Shakespeare uses the trope of the absent mother to create sympathy for his plucky heroines in the late plays and to give motivation for the steadfastness and autonomy exercised by these motherless daughters. Kahn and Chodorow argue that a mother’s influence is necessary for development of a child’s personality, which I do not contradict. However, Beatrice, Marina, and Perdita demonstrate that in Shakespeare’s works, a mother can influence her child’s development by being absent. For example, Perdita’s relationship with the Shepherd who raised her illustrates how Perdita’s motherlessness manifests itself in her identity. The Shepherd gently reprimands Perdita for neglecting her hostess duties at the sheep-shearing:
Fie, daughter, when my old wife lived, upon This day she was both pantler, butler, cook,
Both dame and servant, welcomed all, served all,
Would sing her song and dance her turn, [... ]
Come, quench your blushes, and present yourself That which you are, mistress o’th’ feast. (4.4.55-68)
Perdita’s lack of female role models15 means that she has never been taught the proper way to behave in the traditionally female roles the Shepherd expects her to take on, and it is this ignorance that feeds her agency. The Shepherd himself says that Perdita is conducting herself like a guest and not a host—in other words, Perdita is keeping her own counsel, spending her time as she chooses, and making her own decisions. Unlike Beatrice, however, Perdita is chastised for this behavior. One explanation for this is that Hero provides a model of domestic femininity to counterpoint Beatrice’s straightforward, jesting nature, while in Bohemia, Perdita is the one who is supposed to be the female ideal, and she has no other female companion to balance out her deficiencies. When set against Mopsa and Dorcas, who spend their time fighting over the Clown and fawning over Autolycus’s wares, Perdita emerges as the woman most likely to fulfill the domestic and feminine roles expected of her by her father and the society into which she was born. The Shepherd does not quite see Perdita as a replacement for his deceased wife, but certainly expects Perdita to take up the mantle of domesticity left by his wife’s death.
In the absence of her mother, Perdita is a girl raised among men and sheep. Though much of her grace is inborn, she fills the void where her mother’s virtue should be by allying herself with Florizel. She finds both companionship and virtue in Florizel, and, like Beatrice and Marina, exercises her agency to make her own decisions. She contracts a marriage agreement with him,16 in full knowledge of their apparently unequal status: ‘Your high self, / The gracious mark o’th’land, you have obscured / With a swain’s wearing’ (4.4.7-9). While Florizel praises Perdita before the sheep-shearing, Perdita demurs, and returns the compliment:
FLORIZEL. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds, That all your acts are queens.
PERDITA. O Doricles,
Your praises are too large. But that your youth And the true blood which peeps fairly through’t Do plainly give you out an unstained shepherd, With wisdom I might fear, my Doricles,
You wooed me the false way. (4.4.143-51)17
Perdita—as one who thinks for herself—sees the value of Florizel’s virtue. Eager to knit herself to him, then, Perdita quickly returns his compliments by pointing out his ‘unstained’ character. She is here exercising both the agency typical of Shakespeare’s motherless daughters and the proper feminine traits extolled in early modern England, as well as choosing the behaviors most appealing to Florizel. Perdita is, in a way, a combination of Beatrice—confident, resolute, and in charge of her choices—and Hero— chaste, modest, and prudent.
The Shepherd’s speech to Perdita about his wife’s hostessing abilities is the only onstage moment when someone speaks to the grown Perdita about a mother. Curiously, no one directly addresses Perdita about Hermione, even when the court gathers in front of her statue at the play’s end.18 When Perdita and Hermione share the stage for the last 130 odd lines of the play, Hermione’s absence in her daughter’s life is amplified. While both characters share the stage at the end of the play, their onstage reunion is an extension of Hermione’s absence.19 Perdita speaks to her mother while Hermione is still in statue form: ‘Dear Queen, that ended when I but began, / Give me that hand of yours to kiss’ (5.3.45-6). Her last lines in the play, however, come before Hermione is resurrected. Even in the moment of reunion, when Paulina directs Perdita to kneel to Hermione and instructs Hermione to look on Perdita, Shakespeare does not give the sundered mother and child greetings or conversation. In this moment of restoration, in the presence of her living mother, Perdita becomes the demure young woman idealized in the manuals and tracts of the time. In the moment when Perdita falls silent, Hermione begins to govern her daughter’s life—as she would have done all along, had they not been separated. At the moment of rebirth, Hermione issues a final maternal blessing on her child (5.3.122-9). Lucinda Becker suggests that ‘female death [brings] forth life’ for the early moderns (2003, 37), and as Hermione’s death preserved Perdita’s life, so Hermione’s return to life brings forth the death of absence. Like Marina before her, Perdita relinquishes her autonomy when she is reunited with her natural parents. For these women, their mothers’ absences create strength and power within them, but the reunions revert the daughters to their ‘natural’ early modern states of docility and obedience.
Perdita’s agency and perseverance, like Marina’s, are confined to the scenes before she is restored to her mother, suggesting that once her family is remade, she no longer needs to be in charge. She chooses her own path in Bohemia, but fades as she is restored to her position and title in Sicilia. Her last moment of power comes before Hermione’s statue comes to life, but even then, she asks permission for the interaction with her mother’s statue: ‘And give me leave, / And do not say ‘tis superstition, that /1 kneel and then implore her blessing’ (5.3.42-4). Until mother and daughter are reunited, the daughter must be in command. Rather than suggesting that the girls find their agency a burden that they are happy to let go, I believe that these young women find personal power as a survival tactic in male-dominated societies, and though Shakespeare allows his heroines to function this way for dramatic effect, his way of providing his audiences a happy resolution is to restore these women and their families to natural order.
In each of these three plays, the women under examination stop speaking before the play’s end. Beatrice’s last line comes when she agrees to marry Benedick, about thirty lines before the play’s end. Marina finishes her speech at the moment of reunion with Thaisa, some sixty lines before the play’s conclusion. Perdita’s final words occur just before Hermione’s rebirth, seventy lines before the play’s close. In each play, the ‘downright way of creation’20 is restored, and these women are silenced. Beatrice gains a husband, who physically silences her in their moment of contract—by kissing her: ‘Peace, I will stop your mouth’ (5.4.96). Marina and Perdita are restored to their natural parents, which silences them as they fall into the hitherto unknown role of dutiful, obedient daughter.21 In all three plays, men have the last word (Benedick, Gower, and Leontes), though this is typical of Shakespeare’s plays—in the entire canon, only As You Like It allows a woman to have the final line. While Shakespeare gives these three women remarkable agency throughout their plays, he always returns them to their ‘natural’ places by the plays’ ends, being ruled either by a husband or parents, or both, as in the cases of Marina and Perdita.
The vast majority ofShakespeare’s daughters are motherless. There are stepmothers, surrogate mothers, or mothers-in-law to the daughters only in 2 Henry IV, Henry V, All’s Well That Ends Well, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline, as well as intact, main-character mother-daughter pairings in Romeo & Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale.22 Shakespeare’s motherless daughters, especially in the late plays, are plucky and courageous, able to face down their enemies, strong and forgiving, and gifted with language and rhetoric. While Beatrice maintains her agency from start to finish, both Marina and Perdita face threats to their personal safety and sojourns in foreign lands that require them to draw upon their own wits to survive and thrive.
Shakespeare’s motherless daughters occupy plays that are focused on family dynamics and relationships. They fill the voids left by their absent mothers, and in the case of Marina and Perdita, they help draw the plays to their conclusions. Whether these girls were born under a star that danced, or in tempests, or their mothers died when they but began, Shakespeare’s motherless daughters exercise their agency, make their own decisions, and bring in their plays’ joyous resolutions as they compensate for their missing mothers.23