Where, and Who, Are the Mothers In Shakespeare?

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly muses on maternal absences in Romeo & Juliet and other Shakespeare plays—an update on this blog she wrote last summer.

Nurse, Mother, Juliet 2009

Catherine Castellanos (Nurse), Julie Eccles (Lady Capulet), and Sarah Nealis (Juliet) in our 2009 production of R&J; 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 on stage 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 three sisters in King Lear, Marina in Pericles, Miranda in The Tempest, 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, all of whom are deprived of mothers. Moreover, almost all of the older women Shakespeare does represent on stage offer negative images of motherhood: Volumnia in Coriolanus and Gertrude in Hamlet, and then Lady Macbeth as well, who says that she would have been a terrible mother if she had had the chance to be one. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet of course has a mother, but not one who will protect her: Lady Capulet, anywhere from age 26 to her mid-thirties (Juliet could have been born first or, perhaps, after a long line of children), is thoroughly subjected to her husband’s will. We can infer that Lady Capulet is significantly younger than her husband (who talks of his younger days: “tis gone, tis gone, tis gone…”), and a fairly distant mother. Her relationship to Juliet, and to the whole subject of marriage, seems perfunctory, accentuated, for example, in the stiff rhyming couplets in which she describes the bookish “joys” of an upcoming marriage:

This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
So shall you share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less.

For a surrogate mother, Juliet has the garrulous old Nurse, possessor of four teeth in her head and purveyor of bawdy jokes.

Prospero and Miranda, 2012

Michael Winters (Prospero) and Emily Kitchens (Miranda) in our 2012 production of THE TEMPEST; photo by Kevin Berne.

Why does Shakespeare exploit this idea of the older woman as an unsympathetic figure (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)? 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 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 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, as a presence on stage 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 Juliet, after all, who changes Romeo, urging him onward to transform himself from an idle young man “in love with love” to a passionate and committed lover.

Shana Cooper’s production of Romeo & Juliet plays July 3-28 at the stunning outdoor Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, CA.

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