Sunday, November 27, 2005

My Winter's Tale

I was rereading The Winter's Tale again recently, since we're reading it in my Shakespeare class. Once again, I'm stunned at the complexity and beauty of that play.

When I reread plays, especially plays I really love, I tend to focus on one or two aspects of the play with a fair bit of attention. I'm interested, for example, in the ethical responsibilities that subordinates have to their superiors: Kent's responsibility to Lear, Camillo's and Antigonus's responsibilities to Leontes, and so forth. And since early modern English culture had a pretty rigid gender hierarchy, I include a wife's or daughter's responsibility to her husband or father. In early modern drama, that ethical responsibility tends to run in the "tell truth to power" area.

Once again, as I reread WT I was struck by the relationship between Antigonus and Paulina. In Act 2, scene 3, Paulina carries the Hermione and Leontes' baby (unnamed as of yet, but she'll be called Perdita later) into Leontes. (Leontes, King of Sicily, has decided that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful, and so "logically" that anyone who disagrees is traitorous.) Paulina presents Leontes with the baby and tries to convince him that Hermione's been faithful.

Leontes interjects with a variety of attacks, primarily aimed at Antigonus, asking why he can't control his wife Paulina.

Antigonus responds with a fair bit of good humor, noting first that "when she will take the rein I let her run, / But she'll not stumble" (2.3.51-2)*. In other words, he trusts that Paulina will do and say the right things. But his words also imply that he does indeed have control, that he controls the reins, and only lets her run.

When Leontes complains that Antigonus should be hung for not controlling his wife, Antigonus answers that Leontes would have to "hang all the husbands" because none of them can control their wives (2.3.109).

Yet Antigonus doesn't speak to Paulina or try to stop her from speaking to Leontes.

After Paulina leaves, Leontes sends Antigonus off to expose the baby in the wilderness in order to kill it (though, of course, she survives). Antigonus, though, gets killed by a bear.

At the end of the play, after the reunion of Leontes, Hermione, and Perdita, (and after she's learned for certain of Antigonus's death) Paulina tells them to

Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some withered bough, and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost. (5.3.130-135)

["Turtle" here is short for Turtle Dove, a common metaphor for a true and faithful love.]

She's thinking of Antigonus. After 16 years, she's mourning him anew, now that she knows he's dead.

At this point, yours truly is generally teary eyed. Yes, hard hearted Bardiac is really a softy!

Shakespeare doesn't show many mature, married relationships in his plays, and those he does show are generally pretty tense, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Coriolanus and Virgilia, Leontes and Hermione. But here he shows a mature relationship (they have three daughters, the eldest 11 when the play begins [2.1.144]) in which the husband seems to expect his wife to be outspoken, and trusts her to speak forcefully and directly to the king.

We don't see them alone together at all; instead, we see their social interactions, and see them with Leontes or others. And when Antigonus reports his dream of Hermione's ghost (when Hermione's ghost came to him, named the baby, and cursed him), he reports that he'll never see "Thy wife Paulina more" (3.3.34-35). (He tries to dismiss the dream, but since he dies shortly after reporting it, the audience can't dismiss it easily.) The important thing is not that he'll die, but that he'll never see Paulina again. That reinforces how vital their relationship is.

*I'm quoting from Shakespeare, William. The Winter's Tale. Ed Stephen Orgel. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

(One of the things I hate about html is how hard it is to space things over. In case it doesn't come out, pretend that the first line of the blocked quotation is tabbed over about half way, since it begins as the second part of a verse line.)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Bardiac:
    nice post. "hanged," though, not "hung"