Friday, May 6, 2011

Mother of the Bard

Here’s something I didn’t know: In 1914, Mother’s Day was first established as an official national holiday by US President and Staunton native Woodrow Wilson. But although the holiday with which we’re familiar might be a relatively new conception, a healthy appreciation of mothers is no new practice. As pillars of strength, pictures of gentleness, embodiments of love, and epitomes of wisdom, mothers throughout history have inspired and spurred their children on to greatness – when not achieving greatness themselves. True, there have been a few kooky ones in the mix, but on this holiday, I think it’s only fair to focus on the majority, those wonderful moms we all know and love.

The Christian Church, one of the dominant institutions of Shakespeare’s world, set the bar high with Mary, mother of all mothers, who was a symbol of love and understanding to countless men and women. Indeed, a predecessor of the modern Mother's Day may be found in the early Christian tradition of honoring the Virgin Mary, along with the church in which one was baptized, one's “Mother Church,” on the fourth Sunday in Lent. In the sixteenth century, this celebration was broadened to include human mothers and not just spiritual ones, and it became known as “Mothering Sunday.” As a particular bonus, the day was also declared a reprieve from Lenten fasting, so indulgent feasts were often prepared with mothers as the guests of honor. The traditional English Mothering Day treat was, and still is, the Simnel Cake, a fruit and spice cake topped with eleven balls of marzipan, representing eleven of the apostles – sans that troublemaker Judas. Today, Mothering Sunday is still celebrated in the UK and is the equivalent of our own American Mother’s Day.
Proud Mamas - Elizabethan sisters and their babies (ca. 1599).

Mothers, without question, did not have it easy in Shakespeare’s day. Elizabethan England was, despite the matriarch who lent her name to the age, a firmly patriarchal society. Yet women carried numerous responsibilities on their shoulders, while at the same time submitting in all formal customs to their men and masters – meaning they did a lot of the work with few of the perks. Not the least of these duties was the responsibility of bearing children (preferably of the male variety). Women ran a high risk of dying in childbirth, and, should they survive that ordeal, they had also to endure the all-too-likely chance that their child would then die in early life. Legally, a married woman’s rights were curtailed at every turn, and her position was subservient in every way to her husband. In fact, a mother had no legal guardianship over her children, unless appointed as such by her husband in his will. In spite of these official restrictions, though, many Elizabethan mothers were highly involved in the running of their household. They managed property, oversaw domestic duties, and planned for and negotiated their children’s education as well as (most important of all!) their marriage.

Shakespeare’s own mother provides us with an example of the strength required of Elizabethan women through the common trials and tribulations of the time. Mary Arden came from a respected, well-to-do family, yet in 1557, at seventeen, she married John Shakespeare, a mere yeoman farmer. John was an ambitious fellow, however, and he rapidly rose to prominence in his home village of Stratford, ascending from ale-taster (sounds like fun, but this was also a critical job in the days when water was usually too dangerous to drink) to Chief Alderman. But almost as quickly as he had risen John Shakespeare fell from social grace, becoming indebted and impoverished. One reason for this, which is still debated, may be that he and Mary faced public hostility for being Catholic at a time when England was predominantly Protestant. Elizabeth’s sister and erstwhile Queen of England, the fanatically Catholic “Bloody Mary,” hadn’t left Protestants well-disposed toward their Catholic neighbors. Still, through all of these socials ups and downs, Mary stood by her husband and her faith, while also dealing with the struggles of raising a family. Two of her daughters died in infancy before a son, William Shakespeare, was born in 1564. But the firstborn son caused his fair share of troubles for his mother. In 1582, Mary received what must have been the rather unwelcome news that eighteen-year-old Will had gotten the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway pregnant. After a hasty marriage, Mary found herself a grandmother at forty-three. Luckily, things eventually began to look up for Mary and John, as their errant son made a name for himself as a playwright in London, and his parents were restored to some of their previous wealth and social standing. Mary died in 1608, seven years after her husband and eight years before her legendary son.

Mary Arden’s childhood home in Wilmcote.

Sadly, it’s up to our imaginations to theorize what influence Mary Arden might have had on the plays of her son. Mothers in Shakespeare’s plays run the gamut, from Lady Macduff to Lady Capulet; from Queen Margaret to Queen Gertrude. It's fair to say that not many of them are shining examples of benevolent motherhood; warm and fuzzy they are not, when they’re present at all. But they are all strong, in one way or another; they are all fighters. And even if what they are fighting for isn't always “right,” it's frequently on behalf of their children. So this Mother’s Day, pause for a moment, and – whether you’re feeling grateful your mom isn’t as quite as, shall we say, tempestuous as that Queen of the Goths, Tamora, or you’re admiring her Hermione-esque patience and tolerance – give credit where credit is due to mothers around the world and through history.

Natalie A.

Dedicated to my own mom – whom I’m slowly but surely bringing around to a reluctant enjoyment of that boring Shakespeare guy.

1 comment:

  1. Another great Staunton connection - Anna Jarvis, the woman who campaigned to make Mother's Day a recognized holiday, graduated from what is now Mary Baldwin College in 1883.