UA Professor Explores the Definition of Family
That which we call family can be as fluid as we allow it to be. David Sterling Brown says examples abound, from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" to "The Real Housewives of Orange County."

By Emily Litvack, UA Office of Research and Discovery
Feb. 17, 2016


Ford Madox Brown's "Romeo and Juliet"
Ford Madox Brown's "Romeo and Juliet" (Photo courtesy of the Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935)

In the corner of David Sterling Brown's office is a complete suit of armor — mace, shield and all. On his desk is a collection of recently taught William Shakespeare plays.

Brown looks puzzled, thumbing through a dog-eared copy of "Romeo and Juliet." In line with his signature interest in crossing boundaries and establishing connections between early modern and African-American literature, and between academic and pop culture, he has been prompted to weigh in on a spat between two "Real Housewives of Orange County" cast members: Meghan King Edmonds and Vicki Gunvalson.

In a recent episode of the TV reality show, Gunvalson told Edmonds, regarding motherhood and Edmonds' stepchildren, "You won't know what it's like until you have your own (children)."

Gunvalson, Brown says, needs to rethink her ideas about parentage.

"She needs to understand that it's not always about blood," he says.

Brown, a University of Arizona assistant professor of English, centers his research on parentage and the concept of family in early modern English literature — especially Shakespearean drama — and he is currently working on a book, "Placing Parents on the Early Modern Stage."

Asked if Shakespeare's works offer some kind of grand thesis about family, Brown's eyes light up.

"That's a good question, a big question, and one I hope to answer with my book," he says.

During the Renaissance, family members showed love for one another in ways that might seem, at best, slightly foreign — and, at worst, thoroughly icy — to the contemporary family. And the concept of "family" itself was defined more broadly.

Parent-child dynamics in the Renaissance may appear to be lacking in love based on fictional depictions in some of Shakespeare's works — for reference, look no further than Juliet's domineering father, Capulet — but Brown says culture is fundamentally important.

"I am sure parents in the Renaissance loved their children," he says. "You definitely sense this when Juliet's parents lose their daughter. That was a profound loss, leaving the Capulets without progeny."

And, according to Brown, in Shakespeare's works the role of biological mother or father is not a requirement to acting as a beloved, parental figure. For example, Juliet's nurse serves as a surrogate parent, supporting Juliet when her biological parents seemingly abandon her.

Brown believes society today can benefit from a dose of Shakespeare's 400-year-old mindset, in part by understanding the complexity of familial structures in early modern England.

In the case of Edmonds and her stepchildren, Brown says, as long as she and they acknowledge one another as family and respect the various aspects of that bond, then "Gunvalson cannot deny Edmonds' claim to motherhood."

"Families develop in a variety of ways," he says. "Families are socially constructed. Thus, familial bonds can be created and severed — blood or no blood."

As part of Black History Month, UANews is highlighting the work of African-Americans at the University who are blazing new trails of influence. Next week: Rick Kittles, director of the Division of Population Genetics.

Extra info

Shakespeare's First Folio exhibit is open to the public through March 15 at the Arizona State Museum on the UA campus. Details are available here.