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English Literature Coursework

Men and women in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale

There are several interesting relationships between men and women in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale. It is clear that a twenty-first century audience will respond to these relationships in a different light from its initial seventeenth century audience as so many changes have occurred over the three centuries since it was first performed. Issues such as sexuality, status and the positions of men and women in society are explored in the play and are played out in the relationships that unfold as the play progresses.

The play is based upon the unfounded jealousy of the King of Sicilia, Leontes, who believes that his wife, Queen Hermione, is committing adultery with his best friend, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes. From the outset, the audience is made aware of the close bond that has existed between the two Kings since their earliest days:

They were trained together in their childhoods; and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection, which cannot choose but branch now (pp. 5-6).

However, this bond is not strong enough to prevent the stirrings of Leontes’ suspicion as he witnesses the friendly exchanges between Hermione and Polixenes and misinterprets them as the exchanges of secret lovers. A modern audience is able to identify with this situation as, regardless of the centuries that have elapsed, unfounded jealousy is still common today and still leads to unfortunate circumstances. To the audience, Hermione’s playful joking with Polixenes as she persuades him to stay is seen as nothing but friendly banter. However, Leontes’ simple question following this scene can be interpreted in two different ways thereby suggesting that his perspective on the relationship between his wife and best friend is very different. He asks his wife, “Is he won yet?” which can be considered a question relating to his wife’s success at persuading Polixenes to stay but can also be considered as a question relating to his wife’s success at wooing Polixenes. The relationship between Polixenes and Hermione is one that is cemented by their mutual love for Leontes.

This is likely to strike a cord with modern audiences just as it would have done in Shakespeare’s time. However, opinions about female sexuality were different in the seventeenth century as women’s sexuality was misunderstood and considered a powerful and even dangerous force if it was not bound by the conventions of the society at the time. Leontes’ fear that his wife is an adulteress, then, would have spoken to contemporary audiences of the fears within their society. Today, the acceptance that women’s sexuality is just as valid as men’s means that the play is interpreted from a different angle and Hermione is pitied even more. Unlike earlier heroines such as Desdemona who is unfairly accused of adultery in Othello, Hermione demonstrates emotional strength and is not solely defined in relation to her husband. This is shown in the trial scene when she appeals to her husband’s knowledge of her past life “as continent, as chaste, as true, / As I am now unhappy” (p.44). Shakespeare, therefore, while presenting the relationship between Leontes and Hermione as one in which Leontes has the power to impose judgment upon Hermione, there is also an inner power granted to Hermione whose integrity is not damaged by the accusations and treatment of her husband.

Just as Hermione suffers the torments of her tyrannical husband and loses first her son, Mamillius, then her newly-born daughter, Perdita, and then her own life, Perdita suffers what a modern audience might consider the injustices of a society that is ruled by social boundaries determined by differences in status. Perdita, who was raised by a shepherd after being sent away by her father as a baby and deserted in Bohemia, meets Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel, with whom she falls in love. Unlike the first half of the play which is characterised by tragedy due to the damage to the marriage between Leontes and Hermione and the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, the second half of the play begins with a romance as Shakespeare depicts the love that has blossomed between the exiled princess and the prince. The words that the lovers speak to one another cross the boundaries of status and time. For example, Florizel says:

I bless the time

When my good falcon made her flight across

Thy father’s ground (p. 64)

However, Perdita is aware of what she believes to be her lowly status and is troubled by the thought that Florizel’s father, the King, might discover the relationship between them. A modern audience might not be as far removed from this idea as initially thought as it is evident that there are still boundaries that exist between people from poor and wealthy backgrounds. While the injustice might not be as overt as it was in Shakespeare’s time, there are still many social barriers in place. It is Shakespeare’s erection of these barriers in relation to love that highlights the injustice. For example, Perdita’s self-denigration is demonstrated when she says:

How would he look to see his work, so noble,

Vilely bound up? (p. 64

Nevertheless, Florizel’s devotion regardless of Perdita’s status is highlighted when his father removes the disguise he has been wearing and shows his opposition to the marriage that was about to take place between his son and chosen bride. Florizel declares:

From my succession wipe me, father, I

Am heir to my affection (p.80)

Therefore, while The Winter’s Tale reveals the worst sides of humanity to the audience in its depiction of maddening jealousy, social divisions and cruelty, the play also uses the relationship between Perdita and Florizel as a romantic relief for the audience and to highlight that love is more powerful than anything.

Perhaps the most intriguing relationship between a man and a woman in the play occurs between Leontes and Paulina. While there is an obvious difference in status between the two characters, Paulina is possibly the most powerful woman in the play and has the most influence over the events. From the first time that Paulina addresses Leontes in the play shortly after Hermione has been imprisoned and has given birth to a baby daughter, the audience is made aware of her strength. Modern audiences are likely to respond favourably to Paulina as she stands up for what she believes in and refuses to be silenced or removed by those men who, nominally, are considerably more powerful than she is as a woman in the seventeenth century. When she tries to talk some sense into Leontes before he realises the mistake he has made, he is almost afraid of her and the truth she speaks:

Away with that audacious lady! Antigonus,

I charged thee that she should not come about me.

I knew she would (p.36)

Paulina, on the other hand, is unafraid of the consequences of her words. She is faithful to her mistress, Hermione, even after the latter’s apparent death. When Leontes threatens to have her physically removed, she retorts:

Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes

First hand me. On mine own accord I’ll off,

But first I’ll do my errand (p. 37)

The relationship between Leontes and Paulina changes from this battle of wills to one that sees Paulina acting as Leontes’ conscience. There is only one passage in the play where Paulina repents her words but this is short-lived as Leontes wishes her to continue. Her harsh words that speak the truth of what Leontes’ jealousy and actions have brought him to are encouraged by the King who, instead of wishing to silence her, wishes her to continue:

Thou didst speak but well

When most the truth; which I receive much better

Than to be pitied by thee (p.51)

Again, this is an emotion that a modern audience will identify with. The King does not want false pity but wishes to soothe his feelings of guilt by being admonished for what he has done. Paulina, therefore, is the symbol of womanly truth and honesty. She does not have the threatening characteristic of female sexuality but rather is defined by her loyalty and her powerful words. Towards the end of the play, she is almost seen as a friendly witch as she seems to have the power to bring Hermione back to life. It is as though the many years that Leontes bowed down to her punishment and suffered the torment of guilt are rewarded by her. Leontes, in turn, rewards her with a new husband to replace the one she lost.

The Winter’s Tale, then, is as relevant to modern audiences as it was to seventeenth century audiences. The complicated relationships between the men and women in the play are easily identifiable today as they address issues that are still common in modern society. The different approaches to female sexuality mean that the play is interpreted differently today from when it was first performed which adds to its depth. A variety of timeless emotions, whether good or bad, are depicted in the play ranging from love and passion to jealousy and cruelty, which means that The Winter’s Tale will always be a source of intrigue to audiences regardless of the era it is performed in.

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