Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Crying in Class

I cried in class yesterday.

Yeah.  A bit embarrassing.  It's the Paulina's last speech in The Winter's Tale that gets me every time.  It didn't used to.  But then my Dad died.  And the thing is, I'm not crying out of thinking about my grief that my Dad died, but rather, I cry because I'm thinking about my Mom's grief.  It's been 16 years, and my Mom's doing well, but I know that she misses my Dad, her husband of many years, deeply every single day.

So when I cry at those lines by Paulina, I'm not grieving Antigonus, but grieving for Paulina's pain, which feels very real to me in a way it didn't 17 years ago.  And I know, despite Leonte's attempt to wrap things up neatly with the marriage to Camillo, Paulina's still going to know grief.  Or, well, I imagine the character would if she existed at all once the scene ends.

Shakespeare doesn't really represent many grown up married couples who seem to have good marriages, and even fewer widows or widowers who grieve their partner.  Macbeth doesn't have time, nor do Antony and Cleopatra, and their in such a different world, where suicide makes sense as a response.

Antigonus and Paulina seem to have a decent relationship.  In 2.3, the scene where Leontes tells Antigonus to make Paulina "stay her tongue," Antigonus basically says he can't, and doesn't seem particularly bothered that he can't.  Leontes threatens to kill both Antigonus and his wife if Antigonus doesn't carry out his wishes regarding the baby (later Perdita), and thus can force Antigonus to commit what he's pretty sure will be murder.  Thus, his tie to Paulina distinguishes his act of obedience to Leontes' murderous intent from Camillo's avoidance of obedience to the order to kill Polixenes.  Camillo can, apparently, go into exile because he leaves no one behind for Leontes to attack, while Antigonus leaves Paulina and
 ... three daughters; the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, nine, and some five (2.1)
 He has a lot to worry about.  (The daughters are never mentioned again, and seem to be there more for momentary effect than plotting; in 2.1, Antigonus is trying to convince Leontes that Hermione was chaste, as was Paulina, and if they aren't, he'd "geld" his daughters to prevent them producing "false generations."

And so, there's Paulina 16 years later, seemingly alone with her grief, still remembering Antigonus in the midst of others' celebration:

There's time enough for that;
Lest they desire upon this push to trouble
Your joys with like relation. Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither'd bough and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost. 
She reminds us that death and grief are, in this play, still real and powerful.  So, yeah, I cried.

(All quotations from The Winter's Tale from: the MIT Text site.)


  1. WT does this to me, too. I read Act 5 as being about how corrosive grief and bitterness can be--nothing has happened in Sicilia for 15 years because neither Paulina nor Leontes can move on or forgive. Whether we think Leontes deserves forgiveness is, I suppose, an open question, but we actually don't know that Hermione forgives him (she speaks only to Perdita), and whether she does or doesn't, some mistakes aren't fixable: their son is really dead and they lost their daughter's entire girlhood and what might have been the best years of their marriage. Those things are lost forever, as is Antigonus.

    As I tell my students, the happy ending of the play isn't really so magical: it's the kind of happy ending we get after real loss, when we're desperately grateful for such happiness as we can recover: in real life, our dead stay dead and usually our lost relationships stay lost, and many mistakes aren't fixable. But even if our lost partner or child or friend never returns, sometimes we still, hope against hope, manage to find some amount of happiness.

    1. Yes, some amount of happiness in a play world with death. I love that Hermione only speaks to Perdita.

  2. Long ago, I memorized MacLeish's poem "You, Andrew Marvell" because I liked having an answer to "To His Coy Mistress." I can no longer get through MacLeish's poem, in public or in private, without my voice cracking, at the very least. I bet a lot of us have works that do this to us, and especially as we get older, and the words acquire new resonances.

  3. Paradise Lost. Every time I lecture on it, and I read the end of the poem to the class, I barely make it through. Then, I finish up, and I turn away from the class and start sobbing. Every time. Every time.

    Winter's Tale guts me too. I saw SUCH a good version of it at ASC this summer. I was utterly swept away by it. Great play.

  4. Oh, that last bit of PL for sure. I don't know the MacLeish poem, Dame Eleanor, but now I'll look for it!

  5. I agree about WT, but I'm intrigued that you see this as a problem: literature moves us, and it's a way of feeling less alone in the world. I hope students learn this!

    I saw Cymbeline last night at the Globe, and I thought they did a great job of making the happiness at the end a little bittersweet - the grief of misunderstanding, the lost years of the prince's childhood, etc.

    1. It's only a problem because I find it a bit embarrassing to cry in front of 30 people.

    2. Embarrassing, yes, but what a good model for students, to show them that words and literature have this power!

    3. I agree--I think moments like this can be very arresting for students.

      What does it for me is reading the Gettysburg Address. That does it for me every time.

  6. Certain poems and prose passages always make me weepy when I read them aloud. I've tried asking students to do the reading, but that doesn't always help. On the other hand, I agree that it won't hurt students to see how literature can speak to our deepest thoughts and feelings.

  7. Anonymous7:43 PM

    I agree there is no shame in being authentic! (Although I was a little embarrassed of getting teary at one of the sentimental moments of A Christmas Carol.)