The Women of The Winter's Tale Pt. 3: Hermione
INTRO RECAP (skip this if you already read about Paulina in Pt. 1 and/or Perdita in Pt. 2): 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 THREE: HERMIONE
The final piece of the female archetype: the mother, or, in this case, Hermione. Here’s the thing: unlike Perdita/the virgin and Paulina/the witch, I don’t really have anyone to compare Hermione to. Shakespeare kind of suffers from a Disney problem, in that the mothers are very often missing in action. It wasn’t until this later stage of his writing career that he endeavored to really invest in this character type.
Let’s just take a brief and terrifying look at the handful of other mothers that we see in Shakespeare, from his early days up until The Winter’s Tale, shall we?
We’ve got Tamora in Titus Andronicus:
So should I rob my sweet sons of their fee:
No, let them satisfy their lust on thee.
Isn’t she just so warm and maternal? Same goes for Margaret, of the second Henry saga:
Or, with the rest, where is your darling Rutland?
Look, York: I stain'd this napkin with the blood
That valiant Clifford, with his rapier's point,
Made issue from the bosom of the boy;
And if thine eyes can water for his death,
I give thee this to dry thy cheeks withal.
Alas poor York! but that I hate thee deadly,
I should lament thy miserable state.
(Henry VI 3, I.iv)
Or Volumnia, of Coriolanus:
Hear me profess
sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love
alike and none less dear than thine and my good
Coriolanus, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their
country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.
And of course, how could we leave out Hamlet’s infamous mother Gertrude? Here’s how Hamlet talks about his mom:
Frailty, thy name is woman!-
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she
(O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle;
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!
(Hamlet’s description, I.ii)
Hermione doesn’t have a ton in common with these women. So often, we see the mother figure in the villain role. These more villainous mothers, according to our Hermione, Sharon Stevens, “...are fierce because of their ability to control and manipulate. Lady Capulet and even Mistress Page [of Merry Wives of Windsor] could fall into this category because their motives – while they say are for the good of the kid - are really for the good of their household.” The household, and the larger, long-term interests of the family standing.
Now, many of these characters have earned their reputations as wonderfully strong women - but good mothers, perhaps, they are not. The Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well is one such woman, scheming to have her son married off to a woman who has recently come into good standing with the King, at one point going so far as to say:
I prithee, lady, have a better cheer;
If thou engrossest all the griefs are thine,
Thou robb'st me of a moiety: he was my son;
But I do wash his name out of my blood,
And thou art all my child. Towards Florence is he?
(Countess, All’s Well, III.ii)
Hermione stands apart from these characters. Unlike Hamlet’s Gertrude, Hermione ferociously defends herself against accusations and never deigns to event hint at guilt:
Do not weep, good fools;
There is no cause: when you shall know your mistress
Has deserved prison, then abound in tears
As I come out: this action I now go on
Is for my better grace. Adieu, my lord:
I never wish'd to see you sorry; now
I trust I shall.
And unlike the proud, bloody rhetoric we hear from Volumnia, Margaret, and Tamora, Hermione places her children above almost all else:
To me can life be no commodity:
The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
I do give lost; for I do feel it gone,
But know not how it went. My second joy
And first-fruits of my body, from his presence
I am barr'd, like one infectious. My third comfort
Starr'd most unluckily, is from my breast,
The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,
Haled out to murder: myself on every post
Proclaimed a strumpet: with immodest hatred
The child-bed privilege denied, which 'longs
To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried
Here to this place, i' the open air, before
I have got strength of limit. Now, my liege,
Tell me what blessings I have here alive,
That I should fear to die?
(More Hermione, II.i)
There are echoes of other falsely accused ladies here (Hero and Desdemona certainly come to mind), but Hermione stands apart in her own relentless self-defense that is at the same time a kind of selflessness. She is the epitome of the “mother,” with her priorities firmly fixed on her husband and children as she (refuses to) plead for her life. Even her acknowledgement of her own plight and discomfort is tied to her status as a mother (“with immodest hatred / The child-bed privilege denied, which 'longs / To women of all fashion”).
As Sharon-Hermione pointed out to me, “The mothers that Hermione is more equal to are the ones used to show how insane someone else has become. Lady MacDuff is a small role but her kindness and dedication to her babies is so clear that when Macbeth has her killed, it’s heartbreaking. Queen Elizabeth’s speech about her sons and daughter in Richard III showcases how twisted Richard is. Hermione is a force because she is the voice of level headed sanity in a world that’s gone truly topsy turvy.”
I feel like, because I have in fact seen (and struggled to read the mess that is) Pericles, which comes shortly before Winter's Tale in the chronology: I have to mention Thaisa. Thaisa, whose “dead” body is thrown overboard in a tempest and discovered a decade and a half later alive and well as a nun in a temple of Diana in a scene that is perhaps comparable to the family reunion at the end of The Winter’s Tale. One analysis I read pointed out the wonderful convenience of Thaisa having become a nun at the altar of Diana – no complicated second husband explanation to ruin the great reunion. With Hermione, once again, Shakespeare takes it a step further: she is a literal (maybe) statue, preserved in her way for the reunion with her husband and daughter.
Thaisa’s first reaction upon re-entry is to cry out Pericles’ name (and, uh, faint)…whereas – spoilers again! – whether or not Hermione “actually” “dies” at the end of the first act, her return to the land of the living is only prompted by the return of her daughter Perdita, NOT by her husband Leontes’ years of penance. And this is in spite of her listing his “favour” as the primary “crown and comfort of my life” in the courtroom. She doesn’t actually speak to Leontes upon her return from the dead/the pedestal, she only speaks directly to Perdita.