Date Approved


Graduate Degree Type


Degree Name

English (M.A.)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Jo Miller

Second Advisor

Lindsay Ellis

Third Advisor

Kathleen Blumreich

Academic Year



The tyrannical king, a common trope in Shakespearean plays, is on the surface a powerful and confident character. He is motivated, though, by overwhelming anxiety and fear about losing his power and the freedom he experiences through it. In other words, he suffers from a metaphorical claustrophobia and is terrified of being confined to physical, social, and sexual inadequacy. In order to protect himself and maintain his freedom, the tyrant must project his anxiety onto someone else, and interestingly, the Shakespearean tyrants choose a shared target: mothers.

Through a series of close-readings and analysis, this article explores how several different Shakespearean kings—the titular Richard III and Macbeth, Leontes of The Winter’s Tale, and brothers Claudius and Old Hamlet of Hamlet—fulfill the role of tyrant, experience anxiety about losing their power, and project that anxiety onto the maternal figures in their midst. Additionally, I explore the various reasons why these oppressive rulers choose mothers as surrogates for their anxiety, and how, ultimately, tyranny as an expression of power is unsuccessful and undesirable: in the end of each play, it is the mothers who emerge from confinement and, by expressing their maternal power, achieve the freedom and flourishing that their oppressors longed for.

Shakespeare’s presentation of maternal power as an alternative to tyrannical power promises a world that is in stark contrast to the world of tyranny: a world that nurtures others, considers future generations, and is willing to sacrifice. Ultimately, I argue that Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Winter’s Tale promote “Motherwork” as a tool for far more than traditional mothers or even women: it is for everyone who wishes to live in a world free of tyranny.