The Absent Mother
Throughout literature, there are many different kinds of mother. There is the caring mother: the one whocares for, protects and guides her child. Then there is the neglectful mother: the one who does nothing for the benefit of her child, who only does things for her own benefit. Regardless of what kind of mother a child has, at least there is a mother. There is a maternal figure whom the child will look up to for guidance and support. However, are the children doomed for disaster if there is no mother present in the work? What happens when the mother-child relationship is missing? In William Shakespeare’s plays, the mothers of some of the major characters are missing; they are seldom mentioned and sometimes there is not even any passing reference to them. Shakespeare has left out the maternal figure in many of his plays including King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew. His absent mother in King Lear has been the topic of many essays including Coppelia Kahn’s essay “The Absent Mother in King Lear” and Myra Glazer Schotz’s essay “The Great Unwritten Story: Mothers and Daughters in Shakespeare.” King Lear, Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing share the same family structure: a father raising his daughters alone. Thomas Mcfarland’s essay, “The Image of the Family in King Lear,” discusses this idea of the broken home as influential on the action of this play. The lives of many of the other characters, not just the children’s, are badly affected because of the absent mother.
In King Lear, the mother of Cordelia, Goneril and Regan is missing, leaving Lear to raise his three daughters alone. In spite of her upbringing without a mother, his youngest daughter, Cordelia, has grown up to be an honest and loving woman. The other two daughters, on the other hand, have grown up to be cheating and power-hungry. Perhaps with a mother in the picture, the two older daughters would have turned out differently. Coppelia Khan notes, “both sexes 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” (Ferguson 37). Since a mother was not there to show her daughters how to act and behave like women, they had no choice but to follow in men’s footsteps. But how can three women be raised in the same situation and turn out so differently? One possible answer to this question is because Cordelia is Lear’s favorite daughter. Lear’s bias towards Cordelia is probably what leads to Regan’s and Goneril’s character flaws. Myra Glazer Schotz states, “focusing on the ‘masculine predicament of kingship and fatherhood,’ the Lear world presents us with daughters but predicates itself on the absence of their mother, the absence of a Queen, the absence of a feminine principle to act as symbolic and psychological counterbalance to male authority” (Davidson 47). Although the Kent and the Fool are there to counteract Lear’s authority, they do not as much influence his wife would. Kent advises against Cordelia’s banishment but is then himself banished. Lear’s wife, the mother of his daughters, is probably the only one who could have prevented Cordelia’s banishment.
There exists a parallel between Lear and Gloucester, because neither of them has a mother for their children, and they both have disowned their children who are actually truthful and loving to them. When Lear asks his daughters to say how much they love him, Cordelia says that words cannot express how she feels for him, but apparently her sisters can easily find the right words to please their father: “Cordelia cannot produce golden words, cannot ‘coin her heart in words,’ but her heart has love of a better and weightier metal” (Muir 8). Instead of saying what her father wants to hear, Cordelia replies, “Nothing, my lord” ( King Lear. I.i.91). Lear tells her, “Nothing will come of nothing” (King Lear. I.i.94). Lear is telling her that if she does not speak her feelings for him then she will not get anything from him. This scene is similar to the one in which Gloucester disowns his legitimate son, Edgar, and professes his love for his devious illegitimate son, Edmund. In the scene where Gloucester denies that Edgar, a good child, is his son we can observe a similar attitude in Lear towards his kind daughter, Cordelia. Gloucester says, “I never got him,” meaning he never fathered Edgar (Muir, 64). Both men have no mother to consult, and both men are blinded by false affection and loyalty which ultimately lead to their destruction.
Lear a mother is mentioned twice, both times in a negative manner.
A reference in Act II, scene iv, when Lear says, “O! how this mother swells
up toward my heart.” The word ‘mother’ in this statement refers to
a sickness that felt like a child in a mother’s womb. It is also
like the suffocation of the mother (Muir
85). Mother is related to the womb, the supposed seat of
hysteria. Another reference to a mother is made when Lear is talking
with Regan. He says, “I think you are [my child]; I know what reason
I have to think so: if thou shouldst not be glad, I would divorce me from
thy mother’s tomb, sepulchering an adultress” (King
Lear. II.iv.136-139). Lear is telling her that he knows
she is his legitimate daughter and since he has given her his kingdom she
should treat him better. According to Lear, the mother can easily
be blamed for the unfavorable way her daughters, Regan and Goneril, have
The events that occur as a result of Cordelia’s banishment in the beginning might have been avoided. A mother might have been able to tell Lear that he is being irrational and should not be so hasty to disown his favorite daughter. A maternal figure in this play might have made it possible for Cordelia to take control of her father’s throne at the appropriate time, saving many lives. A mother might have also saved all three of her daughters from being killed in the end of the play. Although Goneril and Regan are both deceitful children who abuse their power, a mother could have prevented them from causing their own deaths and the unnecessary deaths of Lear, Gloucester and many others. However, because there is no mother, the events that take place are bound to happen. This is not William Shakespeare’s only play in which the lack of a mother figure leads to unfavorable situations. Thomas McFarland notes that in Shakespeare’s plays the recurring theme of the broken home is what leads to tragic events (Danson 106).
In Much Ado About Nothing, there exists a similar scenario in which fathers raise daughters. The mothers of the two major characters, Hero and Beatrice, are never mentioned. Nevertheless, there were women who gave birth to these two young ladies. Leonato is the father of Hero and the uncle of Beatrice; he is the one who raises them. There is only one mention of a mother in the entire play. In Act II, scene i, Don Pedro asks Beatrice to marry him. When she says no, he tells her that “she was born in a merry hour” and Beatrice replies, “No sure my lord, my mother cried, but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born” (Much Ado. II.i.275-280). In this play there is an acknowledgment of a mother; Beatrice recognizes the fact that she once did exist. However, there is never another mention of a mother by either of the two major characters in the play; both women are raised by a single father. Hero’s mother is completely overlooked and is not referred to in any context.
In this play we see a father who loves his daughter unconditionally and is willing at all costs to defend her honor. Leonato makes judgments about his daughter when Claudio first makes his claim that Hero is unchaste. Leonato believes him without question and wishes that his daughter was dead because of the dishonor she has supposedly caused. He says:
O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.He doubts her virginity without even asking her about the authenticity of what Claudio has said about her. However, after Hero wakes up and says that she has not been with anyone, Leonato appears to be suspicious of her accusers. Leonato says:
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wish'd for
(Much Ado. IV.i. 117-119).
If they speak but truth of her,His statement shows that Leonato is more interested in the truth than in believing the worst about his daughter. He is showing the caring aspect of his parenthood. Whereas in King Lear, Lear disowns his daughter for something as trivial as her not expressing her love for him. Dishonoring the family is a far more serious matter that would have given Leonato a better excuse for abandoning his daughter. However, Leonato joins in the scheme to reveal the truth. The objective attitude that Leonato displays is a quality a mother would exercise if her daughter’s honor is in question. A mother might be more willing to doubt the motives of others rather than to jump to conclusions and initially to doubt her own child (Much Ado. IV.i).
These hands shall tear her; if they wrong her honour,
The proudest of them shall well hear of it (Much Ado. IV.i. 196-198).
The lack of the mother in this play leads briefly to disaster but not to a tragic outcome. Perhaps if a maternal figure were present in the play, then the turn of events would have been different. Hero’s virginity might not have been questioned for very long. Her mother could have interrupted her father’s attack on her when he heard Claudio’s claim. However, in this play, as opposed to King Lear, there is not a tragic loss due to the lack of the mother. Shakespeare has created a father who is willing to die for his daughter:
I speak not like a dotard nor a fool,In this speech, “Leonato announces that despite his great age, he challenges Claudio to a duel for the crime Claudio has committed against Hero by ruining her good name”(Sparknotes: Much Ado). Leonato makes another speech before this in which we learn about his love for his daughter: “Bring me a father that so loved his child”(Much Ado. V.i.9). Here we see a father who is willing to die for the sake of his daughter’s honor without question, whereas Lear was willing to disown his daughter in a second. In Much Ado About Nothing, we see a father who takes the roles of both the mother and father and does both extremely well. When Claudio makes his announcement at the wedding, Leonato is distraught, but he later goes along with the plan of faking Hero’s death to clear his daughter’s name.
As under privilege of age to brag
What I have done being young, or what would do
Were I not old. Know, Claudio, to thy head,
Thou hast so wrong'd mine innocent child and me
That I am forced to lay my reverence by
And, with grey hairs and bruise of many days,
Do challenge thee to trial of a man (Much Ado. V.i.).
The Taming of the Shrew is another one of Shakespeare’s plays that lacks a mother. The mother of Katherina and Bianca is not mentioned in the play. Their father, Baptista Minola, similar to the fathers in both King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing, raises the two daughters. Because there is only one parent, there exists a struggle for his affection. A mother creates the balance between the father and the children. However, because there is no mother in the play, both daughters are seeking their father’s affection, and it appears that Katherina feels that her father shows favoritism toward her sister, Bianca. When Baptista enters the room and breaks up the fight between Katherina and Bianca, Katherina asks:
What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I seeShe says she will end up an old maid dancing at her sister’s wedding. This passage seems to imply that her father’s love may not seem to satisfy Katherina. Perhaps she notices the maternal affection that is missing from her life. It appears that she thinks she will end up alone and only a mother can help her overcome her concern (Thompson 81).
She is your treasure, she must have a husband;
I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day (Taming. II.i. 31-33).
Although there is not any evidence of a mother in this play neither Katherina nor Bianca will suffer. Their father is determined to see them both happily married. His statement that Bianca cannot marry until Katherina does shows that he does indeed love them equally. If Bianca as the younger and apparently sweeter sister gets married first, then Katherina will inevitably become an old maid. She will never get married and eventually she will die alone. He sees that Bianca is getting all the marriage proposals but that there are no prospective husbands for Katherina. Her bitter attitude is similar to Regan and Goneril’s in King Lear; it appears that they all have a negative attitude because their father show more affection towards their sisters.
Katherina’s harshness is what keeps her from getting marriage proposals. Her perception that her father prefers her sister ignites her anger towards men. Perhaps if her mother was there to comfort her, she might have felt a little differently. Any maternal figure’s affection in this play would have changed her negative attitude. Most of the characters in the play speak of her rather than to her. When Baptista asks who wants to court his daughter, Katherina, Gremio says to Hortensio on the side:
To cart her rather: she's too rough for me.Both men see Katherina as being mean, call her a devil and Tranio even says, “That wench is stark mad or wonderful froward” (Taming. I.i.68). However, Baptista is determined to see both of his daughters married which is why he offers the large dowry. Without the assistance of a mother, Baptista tries to make sure that his daughters are both taken care of.
There, There, Hortensio, will you any wife? (Taming. I.i.55-56).
In all three
plays, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing and Taming of the Shrew, we see
the father raising his daughters without any meaningful mention of the
mother. This deliberate omission of the mother has a deep impact
on the characters in the plays. Regan and Goneril cause the tragic
end in King Lear; Hero’s reputation is questioned in Much
Ado About Nothing; and Katherina is seen as being the devil in
of the Shrew. However, regardless of the absent mother, the
daughters in each play have grown up to be women. Each woman is unfortunate
not to have a mother in her life. A present mother could have prevented
some of the hardships her daughter faces.
Back To Top