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Absent Presence? The Mother’s Role in Shakespeare | Voices

In honour of the UK’s Mothering Sunday, journalist and Shakespeare enthusiast, Eric Minton, discusses the role of motherly love in Shakespeare’s plays, or in most cases, the lack of it…

A few years ago, I saw Synetic Theatre’s performance of The Taming of the Shrew; it opened with a graveside funeral, the mourners in raincoats and holding umbrellas, their backs to us. One by one they paid their respects to the man and two women in the middle. These turned out to be Baptista and his two daughters, Bianca and Katherina, and it is his wife, their mother, who they are burying. The elder daughter, Kate, appeared to take the loss of her mother particularly hard, and director Paata Tsikurishvili intimates this fed her shrewish behaviour.

Set aside this conceptual interpretation for a moment and consider this fact: In the 11 times I’ve seen Shrew on stage, the three film versions I’ve seen, and the countless times I’ve read the play, this was the first time the thought crossed my mind, where is mum? I recalled studying King Lear in college and the professor asking, “Where is the mother, where is Lear’s wife?”

Lear and Cordelia in Prison circa 1779 by William Blake 1757-1827

William Blake’s Lear and Cordelia in Prison (1779). Another character with a notably absent mother.

In fact, many of Shakespeare’s plays have notable mothers missing—and one silent mother intriguingly present. Some plays do have mothers in key roles, even iconic ones. But when I began to mull over the state of motherhood in the full scope of his works, I realized that the absence of mothers could be connected into a thematic thread across the canon; not only the the relevance of motherhood, but parenthood as a whole.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have notable mothers missing— and one silent mother intriguingly present.

Consider these plays, in addition to The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear, featuring filial relationships at the centre of the plot in which the mother is notably absent.

  • In The Tempest, mum must have died when Miranda was an infant, and Prospero doesn’t place her in his history; his only reference is assuring that Miranda is his daughter because “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and she said thou was my daughter.”
  • In The Merchant of Venice, the orphaned Portia talks only of her father; while Jessica’s mother is absent, too, though Shylock makes a brief mention of a wife when he says of a turquoise ring, “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor.”
  • As You Like It has five – count ’em – five offspring (Rosalind, Celia, and the three de Boys brothers), all with fathers playing key roles, but not a single mother.
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona has two fathers, one for Proteus, one for Sylvia, but neither have a mother.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream has Egeus, father to Hermia, but no mother to Hermia.
  • Desdemona upsets her father by eloping with Othello, but no mother is around to weigh in on her actions.
  • Titus Andronicus had 25 sons and a daughter; but no mother to speak of.
  • The Henry IV plays centre on father-son relationships with no mothers factoring in.

 

Then there is Much Ado About Nothing. Leonato’s wife, and presumably Hero’s mother, Innogen, appears in the first scene, says nothing and is never seen again! The prevailing theory is that Shakespeare planned to use her but dropped her as he wrote the play and forgot to scratch out her name in the opening stage direction.

But this appearance and sudden disappearance of a mother in Much Ado might be more insightful than mere carelessness. Consider who Innogen is married to: Leonato, a graceful, fun-loving man who only goes uncontrollably mad when his daughter is publically shamed at her wedding. Now, look at the husbands in the list of plays that I mention above, starting with Shrew:

  • Favour-playing Baptista
  • Egotistical Lear
  • Self-absorbed Prospero
  • Portia’s father who after his own death forces on his daughter a husband who happens to choose the right chest
  • The obstinate Shylock
  • The mean Duke Frederick and the pushover Duke Senior
  • The Duke of Milan who is impressed by Thurio (really?) and locks his daughter up in a tower
  • Pathological Egeus
  • Brabantio the racist.
  • Titus (no modifier necessary!)
  • Über politician Henry IV.

 

I’m sure any woman reading this has already done the math. What wife would stick around these guys?

For every absent mother in his plays, Shakespeare created a famous and infamous ones in others.

Some may argue that Shakespeare had no mothers in these plays because he didn’t need them. Or, because he wrote plays with his company in mind, he chose not to occupy one of his actors with a mother’s role. Nevertheless, those would have been plot decisions rather than available-talent decisions. For every notably absent mother in his plays, Shakespeare created a famous and infamous one’s in others: Margaret in Henry VI, Tamora in Titus Andronicus; Hermione in A Winter’s Tale; Ladies Capulet and Montague in Romeo and Juliet; Gertrude in Hamlet; Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor; Emelia in The Comedy of Errors; two Duchesses of York (in the two Richards); Elizabeth in Richard III; Constance in King John; Virgilia and the mother of all mothers, Volumnia, in Coriolanus; and the Countess in All’s Well that Ends Well.

Interestingly, the plays lacking mothers have a strong fathers, while many of those with a strong mother lack a father.

The example of All’s Well that Ends Well might be most telling, for, while it does have a mother in the Countess and one for Diana, another mother is missing from the text, Helen’s. Her father had recently died, but no mention is made of her mother. Meanwhile, her love interest, Bertram, has his mother, the Countess, but his father also has died before the play’s start. So, off he goes to the King of France’s court and then he goes off the rails when that king commands him to marry Helen after she’s cured the king of a deadly disease (hmmm, no queen in those scenes either). Then she goes off after Bertram even after he publically despises her. You could argue that an absence of either parent impacts greatly on the child and acts as a catalyst to the remaining action in the play. This is evidenced across the canon.

Interestingly, while the plays lacking mothers have a strong fathers, many of those with a strong mother either lack a father or that father is Henry VI (which is pretty much the same thing as lacking a father) or a ghost that may or may not be the devil. Traditional two-parent families appear in The Merry Wives and Romeo and Juliet, and however dysfunctional you may consider the Capulets, that play’s tragic plot comes about because the children make choices counter to their parents’ wishes. Traditional family units also appear in Comedy of Errors, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale, and all of those have plots driven by the temporary loss of one or both parents.

While the gals can claim that Baptista, Lear, et al., got in their fixes for the lack of a mother’s influence. The guys can assert that Coriolanus, Hamlet, et al., got in their fixes because they were mama’s boys. Both arguments win. In Shakespeare’s world, strong family units equated with equilibrium in the social order. How interesting that the presence of a parent is felt so keenly in Shakespeare’s plays, in spite of their absence.

For more information about Eric, or if you’d like to read more of his views on Shakespeare, visit http://www.shakespeareances.com/

Adele-Elizabeth Orchard

Author Adele-Elizabeth Orchard

Adele-Elizabeth Orchard recently completed her MA Shakespeare at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis demonstrated how Shakespeare employed the role of foreign women and their use of language to subvert and transcend the inherent phallocentric nature and limitations of the English language. Her interests include: Shakespeare’s heroines and their cultural appropriation; Shakespeare and gender; female language and the female body; and the role of foreign women.

More posts by Adele-Elizabeth Orchard

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