I posted this last year on Mother’s Day on the American Shakespeare Center Education Intern’s blog. Guess I had some stuff on my mind.
Mothers. We all have them, or did at some point. There are many different types of mothers: biological, adoptive, absent, neglectful. In honor of this upcoming Mother’s Day, let’s take a look at all the different mothers who appear (or critically do not appear) in the shows currently on during the Spring season at the Blackfriars Playhouse. The unwillingly absent but eternally loving Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, the self-interested and transgressive Annabella in‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and the Indian votaress in A Midsummer Night’s Dream all have one thing in common: they do not get to raise their children. But does that mean they are not mothers?
When Hermione is with her children, she is happy and content, a loving mother and a normal one. She gets annoyed at Mamillius a time or two, telling her lady to “take the boy to you; he so troubles me / ‘tis past enduring” (2.1.1-2) – but it’s hardly unusual or unnatural for a mother to occasionally be wearied by her rambunctious ten-year-old. But when Leontes’s jealousy removes her from her family, resulting in her son’s death and her daughter’s banishment (and presumed death), we see the full pain of a grieving mother.
Hermione never grieves for herself. Even after Leontes throws Hermione in jail, where she endures the pain of childbirth alone in a dirty cell, and then is “hurried / here to this place, i’ th’ open air, before / I have got strength of limit” to stand trial before her husband for her supposed crimes, she never weeps or pleads for her life (3.2.104-6). “Sir, spare your threats,” she says to Leontes. “The bug which you would fright me with, I seek” but not because she has been “on every post proclaim’d a strumpet.” Her first sorrow is the loss of her husband’s love, and hard by is “my second joy / and first fruits of my body, from his presence / I am barr’d, like one infectious.” What cares she for life, if she does not have her son? On top of that, “my third comfort … is from my breast … hal’d out to murder.” Her desire for death stems not from pride or slander but from the loss of her children – every mother’s nightmare. “Tell me what blessings I have here alive,” she tells Leontes, “that I should fear to die?”
And die she does, at least for awhile, when she loses Mamillius for good. When she is not a mother, she simply ceases to exist. Whether she is dead or in hiding with Paulina is not important: the only important thing is that she is not there. It is not until her daughter Perdita reappears, restoring her title of “mother,” that Hermione herself can exist again. She is a mother more than she is a woman, a wife, or a queen. If she can’t be a mother, she’s nothing.
Annabella and Giovanni, from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, notably lack such a motherly presence. Annabella’s maid, Putana, is a poor substitute, and their father is too preoccupied with arranging Annabella’s wedding to one of her many suitors to notice that she is sleeping with her brother. In fact, there are no mothers in the play at all – except Annabella herself, who becomes pregnant with Giovanni’s child.
Her pregnancy, the play’s only concession to motherhood, is a calamity. There is no joy in the prospect of this child. Putana’s way of telling Giovanni the unhappy news is to wail that his sister is undone and shamed forever. When Giovanni anxiously asks her if Annabella has died, Putana says, “Dead? No, she is quick; ‘tis worse, she is with child” (3.3.9-10). Even Friar Bonaventura has no pity for the scared expectant mother. “You have unript a soul so foul and guilty / as, I must tell you true, I marvel how / the earth hath borne you up” (3.6.2-3). Annabella makes one tender to reference to her unborn child, telling her already-cuckolded though newly-wed husband Soranzo cryptically of “the man… that got this sprightly boy / for this a boy, that for glory, sir” and then launches into praises for her anonymous baby daddy (4.3.33-4). No one speaks another word about the gestating child until Giovanni stabs Annabella in a jealous rage and, as an afterthought, realizes he has also killed his son.
But lest you think all early modern plays take such a dire view of motherhood, you must remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream
. Certainly Athens has moments where a much-needed mother is absent – notably Hermia’s mother, who might have been able to tell Egeus not to kill their daughter for wedding her true love Lysander – but the fairy world of Oberon and Titania is different. Titania is parenting a little Indian boy, son of a votaress who died during childbirth. (Hear more about this in Dr. Ralph’s podcast here.
) Titania loved the woman and tells Oberon, “for her sake do I rear up her boy / and for her sake I will not part with him” (2.1.136-7). Oberon wants the boy for his own page for unclear reasons, and the fairy subplot hinges on their fight over him.
Take out the supernatural elements and you find a very modern familial situation. Titania and Oberon were lovers once but now, divorced as they are, their main and most vicious battle is over custody. Oberon may want the boy out of jealousy of his beauty or just to annoy his ex, but Titania loves him as if he were her own. “The fairy land buys not the child of me,” she tells Oberon (2.1.122). Does the lack of Titania’s blood in the boy’s veins make her any less his mother? Perhaps not, but does her love for him nullify his connection to his birthmother, the Indian votaress who died giving birth to him? Doubtless if she had lived she would love him just as much as Titania does – but she did die, and Titania loved her, and for her sake will raise her boy to remember her. Had she left him behind, he would be motherless. By taking him with her, she gave him two mothers – herself and the memory of the votaress.
This Mother’s Day, honor all the mothers in your life. Not all mothers get to raise their own children. Maybe they are separated from their children through unfortunate circumstances, like Hermione. Maybe they are never born, like Annabella’s. Maybe someone else raises them, due to the birth mother’s death, like the Indian votaress’s. Likewise, not all mothers give birth to their own children, like Titania. Yet, all of these women are mothers, and they all deserve recognition on Mother’s Day.