The Winter’s Tale and the war on women

NapaShakes Dramaturg Dr. Philippa Kelly on the resonance of The Winter’s Tale to the plight of the world’s women today.

Perdita by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys

Perdita by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys

The Winter’s Tale, written 400 years ago, may be Shakespeare’s play that speaks most directly to the plight of women in some parts of the world today. Just a few months ago we saw a teenage man released from jail in India because, for the gang rape and murder of a young woman, he had served the maximum penalty of three years. The faces of Pakistani women are burned beyond recognition by acid. And even in our own “enlightened” western culture, we see so many women still struggling to close the inequity gap for pay and opportunity – a rather insipid comparison to trauma and atrocity, but a form of mistreatment nonetheless.

Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale opens with its own atrocious abuses – a king, groundlessly accusing his wife, forces her, heavily pregnant, into jail, causes the death of her son, and tries her in court for adultery once she has given birth on a cold stone floor, disregarding the verdict of a soothsayer proclaiming his wife’s innocence, and ripping her newborn daughter away to be killed. In so doing, King Leontes makes a late run against Lear for Shakespeare’s most repellent father/king. How can we feel anything for such a man – a man driven by his own demons of jealousy to lash out at those who, in loving him, are most vulnerable.

But Shakespeare does provide a door to unlock our emotion for this anti-hero; and he gives the key to the play’s two strong women, Hermione and Paulina. They embrace us within their plan for endurance; and in emerging after sixteen long years with forgiveness and hope, they bring with them miracles: not the miracles ostentatiously ordained from above, but the simple miracles, the seeming impossibilities, of human compassion and hope. For sixteen years the servant Paulina keeps Leontes’ emotional wounds open as she hides Hermione away from her husband in seeming death – and in constantly reminding Leontes of what he has done and what he has lost, she asks him to account for his ill needs, to repent of his inhumanity, and to long for a forgiveness which, he thinks, can never come.

This is a play about an abusive marriage; about damaged families, parents separated from children, and the quandary of how to atone for unthinkable offence. The move from tragedy in the first part of the play to comic resolution in the second doesn’t erase the memory of the death of Mamillius, nor of the loyal Antigonus who is torn apart off-stage by a bear, nor of the age and sadness etched into the lives of all those affected by Leontes’ incendiary actions.

While much of A Winter’s Tale is fantastical – the bear, the oracle, the ‘statue’, Hermione’s sixteen-year ‘death’, the constant quick use of coincidence –to perceive reality truly is, at times, to embrace the fantastical. Leontes’ restoration is so much less important in this play than the miracle that Hermione can forgive him –in her suffering is a strain of grace, that intangible quality that can uplift human beings at times of deepest degradation.

Philippa Kelly

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