Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Six Lessons from the Fathers of the American Shakespeare Center's Spring Season

As opposed to mothers, fathers are quite easy to find in early modern drama. There are six father figures in our Spring Season plays and only four mothers (one of whom never appears on stage). The dads are a plot-driving mix of tyrannical authority figures, loving parents, and down right madmen. No matter their temperament, each has some lessons to offer, so here are six dos and don’ts of being a parent in early modern drama.

1) Do not kill, nor threaten to kill, your child. This mandate seems obvious, but three fathers in this season mess it up. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes orders the death by abandonment of his newborn daughter, Perdita; he also indirectly leads to his son Mamillius’s death from a broken heart by separating him from his mother. Fortunately, Perdita survives and is instrumental in the play’s happy ending. Things resolve less neatly in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, where Giovanni commits filicide by driving a dagger into his pregnant sister/lover’s womb. Finally, Egeus of A Midsummer Night’s Dream threatens his daughter, Hermia, with execution if she does not consent to marry Demetrius. Despite its popularity amongst father characters, the “impending death” tactic never works. Leontes realizes his error and suffers sixteen years in mourning, Giovanni meets his end less than 150 lines after his son, and Theseus, the Duke of Athens, eventually overrules Egeus.

2) Do not forbid your child’s romance out of hand. Another popular father-tactic of the renaissance stage is to forbid a son or daughter to marry their obvious love interest. This trope is so common that Prospero consciously invokes it in The Tempest to give his daughter Miranda and her love Ferdinand a more exciting romance. As with murder, it rarely works to the parent’s advantage. I have already mentioned Egeus, but Polixenes, the King of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, must also learn this lesson. Upon hearing that his son Florizel is courting Perdita, the shepherd’s daughter, Polixenes forbids the couple to see each other and threatens to disfigure Perdita. Fortunately, everyone learns that Perdita is a princess rather than a shepherdess and the lost daughter of Leontes, King of Sicilia and Polixenes’s former best friend. In other words, she is the perfect match for Florizel.

3) Pay attention to who your child is falling in love with. Unlike the aforementioned Egeus and Polixenes, ‘Tis Pity’s Florio insists upon his Daughter’s free agreement to any marriage. Though his “care is how to match her to her liking” (1.3), he is oblivious to his daughter’s affections for her brother. Freedom of choice is excellent, but some rules of conduct are necessary.

4) Leave your children out of spousal arguments. Act Two of A Midsummer Night’s Dream introduces Oberon and Titania’s supernaturally violent marital troubles. The couple’s dissension causes unseasonable weather, storms, floods, and plagues. Though each accuses the other of infidelity, the true crux of their argument is Titania’s newly adopted changeling boy. Oberon gains custody of the child by anointing Titania’s eyes with a love flower causing her to be enamored of the ass-headed Bottom. As soon as he has the boy, however, these antics, initially humorous, lose their savor for the fairy king, “And now I have the Boy, I will undo / This hateful imperfection of her eyes.” (4.1) The play ends with Titania and Oberon once again at peace and, I like to think, raising the changeling together.

5) Be prepared to learn something from your child. This advice is especially important if you are a character in one of Shakespeare’s Late Romance plays—The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and Pericles especially. All of those plays follow the emotional journeys of two generations, parents and their children. In each the conflict of the older generation are resolved by the younger. In The Winter’s Tale the love between Florizel and Perdita heals schism between their fathers Leontes and Polixenes. The reunion teaches them all that love and forgiveness are much preferable to hate and revenge.

6) Family is what you want it to be. My personal favorite father of the season is the Old Shepherd. He appears on the sea coast of Bohemia at the end of Act 3, just in time to save an infant Perdita from dying of exposure. He believes the child is a changeling and takes her into his home both in hopes of supernatural rewards and in fear of the fairies’ wrath. His motives for adoption are far from ideal, and the play seems to be setting Perdita up to be the wretched stepchild. Three scenes later, however, we see the now fully-grown and quite happy Perdita, her father, and her brother celebrating the sheep shearing festival. King Polixenes’s rather spoils the event with his death threats, but both Perdita’s adoptive and birth families partake in the play’s climatic reunions, proving that, in Sicilia and Bohemia at least, all a family needs is love.

—Jane Jongeward

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