As I was starting to explore The Winter’s Tale, a couple of things really jumped out at me. One: haven’t we seen an awful lot of these characters and scenarios before? And two: can I think of another Shakespeare play with such purposefully powerful female characters? As our Artistic Director, Will, says – The Winter’s Tale may be Shakespeare’s first truly successful experimental piece. Pericles, which comes before, is “what everyone thinks of Shakespeare: it’s long, it’s boring, and nobody knows what’s going on.” And The Tempest, which comes after, might be one of the most perfect interweavings of comedy and drama.
There are echoes of ghosts of Shakespeare’s past in Paulina, Perdita, and Hermione – in how they identify themselves, and relate to Leontes (our…protagonist? Primary antagonist?). Yet the women of Winter’s Tale in so many ways seem to be more full crystallizations of some of those earlier characters. The Winter’s Tale feels like a mythic convergence of earlier themes, and there are clues throughout that it is an allegorical story set outside what we might consider reality. It’s a setting-in-stone kind of play (if you’ll pardon the pun).
There’s a lot to talk about there – for example, Time is personified as a character who introduces the second act – but I’m interested in exploring the central female characters and how they embody mythical statuses. In her book The Women of Will, Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Company points out that this play’s women “adhere to the ancient archetypes”: mother, virgin, witch. So that’s the framework I’m choosing to work through for this particular conversation.
PART ONE: PAULINA
We’ll start with Paulina, our “witch,” as she is one of those stand-out characters who controls the course of our story as much as mess-maker-in-chief Leontes. I’ll say upfront that as a 21st century woman, I do say “witch” with the utmost respect. There are two main characteristics that illustrate Paulina’s position as the witch in this trifecta: prophesy and magic. Paulina takes on the role of the prophet. She prophesies like the best of the Scottish play’s witches. Leontes, full of unfounded rage and suspicion, and believing his wife to have been unfaithful, sends for the input of the oracle. However, he entirely ignores the oracle’s message. It is Paulina who brings him down to the deepest depths of woe in III.ii:
But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert.
In V.i, Paulina actually becomes the mouthpiece of the once fatefully-ignored oracle, giving the audience a reminder and providing backwards-exposition:
Besides, the gods
Will have fulfill'd their secret purposes;
For has not the divine Apollo said,
Is't not the tenor of his oracle,
That King Leontes shall not have an heir
Till his lost child be found? which that it shall,
Is all as monstrous to our human reason
As my Antigonus to break his grave
And come again to me; who, on my life,
Did perish with the infant. 'Tis your counsel
My lord should to the heavens be contrary,
Oppose against their wills.
It is also Paulina who works the (debatable) magic at the very end of the play. Spoilers abound, beware – Paulina re-introduces Leontes and the audience to a supposed statue of his long “dead” wife:
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement. If you can behold it,
I'll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you'll think—
Which I protest against—I am assisted
By wicked powers.
(The Winter’s Tale, V.iii)
Whether Hermione’s statue is revived by magic, or whether there is some other perfectly logical explanation here (our Artistic Director William and I may disagree on this point) is irrelevant. Either way, Paulina is playing the role of magic-maker.
Also, notice her language there: they’ll think she is assisted by wicked powers. The fact of the matter is, any power possessed by a woman, in the historical and social context, is wicked. Which brings me to another set of vocabulary terms for that same female archetypal trifecta: Virgin-Madonna-Whore. The connotations of “witch” and “whore” carry so much more weight than their literal meanings. They’re labels that got (oh, who am I kidding – labels that get) slapped on women who speak truth to power, which Paulina does, constantly, when she’s onstage.
Personally, I hear a lot of Othello’s Emelia in Paulina…except that Emelia doesn’t come out of the gate with that kind of defiant energy.
Here’s Emelia, in Othello’s III.iii:
I am glad I have found this napkin:
This was her first remembrance from the Moor:
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Woo'd me to steal it; but she so loves the token,
For he conjured her she should ever keep it,
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I'll have the work ta'en out,
And give't Iago: what he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to please his fantasy.
….If it be not for some purpose of import,
Give't me again: poor lady, she'll run mad
When she shall lack it.
By the end of Othello, Emelia is all:
Villany, villany, villany!
I think upon't, I think: I smell't: O villany!—
I thought so then:—I'll kill myself for grief:—
O villany, villany!
Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak:
'Tis proper I obey him, but not now.
Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home.
'Twill out, 'twill out: I peace!
No, I will speak as liberal as the north:
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak.
Compare that to The Winter’s Tale’s Paulina. The very first time we see Paulina confront authority (a jailer, in II.ii), it’s:
To lock up honesty and honour from
The access of gentle visitors!
Is't lawful, pray you,
To see her women? any of them?
Followed shortly thereafter by a confrontation with the king himself:
Good queen, my lord,
Good queen; I say good queen;
And would by combat make her good, so were I
A man, the worst about you.
When Leontes calls her “A mankind witch!” (look, there it is!) “A gross hag” (there it is again!), her response is:
I care not:
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in't. I'll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.
Paulina challenges Leontes early on, never takes back her curses, and is ultimately responsible for closing the circle at the end with Hermione’s return. She is, in a major way, responsible for turning the wheels of the plot in Sicilia, and Paulina’s fundamental role doesn’t change throughout the course of the story. This is also in contrast with a character like Emelia – Emelia sets Othello’s main plot in motion with her delivery of the handkerchief to her husband, but she is more of a side player in the drama. Paulina’s character puts herself at the front and center every time she is on stage. Ironically, it is Paulina, our “witch,” who is a constant for Leontes - unlike virgin/daughter Perdita or mother/wife Hermione, both of whom are absent for much of the play.