Questionable parenting: Shakespeare and the father portrayals in his plays

Leontes - the father in The Winter's Tale
Leontes (right, Michael Tisdale) rejects his infant daughter, calling her a bastard child. The Winter’s Tale, Folger Theatre, 2018. Photo by Teresa Wood.

What kind of father was William Shakespeare? The evidence suggests…it’s complicated.

We know his wife Anne gave birth to their twins, Judith and Hamnet, in 1585, but this is then followed by a seven-year gap in the historical record, during which much has been speculated yet little discovered about what Shakespeare was actually up to. It’s entirely possible he took one look at his mewling, puking babies, suddenly remembered the theatrical destiny that awaited him, cried “I’m outa here!” and split for London.

Immortal poetic genius? Absolutely. Father of the year? Not so much.

Perhaps this explains the many and varied examples of questionable parenting to be found in his plays. Who can forget such sterling examples of fatherhood as:

  • Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who commands his daughter Hermia to marry Lysander and vows to kill her by right of “ancient privilege” if she refuses?
  • Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, who similarly desires his daughter’s death upon hearing false reports of her infidelity and lack of chastity?
  • Baptista in Taming of the Shrew, who imprisons his younger daughter and forces his elder daughter to marry an abusive suitor?
  • Or Egeon in The Comedy of Errors, who — in what is unquestionably the worst example of paternal abuse in the canon — gives his two identical twin sons the exact same name?

And these are just the Comedies. Tellingly, in each of these examples, the stories are not about the parents, but instead focus on the children who navigate and survive their fathers’ extreme and potentially fatal parental instincts.

Fathers don’t come off looking too good in the Tragedies, either:

  • Titus Andronicus kills one son, disowns two others, and kills his raped and mutilated daughter.
  • Polonius, in Hamlet, uses his own daughter as a political pawn, resulting in both of their deaths.
  • King Lear destroys his family and thus his kingdom by turning his daughters against not only him but also each other.

Shakespeare’s History plays are by their very nature dynastic so father-son tensions are built-in:

  • Henry IV creates such enormous expectations for his son Hal that the young prince rebels and follows the dissolute example of a surrogate father figure, Sir John Falstaff.
  • Henry V, the king Prince Hal becomes, has no chance to become a better father than the one he had as he dies when his own son is only nine months old.
  • Henry VI, whose father’s death thrusts him onto the throne young and unprepared, disinherits his own son so he can retain his crown.

Shakespeare’s Romances, written late in his career at a time when reflection and something like wisdom should inform the material, dramatize the most extreme examples of paternal cruelty — but also regret:

  • Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale, imprisons his wife and disowns his daughter, claiming she’s a bastard and casting her away.
  • The king of Antioch, in Pericles, is such a terrible father that the answer to the riddle he commands princes to solve reveals he’s sleeping with his own daughter.
  • Prospero in The Tempest juggles the care of his daughter with the legacy of his career choices, and discovers an imbalance he is finally able to correct.
Father and daughter reunited
Leontes (Michael Tisdale) is reunited with the daughter he once rejected (left, Daven Ralston), as Paulina (right, Grace Gonglewski) prepares to reunite them both with Hermione. The Winter’s Tale, Folger Theatre, 2018. Photo by Teresa Wood.

These are just a handful of examples; Shakespeare’s plays abound with many other portrayals of father-child tensions. In particular, the characters of Prospero, Pericles, and Leontes are all men separated from their daughters and/or homes for over a decade. This may be Shakespeare reflecting on not only his family but also his home town: We think of Stratford as the place Shakespeare escaped from to pursue his career as actor and playwright and retired to when he quit his theatrical life, but our understanding of Stratford’s role in Shakespeare’s artistic life is evolving due to recent excavations of the home he bought there and ongoing scholarship by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson, in her play The Book of Will, a valentine to Shakespeare and the First Folio, maintains that Stratford and his family were never far from his thoughts, and that his female characters are inspired by the strong, passionate, intelligent, fiery women in his life, including his daughter Susannah. When she expresses bitterness at her father’s lack of presence and attention in her life, she is assured by one of his former colleagues, First Folio co-editor Henry Condell:

“Oh no, my dear, no. If you read it you’ll see he wrote… so often of daughters. Heroines, great loves, great loss. Daughters all.” 

He wrote pretty great sons too. Perhaps by creating timeless tales of strong children overcoming parental indifference — and worse — Shakespeare was in his way apologizing for his own parental neglect, obsessed as he was by the pursuit of his own artistic satisfaction and glory. He dramatized quite effectively that there are many worse kinds of fathers than an absent one.

But perhaps we’re thinking of this in the wrong way. Maybe Shakespeare never was Father of the Year. Maybe Shakespeare’s artistic legacy, and the fact we’re discussing his literary children over four hundred years after he created them, suggests he is, in fact, Father of the Millennium.

⇒ Related: Quiz: Shakespeare’s fathers and their children


  • Maybe Shakespeare lived in the 16th century, and saw the world through the ethics and epistemology that obtained at that time . . . rather than living by 21st century rules??

  • Also, add Lord Capulet to the list. The threats he levels on Juliet when she refuses to marry Paris are pretty horrific.

  • Thanks for accurately portraying Prospero’s dilemma! Anyone who is ever played that role knows all he’s trying to do is protect his daughter and get her off that island and away from Caliban.

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