Cymbeline, Day 3: Fathers in Shakespeare

Cymbeline, Day 3: Fathers in Shakespeare

Moms are conspicuously absent from much of Shakespeare’s canon; fathers, on the other hand, are boldly and formidably present.  There are fathers in the flesh (Shylock, Polonius, Brabantio, Macduff, King Lear, Gloucester, Antiochus, Pericles, Simonides, Cymbeline, who is also a step-dad to Cloten, Leontes, Polixenes, and Prospero to name a few); ghosts of fathers (Hamlet senior and in Cymbeline, Sicilius Leonatus, father of Posthumus); step-fathers (Claudius in Hamlet); and foster fathers (Cleon in Pericles, Belarius in Cymbeline, and the shepherd in The Tempest).  I wonder how Obama feels about Shakespeare’s diverse and sprawling depiction of fathers, given the number of remiss dads in Will’s world and Obama’s iconic cultural status as a benign and beneficent patriarch and politician.

Since my summer reading list includes two of Shakespeare’s four romances, I’ll say a bit more about them.  These plays feature fathers and daughters and fathers and sons who are separated and reunited.  In the first, Pericles sends young Marina to be reared in a manner worthy of her high birth by Cleon and Dionyza.  In the next, Cymbeline disavows Imogen’s elopement to Posthumus Leonatus, imprisons her, and exiles his new son-in-law; she, in turn, flees in an attempt to reunite with her husband. At the play’s end, Cymbeline is not only reunited with Imogen but also with his two sons, who were abducted as infants some 20 years prior.  In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes literally abandons his infant daughter, Perdita (whose name means “lost”), because he believes she is illegitimate.  In The Tempest, while there is no father/daughter separation and reunion, Prospero, like many of Shakespeare’s other fathers, is concerned with the worthiness of his daughter’s suitors and so uses magic to orchestrate and eavesdrop upon Miranda’s courtship with Ferdinand, who is separated from his father when he ends up shipwrecked on Prospero’s island.  

Shakespeare himself went long periods of time away from his wife and children, leaving them in Stratford while he forged ahead with his career as a dramatist in London.  His life in many ways mirrored his final plays, the last of which was The Tempest (1610-1611), for in spite of the long stints of separation, he did spend the final years of his life like his late characters, reunited with loved ones, settled at home with Anne, until his death in 1616.

I am left wondering if there are any “model fathers” in Shakespeare, even if not good through and through, good after faltering, suffering, and seeing the error of their ways.  Thoughts? Lear, perhaps?


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