Friday, 13 June 2014

Family Relationships in Shakespeare's Plays

Who knows how Shakespeare got on with his own family,
but the relationships in his play are rarely simple 
“A little more than kin, and less than kind.” - Hamlet, I.ii 

One of the most appealing aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is that every one of his characters is intriguing, complex, contradictory and different from the ones that came before.

There is no such thing as a stock Shakespearean father, sister, uncle or wife. 

Subsequently, the portrayal of family relationships in Shakespeare’s plays is as diverse as the portrayal of the characters themselves.

Variety is The Spice of Life

Shakespeare gives his audiences warring brothers, such as Oliver and Orlando in As You Like It; ungrateful daughters, in the shape of Goneril and Regan from King Lear; devoted siblings, like Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night; and disobedient daughters, such as Desdemona in Othello.

Brutus and Portia should have a relatively happy marriage,
but things are complicated
However, one thing that does seem universal in Shakespeare’s plays is that there is no such thing as a completely content family relationship. 

Even fairly happy family bonds are complicated by some outside force - for example, the marriage of Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar, which is strained by Brutus’ inability to confide in his wife about his part in the assassination plot.

Partly, this is in order to create conflict: the lifeblood of drama. However, it also adds realism to the texts, because, just as no human being is all good or all bad, no relationship can be perpetually happy. 

This is especially true of relationships between family members, because the emotions are, usually, so strong.

Shakespeare’s Sisters and Brothers

The most famous sisters in Shakespeare’s cannon are Viola (sister of Sebastian) and Olivia (sister of an unnamed, deceased brother) in Twelfth Night; Goneril, Regan and Cordelia in King Lear; and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. 

The likelihood is that the witches use the term ‘sisters’ in reference to a sisterhood of their craft, rather than an actual familial relationship. So that leaves Viola, Olivia and Lear’s girls.
Sisters in Shakespeare's plays:
Goneril and Regan

Viola, as mentioned above, is a devoted sister, who is grieving the loss of her brother. She and Olivia have much in common in that regard. The difference, of course, being that Olivia’s brother really is dead.

Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are a fascinating threesome. It can be argued that Cordelia, despite feeling that her sisters were wrong to profess so strong and obviously disingenuous love for their father, retains an affection for them. “I know you what you are;/And like a sister am most loath to call/Your faults as they are named.”(I.i) 

The relationship between Goneril and Regan, which seems to be cordial or, at the very least, single-minded, disintegrates when Edmund comes between the pair.

Often, there is a competitiveness between Shakespeare’s brothers, which spills over into bitterness and violence, as seen with the two sets of brothers in As You Like It. However, there are also loyal brothers, such as Marcus in Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s Children and Parents

As with sibling relationships, the relationships between children and their parents can vary dramatically. 

Shylock unquestionably loves Jessica
Interestingly, there are precious few mothers in Shakespeare’s plays, the most infamous being Gertrude from Hamlet

The relationship between Hamlet and his mother being a particularly interesting one, of course, was examined by Sigmund Freud.

Fathers, on the other hand, abound. Often fathers of girls are overprotective and controlling, as is the case for Jessica and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Subsequently, there is a theme of runaway daughters: Hermia, Juliet, Desdemona, and the aforementioned Jessica, to name a few.

Nevertheless, there are very positive father/daughter relationships, too: Cordelia and Lear, despite their rocky bond at the start of the play, and Lavinia and Titus, for example.

Shakespeare’s Marriages

There are precious few married couples portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays. The majority of the comedies end with multiple marriages, but whether these turn out to be happy unions is a matter of opinion. 

For example, it’s difficult to imagine Katharina and Petruchio in The Taming of The Shrew having a pleasant, content life together (despite her apparent change of heart at the end of the play).
Although they don't look it here, the
Macbeths are Shakespeare's happiest
married couple

Ironically, the happiest marriage in Shakespeare’s works is that of the Macbeths. 

At the beginning of the play, the pair are completely in love and devoted to one another. However, this doesn’t last, as guilt over the murder of Duncan drives a wedge between them.

Essentially, Shakespeare portrays family relationships in many, interesting, dramatic, humorous and/or dysfunctional ways. 

He presents us with a spectrum of bonds that range from loving and loyal, to bitter and hateful. 

Audiences, or readers, are shown acts of immense familial devotion and horrific betrayal. And, of course, everything in between.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I beg to differ Pratt, most of the analysis is shallow and superficial.

    2. Hi there,

      I've deleted the message you replied to, as it just seemed to be a spammy hyperlink - which I wasn't going to click on to confirm.

      Sorry that you haven't found the article helpful, and that you feel the analysis is shallow and superficial (bit tautological, but never mind). The site is predominantly geared towards high school-aged kids, so it may be that you're not the target audience. Nevertheless, if you're looking for insight into a particular facet of Shakespeare's plays, feel free to drop me a line.


  2. Hi, I'm thinking of writing my dissertation about sisters in shakespeare. The Lear sisters, Bianca and Kate, and maybe looking at Celia and Rosalind because they call each other sisters at points.

    1. Hi there, Good choices. In many ways, Celia and Rosalind are just as close as sisters, so I definitely feel they could count. The other 'sisters' mentioned are The Witches in Macbeth, although that's a slightly strange relationship, admittedly! I've written about the Lear girls, it may not be that helpful in terms of your topic, but you may find something useful in there. Good luck with the dissertation.

  3. hi, i am looking for examples of family bonding in shakespearean plays nd while this blog contained good examples, i am looking for more details. is there any way you could help me out?

    1. Hello there,

      I can certainly try to help. I'm not exactly sure what you're looking for, though. I'd say there's a great example of family bonding between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, but they have a good relationship from the start. So would that still count for your purposes?

      King Lear and Cordelia have a lovely bonding moment when they reacquaint. Actually, going back to As You Like It, Orlando and Oliver have their re-connecting moment, too. Although, much of that happens 'off stage'with the lioness action we never see.

      Viola and Sebastian, similarly, have that wonderful reunion. But again, they were closely knit from the beginning. Let me know more about the kind of examples you need, and I'll try to be of more use.