Thursday, June 21, 2012

You're Grounded, Young Lady

Unsurprisingly for a man who wrote one of his two surviving daughters out of his will, Shakespeare's plays are full of girls with daddy issues. Hermia, Ophelia, Kate, Hero, Miranda, Cordelia and the terrible twosome, and that's without opening a book. Regardless of whether they're shrews or angels, every heroine whose father appears onstage gets put through the wringer, often in ways deliberately designed to test her relationship with her father. And sometimes it's hard to say who suffers more, the daughter or her father.

King Lear and His Three Daughters, William Hilton
Take the obvious example, King Lear. The body count in this play would be ridiculous if it wasn't so devastating. Lear, trying vainly to hold onto the trappings of power (both political and fatherly) without actually doing his job, endures more excruciating onstage agony than any other Shakespearean character. Goneril and Regan delight in backstabbing their trusting father, only to fight to the death over a man even worse than they are. Cordelia gets punished and exiled for being honest, loses a battle even with right on her side, and is strangled in prison a few hours after being reunited with her sadder-but-wiser father. The play might as well be called Ye Olde Daddy Issues. It's really, really hard to say who gets the rawest deal.

King Lear is perhaps the best illustration of Shakespeare's view of the father/daughter relationship at its worst. From Lear to Polonius to Baptista Minola, Shakespearean fathers have an incredibly hard time letting their daughters grow up. And when, inevitably, they do, both father and daughter suffer from the father's deliberate refusal to give his daughter agency in her own life. You can play it for comedy: Baptista really wishes Kate would just get married and get out of his house. You can play it for tragedy: Polonius brutally squashes Ophelia's timid attempts to make her own decisions about her love life, leading directly to his murder and her insanity. And given that it's Shakespeare, you can even play it for weird dark laughs: if Hermia doesn't marry the man Egeus wants her to marry, he's perfectly happy to let her be ritually sacrificed.

In every case, the fathers know exactly what they want their daughters to grow up into. When the daughters get their own ideas about who they want to be, the fathers uniformly lose their marbles. Baptista forces Kate into marriage with a hilarious and terrifying abuser. Cymbeline banishes Imogen from England when her secret love-match with Posthumus comes to light. Lord Capulet threatens to let 13-year-old Juliet starve to death unless she marries his choice of husband. And most horrifically, Leonato wishes death on Hero to her face at the first hint that she might not be a perfect human being. (Hero, as always, gets dealt the worst hand ever: she alone didn't actually do the thing her father reviles her for.)

Prospero and Miranda, William May Egley 
Mercifully, for us and possibly also for Shakespeare's daughters, it's not all bad. Among all the chaos, one father/daughter relationship stands out as sweet and touching. Prospero and Miranda's relationship is the most important one in The Tempest. It's for his daughter's sake that Prospero engineers the entire plot; he doesn't want her to grow up isolated and ignorant of her rightful heritage. Their first scene together is tender and funny by turns, and Prospero uses the most loving language of any Shakespearean father for a daughter. Miranda, for her part, is still very young, running to her father to fix all the wrongs in her world - but she also teases him for his long-winded story, and even in her instant attraction to Ferdinand is hesitant to cross Prospero's will.

Ferdinand and Miranda, Paul Falconer Poole
But even Prospero finds it hard to let go. He makes very clear - to the audience, if not to Miranda - that he has planned her meeting with Ferdinand specifically to restore her to power and luxury. He exults to himself and to Ariel about the success of this scheme. And he throws as many roadblocks as possible in the way of his daughter's burgeoning love, and the womanhood that comes with it. His excuse is that Ferdinand may not cherish Miranda as he should if he wins her too easily. But it's hard not to see in him the master manipulator's petty glee as he turns the man who would take away his daughter into his own personal slave. (Not to mention that his pro-chastity speech would terrify any prospective son-in-law.) At the beginning of the play, Prospero is not above casually putting Miranda into a magical sleep to get her out of the way. His struggle to rise above himself and renounce his eerie powers is also a struggle to let his daughter live her own life.

Claudio, Deceived by Don John, Accuses Hero, Marcus Stone
Luckily for Prospero, Miranda's about as perfect as you can get. She jumps enthusiastically at his plan for her, which helps to ease the uncomfortable feeling that she's still doing just what he wants; it also happens to be what she wants. Other daughters, even seemingly perfect ones, don't cooperate. Sweet Bianca is revealed to be as willful and more manipulative than her sister Kate. Juliet's defiance of her father comes as a true shock to parents accustomed to dictating orders. Lear gets bit twice: first Cordelia refuses to play his game, then Goneril and Regan change the rules without informing him. And even cooperation isn't a sure bet; Ophelia winds up an insane suicide for her trouble.

The only ones who manage to survive the gauntlet with their relationship even a little intact are the fathers and daughters who let each other go. Prospero and Miranda will probably always adore each other; long-suffering Hero forgives her alarming father and her appalling fiance; Cymbeline, faced with Imogen's sheer guts, has the grace to realize that he can't put her back in a box she's already broken out of. The fathers who cling to their own visions for their daughters' future actually destroy it. And the harder they hold on, the harder the girls fight to be free, and everyone gets hurt much, much worse.

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