Photo of Cal Shakes' production of William Shakespare's "As You Like It" featuring the cast o f the 2017 Cast by Kevin Berne.
Photo of Cal Shakes' production of "As You Like It" featuring the 2017 cast by Kevin Berne.



By Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

In Shakespeare’s 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 younger character parts were obviously a better physical and vocal match for such an acting pool.

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 her chil[ren] had survived. Romeo and Juliet’s eponymous heroine has a mother, but a fairly distant one who fails to understand or protect her: for a surrogate mother, Juliet has her garrulous old Nurse, possessor of four teeth in her head and purveyor of bawdy jokes, as well as a good measure of compassionate, strong support for her young charge.

Why does Shakespeare exploit the idea of the mother as a generally 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 in London, while Anne Hathaway lived in Stratford with their children. We also know that Shakespeare’s plays were written in an incontestably patriarchal period. But it’s also apparent 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, maternal absences 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 plays like As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or Much Ado About Nothing, as a presence on-stage at all), Shakespeare creates a gap in the young female characters’ lives, compelling them to develop that extraordinary independence of character that makes them so attractive, intriguing, resourceful and inspiring. Happy Mother’s Day, all you mother-sisters out there, and may the world be extra-gracious to us all on that day!

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Cal Shakes Dramaturg

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  1. Another possible answer, at the level of archetypes: the beginning of modernity in the West brings in a kind of dissociation from (Mother) Nature; a human being must rely on the mind (on the masculine) and loses the support of nature (the feminine). At the human level, then, this is experienced as the absence of a nurturing mother.

    Another note: the end of your post, somewhat paradoxically, suggests that the absence of a mother might actually be good for the development of a young girl’s character!

  2. The conclusion of this essay makes a lot of sense to me. Shakespeare was clearly capable of creating strong and resourceful female characters, so the absence in his works of mothers in that mode must reflect an artistic choice on his part, not some lack of ability or imagination. The depictions of loving mothers in Western art (e.g., Madonna & Child; Mary Cassatt’s portraits) tend to take the form of static icons, which are not the most promising material for a dramatic work. By contrast, the absence of the mother provides the opportunity or even the necessity for action to unfold.

  3. Philippa! As a daughter and a mother, I am delighted, as always, to be led to a deep dive into those crucial relationships. Thank you for your insight, and well founded guidance on this mother’s day! I send you the very best.

  4. As always, Philippa Kelly’s Mother’s Day comments hit the spot this morning. My own mother used to say “Isn’t every day Mother’s Day?”
    At my advanced age I feel that I probably stand in as ‘mother’ to some of my friends. It’s OK with me.

  5. Would you consider Emilia (the Abbess) in “Comedy of Errors” to be a positive, albeit primarily absent, mother? She does assist in the reconciliation at the end. And, maybe, there is something generous in Titania adopting the orphaned Indian boy in “Dream.” And Prospero does refer to Miranda’s mother as “a piece of virtue.” And Lady Macduff us certainly valiant and admirable in her attempts to save her children. And Lady Capulet considers the well-being of her daughter within the context of her society and her own experiences and in offering a stance unified with that of her husband.

  6. Great reframe! I love the idea that by giving us female characters without mothers Shakespeare freed these characters up to be independent, resourceful and iconoclastic young women. But what does that say about Shakespeare’s view of mothers? That they’re only capable of producing daughters who are Stepford wives?
    Another thought I had is that Shakespeare, being intimately attuned to the values and attitudes of his audience, knew instinctively that they would respond much more viscerally to a negative mother. In other words, he knew that negative moms would have a much stronger dramatic impact. He couldn’t figure out a way to create a caring, wise and nurturing mother who would engage the audience. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s fathers are nothing to write home about either.
    By the way, mothers and women in general are scarce in the Torah, and they aren’t shown in a particularly favorable light. Nowadays some of us try to elevate the women. We say that the moms were forced to behave badly because the men were acting like such idiots that the story couldn’t move forward. We praise the women for being shrewd and bold, and maybe even a little irreverent. But in the end the patriarchs get all the credit.

  7. Donna Terdiman

    Dear Philippa,
    Thank you for your beautiful summary of your thoughts about women in Shakespeare, that the absence of mothering allows Shakespeare’s young women the scope to develop the means to cope with life’s complexities, in other words, to become heroes – excuse me, heroines. Just as one example, what if Juliet’s nurse was as wise as she was supportive, understood Juliet’s terrible dilemma, and instead of telling her to forget about Romeo and marry as her father ordered her to? Juliet was a tragic heroine because she was alone.

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