Mothers of self-invention

I had a pulled a Shakespeare: Where was my mother?

I issued the usual complaint to my wife: “I don’t know what to write about.”

Henry VIII was in the books but no inspiration was coming to me. I had come down with a bad case of PPMD: Post-play Moping Disorder. Symptoms include: writer’s block, acute unoriginality, sore purpose, intellectual nausea, and mild gas.

“Your mother,” she said.

“Huh? My mother?”

“You haven’t written about your mother.”

She was right. I had written about my stepmother. I had written about my brothers. About my father and grandfather. About old friends and new friends. I had written on many occasions about my wife (and our many arguments). I had called up grade-school teachers and past girlfriends. I had even dedicated a whole post to my dog.

But my mother? She was nowhere to be found.

I had pulled a Shakespeare.

***

What happened to Queen Lear? In The Tempest, why don’t we hear about Miranda’s mother? Desdemona’s father plays a major part in Othello, but what about her mom? So too with The Taming of the Shrew. We hear about Portia’s father in The Merchant of Venice but not his counterpart. Titus Andronicus has a whole brood of children (25 at one point) but no mention of their mum. Nada, zilch, squat on Prince Hal’s mother from what I recall in Henry IVmaybe that’s why he was acting out. As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline. The list goes on.

In so many of Shakespeare’s plays, mothers are conspicuously absent.

And some of the mothers he does feature aren’t exactly getting a call on Mother’s Day. The un-bereaved Gertrude in Hamlet? The vengeful Tamora in Titus Andronicus? Distant Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet? Even Lady Macbeth. When she’s laying into her husband for lacking cojones to kill King Duncan, she suggests she once had a child:

…I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this. (1.7.54-59).

When there are strong mothers, they’re often vilified: King Leontes tyrannizes Queen Hermione in A Winter’s Tale and Queen Margaret, whose hard-nosed leadership is viewed as too masculine, is deemed unnatural in Henry VI. Volumnia in Coriolanus, meanwhile, strikes many critics as over-mothering to the point of warmongering.

What gives, Shakespeare? What do you have against moms? People like to joke Shakespeare’s absent wives and queens divorced their husbands long before Act I. Take Prospero, who spent all his time reading magic books, and you can imagine King Lear was pretty controlling. Would you stick around for these two? (I think I should hide these two plays from my own wife.)

But jokes aside, was Shakespeare short on talent? Young boys played female characters on the Elizabethan stage; perhaps they weren’t seen as believable in the role of adult women. Or was Shakespeare just heavy on patriarchy? Wives, sadly, were largely relegated to the private sphere in Shakespeare’s day, thereby removing them from the public action that drives the plots of his plays.

One of his most women-centric plays, case in point, is a domestic comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Margaret Page has a daughter and a son). But the wives, you may recall, hilariously outwit the lusty Falstaff and have some good clean fun at their husbands’ expense. Perhaps Shakespeare was actually pushing the Renaissance husband-wife/father-mother envelope, even if just a skosh?

***

And what’s my excuse, you ask? I’m putting the question right back on you: Do you think the likes of Lady Macbeth in any way makes me think of my dear mother?! Well, a few glasses of chardonnay in, my mother does like to joke of my birth: “They pulled you from my womb. They pulled you from my body.” That’s kind of Lady Macbeth-level graphic, isn’t it? I can hear one of my brothers bellowing: “Mom, c’mon! That’s gross!”

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he got along with his mother.

The truth is, I chased Shakespeare’s emotional ambulances. Conflict is my way into his plays. Conflict is essential to any good story, my writing here included. And conflict is something, other than me being occasionally too judgmental of her when we talk on the phone, that my mother and I, fortunately, haven’t experienced much of.

Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write mothers into his plays because he also got along with his mother.

***

Mary Shakespeare, née Arden, came from some money and status. Shakespeare’s father, John, was a farmer’s son. Mary married down. Did she marry for love, for fulfillment? Did she exercise more choice and will than your typical Elizabethan woman?

I also can’t help but wonder how Mary and John reacted when young Bill said he was going into theater. I’m sure you can hear it today, too, when one tells their parents, oh, I don’t know, you’re quitting your job to read the complete works of Shakespeare.

But maybe Mary was supportive. Maybe Shakespeare modeled one of his best mothers, the caring but fair Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well, after his own. The advice she gives to her (ungrateful) son Bertram as he’s going abroad is something every son should heed today:

Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee, and thy goodness
Share with thy birthright. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence
But never taxed for speech…(1.1.54-61)

I’ve revisited this passage several times since finishing the play. In part because I find her advice so pure, wise, simple, and true. In part because I find it remarkable Shakespeare left us such lucid moral instruction. And in part because I hear the guidance my own mother has always provided me at crossroads in my life: “Follow your heart.”

***

I’ve often struggled with her words. A lot of times, I didn’t know how to listen to my heart. I didn’t know what it was trying to tell me. Other times, I just wanted someone else to make the big decision for me. And, to be honest, I’ve struggled with them because she’s said them so damned often – you I know I love you, Mom – that they just lost all their meaning. They’re like a truism, a verbal tic.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

But something I never considered until I thought about Shakespeare’s mothers was: Why those words? Why that expression? Why that particular advice? Why did my mother always tell me to follow my heart?

There were times in her life, I think, when she wasn’t allowed to follow her heart, perhaps restricted like a Renaissance mother. Then there came a point when she could. This shift, this freedom, though born of painful circumstance, let her reinvent herself, who she is, what she could be, what could she do.

Following one’s heart: That requires self-invention. And there’s nothing more Shakespearean than that.

My mother pulled a Shakespeare – a proper Shakespeare.