The Winter’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE WINTER’S TALE
Leontes is encouraged to end his reclusiveness and to forgive himself, but not by the perpetually chiding Paulina:
If, one by one, you wedded all the world,
Or, from the all that are, took something good
To make a perfect woman, she you kill’d
Would be unparallel’d. (V.i.13-16)
Paulina also counters the proposal that Leontes remarry and create another heir: the oracle demanded that he find the lost child: “Care not for issue, / The crown will find an heir” (V.i.46-47). The lines here “are quoted verbatim from Golding’s translation of Justin, dedicated to his nephew, Lord Oxford” (Ogburn and Ogburn 762). Leontes mournfully accepts his perpetual responsibility for Hermione’s death. He’ll not accept another wife, unless Paulina okays one.
Florizel and his beautiful wife — “the most peerless piece of earth … / That e’er the sun shone bright on” (V.i.94-95) — are announced. Leontes welcomes them and laments that he has no son and daughter so pleasing as the couple. Florizel says that he represents the ailing Polixenes but tells an elaborate lie about the rest concerning a Libyan trip. Then word arrives that Polixenes, momentarily detained by a shepherd and his son, demands that Leontes arrest the married couple — his renegade son and a shepherd’s daughter — and Florizel feels betrayed by Camillo. He asks that Leontes try to persuade Polixenes to allow him to remain with Perdita. Leontes is taken with Perdita, and although Paulina suspects baser interest, Leontes says only that she reminds him of Hermione. Leontes will try to make peace between father and son.
Autolycus gleans facts from a few gentlemen regarding events at Leontes’ palace. The shepherd’s story has been told, and there’s a celebration:
The oracle is fulfill’d; the King’s daughter is found. Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it…. The news, which is call’d true, is so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion. (V.ii.22-29)
Initially it seems odd that this dramatic climax is being reported secondhand to us instead of witnessed by us, but “Shakespeare presumably had learned from Pericles that one recognition scene is enough, since the meeting of Pericles and Marina has a strength that dissipates the subsequent reunion with Thaisa” (Bloom 647).
The emotional meeting of Leontes and Polixenes is described; “the son and daughter of the estranged kings bring about their parents’ reconciliation by their marriage” (Wells 346). The mauling of Antigonus years ago and the shipwreck, Paulina’s reactions to these reports, Perdita’s reactions to the explanation of her mother’s death, and other matters are also recounted. Soon a celebratory dinner will be enjoyed, in the presence of a lifelike statue of Hermione in Paulina’s keeping:
a piece many years in doing and now newly perform’d by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly is he her ape. (V.ii.95-100)
This seemingly sole reference to an artist in the Shakespeare canon is an anachronism here, of course, Giulio Romano being an early- and mid-sixteenth century artist. More than that, though, the reference was long thought to have been a screw-up of Shakespeare’s. Professor Emeritus J. Isaacs of the University of London declared that Shakespeare “knew nothing about art, and in The Winter’s Tale when he speaks of a sculptor being ‘that rare Italian master Julio Romano,’ he did not know that Julio Romano was not a sculptor…. How and where he [Shakespeare] came across that name [Julio Romano] Lord only knows” (qtd. in Ogburn 305-306). “Other Stratfordians have also made this charge” (Ogburn 305). But in Vasari’s Lives of Seventy of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (not translated until 1850), two Latin epitaphs of Romano are given which evidently were inscribed on his tombstone in the church of San Barnaba in Mantua (and which disappeared during the renovation of the church), confirm that Romano, in addition to being a painter and architect, was indeed also a sculptor, so Shakespeare made no blunder here. It’s another case for Oxford, as author of the plays, having been to Italy. [For more on Giulio Romano’s influence on Shakespeare, see Lucrece.]
One gentleman remarks that he has wondered why Paulina “hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that remov’d house” (V.ii.105-107). The gentlemen will join the celebration.
Autolycus grouses that he has accidentally done good, at least for others. “He is knavery sublimated into play, ‘crime’ de-moralized for purely comic consumption” (Goddard, II 275). The Shepherd and his Clown son come along, newly made gentlemen. The Clown insists on referring to their new social status as being that of “gentlemen born” (V.ii.131ff). They are feeling generous and so, making Autolycus promise to amend his ways, they invite him along for the revealing of the statue.
Leontes thanks Paulina for her years of service. All have wandered through her gallery, but only now do they arrive at the statue of Hermione. Paulina draws back a curtain and says, “I like your silence, it the more shows off / Your wonder” (V.iii.21-22). When Leontes remarks on her wrinkles, Paulina explains that the artist imaginatively aged her. Leontes is guilt-ridden. Perdita kneels to the statue, futilely hoping for its blessing. Don’t touch! warns Paulina; the paint’s still wet. Camillo, Polixenes, and Paulina try to assuage some of Leontes’ misery. If she’d known it would have moved him so, Paulina says she never would have shown it. She is worried that any moment Leontes will even think it moved or breathed. But Leontes and Perdita are entranced by the statue and don’t want it covered. Paulina says there is more amazement to be had: she can make it move so long as no one accuses her of “unlawful business” (V.ii.96).
Paulina cues the music and commands the statue to move. As Hermione leaves her pedestal, “we, like Hermione, start to breathe again” (Wells 348). She walks towards Leontes, and embraces him. He remarks on her warmth. Paulina remarks, “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale, but it appears she lives” (V.iii.115-117).
It is never unambiguously clear what has happened, but most critics figure Hermione was never really dead:
The Queen, Hermione, is of course only thought to be dead; she chooses to withdraw into obscurity, out of life and its rhythms. In this she is rather like Thaisa and those other mothers in Shakespeare’s plays who, losing their husbands and children, seclude themselves in religious sanctuaries as abbesses or nuns. (Garber 841)
In any case, the scene offers a Hermione who is “a blend of nature and art, awakened by the faith of the Shakespearean audience, the same power that centuries later Coleridge would call the ‘willing suspension of disbelief'” (Garber 851). “Paulina re-creates art as life, and life as art. The statue ‘is’ the play” (Garber 851). Oxford may be influenced here by the funerary art Burghley provided for his daughter Anne on her lavish tomb in Westminster Abbey (Anderson 221), and/or the tomb of Ippolyta Castiglione (d. 1520) from during his Italian travel (Anderson 97). There was also apparently a painted statue of Queen Elizabeth presented at Lud Gate in 1586 (Ogburn and Ogburn 762).
Hermione acknowledges Perdita and speaks, honoring the gods, asking Perdita about her survival, and claiming that Paulina’s report about the oracle prepared her for this event (V.iii.125-128). “Hermione (or Shakespeare) has forgotten that she has heard the Oracle for herself; her slip indicates considerable consultation between two old friends during sixteen years of visits twice or thrice a day” (Bloom 647). It remains ambiguous whether Hermione was resurrected or just in hiding for the sixteen years, but in any case, Paulina gives her blessings to the restored family and plans to retire into seclusion, mourning her husband Antigonus. But Leontes matches her up with Camillo. Leontes asks for forgiveness and announces that they’ll celebrate and exchange narrative explanations of events ever since the rifts so many years ago.
Asimov thinks the original form of the play contained the climactic reconciliation scene with Perdita (Asimov 166) and that since the possibility regarding Hermione not being dead is reserved for Act V, the absence of various explanations suggests that the last act “is a new ending, patched on imperfectly” (Asimov 167).
Eva Turner Clark makes a big case for Raleigh being relevant in this play. And one is temporarily tempted to see some parallels with Mary, Queen of Scots, in the pseudo-trial of Hermione before the monarch, Leontes, with “Leo” hinting at English authority (Ogburn and Ogburn 747); but these are scattered allusions that seem to go nowhere. I’m seeing a more thorough allegorical application.
I read this as another play that specifically takes into consideration Elizabeth as the key audience member, and probably blending her relationship with the play into Oxford’s own, as I see happening in Antony and Cleopatra and other plays. Here the Shakespearean theme of deluded marital jealousy matches de Vere’s autobiographical impulse in, for example, Othello; but he invites Elizabeth to see her predilection towards her own irrational fits too. This time, though, there’s another layer.
Despite the anachronisms, the play is set in the distant past, so we need to go back a bit: I’d suggest a generation. Asimov offhandedly noted that the original audience might have experienced a sense of “familiarity” with the trial scene in that Henry VIII tried Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (Asimov 154). I (and seemingly an ignored Horace Walpole) say that Leontes, partly, is indeed Daddy for Elizabeth: Henry VIII who, like Daddy and herself, flies into an irrational fit and essentially is responsible for the death of Mommy — Anne Boleyn — who is accused of infidelity and treason. (A witchcraft allusion comes up too.) Elizabeth might well see herself in Leontes/King Henry in whatever fit of hysterical jealousy Oxford was advising against at the original time. And of course Oxford is Leontes regarding his own wife — so once again he’s diplomatically demonstrating how alike he and Liz are.
The son, Mamillius, made so much of as royal heir in the first scene of Act I, dies young, like Elizabeth’s younger half-brother, whose early death ultimately meant that she would succeed to the throne. Daughter Perdita gets to play ingenue shepherdess, and although I would have thought that the whole dorky “pastoral” thing would have been more the hobby of the courtiers than Elizabeth herself, this play and As You Like It are giving me the impression that she went in for it too. Perdita’s fake sheep-shearing festival identity is Flora (IV.iv.2) — that’s a typical Elizabeth identity. (The Catholic Mary Tudor is ignored in this familial reconstruction, but I can point to Tudor-era paintings in which the marginalization is literal.)
So the world goes ga-ga over the wondrousness and wisdom and innocence and horticultural wit of Flora/Perdita, and Elizabeth gets to see that Daddy really did love Mommy and he is very very sorry for killing her. And Mommy comes back even and Auntie Paulina advises: “Care not for issue, / The crown will find an heir” (V.i.46-47). O, the comforting power of art.
Anybody who has suffered a bereavement can tell you what a tumult of distress and rapture can be stirred up by an unexpected snapshot, the sight of a face in the crowd, or a retreating figure which looks as if it might just have been the dead beloved. It can take years for this propensity to die with the dead. It is a radical ingredient in the human soul. And you will follow that retreating figure, knowing perfectly well that you’re cultivating a delusion, yet preferring that delusion to anything the world can offer you in the way of solid reality. It is enough to feel again what you have been prevented for so long, by brute fact, from feeling — what you have feared you may never feel again. That it is almost pure pain is negligible, beside the heart-stopping sense of recovery and recapture. It’s a pain for which you are hungry. (Sanders 112-113)