Father-daughter relationships in Shakespeare's plays Cymbeline, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello

Seminar Paper, 2019

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Elizabethan Society as a Patriarchal Society
2.1 The Renaissance Background
2.2 Parents and children in this period of time

3 Family Relationships in Shkaespeare’s plays
3.1 The reactionary father in Cymbeline and Othello
3.2 The egocentric father in King Lear
3.3 The mercenary father in Hamlet
3.4 The jealous father in Hamlet and Othello

4 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

Marriage has always been a crucial moment of transition, a rite of passage. Traditionally, it leads young women from childhood to adulthood, representing a no less difficult transition for parents from middle life to old age, with its final demands of retirement, reflection, and integration. Family relationships undergo considerable stress as individuals must accept new roles and a new distribution of power and authority. (Dreher 40)

In Shakespearean plays, the ultimate authority merges usually with the authority of a father. Shakespeare “consistently explore affective family dynamics” (Boose, “The Father and the Bride” 235) by focusing especially on the relationship between fathers and daughters. He uses this relationship “to discredit the practice of possession and the attitude of cupidity which was under attack in the Renaissance” (Mehta 176). For Shakespeare’s fathers and daughters, “the tensions of transition are multiplied” (Dreher 5). The daughters had to “break the emotional strings that tie them to childhood, defying paternal authority to assert emotional independence” (5). At the same moment, the fathers are hurt and shocked by what they experience as personal rejection. Their “developmental needs clash violently with those of their offspring” (5). As Shakespeare rarely mentioned the paternal authority over a son’s marriage-choice, he offers by contrast various occasions with the situation of a young woman’s lack of freedom (cf. Wilcockson 134). While “the daughters demand more emotional freedom, their fathers express the increased rigidity and self-righteousness” (Dreher 5).

Since the relationship between fathers and daughters is a powerful source of Shakespeare’s plays which he chose to explore in far greater depth, this seminar paper is an attempt to explore this theme. By focussing on Shakespeare’s dramas Cymbeline, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, I will try to examine the complex and provocative relationship between fathers and daughters. These literary works provide four different father-daughter relationships (Cymbeline and Innogen – Polonius and Ophelia – King Lear and Cordelia – Brabantio and Desdemona). The plays “take up the stories at the point at which the daughter is moving away out of the sphere of her father’s control and influence and sets out on her own” (Gierstae 2).

The topic will be introduced by considering the historical background which will help understanding “the condition of women at the time and the profound cultural significance of the father-daughter relationship” (Dreher 16). Following this, on the basis of Shakespeare’s dramas, I will work out the challenges in youth that daughters have to face by considering the fathers’ responses to this transition. Questions like ‘Where does the father’s amazement arise from?’, ‘How do daughters handle the situation of leaving their fathers for the commitment of marriage and filial obedience?’ and ‘Are the fathers ready to release their daughters into adulthood?’ should particularly be considered.

2 Elizabethan Society as a Patriarchal Society

2.1 The Renaissance Background

The Elizabethan era was a patriarchal one since “men were regarded head of the family whereas women were considered as the weaker sex not only in terms of physical but also emotional as well” (Mehta 177). It is generally known that in Shakespeare’s plays, female characters were always played by male actors on stage. According to Shuger, the English Renaissance was a patriarchal society because “fatherhood came to symbolize an ideal of domestic, political and religious order that ideal was not unrelated to actual behaviour, but it is the narrative and symbolic nature of fatherhood during this period, its significance as a conceptual category that designates the culture as patriarchal” (Shuger 218). Singh also points out that within this society, “daughters are perhaps the greatest victims of a patriarchal family and Elizabethan daughters were no exception” (Singh 33).

In the Renaissance, “world order, love and obedience to social superiors constituted obedience to God” (Dreher 16). Love was not considered as passion but rather a duty. The life of a woman was “a continuous lesson in submission” (16), where she had to “conform patiently and silently to the will of her father and, later, to that of her husband, accepting commands, correction, even physical abuse, with sweetness and humility” (16). By accepting the husband her father chose for her, she shows “the ultimate filial obedience […], transferring her allegiance from one father figure to another” (16). The ideal daughter (resp. woman) should be fragile, obedient, submissive, and docile and she “would never approach, let alone achieve, psychological adulthood, confronting moral dilemmas and developing her own value system” (16). While a man has “traditionally been defined by his career and his place in society; woman, according to whose daughter, wife, or mother she was” (17). The average Renaissance woman “found her vocation in marriage, a life of cooking, cleaning, bearing children, assisting her husband, and managing a busy household” (17). Women and the needs and traits associated with them “are supposed to stay in their element […] – denigrated, silenced, denied (Kahn 95). In this patriarchal world, masculine identity depends on repressing the vulnerability, dependency, and capacity for feeling” which are called ‘feminine’” (Kahn 95). By law, a woman belongs theoretically to a man, either her father or her husband (cf. Pitt 15).

2.2 Parents and children in this period of time

The aristocratic family of Shakespeare’s England was “patrilinear, primogenitural, and patriarchal” (Boose, “The father and the Bride” 325) which means that the parent-child relations were “in general remote and formal, singularly lacking in affective bonds and governed solely by a paternal authoritarianism” (325). According to Stone, the society of the 16th and 17th centuries considers “the nuclear family as a burdensome social unit, valued only for its ability to provide the means of patrilinear descent” (325). In other words, sons become important for the family, whereas daughters “were often unwanted and might be regarded as no more than a tiresome drain on the economic resources of the family” (Stone 112).

Family and religion “were the two governing principles of the inner life of most people in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Singh 1). In Puritan thinking, “the family took precedence over religion” (1). They believed that “God laid ‘the foundation both of State and Church, in a family, making the Mother Hive, out of which both these swarms of State and Church, issued forth’” (1).

The entire society was regarded as an “interlocking succession of social strata, each level looking up in obedience to the authority above: children to parents, wives to husbands, men to magistrates, and through them up to God” (Dreher 21). Robert Pricke considered “all human society united by obedience to parents and superiors” (21). With regard to this vision of hierarchical order, children vow obedience to their parents as part of the divine plan. They were reminded several times of the fifth commandment: “Honor thy Father and thy Mother” (21). Filial obedience was considered as a divinely ordinance, where “disobedience was the oldest and most grievous of sins” (21). Being born “through their parents’ flesh, children were considered their parents’ property” (21). This notion of children as property was profoundly imbedded in Renaissance thought: “Children are not free & at their own libertie, but by the lawes both of God and man tied and bound unto the subjection of their fathers” (21). Within the family, the father is “the figure who controls the exogamous exchange of women” (Boose, “The Father’s House” 19). It is neither the mother nor the sister who is exchanged by the father but rather the daughter (cf. 19). The exchange of women “between male exchangers constitutes the ‘supreme rule of gift’. […] [G]iving one’s daughter not only sets up a reciprocal system of gift transactions, it connects the male exchange partners as affines which thus superimposes a network of relations that really will take precedence over intergroup hostilities” (25).

Children were expected “to kneel and ask for their parents’ blessing every night, to bear parental discipline with patience and humility, even when they were punished wrongfully” (Dreher 22). Filial obedience was not related to individual intelligence or ability; instead it was a hierarchical system ordained by God. Never mind that some children might be considerably wiser and smarter than their parents, “yet is this no […] reason that they should take upon them their fathers authoritie” (22). The woman “must obey, & the husbande is to rule, because that God hath willed that it should bee so” (22). The church had a great impact in “shaping society’s expectations of women” (Pitt 15). Marriage has always been regarded as a transition to adulthood and as soon as “children emerge from adolescence, risking adult commitment, their parents feel the tensions of their own transition” (Dreher 40). From now on they have “to release parental responsibility and face the final stage of life along with the inevitability of death” (40). Their authority and power, which have been permanent features of their parenting are progressively fading. While children are enthusiastic about their next stage of life, “most parents meet this change with understandable resistance, looking ahead with anxiety and backward with regret and loss” (40).

3 Family Relationships in Shakespeare’s plays

Family relationships have provided the structure for dramatists from ancient Greece to modern America. The reason is simple, but fundamental: the family is the microcosm, within its bounds are fostered all basic human relationships. Every strength and goodness and also every weakness and evil of which human beings are capable originate within the family and from there develop and spread to determine the shape and quality of man’s larger society. (Waterstradt 501)

Family relationships appear in thirty-five (of the thirty-seven commonly accepted) plays by Shakespeare. His tragedies often begin with “the loss of some central, protective authority, a king or a father or both. […] Old Hamlet and Duncan are murdered; Lear and Andronicus abdicate; Desdemona alienated Brabantio” (Sundelson 1).

The father-daughter relationship plays a major role in twenty-one of his plays, “from the early Two Gentlemen of Verona to his last complete work, The Tempest” (Dreher 1).

Shakespeare, the father of two daughters, chose to explore this relationship “throughout his dramatic career; it appears as an integral element in comedies, tragedies, and romances” (1). He wrote “in an age of transition, as Renaissance discoveries gradually transformed the world from medieval to modern, authoritarian to individual” (1). Again and again, Shakespeare represents a father who is “reluctant to release his daughter into adulthood and face his own decline, while she stands at the threshold of adult commitment in marriage” (1). This transition causes passionate conflicts, fears and insecurities for both parties involved and “cast new light on questions of moral development, male and female sex roles, traditional and progressive social norms” (1).

During the time of William Shakespeare, “attitudes about women and the family were in transition” (Dreher 16). While “traditional sources defined love as obedience in a woman’s relationship with her father or husband, […] in progressive discussions companionship in marriage was emphasized, and the wife was called a friend and helpmeet” (16). Indeed, Shakespeare tried to maintain “order and degree in the political sphere” (16) in his plays, but he also “presented more progressive views of women and marriage” (16).

In Shakespeare, the family relationships should be interpreted “wholly and rigidly in terms of a patriarchal family” (Singh 10). It is important to recognize that the Shakespearean society “operates within two somewhat conflicting world views” (10). On the one hand the traditional view “according to which the father is to the family, or the husband to the wife, what God is to man, or the King to his subjects” (10) and on the other hand another view, “fostered largely by the new social and economic forces, which demanded the freedom of the individual and asserted the possibility of change and evolution” (10). Shakespeare had to consider “both of the hierarchal and patriarchal structure of contemporary society as well as of the forces which subtly or otherwise tend to undermine this structure” (10). According to Alvin Kernan, the conflict between those two views “lies at the centre of the drama of the age” (10). Shakespeare tries to somehow tackle this conflict by constantly attempting “to seek a reconciliation between the two views – between was has been hallowed by tradition and custom and what is possible and practicable in actual life” (10).

The conflicting tensions in Shakespeare’s father-daughter relationships “are resolved in comedy, explored in tragedy, transcended in romance” (Dreher 14). The comic father is usually “a tyrannical […], possessive, ranting old man who refuses to let his daughter marry the man she loves, forcing the young lovers to undergo a trial by ordeal” (14). The daughters prevail to move from “the filial obedience of dutiful girls to more adult commitments” (14). Tragedy offers another perspective of the ambivalent elements in this relationship which is the pain fathers experience when they lose their daughters to other men. In Shakespeare’s early plays, the women mostly belong to roughly two types: “[t]hey are either ferocious, overbearingly assertive, or they are idealized virgins-on-the-pedestal” (Packer 3). Both Brabantio and Lear “embody the agony of fathers tormented by their daughters’ rejection or betrayal” (15). Last, in the romances, “discord is transformed, tragedy transcended by a newfound harmony in the human family. Daughters are lost, then found, redeeming their fathers in the process” (15). In Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest, for example, he resolves the father’s conflict in Prospero, who is ultimately able to release Miranda to the man she loves.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Father-daughter relationships in Shakespeare's plays Cymbeline, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello
University of Basel  (Englisches Seminar)
Shakespeare's Roman Plays
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ISBN (Book)
father-daughter, shakespeare, cymbeline, hamlet, king, lear, othello
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Valdrina Stublla (Author), 2019, Father-daughter relationships in Shakespeare's plays Cymbeline, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/465996


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