Shakespeare’splays contain many difficult family relationships.
There are 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 dominant concern in the entirety of the Shakespearean canon. Inthis essay, I will explore how conflicts within families feed into the largersocial and political concerns within the plays and consider how family dynamicsinteract with the plays’ the explorations of succession and madness.
I will befocusing on the parent and child relationships in Shakespeare’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, shows thetumultuous relationship between King Henry IV and Prince Hal and dramatizes, ona small scale, the civil rebellion that threatens to destroy England. The relationship between fatherand son is particularly significant in this play, as the King and the Princeare the driving characters. Prince Hal is the wayward son of King Henry IV andthe heir 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 to seek out a different fatherfigure, which he found in Falstaff. However, the influence of his father stilldominates to some extent, even though Hal is in Eastcheap.
In the play, Falstaffis a second father figure to Hal and is a lot more involved in his life than KingHenry IV, Hal’s actual father. The King and Falstaff represent the two sides ofHal’s life, his royal life which is in Westminster with the responsibilities ofbeing a prince, and his life in Eastcheap which is where he avoids hisresponsibilities and has fun. The fathers on each side are different, and Hal’srelationship with each of them is different as well.