Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” questions the possibilities of male heroism. What is nobler for a man—to take arms against a sea of troubles, or to disdain the world by suffering death? But for the Ophelias of William Shakespeare’s day, “to be, or not to be” was usually a choice between two kinds of life: life in the protection of a male—a “vital” existence in marriage—or a life of spiritual or psychological death (after, for example, she got herself to the metaphorical “nunnery”). Sometimes the two choices were indistinguishable. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are subtle questionings of such choices for women, which take on metaphorical power as they expand to include other questionings of traditional authority. By the time Bernard Shaw writes his plays, the questionings are more insistent, more overt, more radical, as indicated in the quotation from Shaw’s Misalliance, “I want to be an active verb,” says Hypatia, “Anyhow, I mean to make a fight for living” (M, IV:182).
One could focus entirely on the women in Shakespeare and Shaw to demonstrate the sensitivity of these male playwrights to “the woman question,” but the study of a particular kind of woman—“the daughter”—especially in her relation to “the father” and the father-figure, provides a sharper, more instructive focus, for it goes right to the heart of the issue of the challenge to authority sounded by these playwrights in two very similar ages.
Because of this historical similitude, this study of the father-daughter plays of William Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw employs new historicism to examine the works of both authors in their social and cultural contexts. Both the fins de siècle of the early modern and late Victorian eras were periods of tremendous