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Shakespeare’s Fathers

How is fatherhood portrayed by the great English playwright, and what does this mean for our culture? To address this question, Fathers for Good talked with Joseph Pearce, writer-in-residence at Ave Maria University and author of The Quest for Shakespeare, which argues that the Bard was Catholic. Pearce may be contacted through Ignatius Press.

Fathers for Good: Are there any examples in Shakespeare of good fathers who fulfill their obligations to wife and children?


Joseph Pearce

Pearce: Prospero in The Tempest is certainly a fine example of the good father figure in Shakespeare’s plays. His care for the well-being of his daughter throughout the play offers an exemplary role model for fathers.

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare offers us the contrast between the good father figure and the bad. With regard to the former, Portia’s father exhibits great Christian wisdom in his provision for his daughter’s future following his own death. In contrast, Shylock is shown to be a bad father in the way in which he puts his worldly possessions before the well-being of his own daughter, Jessica.

FFG: There are a number of deficient or even grotesque fathers in the plays. What is the message?

Pearce: Shakespeare uses examples of deficient fatherhood as a means of showing how parental responsibility is crucial to the well-being of children. Apart from the example of Shylock, mentioned above, Polonius' worldly advice in Hamlet to his own son, Laertes, has disastrous and ultimately deadly consequences.

Polonius’ advice is rooted in a philosophy of radical relativism and the secular fundamentalism that is its bitter fruit. His advice conveys nothing of Christian morality, nor does it acknowledge the existence of God, but is centered instead on the need to be true to ourselves, putting ourselves before all others. Laertes, acting on his father’s precepts, allows his egocentric anger to blind him to reality, thereby making him a dupe and a pawn in King Claudius’ plot to kill Hamlet.

The depiction of flawed or grotesque fathers, and dysfunctional families, is a powerful and paradoxical way of showing the value of good fathers through the presence of their real absence, i.e. if you want people to desire the light you show them what it's like to live in the dark!

FFG: How important is fatherhood to Shakespeare?

Pearce: Shakespeare’s view of fatherhood, and his depiction of it, are profoundly Christian. Shakespeare’s moral vision is always and unerringly orthodox.

In King Lear, for instance, the whole plot turns on the failure of Lear and Gloucester as fathers. In their selfishness they bring disaster upon themselves and upon their children. In both cases, the destructive consequences of their actions is ameliorated by the penitential recognition of their mistakes and their subsequent reconciliation with the good children they had wronged. 

FFG: We all know of Hamlet’s “father problem.” How do you see the father image -- the ghost of conscience, the absent father who seeks to bring his son to manhood?

Pearce: Hamlet’s loyalty to his father is never in question. He goes to considerable lengths to ensure that the apparition is an “honest ghost,” i.e. that it is indeed his father’s spirit and not a demon seeking to beguile him with falsehood. Once he proves to himself that the ghost is indeed the spirit of his own murdered father, he does his filial duty by ensuring that King Claudius’ crime is exposed and that justice is done, even if it comes at a great self-sacrificial price.