Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare?
From Juliet’s hands-off Mom to Hamlet’s too-hot Mama, the plays of Shakespeare are hardly an ode to motherhood. It was an age when the reigning monarchs, first Elizabeth then James, as children lost mothers who lost their heads. Did that make glorification of motherhood taboo? NapaShakes Dramaturg Philippa Kelly offers another explanation:
In Shakespeare’s time the mother was the family member principally involved with her children’s education and upbringing. Yet in the drama of the period, older women were rarely represented on-stage in what would obviously be one of their more sympathetic roles: that of the loving and nurturing mother. This lack is partly explained by the fact that women were not allowed to perform on the English stage: all of the female roles were played by young boys before their voices broke, so that a younger character part was obviously a better physical and vocal match for a boy. The lack of mothers in Shakespeare is notorious: we have the motherless girls Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the three sisters in King Lear, Marina in Pericles, Miranda in The Tempest, Portia and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Ophelia in Hamlet, Desdemona in Othello, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, all of whom are deprived of mothers.Moreover, almost all of the older women Shakespeare does represent on-stage offer negative images of motherhood: Volumnia in Coriolanus and Gertrude in Hamlet, and then Lady Macbeth as well, who says that she would have been a terrible mother if she had had the chance to be one. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet has a mother, but not one who will protect her.Why does Shakespeare deprive his girls of mothers, given how useful a mother might be to a girl as, at a very young age, she comes face-to-face with the complexities of love and life? While the practical reason for Shakespeare’s choice is that boy-actors had the plausibility problem, thematically the lack of mothers allowed Shakespeare to create an important dramatic opportunity: by taking away the mother (either, as in Romeo and Juliet, as a figure of real guidance, or, as in many of his plays – like A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as a presence on-stage at all), Shakespeare creates a gap in the young female characters’ lives, compelling them to develop that extraordinary independence and character that makes them so attractive and intriguing.
– Philippa Kelly