The Trouble of Incest in Shakespeare’s Late Plays: King Lear and Pericles

Spring 2015
Elizabeth Boyce

Elizabeth Boyce is in her third year at King’s College, London, studying for a BA in English Language and Literature. Her academic interests focus on the Early Modern Period; for her final year she has written two papers on Shakespearean drama and one on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Elizabeth is a professional viola player and, at the same time as studying English at KCL, completed a Bachelor of Music at the Royal College of Music, and graduated in 2014 with a First Class (Honours). In the future she would love to combine her skills with a career in music journalism, but she is also considering applying to law school.  

Pericles has been viewed until recent critical history as a solid member of Shakespeare’s ‘romances’, plays which combined both tragic and comic elements. However, more informed recent discussion of the late plays has acknowledged the danger in attempting at all to apply a set genre to this group of plays. As Howard Felperin has argued, the plays are in conflict with the form on which they are supposed to depend: ‘The moral and mimetic dimension of Shakespearean romance comes into being through its stubborn refusal to accept and repeat the conventions of romance without revaluating them’ (McMullen, 70). This essay explores the disturbing themes of incest and cannibalism in two of the late plays, Pericles and The Tragedy of King Lear, which has not historically been considered as a romance. Its presentation of the incest theme is much less flagrant than in Pericles, nevertheless it is interesting to consider them in parallel, and whether King Lear is in some ways a proto-type of romance – that is, if we can call Pericles a romance at all. In fact this essay proposes that the theme of incest in late Shakespeare troubles our classification of these plays to a specific genre entirely.

Incest remains the top of taboos and all societies show what Freud called ‘Insestcheu’, avoidance of incest. However these plays expose a disturbing reality that, despite our abhorrence of it, human nature does not truly have an aversion to incest. In Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture (1989), James Twitchell points out that if we really did have a natural aversion, there wouldn’t be a taboo about it. I start with Pericles, which contains the most overt and terrifying portrayal of incest in Shakespeare’s canon. In the kingdom of Antioch, Pericles encounters the wicked incestuous relationship of King Antioch and his daughter, and it shocks him profoundly. However, despite the play’s seemingly Christian message, close analysis reveals that Pericles identifies with the incestuous pair more than is comfortable. He receives the information in the form of a riddle: 

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labor
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife – and yet his child. (1.1.64-9)

By their sexual relationship, Antiochus is literally both father and husband to his daughter. The crux of the riddle lies in the introduction of a third, complicating figure: the absent mother. If Antiochus and his absent wife are, as Adam and Eve, one flesh, the unnamed daughter who writes this riddle does indeed ‘feed / On mother’s flesh’. This raises the question, how is Antiochus also her son, and she his mother? The reading of the riddle is further complicated. The gender-less subject (‘I’) of the first sentence is unqualified by gender, and so the speaker could be Antiochus. The line can thus be read in two ways: firstly, that Antiochus, too, feeds on the very flesh (the child) of the absent mother. Secondly, in literal terms, it could mean the flesh of his own absent mother, although the reason for this is yet unclear. As shall argue using psychoanalytical interpretations of Pericles, the incest theme in these plays is a result of what Coppelia Kahn described, in King Lear, as Lear’s repressed emotional ‘need for Cordelia as daughter-mother’ (40).

Having deciphered the riddle, Pericles’ first response to Antioch is ‘Great King, / Few love to hear the sins they love to act’ (1.1.134-5).  Bearing a tone of shared experience, he suggests that he, too, is implicated in this shame. In her comprehensive and provocative essay ‘The Perils of Pericles, Ruth Nevo argues that the play is an allegory of Pericles’ own forbidden incestuous desire and oedipal guilt. She sees the repetitive, meandering plot as a sequence of scenes which do not counter but mirror the first incestuous scene at Antioch, and remind him of his own first, primal oedipal desire: ‘Antiochus is his uncanny double; and the progress of the play is the haunting of Pericles by the Antiochus in himself, the incest fear which he must repress and from which he must flee’ (69). Thus his translation of the riddle is a metaphorical microcosm for the entire play as he confronts his oedipal fears.

Pericles sums up the riddle by saying ‘All love the womb that their first being bred’ (1.150), thus including himself in ‘all’. What he attempts to say is that all love their daughter, but because of the ambiguous syntax the more literal meaning is that all love their mother’s womb. By putting the riddle the wrong way up – riddling it again – he indicates that what Antioch really desires, and what Pericles unconsciously shares, is a deep longing for the absent mother. In the case of Antiochus and Pericles (and Lear, as I discuss below) this translates as love for the daughter. It should be noted also that the name of Pericles’ daughter Marina is symbolical of the mother-sea figure and so collapses the boundary between mother and daughter. The fact that Pericles reads the riddle aloud is a key indicator of the mechanics of mirroring at work in the play. On stage, he is figured as the new subject of the riddle. He is now the potential ‘viper’, and, in his voice, this image becomes masculine and phallic. He imagines his desire for Antiochus’ daughter as the desire to ‘taste the fruit of yon celestial tree’ - the forbidden fruit in Genesis - the eating of which is the source of sexual guilt, and death (1.1.19-23).

Nevo’s essay presents a deep investigation into the inner psychology of Pericles during his adventures in order to reveal his confrontations with oedipal fear. She notes the strangeness of his troubled character when he returns home to Tyre (1.2.1-5) and his tendency to immediately imagine the worst-case scenario of defeat, which is odd for a prince (1.2.24-28). Nevo argues that ‘the primal scene of the play – Act 1, Scene i – triggers a primal-scene fantasy for Pericles, which powers thenceforth his guilt-stricken, haunted drivenness’ (69). His flight from Tyre can be interpreted as an attempted flight from this self-inflicted suffering. In Petapolis, he again displays uneasy behaviour – he keeps his identity hidden and seems troubled, assessing Simonides far longer than is necessary. This is odd considering that Simonides is good and kind, ostensibly the antithesis of Antiochus. Does this portrayal of a benevolent King function merely to show everything that was wrong about Antioch? If Antioch was wrong, surely this is right. However, if we acknowledge the true complexities of the late plays, we understand that Pericles goes beyond simple moralising. Like Lear, Brabantio, Prospero and all Shakespearean fathers, Simonides struggles most with having to give up his daughter, and at first object to the marriage. He eventually relinquishes her to Pericles, the rival male, but Simonides’ strange subterfuge of the union displays the sublimation of a father’s oedipal desire. It is a much more successful sublimation than achieved by Lear, and especially Antioch; nevertheless, what Pericles has seen, has reminded him of the first incestuous pair, and he is disturbed by it. He continues to carry this emotional burden with him from place to place.

It is peculiar that Pericles abandons his new-born daughter to foster parents so quickly and hurriedly after the mother is assumed to be dead. This action indicates, surely, that Pericles is not ready to become a father himself, as he is still haunted subconsciously by the incest he witnessed at Antioch. The name of his daughter is also significant in how Shakespeare subtly portrays incest. In Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Pericles’ daughter was not called Marina but Thaisa. Therefore sexual relations with Thaisa, which would have been incest in Gower, are here made acceptable. It is almost as if merely the change of name allows Pericles to have the incest rebuked in Antioch under the sanction of the marital bond.

At the reunion of Marina and Pericles, the threat of incest rises once again to the surface.  Unaware at first of her identity, Pericles repeatedly remarks that she looks like his wife, saying that ‘Thou show’st / Like one I loved indeed’ (21.112-3). The realisation, then, that she is his daughter is a very close escape from a classic case of oedipal mistaken identity, veering uneasily on the brink of incest. At the last moment, divine providence has redeemed Pericles from an oedipal fate. There is a rather idealistic tendency to presume that the ‘late style’ of Shakespeare - and other artists who are awarded the honour of having one – is all about serenity, and calm resolution. Edward Said challenges this and asks ‘But what... of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction?’ He also suggests that an exploration of late style might contrarily reveal ‘a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against’ (32). Indeed, Pericles’ reunion with Marina is more ‘nonharmonious’ than harmonious, for Shakespeare cannot resist complicating the reunion with a line that threatens to derail the entire of Pericles’ quest - he refers to Marina as ‘thou that begett’st him that did thee beget’ (21.182). It may literally be a simple expression of gratitude, however there is obvious sexual innuendo in the language, and it uneasily recalls Antiochus’ incestuous riddle (‘He’s father, so, and husband mild; / I mother, wife, and yet his child’ (1.1.111-12)). By echoing the incest in benign terms of gratitude it could be seen as virtuous transformation, symbolising that his oedipal conflicts have been set to rest. Or, it could be one of Said’s unresolved contradictions: that is, a repetition of the incest threat which signals not harmonious resolution but an unsettling return to square one.

It is significant that Pericles gives Marina away in marriage to Lysimachus almost as soon as they are reunited. On the surface, the reunion of Pericles’ family and Marina’s marriage presents a happy resolution based on Christian providence, satisfying the romance convention. However, after all the tensions and sexual anxieties in the play, this can seem arbitrary, and her silence in the matter definitely engenders lack of consent. In Shakespeare a marriage tends to signal the restoration of social and family harmony; however, here, his hurry to marry her off suggests that he has not laid his oedipal desires to rest, and is escaping them by quickly marrying her off.

Turning now to the Tragedy, the motif of incest in King Lear is subtle, but it is the basis on which the entire tragic plot unfolds. Lear never reveals any explicit sexual desire for his daughters. However, his volatile treatment of Cordelia – one moment his favourite and the next disowned – shows one of Shakespeare’s most complicated father-daughter relationships. I would argue that he too portrays a repressed oedipal desire that finds its outlet in his violation of the rule of exogamy. Why does Lear stage the love test of Act 1 Scene 1? Shakespearean fathers have a marked inability to give up their daughters to rival males, often resulting in patriarchal power struggles. In Shakespeare’s principal source for the play, the power-seeking motive behind Lear’s love test is clear.[1] However, since Shakespeare has stripped him of the motive that is present in the source, Lear’s intentions behind the love test seem stranger. 

The most overt suggestions of sexual incest are spoken not by Lear but by Goneril and Regan when asked to prove their love. To gain their own profit they flatter him to such an excess that their language is overtly sexual: Goneril says that her love ‘makes breath poor and speech unable’, and, topping her, Regan declares that she is ‘an enemy to all other joys / Which the most precious square of sense possesses’ (1.1.59, 1.1.72-73). For their own gain, they insist that their love is entirely for Lear, and they imply as well a kind of sexual love that should be reserved only for a husband.

In contrast, Cordelia’s declaration that she loves him only ‘according to my bond’ shows an awareness that her sisters have violated an appropriate father-daughter relationship, and have conflated the roles of wife and daughter: ‘Why have my sisters husbands if they say / They love you all?’ (1.1.97). Lear’s distressing display of anguish and rage when she refuses to give him the entirety of her love has led to the suggestion of a love that is more than fatherly. Richard J. Jaarsma has observed that

Lear loves Cordelia, not as a father, but as a lover. He rejects her totally, like an anguished lover, when she denies him the lover-mistress relationship (201).  

Despite this, Claudette Hoover disputed that ‘one need not resort to Freudian cries of ‘incest’ to explain Lear’s disillusionment (88). Lear never actually displays a desire for sexual relations with his daughter like the incestuous King Antiochus. His love test can, however, be seen as an active strategy to prevent her from marrying. In doing so he violates the social rule of exogamy, meaning marriage outside the family. This rule has the double social function of prohibiting incest and helping to consolidate power relations with different social groups. He refuses to give Cordelia her endowment unless she purchases it with pledges of unlimited love, pledges which, as Boose observes, ‘would nullify those required by the wedding ceremony’ (333). Surely only a husband has right to a wife’s exclusive love? He puts her in an impossible situation: by pledging her undivided love to her father, Lear knows she cannot marry, but by not pledging her love, he withdraws her dowry and renders her unmarriageable to any other suitor. In contrast to Pericles, who uses his daughter’s marriage to Lysimachus to escape from his subconscious incestuous desire for her, Lear actively orchestrates events so that he can keep Cordelia for himself, and thus violates the rule of exogamy.

Freud’s oedipal model accounts for a son’s desire for his mother, not a father’s desire for his daughter, and so that seems to negate the theory of incest. Despite this, Lear doesn’t have a mother, and I would argue that his desperate desire for Cordelia is based not on surface sexual attraction but is the emergence of a deeply rooted need for maternal nurture. Coppelia Kahn has argued that it is ‘the renunciation of her as an incestuous object [that] awakens a deeper emotional need in Lear: the need for Cordelia as daughter-mother’ (my italics, 40). Kahn bases her argument on Lear’s child-like demeanour, desire for exclusive possession of her, and his outright confession that he ‘lov’d her most, and thought to set [his] rest/ On her nursery’ (1.1.123-24). It would seem that this would negate the incestuousness of his desire. In fact, Kahn’s view does not fully negate the implications of incest because ‘incestuous desire’ in oedipal terms need not be understood as literal desire for sexual consummation with the mother, but of subconscious and repressed desire for what has been lost. Yearning for motherly nurture is thus deflected onto desire for daughter, the nearest thing Lear has to a mother. Lear definitely is guilty of blurring these roles, and the Fool mocks him for it: ‘[T]hou madst thy daughters thy mothers’ (1.4.168-9). Even if it is too far to see his love as a love of lovers, it is far more than an ‘appropriate’ love of a father. As Stanley Cavell argues, ‘it is - at least - incompatible with the idea of her having any (other) lover’ (299). It is striking that Pericles, Antiochus and Lear both reveal a subconscious desire for incest which seems to derive from a yearning for absent mothers. This link shows that the themes Shakespeare used in his later plays were actually already being tested in his earlier Tragedy, making the genres less distinctive than has been historically thought.

Edmund also shows contempt for society’s laws of marriage:

Thou, Nature art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me
...
As to th’legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate’! (1.2.1-18)

Although he later emerges as a villain, the way in which Edgar argues here for the expanded integrity and legitimacy of bastards is both humorous and induces sympathy: ‘Why brand they us / With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base’ (1.2.9-10). He perceives the illegitimate act of fornication which produced him ‘in the lusty stealth of nature’ as favourable to the ‘dull, stale, tired’ bed of marital procreation (1.2.11). He humorously critiques social custom by suggesting that adultery, which is deemed as ‘stealth’ – suggesting a secret or unlawful crime, is actually more healthy and natural than intercourse sanctioned by custom. Edgar’s speech has a double function as it introduces the subject of (il)legitimate relationships, and the opposition of law versus nature, which are both central to the consideration of incest in the late plays.

The breakdown of marital laws leads us to a general consideration of the opposition between law and nature, as King Lear and Pericles both explore what happens when the strict laws of custom are defied or broken down. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes established contemporary social contract theory with his book, Leviathan, in which he explored the intrinsic psychological egoism of humankind. He wrote that if the passions of man were left to their natural state, without government, life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (64). In King Lear and Pericles, Shakespeare examines the essential human condition fifty years before Hobbes laid down his fundamental theorem.

In Act 3 Scene 4 of King Lear, when Edgar is disguised as Tom, his trajectory descends into a lengthy plethora of bawdy and bestial imagery describing his own behaviour. Here, at the very heart of the play, the discourse descends into a genealogy of violent animal instincts against which Shakespeare’s characters are measured. As Naomi Liebler has observed, the whole of Lear is constructed therefore around this miniature morality-play at its heart, ‘to remind us of what simmers just below civilisation’s veneers’ (44). The display of bestiary prompts in Lear a stunningly profound inquiry into the essence of human kind:

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha? Here’s three on’s are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. (3.4.103-106)

The very taxonomies that distinguish man from beast are dismantled, for in Edgar/Tom, Lear sees essential man, unaccommodated man, and he sees himself. That excruciating moment at the play’s end when Lear holds Cordelia’s body and cries ‘Howl, howl, howl’ completely collapses any distinction between man and animals, for he speaks in their language, not our own. As Liebler wrote, this ‘fur-less, hide-less, wool-less creature,...is the subject of the play’ (44). Shakespeare’s exploration of the opposition between law and nature is vital to his treatment of incest because King Antiochus and King Lear both manage to prevent their daughters from marrying to facilitate incest. Edgar’s disregard for marriage raises our awareness of what can happen when people do not adhere to social codes and are allowed to revert to their basest instincts.

In Pericles and King Lear, the incest motif is constituted by images and tales of cannibalism. In Pericles, the violent tales of cannibalism in Tarsus paint a bleak picture of what can happen when civilisation is broken down, and of what lengths the survival instinct will go to in the face of danger:

Those mothers who to nuzzle up their babes
Thought naught too curious are ready now
To eat those little darlings whom they loved.
So sharp are hunger’s teeth that man and wife
Draw lots who first shall die to lengthen life. (4.1.42-46)

This passage echoes in reverse the riddle’s equation of cannibalism with incest – ‘I am no viper, Yet I feed / On mother’s flesh’ (1.107-8). In pointing out that she is not physically a viper her cannibalistic words only highlight the horror of her animal-like actions, for vipers were thought to eat their way out of their mother’s body at birth, linking the themes of eating, sexuality and incest. It is disturbing that birth for vipers could lead to such gruesome infant brutality. In comparison, King Antiochus’s daughter has no children from the incest, and it is interesting that the only product of their sexual relationship is more evil, namely the murder of potential suitors. In view of the obsession for lineage in ruling families, it is ironic that the outcome of their incest is the prevention of potential marriages to other princes, which would consolidate power, and that inbreeding instead might lead to deformities – or poison – in their heirs.

It is not even the cannibalism that is the most shocking. The doubled atrocity of a parent eating their own children is the true horror. It reveals a terrible irony that man and wife - who in Christian theology are one flesh - are now destroying and physically consuming the flesh that they created and that was carried in the mother’s own body. The arbitrary nature of how they ‘drew lots’ completely dissolves all familial bonds. Cleon’s observation that ‘Our grave’s the low’st, and we are half-way there’ (literally almost starved to death) has a second implication that their humanity has been debased to lowly, base instincts, and actualisation of the kind of fearful acts ‘unaccommodated man’ that Lear imagines when he says ‘is man no more than this?’ (3.4.99-106). Witnessing Edgar/Tom, Lear cannot imagine that anything other than a daughter’s hatred could have brought his nature so low:

Nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness but his unkind daughters.
Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment, ‘twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters. (3.4.69-74, emphasis mine)

Young pelicans were thought to feed on their mother’s blood, from wounds they had made, introducing the idea of cannibalism – and by implication incest – to the play. ‘Flesh’ and ‘begot’ uses the same carnal language as in Pericles: it recalls both ‘I am no viper, yet I feed / On mother’s flesh which did me breed’ and ‘thou that beget’st him that did thee beget’ (1.107-8, 21.182). The metaphor of cannibalism and incest is so striking in these plays because both hunger and sexuality are those basic instincts we understand, through the writings of theorists from Hobbes to Freud, are the root of human nature.

The disconcerting truth is that in these plays Shakespeare’s heroes are all kings who stand at the apex of their civilisation. King Lear’s speech is reduced to the language of animals at the climax of the play when he realises that his selfish desires have led to his daughter’s death. Having accused his daughters of being pelicans, it is he who becomes animal. King Antiochus also lowers himself from kingship to the level of uncivilised animals by committing incest. In these two plays, the whole premise of society, as depending on good will, self-restraint and the social contract, is thus deemed nothing more than a house of cards which can come crashing down. The incest theme in both texts portrays a profoundly disturbing social disharmony, where kings commit murder, incest, violate the structures of society and debase themselves to the laws of animals.

This view of degeneration and conflict is clearly incompatible with a notion of the late plays as being transcendental or sublime. On the surface, all ends in Pericles are tied up but, as I have argued, Pericles’ internal conflicts are not necessarily resolved. As Jeanie Moor has written, ‘Pericles knows the wrong answer, but never discovers the right one’ (38). The question of genre is likewise unresolved. In Romance into Tragedy, Jones argues that the first Quarto text, the History, is in fact ‘riddled with romance’: for him, the Quarto Cordelia is in all appearances a romance heroine, like Marina, not a tragic heroine, and thus, as has been felt for centuries of criticism, there is something uneasy about her tragic death. If we see the History as a proto-romance, which Shakespeare recognised and then deliberately cut up and transformed into the Tragedy, Cordelia’s death, according to John Jones, shows a breach in the same romance conventions that characterise his ‘late style’: ‘Romance heroines can ‘die’ like Imogen for taking a wonder drug, or they can ‘die’ like Hermione by becoming a statue. But they cannot die’ (210). The crux of the tragedy is how Edmund realises the truth of his own nature and repents for his wickedness, but it is too late: ‘I pant for life. Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature...’ (5.3.217-18). Thus the play almost ends blissfully, but is ultimately tragic. Even so, it is folly to apply distinct characteristics or categories of genre to these plays, because they contain too many contradictions. As Arpad Pauncz has noticed, even in the utter despair of Lear there is a glimpse of something sublime: ‘Lear reaches the depths of human despair and endurance until he finds his peace in death as a ‘smug bridegroom’ in blessed union with his youngest daughter as the bride (81).


[1]  Shakespeare’s source is an anonymous play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir (published in 1605 but dating from 1594 or earlier). Cordella wants to marry for love, but Lear wants her to marry the suitor he has chosen for his own dynastic intentions. So, he stages the love test in the hope that, in competition with her sisters, she will pick the suitor of his choice to prove that she loves her father best.

Primary Text(s)

The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Greenblatt, (Norton: 1997)

Works Cited

Boose, Lynda. ‘The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare’, PMLA 97 (1982), pp. 325-47

Cavell, Stanley. ‘The Avoidance of Love’, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: CUP, 1976)

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Project Gutenberg ebook available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm

Hoover, Claudette. ‘“The Lusty Stealth of Nature’: Sexuality and Antifeminism in King Lear’, Atlantis 11 (1989)

Jaarsma, Richard J. ‘The ‘Lear-Complex’ in The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, Literature and Psychology, 22 (1972), p. 199-202

Jones, John. Shakespeare at Work, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Kahn, Coppelia. “The Absent Mother in ‘King Lear’”, in Rewriting the Renaissance, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)

Moore, Jeanie G. ‘Riddled Romance: Kinship and Kingship in Pericles’, Rocky Mountain Review (Spring, 2003)

Liebler, Naomi. ‘Pelican Daughters: The Violence of Filial Ingratitude in King Lear’, Shakespeare Jahrbuc 143 2007), pp. 36-51

Mcmullen, Gordon. Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death

Nevo, Ruth. ‘The Perils of Pericles’, in Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings, ed. Kiernan Ryan (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 61-87

Pauncz, Apad. The Lear Complex in World Literature. Am. Imago, Vol. 11, 1954, pp. 51-83

Said, Edward. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, (A&C Black, 2014)

Twitchell, James. Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo in Modern Culture, (Columbia University Press: 1986)