Father-Daughter Conflicts in Shakespeare’s Plays

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 November 2016

Father-Daughter Conflicts in Shakespeare’s Plays

William Shakespeare is a playwright and poet with no need of introduction. He has written several of the most distinguished and well-received plays in the history of literary writing. With so much reflection focused on his works and writings, little is said about Shakespeare’s personal life. It has been generally accepted however that Shakespeare himself had two daughters and one son. Shakespeare placed great value in the ability of his offspring to immortalize his own name and to uphold the dignity of his family (Bevington 193). However, his hopes were not to be carried out through Hamnet, his only son.

With Hamnet’s early death, Shakespeare was left to look to his daughters for the propagation of the respect due his family name (Bevington 193). This close relationship with his daughters may have played a part in the establishment of many father-daughter conflicts in his plays. This paper will further inspect several plays written by Shakespeare with particular focus on the father-daughter relationships displayed in the texts to be studied. Five plays have been chosen for this study: The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Othello.

The elements of the father-daughter relationship in each play will be discussed individually. By the end of this paper, it will have been shown that Shakespeare uses father-daughter conflict both as a plot device and as a means of reflecting views regarding father-daughter relationships. Where there is a conflict between father and daughter, the theme invariably revolves around the daughter’s pulling away from her father. Thus, it can be seen that through the daughter’s falling in love and the father’s choice of an ideal mate, there is a strain between father and daughter.

The struggle to maintain authority over daughters causes fathers to hold indomitably to their decisions, leading daughters to resort to other means to accomplish their own desires. A Midsummer Night’s Dream In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Egeus demands that his daughter Hermia wed Demetrius when in truth it is Lysander whom she loves (Shakespeare 6). This causes the rift between the father and the daughter. A dominant theme in the play is thus the father’s stubborn belief that his word is law over his daughter’s affairs. Because of Egeus’ mislead belief; Hermia is forced to resort to her won measures in attaining the love she professes.

Smith discusses that the conflict between the father and the daughter in this play serves to highlight the need for Hermia to establish her own character in order to free herself of the dictates of the authorities in her life. It should also be noted that the play reflects the empowerment of women. Egeus gives no reason why Hermia should follow his wishes apart from the fact that he is her father and he is the primary male authority in her life. Hermia gets her way and her own will is upheld against that of her father’s. However, this does not clearly show the power of the woman to decide for herself.

If nothing else, the play only serves to put the point across that the woman’s opinion is of import as well as the man’s. It is the duke, Theseus, who overrides the will of Egeus and validates Hermia’s love for Lysander (Shakespeare 152). Thus, it is the will of a man of greater authority from which Hermia derives her freedom to act as she would. In this particular play it can be seen that the conflict between father and daughter serves more to move the plot forward than to speak of the actual interaction between the two.

Egeus’ stubbornness gives insight into the latter but serves more as a blocking mechanism for Hermia’s story to develop (Bevington 193). The refusal of Egeus to have Hermia wed Lysander served to birth the entire story. This shows how Shakespeare used the relationship between the father and daughter as a plot device. It is true that Shakespeare expressed through the scenes how Hermia needed to break free from her father’s authority in order to accomplish her own ambitions. However, Hermia inevitably found such freedom only through another man clothed with a greater power than her father but to whom they both were subject.

Thus, the intricacies of the father-daughter relationship though touched on, were not fleshed out. It served a greater purpose as a literary device. Romeo and Juliet Another clear illustration of the utility of the father-daughter relationship as a plot device is the relationship of Juliet with her father. The feud between the Capulets and Montagues was an inherited rivalry strongly advocated by Juliet’s father. Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father, serves as a literary plot device designed to give an obstacle to the blossoming love of Romeo and Juliet (Bevington 193).

In this regard, Romeo and Juliet is much like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lord Capulet also serves as the authority figure over Juliet’s life and her decisions. Thus, Juliet and Romeo have to overcome the restrictions set by Lord Capulet Upon finding her own voice, Juliet is able to overcome the prohibitions of her father against her desiring a Montague. Juliet thus matures and finds that there is no sin in a name and Romeo’s name does not make him her enemy. This reflects how Juliet is pulling away not only from her father’s rules but even from her family’s tradition in order to blaze a path for herself and her love.

Unlike in Hermia and Lysander’s story, the greater authority figure does not arrive to bring a peaceful reconciliation of the conflicts; rather the arrival of the Prince and his judgment of exile for Romeo starts the unstoppable turn of events leading to the demise of the two lovers. It is only upon seeing his daughter dead and hearing of the monument that the Montagues have decided to erect for Juliet that Lord Capulet decides to accept this love that his daughter has found by erecting a monument for Romeo as well (Shakespeare 239).

Given however that even this last act of acceptance is fueled by rivalry, it can be shown that there was no real reconciliation between father and daughter and the strain between them a mere tool for the evolution of the plot. The Merchant of Venice In The Merchant of Venice, Bevington insists that the father-daughter conflict is yet another simple plot device (Bevington 193). However, in this play there are more distinct reflections of the daughter’s pulling away from her father. The character in focus herein is Jessica, the daughter of Shylock the merchant.

It should be noted that one of the strongest themes in this text is the religious battle between Jews and Christians. Shylock himself is a strong advocate for Judaism, as is shown in a number of his lines as he mocks and argues with Christian philosophy. It is therefore a devastating blow when Jessica falls in love with a Christian. She professes, although not to her father’s face, that she is willing to become a Christian in order to become Lorenzo’s wife: “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me To be ashamed to be my father’s child! But though I am a daughter to his blood,

I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo, If thou keep promise I shall end this strife, Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (Shakespeare 61). ” This shows how willing Jessica is to sever her ties with her father and pursue her own heart’s will. Considering the importance that Shylock places on his religion, Jessica’s defiance of her inherited religion is much the same as Juliet’s repulsion of her family’s rivalry. When Jessica finally succeeds in running away with Lorenzo, the importance that Shylock places in her worth as a daughter is revealed.

Shakespeare reflects the basis of the strong paternal possessiveness: “My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O, my Christian ducats! Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter! A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats (p. 81)” Smith interprets these lines in the context of Jewish tradition regarding the role of daughters in the continuation of family lineage. It is explained that in Jewish tradition families are matriarchal by nature thus the family line is passed down through the female line (Smith).

Jessica being an only daughter, Shylock’s security in his lineage depended on her acquiring a suitable husband. The cries of Shylock connecting his money with Jessica reflect how he viewed her as another instrument for the attainment of his success. This theme hits quite close to the personal views and state of family affairs that Shakespeare himself was subject to at the time. Othello Othello on the other hand presents a more distinct portrait of the tension between father and daughter. Even Bevington (pp. 193-194) admits to the different quality of father-daughter relationship that is made manifest in this text.

Here the conflict is more than a simple plot device utilized to move the story forward. Much like in The Merchant of Venice, the theme of the story touches on the role of marriage in the life of a family. In the former play, marriage was a means of joining together people while those who were not married became isolated and desolate. In Othello, marriage again serves as a divider between father and daughter as Desdemona elopes with the protagonist, Othello. Their elopement causes much hurt to her father, Barbantio who feels that he has been deceived by his daughter (Bevington 194).

In an attempt to maintain his authority over his daughter he asks of her to whom she owes her allegiance but is devastated by her answer: “I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband, And so much duty as my mother showed To you, preferring you before her father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord (Shakespeare 41). ” This shows how upon marrying, the daughter ceases to hold primary loyalty towards her father and his house and moves toward the household of her groom. The pain that Barbantio manifests is thus not only a result of the elopement of Desdemona but more so of his feelings of loss of his progeny.

This play therefore serves to show more vividly the change in relationship that occurs between a father and his daughter as the daughter marries. Even though reason is planted in the wisdom of Desdemona, the possessiveness of fathers as a result of the many years of watching over and protecting their daughters is a force to be reckoned. The desire to bind unto themselves their daughters is so strong that fathers brashly discount the bind of the matrimonial tie between their daughter and another man. King Lear The sense of entitlement to the loyalty and love of a daughter are best demonstrated in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

In this play King Lear tests his three daughters in order to assess whether or not they deserve to get their share of the inheritance of his kingdom. Because of their desire to gain, Goneril and Regan outbid each other in professing their love for the King. However, the third daughter, Cordelia, professes that she loves the King as she is under obligation to do so but will reserve some of her love for her future husband (Shakespeare 36). This outrages the King and he refuses her the portion of the inheritance allotted to her, believing her to be an ungrateful daughter.

It is revealed however that Goneril and Regan are the ungrateful ones as they soon plot to overthrow their father and appropriate for themselves his rule. King Lear’s desire to possess the entirety of his daughters’ hearts and their dedication is not without reason. His use of the word “ungrateful” reflects how he sees his relationship with his daughters. He has invested much into their relationship – both in terms of material and emotional store. He therefore expects to reap what he has sown into all three daughters. The King has reached old age, an age wherein it is only fitting that he be cared for by others.

As most parents who reach this age feel, the King imagined that the years he had spent taking care of his daughters should be repaid through service to him at his infirm age. However, Cordelia spoke wisely when she pointed out that her heart should be allowed the freedom to serve other men aside from her father. The words of Desdemona ring true herein as well. A wife should first be loyal to her husband before serving her father. Although a daughter is obligated to show respect and gratitude to her parents through her service to them, she is also allowed to experience the freedom of a life apart from her parents.

Should a parent disallow a child such liberalities, then the entire essence of watching such a child grow and mature should have been for naught. Conclusion The five plays reviewed herein serve to show the importance that the father-daughter relationship held for Shakespeare. The relationship was one so strong that instabilities in the same justified the evolution of complete stories based on singular notions. There is no doubt that the conflict between a father and daughter is a strong plot device which was utilized by Shakespeare in a number of his plays.

The result gave rise to some of the best works written by Shakespeare, including the popular Romeo and Juliet. The conflict may take the form of a daughter’s moving away from the den of a father or from a father’s overzealous attempts to keep a daughter’s love. The former has been shown in Shakespeare’s plays through several acts. It may be a simple disobedience to a father’s will. Sometimes it may take the form of invariance to the beliefs and traditions held by the father. However, it is seen that Shakespeare repeatedly uses the escape of marriage and love to dishonor the father.

It has also been shown though that father’s themselves may desire unreasonably the regard of their daughter. In King Lear most especially has this desire been shown to be impractical as the daughter who was punished had committed no act of disobedience to her father. In the various plays it can thus be seen that the underlying theme in father-daughter conflicts is the daughter’s desire to break free from the authority of her father. This act of separation allows for the daughter’s ability to decide for herself what is best and what is desirable.

Along with the freedom that the separation gives the daughter however is the anxiety that it visits upon the father. The daughter to some is the only means of ensuring family lineage and to most the daughter is the gem that has been protected for so long and should be given away only to the most worthy. The breaking away of the daughter from the father’s authority therefore leads to insecurity and feelings of loss from the side of the parent. It is this sense of loss which causes the strife between father and daughter, particularly so as the father continues to cling to the power he holds over his daughter.

It is this pattern of removal from the father’s fold that is repeatedly shown in Shakespeare’s themes. Works Cited Bevington, David. Shakespeare: The Seven Ages of Human Experience (2nd ed. ). MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005. 1. Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edited by Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. NY: Washington Square Press, 1993. Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Edited by Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. NY: Washington Square Press, 1992. Shakespeare, William. Othello. Edited by Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. NY: Washington Square Press, 1993. Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.

Edited by Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. NY: Washington Square Press, 1992. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Edited by Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. NY: Washington Square Press, 1992. Smith, J. N.. “GradeSaver: Midsummer Night’s Dream – Study Guide. ” www. gradesaver. com. 11 May 2008. GradeSaver. 11 May 2008 <http://www. gradesaver. com/classicnotes/titles/midsummernight/fullsumm. html>. Smith, J. N.. “GradeSaver: Merchant of Venice – Study Guide. ” www. gradesaver. com. 11 May 2008. GradeSaver. 11 May 2008 <http://www. gradesaver. com/classicnotes/titles/merchantvenice/fullsumm. html>.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 November 2016

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