Father-Daughter Problems

Michael Dobson

  • The Lodger: Shakespeare in Silver Street by Charles Nicholl
    Allen Lane, 378 pp, £20.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9890 0

What with all those Henrys being succeeded by all those other Henrys in the histories, and all those worryingly ghostly patriarchs looming over the tragedies – Julius Caesar, Old Hamlet, Banquo – you never get very far from paternity in the Shakespeare canon. Nor is fatherhood presented solely as a matter between father and son, in the manner highlighted to the point of overdetermination in the battle scene near York in Act II of Henry VI Part 2, when the stage is simultaneously occupied by a nameless father bearing the corpse of the son he has just killed, and a nameless son bearing the corpse of the father he has just killed, both of them watched by a king who, having inherited the crown from his never-to-be-equalled father, has now disinherited his own son, thereby occasioning the battle. Outside the obsessively patrilineal English histories, trouble between fathers and daughters seems just as common, whether the daughter is getting married, as in the comedies and the romances, or is married and then killed, as in several of the tragedies. The play now usually regarded as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear, is one to which the father-daughter problem is absolutely central, and in which the repudiation and the dismissal into marriage of a doomed, hitherto beloved daughter happen in almost the same breath.

It is a play to which this notoriously fluent and even careless writer seems to have devoted special attention, and over an unusually long period of time:

No, trust me. She is peevish, sullen, froward,
Proud, disobedient, stubborn, lacking duty,
Neither regarding that she is my child
Nor fearing me as if I were her father.
And may I say to thee, this pride of hers
Upon advice hath drawn my love from her,
And where I thought the remnant of mine age
Should have been cherished by her child-like duty,
I … turn her out to who will take her in.
Then let her beauty be her wedding dower …

This speech isn’t from the first scene of King Lear (1605-6) at all, but from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c.1589), at III.i, 68-78. I have cheated slightly by removing a single line, but even so this passage would look much more at home in the speech in which the old king tells Cordelia’s hitherto enthusiastic suitor Burgundy that her price is now fallen than it does in its actual dramatic context. The speech forms part of a long, irrelevant piece of dissimulation in which the duke of Milan, tipped off by one gentleman of Verona that his daughter is planning to elope with the other, toys with his would-be son-in-law for some minutes before ‘finding’ the rope-ladder he already knows the youth is concealing under his cloak and sentencing him to banishment. Writing what was probably his first play, Shakespeare had already been so profoundly struck by the story of another royal father and his disobedient daughter that he couldn’t help starting to draft the opening scene of his own account of the subject, regardless of its immediate pertinence. Had he recently acted in the anonymous The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, and found himself unable to get its initial dramatic situation out of his head? Had his attention strayed from the section of Holinshed’s Chronicles he was reading with a view to dramatising the Wars of the Roses towards the legendary stuff nearer the beginning? In any case, in the midst of a comedy that otherwise looks more like a botched first attempt at Twelfth Night, Shakespeare fleetingly began work on a tragedy that would preoccupy him at intervals for the rest of his career.

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