Daughters and fathers

It’s a literary trope, the father who disowns or betrays a daughter. I don’t say that to make light of it, but on the contrary, to point out the way it has haunted the human imagination, which underlines how horrible it is. (This applies to all combinations of parents and children, but fathers and daughters gets noticed less than fathers and sons.)

Agamemnon, you know. He sacrificed Iphigenia – which is to say, he killed her on an “altar” – to get a wind when the attack on Troy was becalmed. Not very fatherly, as one of the Mitfords might have put it. Lucretius used it as the occasion for his famous comment, tantum religio potuit suadere malorum – religion can persuade [people to perform] such evils.

And then there’s Shakespeare, who repeatedly portrayed fathers disowning daughters. In other Elizabethan plays, fathers who do that are defending “honor” (does it sound familiar? Of course it does, because it’s the same) and the daughters either deserve it or are betrayed by fate or bad luck or some such thing, not by their fathers. In Shakespeare’s many plays on the subject, the father is always dead wrong.

Juliet’s father tried to force her into a marriage and when she refused he disowned her. Hero’s father believed lying tricksters who said she’d been letting men in her bedroom window so they could fuck like weasels. Desdemona’s father disowned her because she married a Moor – a man of Another Race. Cordelia’s father not only disowned her, but cursed her – meaning not he swore at her but he called down curses on her, curses that were meant to be efficacious – for declining to flatter him in the way he expected. Imogen’s father was another who accepted a trickster’s claim that she was a Secret Slut. Perdita’s father disowned his wife because he got it in his head (for no reason) that she was humping his best friend, and he tried to have the infant Perdita killed.

Juliet dies disowned, as does Desdemona. Cordelia and Lear, and Perdita and Leontes, however, get the chance for reconciliation at the end. It’s interesting how thoroughly Shakespeare puts the fathers in the wrong.


  1. sailor1031 says

    Being not a parent, by choice, I have never understood the arrogant sense of entitlement that allows some parents to believe that they may dictate their childrens’ lives and actions. We saw it again just the other day when some british sailor’s whiney eMail to his children was suddenly all over the news. My old man had the same attitude – a dead ringer for the great Santini – and the major reason I’m childless and glad of it – so I know it’s sons as well as daughters who suffer this. Is it my imagining or is it mostly fathers who act this way? I have learned though, that living well is the best revenge. Plus a little judicious scorn where appropriate.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Egeus and Hermia, as well. You’re right, there are a bunch.

    The worst of the lot is Titus Andronicus. He has to kill his daughter because, well, she’s been raped and had her hands and tongue cut out. No, it doesn’t make any sense.

    I guess Polonius was the best of the bad lot. At least he got killed before he did anything too awful.

  3. says

    I guess Polonius was the best of the bad lot. At least he got killed before he did anything too awful.

    Polonius: Pay no attention to that man behind that curt -uurrrk!

    Hamlet: My bad.

  4. iknklast says

    Is it my imagining or is it mostly fathers who act this way?

    No. It’s just that in the past, mothers didn’t matter. It was fathers who controlled the wealth, and who owned the daughter, so fathers could disown them.

    My grandmother disowned me.

  5. bcmystery says

    I’ve always felt one of my primary responsibilities as a father is to be worthy of my daughter.

  6. briane says

    My two little sprogs never chose to be born, nor their parents. I can’t blame them for disowning me some day if I turn out to be a useless dad. But I chose to have them, seems wrong to then say that I didn’t chose them, and all that entails.

  7. michaelpowers says

    I ran across a great quote, although I’m not sure it applies here.

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

    -Dr. Steven Weinberg (Awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979, and the National Medal of Science in 1991)

    Due to a large dose of X-Rays recieved while I was in the service, I never had any children (my guys tend to swim around in circles, mistaking blood cells for eggs. It’s embarrassing, really). So, to see a man discard such an incredible gift for any reason, let alone something so trivial, makes my blood boil.

    Trust me, the loss is his.

  8. latsot says


    Trust me, the loss is his.

    Tru dat, but he won’t feel the loss too much against the might of his righteousness. It’s not as though he’s lost a *son* or anything…

    Speaking as a son who was abandoned, the loss can certainly be mutual. For example I still want the approval of my parents even though they don’t deserve to judge me. I’ve worked quite hard to renew a relationship with them very much against my better judgement. I usually try not to do things that are against my better judgement. I’m a fool for doing this. It has hurt me more than it’s helped me and I’ve salved their conscience without ever getting an apology.

    I should elaborate, I suppose. They cast me off when I was a teenager, it wasn’t that they couldn’t cope with a new baby. I have 3 older siblings. They left me on my own, not in the care of an authority. I think this is the same sort of thing as abandoning a child for an arbitrary transgression of arbitrary rules.

    My point isn’t to elicit sympathy for me (I don’t need it), it’s to say that the greater loss could well be hers, not his. Her father isn’t worth much, but even middle-aged people like me occasionally crave a father if we don’t think we’ve had one.

    Ashley has *never* had a father. She hasn’t lost one.

  9. oursally says

    My male parent was an authoritarian and violent peasant, prone to screaming rages and tantrums, fists like a boxer. He lost us all as soon as we were old enough to notice that other people’s dads weren’t like him. He threw us all out sooner or later, and our response was to stay thrown. His loss. After a few years and grandchildren he started ringing up and begging us to come and visit. By then he’d got the medication for being bipolar, but still we made sure he was never alone with the kids.

    (We all visited and telephoned our mum all along, but this subject was taboo, so we just didn’t talk about it.)

  10. Timon for Tea says

    Yes, Shakespeare really seems to be interested in women, which is rare for the period and flies in the face of all the obstacles that an Elizabethan playwright faced in portraying them. He doesn’t seem to be much interested in sex, though, erotic sex anyhow.

  11. Waffler, of the Waffler Institute says

    It’s interesting how thoroughly Shakespeare puts the fathers in the wrong.

    Possibly a reason Shakespeare has stayed relevant for centuries: he got human motivations and social dynamics mostly right. Plus he was good with the words.

  12. otrame says

    Yeah, he was good with the words. He could make any minor verbal act (you know, “hello” or “kthxbye”) into something nearly orgasmic with his words.

    Hmmm. I have David Tennet’s Hamlet on my iCloud. Think I’ll pull that sucker down and wallow in some words for a while.

  13. Lyanna says

    Yeah, that’s proof of Shakespeare’s greatness. His brilliance was his imagination. Also his love of freedom–he doesn’t like authoritarians much, but he understands authoritarian psychology completely. He’s also why I never accept the “man of his time” excuse for poor portrayals of women. Shakespeare managed to live in the Elizabethan era and have sympathy for women. Contrast him with Marlowe, who has a very different attitude to women.

    I think it’s mostly fathers who are this way for the simple reason that it’s fathers who are told they own their children, that they have “rights” over their children. Mothers get told a lot about how they must sacrifice for their children, but fathers get told about how they possess their children.

  14. says

    Yes exactly. His sympathy for and with women – his very willingness just to let them take up space, say things, make jokes, occupy big parts of the show – feels almost eerie to me. Well skip the almost. All his contemporaries that I’ve read (which is a decent few) are – like Marlowe – completely unlike that. (The Duchess of Malfi might be a partial exception. She does at least get some hella good lines. But does she get the depth of Beatrice, Rosalind, Paulina, Lady Macbeth? No.) Women are cardboard characters who do what little they must for the plot, and that’s it.

    And never forget that this is in the context of how his company (and the other company – there were only two, by law) operated: they didn’t have many boys, so no playwright could include lots of women. Shxpr was very limited in how many women he could write into the plays.

  15. bobo says

    Here in Canada a woman abandoned her children when they were teens. Yep, she just got up one morning and left her children behind

    Now that she is old and infirm she has been sueing her children for big bucks b/c she is sick and ‘needs the money’

    Imo, she doesn’t deserve a goddamn thing after literally abandoning her children.


    It is amazing how many people actually support this woman. They trot out the excuse’ she gave you the gift of life, so now you owe her’

    fuck that!

  16. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It is amazing how many people actually support this woman. They trot out the excuse’ she gave you the gift of life, so now you owe her’One of Joe Orton’s characters says ‘I should be gratefull for that?’ when the same remark is made about his mother.

  17. Lyanna says

    Ophelia @ 16: I didn’t know that about the limited number of boys to play women’s parts. That’s very interesting. It means Shakespeare made a real EFFORT to include women, despite some barriers.

  18. says

    Yeh. It fascinates me, what an outlier he was.

    The way it worked was that the core players were shareholders, and in Shakespeare’s company they were also shareholders in the theater itself, as opposed to tenants. Then there were hired players. Then there were a few boys, who were apprentices, who generally lived in the households of the senior players. It was easy to add more hired players for a particular play, but it wasn’t easy at all to add more boys, and they didn’t. The number of boys was fixed.

    Given that – what S. managed to do is quite amazing.

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