Of course he did. Her name was Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. We know hardly anything about Mary Arden, except that Shakespeare decided to honor his maternal family’s name by setting his play, As You Like It, in the ‘Forests of Arden’.
Interestingly enough, As You Like It contains one of the strongest and most progressive female characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays, Rosalind. Not only is she still extraordinary today, in Shakespeare’s time she would’ve been almost unrecognizable in a world where women were considered property, and rarely played any role in society outside of mothers, servants or prostitutes (the singular exception of Queen being duly noted). I’m not suggesting Shakespeare based Rosalind on his mother, there’s absolutely no evidence of that. But I think it’s neat that Rosalind tromped about in the Forests of Arden.
Mary Arden most definitely fulfilled the role of mother. She bore her husband John Shakespeare eight children, and most certainly suffered her share of tragedy: Will Shakespeare had seven siblings, yet three of them died either in infancy or childhood. Many of the extended Arden family were Catholic, though we really don’t know about Mary herself or her husband. And Will Shakespeare? He kept his religious beliefs–if he even had any–wisely secret.
What impact did this virtually unknown woman have on the Bard of Avon? It’s hard to ever know, but we do know this: the role of mothers don’t appear often in Shakespeare’s plays. Too much shouldn’t be read into this, for in Shakespeare’s times, women weren’t allowed to perform on stage. Shakespeare designed his plays for an existing company of actors, and he had to make certain he had boy actors for every very female role.
Gertrude, the mother in Hamlet, isn’t the world’s greatest mom. Lady Macbeth, the supreme villainess, muses that she probably wouldn’t have made a great mother. So many of the other scintillating females in Shakespeare’s plays are not mothers or, if they are, never really address the issue. But getting boys to play moms? That would be tough.
There is, however, one famous monologue delivered by a mother in grief. Shakespeare must’ve had an extraordinary lad in his troupe to perform this. I hate to end this blog–on Mother’s Day–on a negative note. But in writing this speech, Shakespeare shows he strived to reveal a mother’s love, and the kind of raging grief the deaths of sons could elicit. It’s a powerful speech, words that could only ever come from the heart of a Mother.
From Richard III, here is Queen Margaret’s magnificent speech:
If ancient sorrow be most reverent,
Give mine the benefit of seniory
And let my griefs frown on the upper hand.
If sorrow can admit society,
Tell over your woes again by viewing mine.
I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard killed him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.
Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard killed him.
From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,
That foul defacer of God’s handiwork,
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth
That reigns in gallèd eyes of weeping souls,
Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.
O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee that this carnal cur
Preys on the issue of his mother’s body
And makes her pew-fellow with others’ moan!
Bear with me! I am hungry for revenge,
And now I cloy me with beholding it.
Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward;
Young York he is but boot, because both they
Matched not the high perfection of my loss.
Thy Clarence he is dead that stabbed my Edward,
And the beholders of this frantic play,
Th’ adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,
Untimely smoth’red in their dusky graves.
Richard yet lives, hell’s black intelligencer;
Only reserved their factor to buy souls
And send them thither. But at hand, at hand,
Ensues his piteous and unpitied end.
Earth gapes, hell burns, fiends roar, saints pray,
To have him suddenly conveyed from hence.
Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I pray,
That I may live and say, ‘The dog is dead.’
I called thee once vain flourish of my fortune;
I called thee then poor shadow, painted queen,
The presentation of but what I was,
The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heaved a-high to be hurled down below,
A mother only mocked with two fair babes,
A dream of what thou wast, a garish flag,
To be the aim of every dangerous shot;
A sign of dignity, a breath, a bubble,
A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.
Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues and kneels and says, ‘God save the queen’?
Where be the bending peers that flatterèd thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followèd thee?
Decline all this, and see what now thou art:
For happy wife, a most distressèd widow;
For joyful mother, one that wails the name;
For one being sued to, one that humbly sues;
For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care;
For she that scorned at me, now scorned of me;
For she being feared of all, now fearing one;
For she commanding all, obeyed of none.
Thus hath the course of justice whirled about
And left thee but a very prey to time,
Having no more but thought of what thou wast,
To torture thee the more, being what thou art.
Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not
Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?
Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke,
From which even here I slip my weary head
And leave the burden of it all on thee.
Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance!
These English woes shall make me smile in France.
The image is of the house on Henley Street in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where Mary Arden gave birth to her playwright son.