HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY: BUT WHERE ARE THE MOTHERS IN SHAKESPEARE?
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!