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
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
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"
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. ▪