Shakespeare’splays are filled many difficult family relationships.
Absent mothers andoverbearing fathers, disobedient sons and rebellious daughters, schemingbrothers and wily sisters. Familial clashes are usually resolved by the end ofShakespeare’s comedies. However, in the tragedies, the problematic familyrelationships tend to end in disaster. Whether the plays are historical,tragedy, or romance, the portrayal of family is an ever-present component inShakespearean drama. Some critics argue that the theme of family relationshipsis prominent in about two-thirds of Shakespeare’s plays, while others arguefamily is a central concern in the entirety of the Shakespearean canon. In thisessay, I will explore how conflicts within families feed into the larger socialand political concerns within the plays and consider how family dynamics interactwith the plays’ gender politics, and the explorations of succession andmadness.
I will mainly be focusing on the parent and child relationships inShakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (1598) and TheTragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1603), as I feel like they tend to be the most unstable. HenryIV, Part I, shows the tumultuous relationship between King Henry andPrince Hal and dramatizes, on a small scale, the civil rebellion that threatensto destroy England. The relationship between father and son is particularly significantin this play, as the King and the Prince are two of the driving characters. PrinceHal is the wayward son of King Henry and the heir to the throne. However, hehas pushed his life of nobility aside to drink and partake in illicit behaviourwith Falstaff.
In the play, Falstaff is a second father figure to Hal and is alot more involved in his life than Henry, Hal’s actual father. The King andFalstaff represent the two sides of Hal’s life, his royal life which is inWestminster with the responsibilities of being a prince, and his life inEastcheap which is where he avoids his responsibilities and has fun. The fatherson each side are different, and Hal’s relationship with each of them isdifferent as well. Hal is a lot closer to Falstaff than he is with the King,and this is shown through how he interacts with each of them. His interactionswith Falstaff are usually them teasing each other and joking around, whereaswhen the King speaks to Hal, he tells him how much of a disappointment he isand criticises his behaviour. He listsspecific failures that he sees in Hal’s life. These include losing his place inthe Council to his younger brother (Act 3, Scene 2, ll.
33-34), and losing the respectof his subjects, diminishing their hope of a suitable successor to the throne(Act 3, Scene 2, ll.36-38). The King goes on to question the peoplePrince Henry associates with, saying:Could such inordinate and low desires, Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts, Such barren pleasures, rude society, As thou art matched withal and grafted to, Accompany the greatness of thy blood And hold their level with thy princely heart? (Act 3,Scene 2, ll.12-17)The King is essentiallydenouncing the crowd that Hal has chosen to associate himself with, castingthem off as ‘rude society’ (Act 3, Scene 2, l.14). The King is also beratingHal for his actions, as well as for choosing to hang around people of a muchlower class.
Hal seems to accept what his father is saying, and so aims redeemhimself. Althoughhe enjoys the company of Falstaff, it is clear by his soliloquy in Act One,Scene Two, that he plans to reform himself and act like his father wishes himto, saying: My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes Than that which hath no foil to set it off.I’ll so offend to make offence a skill, Redeeming time when men think least I will (Act 1, Scene2, ll.188-192)