The Winter’s Tale is a sixteenth-century comedy of William Shakespeare’s containing many possibilities of a tragedy occurring throughout the play, such as when Hermione ‘dies’ and Perdita is left in an unpopulated area. The various female characters’ representations are significant for the plot. More importantly, with the exception of Paulina, they are portrayed as being passive, obedient characters who are inferior to their male counterparts.
A modern-day audience would perhaps disagree with the oppression of women evident within this play, but in the cultural context of Shakespeare’s society, women were inferior to men and subsequently expected to obey them without question. The character of Paulina, however, is welcomed by the modern audience as being a more modern character who defends the rights of women, for example Hermione and the abandoning of Perdita.
At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, women, more specifically Mary and Elizabeth I, had held the position of monarch in England and it is possible to suggest Paulina is the personification of a new contemporary idea of a female. Paulina, is portrayed as being very strong emotionally, as she is willing to stand up to Leontes and make him see his own faults, but she could also be considered extremely cruel for the emotional punishment and torture she inflicts on Leontes during the sixteen years that he is without Hermione.
Paulina also manages to convince the male characters that Hermione is innocent, indicating a reasonable degree of power. Leontes insults anybody who agrees with Paulina or, more importantly, anybody who disagrees with him, for example, Antigonus, who is Paulina’s husband. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Leontes, who has a low opinion of the women in the play, reflects predominant contemporary male attitudes. His statement to Antigonus regarding Paulina shows that he expects the man to be dominant, “What? Canst not rule her? ”
Hermione is the opposite of Paulina as she appears to be very weak, always forgiving Leontes, but she is perhaps stronger than Paulina as she is willing to accept her oppression and remain dignified throughout. Upon being accused of adultery with Polixenes by Leontes, Hermione is given the simple reply, “No, by my life, Privy to none of this. ” This is a highly ironic statement. Leontes has condemned Hermione to death and Hermione is swearing on her life that she is innocent. The effect of this irony is a reinforcement of Hermione’s innocence, showing Leontes to be an unreasonable, jealous tyrant.
This technique employed by Shakespeare is illustrating a clear division between which of the characters upon stage we are to support in the court case. It is certainly possible that Shakespeare based the character of Hermione on the medieval idea of female Patience. Female Patience is a concept that women will allow themselves to suffer in order to please their husbands. For example, ‘patient Griselda’ from the Clerk’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer shows this virtue. Hermione is portrayed as being a forgiving, obedient lady who will forever remain loyal to Leontes, similarly to Griselda.
Another response of Hermione’s while she is on trial is: “The emperor of Russia was my father. ” This ironic statement would likely cause a contemporary Shakespearean audience, or a modern audience to feel more sympathy for Hermione, as her calmness and unexpected argument with her husband convince us that she has done no wrong. Although her father is powerful, she is weak and defenseless, creating a form of irony. Also, Shakespeare is showing that Hermione hails from an honourable family.
However, although it is admirable that Hermione manages to remain calm even during this traumatic time, with the way Leontes has been treating her there is a feeling amongst a modern audience that Hermione should not be so calm and should perhaps let Leontes know exactly what she thinks of him and his actions, as women would be more likely to do during recent times. However, her silence would have been considered virtuous by a contemporary audience, creating a high level of respect between the character and its audience.
The audience is led to believe that, although Hermione has won the case with the Oracle, Leontes has won the battle when Hermione faints, apparently to die. This is perhaps Shakespeare’s most literal display of Hermione’s character as although she appears strong and dignified on the outside, on the inside she is weak, which is shown by Hermione fainting to her apparent death. The death of Hermione’s son, Mamillius, is also a large factor in Hermione’s ‘death’. Hermione was very protective of Mamillius; feeling that Leontes’s allegations against her would have a detrimental effect on his reputation.
My second joy, And first-fruits of my body, from his presence I am barred, like one infectious. ” The death of Mamillius further emphasizes Leontes’ unreasonable and tyrannous behaviour, to the point that we no longer respect the king. Shakespeare has been known to emphasise the importance of the throne and the death of Mamillius meant that there was no heir, causing a contemporary audience to be shocked at Leontes’ actions. A parallel can be drawn between Leontes and Henry VIII, as he too had within the audience’s memory jeopardised the future of the throne by not having a son for a long period of time.
It is perhaps implied that, by the end of the play, Leontes’s life has been controlled by women. Leontes’s oppression of Hermione and his attempted oppression of Paulina at the beginning are ironic as Leontes is ultimately the one being limited by Paulina, his own jealousy and, to a more abstract degree, by Hermione, as she is conspiring to torture Leontes right from the beginning, which allows Paulina to take control of him, “My true Paulina, We shall not marry till thou bid’st us. ”
Leontes requires Paulina’s permission before he is allowed to marry again – he has no control over his own life or the future of the throne of Sicily. The throne of Sicily is not only in Paulina’s hands, as he cannot marry and have children without her permission, but it is also in Perdita’s hands as the Oracle’s ruling states that there will not be an heir to the throne unless Perdita is found. Leontes’ passing of certain duties to Paulina is Shakespeare’s intention of portraying Leontes as a neglectful king who is not capable of doing his job.
Leontes pays for his treatment of women in the past by being treated like a woman; as an inferior and being told what to do. Leontes derogates Hermione at the start of the play to Camillo, using disease imagery, suggesting that Hermione’s infection has spread to their marriage and subsequently to him, “Were my wife’s liver Infected as her life, she would not live The running of one glass. ” Or: “My wife’s a hobby-horse” However, this is a highly ironic statement.
Leontes’ jealousy is what has infected the marriage and Shakespeare intends to influence the audience into believing that Leontes is ignorant and cannot see how unreasonable he is. This is important for later in the play, where Leontes realises the error of his ways. In comparison to characters like Leontes and Polixenes, Shakespeare has written female characters who are rational, loyal to each other and sensible. This is a huge change from the traditional stereotype of women. The female would be expected to be the jealous, irrational and destructive, with lecherous tendencies.
This was particularly prominent in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s inclusion of Hermione’s flirting with Polixenes portrays an appearance of lechery, but the message is that it was often a misconception. Paulina portrays the opposite of this stereotype, remaining loyal to Hermione throughout the play and not betraying her, unlike Leontes, who contrasts the women with his jealous attitude towards his best-friend Polixenes and by causing his own son, Mamillius’s death. The audience is likely to have more respect for the women due to their unity and the dignified way they defend each other and themselves.
Paulina’s torture of Leontes is thought to be just when it appears that Hermione was dead. However, when Hermione is revealed as being alive at the end of the play, it is unclear as to whether or not she was alive all along or if the statue was brought back to life by Leontes. If she was alive all along, the audience might feel that Paulina exaggerated her actions towards Leontes and wasted sixteen years of Hermione and Leontes’s lives. However, the audience will certainly feel happy that Leontes and Hermione can finally be happy together after all they have endured together.
According to one criticism of the Winter’s Tale by Inga-Stina Ewbank (1964), “The exquisite joy of the last scene balances but cannot erase the tragic fact that Hermione and Leontes have lost sixteen precious years. ” I find this to be over-simplistic. They lose sixteen years, but who is to say that this fact is tragic? These sixteen years apart make Leontes realise how wrong he is in his actions towards Hermione and they allow both Hermione and Leontes to reflect upon their situations and to attempt to better their marriage from this point forward.
Time as a healer is a main theme of the play. Shakespeare’s effect of the sixteen-year gap on stage emphasises the fantastical nature of the play. Despite the obvious potential for a tragedy within this play, the supernatural re-birth of Hermione by the end is likely Shakespeare’s distinction between comedy and tragedy. I also disagree that the final scene balances this fact as although they are reunited, gain Perdita as a daughter and Florizel as a son-in-law, they will never be able to replace their son and heir to the throne, Mamillius, as he is and will always be dead.
No matter how much Leontes repents for his sins, Mamillius cannot be brought back. Leontes’ matching of Paulina and Camillo might also seem joyful in theory, but these two are not in love and matching them up is simply a demonstration of Leontes’ power returning to him. In fairness to Leontes, he may not intentionally be controlling Paulina and may have paired Paulina off with Camillo to give her a good, worthy husband. The union of Paulina and Camillo could also be a sign of nature taking its course, as marriage is viewed as a natural union. The reconciliation of Hermione and Leontes could also be deemed as natural.
However, this first criticism is definitely accurate in that the last scene cannot possibly excuse Leontes’ previous actions towards Hermione. Hermione is always willing to take back Leontes no matter what sins he has committed, but Leontes is not willing to forgive Hermione for sins that she is not even guilty of. Hermione is the stronger character of the two as a result of this. It is possible that Shakespeare has intended to portray the females as emotionally-stronger characters as a way of ridiculing the male attitude towards females during this time.
However, Queen Elizabeth I was recognised as a dominant and powerful ruler, which Queen Hermione was not. Queen Elizabeth was never married and subsequently not the subject of any oppression, but Hermione was oppressed by her husband. This could be a suggestion by Shakespeare that if men had listened to women more and treated them as equals, perhaps Leontes would not have enraged himself to such a degree over Hermione and Polixenes’ friendship. Hermione does exactly what is asked of her by Leontes and is accused of adultery for it.
Women were vastly underappreciated by men back in the 16th century and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ illustrates this perfectly. One critic has suggested that, “The action of the play is to repair the damage caused by Leontes’ jealousy”, however, “Camillo flees, Hermione endures, and Paulina, though she criticizes the king, will eventually restore his wife to him. ” However, Leontes’ areas of power are shared between the various female characters within the play and this gives the impression that Leontes has lost control and makes the audience feel that the women are in power rather than Leontes.
As soon as Leontes loses Hermione and Mamillius he becomes vulnerable and Hermione and Paulina capitalise on this more than anyone. However, Leontes does have the final say as, although Paulina would like for Leontes to wait for her permission before marrying again, he is under no real obligation to do so and can just as easily refuse as accept her proposal. His intense vulnerability is what causes him to give in to Paulina. In conclusion, it could be argued that women are presented as being worthy of more power than they actually possess.
In the cases of Paulina and Hermione, the two characters are extremely sensible and know how their roles are limited by the laws of Sicilia. Shakespeare asks the contemporary audience to respect these women and support them over jealous tyrants such as Leontes. I believe that Shakespeare’s addition of these characters shows that he believes that despite being expected to be the calm, calculating characters, men can often get out of control and this is ironic as it is not expected of them but it can often happen anyway. The undervaluing of women could be a mistake as they, like Paulina and Hermione, have plenty of intelligence to offer.