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Missing Mothers on the Page and Stage: Hamlet and Henry V

Anna Fraser Mackenzie

Gender and Genre: Mothers in Criticism

In 2.2 of King Lear, the aged king declares, in his passionate tirade on seeing the disguised Kent (Cams) in the stocks, that ‘this mother swells up toward my heart’ (2.2.246). Lear’s specific identification of this ‘mother’ can suggest Renaissance anxiety over the influence of the maternal role, also invoking contemporary concerns surrounding the power of Galenic humours in the body. Lear’s alarm over this ‘mother’ ascending towards his heart (hysteria’s origin, in Renaissance medical context, was supposed to be the uterus, confining it to women alone) draws to the foreground the place of mothers in the play. In her essay ‘Where are the mothers in Shakespeare?’, Mary Beth Rose rationalizes that ‘If, in comedy, the maternal role remains invisible, unrepresented, in tragedy it becomes visible, dramatized and problematized’ (1991, 305). Rose’s commentary raises a particular problem, in that invisibility is apparently synonymous with ‘unrepresented’; the approach taken here, that certain ‘types’ of characters appear in certain ‘types’ of plays, is representative of stringently genre-based analysis more widely. Absence is an exceedingly complex and multi-faceted

A.F. Mackenzie (*)

University of Chester, Chester, UK © The Author(s) 2017

B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_9

performance. It does not suffice simply to state that, for example, in some dramatic genres we see the maternal body, and in others we do not: the role is too multivalent to align its presence with certain genres alone. Absence does not, by default, constitute invisibility and lack of impact; in the ‘comic’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, Hermia’s mother may not be ‘representable’ (physically visible to the cast and to the audience) but the ramifications of her absence are clear to see. She is present through her absence. In ‘tragedy’, the motherless environments in which Desdemona, Cordelia, Lavinia and (from an alternative perspective) Lady Macbeth are situated, dramatically contribute to, and mould the plots of these ‘tragedies’. This critical trend is representative of what I term monogeneric approaches to literature, where formulaic approaches are employed to assign one genre per play, determining that, for example, a death plus a central male character results in a ‘tragedy’.

In one of few critical texts that overtly links female characters and genre in Shakespeare’s works, Linda Bamber removes women from the ‘history’ plays when she confidently asserts that ‘The myth of the history plays involves fathers and sons. It does not involve mothers, daughters, or wives’ (1982, 163). Bamber’s reference to ‘the myth of the history play’ demonstrates that she deals in general (and generic) ideas, rather than specific analysis of individual plays. Bamber glosses over many kinds of female characters in history plays, even the fearsome Elinor in King John, the devoted Lady Anne in Richard III and the eloquent Kathryn of Aragon in Henry VIII (all mothers, daughters or wives). This is one of the key problems this chapter seeks to address. In unravelling the idea of the traditionally ‘absent’ absence in Shakespeare’s works, it is also vital to deconstruct the context within which it operates, primarily the genre- focused critical approaches. In scholarship where the male character (whether the eponymous character or not) is seen as occupying the centre of the play, female characters are inevitably relegated to the sidelines, cast as irrelevant to the development of the dramatic work. Bamber’s critique also raises questions over genre, where the ‘history’ play has taken on a generic meaning quite separate from its definition in the seventeenth century, where a ‘history’ or ‘historie’ was, quite simply, a narrated story. Hamlet existed in its ‘bad’ quarto form (1603) as The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and the designation ‘historie’ appears on a regular basis in the naming of Renaissance dramatic works.

Genres can function as the (similarly problematic) gender of plays: a label that, when used as a ‘way in’, can function as a facilitative device on the path to further understanding, but when isolated and used as the key lens through which to explore plays or people, becomes restrictive and reductive. The ‘gender’ to which I refer when discussing Shakespeare’s female characters is in the multi-faceted construction, the performative formation of identity, of characters that audience members encounter. All such characters that audiences and readers meet, whether a Lady Macbeth, an Ophelia, Desdemona, Viola, Cordelia, or Cleopatra, have been, problematically, identified through their relationships with men: they are daughters, lovers, sisters, wives, mothers, or a combination thereof. In dramatic worlds where such relational identities establish characters in this manner, the relationships themselves and the impact of either the presence or absence of these bonds is of vital importance. Lynda E. Boose notes that ‘while father and son appear slightly more often in the [Shakespearean] canon, figuring in twenty-three plays, father and daughter appear in twenty-one dramas and in one narrative poem (Boose 1982, 328)’. In the six Shakespearean plays in which either feature (through presence) or reference (through absence) a mother/daughter dynamic, the mother normally either plays a minute role, is killed off, her death feigned, or else is reunited with her daughter too late into the play for a relationship to be formed successfully/dramatically. Where does this leave the mother? This chapter will explore that very question, and demonstrate that absence does not mean lack of influence, just as presence does not always equate to power.

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