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The Moral Basis of Family Relationships in the plays of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: a Study in Renaissance Ideas.

Collins, Stephen (2016) The Moral Basis of Family Relationships in the plays of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: a Study in Renaissance Ideas. PhD thesis, University of York.

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Families transact their relationships in a number of ways. Alongside and in tension with the emotional and practical dealings of family life are factors of an essentially moral nature such as loyalty, gratitude, obedience, and altruism. Morality depends on ideas about how one should behave, so that, for example, deciding whether or not to save a brother's life by going to bed with his judge involves an ethical accountancy drawing on ideas of right and wrong. It is such ideas that are the focus of this study. It seeks to recover some of ethical assumptions which were in circulation in early modern England and which inform the plays of the period. A number of plays which dramatise family relationships are analysed from the imagined perspectives of original audiences whose intellectual and moral worlds are explored through specific dramatic situations. Plays are discussed as far as possible in terms of their language and plots, rather than of character, and the study is eclectic in its use of sources, though drawing largely on the extensive didactic and polemical writing on the family surviving from the period. Three aspects of family relationships are discussed: first, the shifting one between parents and children, second, that between siblings, and, third, one version of marriage, that of the remarriage of the bereaved. The moral bases of all these relationships are derived in part from explicit precept, such as the requirement to honour parents, in part from cultural mores which shaped expectations about, for example, the treatment of elderly parents, and in part from a largely undefined sense of how things should be and were in the world. This last brings into play the concept of nature, an elusive but crucial point of reference for the moral basis of family life and often perceived as the drive behind behaviour. A play, therefore, may be a dynamic representation of the coming together of multiple ethical strands in specific circumstances in which sometimes conflicting ideas and impulses are worked out. The thesis is informed by the conviction that literature can yield understandings that are beyond the reach of linear reasoning and accessible only by an imaginative transcending of rationality. So, for example, when a homeless old king is bewildered by the breakdown of family morality as he sees it, and casts about for reasons, he must try out different explanations none of which is satisfactory on its own, and has therefore to attempt a synthesis of incompatible ideas which can be achieved only intuitively through the medium of poetic drama.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of York > History (York)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.714369
Depositing User: Stephen Collins
Date Deposited: 06 Jun 2017 11:23
Last Modified: 24 Jul 2018 15:22
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/16620

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