The Women of The Winter's Tale Pt. 1: Paulina

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.




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:</