and unacceptable marriage the classical incestuous father-pursuer, who has been described by Otto Rank in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero:

The father who refuses to give his daughter to any of her suitors, or who attaches to the winning of the daughter certain conditions difficult of fulfillment, does this because he really begrudges her to all others, for when all is told he wishes to possess her himself. He locks her up in some inaccessible spot, so as to safeguard her virginity (Perseus, Gilgamesh, Telephus, Romulus), and when his command is disobeyed he pursues the daughter and her offspring with insatiable hatred. However, the unconscious sexual motives of his hostile attitude, which is later on avenged by his grandson, render it evident that again the hero kills in him simply the man who is trying to rob him of the love of his mother; namely, the father.1

Rank here and elsewhere establishes that the man who in the classical hero paradigm pursues the hero and causes his exposure to the elements is authentically the father-figure and that his intended victim is the son. Such logic of pattern suggests Antiochus in Pericles—the one who pursues Pericles and is responsible for Pericles' being driven into exposure in the open—the incestuous father pursuer, even as in Cymbeline, the king becomes responsible for the exposure and pursuit of his adopted son, Posthumus. Additionally, Cymbeline is implicated with the long sojourn of his own sons in the wilderness. Shakespeare tellingly permits their disappearance to rest in at least the psychological complicity of the father:

2ND Gentleman:
That a king's children should be so convey'd!
So slackly guarded! and the search so slow,
That could not trace them!
1ST Gentleman:
Howso'er 'tis strange,
Or that the negligence may well be laughed at,
Yet it is true, sir.

Cymbeline, in classical paradigm seeming to be the incestuously motivated father, seems to be urging in Cloten the surrogate fulfillment he cannot himself overtly seize, and his hoped-for marriage of Imogen and Cloten seems to be that same mingling of bloods which would endorse and affirm to another generation his bond with his new-false queen.

There is another level on which the story of Cymbeline is a tale of incest. It is the level of biography, for the elements of the story precisely enunciate an hypothetical history of Shakespeare the man. (James Joyce's theory placed in the mouth of young Stephen Daedalus in the Library Episode of Ulysses enunciates it.)2 Posthumus, who flies or is banished from his court-home to go south to more intellectual courts where he shines and dazzles all by his radiant wit and courtesy, receives there the slanderous tales and calumny that follow. He has abandoned his wife behind him in the care of his father and under the insistent pressure of his false “brother” who would leap into his bed and displace him in his authority. Real or false adultery, truth or slander as poison in the ear become the questions which metaphor in the play expands, and all are based on the fear of the violation of the incest taboo by the brother-usurper. The story is a speculative history of Shakespeare, the Stratford boy become London wit, the wife-abandoning bard become incest-victim-cuckold who at last returns in disguise to rejoin his own.

There are two other important incest situations in the play. When Iachimo visits the court of Cymbeline to try the chastity of Imogen, he comes as brother-like friend of Posthumus. His role is that of the Italian villain and the usurping brother. The proof of this in part lies in a short and formal exchange between Imogen and Iachimo:

                                                  only for this night;
I must aboard to-morrow.
O, no no.
Yes, I beseech; or I shall short my word
By lengthening my return. From Gallia
I crost the seas on purpose and on promise
To see your grace.
I thank you for your pains:
But not away to-morrow!
O, I must, madam.

The short interchange is the basis upon which Shakespeare's succeeding play, The Winter's Tale, is built, and here, as there, it enunciates the threat of latent incest between the brother-like friend and the too-willing-to-accommodate wife. Imogen, who readily agrees to “pawn mine honour” for the safety of Iachimo's nonexistent jewels for the Emperor, has too readily placed honour in fealty to worldly treasure. The trunk for which she so readily commits her honor holds in reality the physical body of the lecherous would-be adulterous brother-like friend to her husband. The Emperor receives no value from such lies and from discrepant forms whose insides and outsides do not agree. The echo of Iachimo against the hypothesis of Will Shakespeare's own incestuous brother is strong, especially since Imogen remarks as the scene between them begins and just before Iachimo is announced: “Blest be those / How mean so'er, that have their honest wills.” It is but an almost predictable additional delight that the lecherous Iachimo notes that Imogen fell asleep as

She hath been reading late
The tale of Tereus: here the leaf's turn'd down
Where Philomel gave up …

Iachimo's role in Cymbeline is also parallel to that of Boult in Pericles. He is anxious “to get ground to [Posthumus'] fair mistress”; he patiently toils to “bring from thence [England] that honour of hers.” Like Boult, he is dedicated to deflating inhuman or godlike abstractions and bringing down to earth whatever has been too radically detached from it. In this sense he also is allied with the other incestuous gentlemen of the play who labor to address divinity in the flesh and to destroy its human pretensions to transcendence. Whatever firm or unfirm faith Posthumus may have in absence from Imogen, he is still incestuous Posthumus who has in marriage brought divine Imogen to bed. Posthumus' long Italian sojourn throughout the body of the play has troubled many critics; they have looked upon his prolonged absence as a dramatic fault. It is a psychic necessity for the husband of the “divine” Imogen to be absent. This daughter, like Marina and Perdita, must remain chaste until she has effected her father's rescue from the spell of incest. Posthumus, who is her legal sexual possessor as well as her incestuous brother-lover, must be radically detached from her until redemptive and purgative rites have cleansed the participants of the incest spell.

The real incest threat of the story is metaphorically given … as the threat of the triple power of the great goddess. The false queen—who is in the play called “devilish,” “crafty devil,” and “delicate fiend,” and who bears a son-agent called “devil, Cloten”—attempts to join herself through her son to the king's daughter, Imogen, who is in the play described as “heavenly angel,” “goddesslike,” “an angel,” “angel-like,” “divine,” made by “the gods” and as bestowing gifts “of the gods.” The drama is pointedly a battle of angels. Were the Cloten-Imogen marriage to be accomplished, the mingling of bloods would make Imogen mother-wife-daughter, the three-in-one synthesis fled with such horror. The mother's blood through her son would join the father's blood in his daughter, and insofar as Cloten would be Cymbeline's surrogate, Imogen's husband would at once be father-son-husband as she would become daughter-mother-wife to accomplish the unholy trinity of incest. This danger of incest is forestalled, as it is in Pericles, by the daughter of a king who is able to translate the terms of trinitarian incest wholly to the abstract and metaphoric level by moving the dilemma of life to the potential of art through internal incest that refuses to descend to biological process. When Imogen becomes Fidele, the necessary inversions and abstractions begin: real woman becomes illusionistic boy. To effect the redemptive translations, the dead must be brought to life, masculine kingship must be rescued from the death-womb of the mother goddess, and the abstract incest rites must be expressed as mirror images of the reality that is by such spiritual inversion mastered and controlled. All this does, as it did in Pericles, happen.

Cymbeline early in the play, under the powerful influence of his diabolic queen, is described as a death force. Imogen refers to her father as one who “like the tyrannous breathing of the north / Shakes all our buds from growing.” At the play's end, he is the one to say “Pardon's the word to all,” bestowing life on the otherwise death-condemned. When Caius Lucius formally demands Rome's tribute of Cymbeline, it is noteworthy that the Queen and her son, Cloten, seize the initiative for reply and in extended usurpation of the king's power of reply lay down the lines of denial that Cymbeline follows. At the end of the play, with Cloten and the Queen both dead, Cymbeline restores the tribute. The restoration of the tribute is a troubling factor, rendering almost meaningless the many lives so savagely butchered in battle, but it underlines two facts: that the queen's power overbearing and influencing the king meant war and a reign of death, and that tribute paid is an acknowledgement paid by one side to another that forestalls the necessity for conflict. Tribute has been paid and must continue to be paid to forestall subsequent war and to keep psychic health.

When Imogen escapes the court to become Fidele, Cloten follows, pursuing in the disguise of Posthumus. In his role of pursuer, would-be-raper of one whom he has in part through his “fearful … siege” driven into exposure in the wilderness, Cloten becomes double for Cymbeline himself. Decapitated by Cymbeline's own son, Guiderius, Cloten is the father-king overthrown by his son-successor rival, while at the moment of the Cloten murder Fidele sleeps back in the cave of the sons, who feel more than they should for her as boy or as brother. What we are witnessing in Act IV, scene II, is the fully accomplished ritualized metaphor of the incest myth. The murder of the father figure—not only the double for Cymbeline but also the royal prince who stands for patrus (however in the toils of goddess demon possession)—is accomplished in “the ninth hour of the morn,” and so the moment propitious for birth becomes the moment of death, forcing the great antitheses radically and uroborically together. It is accomplished after Cloten has called Guiderius the triple social outlaw, “robber … lawbreaker … villain,” and Guiderius has challenged Cloten as the triple subhuman creature, “Toad … Adder, Spider.” And its accomplishment, the taking of the masculine “father” head in an encounter upon the highroad, is immediately followed by the journey back to the cave to enact metaphorically the incestuous possession of the queen-wife-sister. The myth of Oedipus underlies the action.

It is Guiderius who throws Cloten's “clotpoll” into the creek to be carried to the sea—“down the stream, / In embassy to his mother,” and it is Arviragus who examines the murder of the impure man as a sacrifice necessary for the restoration to life of the pure woman: “to gain his [Fidele's] colour / I'ld let a parish of such Clotens blood.” Cloten first comes upon the stage in this play, in the second scene of the first act, described by a lord as one whose acts make him “reek as a sacrifice.” The ritualized return of the male head, overthrown and thrown down to the sea-mother, the diabolic queen (Hecate), is a scarcely veiled metaphor of ritual uroboric death—the placing of the head in the hole-womb of death—the same act that created D. H. Lawrence's strenuous acculturated revulsion in his poem “Snake.” It is not accidental that it is precisely as Guiderius announces having sent Cloten's clotpoll down the stream to his mother that the solemn music is heard announcing the supposed death of Imogen. If the masculine head is associated with the upper centers and the sleeping woman in the cave (womb) associated with lower, then the supposed death of one (the illusionistic Fidele) at the moment of the real death of the other (the acknowledged Cloten) suggests a fundamental relation of one with the other that the return of the son's head to the sea-mother metaphorically and ritually enacts. That the woman in the womb/cave is associated with seeming and illusion while being dedicated to fidelity and purity suggests indeed that the inversion so strikingly manifest in Pericles—symbolized by the virgin Marina in the brothel—is here also taking place.

Cloten has moved systematically towards fulfillment of his desire, a desire that epitomizes and gathers together the incest themes of the story. As he does so, he moves systematically and progressively further from the real artificiality of the court and towards the unreal masks (or illusions) practiced in nature. He has taken over, so he believes, Posthumus' friend and servant, Pisanio, to be his own; he has then assumed Posthumus' clothes; and he subsequently moves to rape-possess Posthumus' wife (his “garment”). The closer he gets to fulfillment of his incestuous desire, the further he is divorced from his own identity and given increasingly radical and extreme devices of concealment of identity. He first goes forth in the clothes of another, he then is decapitated, rendered faceless, identityless, and at last he is fully mistaken for another, become Imogen's perfect love in death, headless Posthumus. The movement of the physical, carnal, real Cloten to the unreal illusion of Posthumus is one accomplished as the physical real is in a rite of death judged insignificant and meaningless: Cloten is placed on the bier of death beside the supposed dead Fidele since “Thesites' body is as good as Ajax'.” Having moved into the totality of illusion with the burial sepulchre, housing an illusionisitic Posthumus (Cloten) beside an illusionistic Fidele (Imogen), there is the possibility created for the icon of illusionistic incest of Cloten-Posthumus with the girl. The necessary terms for it are established as the brothers decide to lay the body of Cloten “By good Euriphile, our mother.” The suggestion is made by Guiderius but amended by Arviragus who suggests, “Save that Euriphile must be Fidele.” (italics mine) The cross relations here are intricate. Arviragus and Guiderius have throughout been carefully represented as almost reciprocals of one another: Cadwal (Arviragus) strikes life into Belarius' speech, while Polydore's (Guiderius') spirits fly out into Belarius' story. One brother decapitates Cloten and throws the head down to the sea while the other goes to the cave to bear back up the body of apparently dead Fidele in his arms. Together with Belarius they now reconcile in burial the mother with the sister-daughter that is Fidele-Imogen, even as they reconcile the head of Cloten, which has been thrown down into the water to be returned to his dark sea-mother, with the body which is placed beside the good mother, Euriphile. The double burial quite obviously is an attempt to synthesize paternal head (masculine upper center) with the feared womb of the sensual mother (feminine lower center) and the physical body (masculine lower center) with the spiritual mother (feminine upper center). This perfection of synthesis is seen as Belarius reacts to Guiderius' murder of Cloten and also to Arviragus' sense of Cloten as a sacrifice for “Poor sick Fidele.”

                                                                                          O thou goddess,
Thou divine Nature, how thyself thou blazon'st
In these two princely boys! They are as gentle
As zephyrs, blowing below the violet,
Not wagging his sweet head; and yet as rough,
Their royal blood enchafed, as the rudest wind,
That by the top doth take the mountain pine
And make him stoop to the vale.

Roughness and gentleness reconciled in them allow them to be at once invisible wind (an abstract force)—which as zephyr carefully guards the violets head—and yet the rude physical force that acts in violence to overthrow the pine (even as Cloten was overthrown), taking its high head and returning it to the low vale. Belarius additionally sees the boys as agents of nature's force that acts through them in metaphor to repudiate the pride of the earth-disdaining pine while protecting the head of the lowly violet. They are seen as functionally returning what has abandoned its source to its source. The return to sources is intriguingly an incest suggestion.

The mirror act of incest is perfected as Imogen-Fidele becomes the triple feminine incestuous threat, mother-daughter-wife. As Fidele illusionistically becomes Euriphile, she becomes additionally the mother; illusionistic “brother,” she is actually sister. In being illusionistic brother, she becomes illusionistic son to Euriphile and Belarius, actually being illusionistic daughter of an illusionistic mother and father. Beside the supposed (illusionistic) body of Posthumus, she is illusionistic wife. She is therefore become the illusionistic triple goddess. In the apostrophes of her brothers and in the funeral rite, she is in fantasy reborn as that confused incest force which dissolves all identities in itself, the sister-mother-daughter who as bride to the supposed Posthumus becomes metaphoric illusionistic lover.

The ritualized metaphor of life-begetting sexuality is phrased in its mirror inversions upon the tomb-bier of death: Fidele is found seemingly unconsciously lying upon, lying on top of the body of the supposed Posthumus in an embrace of love-death that makes her (Imogen) seem the masculine lover of the headless decapitated unmanned body beneath her. Before apparently expiring (dying) on the body of her supposed beloved, she has mingled blood with the corpse-beloved: “Give colour to my pale cheek with thy blood,” thereby fulfilling Arviragus' intention of restoring sickly Fidele to life with the blood of Cloten. The daughter-sister-wife has in mask become the son-brother-husband and, in the aspect of an embrace of love, in semblance and place of death, she possesses the aspect of her beloved husband in the form of the body of her enemy. What happens as a result is the real mingling of the blood of Cloten and the body of Imogen, a metaphor of the denied actual adulterous incest consummated in inverted illusions.

Since it becomes apparent that victory over the incest spell is accomplished by the fashioning of an abstract virtual (or reversed) image of accomplished incest, the questions may well be raised whether art itself is not that surrogate abstract activity towards which the incestuous psyche of man is therapeutically impelled, and whether all artists are not men in whom the universal incest problem has cried out for imperative resolution. A work of art, like incest, exemplifies stopped time, and is the product of a sensibility turned back upon itself and begetting upon its own nature a child in metaphor. It is the crystal coffin (of fairy tales) in which the princess (life) sleeps until awakened by the touch of the daring prince. It is an uroboric construct of feeling and thought impressed upon a sensual medium by a creative conceptualization seized by a sensualized imagination. In being a Grecian Urn or chamber of life-in-death, it inverts and parodies the death-in-life state of one in the incest spell and is the mirror image or parody of the incest spell that it masters.

One could speculate that an achieved work of art is the sought and possessed metaphoric equivalent for the desired incestuous object. The artist has loved his sensual terms—all arts, unlike philosophies, are enacted in sensual media—and in demonstrating his devotion to, his sensitive response towards, and his respect for these, he has fulfilled himself. To the extent to which he fulfills his medium, he is himself fulfilled. Insofar as his medium is an abstraction or illusion of life, it can acknowledge the unacceptable and name the unnamable. That is to say it can metaphorically look upon and demonstrate an incest both culturally and personally unacknowledgeable, the “horror” mastered. Thus it is Perseus' shield, and it allows the victim to become hero as that which cannot be confronted in actuality can be faced in its image and mastered there. Since incest is the one sin that carries with it a traditional iconography declaring it unnamable, unmentionable, the unspeakable “horror,” the sin that cannot be acknowledged, the devices and medium of art, which are essentially non-denotative and non-discursive, provide in their very nature the possibility of becoming the mirror that reveals the unseen, becoming the emblem that names the crime. Acknowledged within the mirror inversions of art, the incest state, incest fear, or incest spell is perhaps mastered, or at least proven responsive to the artist's control.

The result of the intricate metaphoric constellations in Cymbeline is ultimately the regeneration of the father-king who suffers like Pericles under the spell of incest cast by his diabolical queen of incest and death. In Pericles, the king-father metaphorically sexually loved by his chaste and goddess-like daughter is begotten by her as she becomes the abstract generative force and he the womanized child. In Cymbeline, the king at the end acknowledges himself “a mother to the birth of three” as he is restored by his children to his identity and power. Imogen's act in throwing herself on the body of Cloten—and so in metaphor taking incestuous possession of the three males he subsumes in himself (Cymbeline, Posthumus, and himself) as she has assumed her triple identity—is exactly paralleled by the actual physical achievement of Belarius and the two brothers in the battle in the lane. There in a “strait pass … damm'd / With dead men hurt behind, and cowards living / To die with lengthen'd shame” these three cry “Stand, stand” to the backwards flying “souls.” “With their own nobleness,—which could have turned / A distaff to a lance” they made cowards stand like men in the narrow strait pass. The story but barely conceals a sexual transformation of the inert and slain into living erect and vital men who become “the life o' the need.” Impotence is translated to phallic potency and the legend of “A narrow lane, an old man, and two boys” becomes the tale of how the lane was mastered and taken. It but carelessly attempts to hide the trinitarian power that stems the retreat (when men turn into a retreating tide in a lane) as that of the phallic and testicular trinity. This action, one effected by those who could turn distaff to lance, feminine to masculine, restores the father king to his power on the throne.

The restoration of the king to his power and out from under the spell of incest-death is told by another metaphor, that of the sun. From the play's beginning Imogen has been associated with the sun. “She shines not upon fools, lest the reflection should hurt her,” we are told. Posthumus' supposed faithlessness is likened to hiding from “the radiant sun.” Such references in the play are many and various but consistent. Belarius celebrates the cave in which he has brought the king's sons to live as he says,

                                                                                Stoop, boys: this gate
Instructs you how to admire the heavens, and bows you
To the morning's holy office: the gates of monarchs
Are archt so high, that giants may jet through
And keep their impious turbans on, without
Good morrow to the sun …

Accordingly, the first words of the two brothers as they emerge from the cave and into the play are “Hail Heaven!” The cave metaphor is carefully developed: the womblike cave enforces upon those who sleep there in its darkness the humble adoration of its opposite. The alternative image of giants jetting through courtly gates suggests the potent sexual meaning of the monarch's gate. Such courtly gates, far from nature and one's humble relation to it, leave man the unbalanced servitor of lust and pride. It is the device of the low cave, however, which forces proud men to stoop and to acknowledge appreciatively and anew as they emerge the sunny heavens above to which they return. As man accepts his home in Nature, the sexual womb from which he came and to which he goes, he is liberated to his manhood: the allegory of the cave.

Sight and light continue to order the play: it is faithful Pisanio, who tries to protect Imogen, who will not shut his eyes—“I'll wake mine eyeballs out first”—and it is Imogen who to the queen “was as a scorpion to her sight.” It is also the queen, who hopes to replace herself and her issue on the throne of the king, who wishes that “night [darkness] … may forstall him of the coming day,” but it is victorious Cymbeline at the end, freed by his radiant and sun-adoring (Apollonian) children, who is described as “radiant Cymbeline / which shines here in the West.” Cloten's serenade to Imogen, the stepbrother's song, begins, “Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings, and Phoebus gins arise,” and concludes, “My lady sweet, arise; arise, arise!” suggesting the transfiguration of all things through the sun, the lady herself emulating it. The Queen and Cloten both endorse, arguing as they do for power and matrilineal succession, the feminine usurpation of Apollonian powers. The one other song sung for Imogen is sung by her true brothers, and begins, “Fear no more the heat o' the sun,” and concludes its first stanza, “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney sweepers come to dust,” suggesting in the metaphor of death the extinction of light in dark, of Apollonian consciousness in the vast unconsciousness of death. Cloten's serenade elevates Imogen, her brother's dirge brings down her power tenderly, laying her to rest in the earth. This passing of the power of the sun from Imogen must take place before the father can become at last “radiant Cymbeline.” That the obsequies for Imogen are really for her as Fidele but explains that she has invested herself with masculine power and it is this Imogen, Imogen-Fidele, who is being restored to her “mother” earth (Euryphile, the mother in Nature), becoming her. Masculine power was seized by the feminine as Cymbeline fell under the spell of his witch queen; her son's serenade urges the continuation of that inversion which places Apollonian authority in the woman's hands. The image of the sun/son mastered by the womb-mother is an icon of incest. The true brothers' death dirge, however, suggests the redemptive death that, in returning the feminine son/sun (Fidele) to dust, restores nature to natural cycle and destroys incest fear.


  1. Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, Vintage, 1959, p. 80.

  2. Joyce's theory, expressed in the Scylla and Charybdis or Library episode of Ulysses affirms: “the theme of the false or usurping or the adulterous brother or all three in one is to Shakespeare what the poor is not, always with him.” (p. 209) Joyce studies how Shakespeare chooses his characters for his histories out of his own family: he describes how “Richard, a whoreson crookback, misbegotten, makes love to a widowed Ann (what's in a name?), woos and wins her, a whoreson merry widow. Richard the conqueror, third brother, came after William the conquered.” (p. 209) Earlier, Joyce indicted incestuous Ann: “If others have their will Ann hath a way. By cock, she was to blame.” (p. 189) (James Joyce, Ulysses, New York: The Modern Library, 1946.)

Mark J. Blechner (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6131

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 magnificent, and it is a rare person who can see the play without feeling profoundly moved. Yet discussions of why the play is so moving often founder, and some critics of the play, without a concept of unconscious motivation, come to judge it as an arbitrary and irksome miscalculation that needs to be altered. Like the nondynamic psychiatrist who sees the psychotic symptom as something to be eradicated or covered over with invasive measures rather than understood, many reputable literary thinkers have judged King Lear a failure and have brazenly attempted to fix it.

Leo Tolstoy condemned Shakespeare's play for having superfluous characters and false effects, and he stated (1906) that he preferred The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and earlier play which is assumed to have been one of Shakespeare's sources. Geothe held a similar view. In his essay “Shakespeare und kein Ende!” (1815), Goethe discussed the practice in nineteenth-century Germany of revising Shakespeare. One director, Schroeder, eliminated the first scene of King Lear, an action that Goethe found understandable.

Thus it is true that he changed the character of the play by removing the first scene of King Lear; but he was right, for in this scene Lear appears so absurd that in the rest of the play one cannot feel that his daughters are completely unjustified. The man carries on, but one doesn't sympathize with him, and Schroeder wanted to evoke sympathy as well as disgust with the daughters, who are certainly unnatural, but not completely reprehensible. In the old work [King Leir] which Shakespeare revised, this scene brings out the most lovely effects as the play progresses.”

(p. 1007) [Translation mine.]

Thus, in the criticism of King Lear, we have a situation in which there is much condemnation of its seeming irrationality, yet the powerful, positive response of most audiences belies the intellectual argument. We have a situation that is much as in neurosis, where the conscious affective response and experience defy apparent logic; rational arguments based on conscious experience are overshadowed by the subjective reality of compelling and tenacious emotions. It behooves the psychoanalyst, in such a situation, to seek out the unconscious experience that is called forth, in this case by the play, and gives it profound psychological power.

The first psychoanalyst to write on King Lear was Sigmund Freud. In his essay, “The Theme of the Three Caskets” (1913), Freud compares the contest between the three daughters in King Lear to the general theme of a choice between three women in various works of literature, including The Merchant of Venice,Cinderella, several of Grimm's fairy tales, and various sources of Greek, Estonian, and German mythology. Freud comes to the conclusion that the three women represent the three roles that women play in man's life—the woman who bears him, the woman who is his mate, and finally “the Mother Earth who receives him once more” (p. 301). He finds that the youngest woman in each of the myths represents death. He sees choice in the myths as a “triumph of wish fulfillment,” a denial of the inevitability of death.

With his focus primarily on explaining the frequent symbol of three women, Freud does not discuss the seeming illogic, motivational ambiguities, and puzzling family dynamics that have been pointed out by various literary critics of King Lear. To focus as does Freud on Lear's choice requires a denial of the blatantly compulsive and irrational nature of Lear's actions. What looks like a volitional choice is really an action driven by intense emotions toward his daughters that are out of Lear's awareness. Freud, the pioneer explorer of the role of unconscious passion and aggression in man's life, seems in this case to be demonstrating the powerful repression of these motives himself; his focus on the symbolic meaning of the three women, however valid, evades the issues of incest and destructiveness in familial relations. We shall be in a better position to consider Freud's position after examining the play in more detail.

Much of the negative criticism of King Lear, like Goethe's, centers on the first scene of the play.1 In it, Lear announces that he plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. However, he wishes first to hear them declare their love for him. Goneril is first, and she flatters her father profusely, calling him “dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.” In return, she and her husband, Albany are awarded a large share of the kingdom. Regan is next; she matches her sister's hymn of praise, and thus gains a comparable share of the kingdom for herself and her husband, Cornwall. Finally comes the youngest daughter, Lear's favorite, Cordelia. What does she have to say? “Nothing.” Lear prompts her to respond further, and she replies that she loves her father as a daughter, “according to my bond, no more, no less.” Lear is enraged. He divides the remaining share of the kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and he disowns Cordelia. The Prince of Burgundy, who has been in the royal court for months seeking Cordelia's hand (and dowry) in marriage, is no longer interested when she is disinherited. The king of France, who has been vying with Burgundy for Cordelia's favor, still values her highly, though she is penniless, and he takes her to France as his wife. Lear storms out of court, his last words being: “Come, noble Burgundy.”

The scene raises many questions. Alfred Harbage (1958) asks, “What can be made of it? Why should that patriarch who wishes to yield up his power and possessions require of the receivers declarations of love?” He gives up, saying, “No logical reasons appear—ritual is ritual, its logic its own. Prose is yielding to poetry, ‘realism’ to reality. King Lear is not true. It is an allegory of truth” (p. 14).

To Harbage's question about the first scene of King Lear, we can add many others: If Lear's plan is to base the division of land on the outcome of what may be called the “flattery contest,” why does he make the awards of land after each daughter's declaration of love? If it is truly a contest, why does he not wait until all three daughters have spoken?

If Cordelia is Lear's favorite daughter, would he not know her well enough to expect that she would be unable to flatter him publicly? Would he not know of her unflinching truthfulness and sincerity? And if he would, why does he act surprised and enraged at her response? Why does he put her in a predictably embarrassing position in the first place?

After Cordelia is disinherited, the ever-loyal Kent, as unpremeditated a truth-teller as Cordelia, speaks out on her behalf:

Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least;
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds
Reverb no hollowness.


Lear responds, “Kent, on thy life, no more,” and when Kent persists, Lear banishes him, too. However, it is important to notice that he does not deny Kent's words. He wishes only not to hear them, like a patient in psychoanalysis who has heard an interpretation that he knows to be true, but cannot tolerate at the moment, and who therefore decides to terminate treatment abruptly. We can expect that Kent would have understood this analogy, for he answers Lear's order of banishment with: “Kill the physician and the fee bestow / Upon the foul disease.”

All the seeming contradictions and unanswered questions suggest an unstated motivation behind the actions of Lear. In the play itself there are continual references made to the irrational power behind men's actions. In today's psychoanalytic language, we might attribute the contradictory behavior to unconscious motivation. Four centuries ago, the irrational in men's actions was more commonly attributed to the stars (a practice that has not disappeared, although kings and presidents would be less likely to acknowledge such a belief today). When Lear disinherits Cordelia, he does so with the invocation of the stars. He does not disown her by the duties of royalty or the laws of decency. He does so

          by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operations of the orbs
From whom we exist and cease to be.


It is an action governed by the stars. Today, we might say it is an expression of an unconscious wish. (See also Gloucester's speech to Edmund; I.ii.111-124.)

And what is that wish? A comparison of Shakespeare's play with the earlier King Leir may provide an answer, for it may highlight many of Shakespeare's intentions, revealed by the changes that he made. In King Leir, the plot is eminently sensible, and the motivations of the characters are much less mysterious. Leir spells out for us why he will stage the flattery contest. His wife has recently died, and he had hoped that her good advice would have gotten his daughters married, so that he might pass on the kingdom. None of his daughters is married, but Gonorill (sic) and Ragan (sic) have accepted suitors. Cordella (sic), however, has not. She says she will marry only for love, and there is no telling how long that might take. So Leir plans to hurry her along by means of the flattery contest. He expects that each daughter will say that she loves him, and when Cordella will protest that she loves him best, he will say:

Then daughter, grant me one request,
To shew thou lovest me as thy sisters doe,
Accept a husband, whom my selfe will woo.

After Leir's announcement of his plan, we get the flattery contest, and it is much more sensible than Shakespeare's version. The elder daughters each gush forth their obsequies; Cordella responds simply, without flattery; Lear is enraged; he then divides his kingdom in half, disinheriting Cordella.2

It is a simple plot. Leir—old, sly, and a bit foolish—tries to play a trick and it backfires, but his intentions are all obvious, conscious, and deliberate. The play has a happy ending, suitable for all audiences. Leir is rejoined with Cordella and her husband, the King of France. They invade England with an army, recapturing the land from the evil daughters. Leir is restored to power, and everyone, presumably, lives happily ever after.

Shakespeare ends his play quite differently. Cordelia, temporarily separated from her husband and then reunited with her father, is arrested and killed. Lear, in the final scene, enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms. He praises her beauty and the womanly qualities. Finally, as he rapturously fantasizes that his daughter still lives, Lear dies.

One of the major structural changes that Shakespeare made in the plot is the focus on Lear and Cordelia. In King Leir, the many characters are of more equal importance. All three sisters are in need of husbands,3 and they constantly bicker with each other. The King of France has a major part, both in his courting of Cordella and his military rescue of Leir in the end. In King Lear, on the other hand, the focus is on Lear and Cordelia. Only Cordelia needs a husband. The King of France is a bit part in the first scene, and then appears no more. The world in the final scene revolves around Lear and Cordelia.

It is worth noting, too, that in King Leir, Cordella is unwilling to marry the suitors who are available to her. In King Lear, however, Cordelia herself does not seem to be averse to the suitors who are courting her. They seem to be competing, but the reason for the delay is left vague; we are not led to believe that it is her own fickleness.

Now, how shall we put together all this information to help us understand Shakespeare's King Lear? Shakespeare's focus on Lear and Cordelia suggests that Lear is profoundly attached to Cordelia, with a love that goes far beyond society's bounds of paternal attachment. His actions in the first scene seem unconsciously designed to keep his favorite daughter from forsaking him and marrying either of her two suitors. Lear knows his favorite daughter well enough to predict that she will not flatter him. There is evidence in the play, which will be discussed below, that it is her very honesty that he loves most about her. And so, while consciously planning the flattery contest as the vehicle by which he will give her the largest share of the kingdom, he unconsciously wishes her to renounce all suitors and maintain her love for him alone. He may be carrying out an unconscious plan to embarrass her in public, causing her to lose her dowry, and thereby preventing her from marrying.

Lear, after all, is facing the most serious terror of the aging man—loneliness. His wife is probably dead.4 Two of his daughters are already gone, and the youngest is on the verge of marrying. We have, then, the pathos of an old man, horribly alone, seeking, perhaps erotically but certainly passionately, to maintain the companionship and intimacy with his one daughter who remains unattached. And the contest scene is an outbreak of that passion, wishing to make itself not only conscious but public. Cordelia herself makes the precise interpretation of what Lear is doing when she protests:

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.(5)


Thus, she points out that Lear wants to be the sole object of her love, but she cannot satisfy his wish. She will love another besides her father. Hearing this, Lear becomes enraged.

The first line of the play sets the stage for understanding Lear's motivation, for it defines the context of his conscious responsibilities and wishes, against which his actions seem so bizarre. Kent says, “I thought the King had more affected the duke of Albany than Cornwall.” Gloucester replies,

It did always seem so to us. But now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most, for equalities are so weighed that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.

Implicit in this dialogue is the following idea: if the King's main concern is the judicious division of his kingdom, he will attend to the merits of his sons-in-law, not his daughters. Thus Shakespeare dismisses from the very start the relevance of the daughter's love to the division of the kingdom. If the king holds a flattery contest, it makes no political sense.

Here, I ask the reader to digress with me for a moment, to consider the relationship between the technique of the psychoanalyst and the literary analyst. Many of the principles that are used to analyze the structure of a psychoanalytic session can also be used in analyzing the structure of a play, provided that the principles are based on general principles of psychological functioning. For example, it is thought that a patient's first words in a psychoanalytic session, no matter how seemingly trivial on the surface, contain within them the unconscious theme that the patient is concerned with on that day. Similarly, I have often observed that any unconscious changes that have occurred during the session will be encoded in the patient's last words. I find that if a patient says something at the very end of a psychoanalytic session that is almost the same as what he said at the beginning of the session, then the unconscious material was probably not dealt with adequately during the session.

The relationship between the first and last words, as a sign of unconscious changes or of unconscious continuity, may apply not only to psychoanalytic sessions, but to any human interaction, including those that are portrayed in the theater. Let us examine the first scene of King Lear from this standpoint. Lear's very first words in the play are: “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.” On the surface, this may be a bit of courtly protocol. There are visiting noblemen in the court, and Lear wishes to be sure that they are properly attended to. But the line, like the first line of a session, reveals some critical information about Lear's unconscious psychology, for it tells us that his foremost personal concern is the pair of suitors who are seeking to “take” his last daughter away.

And the scene ends with a similar indication of Lear's preoccupation. Lear, ostensibly enraged by Cordelia's reply during the flattery contest, has disinherited her. Burgundy, uninterested in a dowerless wife, has rescinded his marriage proposal, thereby gratifying Lear's unconscious plan to keep Cordelia for himself. But France recognizes Cordelia's virtue and takes her, penniless, as his wife. Lear is furious. He virtually curses France. And then comes Lear's last line before exiting the scene. “Come, noble Burgundy.” Is Burgundy suddenly become so noble? Surely not. As Cordelia observes so eloquently about Burgundy (I.i.247-248), “respects of fortune are his love.” That is hardly noble. Only to Lear's unconscious wishes is Burgundy noble, for he has relinquished his attempt to come between the old man and his daughter. However, since Lear's unconscious wish has not been made conscious, nor has it been gratified, it continues to express itself. Thus the scene ends as it began, with Lear's concern about the suitors.

As additional evidence that Shakespeare intended to portray Lear's unconscious passion for his daughter, we may look to the changes in the characters' names that Shakespeare presumably made from the earlier King Leir. Most obvious is the change in the spelling and pronounciation of the King's name. The old version, Leir, is pronounced to rhyme with “there” (see Koekeritz, 1959), while the new version, Lear, has the connotation of its homonym “leer.” I think that we can take it for granted that Shakespeare, masterful punster that he was, would not have made this change without realizing its implications; in his other plays he often uses the word “leer” to denote an intense, lusty, or indecent glance.6 The implication of the name change may well be that Lear is looking upon his daughter with more than socially acceptable fatherly interest.

Similarly, we may look to the change in Cordelia's name from the old Cordella. What is Cordelia?—Cor de lia—Cor de Lear—the heart of Lear, Lear's love. If the reader balks at such word play, let him remember that Shakespeare's other puns, such as those he gives to the Fool in King Lear, are often much more loose.

Perhaps the reader is still sceptical about the thesis presented here concerning Lear's motivation in the first scene. The passion of the aged is a subject that may be objectionable to many people, and the taboo surrounding its discussion may be as strong or stronger than that surrounding the topic of infantile sexuality. However, if there is any doubt about Lear's being ruled in the first scene by his passion for Cordelia, it is dispelled by the final scenes of the play, where passion is openly expressed between father and daughter.

It is important to note, in this respect, another change that Shakespeare made from the earlier version of the play. In King Leir, Leir is united with Cordella and France, and together they form an alliance for the military recovery of Leir's kingdom. In Shakespeare, something quite different happens. Shakespeare disposes of France before the reunion of Lear and Cordelia. This is accomplished quite arbitrarily and awkwardly for Shakespeare. Kent asks, “Why the King of France is so suddenly gone back know you the reason?” and an unnamed Gentleman replies,

Something he left imperfect in the state, which since his coming forth is thought of; which imports to the kingdom so much fear and danger that his personal return was most requir'd and necessary.”


That is all we are told. But the elimination of France is critical to Shakespeare's plot, for only when Cordelia is separated from her husband is she fully available for Lear's love-making, which is the resolution of the play from the point of view of Lear's unconscious wish.

And that wish becomes unequivocal by the end of the play. The last scenes between Lear and Cordelia are thoroughly passionate, extremely different from the tepid niceties of their reunion in King Leir. In Shakespeare's play, when Lear and Cordelia are arrested by Edmund, do they consider the realities of the situation? No. Are they concerned with the political ramifications or the indignities of imprisonment? No. Instead, they revel in a fantasy of two lovers. They will make believe they are King and Queen. Lear's fantasy erupts in the beautiful speech: “Come, let's away to prison. We two alone / Will sing like birds in a cage. … He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven” (V.iii.8-25).

Passion brings out great strength in Lear, who, we should remember, is over 80 years old. His final act of courage has been to kill the young messenger who hanged Cordelia. It is an act of brave assertion, and Lear is openly proud of it. “I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee,” he boasts (V.iii.273). And as if we, too, would not believe it, the all-knowing Gentleman pipes in, “Tis true, my lords.”

In the final scene, Shakespeare gives the stage instruction “Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms.” This is to be done by an octogenarian who has spent the night out in a storm. But the power of a life's passion has come forth. Lear has his wish at last. Cordelia is his (although dead), and it has brought out great strength in him.

It is no exaggeration to describe Lear's final lines, when Cordelia is dead, as a Liebestod, a love-death. I do not use that term loosely; I would compare Lear's Liebestod to perhaps the most famous one, that in Wagner's opera, Tristan and Isolde. Lear and Isolde both imagine that the dead beloved shows signs of life, call out to the others present to see what they see, and die enraptured. The correspondence is not just one of general spirit and meaning; there are actual line-by-line similarities. For example, Isolde sings:

Wie den Lippen
wonnig mild
suesser Atem
sanft entweht.
Freunde! Seht!
How blissfully gentle
from his lips
sweet breath
does softly flutter—
Friends! See!

Compare this to Lear's “the feather stirs! She lives!“(V.iii.264) and “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” (V.iii.309).

In summary, then, we can see in King Lear a love-tragedy between father and daughter. In the first scene the father banishes the loved daughter after having attempted in vain to prevent her from marrying. In the final scene, he achieves his wish, the taboo is broken, the love is expressed, and, as in nearly all tragedies in which a taboo has been broken, the transgressing characters die.

And what of the central part of the play? I would assert that, given our understanding of the first and last scenes, we can read the entire play as a love drama between father and daughter, in spite of the fact that Cordelia, as a character, disappears entirely, for most of the play (between the first scene of the first act and the fourth scene of the fourth act). However, I would suggest that in the central part of the play, Cordelia's presence is played out vicariously with the King by the Fool. Cordelia and the Fool are interchangeable.7 Almost immediately after Cordelia is banished, the Fool is called in, and it is with him that the romantic relationship between Lear and Cordelia is developed. This continues until the scene in which Cordelia and Lear are reunited. Then, the Fool disappears from the play,8 which makes it all the more convincing that he is a substitute figure for Cordelia. Also, the Fool is treated as Lear's offspring. Lear calls him “My boy,” and shows him the attention of a father to a young child. Finally, erasing any doubt, Lear makes the unconscious connection between the Fool and Cordelia explicit in the last scene of the play, when he says of the dead Cordelia in his arms: “And my poor fool is hanged.”

The Fool and Cordelia have much in common. They are both admirably and tragically devoted to speaking the truth, and this truth-telling takes precedence over tact. It is astonishing to hear the outrageous, insulting things that the Fool says to Lear. He calls him a fool and makes obscene jokes. Yet Lear listens to it all, even responds affectionately to the insults. When the Fool expresses the wish to learn how to lie, however, Lear threatens him: “An you lie, Sirrah, we'll have you whipped” (I.iv.177). To be dishonest to Lear would be unforgivable. Lear disowns Cordelia for truth-telling, yet once she is gone, he can show, in his interactions with the Fool, that what he condemned in her was what he loved most in her.

The Fool, something of an analyst, continued Cordelia's interpretations of Lear's need to envelop his daughter in his unconscious passion. Mincing words even less than Cordelia, the Fool sings songs and tells jokes that unreservedly identify Lear as the fool, as the man who has lost his reason to passion. The Fool is quite explicit about the sexual source of Lear's madness:

The codpiece that will house
                    Before the head has any,
The head and he shall louse:
                    So beggars marry many.


The codpiece is the part of clothing that covers the genitals. Thus, the fool is saying: He who houses his genitals before his head, who puts his lust before reason, is headed for madness and penury.

Similarly, the Fool refers often to lechery (etymologically related to “leer”), as when he describes the appearance of passion in a dying body: “Now a little fire in a wild field / were like an old lecher's heart—a small spark, all the / rest on's body, cold” (III.iv.110-112).

Lear comes close to insight, especially in Act III. Here the storm breaks out at the moment that Lear's rage begins to turn to sorrow, as his unconscious conflict begins to burst forth. Lear's address to the storm, which may be seen as an outburst of his unconscious conflict, is the beginning of his understanding, albeit still projected onto the external storm, of the rage within and of his emerging sense of guilt, not yet fully accepted as his own.

                    Let the great gods
That keep this dreadful pudder o'er our heads
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch
That has within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipped of justice.(9) Hide thee, thou bloody hand,
Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous. Caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Has practiced on man's life. Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.


“Thou simular of virtue that art incestuous”—Is that not an apt description of Lear in the first scene of the play?

To be sure, King Lear is not only about Lear's unconscious passion. To take that view would be to trivialize Shakespeare's character development. Lear's exorcism in the play involves many aspects of his character. The man goes through an upset of his entire personality in a much-belated excursion into self-discovery. It is a life's work crammed into a few excruciating days.

He starts the play with little self-knowledge. Regan may be right when she says of her father: “He has ever but slenderly known himself” (I.i.292-293). In the play, especially during the storm, he discovers his arrogance and pride, his lack of humility and empathy. The Fool takes aim at these characteristics, as in his ditty:

The man that makes his toe
                    What he his heart should make
Shall of a corn cry woe,
                    And turn his sleep to wake.


Lear learns from the Fool, but even more so from his own suffering, about the meaning of charity and empathy, as he shows so beautifully in his “prayer”:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.


By the end of the play, Lear's tone has changed much. He is tender, open, and unselfish. He has learned to feel what others feel. But it is important to note, he never renounces his passion for his daughter, so that a tragic ending is inevitable.10

In light of the understanding of King Lear proposed here, certain aspects of Freud's (1913) approach to the play seem rather curious. We have no cause to quarrel with Freud's general interpretation of the theme of choosing between three women; his focus on the approach of death, represented by choosing the youngest woman (which, as noted above, he calls “a triumph of wish-fulfillment”) is not incompatible with the interpretation of the play presented here. However, in discussing the Lear story, Freud quite uncharacteristically goes out of his way to dismiss a blatant and, to my thinking, critical theme of the story—the relation of father to daughter. He writes: “We must not be led astray by the fact that Lear's choice is between three daughters; this may mean nothing more than that he has to be represented as an old man. An old man cannot very well choose between three women in any other way. Thus they become his daughters.” (Freud, 1913, p.293.) And, protesting further, Freud repeats the point: “Lear is an old man. It is for this reason, as we have already said, that the three sisters appear as his daughters.” He then continues (p. 301): “The relationship of a father to his children, which might be a fruitful source of many dramatic situations, is not turned to further account in the play.” This last point is in error. The relationship of a father to his children permeates the whole play, not only concerning Lear and his three daughters, but also the main subplot of the play, Gloucester and his two sons.

Following my analysis of King Lear, I would insist that it is important both that Lear is old and that his love is directed toward his daughter. I see in the play the outbreak of a lifelong, unconscious, incestuous passion. When that passion emerges late in life, it is by no means weakened by age. On the contrary, passion in the elderly can erupt more strongly than in the young. (This theme, in different guises, preoccupied Thomas Mann in “Death in Venice” and Tennessee Williams in “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.”) The King Lears of our world have lived within the constraints of society and of unconscious incest taboos, and have been unable to be passionate within those constraints. Only when they have little or nothing to lose do they finally let their passion break out. And that passion, when it does emerge, is all the more powerful for having been suppressed so long.


  1. See also Nicoll (1928, p. 154-5).

  2. The awarding of the lands after all the daughters have responded occurs also in other works that are considered to have been sources of Shakespeare's play, including Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Irelande and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen (II.10.28).

  3. This is also the case in the versions by Holinshed and Spenser.

  4. We know almost nothing about Lear's wife. She never appears in the play. Her existence is acknowledged only twice in the play, impersonally and obliquely, by Lear (II.iv.126) and by Kent (IV.ii.92). It is of interest that in a play dealing so much with the relations of parents and children, there are no mothers.

  5. Of this, Bradley (1966) writes: “And Cordelia's speech not only tells much less than truth about her love, it actually perverts the truth when it implies that to give love to a husband is to take if from a father.” This view denies the nature of the love unconsciously demanded by Lear. It is as if Bradley were saying, “Leave off your unconscious. There is no truth there!”—which, if it were so, would mean there would be no tragedies, either. That a daughter's love for her husband does threaten the love between her and her father is a ubiquitous unconscious theme; otherwise we would not laugh at the comment, often said to the father of the bride: “Think of it this way—you're not losing a daughter; you're gaining a son-in-law.”

  6. See, for example, Troilus and Cressida (V.i.90) and 2. Henry IV (V.v.7).

  7. Edith Sitwell (1958) argues that in Shakespeare's time, the Fool and Cordelia were played by the same actor.

  8. Bradley (1966) attributes the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the Fool to Shakespeare's haste and carelessness. I disagree. We can see in Kent's final remark to the Fool, before he disappears from the play—“Come help to bear thy master. / Thou must not stay behind” (III.iv.98-99)—an insistence that the Fool-as-Cordelia will be rejoined with the father.

  9. Lear's projection of his guilt onto divine wrath here is reminiscent of Oedipus: “As for the criminal, I pray to God— / Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number— / I pray that man's life be consumed in evil and wretchedness” (Sophocles, trans. 1939).

  10. We may propose the hypothesis that one essential difference between tragedy and other forms of theater is the fate of taboo desires in the main character. If they are resolved or renounced, then we have history or romance as in King Lear. But if the desires erupt full-force, dominate the action, and are never renounced, then a tragic ending is inevitable, as in King Lear. Surely, a more thorough survey of literature would be required to test the validity of this thesis, and that would take us too far afield here. However, as an initial exploration, one might want to compare not only the two versions of the Lear story, but also to compare King Lear with The Tempest.The Tempest is, in many ways, Shakespeare's non-tragic counterpart to King Lear, and portrays an alternative outcome to the developments of old age, and different solutions to its tasks. In both plays, an old man, wifeless and alone save for a beloved daughter who is maturing and ready for marriage, must face the consequences of age—the fading of potency and competence, the prospect of aloneness, and withdrawal from life. The storm in The Tempest, as in King Lear, symbolizes the churning up of old impulses and the agony of the impending painful crisis that must be faced. But The Tempest is a romance, not a tragedy, and the transition occurs gradually and relatively peacefully. Prospero ambivalently resigns himself to his age, yields his daughter in marriage, and ultimately bids farewell to his magical powers (which represent both his actual competence and the fantasied omnipotence of his instinctual life) with his beautiful soliloquoy in the epilogue.


Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966.

Freud, S. “The Theme of the Three Caskets” 1913. Standard Edition, XII. London: The Hogarth Press, 1958, pp. 289-301.

Goethe, J. W. v. Shakespeare und kein Ende! 1815. Reprinted in: Complete Works, 15. Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1940, pp. 994-1008.

Harbage, A. Introduction to King Lear. In: W. Shakespeare, The Complete Works. 1958. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

Koekeritz, H. Shakespeare's Names: A Pronouncing Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

Nicoll, A. Studies in Shakespeare. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928.

Sitwell, E. A Notebook on William Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1958.

Sophocles Oedipus Rex. Trans. by D. Fitts and R. Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939.

Tolstoy, L. Tolstoy on Shakespeare. Trans. by V. Tchertkoff and I. F. M. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906.

Jane M. Ford (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7211

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 of resolution of the incest-threat for the father and the daughter through marriage to a suitor.

… [Relatively little] intimate detail is known about Shakespeare's family relationships. This has only served to stimulate endless speculation, usually based on the correlation between known historical facts found in public records and the sequence and content of the various plays. In this way critics have found grounds for conjectures regarding the man himself.

Born in 1564, the bard was eighteen when he was precipitously married to a woman eight years his senior. “But special circumstances attended this match. The groom was a minor, and his lady, pregnant.”1 By the age of twenty he had three children but for most of the ensuing years, except for yearly visits to Stratford, Shakespeare lived and worked in London.2 Hamnet, the only son, died at the age of eleven when his father was thirty-two—six years before the publication of Hamlet. His oldest daughter, Susanna, was married when she was twenty-four and her father was forty-three—one year after King Lear. Her daughter, Elizabeth, was born the following year (1608), the same year that Shakespeare's mother died and that Pericles was published. Hamnet's twin, Judith, married at thirty-one when Shakespeare was fifty-two—the year of his death—1616. This was five years after he wrote The Winter's Tale and The Tempest and three years after Henry VIII.

Shakespeare spent most of his final years, 1614-16, in Stratford, returning to London from time to time for short periods. In 1613, Susanna had brought suit against John Lane for defamation for having accused her of adultery and consequent gonorrhea; she was exonerated and he was excommunicated.3 Judith's marriage to Richard Quiney in February, 1616, was followed soon after by a legal scandal involving her new husband's adultery; both the illegitimate infant and the mother had died. Suit was brought against Quiney on March 26, Judith already pregnant with their first child. Schoenbaum conjectures that the resulting stress may have precipitated Shakespeare's death two months later on April 23 (292). Certainly having both daughters involved in unsavory lawsuits must have been a burden to their aging father. When he died, he left his wife the now notorious “second-best bed,” with the bulk of his estate going to Susanna, her husband, and their heirs, while also making provision for Judith.

Otto Rank was one of the pioneers in tying the artist's life to the work and [James] Joyce followed in his footsteps with Stephen Dedalus's elaborate discourse in the library. Both writers speculated on the implications of Shakespeare's having played the Ghost in Hamlet: “This suggests that at the time Shakespeare identified more closely with the role of the father. This conception gains in significance given that this role is generally said to have been Shakespeare's best performance” (Rank, 186). Jean Kimball has presented substantial evidence that Rank's work was available to and utilized by Joyce.4

Stephen Dedalus waxes poetic on the subject:

A player comes on. … It is the ghost, the king, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. … To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live for ever.

Is it possible that that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son's name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been prince Hamlet's twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen. Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway?

(U [Ulysses], 9.164-80)

Stephen then elaborates on the potential damage to the male ego of loss of sexual initiative, perhaps telling us more about Joyce than it does about Shakespeare: “Belief in himself has been untimely killed. He was overborne in a cornfield first (a ryefield, I should say) and he will never be a victor in his own eyes after nor play victoriously the game of laugh and lie down” (U, 9.455-58). One of Joyce's listeners had raised the question which still plagues critics and critics of critics: “But this prying into the family life of a great man” (U, 9.181).

In addition to a lack of detail about his life, Shakespeare's corpus is distinguished by uncertainty regarding the exact sequence of his works; much of the dating remains speculative. Nevertheless, his prolific output resulted in an interesting chronological proximity for many of the plays. Although I have selected a play from his earlier years, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1596), one from his middle period, King Lear (1606), and two from his later period, Pericles (1609) and The Tempest (1611) for more intense focus, certain other plays are pertinent by virtue of their chronological proximity and the light this throws on their variations in treatment of the incest theme.

Shakespeare followed his first play in 1592 when he was twenty-eight with the writing of Love's Labour's Lost in 1593, in which the father's death imposes a period of enforced mourning before the marriages of his daughter and her friends can take place. In 1594, Shakespeare wrote three plays embodying a broad spectrum of treatments of the incest theme: Titus Andronicus,Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.Titus Andronicus, the least popular of Shakespeare's works, concludes with the father's slaying of his daughter, who has been sexually violated by others. The other two plays offer diametrically opposed resolutions. Susanna was only eleven when these plays were written, still very young, but old enough to cause her father to view himself as father of a maturing daughter. She was close to Mathilde's age when Freud had his erotic dream about her.

Romeo and Juliet (1594), while based ostensibly on the Montague/Capulet opposition, encompasses several components of the father/daughter theme. Capulet's preferred suitor for his daughter is closer to his double than the young Romeo, selected by the fourteen-year-old Juliet. Although her father is at first disposed to let her postpone any action until she is sixteen, he agrees to allow Count Paris to woo her and ultimately seems caught up in that frantic haste to get the daughter safely married off that characterizes other father/daughter plots—especially Shakespeare's. This dramatizes the father's necessity for a resolution of his own incestuous impulses through immediate marriage.

Juliet is shocked at the urgency: “I wonder at this haste, that I must wed / Ere he that should be husband comes to woo.”5 As Juliet's resistance becomes clear to her parents, the incestuous implications become evident in her father's violent reaction:

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. Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child;
But now I see this one is one too much,
And that we have a curse in having her.
Out on her, hilding!


As her father continues his tirade, Juliet concludes: “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3.5.244), foreshadowing her father's later poignant realization: “Death is my son-in-law; Death is my heir” (4.5.38). The actions of the father, both in his haste to marry off the newly nubile daughter, and in his insistence on choosing a man he favors and she disdains, are prime factors in the rapid movement toward a tragic dénouement.

The contrast between Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream nicely illustrates the skirting of potential violence that is always a component when the suitor and the daughter are opposed by a possessive father. The tension in the latter play is established at the outset by the refusal of Hermia's father, Egeus, to allow her to marry Lysander, while making it clear that he wishes her to marry Demetrius instead. The father's autonomy, as established by Athenian law, is summed up by Egeus: “And what is mine, mine love shall render him. / And she is mine, and all my right of her / I do estate unto Demetrius.”6 Theseus, the supreme authority figure, has indicated that the penalty for disobedience to this injunction is either death or lifelong celibacy in a convent. There are no apparent age or attribute distinctions between suitors in this play, and one is free to infer that the restrictions are related to the father's own repressed motives. After listing the attributes they share in common, Hermia's favored suitor makes clear the single distinction between himself and Demetrius, “I am beloved of beauteous Hermia” (1.1.99-104).

Herein lies the rub. It is frequently one aspect of the incest motif that the father so involved can cope with the daughter's marriage only when her object-choice is a man other than the one she finds sexually attractive. The implication here is that although the father accepts the fact that he cannot retain her, he can only tolerate renunciation with the knowledge that she will not be happy or sexually satisfied. There is also a sadistic streak in the father's forcing marriage on an unwilling daughter in the name of authority.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the bulk of the action takes place in the forest, with the pairs of lovers ultimately happily aligned; every Jack has his Jill. The parodied production of Pyramus and Thisbe, the original of which foreshadows the bloody end of Romeo and Juliet, parallels the differences between the thwarted love of Hermia and Lysander and that of the scions of Capulet and Montague. This raises the crucial question of wherein lies the difference. Does Egeus differ from Capulet in his resolution of the dilemma? The difference lies in the avoidance of violence effected by the intervention of Theseus: “Egeus, I will overbear your will” (4.1.178); we never hear from Egeus again. Theseus can thus be viewed as a “good” father who by his imposed renunciation fosters love and prevents the bloodshed that occurs in Pyramus and Thisbe and Romeo and Juliet. What is more important is that Theseus contravenes Athenian law and takes power into his own hands. He thus serves as a successful contrast to the Prince of Verona who tries to put a stop to the violence and death but fails. This play then can serve as a prototype for other narratives in which the father renounces the daughter, but only after renunciation is imposed by an outside authority; sometimes it is the daughter who intervenes.

With The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), Shakespeare effected an important transition from the father's threat to impose his own choice of a friend and contemporary as his daughter's groom, to his voluntary relinquishment of control in favor of the daughter's choice. But by 1602 the productions of Hamlet and Othello exemplified a return to a dénouement of violence and destruction. Although Hamlet has been scrutinized much more extensively regarding the mother/father/son triad, in the Polonius/Ophelia/Hamlet triangle the suitor inadvertently destroys the father as a prelude to the ultimate destruction of the other two members of the triangle. But Polonius had already deterred his daughter from responding to Hamlet on the grounds of protecting her and it is her father's murder that precipitates her madness. “In Polonius is embodied the disdained and derided elderly father who wants to keep his daughters for himself” (Rank, 181).

The primacy of the father/daughter theme in Othello is readily apparent and not surprisingly it is Iago's language that insinuates the idea of incest into the play. Dr. Robert Fliess points out: “Othello, much older than Desdemona, constitutes a kind of father to her in the special sense of a forbidden love relation, one surrounded with taboos.”7 Brabantio sums up for all these Shakespearean fathers the solution to the incest-threat that the suitor represents: “I here do give thee that with all my heart / Which, but thou hast already, with my heart / I would keep from thee.”8 Although the father's ambivalence remains, the situation has been taken out of his hands.

Since Shakespeare wrote his first play at twenty-eight, a representative play of his middle period can be found in King Lear (1606), written when he was forty-two, Susanna was twenty-three, and Judith was twenty-one. Neither daughter had yet married, but since Susanna did marry in 1607, it is likely that the event was anticipated. Kay cites Susanna's epitaph which praised her as “witty above her sex” and “wise to salvation,” concluding that she thus resembled her father (329).

One critic found the father/daughter theme so central to this play that he coined the term “Lear complex,” the complex that focuses on the “neglected” adult to define the attachment of the older member of the oedipal twosome.9 In spite of a wide variety of interpretations of Lear's initial decision to divide his kingdom, the most immediate result will be to force his periodic presence on his daughters, and Cordelia, whom “He always loved … most,”10 is the only one left unmarried. The Fool tells Lear: “[T]hou madst thy daughters thy mothers” (1.4.168-69).11 Cordelia's declaration of independence precipitates her father's wrath and provokes him into banishing his youngest:

Happily, 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.


Although the Fool had told Kent that “this fellow has banish'd two on's daughters, / and did the third a blessing against his will” (1.4.100,101), toward the end of the play, Cordelia returns to England to come to the aid of her father. And a short time later, her suitor/husband is bereft and alone as Lear joins his daughter in death. The originator of the “Lear complex” outlines briefly what has ensued: Lear “reaches the depths of human despair and endurance until he finds his peace in death as a ‘smug bridegroom’ in blessed union with his youngest daughter as the bride” (59). Lear's words at the height of the storm have suggested his sense of his guilt:

                    Tremble thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes
Unwhipped of justice. Hide thee, thou bloody hand,
Thou perjured, and thou simular of virtue
That art incestuous. … I am a man
More sinned against than sinning.

(3.2.51-59, emphasis mine)

During this period, Shakespeare created many examples of the violence and destruction lying at the heart of the incest theme. Ophelia ends as a suicide, her father having been murdered by the suitor. Desdemona, an innocent victim, is murdered. As Cordelia and her father lie dead, only the suitor remains when the violence has spun itself out. Earlier versions of the play did not entail a tragic finale, nor did the folktales which served as its base end tragically (Dundes, 234-35). King Leir, performed in 1590, depicted a reconciliation between Leir and Cordelia (Kay, 313).

In those plays that end in the destruction of both father and daughter and frequently of suitor, the violence is precipitated by the refusal of the father to renounce the daughter. But Shakespeare also wrote a number of plays in which the father's renunciation of the daughter to a suitor avoids the potential violence and destruction. Focus on the theme of renunciation in these plays also provides guidelines for analysis of the theme in subsequent chapters. Joyce attributed this transformation to the birth of Shakespeare's granddaughter in 1608: “Marina, Stephen said, a child of storm, Miranda, a wonder, Perdita, that which was lost. What was lost is given back to him: his daughter's child” (U, 9.421-24).

Pericles (1609), the first of the late renunciatory series, embodies an array of plot possibilities in the father/daughter incest theme, establishing the basic motif in the opening story of Antiochus and his daughter who are living in incest. Although there are other literary examples of overt incest such as Shelley's The Cenci and Mary Shelley's Mathilda, this is one of the few in which the incest is sustained with apparent complacency on the part of both participants, as divulged early in the play by Gower:

This king unto him took a peer,
Who died and left a female heir,
So buxom, blithe, and full of face
As heaven had lent her all his grace;
With whom the father liking took
And her to incest did provoke.
Bad child; worse father! to entice his own
By custom what they did begin
Was with long use accounted no sin.

(1 Chorus 21-30)

By whom was it accounted no sin? Certainly by the participants, and probably by the king's subjects also. And this father does not enjoin celibacy upon his suitor/rivals who fail to guess the riddle; their heads are ranged for all to see—a classic castration symbol.

Pericles guesses that the riddle spells an incestuous relationship and his life is immediately endangered. But a more crucial factor is involved, both in Pericles' guessing of the riddle and in the effect that this has on his subsequent behavior. His intuitive response to the riddle marks him as an early “secret sharer” since the proclivities of Antiochus are his own. We are never told precisely what ideas are aroused in Pericles by the riddle which is stated in the daughter's voice:

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.


This disclosure makes Pericles “pale to read it” (1.1.76), and he evades making a direct answer to the king with: “Few love to hear the sins they love to act” (1.1.93), concluding with an oblique incest reference: “All love the womb that their first being bred. / Then give my tongue like leave to love my head” (1.1.107-08). Does knowledge of the relationship between Antiochus and his daughter perhaps suggest to Pericles his own love of the “womb that first their being bred” since the father/daughter attachment can operate as a reversal of the mother/son? Ostensibly to flee possible death at the hands of Antiochus, Pericles leaves Tyre and is soon again the third party in another father/daughter/suitor triangle.

King Simonides is the complete antithesis of Antiochus. On his daughter's birthday (always significant in the incest motif narrative), he is parading before her a series of knights for her selection; in the array, Pericles seems an unlikely choice due to his recent shipwreck. He becomes, however, the chosen love-object of Thaisa and she uses the subterfuge of total withdrawal for one year to rid herself of all other suitors. Simonides weighs his own autonomy against his daughter's:

She tells me here, she'll wed the stranger knight,
Or never more to view nor day nor light.
'Tis well, mistress; your choice agrees with mine;
I like that well: nay, how absolute she's in't,
Not minding whether I dislike or no!
Well, I do commend her choice,
And will no longer have it be delayed.
Soft, here he comes: I must dissemble it.


Again, there is that sense of urgency on the part of the father to see the daughter safely in the arms of the suitor once the decision to renounce has been made. But Shakespeare's fathers are sometimes good psychologists and also realize that what comes too easily may not prove very attractive. Obstacles enhance desire, but when agreement is finally reached, there is again that sense of urgency: “It pleaseth me so well that I will see you wed; / And then, with what haste you can, get you to bed” (2.5.91-92).

Before this marriage takes place, the audience has learned that Antiochus and his daughter have been destroyed in a terrible death. Although Simonides has “dissembled” his opposition to the marriage, it also reflects his true ambivalence toward this usurper of his fatherly rights. The marriage is short-lived (just short of nine months) since Thaisa ostensibly perishes in childbirth and is buried at sea to be resuscitated on land five hours later, unbeknown to Pericles. Subsequently, Pericles deposits his daughter with another pair of surrogate parents. Cleon, the father, is fond of his foster daughter whom he has “trained / In music's letters” (4 Chorus 7, 8).

Comprising another plot variation on the theme, the true daughter of Cleon and Dionyza is quite outshone by the foster daughter, and the mother plans Marina's murder. In this oedipal plot, the second daughter is a double for the mother and it is really the usurpation of the mother by the daughter that leads to Dionyza's decision to have her murdered—by yet another father figure, Leonine. This is a fairly rare literary instance in which there is open conflict between the mother and daughter for the father, in this case displaced onto a daughter surrogate. Leonine, reluctantly faced with Marina's murder, is saved from action by her abduction by pirates who sell her to a brothel owner, thus setting up the fourth oedipal configuration. The confrontation between Cleon and Dionyza, followed by the supposed murder, reinforces the oedipal reading that was added to the Gower version by Shakespeare.12

The Pander/Bawd/Boult (father/mother/brother) triangle is perhaps one of the least recurrent paradigms in terms of future literary patterns. It is significant that Shakespeare added a character not in the Gower version: “[I]n the brothel scenes he has no female Bawd, only a pandar and a servant.” Shakespeare also “cuts to a minimum” the story of Antiochus's incest.13 But possibly the most interesting change made by Shakespeare in the Gower materials was the more prominent role given to Marina (xvii). In this plot variation, the daughter's sexuality becomes a commercial commodity for the father who, in a sense, acts as her pimp. The father figure in this “family” is simply called “Pandar,” but he is not Chaucer's benign, lovable Pandarus. The “mother” allies herself with the father to exploit the daughter. Marina's stubborn refusal to submit culminates in a further incestuous elaboration, as the surrogate mother suggests to the surrogate brother that he deprive her of her virginity, thus paving the way for her future exploitation: “Boult, take her away; use her at thy pleasure. / Crack the glass of her virginity, and make the rest malleable” (4.6.141-43). But Marina manages to escape the brothel due to her ability to gain the respect of a perceptive Lysimachus who then refrains from using her as a prostitute. In effect, a father-surrogate saves Marina and eventually marries her with her own father's blessing. In Gower, this character never enters the brothel (xv).

As Pericles is reunited with his daughter, but is still unaware of her identity, the function of the daughter as a double of the mother is made clear: “My dearest wife / Was like this maid, and such a one / My daughter might have been” (5.1.106-08). A short time later he tells her: “thou look'st / Like one I lov'd indeed” (5.1.124-25). Pericles and Marina are here placed in the position described by Masters in which separated relatives, when reunited, are more prone to incest (5). Marina calls up immediately the earlier love-object, and one might surmise that if Pericles doesn't find out who she really is, a sexual involvement is imminent. The transfer of paternal desire from mother to daughter is embodied in Marina's words to her father: “Thaisa was my mother, who did end / The minute I began” (5.1.210, 211). Again, Joyce comments: “‘My dearest wife,’ Pericles says, ‘was like this maid.’ Will any man love the daughter if he has not loved the mother?” (U, 9.423-24). Joyce echoes this with “Molly. Milly. Same thing watered down” (U, 6.87). The Chinese box metaphor also holds since Joyce's daughter was an adolescent while he was writing Ulysses.

The function of the father/daughter relationship as a reversal of the mother/son is succinctly stated in the words of Pericles to the daughter he now recognizes: “O, come hither, / Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget” (5.1.194-95). As in some of the later literature, there is an element of ambiguity in the suitor in this play, since Lysimachus, as governor, is really a father-surrogate who has first encountered the undefiled Marina in the brothel. The transfer of the daughter to this suitor is very low-key compared to other plays as Pericles says: “You shall prevail, / Were it to woo my daughter; for it seems / You have been noble towards her” (5.1.259-61). In an ironic parody of the series of suitors in other plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, and of the competition arranged by Simonides in which Pericles was chosen, Marina has been besieged by “suitors” in the brothel, but has successfully fended them off. Lysimachus, the sole authority-figure who visits the brothel, has played the “good” father by not exerting his authority. As in the other plays, age is significant. Marina “Was nurs'd with Cleon, who at fourteen years / He sought to murder” (5.3.8,9).

At this point, not only is the incest-threat resolved by marriage and by restoration of the mother to the father; the couples are to be permanently separated as rulers of two kingdoms due to the death of Thaisa's father. Lest there be any doubt that this dénouement is above all the resolution of the incest threat, the Epilogue returns to Gower and to the original incest-plot in the play:

In Antiochus and his daughter you have heard
Of monstrous lust the due and just reward;
In Pericles, his queen, and daughter, seen,
Although assailed with fortune fierce and keen,
Virtue preserved from fell destruction's blast,
Led on by heaven, and crowned with joy at last.

(Epilogue 1-6)

What “virtue preserved” has meant for Pericles is more subtly stated, but I feel that it is quite clearly his refusal to succumb to the fatal “crime” of Antiochus, the understanding of which first made him so uneasy and nearly cost him his life. The play can then be read as both an allegorical and an archetypal resolution of the father/daughter incest-threat with a full range of possible solutions set out in a series of related plots. The incestuous attraction that Marina holds for her father is much more explicit in the Gower version.

The cluster of plays that began with Pericles (1608) and ended with The Tempest (1611) all deal with the father/daughter theme. One critic points out that “critical opinion is at last recognizing that the same ideas, preoccupations, situations, devices, and themes inform Shakespeare's comedies from the very earliest to the latest.”14The Winter's Tale (1611), while reversing the tragic resolution of Othello, is also an extrapolation of one of the plots from Pericles. Although the causal factors are different, the same components are present: the disappearance of both mother and daughter immediately following the daughter's birth, reunion with both when the daughter reaches puberty, resolution in the reunions of father/mother and daughter/suitor. The recurrent exile theme is embodied both in Hermione's simulated death and in Perdita's removal by ship. In contrast to Shakespeare's transformation of a nontragic Leir into a tragic one, the incest theme in The Winter's Tale reverses the earlier presentation in Robert Greene's Pandosto (1588), in which the theme is more explicitly stated: “[T]he queen dies, and the king, despite the happy reunion with his daughter, commits suicide in a fit of melancholy.”15 In Shakespeare's version, Hermione only seems to die and Leontes survives his period of penance to be reunited with his wife. It should be noted that Leontes has arranged to urge Florizel's suit to Polixenes while still unaware of the identity of the girl. The joy has become a loss, and “Perdita” becomes an oxymoron, summed up by Paulina: “Our Perdita is found”16.

In The Winter's Tale, then, the basic resolution occurs with the father momentarily attracted to the nubile daughter who is a double of the mother, but the incest-threat is contained by the restoration of the mother and the simultaneous availability of a suitor for the daughter. The oedipal configuration is again stabilized and equilibrium restored—until next time. Joyce summarizes: “There can be no reconciliation … if there has not been a sundering” (U, 9.397-98).

Shakespeare begins The Tempest with a recurrent narrative companion to the incest theme in several other plays …—the tempest. Although in both Pericles and The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare introduces such ambiguous and unnatural actions as Thaisa's burial and recovery from the sea and Hermione's retrieval from a statue, in The Tempest, he further abandons the semblance of reality by introducing Ariel and presenting the tempest as a contrivance of the father himself. Since these final plays all depend on unrealistic devices—mothers who survive presumed death to be ultimately reunited with the renunciatory father at the end of the play, or contrivances such as Ariel—suggests that Shakespeare needed to resort to extraordinary dramatic measures to effect a nonviolent resolution of the incest-threat for the father.

The total autonomy represented by Prospero is an essential aspect of the resolution of the incest-threat by the father. Very early in the course of the action we are told three things: that the storm has done “no harm,”17 that Prospero is in control, and that what has happened has some as yet undisclosed connection with Miranda, his daughter:

I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee my dear one, thee my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, naught knowing
Of whence I am! nor that I am more better
Than Prospero, master of a full poor cell,
And thy no greater father.


Again, the recurrent components of the father/daughter/suitor theme occur: Miranda and her father have been exiled by themselves since she was three and they have been on the island for twelve years, until she has attained the magic age of fifteen (1.2.54). Although as the play opens, Prospero is about to divulge to Miranda that he is indeed the usurped Duke of Milan, he has had other fatherly authority roles: “and here / Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Than other princess' can, that have more time / For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful” (1.2.171-74). And Miranda asks her father his “reason / For raising this sea-storm?” (1.2.176-77).

Although the machinations of Prospero will effect the resumption of control of his dukedom, the primary solution the tempest brings is that of a suitor for the daughter in the person of Ferdinand. The disclosure of a parallel father/daughter subplot sheds light on the importance of the solution to the incest-threat contained in the main plot. The shipwrecked group is returning from a wedding which has all the elements of the incest theme, with exile in this instance serving as an additional means of resolution, as described by Gonzalo: “Methinks our garments are now as fresh as when we put them on first in Afric, at the marriage of the King's fair daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis” (2.1.66-68).

But Claribel's father is having second thoughts: “Would I had never / Married my daughter there! for, coming thence, / My son is lost; and, in my rate, she too, / Who is so far from Italy removed / I ne'er again shall see her” (2.1.103-07). The designation of this marriage as a form of banishment becomes clearer as Sebastian reminds Alonso that he has only himself to blame:

Sir, you may thank yourself for this great loss,
That would not bless our Europe with your daughter,
But rather loose her to an African,
Where she, at least, is banish'd from your eye,
Who hath cause to wet the grief on't.
Prithee peace.
You were kneel'd to and importun'd otherwise,
By all of us; and the fair soul herself
Weigh'd, between loathness and obedience, at
Which end o' th' beam should bow. We have lost your son,
I fear, for ever.


The fault's your own.
So is the dear'st o' th' loss.


The greater loss has been that of Alonso's daughter, who torn “between loathness and obedience” has been banished to Africa. Prospero, isolated on an island with his daughter and that projection of his own potential, uninhibited sexual impulses, Caliban, creates a “tempest” which produces a suitor for his daughter. It is the onset of Caliban's desire to possess Miranda sexually (which we may assume to have coincided with her menarche) that has totally altered Prospero's attitude toward Caliban:

Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness! I have us'd thee
Filth as thou art, with human care, and lodg'd thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honour of my child.
O ho, O ho! would't had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.


Not only is the appearance of a suitor contrived, but the actual attraction between Ferdinand and Miranda is manipulated through the magic of Ariel:

I might call him
A thing divine; for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble.
[Aside] It goes on, I see,
As my soul prompts it. Spirit, fine spirit, I'll free thee
Within two days for this.


This aspect of Ferdinand's immediate attraction to Miranda is again commented upon:

[Aside] The Duke of Milan
And his more braver daughter could control thee,
If now 'twere fit to do't. At the first sight
They have chang'd eyes. Delicate Ariel,
I'll set thee free for this.


But Prospero, like Simonides, feels he must put artificial barriers in the way in order to enhance the romance:

[Aside] They are both in either's pow'rs: but this swift business
I must uneasy make, lest too light winning
Make the prize light.


Prospero proceeds to accuse Ferdinand of being a spy and a traitor, and as Miranda pleads for gentle treatment of her newfound love, her father's language burgeons with phallic imagery: “Put thy sword up, traitor, / Who mak'st a show but dar'st not strike, thy conscience / is so possess'd with guilt: come, from thy ward, / For I can here disarm thee with this stick / And make thy weapon drop” (1.2.472-76). Like Simonides, Prospero is able to give vent to his very real ambivalence toward his daughter's suitor, and his deep awareness of the sexual implications are voiced when he says of Ferdinand: “To th' most of men this is a Caliban” (1.2.482).

Prospero enjoins upon Ferdinand a “trial” in which he must remove thousands of logs and pile them up in another place. The logs serve as a sexual symbol of the transition from Prospero to Ferdinand as well as from the unbound sexual impulses of Caliban, whose duties the prince is performing. As the unseen Prospero watches and listens to the two lovers, he indicates his acceptance of the match in another aside: “Fair encounter / Of two most rare affections! Heavens rain grace / On that which breeds between 'em! (3.1.74,76). Prospero's musings as he hears the two promise to marry and watches them exit is fully ambiguous, again suggesting his deep ambivalence:

So glad of this as they I cannot be,
Who are surpris'd with all; but my rejoicing
At nothing can be more. I'll to my book.


The father acknowledges his limited joy in the event, but “rejoicing / At nothing can be more,” can either indicate that nothing would make him happier, or that nothing will ever make him happy again.

After telling Ariel that he is about to “visit / Young Ferdinand,—whom they suppose is drown'd,— / And his and mine lov'd darling” (3.3.91-93), Prospero turns his daughter over to the suitor with strict injunctions about the forms which must be adhered to:

Then, as my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas'd, take my daughter: but
If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be ministr'd,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-ey'd disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both: therefore take heed,
As Hymen's lamps shall light you.


But Prospero is an anxious, worried father indeed, and further instructs them, as though no assurance Ferdinand can give him can allay his fears:

Look thou be true; do not give dalliance
Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw
To th' fire in' th' blood: be more abstemious,
Or else, good night your vow!


One can only conclude that he knows whereof he speaks. His abdication of any possible sexual inclination is again symbolically expressed: “I'll break my staff, / Bury it certain fadoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I'll drown my book” (5.1.54-57).

That Prospero has deliberately instigated the tempest to produce a suitor as soon as his daughter has reached puberty, and that renunciation has been a traumatic experience, is made clear in his exchange with Alonso who still believes his son lost. Again the ambiguity of “oozy bed” suggests the father/son rivalry already explored in The Winter's Tale:

Than you may call to comfort you, for I
Have lost my daughter.
A daughter?
O heavens, that they were living both in Naples,
The King and Queen there! that they were, I wish
Myself were mudded in that oozy bed
Where my son lies. When did you lose your daughter?
In this last tempest.


That this play is characterized by the condensation typical of dreams is pointed up by the fact that Ferdinand and Miranda have only known each other for three hours (5.1.186). Prospero's Epilogue, regarded as the artist's renunciation of his art, is again fraught with meanings that can refer back to the incest theme:

And my ending is despair
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

(Epilogue, 15-20)

Lear too has spoken of “undivulged crimes” and “virtue / That art incestuous” (3.2.52-55). The widely varied critical interpretations of the Epilogue omit the view of it as a statement of the guilt over incest wishes and fantasies, and the acceptance of the resolution of that guilt. Ariel (superego), Caliban (id), and Prospero (ego), in which the first two are contained, are reunited at the end, and Prospero is once more a unified whole: “What strength I have's my own, / Which is most faint” (Epilogue, 2,3).

The tempest itself has served as a metaphor for sexuality that, like all violent action, has a life of its own, once it has been set in motion. Ella Sharpe comments: “Prospero and Lear are alike, and different. In Prospero omnipotence becomes benign. Prospero's storm saves, Lear's destroys.”18 Lear renounces his daughter to the suitor, but reluctantly and filled with rage, instigating a chain of violence as he sends her into exile. Prospero too renounces the daughter to a suitor, but with control and love, albeit also reluctantly. Claribel's father's renunciation has been voluntary and although the tragic dénouement is avoided, one can only speculate on Claribel's plight, both as victim of her father's incestuous impulses and her own submission to his will. Desdemona was at least a willing participant in her marriage.

Shakespeare's Tempest, written toward the end of his life, is a condensation of the renunciation of the daughter by the father, involving his own control in the production of a suitor. Bernard J. Paris tells us: “The Tempest is one of only two Shakespearean plays whose plot, as far as we know, is entirely the author's invention. It is, more than any other play, a fantasy of Shakespeare's.”19


  1. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, 76.

  2. Chambers, Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare, 62.

  3. Kay, Shakespeare: His Life, Work and Era, 395.

  4. Kimball, “James Joyce and Otto Rank: The Incest Motif in Ulysses.

  5. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.119-20.

  6. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1.1.96-98.

  7. Quoted in Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, 255-56.

  8. Shakespeare, Othello, 1.3.193-95.

  9. Pauncz, “The Lear Complex in World Literature,” 52.

  10. Shakespeare, King Lear, 1.1.288-89.

  11. I am indebted for this observation to Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, 112.

  12. Introduction to Shakespeare, Pericles, xv.

  13. Introduction to Shakespeare, Pericles, xv.

  14. Thorne, “Pericles and the Incest-Fertility Opposition,” 44.

  15. Mueller, “Hermione's Wrinkles, or, Ovid Transformed: An Essay on The Winter's Tale,” 226.

  16. Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, 5.3.121.

  17. Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1.2.13.

  18. Sharpe, “From King Lear to The Tempest,” 237.

  19. Paris, “The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution,” in Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman Holland, 210.

Works Cited

Boose, Lynda E. “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare.” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association] 96 (1982): 325-47.

Chambers, E. K. Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Cinderella: A Folklore Casebook. New York: Garland, 1982.

Holland, Norman N. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Joyce, James. Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition. 1922. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler et al. 3 vols. New York: Garland, 1984.

Kay, Dennis. Shakespeare: His Life, Work and Era. New York: Morrow and Co., 1992.

Kimball, Jean. “James Joyce and Otto Rank: The Incest Motif in Ulysses.James Joyce Quarterly 13, no. 3 (1976): 366-82.

Mueller, Martin. “Hermione's Wrinkles, or, Ovid Transformed: An Essay on The Winter's Tale.Comparative Drama 5, no.3 (1971): 226-39.

Paris, Bernard J. “The Tempest: Shakespeare's Ideal Solution.” In Shakespeare's Personality, ed. Norman Holland et al., 206-25.

Pauncz, Arpad. “The Lear Complex in World Literature.” American Imago 40 (1954): 51-83.

Rank, Otto. Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (The incest theme in literature and legend). Leipzig and Vienna: Franz Deuticke, 1912.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry VIII. c. 1613. Ed. R. A. Foakes. Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1968.

———. King Lear. c. 1605. Ed. Kenneth Muir. Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1972.

———. Love's Labour's Lost. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Cambridge Edition Text. Ed. William Addis Wright. New York: Garden City Pub., 1936.

———. The Merchant of Venice. 1596. Baltimore: Penguin, 1959.

———. A Midsummer Night's Dream. c. 1595. Ed. Madeleine Doran. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967.

———. Othello. c. 1604. Ed. Oscar James Campbell et al. New York: Bantam, 1962.

———. Pericles. c. 1608. Arden Shakespeare. Ed. F. D. Hoenigar. London: Methuen, 1969.

———. Romeo and Juliet. c. 1596. Ed. J. A. Bryant, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1964.

———. The Tempest. c. 1611. Ed. Frank Kermode. Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1972.

———. The Winter's Tale. 1611. Ed. J. H. P. Pafford. Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1978.

Sharpe, Ella Freeman. “From King Lear to The Tempest.” In Collected Papers on Psycho-Analysis, ed. Marjorie Brierley, 214-41. London: Hogarth Press, 1950.

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

Anthony J. Lewis (essay date 1988)

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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 popularity on the stage. But for more recent commentators the play is less an old familiar story than a mishmash, a repository filled with the stuff of romance but jumbled in a way that defies understanding. Though the play is occasionally read as a myth of death and re-birth, as a dream, as an allegory of patience in suffering, or for its affinities with King Lear and with Shakespeare's earlier comedies and later romances, the typical refrain has to do with Pericles' apparent incoherence. Perhaps collaboration simply did not work, the argument seems to run, and Pericles is no more than a series of familiar and often fascinating incidents adding up to an incomprehensible totality.2

What I would like to argue in the following essay, however, is that Pericles enacts one theme: the personal, familial, and governmental obligation to nourish self, relations, and citizens. Taking my cue from the curious definition of incest as cannibalism in Antiochus' riddle in Act I, and using the recent work of social scientists, I read the play's persistent analogy between sexuality and eating habits as a vivid and terrifying illustration of the ways in which human beings respond to the need to sustain themselves and to nurture others.


It is fitting that the action of so intractable a play as Pericles should begin with a riddle. Though the meaning of the puzzle with which the King of Antioch challenges suitors to his daughter is transparent, “significant interpretation of this key incident is lacking, and intriguing problems remain unexplored”:3

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.


What scholarship has done is locate sources and analogs for the play, and therefore for the riddle. P. Goolden, in particular, has traced its evolution from the Latin prose of Apollonius of Tyre, through the Eighth Book of John Gower's Confessio Amantis, to Pericles, noting significant changes including a shift in the riddle's speaker, from the father in Apollonius of Tyre to the daughter in Pericles.5 But what Goolden does not discuss—and what editions of the play routinely ignore—is the tacit definition of father/daughter incest which the riddle provides: “I feed on mother's flesh.” Like the “sexual cannibals”6 biologists describe in the world of insects, an incestuous daughter, the riddle tells us, is one who devours her mother.

Identifying incest in particular as a kind of devouring is, in fact, at least as old as the Pericles (Apollonius) story itself, and is used, in one form or another, in every extant version of the tale. In Apollonius of Tyre the riddle includes “maternam carnem unescor,7 “I feed on my mother's flesh.” The King in Gower's Confessio Amantis, described as one who “devoureth / His owne flesh,” declares in the riddle, “I ete, and have it not forlore / My moders flesshe.” In Lawrence Twine's The Patterne of Painful Adventures which, with the Confessio Amantis, is generally recognized now as a source for Pericles, the King states in the riddle, “I eate my mothers fleshe.8 George Wilkins' The Painfull Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre, an analog to Shakespeare's play, uses virtually the same phraseology as Pericles, “I am no viper, yet I feede / On mothers flesh, that did me breede. …”9

Shakespeare's play insists on identifying incest with eating, for when Pericles describes the incestuous couple later in the first scene he repeats this curious definition and echoes the language of the riddle:

Where now you're both a father and a son,
By your uncomely claspings with your child,—
Which pleasures fits a husband, not a father;
And she an eater of her mother's flesh,
By the defiling of her parent's bed;
And both like serpents are, who though they feed
On sweetest flowers, yet they poison breed.


The reference to serpents in lines 133-34, which describe feeding in literal terms, echoes the definition in lines 131-32, which describe the Princess in metaphorical terms. Although the analogy between the incestuous couple and serpents is somewhat ambiguous, what is clear is the linking of sexuality to feeding habits, a linkage emphasized by the “feed/breed” rhyme. Although serpents eat healthful, even “sweet” foods, flowers, they produce “poison,” just as the incestuous king and his daughter use the sweetness of sexual love to “breed” the poison of incest. The allusion to serpents, however, amplifies the description of the incestuous couple in yet another way, for folk wisdom had it “that vipers at birth eat their way out of the mother's body,” a notion F. D. Hoeniger believes derives from Herodotus and other classical sources.10 Thus, serpents were simply thought to be thanklessness incarnate, a sense clear in Lear's rage at Goneril, “How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is / To have a thankless child!” (I.iv.288-89), as well as in Cleopatra's ironic reference to the asp that kills her as “my baby at my breast …” (V.ii.309). Thought to be cruel offspring, serpents became, by analogy, symbols of cruel parents as well; Geoffrey Whitney describes Medea and “all dames of cruell kinde” as tyrants to their own young, “serpentes seede” “that tender not theire frute.”11 Referring to an incestuous couple as “serpents” thus reinforced a sense of the two as hideously ungrateful devourers of their own.12

To describe the Princess of Antioch's incest as devouring and, in particular, as cannibalism, was to use an image familiar to readers and audience in the seventeenth century as a time-honored indication of evil. After all, the Bible had presented original sin in the homiest of ways, the King James Version of Genesis simply stating that Eve “tooke of the fruit thereof, and did eate, and gaue vnto her husband with her, and hee did eate.”13 Medieval and Renaissance dramatic tradition had established hell's demons as fierce eaters of the sinful, and it is hardly necessary to rehearse here the history of so popular an image. As Emile Male notes, “almost all thirteenth-century representations of the Last Judgment show an enormous mouth vomiting flames”;14 and from The Castle of Perseverance, with its devils prancing into Hellmouth, to Doctor Faustus, a hero “glutted” with learning15 who must “taste the smart of all” (V.ii.127) even as he himself is devoured, to Jacobean tragedy, where vengeance can be described as “thou terror to fat folks,”16 eating and cannibalism are familiar metaphors for perverse human behavior, conveying a rich history of religious, economic, and social connotations.17

Shakespeare himself had, of course, much before Pericles, used similar images and references, and Ruth Morse is, I think, correct in seeing “consistent and coherent imagery of animals and eating … from the beginning to the end” of his career.18 The “blood-drinking pit” (II.iii.224) into which Quintus and Martius fall in Titus Andronicus has a “mouth” (II.iii.199) and is a “fell devouring receptacle” (II.iii.235). Romeo describes the vault of the Capulets as a devouring animal,

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorg'd with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.


And when the wheel turns in Richard III, “prosperity begins to mellow / And drop into the rotten mouth of death” (IV.iv.1-2). Shakespeare found such imagery an especially effective way of delineating character and of clarifying issues in his more mature plays. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, where direct references to the eating of human flesh abound, attitudes toward food are used as a method of separating Shylock from the Christian community and of identifying him as one with special dietary restrictions. It is Shylock who refuses to eat with other Venetians, preferring, as Leslie Fiedler puts it, the “explicitly cannibalistic,” wishing to “feed” (III.i.54) his revenge on Antonio's pound of flesh. Shakespeare clearly implies through such images that usury is a kind of cannibalism, and perhaps alludes as well, as Fiedler suggests, to “anti-Semitic child-murder” stories such as that told by the prioress in The Canterbury Tales.19 Morse, who discusses the image in general, observes that in the early histories, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens, eating, cannibalism, and the body politic are related to one another.20 In Coriolanus, too, as Janet Adelman has shown, Shakespeare uses images of food, eating, and cannibalism to define central issues and to describe the psychologically, indeed, pathologically, complex relationship between Volumnia and her son.21 Adelman argues that “the image of the mother who has not fed her children enough” (p. 130) is at the center of the play, and that “in this hungry world, everyone seems in danger of being eaten” (p. 136).22

Cannibalism was a familiar plot element found not only in Medieval and Renaissance drama, but also in Shakespeare's classical and folk sources, as well as in traveller's tales. In the mid-sixteenth century Montaigne used recent reports of cannibalism among isolated tribes in the new world as a way of pointing to what he saw as degeneracies among his compatriots in “Of Cannibals,” an essay which goes so far as to praise that practice for its naturalness. Similar tales, no doubt, lie behind Othello's report of having seen the Anthropophagi, “the Cannibals that each [other] eat” (I.iii.143). Arthur Golding's edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which popularized the stories from Greek and Roman mythology, uses eating as a metaphor for greed and lust throughout, and offers stunning instances of cannibalism, often linked with infanticide and incest. For example, Tereus' rape and mutilation of Procne, his wife Philomela's sister, is avenged by the women's killing and cooking his son, Itys. Tereus “fed / And swallowed downe the selfesame flesh that of his bowels bred,”23 and later, having been told the precise nature of his fare, this descendant of Mars tried “To perbrake up his meate againe, and cast his bowels out” (VI.839). Much the same tone is taken in the last book of the Metamorphoses, when Pythagoras not only lectures on the inappropriateness of eating flesh, but also argues that metamorphosis implies that the human spirit—indeed, the souls of relatives—may reside in the bodies of animals. He begins by decrying carnivorousness in general, lamenting, “Oh, what a wickednesse / It is to cram the mawe with mawe, and frank up flesh with flesh” (XV.95-96), but quickly moves to the central point, “That whensoever you doo eate your Oxen, you devowre / Your husbandmen” (XV.156-57). Repeatedly we are counseled not to “nourish blood with blood” (XV.195), not to eat the “bodyes which perchaunce may have the spirits of our brothers, / Our sisters, or our parents” (XV.511-12), not, “Thyesteslyke,” to “furnish up our boordes / With bloodye bowells” (XV.515-16). In similar fashion, Seneca, to whom the English Renaissance dramatists turned both for stylistic examples and for exciting plot, re-wrote his Greek models so as to highlight the violent, and abounds, quite specifically, in instances of child abuse. In Thyestes Seneca combines infanticide with cannibalism in Atreus' killing of his brother's children and Thyestes' unwitting dining on them. This “Thyestean feast” is echoed in Titus Andronicus, in Tamora's eating meat pies made from her sons, a meal “Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred” (V.iii.61-62). Familial cannibalism is also suggested in symbolic ways in Shakespeare, for example in Queen Margaret's offering to York a handkerchief dipped in his young son's blood in 3 Henry VI. Wearing a paper crown, grieving Rutland's death, York can only protest,

O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to wear a woman's face?


Given the enormous popularity of images relating to eating and cannibalism both in Shakespeare's works and in those of his sources and contemporaries, it might seem unnecessary to gloss lines in Pericles which define incest as familial cannibalism, a child's devouring a parent or a parent's devouring a child. After all, common sense supports the notion that incest destroys one relationship in favor of another, removing parent or child, consuming, in a sense, one family member and replacing him or her with another. And yet, it is only here in Pericles that Shakespeare equates cannibalism specifically with incest, as his sources had done before him for millennia. The tenacity with which the metaphor has remained in all versions of the Pericles story attests to something more than simply the regressive pull of literary tradition. In spite of common sense and the ubiquity of eating and cannibalism as metaphor for evil, Shakespeare's definition of incest in particular as a kind of devouring remains refractory. What logic, if any, lies behind the apparently traditional association of incest and eating, and how, if at all, does this startling definition illuminate central issues in this puzzling play?


Psychologists and anthropologists have long noted a relationship involving social groupings, sexual mores in general, and those having to do with eating. Erich Neumann generalizes that “sexual symbolism is still colored by alimentary symbolism,”24 while Robin Fox sums up the connection between food and sexuality simply by declaring, “whatever else humans do, one can be sure that they will classify and make rules about kin and the food supply, confuse the two, and be anxious about the whole process. …”25 In “Taboos on Eating and Drinking” in The Golden Bough, Sir James G. Frazer mentions in passing tribal customs prohibiting women from eating with—or even observing—men who are eating or drinking, and prohibiting opposite-sex food preparation.26 Similarly, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber has shown that in fifteenth-century Italy social relations were often defined by eating arrangements, for “blood relatives customarily ate together under the same roof and made this sharing into a right,”27 and that “a uno pane e uno vino” (sharing food and drink), was an expression “often used by the taxpayers and the scribes … to describe families” (p. 36). Her study shows as well how questions of familial bloodlines were related to those of eating in parents' reactions to a wet nurse's pregnancy. If the man who impregnated the nurse were unknown or of questionable social standing, her pregnancy was often considered a development fraught with dire consequences for the infant who might ingest debased milk (p. 159). The prevalence of “alimentary separation of the sexes” in primitive societies is noted by Laura and Raoul Makarius,28 who explain that “the notion of sharing food establishes the primitive notion of kinship quite as much as does the idea of a common lineage” (p. 43). The authors point out that

there are many facts to prove that, although as a rule men fear the danger inherent in all women, they particularly dread the establishment of a food bond with those women who are—or will become—their sexual partners, illustrating the fundamental incompatibility that exists in the primitive mentality between sexual union and the sharing of food.

(p. 48)

Freud, who cited Frazer's studies as well as those of W. Robertson Smith in the final section of Totem and Taboo, thought “it probable that the totemic system … was a product of the conditions involved in the Oedipus complex.”29 That is, for Freud the symbolic devouring of the father through the totem animal was intimately related to incest prohibitions and to laws governing exogamy. Julia Kristeva, building on Freud, sees a relationship between food and sexual intercourse which has to do with a social unit's perceptions of its ability to thrive. “In a number of primitive societies religious rites are purification rites whose function is to separate this or that social, sexual, or age group from one another, by means of prohibiting a filthy defiling element.”30 Food, like sexual intercourse, may be debased and is thus “liable to defile,” to bring one into contact with “the other” that “penetrates the self's clean and proper body” (p. 75). Ingesting food that is considered unclean or impure can bring on disease and death; similarly, illicit sex can destroy an individual or a nation for it too crosses established boundaries. Oedipus, “through murder of the father and incest with the mother interrupted the reproductive chain” and was responsible for “the stopping of life” (p. 85), a defilement of the human social condition. Because defilement is “incest considered as transgression of the boundaries of what is clean and proper” (p. 85), both feeding and sexuality contain the potential for disrupting personal and social integrity with sterility, disease, and death.

The connection between sexual intercourse and eating habits was addressed more directly in a recent issue of the Journal of the Polynesian Society devoted to questions of incest in Polynesia and Micronesia. Anthony Hooper notes that “eating blood” is a literal gloss of the Tahitian phrase ‘amu toto,’ which denotes, among many other things, ‘incest’,”31 while J. L. Fischer, Roger Ward, and Martha Ward observe that one of the “two most common Ponapean terms given as translations for the English word ‘incest’” is “li-kengkeng-enih-mat, literally, ‘rotten corpse eater’.”32 In the same issue, David Labby finds a close link between eating and incest based less on psychological than on economic determinants.33

In an attempt to discern the reasoning behind the Yapese identification of incest as cannibalism, Labby points out that the Yapese word for incest, “ku'w,” “also referred to a variety of large sea bass which was notorious for its voraciousness and huge mouth. It would engulf all fish, even its own offspring, perhaps even a man. People who committed incest, it was said, were similarly voracious, consuming their own kin in a sort of sexual cannibalism” (p. 171). Labby develops the analogy between incest and cannibalism by pointing to the similar ways in which the incestuous and cannibals consume themselves: “As the cannibals appear to survive by eating off themselves, by self-consumption, rather than by working the land and receiving food from it in exchange, so incest attempts to perpetuate the clan by sexual self-consumption rather than through the cultural exchange with other groups” (p. 174). For Labby it is clear that when food production and exogamous reproduction are perverted into cannibalism and incest, a culture's ability to survive is impaired if not destroyed. Thus, for the Yapese, “incest was ultimately ‘cannibalistic,’ a denial of culture, of exchange, or work, a kind of survival through self-consumption” (p. 179).

I offer the conclusions of anthropologists not as a way of suggesting that “all people” reason or experience the world alike, or that the folklore of Pacific islanders is somehow the same kind of material as English dramatic literature of the seventeenth century. My point is not that cultures are simply interchangeable and that all stories are analogous, but rather that the idea of sustenance, which links the sexual and the alimentary in Yapese oral history, helps us to see a similar binding of healthful sexuality and licit eating, and of cannibalism and incest, in Pericles. For the Yapese, eating and sexual intercourse, both necessary in order for the individual and the society as a whole to survive, are fundamentally alike in that food is sustenance and reproduction is sustaining. In Pericles Antiochus and the Princess seek to sustain themselves through self-consumption, perverting the socially acceptable means of propagating their family as fully as if they nourished themselves by eating human flesh.

The idea of sustenance thus provides a nexus, and helps to explain Shakespeare's linking cannibalism and incest. That he understood the notion of sustenance as the common denominator between eating and sexual intercourse is clear from Pericles, as we shall see, as well as from other sources. For example, in Measure for Measure, when Isabella tells Claudio that Angelo will save his life if she agrees to sleep with him, her imprisoned brother begs, “Sweet sister, let me live” (III.i.132). Isabella calls him a “faithless coward” and a “dishonest wretch” (III.i.136), asking rhetorically,

                                                                                O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame?


Here again we find incest coupled with the idea of sustenance, for to “be made a man” and “to take life” are to sustain life. J. W. Lever, one of few editors to gloss these lines, interprets Claudio's desire to live as incestuous “since through Isabella's shameful intercourse her own brother would be ‘born’ again.”34 For Lever, the accent is clearly on the relationship between Isabella and “her own brother,” and it is certainly the conjunction of siblings and sexuality here that prompts the notion of incest. Yet Claudio's behavior is “a kind of incest” not only because he encourages his sister's sexual intercourse, but also because he attempts “to take life,” that is, to live, to sustain himself, in a grossly inappropriate manner, in this instance, through his “sister's shame.” The distinction between the two ways of reading the line—either emphasizing the relationship between brother and sister, or emphasizing the inappropriateness of “taking life” in a shameful way—is more than simple hair-splitting. Pericles, which begins with incest (and abounds in images of devouring and cannibalism), is quite self-consciously about sustenance, about the ways in which people nourish themselves, propagate the species, and protect their families, friends, and nation. Like a morality play, Pericles presents side by side a variety of examples of good and bad nurturing, and uses images of eating as the medium through which we must interpret the action.


When Ben Jonson used Pericles as a prime example of a “mouldy tale,” “stale / As the shrieve's crust, and nasty as his fish,”35 he was doing no more than hoisting the play with its own petar, for images of eating are pervasive in Pericles. “I feed / On mother's flesh,” the riddle's metaphor, is but one—and not the first—in a series of literal and figurative references to devouring. Although Caroline Spurgeon concluded that “Pericles alone of the romances has no sign of any running ‘motive’ or continuity of picture or thought in the imagery,”36 the play in fact presents an almost obsessive chain of images and actions having to do with eating, food, vomiting, starving, and nourishment. From Pericles' description of his determination to win the Princess of Antioch as “an inflam'd desire in my breast / To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree” ([I.i.21-22], the first of many which imply cannibalism), to his description later of his daughter Marina as one “Who starves the ears she feeds, and makes them hungry / The more she gives them speech” (V.i.112-13), Pericles uses the gustatory for a variety of purposes, though most often as a way of indicating sexual desire. That is, as in the riddle, where a kind of eating (cannibalism) describes a kind of sexuality (incest), so in the play as a whole the alimentary is used to define the sexual. Indeed, in Pericles a scheme of moral values relating to sexuality and nurturance is indicated primarily by right and wrong sorts of appetite, food, and eating. The two activities—eating and propagating—form an apt metaphorical duo, for both, as we have seen, are natural and sustaining activities from which we “take life.”37

Like most Shakespearean comedies, Pericles identifies love with plenty, and the play has its fair share of feasts and celebrations which use eating and drinking as signs of communal celebration. The happy recognitions of the fifth act, for example, begin with Gower's telling us that Pericles' ship arrived in Mytilene as that city “striv'd / God Neptune's annual feast to keep” (V.Cho.16-17). Earlier, when the fishermen discover Pericles ashore near Pentapolis after the shipwreck, they offer him food and clothing, promising that “we'll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting-days, and moreo'er puddings and flap-jacks. …” (II.i.81-83). Their gracious sharing with him is echoed later, after Pericles defeats competitors at the tournament at Pentapolis, when Simonides, his host, entertains the contestants with a lavish banquet, enjoining them to be happy, “for mirth becomes a feast” (II.iii.7).

But eating and drinking in Pericles always suggest more than simple celebration, and the speed with which literal references to eating become figurative characterizes Shakespeare's use of language in this play. For example, the banqueting at Pentapolis takes on a less innocent coloration, and seems less the simple sign of community, when Thaisa offers Pericles wine in language which suggests transubstantiation, or a totemic sacrifice:38

The king my father, sir, has drunk to you.
I thank him.
Wishing it so much blood unto your life.


The threatening aspect of the father, which Pericles had witnessed to his horror in Antioch, seems to re-appear in Pentapolis. Here, however, the King's words are part of the language of courtesy, and though they suggest the carnivorous, and perhaps cannibalism, they merely indicate Simonides' hospitality. Many of the metaphors in the play, however, perhaps taking their cue from the riddle, do suggest cannibalism in fairly direct ways. Thaisa, “queen o'th' feast” (II.iii.17), is so taken with Pericles that she loses her appetite for the foods offered by her father to his guests:

By Juno, that is queen of marriage,
All viands that I eat do seem unsavoury
Wishing him my meat.


Pericles had wanted to “taste” the Princess of Antioch, who was herself “an eater of her mother's flesh,” and now Thaisa wishes Pericles her “meat.” The identification of people with food, the reduction of human beings to comestibles, is this play's way of indicating human desire and the intensity and quality of relationships. What Pericles makes equally clear, however, is the difference between the kinds of eating and sexuality which are licit and sustaining, and those forms which are not. Thaisa and Simonides stand as corrective examples against which Pericles and the audience can measure the perversely sustaining habits of Antiochus and his daughter.

Clearly, the banquet scene at Pentapolis uses images of food and eating to indicate community values and the healthfulness of Simonides' court, though its language toys with the idea of cannibalism, using such gruesome images for positive effects, much as The Merchant of Venice, for example, uses pecuniary imagery to define Portia's worth. But if cannibalism is occasionally used playfully in Pericles, as a sign of one's ultimate deliciousness (as in popular songs and rhymes where little girls are “sugar and spice”), this play in general is full of less innocuous examples. In terms of the play's dominant, and perhaps sole, image pattern, it is significant that it is fishermen who discover a bedraggled Pericles on the shore after his shipwreck (II.i). When one marvels “how the fishes live in the sea” (II.i.26-27), another responds,

Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: a' plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful. Such whales have I heard on a' th' land, who never leave gaping till they swallow'd the whole parish, church steeple, bells, and all.


Once again, as in the riddle, an inappropriate modus vivendi is illustrated through the agency of a metaphor having to do with eating. In this case, the fishermen, who sustain themselves in a socially acceptable way—by catching and eating what they need—point to “our rich misers,” comparing them to whales and calling them whales “a' th' land.” The natural order in the ocean, where the big eat the small, is simply an unpleasant fact of life for the fishermen. But Shakespeare, who moralizes in Pericles as nowhere else,39 uses nature as a way of commenting on the impropriety, the obscenity, of what a later era would call social Darwinism, where “the great ones eat up the little ones,” on a world where power is appetite, “And appetite, an universal wolf / … / Must make perforce a universal prey / And last eat up himself” (Tro., I.iii.121-24). Thus, Pericles, which begins with child devouring parent, that is, the little (like young snakes) eating the great, soon expands the metaphor to include the more familiar horror of the great devouring the little. This scenario recalls Labby's analysis of the Yapese identification of cannibalism with incest: the huge sea bass “would engulf all fish, even its own offspring, perhaps even a man. People who committed incest, it was said, were similarly voracious, consuming their own kin in a sort of sexual cannibalism.” The vehicle of the metaphor, devouring, is the same in Labby's example and in Pericles; and the tenor, incest in the former, human greed in the latter, are both unacceptable—because ultimately self-defeating—methods of sustenance.

Storms in the natural world are associated in this play with the excesses of overeating and drinking, and lead, as we might expect, to the riots associated with vomiting. “What a drunken knave was the sea to cast [i.e., vomit] thee in our way!” chide the fishermen when they find Pericles (II.i.57); the north “disgorges” (III.Cho.48) the tempest that splits Pericles' ship and brings on Thaisa's labor; the sea has its “belching whale” (III.i.62), and later “belches” Thaisa's coffin upon shore (III.ii.56) when its “stomach” is “o'ercharg'd” (III.ii.54). Shakespeare uses a similar set of images throughout the brothel scenes, and equates prostitution with gluttony and cannibalism, much as he does the immorality of miserliness in the fisherman's lament in II.i. The whores are “unwholesome” (IV.ii.19), “rotten” (IV.ii.9), and are killing off the customers, one of whom was made “roast-meat for worms” (IV.ii.22-23). The Bawd needs “fresh ones” (IV.ii.10) to replace the “sodden” [i.e., “stewed”] (IV.ii.18) women who remain in the business. Marina is instructed in her new duties by the Bawd, her “herb woman” (, so that “she may not be raw in her entertainment” ( in a house where the “doors and windows savour vilely” ( When she proves intractable, causing the profession to “stink afore the face of the gods” (, Boult tries to force her. Marina defends herself by telling the pander's servant that his

                                                                                                    food is such
As hath been belch'd on by infected lungs.


The connection between Boult's trade and the condition of his food is clear enough, I think, to most audiences. Marina's point, an elaboration of the terms of the riddle—where eating is used to describe sexuality—is that a debased profession and a shameful way of earning money, that is, of “taking life,” to borrow Measure for Measure's phrase again, is the same as sustaining oneself on diseased food. The physical is used to illustrate the moral, all the more telling an approach given the real danger in seventeenth-century Europe of ingesting bad food or of contracting a disease and infecting one's lungs.40

Although Marina is told she will “taste gentlemen of all fashions” (IV.ii.74-75), and that “Men must feed” her (IV.ii.88), most descriptions in these scenes suggest that it is she who will be cannibalized and become food for the men. Such a substitution—Marina for rotten meat—underscores the horrific nature of her life in the brothel. The virgin, Western literature's pre-eminent sign of moral healthfulness,41 is to be used, indeed, consumed, by those corrupt natures who ordinarily eat diseased flesh. When Boult “cried her through the market” (IV.ii.90), “There was a Spaniard's mouth water'd” (IV.ii.97-98). Boult himself argues that he is entitled to sleep with her; after all,

                    I have bargain'd for the joint,—
Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit.


The Bawd tells Marina her chastity “is not worth a breakfast in the cheapest country under the cope” (, and then calls her “my dish of chastity with rosemary and bays!” ( The reduction of people to “morsels” suggests the horrors of fairy tales, where caged children are fattened, sleeping children have their throats cut, and young girls are simply devoured by hungry animals. Marina's treatment, however, quite self-consciously conflates sexual abuse and physical abuse in a way fairy tales do not, implying that she will be cannibalized as a graphic way of indicating rape. Thus, like the riddle, the brothel scenes describe illicit sexuality and moral turpitude by calling attention through their imagery to appetite and rapacity. The assumption inherent in such an approach seems to be that the easiest way for an English audience of the seventeenth century to comprehend the ghastliness of sexual abuse is via the more familiar horrors of hunger, disease, and the sicknesses attendant on gluttony.

To understand the connection between eating and propagating in Pericles is to appreciate the equal importance of both elements which comprise the central metaphor. Thus, although Pericles begins with a glaring instance of perverse sexuality, and emphasizes its perversity by offering both the salutary example of Simonides' and Thaisa's healthy father/daughter relationship, as well as the vivid portrayal of Marina's sexual abuse in the brothel, the play pays quite as much attention, in the final analysis, to food, eating, starvation, and appetitive excesses. Indeed, I.iv, which describes Pericles' relieving the starving masses in Tharsus, does so in terms which lead us back to Antiochus' riddle as directly as do the brothel scenes. If the Princess of Antioch is a child who feeds “on mother's flesh,” and Marina a child who is threatened with being eaten, at least figuratively, it is only Pericles' fortuitous arrival which prevents the children of Tharsus from being devoured in fact. Pericles brings Cleon and Dionyza “corn to bake your needy bread, / And give them life whom hunger starv'd half dead” (I.iv.95-96), forestalling desperate attempts by mothers to cannibalize their young. The citizens of Tharsus, Knight tells us, are “brought low by savage hunger; brought, that is, to realize its ultimate dependence; brought up against basic fact; such fact as is the natural air breathed by the admirable fishermen of Pentapolis.”42 Cleon comments on the dreadful family situations in Tharsus,

Those palates who, not yet two summers younger,
Must have inventions to delight the taste,
Would now be glad of bread, and beg for it;
Those mothers who, to nuzzle up their babes
Thought nought too curious, are ready now
To eat those little darlings who they lov'd.


This description of the state of mind of the mothers in Tharsus is an ironic reversal of the terms of the riddle. Though it mirrors the horror with which the play opens, it is but the most direct—and one of the earliest—in a long series of allusions to eating in general, and to cannibalism in particular. Pericles begins by defining incest as a kind cannibalism, and then proceeds to describe societies divided into the starving and the over-fed, in which the great eat the little, “the poor fry” are devoured by the whale and “the whole parish” by the gluttons on land. From its grotesque initial metaphor Pericles moves quickly and inexorably to a world where cannibalism is a real possibility. The vehicle of the riddle's metaphor achieves a life of its own, and an outrageous comparison suddenly describes the precise social conditions in which some characters actually live. The grotesqueries of fairy tale are thus validated early on in the world of Pericles, where it is entirely likely that a daughter will be “an eater of her mother's flesh,” but also that parents will devour “those little darlings whom they lov'd.” All may become foodstuffs.

How one “takes life” is thus quite clearly the focus of this play. Are we, Pericles seems to ask, to sustain ourselves by using our children? Are children to thrive by consuming their parents? Ought one prostitute others, or gobble up the small fry, or devour the parish as a way of carving one's place in “this breathing world” (Richard III, I.i.21)? If Robert Wiemann is correct in concluding that the vitality of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater derives primarily from its ability to reflect the “heterogeneous ideas and attitudes”43 born in an age of “economic expansion and national awakening” (p. 161), an age in which “[o]lder conceptions of honor were confronted by the new pride of possession, hatred of usury by the fervor for gold, the idea of service by the idea of profit, deeply rooted community consciousness by passionate individualism” (p. 169), then it is not at all surprising that Pericles emphasizes a human obligation to imitate nature in nurturing our own. The universe in which the characters in Pericles move describes both ends of its “Great Chain of Being,” not so much in terms of their hierarchical relation to one another, as in terms of nurturance and familial and governmental responsibility. What Morse says of images of ingestion in Shakespeare in general clearly applies to his use of such images in Pericles:

A complex series of moral observations is conveyed by describing characters as eating like animals, eating food which is only appropriate to animals, or even eating what animals themselves might refuse. At the extreme, the worst eating is cannibalism, the worst cannibalism is that which occurs within the family. By virtue of the double metaphor of the state as both like a human body and like a parent, the worst kind of family-cannibalism is treason.44

In Pericles Shakespeare repeatedly stresses the importance of a natural and proper relation between parent and child, citizen and country, man and God. Though images of eating and food form the heart of his approach to the subject of nourishment and sustenance, in this play there are as well a series of fairly direct references to nurturance and generation. Pericles assumes that “All love the womb that their first being bred” (I.i.108), for, as Helicanus tells us, even the “plants look up to heaven, from whence / They have their nourishment” (I.ii.56-57). We learn that it is the earth “From whence we had our being and our birth” (I.ii.113-14), and that “Time's the king of men; / He's both their parent, and he is their grave …” (II.iii.45-46). Appropriately, Thaisa sits by her father “like Beauty's child, whom Nature gat” (II.ii.6), for “princes are / A model which heaven makes like to itself” (II.ii.10-11).

Antiochus is not the only character to exploit the common understanding that “All love the womb that their first being bred,” that strong will protect weak as parents their children and children their parents. When Marina's nurse, Lychorida, dies, Dionyza counsels Pericles' child, “Do not consume your blood with sorrowing: / Have you a nurse of me!” (IV.i.23-24). Pericles, who had assumed years earlier that he left Marina “At careful nursing” (III.i.80) with Dionyza, could hardly anticipate that queen's perverse understanding of “nursing”:

What canst thou say
When noble Pericles shall demand his child?
That she is dead. Nurses are not the fates,
To foster it, not ever to preserve.


Just as the example of Simonides and Thaisa serves to balance the perverse example of Antiochus and his daughter, so the ultimate cohesiveness and loyalty among Pericles and his wife and daughter balance the selfishness of Cleon and Dionyza.

Perhaps “Pericles might be called a Shakesperian morality play,” as Knight suggests,45 primarily because “correspondences emerge”46 as the action advances. Surely, two of the clearest parallels have to do with Marina, not so much as a reincarnated Thaisa, as most critics would have it, but rather as a benign, healthy, and natural version of the Princess of Antioch. More fully than Thaisa, Marina stands as an exemplar of a right relation between a daughter and her parents, in part because the circumstances of her birth seem to echo rather than contradict Antiochus' relationship with his daughter. That is, just as the Princess of Antioch “takes life” by devouring her mother, so Marina “takes life” at the expense of her mother, who (seemingly) dies as she is born. Pericles is told that his daughter is a “piece” (III.i.17) of his queen, “all that is left living” (III.i.20) of his wife. Though Marina is innocent of wrongdoing and the Princess a “Bad child” (I.Cho.27), Pericles describes a world where, by accident or design, children place parents in the gravest danger. We have seen as well, however, that the reverse is equally true, that children are likely to be abused by parents, by all adults, for the children of Tharsus are finally thought of as food, and Marina herself is dreadfully abused in the brothel at Mytilene.

It is in the play's last act that the apparent potential for destruction in both parents and children is finally defused. Here, father and daughter rescue one another, and then go on to reclaim a wife and mother who had long been thought dead. Pericles redeems from the brothel the daughter whom he had left with the most unmaternal Dionyza in Tharsus, and Marina revives the father whom she had rendered bereft by the fact of her birth. The ways in which father and daughter are mutually dependent, connected not only by the undeniable facts of biology but by family history as well, are captured in Pericles' call to Marina,

                                                                                                    O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget. …


Pericles acknowledges that as parent and child and he and Marina take life from one another, he as her biological father, and she as the agent of his spiritual rebirth. Child and parent, each to the other, Pericles and Marina in the fifth act exemplify that healthful relationship which is so cruelly debased in the play's opening act. Gorfain argues that “Pericles's paradox [ll. 194-95] inverts the roles of father and daughter without consuming maternity and creativity”47; indeed, his paradox points to “the thing that is most emphasized in the feminine figures—their power to create and cherish life, their potential or achieved maternity.”48 As the play ends we are drawn back to that other paradox, the riddle which points to sterility and death; as Peterson suggests, “We have seen that the dialectical terms of process—a love that sustains, restores, and renews and a love that corrupts and destroys—are represented throughout the play by characters who are simple exemplars.”49 The Princess of Antioch, “an eater of her mother's flesh,” destroys the parent who begat her and, in fact, sustains herself by “feed[ing] / On mother's flesh which did me breed.” Marina, sustained by her parents, indeed, taking life as her mother dies, reciprocates, begetting a father whose revival implies and impels the resurrection of her mother. Thaisa is told that Marina is “flesh of thy flesh” (V.iii.46), and hears her daughter declare, “My heart / Leaps to be gone into my mother's bosom” (V.iii.44-45). The disparate units of Pericles' family are reintegrated, “flesh” joins rather than feeds on flesh, and the family becomes a self-sustaining entity comprised of parents and child who nourish and nurture one another.


  1. George Parfitt, ed. Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982), p. 283.

  2. Hazlitt objected to “the far-fetched and complicated absurdity of the story” (“Characters of Shakespear's Plays,” The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe [London: J. M. Dent, 1930], p. 357), and quoted Schlegel, who felt that “Shakespear here handled a childish and extravagant romance of the old poet Gower, and was unwilling to drag the subject out of its proper sphere” (p. 355). For Larry S. Champion (The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970]) the play's startling events “entertain for their own sake, not because they arouse interest in what happens to a certain character or how he is affected” (p. 97). Similarly, James G. McManaway (ed. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare [Baltimore: Penguin, 1969]) writes Pericles off as a play with “striking incidents selected from a long romance with small regard for causality” (p. 1260), and Hallett Smith (ed. Pericles, in The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton, 1974]) claims that “From any realistic point of view, the spectacular scenes of Pericles are of course utter nonsense” (p. 1481).

  3. Phyllis Gorfain, “Puzzle and Artifice: The Riddle as Metapoetry in ‘Pericles’,” Shakespeare Survey, 29 (1976), 11.

  4. References to Pericles are from the New Arden, ed. F. D. Hoeniger (London: Methuen, 1963); those to other plays by Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  5. “Antiochus's Riddle in Gower and Shakespeare, Review of English Studies, N.S., 6 (1955), 245-51.

  6. Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo's Smile (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), p. 55.

  7. Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri, ed. A. Riese (1893; rpt. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973), p. 6.

  8. Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, VI (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 377, 379, 428.

  9. Bullough, p. 498. The earliest extant version of the Apollonius story, Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri (see note 7), a late Latin prose romance, is thought to have been based on earlier Greek models. Thomas Hagg (The Novel in Antiquity [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1983]) discusses the enormous popularity of Apollonius of Tyre (pp. 147-53), which exists as well in Latin verse fragments, and appears in Old English, Old French, Byzantine Greek, and Middle High German, as well as in numerous Renaissance versions. For a discussion of its genesis, provenance, and affinities with earlier Greek literature, see Philip H. Goepp, 2nd, “The Narrative Material of Apollonius of Tyre,ELH, 5 (1938), 150-72. For its affinities with modern Greek oral narrative, see R. M. Dawkins, “Modern Greek Oral Versions of Apollonios of Tyre,” Modern Language Review, 37 (1942), 169-84.

  10. Hoeniger, p. 12. Allusions to serpents as devourers of their mothers abounded in the Renaissance. See, for example, Jonson's Poetaster: “Out viper, thou that eat'st thy parents, hence” (The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, ed. G. A. Wilkes, II [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981], V.iii.291).

  11. Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.), p. 191.

  12. If serpents helped Shakespeare to describe in pictorial terms the cannibalism implicit in the riddle, they also suggested incest in more direct terms, for one of the examples which the OED uses to define “incestuous,” Sylvester's Du Bartas (1591), seems to assume in its description of usury a relationship between incest and serpents: “You City-Vipers, that (incestious) joyn / Use upon use, begetting Coyn of Coyn!” The reptilian, incest, and devouring are, of course, linked in Milton's Paradise Lost when Satan attempts to make his way through the gates of hell. The fallen angel is stopped by his daughter, Sin, the “Snaky Sorceress” (II.724), half woman, half serpent, and by Death, her son (and brother) begotten by her father. Milton makes clear the irony in the impending battle between Satan and Death in Sin's plea, “O Father, what intends thy hand … / Against thy only Son?” (II.727-28). Interestingly, Merritt Y. Hughes (ed. Paradise Lost [New York: Odyssey, 1962]) points out that John Gower had personified “Sin as the incestuous mother of Death in the Mirrour de l'Omme” (p. 51).

  13. William Aldis Wright, ed. The Authorised Version of the English Bible, I (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1909), Gen.III.6.

  14. Emile Male, The Gothic Image, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 379.

  15. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, ed. John D. Jump (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), Ch.24.

  16. Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger's Tragedy, ed. R. A. Foakes (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), I.i.45.

  17. The traditional association of evil and the torments of hell with cannibalism is most clearly seen in the visual arts. For example, Fra Angelico's “Last Judgment” (Florence), painted ca. 1430, divides the netherworld into eight chambers. In the various rooms sinners eat at a table, are cooked in a large pot, are stewed in an even larger pot—in the center of which the devil tears them to bits with his teeth—and devour themselves in what appears to be an orgy of cannibalism and self-mutilation. Occasionally, as in the literature of the period, artists commented on social injustice through depictions of universal gluttony or starvation. See, for example, Peter Brueghel's drawings “Big Fish Eat Little Fish,” “The Poor Kitchen,” and “The Rich Kitchen.”

  18. Ruth Morse, “Unfit for Human Consumption: Shakespeare's Unnatural Food,” Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (1983), 148.

  19. Leslie Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), pp. 111, 119.

  20. Morse, p. 126, et passim.

  21. Janet Adelman, “‘Anger's My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 129-49.

  22. See Gail Kern Paster, “To Starve with Feeding: The City in Coriolanus,Shakespeare Studies, 11 (1978), 123-44, on “the thematic link between animal imagery and the images of food and eating which recur throughout the play” (p. 136). It is likely that the enormous popularity of images having to do with eating, starving, and related subjects, whether familiar and reassuring or gruesome, may in fact partly be accounted for in the social history of the period. At the beginning of her essay Adelman suggests that popular protests and riots against food shortages may have provided real impetus to Shakespeare, who “shapes his material from the start [in Coriolanus] to exacerbate those fears in his audience” (p. 129). Robert Darnton, who has written extensively on pre-Revolutionary French cultural history (The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History [New York: Random House, 1984]), feels strongly the shaping influence of economic constraints on popular literature, and argues that the cannibalism, infanticide, and incest of 18th-century French fairy tales find their origin in the living conditions of the masses: “to eat or not to eat, that was the question peasants confronted in their folklore as well as in their daily lives” (pp. 31-32). Indeed, at least one critic thinks the “famine relief” (Graham Anderson, Ancient Fiction [London: Croom Helm, 1984], p. 105) in Apollonius of Tyre (echoed in Pericles, I.iv) speaks directly to a crucial social issue. Anderson believes that “romantic motifs are related to the kind of realities of ancient life that are at least familiar in a sophisticated Western culture” (p. 100).

  23. John Frederick Nims, ed. Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation (New York: Macmillan, 1965), VI.824-25.

  24. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, trans. Ralph Manheim, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), p. 172.

  25. Robin Fox, The Red Lamp of Incest (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), p. 182.

  26. Sir James G. Frazer, “Taboo and the Perils of the Soul,” The Golden Bough, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 116-19.

  27. Christine Kapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 92.

  28. Laura and Raoul Makarius, “The Incest Prohibition and Food Taboos,” Diogenes, 30 (1960), 46.

  29. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1957), p. 132.

  30. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horrors, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982), p. 65.

  31. Anthony Hooper, “‘Eating Blood’: Tahitian Concepts of Incest,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 85 (1976), 227.

  32. J. L. Fischer, Roger Ward, and Martha Ward, “Ponapean Conceptions of Incest,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 85 (1976), 200.

  33. David Labby, “Incest as Cannibalism: The Yapese Analysis,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 85 (1976), 171-79.

  34. Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever (London: Methuen, 1966), p. 75.

  35. George Parfitt, ed. Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982), p. 283.

  36. Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), p. 291.

  37. W. B. Thorne, “Pericles and the Incest-Fertility Opposition,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 22 (1971), 43-56, reviews scholarship which sees Pericles as a play about the opposition between young and old, fertility and sterility, themes related to nurturance.

  38. See Freud, pp. 140-46.

  39. On Shakespeare's overt moralizing in Pericles see G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), pp. 32-75, and Maurice Hunt (“A Looking Glass for Pericles,Essays in Literature, 13 [1986], 3-11), who discusses the play's “strong roots in Miracle drama” (p. 3). Goepp discusses the “didacticism” (p. 170) of Apollonius of Tyre.

  40. See William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Doubleday, 1976), Ch. 5.

  41. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), discusses the meaning of virginity in romance literature in Ch. 3.

  42. Knight, pp. 48-49.

  43. Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), p. 169.

  44. Morse, p. 126.

  45. Knight, p. 70.

  46. Douglas L. Peterson, Time Tide and Tempest (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1973), p. 83.

  47. Gorfain, p. 15.

  48. C. L. Barber, “‘Thou That Beget'st Him That Did Thee Beget’: Transformation in ‘Pericles’ and ‘The Winter's Tale,’” Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969), 61. Marianne Novy writes, “Here, as when Pericles applies imagery of pregnancy and childbirth to himself earlier in the scene, the interchange of sexes suggests that the distinction between male and female experience has become less important than a sense of general human vulnerability and of the interdependence between generations” (Love's Argument [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1984], p. 175).

  49. Peterson, p. 88.

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5285

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 in its grip. Arbaces in a A King and No King is driven temporarily mad when he believes he has conceived an incestuous desire for his sister; Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi will not admit his desire even to himself. Isabella in Women Beware Women will sleep with her uncle only when told he is not her uncle; when she learns the truth she murders the woman who deceived her. The love of brother and sister in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is made the vehicle for Giovanni's defiance of all conventional values, including religion; and Anabella finally recoils from what they have done. The treatment of incest in Pericles appears to fit this pattern. In the play's first scene Pericles comes to the city of Antioch to win the King's daughter by the romantic device of answering a riddle; and he discovers that the beautiful princess he wants to win is having an incestuous affair with her father. This represents a fundamental violation of both sexual and family ties, a violation that is put right later in the play by images of healthy courtship and sexual love, and of normal family relations. This is, in fact, one of the binding themes of this somewhat episodic play. To touch for a moment on the question of authorship: few believe Pericles to be entirely Shakespeare's; the writing is so inconsistent, not just in quality but in kind. There is, on the other hand, no general agreement about the identity of the other author, or authors, or about the nature of Shakespeare's involvement. To most critics the first two acts seem like hackwork, while in the last three they hear the voice of Shakespeare. Yet while no one can deny the power of the third-act storm sequence, there are passages of flat writing in the scenes that follow, and there are subtle and haunting passages earlier—including, I think, the opening scene in Antioch. The play does not seem to me fully coherent: there is some unassimilated political commentary, for example. But it explores sexual themes at least in a way that I find thoughtful, sensitive, and imaginative—in outline, if not always in execution. I would like to examine this aspect of the play, and for the sake of convenience I will call the author Shakespeare.

In most respects the treatment of the incest theme that begins the play is clear and straightforward. The violation involved in incest is so deep that it taints other areas of life. The riddle Pericles must answer shows a scrambling of relationships and a loss of identity, and we note that Antiochus's daughter has no name:

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.


The image of cannibalism recurs later in the play, in the famine that draws the mothers of Tharsus to eat their own children (1.4.42-44). Gower, in his role as chorus, tells us that incest “Was with long use account'd no sin” (chorus 1, 30). As in Jonson's Sejanus, with the loss of moral values words lose their meanings. The fact that Antiochus has named his city after himself indicates a Tamburlainian arrogance, a refusal to accept the human community that controls individual wills. He orders Pericles' murder with the words, “It fits thee not to ask the reason why: / Because we bid it.” (1.1.158-59). Recoiling from his discovery, Pericles uses an image of music turned to discord: “Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime” (1.1.86). All the values violated here are put right in later scenes. Against the arrogant tyranny of Antiochus, we hear the plain, frank speech between prince and counsellor in the relations of Pericles and Helicanus. In Pentapolis Pericles meets a good king, Simonides, with a fair daughter, Thaisa, whose beauty this time is not deceptive. In place of the riddle, Pericles proves himself in a tournament. Simonides, as Prospero will do more seriously later, briefly acts the role of the heavy father, as though to exorcise through comedy the memory of Antiochus. Point by point, the sequence in Pentapolis gives a benevolent form of the images that were violated at Antioch (Flower 1975, 33-34). So, later in the play, does Pericles' reunion with his lost daughter Marina, in a scene that depends on establishing true names and true identities: “Is it no more to be your daughter than / To say my mother's name was Thaisa?” (5.1.208-9). Even the scrambling of relationships becomes a benevolent paradox (Barber 1969, 61) when Pericles addresses his daughter as “Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget” (5.1.195). The harsh chime, the discordant music of Antioch, is countered by true harmony in later scenes. Pericles entertains the court of Pentapolis with music, leading Simonides to compliment him: “Sir, you are music's master” (4.5.30). Marina, we are told, “Sings like one immortal” (chorus 5, 3), and on her reunion with her father Pericles hears what he thinks is the music of the spheres. (It is an interesting touch that, while Helicanus and Lysimachus do not hear it, Marina remains silent on the subject; such enigmatic silences at important moments will become a key device in The Tempest.)

So far all this is as we would expect. The incest of Antiochus and his daughter is, like the jealously of Leontes in The Winter's Tale, a threat that the rest of the play counters. Because of the play's episodic structure we do not feel the pressure of that problem throughout, as we do in much (though not all) of The Winter's Tale; but the echoes in language and situation are clear enough to show that the Antiochus episode is not just an arbitrary way to start the hero's adventures but an appropriate introduction to the play as a whole. Yet the development of the play's themes from this opening scene is not perhaps so straightforward as I have made it sound. There are some elusive undercurrents that, I think, broaden and complicate the play's vision. In what follows I will be dealing largely in hints and suggestions; and I think Shakespeare wants them to be hints and suggestions, no more. Some of the points to which I will call attention are actually stronger and more disturbing in other versions of the story—Gower's Confessio Amantis, Twine's The Pattern of Painful Adventures, and Wilkins's The Painful Adventures of Pericles Prince of Tyre. Shakespeare has toned them down. But he has not suppressed them altogether.

To begin with, there are suggestions that what Pericles experiences in Antioch is not just a quick, horrified glance at somebody else's sin, but an initial encounter with sexuality itself, including his own sexuality, an encounter that leaves him repelled and shaken. If this is so, then Pericles makes an appropriate transition from Shakespeare's dark comedies—which, as Kenneth Muir (1979, 103) has observed, are concerned with sex where his romantic comedies are concerned with love—into the final romances, with their broader concern with marriage and the ties of family. G. Wilson Knight (1965, 73-74) has suggested that the abstraction of the play's characterization makes it seem the life story of an Everyman figure. In that pattern, the scene in Antioch is the hero's sexual initiation, one that goes badly because his first encounter is with the dark side of sexuality. He greets Antiochus's daughter with an innocent celebration of her beauty:

See where she comes apparell'd like the spring,
Graces her subjects, and her thoughts the king
Of every virtue gives renown to men!
Her face the book of praises, where is read
Nothing but curious pleasures.


In that last reference to “curious pleasures” the springlike freshness of the opening is replaced by something a little more jaded and sophisticated. Though Antiochus compares his daughter to the apples of Hesperus, guarded by dragons—the dead knights who have preceded Pericles—Pericles' desire “To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree / Or die in the adventure” (1.1.22-23) suggests rather the apple of Eden. The threat of death that accompanies his wooing reminds us of the traditional linking of sex and death, a point to which I will return. In both respects Pericles is undergoing a loss of innocence: “Antiochus, I thank thee, who hath taught / My frail mortality to know itself” (1.1.42-43). He determines “to prepare / This body, like to them, to what I must” (1.1.44-45). As a man about to undergo a deadly ordeal, and as a prospective bridegroom, he is venturing his body, and the two ventures go together.

Wilson Knight's observation (1965, 38) that the hero's “plunge into sin and death is … associated with ravishing desire” may be stronger in tone than the writing of the scene will justify, but there are, I think, suggestions that Pericles is undergoing a kind of fall, not so much sinning himself as becoming aware of the existence of sin. He recoils from the discovery:

Fair glass of light, I lov'd you, and could still,
Were not this glorious casket stor'd with ill.
But I must tell you, now my thoughts revolt;
For he's no man on whom perfections wait
That, knowing sin within, will touch the gate.
You are a fair viol, and your sense the strings,
Who, finger'd to make man his lawful music,
Would draw heaven down and all the gods to hearken;
But being play'd upon before your time,
Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime.


The sexual suggestion of the word “gate” will be unmistakable in the jealous ravings of Leontes; but it is clear enough here. Together with the reference to fingering it suggests not just Pericles' horror at incest but a queasy apprehension of, and recoil from, sexuality itself. In this light, the final punishment of Antiochus and his daughter is significant:

A fire from heaven came and shrivell'd up
Their bodies, even to loathing; for they so stunk,
That all those eyes ador'd them ere their fall
Scorn now their hand should give them burial.


Like the putrefied core Hector finds inside the armor in Troilus and Cressida, this suggests a disgust with the body itself, a disgust echoed later in the brothel in Mytilene, whose employees “with continual action are even as good as rotten” (4.2.8-9).2

Pericles himself has not literally sinned. But in the allegorical mode the play occasionally touches, to encounter sin in another character is to entertain the possibility of sin in oneself. Some critics have seen Pericles' flight from Antiochus as a kind of penance (Thorne 1971, 47), though not everyone agrees, and at the literal level there is not much support for this reading. Helicanus offers it as a public explanation for the prince's flight: “… doubting lest he had err'd or sinn'd, / To show his sorrow he'd correct himself” (1.3.21-22), and this at least allows a shadow of the idea into the play. A stronger clue is Pericles' account of his own state on his return to Tyre: “Here pleasures court mine eyes and mine eyes shun them” (1.2.7). In retreating from Antiochus he may not be just saving his subjects from the tyrant but trying to retreat, in his own mind, from the dark knowledge Antiochus represents. When he comes to Pentapolis it is as though he is beginning his life over again; he is cast up on its shores as unaccommodated man, “bereft … of all his fortunes” (2.1.9). In this state he is allowed a fresh start, a new and healthier sexual initiation. It is significant that, while he comes to Antioch with no background that we know of, he begins his stay in Pentagolis by recovering his father's armor from the sea—the first reference in the play to his father. And he recovers his father in another way, in his recognition of Simonides: “Yon king's to me like to my father's picture” (2.2.37). In As You Like It, Rosalind recovers her father in the forest and then sets about her affair with Orlando. There is the same pattern here: courtship begins from the base of a secure background in one's own family. And it may be significant that the Pentapolis sequence ends with the full recovery of Pericles' lost identity as Prince of Tyre.

And yet Pericles himself does not seem altogether secure. He is wary of Simonides, in whom he sees a potential Antiochus: “'Tis the king's subtlety to have my life” (2.5.44). There is something a little priggish in his denial of interest in Thaisa: he claims he “never aim'd so high to love your daughter, / But bent all offices to honour her,” adding, “never did my actions yet commence / A deed might gain her love or your displeasure” (2.5.47-48, 52-53). Is this proper courtesy or needless caution? Simonides and Thaisa seem to take it as the latter. The association of sex with eating, which takes a dark form in the cannibalism of incest, is more cheerful in Thaisa's frank desire for Pericles:

By Juno, that is queen of marriage,
All viands that I eat do seem unsavoury,
Wishing him my meat.


When he tries to play the gentleman, she will have none of it:

Then as you are as virtuous as fair,
Resolve your angry father, if my tongue
Did e'er solicit, or my hand subscribe
To any syllable that made love to you.
Why, sir, say if you had, who takes offence
At what would make me glad?


She herself had pretended reluctance when her father urged her to talk to the strange knight, but this pretence did not last. Simonides' eagerness for the match makes him sound like a cleaned-up Pandarus: “It pleaseth me so well, that I will see you wed; / And then, with what haste you can, get you to bed” (2.5.91-92).3 Pericles' experience in Pentapolis is not just that of a hero who finds and wins his bride; it is also that of a cautious young man whose girl friend has to tell him it's all right to touch her and who makes the even more astonishing discovery that her father approves.

Yet the sexual anxiety created in Antioch may not have been completely disposed of. At the end of Cymbeline, another play in which there is a certain recoil from the body, Imogen tries to embrace Posthumus and, not knowing her, he flings her away, earning the rebuke, “Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?” The equivalent moment in Pericles comes when Marina approaches her father. Neither knows the other's identity. She is about to restore him to life, but his first greeting to her is a subhuman noise, “Hum, ha!” (5.1.83), to which editors generally add some such stage direction as “pushes her back,” an addition justified by dialogue later in the scene. Her rebuke, “if you did know my parentage, / You would not do me violence” (5.1.99-100), suggests that the push is far from gentle. In Gower and Wilkins he strikes her in anger; in Twine, he kicks her in the face, drawing blood (Bullough 1966, 414; 466-67; 543). Shakespeare has toned down the violence, but it is still a startling and disturbing moment. While Lear at first shrinks away from the new life offered by Cordelia, Pericles lashes out at his daughter. In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare almost obliterates the problem of father-daughter incest that ends the source novel, Greene's Pandosto—almost, but not quite, for on first seeing her, before he knows her identity, Leontes finds his daughter Perdita rather too attractive (Melchiori 1960, 63-64). It may be that what surfaces when Pericles pushes Marina away is an old, instinctive fear that goes back to his encounter with Antiochus—who at one point, by the way, evidently flings down the riddle in a gesture that anticipates Pericles' flinging away Marina (1.1.57 SD; see Arden note). Seen in this light, Pericles' desire to leave Marina in Tharsus and his determination not to cut his hair till she is married may not be just arbitrary plot developments. They may suggest a desire to submit to an ordeal and a period of separation till his daughter is safely out of his reach. This recoil from the possibility of incest makes a direct link with the play's opening; but if, as I suggested, that opening expressed a fear of sexuality itself, then it is proper to notice that Marina is not the only woman Pericles flings away. Though the staging of the storm scene does not make this altogether clear, Pericles later says of Thaisa, “I threw her overboard with these very arms” (5.3.19). Even so Prospero will drown his book in the sea, getting rid of something that is potent, desirable, and dangerous. Thelma N. Greenfield (1967, 53) has rebuked Pericles for giving in too quickly to the sailors' demand, accusing him of lack of faith.4 It may be that the problem runs deeper than that. And it may not just be arbitrary plotting when Thaisa herself declares:

                                                                                                              since King Pericles,
My wedded lord, I n'er shall see again,
A vestal livery will I take me to,
And never more have joy.


Like Pericles when he abandons Marina, she makes a decision that looks arbitrary but may suggest, by its very arbitrariness, an instinct to reject human involvement.

The relations of Pericles with Thaisa and with Marina are healthy, normal, and attractive. But they may be touched by shadows from Antioch—not just the crime of incest but the fear of an inherent corruption in all sexuality. The brothel scenes in Mytilene show the other side of the coin. Lysimachus is the converse of Pericles. The one comes to win a beautiful princess and finds an unnatural sinner; the other comes to do business in a brothel and finds a beautiful princess. And there is, I think, not much doubt that he has come to do business: the sly comedy of the Bawd's line, “Here come the Lord Lysimachus, disguis'd” (5.6.15-16), suggests that he is a regular customer whose disguise has long ceased to fool anybody (Flower 1975, 39). His manner is brisk and cynical: “How now! How a dozen of virginities?” and his first reaction to Marina is, “Faith, she would serve after a long voyage at sea” (5.6.19; 42). But as Pericles' innocent romanticism at Antioch may be touched by sensuality, so Lysimachus's cynicism has a nervous rattle; it is a little defensive, as though the man is half ashamed and keeping up his spirits. In his dialogue with Marina he is delicate to the point of being mealy-mouthed, and she challenges him to be honest and speak plainly:

Now, pretty one, how long have you been at this trade?
What trade, sir?
Why, I cannot name't but I shall offend.
I cannot be offended with my trade. Please you to name it.


Impressed by her virtue, he recoils from his own corruption to the point of claiming it never existed: “Had I brought hither a corrupted mind, / Thy speech had alter'd it” (4.6.103-4). It is a puzzling moment; and Wilkins's version of the scene, in which Lysimachus admits that he was corrupt and has now reformed, is much more logical. This version is adopted into the play in the new Oxford edition (10.127-36; Bullough 1966, 536). But the sheer illogic of the text as usually printed makes its own point: Lysimachus is trying to rewrite his life, and there may be more than just wishful thinking involved. When he declares, “I came with no ill intent; for to me / The very doors and windows savour vilely” (4.6.109-10), he may be telling part of the truth, in that he is now fully awake to feelings he was already aware of but never before acted on.

This is the man who will be Marina's husband. As in the Pentapolis sequence, the fixing of their relationship is accompanied by Marina's recovery of her parents. But the striking paradox is that Lysimachus finds a pure bride in a brothel, while the aggressively virginal Marina finds in a regular brothel customer her future husband. Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement. We may at first think that the brothel, like the court of Antioch, represents the dark side of sex, and so, up to a point, it does. (In performance the connections can be emphasized by the doubling of parts, as in the 1986 Stratford, Ontario, production in which Nicholas Pennell played both Antiochus and Boult.) But as there is unexpected corruption in Antioch, so there is unexpected innocence in the brothel. C. L. Barber (1969, 63) has called the brothel sequence a “comic exorcism of gross sexuality,” and in fact the nature of its comedy is quite unexpected. We were prepared for a melodrama in which a helpless, innocent girl was threatened with a fate worse than death. In fact the helpless, innocent girl not only looks after herself quite nicely, thank you, but reduces her persecutors to laughable futility. Two of her customers stagger away, dazed and sheepish:

2. Gentleman.
… Come, I am for no more bawdy-houses. Shall's go hear the vestals sing?
1. Gentleman.
I'll do anything now that is virtuous; but I am out of the road of rutting forever.


Boult and the Bawd throw up their hands at her ultimate outrage:

Worse and worse, mistress; she has here spoken holy words to the Lord Lysimachus.
O abominable!


The comedy turns in more than one direction. It is not just that Marina's tormentors are so helpless against her; that would suggest that the power of darkness they represent is so feeble it can be laughed off as not worth worrying about. There is also something self-mocking in the images of virtue triumphant, as though Marina's power is not quite real, not quite believable. And if some of the mockery touches chastity itself there may be a reason: as the Bawd complains of her new employee, “She's able to freeze the god Priapus, and undo a whole generation” (19. 13). Virginity is all very well but, as Benedick insists, the world must be peopled.

Marina's virginity and the brutal couplings of the brothel represent extremes, and each extreme is comic. The solution is the licensed sexuality of marriage. But sex itself remains an ambiguous force. Pericles wooing Thaisa was as reluctant to admit what he was doing as is Lysimachus when he comes to the brothel. In Wilkins's novel the storm in which Pericles' daughter is born and in which he loses his wife occurs not when he is going back to Tyre, but when he is going back to Antioch, to claim its kingship (Bullough 1966, 517-18). It is as though Antioch represents some dark fear at the heart of sexuality, and the storm that sunders the family is in some way connected with it. Perhaps in the story of Pericles Shakespeare is allegorizing the notion (which of course he would not have seen formulated) that, as our first sexual feelings are incestuous, so our sexuality thereafter is never free of the taint of incest. Perhaps. But once again I think the fear runs deeper than the fear of incest. Pericles is pursued from Antioch not just by the thought of a sexual taboo violated, but by a killer, the hired assassin Thaliard. As Pericles puts it, “Murder's as near to lust as flame to smoke” (1.1.139). Leonine, another hired killer, starts Marina on the path that leads her to the brothel. And in the brothel itself the danger persists: “The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage. … She quickly poop'd him; she made him roast-meat for worms” (4.2.20-23). Antiochus, as we have seen, initiates Pericles not just into the dark mystery of sex but into the knowledge of death. His daughter comes “apparell'd like the spring” on to a stage decorated with severed heads:

Before thee stands this fair Hesperides,
With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touch'd;
For death-like dragons here affright thee hard.


The encounter in bed about which Simonides is so jocular leads to the pain of childbirth in a storm, where “The lady shrieks and well a-near / Does fall in travail with her fear” (chorus 3, 51-52). In bringing new life Thaisa apparently dies. Recalling his loss, Pericles shows how his imagination is haunted by the pain of childbirth: “I am great with woe / And shall deliver weeping” (5.1.105-6). In his reunion with Thaisa, Pericles welcomes his new life as a kind of death, telling 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.


And Marina declares, “My heart / Leaps to be gone into my mother's bosom.”

Whether feared or longed for, death is the constant companion of love. Shakespeare has already treated this theme in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. One reason for the connection is that the procreative instinct is at once an answer to, and a reminder of, our mortality. And in the Christian tradition—until recently, at least—even wedded sexuality was never altogether free of a sense of sin: “Behold I was shapen in wickedness: and in sin hath my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51). In The Tempest Prospero celebrates the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda with vision of the ordered fertility that marriage represents. The vision is broken when Prospero remembers “that foul beast Caliban”—who, we recall, tried to rape Miranda, driven by an instinct to people the isle with Calibans. When Prospero subjects Ferdinand to an ordeal before he can win Miranda, he gives him Caliban's job of piling logs, as though his purpose is to test the Caliban in him.

From Caliban's attempt to rape Miranda to the vision of Cares, The Tempest connects our sexuality to our bond with nature. And nature, in these last plays, is not just the “great creating nature” we hear of in The Winter's Tale. Even in that play, the force that produces daffodils that come before the swallow dares produces also a storm and a devouring bear. In Pericles, Cerimon evokes the benevolent and curative powers of nature in language that recalls Cordelia. He has studied

                                                                                                    the blest infusions
That dwells in vegetives, in metals, stones;
And can speak of the disturbances that
Nature works, and of her cures.


But we notice that he also sees nature as ambiguous, like Friar Laurence, who can see poison and medicine in a single flower. Using fire and music, he brings Thaisa back to life. But he tells a servant who comes to him for help:

Your master will be dead ere you return;
There's nothing can be minister'd to nature
That can recover him.


Nature can help us, but not forever; after a certain point she gives us up. Pericles, noting how Simonides resembles his dead father, may be said to have cheated time by finding a new father; but in the same speech he compares his father's glory with his own dejected state and concludes, “I see that Time's the king of men; / He's both their parent, and he is their grave” (2.3.45-46). Even a moment of recovery is touched by the thought of loss.

At several points the play refers to the arbitrary whims of Fortune, especially in the storm sequences: “… fortune, tir'd with doing bad, / Threw him ashore, to give him glad (chorus 2, 37-38); “… fortune's mood / Varies again” (chorus 3, 46-47). But this is a mechanical idea, mechanically stated. The puzzle of human life is conveyed more powerfully when Pericles addresses his seemingly dead queen. He evokes not Fortune but the mystery of birth and death in a natural world that is at once beautiful and terrifying, bound up with man yet finally indifferent to him:

A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire: th'unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow'd to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin'd, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And e'er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o'erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.


Pericles speaks here of the natural world that surrounds us, whose elements we need for our comfort, even our survival; and he senses that this world ultimately goes its own way, indifferent to us. Not just indifferent, either, but overwhelmingly remote, capable of bearing down and destroying us without a moment's thought. But there is another, and perhaps greater mystery, in the power we carry in our own bodies. We need that power too, for our happiness and for the survival of our kind. But there is something in it that frightens us. And so we invent rules and codes to give ourselves the illusion that we control it. We moralize it, we separate it into right and wrong. But in the moralizing of sex in this play there is something shadowy and unreal: the guilt we sense but cannot literally justify in Pericles when he flees from Antioch, the purity Lysimachus claims in the brothel. Marina's chastity and the corruption of her employees seem equally artificial. The proper relations of husband and wife, father and daughter, are touched by thoughts of Antiochus and his daughter; and the play's final marriage begins in a brothel. It is as though all the play's characters are adrift on the same sea. The relations of Antiochus and his daughter are, from any civilized perspective, a horror that the rest of the play should counter and suppress. That is our first impression, it remains the dominant one, and I do not wish to dislodge it. But from another point of view, harder to analyze, harder to see clearly, and harder to accept, the play seems to suggest that power Pericles first meets in Antioch is the power that will haunt him all his life.


  1. All references to Pericles are to the Arden edition by F. D. Hoeniger (London: Methuen, 1963).

  2. Flower (1975, 39) connects the fire that consumes Antiochus and his daughter with the pox that is endemic to the brothel.

  3. Stephen Dickey (1986, 559) calls Simonides' joking “a redirection of Antiochus' paternal lust into more proper channels: Simonides accepts rather than exploits his daughter's sexuality.”

  4. According to the Quarto (and most editors), Cerimon declares, “They were too rough / That threw her in the sea” (3.2.81-82). For “rough” Malone conjectured “rash” and his reading is adopted in the “reconstructed” Oxford text (1986, 12.77).

Works Cited

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

Dickey, Stephen. 1986. “Language and Role in Pericles.English Literary Renaissance 16:559.

Flower, Annette C. 1975. “Disguise and Identity in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26:30-41.

Greenfield, Thelma. 1967. “A Re-Examination of the Patient Pericles.” Shakespeare Studies 3:51-61.

Knight, G. Wilson. 1965. The Crown of Life. London: Methuen.

Melchiori, Barbara. 1960. “‘Still Harping on My Daughter.’” English Miscellany II: 63-64.

Muir, Kenneth. 1979. Shakespeare's Comic Sequence. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 1966. Edited by Geoffrey Bullough. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Shakespeare, William. 1986. The Complete Works. Edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thorne, William B. 1971. “Pericles and the ‘Incest-Fertility’ Opposition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22:43-56.

Further Reading

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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 California Press, 1986.

Focuses on a movement from the sexual degradation of incest to a restored relationship between generations and family members in Pericles, as part of a wider study of Shakespeare's developing treatment of feminine principles in his late romances.

Bate, Jonathan. “Sexual Perversity in Venus and Adonis.The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 80-92.

Considers Adonis's status as the child of father-daughter incest within a survey of the perversions of desire illustrated in Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis.

Boehrer, Bruce Thomas. “Henry VIII and the Political Uses of Incest Theory.” In Monarchy and Incest in Renaissance England: Literature, Culture, Kinship, and Kingship, pp. 62-77. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Concentrates on Gertrude's incestuous remarriage in Hamlet, with a particular view toward the historical context of Tudor politics. In conclusion, Boehrer sees Gertrude as the play's “central emblem of social and sexual corruption.”

Dreher, Diane Elizabeth. “The Paternal Role in Transition.” In Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare, pp. 40-75. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Enumerates Shakespeare's representation of sexually tense and anxiety-ridden relationships between fathers and their maturing daughters, offering character profiles of reactionary, mercenary, egocentric, and jealous fathers in the dramas, and concluding with a study of King Lear, who subsumes all of these qualities.

Faber, M. D. “Hamlet and the Inner World of Objects.” In The Undiscover'd Country: New Essays on Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, edited by B. J. Sokol, pp. 57-90. London: Free Association Books, 1993.

Psychoanalytic examination of Hamlet as a representation of the Western tragic hero, with special reference to Hamlet's unconscious sexual (i.e. repressed, incestuous, and Oedipal) feelings for his mother in this regard.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Eros and Thanatos: Old Age in Love.” In Aging, Death, and the Completion of Being, edited by David D. Van Tassel, pp. 235-54. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979.

Closes a survey of western literary myths of old age with reference to the motif of father-daughter incest in such works as Pericles and The Tempest.

Forker, Charles R. “‘A Little More Than Kin, and Less Than Kind’: Incest, Intimacy, Narcissism, and Identity in Elizabethan and Stuart Drama.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 4 (1989): 13-51.

Overview of representations and references to incest on the English Renaissance stage that includes a brief discussion of the incest motif in Hamlet and its topical link to the historical marriage of Henry VIII.

Frye, Roland Mushat. “Prince Hamlet and the Protestant Confessional.” Theology Today 39, no. 1 (April 1982): 27-38.

Underscores the relevance of Hamlet's accusations of incest against his mother in the theological and social contexts of the English Reformation.

Kerrigan, William. “Life's Iamb: The Scansion of Late Creativity in the Cultural of the Renaissance.” In Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, edited by Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz, pp. 168-91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Includes an analysis of The Tempest as Shakespeare's “most forthrightly Oedipal play.”

Pitcher, John. “The Poet and Taboo: The Riddle of Shakespeare's Pericles.” In Essays and Studies 1982: The Poet's Power, edited by Suheil Bushrui, pp. 14-29. London: John Murray, 1982.

Argues for the structural and thematic unity of Pericles based upon the continuing threads of the incest and riddle motifs in the drama.

Rudnytsky, Peter L. “‘The Darke and Vicious Place’: The Dread of the Vagina in King Lear.Modern Philology 96, no. 3 (February 1999): 291-311.

Offers a feminist, psychoanalytic interpretation of King Lear with final emphasis on Lear's “unconscious desire to maintain his incestuous hold over Cordelia.”

Shell, Marc. The End of Kinship: ‘Measure for Measure,’ Incest, and the Ideal of Universal Siblinghood. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988, 297 p.

Probes the “vacillation between incest and chastity” depicted in Measure for Measure in view of a radical reinterpretation of marriage, social bonds of kinship, and the universal incest taboo.

Spradley, Dana Lloyd. “Pericles and the Jacobean Family Romance of Union.” Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts 7 (1992): 87-118.

Traces topical affinities between the incest motif in Pericles and the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland proposed by King James in the early seventeenth century.

Taylor, Mark. Shakespeare's Darker Purpose: A Question of Incest. New York: AMS Press, 1982, 203 p.

Book-length study of the sublimated, repressed, and/or displaced incestuous feelings of desire felt by fathers in relation to their daughters in Shakespearean drama.