Shakespeare’s plays containmany difficult family relationships.
There are absent mothers and overbearingfathers, disobedient sons and rebellious daughters, scheming brothers and wilysisters. Familial clashes are usually resolved by the end of Shakespeare’s comedies,however, in the tragedies family relationships are problematic familyrelationships and tend to end in disaster. Whether the plays are historical,tragedy, or romance, the portrayal of family is a common component inShakespearean drama. Some critics argue that the theme of family relationshipsis prominent in around two-thirds of Shakespearean plays, while others dispute thissaying that it is a dominant concern in the entirety of the Shakespeareancanon. In this essay, I will explore how conflicts within families feed intothe larger social and political concerns within the plays and consider howfamily dynamics interact with the plays’ explorations of royal families, successionand madness. I will 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.
Henry IV, Part I, showsthe tumultuous relationship between King Henry IV and Prince Hal and the civilrebellion that threatens to destroy England. The relationship between father and son is especiallysignificant in this play, as King Henry IV and the Prince are the drivingcharacters of the plot. Prince Hal is the wayward son of King Henry IV and theheir to the throne. However, he has pushed his life of nobility aside to drinkand partake in illicit behaviour with Falstaff. Hal fled his life in court whenhis father took the kingdom from Richard II. He sought out a different fatherfigure, which he found in Falstaff, however, the influence of his father still dictateshis actions to some extent. In the play, Falstaff is a lot more involved in hislife than King Henry IV, Hal’s actual father. The King and Falstaff representthe two sides of Hal’s life, his royal life which is in Westminster with theresponsibilities of being a prince, and his life in Eastcheap, in which heavoids his responsibilities and has fun.
The fathers on each side are different,and Hal’s relationship with each of them is different as well. Hal is a lot closerto Falstaff than he is with the King, and this is shown by how he interactswith each of them. His interactions with Falstaff usually involve them teasingeach other and joking around, whereas when the King speaks to Hal, he tells himhow much of a disappointment he is and 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 therespect of his subjects, diminishing their hope of a suitable successor to thethrone (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 meanattempts, 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)TheKing disapproves of the crowd that Hal has chosen to associate himself with,casting them off as ‘rude society’ (Act 3, Scene 2, l.14). The King berates Halfor his actions, as well as for choosing to hang around people of a much lowerclass.
Hal seems to accept what his father is saying, and so aims to 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 goodlyand attract more eyes Than that which hath nofoil to set it off.I’ll so offend to makeoffence a skill, Redeeming time when men thinkleast I will (Act 1, Scene 2, ll.188-192) Thisshows that Hal intends to step up and be the man that his father wants him tobe, and be the prince that his country needs him to be in a time of politicalupheaval.
TheKing’s relationship with Prince Hal is attached to the matters of the kingdom, asHal is the heir to the throne. This links to the theme of succession and thelegitimacy of rulership, as the relationship between them plays a big part in theseaspects of the play. Because HenryIV, Part I is set amid a rebellion, the play is naturally concernedwith the idea of rulership. Legitimate rulership can be said to be legitimate eitherby the will of the people or to the will of God. Therefore, the doubt the Kinghas of his power over the kingdom may be the result of his fear that his ruleis illegitimate since he took the crown from Richard II. The King worries aboutHal’s ability to rule after his death and also feels that Prince Hal was put onearth by God as a form of punishment for killing King Richard II and stealingthe throne.
King Henry IV regularly exclaims that he wishes Hotspur was hisson, saying he wishes:That some night-tripping fairy hadexchangedIn cradle-clothes our children wherethey lay (Act 1, Scene 1, ll.86-87)Accordingto King Henry IV, Hotspur would be a great king, which is the opposite of whathe thinks of his own son. These elements allow Shakespeare to consider thesimilarities between parenting and ruling a country, with civil warfare beingcompared to a big family dispute. Moreover, King Henry IV’s relationship withhis son establishes some issues with primogeniture, which is the system insociety which meant that the eldest sons in a family inherit their fathers’ titles,wealth, land, and therefore power. The play reminds us that, in this case, thecivil war and the struggle for the crown is a family matter, and it highlightsthe struggles between fathers and sons, especially those who are royal. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is another play in whichparent’s relationships with their children can be analysed. The parents who areloved the most tend to be the ones who are not around, like Hamlet’s father. There are three parent and childrelationships in this play which can be commented on: the deceased King Hamletand Hamlet, Gertrude and Hamlet, and Polonius and Ophelia.
The relationships between parents andtheir children are vital in the plot of Hamlet.Most of the parents do not seem to have good relationships with their childrenand throughout the conflict between parents and children cause a lot of tension,which leads to catastrophe in the end. The relationship between Hamlet andGertrude seems to be the only exception to this. Although Hamlet is clearlyangry and upset about his mother marrying Claudius, his relationship with heris generally a positive one. At first, it seems that the relationship betweenHamlet and Gertrude is not great, with Hamlet hating his mother because hefeels like she has betrayed him and his father. Gertrude’s marriage to Claudiusis one of the reasons Hamlet wishes to kill his uncle. However, nothing in theplay suggests he has any desire to kill his mother.
Yet, he does plead with herto ‘go not to mine uncle’s bed’ (Act 3, Scene 4, l.160). While this is quite anunusual request from a son to his mother, by asking this Hamlet reveals his concernfor his mother’s well-being. Gertrude also seems to care deeply for Hamlet.
This can be seen at the end of the play, as she lies dying she specificallycalls for Hamlet, saying:No, no! the drink, the drink! O my dearHamlet! The drink, the drink! I am poisoned.(Act 5, Scene 2, ll.314-315) Hamletis distraught by her death at the end of the play, which also reveals how closea relationship they had. So, even though they have some arguments throughoutthe play and Hamlet harbours some resentment for his mother marrying so quicklyafter his father’s death. Overall, their relationship ends in a good place. Thisparent-child relationship links into the wider theme of madness, as the stressthe marriage of his mother to his uncle puts on Hamlet can be said to be one ofthe contributing factors to his mental instability. Moreover, Hamlet at firstfeigns madness as a way of acting out against his mother to perhaps punish her forher actions.
Nevertheless, his mother’s marriage to Claudius is definitely afactor that is highly emotional for Hamlet, especially coupled with the factthat Claudius murdered his father. Therefore, I feel that Hamlet’s closerelationship with his mother, which then gets complicated by her marriage toClaudius, is one of the reasons he ends up descending into madness in the play. Similarly, Hamlet’s relationship with hisfather also seems to be a fairly positive one. However, there is very littleinformation given in the play about the relationship between them. The greatrespect Hamlet shows toward his departed father though indicates that theirrelationship was a good one.
In the play Hamlet places his father on apedestal, and at one point compares him to ‘Hyperion’, a Greek god whose nametranslates to “The High-One”. Hamlet references a few other Greek and Romanmythological characters while discussing his father. While talking to hismother, Hamlet refers to:Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jovehimself; An eye like Mars, to threaten andcommand; A station like the herald Mercury New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill(Act 3, Scene 4, ll.57-60) Thesecomparisons show Hamlet thinks highly of his deceased father, which is alsoshown by how committed he is to avenging his father’s death.
Although the ghostof King Hamlet seems to use his son to serve his own purposes, this behaviourcan be expected from a recently murdered king who is suffering in purgatory andwhose murderer has just married his wife. Hamlet’s commitment to avenging hisfather’s death can be seen to be one of the reasons he goes mad. Hamlet is soconnected with his father that his spirit appears in front of him from time totime, persuading him to seek revenge. Hamlet has an inner struggle betweenfollowing his dead father’s orders, and a moral obligation to figure out ifClaudius is actually the murderer before he kills him. This links to the themeof madness in the play, as this moral tug-of-war Hamlet faces can be linked tohis descent into insanity. However, it is clear that Hamlet is alreadystruggling with this before he sees his father’s ghost. The moral struggle hefaces between avenging his father’s death and doing what he feels is rightseems to push him over the edge. The relationship Hamlet has with his parentsis better than Polonius’s relationship with his children though.
Polonius isalways ordering Ophelia around, and she feels like she submits to her fatherout of fear. Polonius uses his daughter as a tool for his own benefit and is soobsessed with his family’s honour that he does not consider his daughter’sfeelings. In the first act, Polonius tells Ophelia she cannot get too close toHamlet, as he does not want her to jeopardise their position in the court bybeing a helpless ‘woodcock’ to Hamlet’s allegedly insincere ‘vows’ (Act 1,Scene 3, ll.114-116).
He orders Ophelia to:Tender yourself more dearly, Or (not to crack the wind of the poorphrase, Running it thus) you’ll tender me a fool(Act 1, Scene 3, ll.107-109). Thisdemonstrates that Polonius is acting in his own interest and that he is more worriedabout his place in the kingdom than his daughter’s happiness. Ophelia meeklyfollows his orders, saying ‘I shall obey, my lord’ (Act 1, Scene 3, l.136). Thisshows how Polonius forces Ophelia to depend on him and how Ophelia blindlyfollows his commands. Hamlet calls Polonius a ‘fishmonger’ (Act 2, Scene2,l.172) when referring to how Polonius controls Ophelia.
This was Elizabethan slangfor “brothel keeper”, and therefore would have been considered a major insultby the original audience. Moreover, this demonstrates that Hamlet is consciousthat Polonius and Ophelia have a bad relationship. Moreover, Polonius uses hisdaughter to spy on Hamlet’s actions so that he can report back to Claudius, andbecause of her loyalties towards him Ophelia complies with his wishes.
Polonius’sintention is to make himself appear to be a great father, but Ophelia’sdependency on him is what eventually causes her to go mad and commit suicideafter his death. Therefore, this shows that she loved her father, even thoughhe treated her so badly, and it also demonstrates how much she depended on him. To conclude, the relationship between KingHenry IV and Prince Hal and links to the themes of succession and legitimacy ofrule. This is because the unstable relationship they have highlights concernsin the monarchy.
In the play, Prince Hal leaves to live in Eastcheap after hisfather took the kingdom and crown from Richard II. As many people believed thatGod chose the King, this brings up issues with the legitimacy of rule, as HenryIV has gone against God’s will by doing this. This is brought up by thecharacter himself, as he says he thinks his son has been sent as a punishmentby God. Obviously, the King does not have a good relationship with Hal if hethinks that he has been sent to punish him.
Moreover, Hal has found a surrogatefather in Falstaff, who is a lot kinder to him. Their relationship is not aconventional one, but it is obvious that it is better than the one Hal has withhis actual father. However, at the end of the play, Prince Hal wins back hisfather’s approval and affection through his success in the battle atShrewsbury, by saving his father’s life. This is a happy ending, and theoverall events in the play show how the struggle for the crown and civil war isall linked to family. In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, most of the parents and their childrensuffer from unhealthy relationships. Though Hamlet’s relationships with hisparents are not dreadful, the other parent-child relationships in Hamlet arequite horrible, especially the relationship between Polonius and Ophelia.
Polonius dominates his relationship with Ophelia and also refuses to respecthis son, Laertes. This friction between parents and their children leads topain for many of the characters. The controlling nature Polonius exerts overOphelia is what eventually leads to her madness and suicide. Ophelia obeys herfather as she is scared of him, although she does not recognise this herself.Ophelia loves her father dearly and does everything he asks just to please him,which ultimately leads to her demise as she is unable to function once he isdead. As for Hamlet’s relationships with his parents, he loves them both greatly,to the point that it also leads him to madness. He has a good relationship withhis mother, even though he cannot accept that she has moved on so quickly fromhis father, and with his uncle.
This causes him a lot of mental stress as heseems not to want to damage his relationship with his mother, but also feelsthat he is betraying his father. Moreover, although the audience never seesHamlet’s relationship with King Hamlet when he is alive we can infer that theirrelationship was a good one, due to the amount of respect Hamlet has whentalking about his father. Furthermore, Hamlet’s descent into madness isexasperated by the return of his father in the form of a ghost. His dead fatherpresents a moral problem for Hamlet, as he asks him to kill Claudius in revenge,but Hamlet’s morals mean that he is unable to do this until he finds out forhimself if Claudius is really the murderer. This causes Hamlet’s insanity tofurther increase.
The dysfunctional families are the cause of the play’s tragicnature and the cause of madness for both Hamlet and Ophelia, although these areto different extents.