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Deconstructing Absence and Silence

The mother, through presence or absence, influences a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Lagretta Tallent Lenker posits that the daughter can appear as either an ‘active verb’, or a passive one (2001, 49, 71). Regardless of how ‘active’ or ‘passive’ the characters appear, they can exacerbate issues and tensions already within the plays. To utilize Lenker’s terminology, the maternal presence can actively contribute to how the plot develops, and the maternal absence may, conversely, create a predominantly patriarchal environment (such as the court in King Lear) where worlds are created and moulded by fathers alone. However, absence and presence cannot be straightforwardly aligned with passivity and activity, respectively. In some plays (for example, Pericles and Cymbeline)

mothers appear sporadically, yet leave a discernible impression. In others, the influence of the present mother is represented: Tamora in Titus Andronicus, for example, exerts a strong maternal presence over her two grown sons, Chiron and Demetrius. This varied use of the mother-figure challenges biological essentialism and stasis, communicating the complex nature of the role: the performative facet of the mother on dramatic works cannot be ignored.

In considering physical or emotional absence, we must also explore the absence of speech: missing language. This is particularly pertinent in Henry V, where Isabel’s physical absence from her daughter’s daily life is mirrored by an absence of language in the Princess. The acquisition (or, perhaps, selective understanding) of English is a notable impediment to Henry’s pursuit of Katherine; this is potentially a selfconscious shield wielded by the French Princess to distance the English King. Where Lenker discusses passivity and activity, rather in line with Rose’s comments surrounding mothers appearing only in certain genres, silence has also been subjected to a similar treatment; it is a form of absence that has been pigeonholed by critics and, indeed, more widely in general culture, as a signal of repression, a loss of authority or a sign that the person exercising silence has nothing to say. Indeed, Christina Luckyj in A Moving Rhetoricke: Gender and Silence in Early Modern England deems lack of speech ‘a sign of traditional feminine submission’ (2002, 166). That Luckyj cites silence as a specifically female form of submission is problematic, assigning this to women without consideration of alternative and deliberate uses of silence. Maureen Mahoney, in ‘The Problem of Silence in Feminist Psychology’, explores the multi-faceted nature of silence: she paraphrases anthropologist Susan Gal, stating that ‘in certain contexts, such as a job interview, confession, or psychotherapy, the silent party is the one with power’ (1996, 604).

In Hamlet, Gertrude is physically and verbally, though not emotionally, present; and in Henry V, Isabel is present though remains silent for much of the play-text. It is not absence in the play alone (the play-text) which I discuss here, but also imposed absences: the complex textual history of Hamlet results in Gertrude’s role in the play being altered by editors between versions with differing effects. Isabel is removed as a character in both The Hollow Crown’s 2012 adaptation of Henry Vand Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version, with the implications for her daughter Katherine being made clearer through this action.

Katherine can be read as mirroring her mother’s absence through choosing silence in her interactions with Henry. Contrasting the emotional and editorial absence of Gertrude with Isabel’s physical and directorial absence brings to the fore the multi-faceted nature of absence; in unpicking this concept, this chapter explores the dramatic implications of the different absences of mothers in Hamlet and Henry V.

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