Who’s the Daddy?

The Twitter takeover at least among those who populate my feed for the last couple of weeks has been the June #bookadayuk. Today being Father’s Day the theme was of course “pick your favourite fictional father.”

This got me thinking about fictional fathers in general, so often in modern fiction they’re striking by their absence, their too often analogous either with beer football and cars or else Daddy-cum-MasterCard, the piece of plastic for everything his little princess might desire. This is reflected in the card shops weeks before Fathers Day hits. There’s the cards and gifts for the green fingered father, “please!” beg B&Q, “buy him a drill”. A somewhat worrying gift for Father’s Day surely.. Then there’s the comically rude, “gee thanks dad how did I turn out so great with genes like yours” type of greeting, and if that’s not any good go for a proper tug on the heart strings with a teddy bear on top “the best daddy ever” kind of card. But it all seems a little bit fake, can you really shoehorn all dads into the quintessential “bloke” and how far does fiction add to this Dad image?

Back to the hashtag which sparked the question. Who’s your favourite fictional father?

I reckon mines a bit of a toss up between Atticus Finch (the lovely dad from a book Mr Gove wants to strip off the GCSE that’s right, he wants to kill off the mockingbird), Mr Brownlow from Oliver Twist (I know he’s not quite Oliver’s dad but you get the picture), and Aslan that big fatherly lion from Narnia battling it out for top spot.

But, and I realise this is going to take some explaining, Mrs Doubtfire is definitely up there.

Sure he starts off with unemployment a disastrous zoo party and a row but stick him in a mask, a permed wig, and give him a Scottish accent and he’s a new woman. Sure the humour resides in the hidden identity culminating in the excellent double date double booked he-she extravaganza at Bridges. Daniel shows how far a dad will go to be with his kids. A right ol’ heart warmer movie if you don’t think too hard about how creepy employing your ex dressed as a woman and finding out over a birthday dinner with your new man who clearly wishes he was James Bond. But he has some good traits, and there is a literary link. Honest! A couple of hits later and the great Google tells me that Mrs Doubtfire is indeed based on a book by Anne Fine, alias Madame Doubtfire.

I thought I’d ask a couple of friends their favourite fictional fathers – literary of course.

First up it’s Harshini Pradabane – teen book consumer and rice pudding eater extraordinaire who is currently doing a masters on the work of Elizabeth Bowen, meaning she is now an expert on bad parents.

“Mr Gianini in The Princess Diaries:

So Mr Gianini or Mr G has to be a ridiculous father figure for MIa. Yes, she’s not happy at first but it’s not really surprising since her mother picks up the guy at a parent-teacher conference, then decides to take the relationship to the next level, if you know what I mean! Oh and he just happens to be algebra teacher….who then runs into her next morning in his boxers. Awesome. Not! On one hand she gets to have tuition at home because of her incredibly bad maths skills. But then there is the little issue of him spending a little too much time at their house…oh wait it looks like he’ll be spending more time there as he has managed to knock up her mum. Perfect. A great family dynamic.”

Followed swiftly by Yasmin Yusof – who loves a bit of supernatural in her life or should I say a bit of Dean! She is a sport enthusiast, ice-cream eater and most important of all a PR guru (meaning she is obviously socially awkward and awful with people).

“Snape in Harry Potter:

I know Professor Snape is not technically Harry’s father, or even his guardian (that would be Hedwig). But Snape, more than any other character, is the one constantly looking after Harry. From counteracting Professor Quirrel’s spell to going back to Voldemort’s service (as a double agent, of sorts), Snape (or Severus, as I like to call him – we’re on first name basis) always put Harry’s safety first. Yes he was mean and seems always to take anyone other than Harry’s side, and Dumbledore was arguably more of an actual nurturing force in Harry’s life. But Snape risked his reputation and eventually even his life, with no expectation of any kind of credit for his efforts, all so he could look after the son of the woman he loved. Now that to me is what you call a good father.”

Oh and before we move on why not check out this link for the 30 most memorable fictional fathers.

But back to Shakespeare, I wonder was he a good daddy? Maybe more to the point, check out all the father figures in his works. They’re all over the show.

The question is, who’s the ultimate Shakespeare Daddy? Much as I love Will he wrote rather a lot.. And peppered paternity all over the place so I think I’m going to have to be ruthless. I reckon a top three from each genre is in order. First up, the tragedies.

Now this was a tough call, I mean Lear – that great father who always seeks the best advice – was definitely in the running and then there’s Hamlet’s dad who is such a presence in the text, but they were no match for Duncan that famous father from Macbeth. Don’t worry I’m kidding. I know Hamlet is probably the quintessential father tragedy but I reckon King Lear just beats it for me. I mean sure Hamlet’s haunted by the ghost of father past, and the nasty remains of his father’s brother threaten to poison his mind. But the fathers of King Lear are my favourite tragic dads. And as Yasmin just remarked, “Shakespeare’s given his bastard some serious Daddy issues.” She has a point. In fact, Gloucester might just be my ultimate favourite shakespearian father, but I’ll give the other genres their fair go. So back to the top three fathers from Shakespeare’s tragedies. In no particular order I give you:

1. Hamlet’s Dad
2. Lear
3. Gloucester

I know there’s other tragedies, but thankfully most of the villainous blokes didn’t get chance to have sons. Saving a generation from dodgy DNA. Thank heavens.

But now for a spot of light relief. That’s right, the Histories. Now clearly the ultimate father needs some clarifying what qualifies a bloke to this position of all round good guy? I haven’t worked with a criteria as such, these are more my favourites than anything academically reasoned. But maybe King Lear can serve as a general guide. Take Gloucester from before, sure he’s a terrible father and his blindness (which he asks for – no I’m not being mean it’s in the text “I would not see thy cruel nails/Pluck out his poor eyes” Gloucester says as torn between groans of despair and cries of he’s behind you we can all see it coming..) is a literal embodiment of his unseeing nature. He stumbled when he saw for sure. But, he does clearly love his sons, and like Othello he’s easily swayed. He’d definitely be a Daddy-cum-MasterCard figure today. But it’s traits like this that make him so human. Vulnerable not villainous. Then again you could argue the same for Edmund. After all it’s not his fault he’s a bastard but thankfully he doesn’t get the chance to become a father. The tragic finale makes sure of this. I don’t know, Gloucester just seems a more genuine father than Lear who’s flattery obsessed and makes bad life choices. Gloucester seems more loveable than Lear and maybe it’s because of who they choose as companions. But I’m vying for Gloucester in the battle of the Daddies. If you’ve ordered a tragic dad, he’s your man.

Back to the past. It’s a pretty similar story and it’s a tough bet. I reckon the greatest father of the Henriad has got to be Falstaff. Not of his boy, but for Hal. It’s the tragedy of growing up that poor old Falstaff gets pushed aside when Henry picks up he crown. Henry’s real father really isn’t up to much. Plagued by his treacherous past Henry IV is always battling for his kingdom leading to the comparatively rosy reign of Henry V, who tries terribly hard to push away his past. Entreating us all not to think “upon the fault his father made in compassing the crown”. Another father figure who starts off well and ends up with dismissal and ultimately death is the Duke of Suffolk, a bit like Falstaff his hey day of 1Henry VI isn’t to last and come part two he’s not in favour. But he too acts like a father for the younger Henry even picking him up a French bird – clearly it’s a Henry thing. And the ultimate surrogate dad of the histories, Henry V. No really. He loves his troops like brothers, or maybe even like sons and his fatherly attitude to England successfully helps turn the country from bitter civil unrest to a united nation, at least for his short life. Clearly the real fathers in the histories aren’t up to much, but here we have it the three ultimate (surrogate) history dads:

1. Falstaff
2. Suffolk
3. Henry V

Funny fathers, that’s right role (yes I know it’s the wrong kind of roll) up it’s time for the Comedies! I think Baptista Minola might just be my favourite, he thinks he’s thought of a fool-proof plan and then his difficult daughter falls in love, quel horreur. 10 Things I Hate About You really milks this bit of the plot. Then there’s the absent father of Portia. He’s pretty influential and will-ful, with his boxes of gold, silver, and lead in a Shakespeare taking on the gifts of the three wise men. But maybe the absent father with the most impact (except Hamlet’s of course) is the French king who dies at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost he brings everyone crashing back to reality boys and girls alike. The thing is the fathers in the comedies just really aren’t as interesting and seem to be mainly characterised by their forceful nature (Egeus from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a case in point) so these three ultimate fathers is a loosely stringed together haphazard affair in no particular order. It’s alright, mixed genre is up next:

1. Baptista
2. Portia’s Dad
3. French King

Tragicomedy maybe hasn’t got quite the repertoire of fathers to check out but I just want to mention a couple problem parents, or those later fathers. Shakespeare definitely got better as his career progressed on the father front. Prospero the ultimate pushy parent is also a great guy, a bit like Mrs Doubtfire he’s playing catch up having messed up first time round. Perhaps that’s a little unfair but his fascination with books landed him stranded with his daughter who clearly he dotes on. He manages to rectify it all though in the end with “no harm done” and his relationship with Miranda although perhaps a little to close for comfort at times he’s not a bad father as far as Dads go. The Winter’s Tale also features a fairy tale style plot tragic beginning and happy ending as the father-mother-daughter relationship of Perdita demonstrates. Born in a prison this princess must hang out in the dessert before meeting her Prince Charming. The reformed father at the end of the play isn’t any Prospero but he also probably isn’t the father most remember from the play. That’s Father Time. But that’s another tale entirely. Back to Leontes, even though he abuses his power he is still like Prospero allowed a happy ending and it’s the multifaceted fathers like Prospero and Gloucester the sometime tragic dads that I reckon are some of the best in the cannon and it’s clear that the surrogate fathers are often better than the real deal. The Histories are a testament to that.

So the Dads are in and the final has arrived. Predictably I’m going to go for Gloucester as the ultimate Shakespeare father.

Sure he ends up blind and dead but he’s interesting and perhaps – besides his friend Lear – one of the most memorable fathers Shakespeare penned.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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2 Responses to Who’s the Daddy?

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