Of the great variety of relationships that Shakespeare dramatizes, one of the richest is between fathers and daughters. In legal terms, male parents in Shakespeare’s plays have almost complete authority over their children, in particular the daughters. Yet many of these young women seek to exercise their own wills. The resulting tension is intensified by the universal conflict that exists between generations, as well as by the timeless male chauvinism that compels fathers to shield their daughters from worldly matters, including emotional and sexual attachment. These clashes resolve in a variety of ways, but the basis of the struggle is always how both generations are challenged to accept each other’s values. In this way, the daughters may be seen as standing up against the strictures of medieval society, as well as representing the values of the Renaissance and its emphasis on individual social, political, intellectual, and economic freedom.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the plot is set off by the citizen Egeus’s demand that his daughter, Hermia, marry not the man she loves, Lysander, but the man Egeus prefers, Demetrius. In the great comic tradition that extends back to the theater of Greece and Rome, Egeus is a bully who fails to appreciate his daughter’s intelligence and capacity to love, as well as the attractiveness of the suitor she desires. He reveals these aspects of himself early:
And interchang’d love-tokens with my child;
Thou has by moonlight at her window sung
With faining voice verses of faining love,
And stol’n the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats—messengers
Of strong prevailment in unhardened youth.