'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

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

    A jealous king, convinced that his wife has been unfaithful and is having another man's baby, imprisons her and puts her on trial. The child is abandoned to die, but when she is found and raised by a shepherd, it seems redemption may be possible. A bravura blend of tragedy, comedy and romance, Shakespeare's emotionally potent late play explores artifice and nature, mortality and renewal, and the destructive and consoling effects of time.

    Used and Recommended by the National Theatre

    General Editor Stanley Wells
    Edited by Ernest Schanzer
    Introduction by Russ McDonald

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  • Macbeth

  • 'A supreme theatrical poem that has a language that eats into the soul' Michael Billington, Guardian

    Shakeapeare's blood-soaked drama of murder, madness and the uncanny begins as Macbeth is promised a golden future as ruler of Scotland by supernatural forces. Spurred on by his wife, he murders the king to ensure his ambitions come true. But he soon learns the meaning of terror - killing once, he must kill again and again, while the dead return to haunt him. Macbeth is an anatomy of fear and a bleak portrayal of what some will do to achieve their desires.

    General Introduction by STANLEY WELLS
    Edited by GEORGE HUNTER
    Introduction by CAROL CHILLINGTON RUTTER

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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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