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III Shakespeare’s Absent Mothers Revisited

‘Born in a tempest when my mother died’: Shakespeare’s Motherless Daughters

Jess Hamlet

The subject of mothers in Shakespeare’s plays received a good deal of attention in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of this scholarship falls into one of two columns: Freudian psychoanalysis of Shakespeare’s plays and characters’ relationships with their parents or children, or possible reasons for Shakespeare’s seeming disinterest in writing mother characters into his plays. For example, Coppelia Kahn examines the effect of the absent mother on the titular character in King Lear while Mary Beth Rose, in her article ‘Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare?’, considers the pitfalls of writing female roles for male actors and concludes that the overall early modern attitude toward the mother-child relationship was a primary factor in the lack of mother roles in Shakespeare’s plays.1 Given this existing scholarship, it is not necessary to focus on why mothers are absent.2 Rather, this essay will focus on the result of their absence. More specifically, it will assert that, in many cases, motherless daughters are unshakable in their convictions, and exercise their agency, because of their missing mater. Though perhaps counterintuitive or problematic, for the

J. Hamlet (*)

Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, University of Alabama,

Tuscaloosa, USA

e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017

B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_7

young women under discussion in this essay, the absent mother is a boon to the daughter’s resiliency and personal power.

The tenacity of these daughters—women like Beatrice or Perdita— should not be surprising. Kahn writes that both male and female children ‘begin to develop a sense of self in relation to a mother-woman. But a girl’s sense of femaleness arises through her infantile union with the mother and later identification with her [... ] A girl’s gender identity is reinforced but a boy’s is threatened by union and identification with the same powerful female being’ (1986, 37).3 Similarly, Nancy Chodorow asserts that the development of personality happens in direct response to continuous infantile care by the mother (1978, 78), an idea that is crucial to the development of personality for the young women in this essay. However, the young women under examination in this chapter formed their gender identities without the benefit of their natural mothers and within varying degrees of male-dominated families. Without mothers to ‘reinforce’ their femaleness, how do Shakespeare’s young women— famous for being strong—create functional female identities for themselves? This chapter will examine how Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice, Pericles, Prince of Tyre’s Marina, and The Winter’s Tale's Perdita assert themselves in the absence of their mothers, and illuminate the ways that the necessity to compensate for the absence of the natural mother creates stronger character identity than if the mother were present.4 For many, if not most, of Shakespeare’s heroines, an absent mother becomes a benefit to forging a strong and resilient personality.

Before turning to the plays, however, it will be useful to consider the expectations of mother-daughter relationships in early modern England. A glance at a few of the many mothering manuals will illuminate this paradigm. Multiple tracts of advice existed for women on the subjects of birth, marriage, death, and childrearing. In 1541, Henry Bullinger instructed parents ‘how daughters and maidens must be kept':

order them to avoid all wantonness and niceness in words, gestures, and deed, to eschew all unhonest games and pastimes, to avoid all unhonest loves and occasions of the same, as unhonest dancing, wanton communication, company with ribalds and filthy speeches: teach them to avert their sight and scenes from all such inconveniences, let them avoid idleness, be occupied either doing some profitable thing for your family, or else reading some godly book. (1995, 106)

While Bullinger laid a foundation for general young feminine comportment, Thomas Salter advised mothers how best to rear their daughters in order to raise virtuous young women made in the image of the mother:

Therefore concerning the Matrone to whom any yong Maiden is to be committed (I saie) she ought whatsoever she be, to be Grave, Prudent, Modest, and of good counsel, to th’ende that suche Maidens as she hath in tutyng, maie learne her honeste and womanlie demeanoure, and sure she ought especiallie, and above all thinges, beware that their tender minds, replenished with devine beautie and bountie, be not corrupted by seing indecent demeanours. (1579, A7v)

Salter’s 1579 advice instructed women that daughters should be copies of their mothers, and that mothers were responsible for demonstrating the feminine ideals: gravity, prudency, modesty, and honesty. Shakespeare's daughters, in the absence of their natural mothers, kick against these traces and display the kind of determination and autonomy usually reserved for Shakespeare's men. Beatrice, Marina, and Perdita, like the majority of Shakespeare’s young women, are motherless—and it is in this motherlessness that they find their strength.

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