The equivocation of the private life of Elizabethan and Jacobean subjects with the public life of monarchy and state endowed mothers with an import, and therefore a power, not previously acknowledged. These changes provoked a fear of female disruption to patriarchal structures which found its way onto Shakespeare’s stage by the representation of mothers as ‘unnatural’ agents of chaos, associated with witchcraft, murder, dangerous ambition, and infidelity; if not by complete absence, which “posits the sacrifice of the mother’s desire as the basis of the ideal society” (Rose, 1991: 313). I suggest that in the late romances, specifically The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Shakespeare found a form that could demonstrate the complexity of the mother’s position, while still resolving the action with a satisfactory ending that presented a stable continuation of patriarchal lineage. The fathers rely on a fantasy of parthenogenesis to relocate the role of the mother in themselves, ensuring the children are free from her corruptive influence and the bloodlines are safe. However, as all themes return to maternity – chastity, fertility, lineage for example – the fantasy of eradicating the mother is shown to be limited even in the artificial realm of the romance.
Helen Hopkins read English Literary Studies at the University of Worcester. Her research interests include Shakespeare, Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and culture, and gender studies.