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Egeus: Thoughts on Some Shakespearian Fathers and Daughters

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It is the first rehearsal for an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Pittsburgh’s South Park. Theseus is on stage going on about the celebration of his nuptials. Hermia, Demetrius, Lysander and I are off stage right, ready to make our entrance. I, of course, am Egeus, the vexed and complaining father, ready to rant about his disobedient daughter and his trampled rights. I grab Hermia by the arm, thinking to drag her onto the stage, but the actress stops me.

“This is a comedy,” she says.

And she is right, a comedy it is, but it is a comedy with a father who would rather have his daughter dead than disobedient. Very funny: one might well want to question Shakespeare’s sense of humor. The last thing Shakespearian fathers seem to want is to have their daughters’ obedience turned “to stubborn harshness.” Disobedience, it would seem, is the worst of sins. A daughter with a mind of her own must be “bewitched.’ Her heart must have been “filched.” The “impression of her fantasy” must have been stolen. Something unnatural must have occurred.

It is not only “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Think of Baptista in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Docile Bianca is the model of feminine behavior; headstrong Kate is an aberration. Think of Duke Frederick in “As You Like It.” He banishes Rosalind, a surrogate daughter, and Celia, his actual daughter, who runs off with her. Celia tells him she cannot live without Rosalind, and he calls her a fool and banishes her anyway. Now, while disobedient daughters in these plays manage to get away with it – after all, these are, as actress friend says, comedies – disobedience on the part of young girls does not always end so well. It is then that you have something approaching tragedy, and maybe even the real thing.

Lord Capulet rants and raves about Juliet’s refusal of Paris in a speech that could very well have been spoken by Egeus. And we all know how that ends.

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets.

That the father’s unreasonableness may well have something to do with the result is in some sense beside the point. If in the comedies a daughter can ultimately get away with disobedience, whoever is at fault, in the tragedies it doesn’t quite work that way.

In “Othello,” Brabantio, complaining to the Duke about Desdemona’s marriage to the Moor, demands of Desdemona to whom she owes obedience. She answers that she perceives a “divided duty.” Of course since she is now married, this is no doubt true; still, to have run off and married without her father’s permission, let alone his blessing, augers no good. Brabantio’s parting words to Othello make this clear:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.

It is a warning with disastrous results, and perhaps illustrates what happens when independent young females refuse to pay attention to their fathers.

“King Lear” is of course the most notable example in Shakespeare of father with a disobedient daughter, and for this disobedience, it is both father and daughter who suffer. Like Desdemona, Cordelia has a “divided duty:” – to her father and to the truth. Like Desdemona, there will be husband to whom obedience will be due:

…when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.

To both their regret, this is a truth Lear cannot recognize, and so he disowns her in favor of her hypocritical sisters.

In the end fathers must give up their authority voluntarily, or they must be made to give it up. Theseus must “overbear” Egeus. Petruchiio must come along and tame the shrew. Duke Frederick must have a change of heart, even if it happens offstage. That is when you have comedy. Fathers who sulk and give up their authority gracelessly or not at all are dooming their daughters as well as themselves.

This is not to say that daughters in Shakespeare’s plays are in control. There always seems to be a man in control somewhere: husband, father, Duke. It is to say that in a paternalistic society, the father at some point must give way to some other man.

About Jack Goodstein