Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare?

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly muses on maternal absences in The Tempest and other Shakespeare plays.

Pericles photo by Kevin Berne

A rare Shakespeare mother and child reunion: L-R, Sarah Nealis (Marina), Delia MacDougall (Thaisa), Ron Campbell (Cleon), and Christopher Kelly (Pericles) in PERICLES (2008); photo by Kevin Berne.

In Renaissance times the mother was the family member principally involved with her children’s education and upbringing. Yet in Renaissance drama older women were rarely represented onstage in what would obviously be one of their more sympathetic roles: that of the loving and nurturing mother. This lack is partly explained by the fact that women were not allowed to perform on the English stage: All of the female roles were played by young boys before their voices broke, so that a younger character part was obviously a better physical and vocal match. The lack of mothers in Shakespeare is notorious:  We have the noticeably absent Mrs. Prospero (of whom Prospero says merely that “thy mother was a piece of virtue”); the apparently nonexistent Queen Alonso; and the devilish witch Sycorax, Caliban’s dead mother.  Consider this lack of mother-nurturers in context with the three sisters in King Lear, Imogen in Cymbeline, Marina in Pericles, Portia and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, characters who are all deprived of mothers. Moreover, almost all of the older women Shakespeare does represent onstage offer negative images of motherhood: Volumnia in Coriolanus; Gertrude in Hamlet; and Lady Macbeth, who says that she would have been a terrible mother if she had had the chance to be one. And as for Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, we can infer that, having herself been married at age 13, she depicts a former girl-bride who learned principally to please her husband.

Why does Shakespeare exploit this idea of the older woman as largely absent figure, or an unsympathetic one if she must be present, except for those few rare mothers who, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa in Pericles, are effectively buried alive, losing their children either forever or for most of the play? (Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, for example, is forced into a 16-year banishment so that her husband can undergo a process of personal moral regeneration.) We might hypothesize about the playwright’s own life, married, as he was, to a woman eight years older than himself who reached middle age well before he did. We know that William Shakespeare spent most of his married life living in London, while his wife Anne Hathaway lived in Stratford with their children. We also know that Shakespeare’s plays were written in an extremely patriarchal period. But we can also see how useful a mother might be to a girl as, at a very young age, she comes face-to-face with the complexities of love and life.

And this is where there emerges a structural and thematic reason for the absence of mothers in Shakespeare. Aside from helping to solve the difficulty of finding boys who could plausibly play the parts of mature women, this lack allowed Shakespeare to create an important dramatic pretext: By taking away the mother (either, as in Romeo and Juliet, as a figure of real guidance or, as in many of his plays, like The Tempest, as a presence onstage at all), Shakespeare creates a gap in the young female characters’ lives, compelling them to develop that extraordinary independence and character that makes them so attractive. It is the completely sheltered and yet wise Miranda, after all, who first sees inherent nobility in the King’s son, of whom she knows nothing at all except that “nothing natural/I ever saw so noble.” Prospero might shape events in the world through his magic: But it is this young girl, Miranda, who shapes her own destiny through her heart.

The Tempest begins previews at our stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA, on Thursday, May 31, opens Saturday, June  2, and continues until Sunday, June 24.


5 thoughts on “Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare?

  1. OMG I wrote my senior honors thesis on this EXACT subject 30 years ago and came up witht the same idea, that Shakespeare plays can be sorted into genre by virtue of the missing mothers (tragedies have them and kill them off and the loss of the feminine starts the slide into death, comedies lack them and need the fecund feminine greenwood to restore balance and get to the happy ending aas the lovers unite and the new potentioal mother unit found, and the problem plays experiement with the role of the mother and are neither here nor there….we HAVE to talk about this!

  2. Hello Amy,
    Yes! It’s so interesting wondering about the chicken and the egg (to continue the metaphor), isn’t it? Whether the staging limitations (young boys playing female parts) gave rise to this thematics; or whether the thematics was complemented by stage limitations. I am guessing it was a bit of both. Great to get your very concise and inspiring post.

    • aha–found the title I was telling you about–feminism in the 70’s/80’s, an interview book you must read:

      Clamorous voices : Shakespeare’s women today / Carol Rutter, with Sinead Cusack, Paolo Dionisotti, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter ; edited by Faith Evans
      AuthorRutter, Carol Chillington
      SubjectsShakespeare, William, 1564-1616; Royal Shakespeare Company.; Actresses – Great Britain – Biography.
      WikipediaRead associated article: Sinéad Cusack

  3. Pingback: Where, and Who, Are the Mothers In Shakespeare? | Cal Shakes Blog

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