Shakespeare’s family relationships is prominent in about

Shakespeare’s
plays are filled many difficult family relationships. Absent mothers and
overbearing fathers, disobedient sons and rebellious daughters, scheming
brothers and wily sisters. Familial clashes are usually resolved by the end of
Shakespeare’s comedies. However, in the tragedies, the problematic family
relationships tend to end in disaster. Whether the plays are historical,
tragedy, or romance, the portrayal of family is an ever-present component in
Shakespearean drama. Some critics argue that the theme of family relationships
is prominent in about two-thirds of Shakespeare’s plays, while others argue
family is a central concern in the entirety of the Shakespearean canon. In this
essay, I will explore how conflicts within families feed into the larger social
and political concerns within the plays and consider how family dynamics interact
with the plays’ gender politics, and the explorations of succession and
madness. I will mainly be focusing on the parent and child relationships in
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I (1598) and The
Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1603), as I feel like they tend to be the most unstable.

 Henry
IV, Part I, shows the tumultuous relationship between King Henry and
Prince Hal and dramatizes, on a small scale, the civil rebellion that threatens
to destroy England. The relationship between father and son is particularly significant
in this play, as the King and the Prince are two of the driving characters. Prince
Hal is the wayward son of King Henry and the heir to the throne. However, he
has pushed his life of nobility aside to drink and partake in illicit behaviour
with Falstaff. In the play, Falstaff is a second father figure to Hal and is a
lot more involved in his life than Henry, Hal’s actual father. The King and
Falstaff represent the two sides of Hal’s life, his royal life which is in
Westminster with the responsibilities of being a prince, and his life in
Eastcheap which is where he avoids his responsibilities and has fun. The fathers
on each side are different, and Hal’s relationship with each of them is
different as well. Hal is a lot closer to Falstaff than he is with the King,
and this is shown through how he interacts with each of them. His interactions
with Falstaff are usually them teasing each other and joking around, whereas
when the King speaks to Hal, he tells him how much of a disappointment he is
and criticises his behaviour. He lists
specific failures that he sees in Hal’s life. These include losing his place in
the Council to his younger brother (Act 3, Scene 2, ll.33-34), and losing the respect
of his subjects, diminishing their hope of a suitable successor to the throne
(Act 3, Scene 2, ll.36-38). The King goes on to question the people
Prince Henry associates with, saying:

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Could such inordinate and low desires,

Such poor, such bare, such lewd, such mean attempts,

Such barren pleasures, rude society,

As thou art matched withal and grafted to,

Accompany the greatness of thy blood

And hold their level with thy princely heart? (Act 3,
Scene 2, ll.12-17)

The King is essentially
denouncing the crowd that Hal has chosen to associate himself with, casting
them off as ‘rude society’ (Act 3, Scene 2, l.14). The King is also berating
Hal for his actions, as well as for choosing to hang around people of a much
lower class. Hal seems to accept what his father is saying, and so aims redeem
himself. Although
he enjoys the company of Falstaff, it is clear by his soliloquy in Act One,
Scene Two, that he plans to reform himself and act like his father wishes him
to, saying:

My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will (Act 1, Scene
2, ll.188-192)