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Missing Mothers in the Shakespearean Context

Comparing potential source-texts with Shakespeare’s works can reveal intriguing omissions of mothers; this is a practice that happens in several of Shakespeare’s works. In Giovanni Battista Giraldi’s Un Capitano Moro of 1565 (a potential source-text for Othello) Desdemona has both a mother and a father. In Shakespeare’s text, however, the mother is eliminated, leaving Brabantio as sole parent (see Vaughan, 1996 for further information on the contextual history of Othello). In King Lear, too, a mother is removed. In the anonymous True Chronicle Historie of King Leir (1594), again a ‘historie’, Queen Leir is present but she is notably absent from Shakespeare’s King Lear (2007). Shakespeare’s excision of reference to the maternal figure appears deliberate: the reasons for this, of course, we will never know, but the resulting world of the play can be contrasted with King Leir to explore the impact of the absent mother. The patriarchal world of Lear’s court is heightened by the absence of his Queen. Queen Leir’s death can, in this respect, be clearly identified as a catalyst for the direction that the play takes. Leir’s decision to abdicate might have had a more logical basis, having lost his ruling partner.

Titus Andronicus and The Tempest present father/daughter relationships that have developed, in significant part, from the enabling death of the mother: the concept of maternal demise as a plot device analogically links the potential maternal influence with the dramatic evolution and interpretive nature of plays. This presents a further dimension to the absence of mothers, where her omission has significance and even positive implications for other characters; this is not the case in other plays, where the physical or emotional absence of the mother results in a wholly patriarchal environment. Though these removals of characters from source-texts could, on the one hand, perhaps be explicated as compliance with practical requirements of staging (women could not appear on the public stage in England until 1660), the significant number of adult female characters in Shakespeare’s works suggests this is not necessarily the sole cause for removal. This omission of character is, however, not a pattern that is restricted to source-texts and Shakespeare’s works alone, but is also apparent (and remains apparent) in directorial and editorial decisions.

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