How does Shakespeare represent the bond between parent and child?

How does Shakespeare represent the bond between parent and child?



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A careful reading of various comedies, tragedies, and early histories of Shakespeare reveals that he was principally accustomed to society’s tensions and assumptions regarding the relationship between parents and children (Cahn, 2001),  and more so the father-son and father-daughter relationships (Hamilton, 2003). It also emerges that Shakespeare was adept at representing these types of relationships. He uses subtle and at times, daring language, to represent familial and gender relations of his society, some of which come across as unconventional or provocative. The goal of this essay is to examine the family in Renaissance England as the basis for assessing how Shakespeare represents the bond between parent and child. Shakespeare has employed different tools in both the father-daughter and father-son relationships, although there are still certain similarities evident within each gender category. A strong father-son bond is often desirable as it is crucial in the development of the son’s character. Besides, the “good” son is desirable as he will ensure that he protects him in his most vulnerable state, or even avenge his death. Each of the parent-child relationships manifested in the works of Shakespeare reveals his unique ability to manipulate various contemporary principles in character construction (Johnson, Reed and Steveens, 2013). Towards this end, the essay makes use of Juliet and her father in Romeo and Juliet, Laertes and Hamlet in Hamlet, as well as Hal in Henry IV, to explore Shakespeare’s representation of the bond between parent and child.

Parent-Child bond in Renaissance England

In Renaissance England, the parent-child bond was quite unlike what we currently experience. The current society is characterized by an ever-changing relationship between children and their parents. Parents have occupied varying roles in the lives of their children, including friends, teachers, disciplinarians, and confidants (Sarbailowa, 2010). However, the parent-child relationship in Renaissance England hinged on honour and respect for one’s parents. The society in Renaissance England was predominantly patriarchal, with Elizabethan daughters being the greatest victims. The father in Renaissance England acted as head of the family, all of whom were answerable to him, including his wife (Shuger, 1997). Consequently, girls and women were treated more like inferior beings and hence assumed a lesser status in society than that of a man. Girls could not even inherit their father’s property, as they were expected to be married off. While boys received a good education in order that they may take over the running of the family, girls only received basic skills on how to please their husbands and run the household (Summers and Pebworth, 1997). Additionally, girls had no say in who they would marry. This was the prerogative of their father, who personally chose the man they wanted to marry off their daughter to. Marriage in Renaissance England was largely determined by social climbing and political power. In other words, politics and family were intertwined. In choosing the man who would marry his daughters, a father preferred a wealthy suitor who would enable him to acquire more titles, wealth, and increased social status.

Parent-child bond in Hamlet

Shakespeare presents Prince Hamlet in the play, “Hamlet” as a young man characterised by various unique attributes. His father is the late King of Denmark. Shakespeare describes him as a scholar, actor, and athlete (Shakespeare, 2014). Hamlet acquires many of these talents through a remarkable transformation in which he moves from a responsible, average Prince, to an uncontrolled and mad son whose sole mission is to avenge the unfortunate death of his father (Rosenberg, 2013). At the start of the play, Prince Hamlet behaves in the same way any ordinary person would after losing a loved one. However, in the case of Hamlet, this was no ordinary death; he had lost an adorable and loving father. He becomes depressed, angry, and grief-stricken especially after his mother decides to remarry shortly after the demise of King Hamlet. Hamlet had grown up seeing how his father would treat his mother with a lot of respect and love, and so he was at pains to comprehend how she could hasten the grieving period in order to be united with Uncle Claudius in holy matrimony (Shakespeare, 1992). Consequently, Hamlet is obsessed with his mother’s actions and fails to understand the rationale of her deeds.

For the rest of the play, Shakespeare presents Hamlet as someone who is constantly in conflict with his own self. His grief is aggravated further after a ghost that claims to be the late King appears to him. Hamlet is left in a state of anger and disgust, and he nearly ends his life. In a conversation that Hamlet has with the ghost claiming to be his father, he learns that his uncle-stepfather is responsible for the King’s death. “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (Shakespeare, 1992), p. 14). Hamlet becomes obsessed with avenging the death of the late King of Denmark, his beloved father. He finds it hard to fulfill have Claudius killed for his unforgivable action. Although fate presents Hamlet with numerous opportunities to avenge his father’s death, he nonetheless, keeps postponing the revenge in order that he may be certain that what the ghost spoke about the murder was the truth.

Finally, Hamlet decides to stage a play meant to re-enact the murder of his father. During the play and thereafter, Claudius starts behaving strangely, as if he has almost gone crazy. This served as an assurance to Hamlet that the ghost was telling the truth and that he had indeed killed the King (Shakespeare, 2014).  Hamlet makes use of his intelligence and talent in acting to identify the true killer of his beloved father. His intense feelings that he had for his father, coupled with the great length to which he goes to avenge his death, is a clear indication of the endearing father-son relationship that the two shared. It is a clear indication that Hamlet had undying love and utmost respect for his father, and this inspired him to scheme such a protracted retaliation.

Parent-child bond in Henry IV

In William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry IV, the author draws similarities between the treatment of Hal and the treatment to which children were subjected to throughout the Middle Ages. To his father, King Henry, Hal is barely noticeable, which was largely the case with all children by their parents during this period. Hal is described as a charismatic, carefree, young man (Shaughnessy, 2013). Although he was the prince and next in line to succeed his father as the King, Hal had no regard for the nobility and this only made his father more aggravated by his actions. Hal was only focused on living as opposed to the throne Shakespeare describes him as a “young man of great abilities and violent passions” His father does not hide the person whom he would want his son to emulate namely, Harry Percy., “then would I have his Harry [Percy, and he mine:” (Singh, 1983, p. 375). The King reveals his desire to have Percy as a son as he is himself a war leader and so would defend the throne. He is of the same age as Hal but has accomplished a lot in life than Hal, including winning many battles.

King Henry’s loathing for his son Hal ultimately appears to be the rationale for his next big plan. Hal wishes to associate himself with “low life losers” and only impress the King at the most opportune time (Dobson, Wells and Wells, 2001). He intends to show his father that he is indeed destined to become a great ruler. However, all King Henry wants is to be impressed by his son, but Hal does not care about it. “Redeeming time when men think least I will” (Singh, 1983, p. 377). In other words, Hal opines that he will become who he is meant to be in due time.  Eventually, Harry proves himself capable of leading, thereby winning the trust, and affection of his father. He kills Percy, although Falstaff tries to lie that he was the one who finished him off. Consequently, Hal becomes a great ruler and King as his father had intended and in the process, he ends up surprising even those who had ever doubted his abilities.

Parents across the ages have always wanted the best for their children (Parte, 2006). Although this was still the case even during the Renaissance period, the main difference is that at this time, parents treated their children as if they barely existed, unlike today, especially if they reneged on their directives. Harshness was a defining factor among many Renaissance parents. And the parent’s presence was only felt once the child had come of age. This is also true in King Henry IV. King Henry showed less concern for his son Hal, and he even wished he would be like a fiery military warrior like Percy.

Parent-Child bond in Romeo and Juliet

Elizabethan parents expected their children to obey them without questioning and parents even viewed their own children as part of their property (Dreher, 1986). The society was predominantly patriarchal and as such, the father was the authority in the family. Women in the Elizabethan era were also expected to abide by the strict rules of their husbands. Fathers would also instruct their daughters to marry husbands they had identified for them from rich families mainly for wealth gains. Shakespeare has deftly developed such a scenario in Romeo and Juliet. In Act One, Scene Two, Paris is consulting with Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, as he intends to marry her. However, Juliet’s father is of the view that she is not old enough for marriage yet.  He nonetheless approves of Paris’s willingness to marry his daughter but cautions him that the final decision rests with Juliet, “An she agree, within her scope of choice lies my consent and fair according voice” (Collier, 1842, p. 384). Capulet handles the situation in a manner that leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader that he has a lot of kindness and love for his daughter, quite unlike many men of his era. Capulet even goes ahead to let Juliet decide whom she wishes to marry. Capulet is also asking his daughter to marry the wealthy Paris, as opposed to telling her whom to marry. He treats Juliet as any man would treat a beloved daughter. Juliet is his only living child as all his other children have since died and so he wants nothing but the best for her, “She is the hopeful lady of my earth” (Shakespeare, Dennie and Johnson, 1809, p. 224).

Eventually, Juliet agrees to marry Paris, and in Act Three, Scene Four, her father is involved in arranging their wedding and says of her, “she shall be married to this noble earl” (Shakespeare, 2010, p. 41). However, Juliet’s father goes about arranging the wedding without her consent out of a conviction that doing so will help her come out of her depressive state. Capulet thinks that the death of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt was the trigger of her depressive state but in the actual sense, Juliet is in this state because Romeo after Rome has been exiled from Verona (Shakespeare, 2014). Nonetheless, the above quote goes to show that Juliet’s father was very kind to her. Capulet was in a position to choose the wealthiest man he could find to marry his daughter and in turn, acquire a lot of wealth. However, he settled on Paris whom he describes as a ‘noble’ suitor. What this goes to show is that Capulet is not concerned about using his daughter as a tool to amass wealth but he genuinely wants to see her happily married.

In Scene Five, however, Capulet‘s attitude towards Juliet seems to change after his wife informs him that she has declined to marry Paris. Capulet even threatens to throw Juliet out of the home and stop caring about her. While this might come across as unfair and harsh for a parent to treat a child and an only child at that, it is important also to remember that the play was set in an era when parents, especially fathers, had the final decision. Children were expected to obey their father’s decisions without question. We can therefore understand Capulet’s outrage and he might have panicked for having been defied by Juliet for probably the very first time.

On the other hand, Lady Capulet is typical of the Elizabethan parents who treated their children as property. In Act One, Scene Three, she asks, “Nurse where’s my daughter? Call her forth to me”. (Shakespeare, 1807, p. 971 ). This almost comes across as if she views Juliet as some kind of object. There is no indication of love for her daughter. Her reference to Juliet as ‘daughter’ and she referring to her mother as ‘madam’ is a further indication of how Elizabethan charms were expected to address their parents with a certain form of strict formality. She could have very well referred to Lady Capulet as mother and while she on the other hand could have referred to her daughter as “Juliet”. This distant mother-daughter relationship could be due to the fact that Juliet was raised by the nurse and not her mother; the Nurse even breastfed Juliet when she was a baby (DeCourcy, Fairchild and Follet, 2007). The level of detachment between mother and daughter emerges at the start of the play when the conversation about Paris comes up and requests the Nurse to be part of the conversation. This is because the Nurse is both a friend and confidant to Juliet.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare demonstrates the parent-child bond experienced during his era possibly as a way of educating society that they were doing the wrong things. The tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy might be an indication that the manner in which the Elizabethan parents treated their children as property was bound to lead to despair for their parents or their children. Consequently, the Capulets and Montague lost their children due to treating them as objects, as opposed to their own children.


The shifting societal values are perhaps best exemplified by the changing nature of the parent-child relationship over the eras. Shakespeare, through his various works such as Hamlet, King Henry IV, and Romeo and Juliet depicted how parents related to their children in the Renaissance period. The themes of defiance and domination are quite evident in these texts full of romance, comedy, and tragedies. Romeo and Juliet shed further light on the intricate father-daughter bond and is hence of considerable value to literary studies. Shakespeare depicts the Renaissance father as demanding obedience and unwavering respect, even as their sons and daughters affirm the value of and respect for independence. However, there is still evidence of changing concepts of family and marriage, as evidenced by Juliet’s father letting her make a decision on whether to marry Paris or not. However, in the end, his true character is revealed as he is infuriated by Juliet’s decision not to marry Paris, and he threatens to disown her. Reading through the aforementioned three works of Shakespeare, it seems as though he was trying to shed light on what was wrong about society during his time and to appeal to the masses to change their ways for the better in terms of how parents related to their children.


Deborah K. Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics, and the Dominant Cultures (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. 219

Delia DeCourcy, Lyn Fairchild and Robin Follet, Teaching Romeo and Juliet: A Different Approach (Chicago, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2007), p. 100.)

Diane Elizabeth Dreher, Domination And Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1986), p. 40.

John Payne Collier, The works of William Shakespeare, the text formed from an entirely new collation of the old editions, with notes [&c.] by J.P. Collier. [With] Notes and emendations to the text of Shakespeare’s plays, Volume 6. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1842), p. 83.

Lorianna Sarbailowa, Fathers and Daughters in Selected Shakespearean Plays (Berlin: GRIN Verlag, 2010), p. 4.

Marvin, Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet (Nelwark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press), p. 251.

Michael Dobson, Stanley Wells and Stanley W. Wells, The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 76.

Morriss Henry Parte, Childhood in Shakespeare’s Plays (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), p. 102.

Robert, Shaughnessy, The Routledge Guide to William Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 2013 ), p. 389.

Samuel Johnson, Isaac Reed and George Steevens, The plays of William Shakespeare…: With the corrections and illustrations of various commentators, Volume 12 (Bel Air, CA.: BiblioBazaar, 2016) p. 13.

Sarup Singh, Family Relationships in Shakespeare and The Restoration Comedy of Manner (Delhi: OUP, 1983) p. 375.

Sharon Hamilton, Shakespeare’s Daughters (North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), p. 86.

Victor L. Cahn, The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001), p. 71.

Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, Representing Women in Renaissance England (St. Louis, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1997), p. 189.

William Shakespeare and Samuel Ayscough, The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare: With Explanatory Notes…, Volume 2 (London: J. Stockdale, 1807), p. 971.

William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, scholar edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 11.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet: In Full Colour, Cartoon Illustrated Format. Shakespeare Comic Books, 2010), p. 41.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 34.

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