Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Questionable parenting: Shakespeare and the father portrayals in his plays

Leontes - the father in The Winter's Tale
Leontes - the father in The Winter's Tale
Leontes - the father in The Winter's Tale

Leontes (right, Michael Tisdale) rejects his infant daughter, calling her a bastard child. The Winter’s Tale, Folger Theatre, 2018. Photo by Teresa Wood.

What kind of father was William Shakespeare? The evidence suggests…it’s complicated.

We know his wife Anne gave birth to their twins, Judith and Hamnet, in 1585, but this is then followed by a seven-year gap in the historical record, during which much has been speculated yet little discovered about what Shakespeare was actually up to. It’s entirely possible he took one look at his mewling, puking babies, suddenly remembered the theatrical destiny that awaited him, cried “I’m outa here!” and split for London.

Immortal poetic genius? Absolutely. Father of the year? Not so much.

Perhaps this explains the many and varied examples of questionable parenting to be found in his plays. Who can forget such sterling examples of fatherhood as:

  • Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who commands his daughter Hermia to marry Lysander and vows to kill her by right of “ancient privilege” if she refuses?
  • Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, who similarly desires his daughter’s death upon hearing false reports of her infidelity and lack of chastity?
  • Baptista in Taming of the Shrew, who imprisons his younger daughter and forces his elder daughter to marry an abusive suitor?
  • Or Egeon in The Comedy of Errors, who — in what is unquestionably the worst example of paternal abuse in the canon — gives his two identical twin sons the exact same name?

And these are just the Comedies. Tellingly, in each of these examples, the stories are not about the parents, but instead focus on the children who navigate and survive their fathers’ extreme and potentially fatal parental instincts.


Thanks for accurately portraying Prospero’s dilemma! Anyone who is ever played that role knows all he’s trying to do is protect his daughter and get her off that island and away from Caliban.

Jerry — June 13, 2018

Also, add Lord Capulet to the list. The threats he levels on Juliet when she refuses to marry Paris are pretty horrific.

Megan — June 14, 2019

Maybe Shakespeare lived in the 16th century, and saw the world through the ethics and epistemology that obtained at that time . . . rather than living by 21st century rules??

Carol Barton, Ph.D., CPCM — June 14, 2019