Family theme in William Shakespeare’s works

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

«The family is like a body. Just as the organs and limbs of a body are connected and interdependent, so the members of the family are connected physically and are also bound together by ties of emotional and practical interdependence» Bruce W. Young.

The family is one of the major theme exploited by William Shakespeare within his plays. As previously stated by Bruce W. Young, families in Shakespeare’s plays are compared to a proper human body with all different kind of connections. Shakespeare mimics the behavior of the families of his play to those of the Elizabethan era, and hence applies the social rules of the time.

Whether is it in Romeo and Juliet or King Lear, one can find the social expectations of the 16th century, with a high patriarchal power, or in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the differences of the behavior of the children desiring to emancipate themselves from this patriarchy. Throughout Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, As you Like it and Twelfth Night, there is a strong wish to exploit the relationship of the parents and the children, as it is the key of the household. As it will be demonstrated in this essay, Shakespeare actually used the expectations and socials codes present in his society to manipulate the character construction and audience perceptions of the relationship between father and children. Through the use of critics, this essay will first explore the role of the mother. Then I will discuss the relationship between fathers and daughters and finally the relationship between fathers and sons. One of the striking common elements within these four plays is the role mother figure and how little she is present in the stories.

The only mothers physically present in these four plays under study are Lady Capulet and Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet. Both Montague and Capulet belong to the high society, just as stated in the prologue « two households, both alike in dignity ». It is hence understood that both families would have the same social criteria in terms of behavior and raising children. These two mothers are as similar as they are different. Both of them ignore where their only child is, as lady Montague ask Benvolio «O, where is Romeo? saw you him to-day? » (I. I. 107), And Lady Capulet also wonders about her daughter’s whereabouts « Nurse, where’s my daughter? Call her forth to me » ( I.ii. 1).

However, where they differ is the reason for this wonder. Lady Montague shows real concern for her son (I.i.108), knowing that he has been unwell recently, and fearing to leave him alone, but she and her husband have been aware of his recent doing, analyzing his behavior (I.i.122-133). Lady Capulet, on the other hand, is more concern about her future thinker well-being, and this lack of interest for her daughter is shown through the response of Juliet « Madam, I am here. » (I.iii.7), Juliet has been raised by her nurse, and this lack of maternal affection is shown through Juliet’s response. As stated by Lisa Jardine, children at this time in important families were a guarantee for the family’s name to live on, to ensure a linear future, and thus they had a public identity from birth, leading children into being a less suitable object of affection or even the « maternal love » of our modern day. Lady Capulet is more present in the play than Lady Montague, and this constant presence might be related to the gender of the children. Juliet being a woman, she was expected to be obedient and Lady Capulet, as she has been through this already, knows how to proceed in order to prepare her daughter. This relationship between mother and children is codified by the social norms of the times, but this absence of physical affection does not mean the absence of love, as both mothers suffer when hearing the death of their children. In King Lear, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, there are a few mentions of the mother figure, but never a full description of them. This ignorance around the mother figure is explained by Oliver Davis as « A dead, or absent mother leaves a young daughter or son without the support of the adults who have largely brought them up and understands them». In King Lear, the absence of the mother is used to reinforce the idea of illegitimacy. As argued by Janet Adelman, the Lear plot replicates the logic of illegitimacy in the Gloucester plot. Indeed, in Lear’s mind, if Gloucester’s wicked son is literally illegitimate, then it is obvious that his own disobedient daughters are also illegitimate the product of an « adulterous womb » (II.iv.133).

For As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the relation towards the mother is slightly more complex. In both plays, the mother is only mentioned once, and in both cases, this mention is used in a process of identification(II. I. 36), but never for a full understanding of the character. According to Kahn’s view, the major difference between a male child’s initial separation from a mother and that of the female child produces an important difference between the girl’s developing sense of identity and the boy’s. Shakespeare’s use of the mother figure is either to reinforce the authority of the father and critics the social norms of the times or to make the children more independent but also more dependent to their father, is the only parental figure left. As argued by Jennifer Higginbotham, most of Shakespeare’s daughters are used as a key element to understanding their father’s life. They are pawns in their father’s game rather than the character of their own lives. The relationship between fathers and daughters in Shakespeare’s tragedies are usually centered around authority, and daughters are divided into two categories: the « daughter who rebels » and « daughters who acquiesce ».The relationship of Lear and his daughters is complicated, coming from the fact that he is a King and a father, behaving like both towards his daughters. The daughter who acquiesces is the perfect daughter: a silent and obedient woman. Following this logic, Goneril and Regan are the perfect daughters, they behave like subjects doing his bidding.

However, Lear sees in Cordelia the perfect daughter, the one who loves him the most, and the phrasing of his question “Which of you shall we say doth love us most” (I.i.51) makes the issue of the question depending on his own will. He has already made his judgement and has imagined what their answers will be. King Lear is blind to everything happening in front of him, and this idea of « sight » is present in the entire play: the repetition of the word « eye » reinforce this thought of blindness, of Lear not being able to recognize true love from false. Cordelia is, in this case, the « daughter who rebel », but in a silent way. Goneril and Regan and the « daughter who acquiesce » vocally but Cordelia is the daughter who rebels silently. By answering « nothing » and repeating it during the entire first act, she is not tongue-tied, she speaks more than her sisters. Her language is concrete, she makes her difficulty to do her father’s bidding sound physical (I.i. 77-78) when Goneril assured « a love that makes breath poor and speech unable » (I.i.60) in a perfect voice. The relationship between Lear and Goneril and Regan is false, based on power and greed, whereas Lear saw in Cordelia a nurturing side, and she is the one who loves him and forgives him in the end by returning side by side with him. As argued by Elizabeth Finn « rebellion and voice is not causal: one does not necessarily create the other».

Shakespeare uses this dynamic in order to create a daughter that would entertain the audience. That is the case with Juliet, she is at first the obedient little daddy’s girl, too young for having seen the world. Being the only daughter, her father is at first reluctant to marry her: « And too soon marr’d are those so early made » (II.I 15). Juliet’s father is caring of her daughter but then asserts his authority because he is tired and his behavior marks a decisive turn into the play. He is no longer calm, he is « mad » (III.v.176), telling Juliet she can « hang, beg, starve, die in the street » (III.v.192). The urgency that was one his wife about the marriage became him, and it will have for consequence the break between him and Juliet. The pattern for Twelfth Night and As You Like It is different. In both of these plays, the daughters are not trying to escape their fathers, but are looking for them. In Twelfth Night and As you like it, the daughter, due to the lack of parental supervisor, became more independent and identify herself to a male figure. In the Twelfth Night, they are no nuclear family, the comedy starts with the mentioning of the death of the father of Olivia (I.ii. 37). As explained by Suzanne Penuel, the absence of a father and the position of power in which Olivia is, free the plot from the older generation controlling the libido of the young. Just like Olivia, Viola has also lost a father and presumably a brother, but the mention of the death of her father is only done once she meeting her brother (V.i.216-218). The use of « such a Sebastian » implies that her brother and father resemble each other more than just with the name, and this likeness can be also applied to Viola, whose twin is Sebastian. She identifies as her father’s daughter, and her cross-dressing is a way to perpetuate her father’s name and lineage. Both Viola and Olivia suffered from the physical loss of their fathers, and are trying to find this male figure in love. A situation completely different in As You like it. Rosalind is not looking for a father figure but just her father. Just like Viola, Rosalind is identified to her father, as she is being banished for being the daughter of the Duke Senior (I.iii.10-11).

However, Rosalind’s attitude toward her father is less fundamental to her identity, and more based on duty and respect, but also on emotion. Her words to her father and to Orlando « To you, I give myself, for I am yours” (V.4.116–17) echo the wedding speech « who giveth this woman to be married unto this man ». She gave herself to both her father and husband. This desire to reject old father-daughter relationship, both Rosalind and Celia find a new and more complete relationship, in which the father figure lives in harmony with his daughter and their chosen one. Shakespearean fathers and daughters in tragedies usually end up with the daughters’ death being the ultimate punishment for their father’s behavior. In comedies, however, daughters are not portrayed as the punishment of their fathers, but more the independent women. As argued by Louis Montrose, Shakespeare’s plays are mostly composed by sons and brothers bound to their father or elder siblings. In these four plays, the family ties between the paternal figure and the male child can be divided in two: the situation with an only child and brothers. When it comes to an only child, the first relationship worth exploring is the one between Romeo and his father. Being the only heir of the Montage’s household, Romeo’s behavior towards his father is the one of an adolescent.

However, the behavior of Lord Montague shows a real concern for his son. He notices something is wrong but is also aware that Romeo would refuse to talk to him « I neither know it nor can learn of him »( I.i.130). This is a most common relationship between a worried father and a careless teenage son, not willing to talk to his parents about his grief but is more prompt to confess to Friar Lawrence. The situation is quite different from Sebastian in Twelfth Night. As explained by Bruce Young, family in the sense of lineage was an essential factor in the establishment of a person’s identity, especially if the family was wealthy, and because surnames come usually from the father, most identified with the father’s line. His confession of his identity(II.i.10-13), stresses the importance of the father figure in Sebastian’ identity, he identifies himself primarily by his father, saying a little about himself, apart from the fact that he is a son. Also the fact that he stated that « whom I know you have heard of » (II.i.10) is a clue to understanding Sebastian’s social rank, and as explained by Suzanne Penuel, « Sebastian’s consciousness of rank and its heritability reinforces his idealization of his father ». After the death the paternal figure, the difference of relationship between the first born and younger brother is augmented: the eldest son must assume a paternal relationship to his brother, and this might lead to a potential conflict between them. That is the case in As you like it. The death of Sir Rowland de Bois increases rivalry between his sons, as Olivier became a father figure to his own brother, and is in charge of the care of him, as reminded by Orlando at the beginning of the play (I. i. 1–5).

Orlando is not naming his father, there is an implied resentment against him, who has left his son a small part of the inheritance and condemned him to an indefinite and socially degrading dependence upon his own brother. As stated by Montrose, « the father endures in the power exerted by his memory », Orlando’s rebellion against Olivier is driven by « the spirit of my father, which I think is within me » and refused to be seen as a « prodigal ». (line 38). There is again a biblical reference, as the prodigal son was the son who did not fill the hopes of his family, and then will be back home. But in the end, it is Olivier the prodigal son returned to paternal grace. As Montrose argue, « the prime factor affecting all families which owned property was primogeniture». This rule complicated the sibling’s relationships but also the relationship between generation. In King Lear, the relations between Gloucester and his sons mimics one of King Lear and his daughters. Gloucester is blind to the behavior of Edmund and rejects his only true loving son. Even though Gloucester loves his sons equally ( I.i.17-18), society does not regard them as equal, as one is from natural and the other is a bastard. The relationship between Gloucester and his sons is based on nature’s law and the denial of that one: the play presents familial connections as natural, and violations of love and loyalty within the family are called « unnatural ». Gloucester calls Edmund « loyal and natural boy » (II.i.84), the natural filial relationship is hence destroyed by blindness. Edgar is reduced to nothing by his father (II.i.78). He suffers the same denial that Lear attempted with Cordelia. But just like her, Edgar is the true son of Gloucester, the one who loves him and will be back for him. In the end, these two brothers reflect two sides of their father, and when Edgar defeats his younger brother, he is solving the opposition created by their father.

William Shakespeare treatment of the family theme differs according to on the type of plays he is writing: in tragedie, families are often the victims and sources of despair, violence, and misery; in the comedies, families, are often healed and celebrated. Shakespeare reflects details from family life in this time, such as the absence of the mother. He uses the expectations of the audience to create authentic characters, notably in terms of sons and daughters. In these four plays, the daughters are rebellious characters, wishing to free themselves for the patriarch power and either ended up paying the heavy price or celebrating this freedom with accepting fathers. For sons relationship with their father, everything is a matter of identity. The sons are in a quest for identification, and burden by the law of primogeniture. Whether it is in tragedy or comedy, the family’s depiction done by Shakespeare remained accurate years later, as troubles within families are in temporal.

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