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.
LRB 8 May 2008 | PDF Download