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Professional News
Nurturing an Alien Concept For Shakespeare's Mothers
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 16 page 6-6
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A daughter-father duo—Dorothy Grunes, M.D., and Jerome Grunes, M.D.—is photographed at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association. The two offered psychoanalytic views of the mothers in Shakespeare's plays.  Joan Arehart-Treichel

Any psychiatrist who is a Shakespeare buff knows that the characters in Shakespeare's plays are fascinating from a psychoanalytic view-point. Which brings one to the subject of mothers: How many mothers are there in Shakespeare's plays? What are they like, and what motivates them? Where did he get his ideas for them?

Psychiatrist Dorothy Grunes, M.D., of Chicago was an English major in college with a special interest in Shakespeare, and she tackled these questions at the recent annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in Washington, D.C. Her psychiatrist father, Jerome Grunes, M.D., also contributed to the discussion, as did some other American Psychoanalytic Association members.

Anyone scrutinizing Shakespeare's plays for mothers will be struck by their paucity, Dorothy Grunes reported. For example, the mother is absent in" King Lear," and in "The Tempest," Miranda remembers only her nursemaid, not her mother.

In fact, mothers as fleshed-out characters are portrayed in only three of Shakespeare's 39 plays, Dorothy Grunes pointed out. They are the Duchess of York in "Richard III," Gertrude in "Hamlet," and Volumnia in "Coriolanus."

Moreover, she continued, the three mothers "use their sons for their own ends, for power or to play out their own intrapsychic conflicts. They are cold, neglectful, or cruel," and their relationships with their sons are tortured. For example, volumnia exploits her son Coriolanus to fulfill her own ambitions. The Duchess of York externalizes her own failings onto her son Richard. Hamlet is unable to tolerate his mother's having married his uncle.

Indeed, these negative mother-son relationships are especially striking in view of some of the positive father-son relationships, positive father-daughter relationships, and positive sibling relationships presented in Shakespeare's plays, a session participant noted. Dorothy Grunes concurred and added, "The relationship between the father and daughter in `King Lear' is painfully touching."

So why did Shakespeare pay mothers so little heed in his plays? Did he want to demonstrate the dominance of men over women, as one of the session speakers suggested? Perhaps, Dorothy Grunes said. But there are some strong women in his plays, she noted—for example, Portia in "The Merchant of venice," Cordelia in "King Lear," and Lady Macbeth in" Macbeth."

When Shakespeare did depict mothers in his plays, why did he give them such unfavorable treatment? Did he have something against his own mother? Perhaps, for as one session participant indicated, the mother-son connections he depicts reflect a troubled nurturance that he probably experienced.

In contrast, another participant proposed, it is possible that the frayed mother-son bonds he describes may have come from observing other people because he obviously was keenly perceptive in some other domains. For instance, his descriptions of birds are so accurate that they could have been made by an ornithologist.

In any event, the answers to why Shakespeare portrayed so few mothers, and unflattering mothers at that, can probably be found in Shakespeare's own life. Yet unfortunately very little is known about it, Jerome Grunes reported, beyond some basic facts. For example, William's father was John Shakespeare and his mother, Mary Arden. William married Anne Hathaway at age 18, with whom he had three children. He worked as an actor, playwright, and designer of festival masks. He died at age 49, on his birthday, five years after his own mother had died.

Shakespeare's mothers (real and imagined) are still shrouded in many mysteries, leaving psychiatrists and analysts with the challenge of ferreting out the answers.

"We can see why Freud was so enamored with Shakespeare!" Jerome Grunes declared. ▪

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A daughter-father duo—Dorothy Grunes, M.D., and Jerome Grunes, M.D.—is photographed at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association. The two offered psychoanalytic views of the mothers in Shakespeare's plays.  Joan Arehart-Treichel

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