Did Shakespeare Have a Mom? – 08 May 2016


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.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 8 April 2015

Lady Anne

I’ve touched on this quote before, but it’s so powerful–one of my favorites–that I’d like to quote in its entirety Lady Anne’s speech in its wrathful glory:


Foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not;

For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,

Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.

If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,

Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.

                                                              She points to the corpse

O, gentlemen, see, see! dead Henry’s wounds

Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh!

Blush, Blush, thou lump of foul deformity;

For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood

From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells;

Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural,

Provokes this deluge most unnatural.

O God, which this blood madest, revenge his death!

O earth, which this blood drink’st revenge his death!

Either heaven with lightning strike the murderer dead,

Or earth, gape open wide and eat him quick,

As thou dost swallow up this good king’s blood

Which his hell-govern’d arm hath butchered! 

Richard III, Act I Scene ii 

This delicious string of curses and insults that Lady Anne hurls at Richard, over the corpse of her dead uncle, King Henry, are a wonder of theatre and characterization. Richard announces right from the opening of the play his evil intentions. The audience has no doubt he’s the villain–the play has no hero. As if there weren’t enough, in Scene ii, the widowed Lady Anne (her husband Prince Edward and her uncle the King are dead) sets out for the audience in her speech Richard’s true character.

Yet–and this has troubled critics for centuries–in the ensuing scene Richard’s loquacious genius persuades Anne to marry him! Such a shocking turnabout has always been a challenge for actresses playing Anne. It’s certainly possible: the greatest performers are able to evoke Anne’s horror, anger, shock, naivety and scrappy survival instincts all at once. 

The image is of Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Anne in the magnificent film adaptation of Richard III from 1995. Ian McKellen looms in the background as Richard. The man with the hole in his head is King Henry.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 04 March 2015


In my part of the country, Winter’s all but over, which is a happy time.   Shakespeare used that sentiment in one of his most famous turns of phrase: ‘The winter of our discontent.’ The opening of Richard III leaps upon us as a grand soliloquy, presented by its antihero, the sociopathic and hunchbacked Duke of Gloucester, later renamed Richard: 

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes. 

Richard III, Act I, Scene i 

It’s a stupendous speech because Gloucester (Richard) spells out for everyone what ails him (he was born so ugly and deformed that dogs bark at him), and gives argument to why he’s spoiling to play the villain (even though his brother King Edward has banished winter for the summer of peace, Gloucester’s having none of it). 

He boasts that ‘if King Edward be as true and just / As I am subtle, false and treacherous’, he’ll soon have things his way. 

And so Shakespeare is telling his audience that even though they’ve come to see a history, they’re going to bare witness to some deliciously staged mayhem. 

If you’d like to see this brought brilliantly to life, I highly recommend the 1995 film Richard III, starring Ian McKellen as the murderously vile but eloquent King.   This opening speech, in particular, McKellen delivers from a urinal! The graphic shows McKellen in faux Nazi-like regalia: the film was staged as if it took place in an alternate universe England of the 1940s.