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Murder, incest, infanticide, and cannibalism: happy families in fiction

By Maggie Hall

Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama.

In this article she looks at how family relationships are treated in drama and literature.

'Families are like fudge - mostly sweet, with a few nuts.' Les Dawson, English comedian

From the Forsyte Saga to The Larkins, from Coronation Street to The Royle Family, family-themed TV series project the familiar incidents of our daily lives onto a larger backdrop. They depict families who fight, pull together in adversity, become separated and, particularly in the case of Classical and Renaissance period drama, families who murder each other. To explore this topic in any depth requires far more space than available here, but we can at least scratch the surface with a few examples from different historical periods.

Painting of Clytemnestra
Clytemnestra after the Murder. 1882 oil painting by John Collier. Guildhall Art Gallery, London (public domain)

Greek drama

Families in Greek drama are seldom happy ones. Greek audiences expected at least a couple of murders, some warfare, maybe a kidnapping, some incest, infanticide, a bit of cannibalism and a good deal of bloodshed. The British soap opera Eastenders looks tame by comparison. Take Agamemnon and the Spartan Princess Clytemnestra, for example. In Euripides' play Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon kills Clytemnestra’s husband and infant son, taking her for his wife. When Clytemnestra’s sister, the famous Helen, is abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, her husband, Menelaus, seeks help from his brother Agamemnon. The Greeks gather at Aulis, but because the wind is not strong enough for them to set sail, the priest Calchas declares that if Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, is sacrificed to the gods they will provide favourable winds. Agamemnon sends a message to Clytemnestra asking her to send Iphigenia to him in order to marry her to Achilles, but when she arrives, she is duly sacrificed, the winds change and the Greek fleet sets sail. Euripides leaves Agamemnon alive and on his way to Troy, but in Aeschylus’s version, Agamemnon, the first play in his Oresteia trilogy, he returns home after ten years at war only to be stabbed to death by Clytemnestra in his bath. Clytemnestra is eventually murdered herself by their son, Orestes, in the second play, The Libation Bearers.

This is very much a potted version, but it clearly demonstrates that family relationships in Greek drama were complex. Children were casually slaughtered as a matter of convenience, and women were seen as objects to be possessed or taken as prizes in war, although those with some degree of power often found their own means of wreaking revenge. Medea, in Euripides’ play of that name, kills not only the prospective new wife of her estranged husband, Jason, for whom he has abandoned her, but also her own two children in order to inflict as much suffering upon him as possible. Infanticide was not only committed by women, however. In Thyestes, a play by the Roman writer Seneca, based on a lost Greek version by Euripides, Thyestes is served his own children in a dish at a feast arranged by his brother in revenge for Thyestes’ seduction of his wife. These are not families with whom you would want to spend Christmas.

The merchant on horseback
The Merchant's Tale, Illustration from the Ellesmere manuscript Canterbury Tales (public domain)


According to the medieval texts which have survived, writers of that period did not go in very much for family narratives. They were mainly concerned with fighting monsters (Beowulf), chivalrous knights (Le Morte d’Arthur, etc.), or Christianity (Piers Plowman). However, if there’s one author who knew the failings and foibles of his fellow human beings, especially with regard to their relationships, it was Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century, is a wonderfully colourful anthology of stories full of cuckolded husbands, deceitful wives and lustful youth. I’ll take just one of them, The Merchant’s Tale. This is a story about an elderly knight, Januarie, and his very much younger wife, May. Januarie marries May mainly because he wants to make it legal to have sex with her, but also to produce an heir. We are not told why May agrees to the marriage. Presumably it has something to do with the fact that Januarie is very rich. However, at the wedding, Januarie’s squire, Damyan, falls in love with May and writes her a passionate love letter, to which she responds positively. Januarie has had a walled garden built for himself and May in which to have romantic encounters, but he is then inexplicably struck blind. May makes a mould of the key to the garden, and with a new key made from the mould Damyan sneaks into the garden and hides himself in the pear tree. May tells Januarie that she craves a pear from the tree, suggesting that she may be pregnant, and persuades the old man to stoop beneath the tree so that she can climb upon his back to reach it. On climbing the tree she meets her lustful young lover, 'and sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.' I doubt that the middle English needs translating.

The gods Pluto and Proserpina are watching all this and begin arguing about the morality of it all. Pluto denounces women for their immorality and grants Januarie the return of his sight, upon which the old knight sees what his wife and her lover are up to. However, Proserpina doesn’t allow the men to have it all their own way and endows May with the ability to talk her way out of the situation, which she does by claiming that Januarie’s newly restored sight was still defective and she was only 'struggling with a man' because she had been told that this would restore his sight. Proserpina’s gift of a glib and deceitful tongue is not restricted to May. She declares that it would apply to 'alle wommen after', and indeed May indicates that she is prepared to utilise it on future occasions; 'Ther may ful many a sighte yow bigile'. It’s not difficult to detect a high level of misogyny in this tale, which has overtones of the garden of Eden story, although it also mixes up the Christian God with a couple of pagan ones.


The plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are abundant with complex human relationships: favoured or rejected children, pushy parents, sibling rivalry, treacherous spouses, inheritance and disinheritance. Regarding filial relationships, King Lear is the Shakespeare play that first comes to mind. It deals with the elderly king’s mistaken rejection of the youngest of his three daughters, who ends up dead as a consequence, and the machinations of Gloucester’s bastard son to trick his way into acquiring his legitimate half-brother’s inheritance by framing him in a plot to kill their father.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 concern the relationship between King Henry and his prodigal son and heir, known by his close companion and fellow reveller, Falstaff as 'Prince Hal' (later King Henry V). The king despairs of his wayward heir and fears for the future of his kingdom, but Hal comes right in the end and there is a very touching deathbed scene in Part 2 when the crown is passed on from father to son which, if well-acted, can bring a tear to the eye.

Hamlet is rich with complex and confusing relationships, with Hamlet’s hatred of his uncle, now his stepfather, and his suspicion, later confirmed, that his father’s death, supposedly of a snake bite, was no accident. His relationship with his mother, Queen Gertrude, is often thought to have Oedipal overtones. Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet eventually leads to insanity and death.

In Macbeth, a play full of magical images and superstition, the most interesting relationship is that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the archetypal ambitious wife. Having learned of the witches’ prophecy that her husband will become King of Scotland she sets out to make sure that it comes true by persuading him, much against his will, to murder King Duncan. I particularly like the scene where Lady Macbeth is berating her husband for his reluctance, which she sees as weakness. I’ve found it particularly good as an audition or examination piece for female drama students. To Macbeth’s pathetic '…if we should fail?', she retorts 'We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking post and we’ll not fail.' No one can say Shakespeare didn’t write about strong women, even if their ethics are sometimes somewhat suspect.

Title page of The Duchess of Malfi
Title page of The Duchess of Malfi (public domain)

The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) is a classic revenge tragedy by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, John Webster, which focuses on sibling relationships. The duchess of the title is another strong female character. Against the wishes of her two brothers, Ferdinand (the Duke of Calabria) and the Cardinal, she secretly marries Antonio, her steward. She has three children by him but still manages to keep the identity of their father secret until the spy Bosola discovers it and betrays her to her brothers, upon which the Duchess flees with her family and her maid. Antonio escapes with the oldest child, a boy, but the Duchess, the maid and the two younger children are seized. Ferdinand orders Bosola to strangle them all but is then overcome with grief and guilt to the point of insanity. In true Jacobean style the play ends in carnage with everyone dead apart from the eldest son and Antonio, who becomes ruler of Malfi.


British and American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries produced some wonderful fictional families. The Marches in Little Women, the Joads in Grapes of Wrath, the Finches in To Kill a Mockingbird, The Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Conways in Time and the Conways, the Birlings in An Inspector Calls, the Larkins in Darling Buds of May. And that is by no means an exhaustive list.

First edition book cover
First edition 1956 (Fair Use)

It’s hard to choose any one story to focus on, but one of my favourites from this period is Eugene O'Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The intricate family dynamics in this play are ingenious. The father, James Tyrone, is a has-been actor, the mother, Mary, a morphine addict. Their elder son, Jamie, also an actor but quite unsuccessful, is an irresponsible alcoholic. The younger son, Edmund, aspires to be a poet but has contracted tuberculosis. Much of the action centres around the family’s anxiety that the mother’s addiction, from which she is supposed to be recovered, will resurface, which indeed it does. It’s a roiling stew of anxieties, resentments, misunderstandings and love. The love-hate relationship between the two brothers is particularly well-drawn. There is a wonderful fight scene between them which I have also used as an audition or examination piece with young male students.


I’m afraid this is where my usefulness as a guide comes to a standstill, because whilst I am still a great fan of classical and modern drama and fiction, I’m afraid I have not caught up with what is currently on offer from newer writers. In the years since I gave up teaching, I have concentrated on catching up with my non-fiction reading. However, having researched current offerings I think I have found one which might tempt me back to fiction reading. It’s by Barbara Kingsolver and it’s called The Poisonwood Bible. The blurb says: 'Southern Baptist Missionary Nathan Price heads off to the African Congo with his wife and four daughters in 1959, and nothing goes as planned. Though they bring with them everything they think they will need from their home in Bethlehem, Georgia – right down to the Betty Crocker cake mixes – the Prices are woefully unprepared for their new life among the Congolese, and they all pay the price.' Perhaps I will review it in a future issue.

26 views2 comments


Aug 10, 2023

What has been concerning me recently is a trend on the part of the BBC to re-write the racial characteristics of individuals being featured in fictional works and documentary-dramas.

I think this started a few years ago when the actor portraying the wife of Bob Cratchit in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" was of mixed race, while all of the younger actors playing the other members of the family - including Tiny Tim - were all clearly Caucasian.

I am not saying that mixed race marriages did not exist in 1843 but it must have been at a much lower level than today. I believe there is nothing in Dickens' writings to imply she was of mixed race.

Programmes about the…


Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
Aug 01, 2023

It is a good idea always to remind oneself - when reading a novel, or watching a film or play - that (unless based on fact) none of the people ever existed, none of the events ever happened, no one really got killed, hurt, emotionally upset, etc, etc.

As notably with horror stories, for some perverse reasons humans like to get their knickers in a twist over plots that people dreamed up in their heads, people who never lived, and situations that never occurred. But, it puts bums on seats, cash in the bank, and leads to hours of waffle on some TV chat show. Am I jealous?

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