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.


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!