'Leda and the Swan' by W. B. Yeats

Inspired by Roman mythology, this sonnet by Yeats describes the rape of Leda by a swan. As in much Greek and Roman mythology, having children is a complicated business. In this instance, Leda lays two eggs, from one of which hatches Clytaemnestra, future wife and murderer of Agamemnon and a key player in the Trojan War.

  • The Winter's Tale

  • Though sometimes classified as a 'problem play' for its mix of turbulent emotional and light-hearted comedy, William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is a timeless study of jealousy and desire. This Penguin Shakespeare edition is edited by Ernest Schanzer with an introduction by Russ McDonald.

    'You may as well
    Forbid the sea for to obey the moon
    As or by oath remove or counsel shake
    The fabric of his folly'

    Leontes, the jealous King of Sicily becomes convinced that his wife, Hermione is carrying the child of his best friend Polixenes. Imprisoned and put on trial, the Queen collapses when the King refuses to accept the divine confirmation of her innocence. The child is abandoned to die on the coast of Bohemia. Sixteen years later, Polixenes' son Prince Florizel, incurs his father's wrath by eloping with Perdita, the daughter of a local shepherd. But Perdita's origins are not as humble as they appear...

    This book includes a general introduction to Shakespeare's life and the Elizabethan theatre, a separate introduction to The Winter's Tale, a chronology, suggestions for further reading, an essay discussing performance options on both stage and screen, and a commentary.

    William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden some time in late April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. He wrote about 38 plays (the precise number is uncertain), many of which are regarded as the most exceptional works of drama ever produced, including Romeo and Juliet (1595), Henry V (1599), Hamlet (1601), Othello (1604), King Lear (1606) and Macbeth (1606), as well as a collection of 154 sonnets, which number among the most profound and influential love-poetry in English.

    If you enjoyed The Winter's Tale, you might like Shakespeare's As You Like It, also available in Penguin Shakespeare.

    'The work of Shakespeare is virtually infinite'
    Jorge Luis Borges

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  • Macbeth

  • Referred to by superstitious actors as 'the Scottish play', William Shakespeare's Macbeth is a tragedy in which appalling earthly crimes have lasting supernatural repercussions. This Penguin Shakespeare edition is edited by George Hunter with an introduction by Carol Rutter.

    'By the pricking of my thumbs,
    Something wicked this way comes'

    Promised a golden future as ruler of Scotland by three sinister witches, and spurred on by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan to ensure his ambitions come true. But he soon learns the meaning of terror - killing once, he must kill again and again, and the dead return to haunt him. A story of war, witchcraft and bloodshed, Macbeth also depicts the relationship between husbands and wives, and the risks they are prepared to take to achieve their desires.

    This book contains a general introduction to Shakespeare's life and Elizabethan theatre, a separate introduction to Macbeth, a chronology, suggestions for further reading, an essay discussing performance options on both stage and screen, and a commentary.

    William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden some time in late April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. He wrote about 38 plays (the precise number is uncertain), many of which are regarded as the most exceptional works of drama ever produced, including Romeo and Juliet (1595), Henry V (1599), Hamlet (1601), Othello (1604), King Lear (1606) and Macbeth (1606), as well as a collection of 154 sonnets, which number among the most profound and influential love-poetry in English.

    If you enjoyed Macbeth, you might like Hamlet, also available in Penguin Shakespeare.

    'Shakespeare - the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God'
    Lawrence Olivier

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The Winter's Tale and Macbeth by William Shakespeare

It seems that no woman can catch a break when it comes to her child-bearing decisions in Shakespeare's work. Hermione in The Winter's Tale has her pregnancy used as a weapon against her, as her husband Leontes becomes convinced of her infidelity and throws her in prison. Needless to say the birth of his daughter does little to soften his convictions and matters get a lot worse before they get better.

Lady Macbeth meanwhile suffers the opposite fate. As well as committing the sin of being a woman with, arguably, an excess of ambition, her childlessness is used as proof of both her lack of femininity and her husband's impotence.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Illegitimacy crops up again and again as a theme in Dickens' work, and the smattering of poor abandoned children in novels like Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit highlights the way that the problem particularly affected working class women. The real parentage of Esther Summerson, the central character in Bleak House, is a secret carefully maintained through the book, and is used as a foil to the concept of the innate immorality of the illegitimate child.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

As chilling now as when it was written in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale draws a speculative future in which environmental damage has caused widespread sterility, forcing fertile women into servitude as breeders under the ownership of wealthy families. Our hero, Offred, is one such handmaid, whose quiet acts of rebellion and refusal to forget her past place her in grave danger.

The Millstone by Margaret Drabble

This wonderfully progressive novel follows Rosamund Stacey, a Londoner in the Swinging Sixties who finds herself less than comfortable in an era of sexual liberation. In an attempt to get with the times, Rosamund leaps into a one night stand and finds herself pregnant. Our central character's decision to buck convention and raise her daughter on her own couldn't stand in starker contrast to some of this novel's literary antecedents.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

A foetal Hamlet lies in his mother's womb, overhearing her misdeeds and murderous plots and plotting his revenge in this narratively acrobatic novel. This book will make any pregnant woman nervous of being constantly watched by her unborn charge.

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