“She’ll not stumble”
The Winter’s Tale
Paulina just might be my favourite character in all of Shakespeare. That’s a big claim. Can she compete with the giants Hamlet, Rosalind, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and many others? Yes, I think so. To misinterpret a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” My liking for Paulina is based not on her relatively small number of lines in the play - just over three hundred – but on her power and importance. Her words and actions are the pivot around which the entire essence of the play turns.
The story: Leontes, the king of Sicilia, suddenly becomes insanely jealous of his wife Hermione, believing her to be cuckolding him with his oldest and dearest friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Polixenes flees, Hermione gives birth to her daughter in prison then dies. The daughter is banished, grows up in exile as a shepherd’s daughter, returns to Sicilia with her beloved, the son of Polixenes. The statue of Hermione is brought back to life. Miracle. Happy Ending.
Paulina first appears in Act 2.2. Her queen Hermione is in prison. She is not allowed to see her but is told by another attendant Emilia that the queen has given birth to a daughter. Everyone, reasonably enough, is frightened of the wrathful king but Paulina takes it upon herself to inform Leontes of the birth of his daughter, believing, or at least hoping, that “he may soften at the sight o’th’ child.” She doesn’t intend to fawn, however. Her speech is full of boldness and determination:
If I prove honey-mouthed, let my tongue blister,
And never to my red-looked anger be
The trumpet any more...
I’ll show’t the king, and undertake to be
Her advocate to th’ loud’st...
Tell her, Emila.
I’ll use that tongue I have. If wit flow from’t
As boldness from my bosom, let’t not be doubted
I shall do good (Act 2.2).
She also assures the worried jailer, “I will stand twixt you and danger.” Fierce, she certainly is.
She is told the king will see no one but she brushes the attendants aside with the words, “’Tis such as you. / That creep like shadows by him, and do sigh / At each his needless heavings” (Act 2.3), and says she is bringing him the medicine he needs – the truth about his daughter. The king’s lord Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, admits to the king that it’s not easy to control his wife – “When she will take the rein I let her run, / But she’ll not stumble” (Act 2.3).
Leontes calls her a witch and a lying bawd to which she retorts:
I am as ignorant in that as you
In so entitling me, and no less honest
Than you are mad, which is enough, I’ll warrant,
As this world goes, to pass for honest (Act 2.3).
She defends the honour of her queen, avows Hermione’s innocence, and presents the baby as proof of Hermione’s fidelity: “So like you ‘tis the worse...the copy of the father...So like him that got it” (Act 2.3).
To no avail. He rejects the baby, insists on Hermione’s treachery and threatens to have Pauline burned. To which she replies:
I care not.
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in ‘t. I’ll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen –
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fantasy – something savours
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yes, scandalous to the world (Act 2.3).
She leaves the baby with him: “Look to the babe, my lord, ‘tis yours,” and exits.
Paulina is present at Hermione’s trial and witnesses the queen’s collapse at the news of the death of her young son with Leontes, Mamillius. Paulina and the other attendants carry her away; Paulina returns and rails at Leontes in a long impassioned monologue: that Leontes betrayed Polixenes only proved him a “fool, insistent / And damnable ingrateful,” that he tried to force Camillo to kill Polixenes is “poor trespasses” compared to worse sins such as “casting forth to crows thy baby daughter”, or “cleft[ing] the heart [of the son] / that would conceive a gross and foolish sire.” But Leontes’s absolutely worst crime: “The Queen, the Queen / the sweet’st dear’st creature’s dead, and vengeance for ‘t / Not dropped down yet.” She charges him:
...O thy tyrant,
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir. Therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees,
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain, and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou went (Act 3.2).
In the face of Leontes’s violent jealousy Paulina has stood up to him, risked her life and endured his insults and accusations of witchcraft, by using weapons that women are not supposed to possess – rage, courage and a fiery tongue.
In the introduction to the Norton edition, Jean E. Howard points out that though Leontes’s jealousy seems insane, it “is a symptom of the faultlines in a particular patriarchal culture,” and “in actuality has its roots in the cultural practices that in Jacobean England made men the heads of families, lineages and kingdoms, but at the same time made them crucially dependent on women’s reproductive powers to generate legitimate heirs” (page 2884). To Leontes women, especially Hermione and Paulina, are the enemy. Hermione succumbs to his patriarchal fury. Paulina fights back.
And after her outbursts of fury, indignation, grief and vengeance, she withdraws to plan and carry out her victory over the misogynist king.
Sixteen years pass. We follow the fortunes of the exiled daughter Perdita who returns to the court of Leontes with the son of Polixenes. And the patience, determination and righteousness of Paulina’s strategic – revenge? generosity? – is revealed.
But first she rubs it in for awhile. Leontes has long repented his jealousy and its dire consequences. Cleomenes tells his king, “Do as the heavens have done, forget your evil. / With them, forgive yourself” (Act 5.1). Leontes replies that as long as he remembers his virtuous queen he can’t forget the wrong he did to himself by making the kingdom heirless (never mind Hermione and the kids, Polixenes, Antigonus, Paulina, Camillo...) to which Paulina snaps that he will never find a parallel to “she you killed”. To the talk of Leontes marrying again to get an heir Paulina reminds everybody that the gods have hinted that there is a living heir. Leontes agrees. Musing that were he to marry again, Hermione’s ghost would come back to haunt him. Again a sharp reminder from Paulina: “Had she such power / She had just cause...Were I the ghost...I’d shriek...’Remember mine’” (Act 5.1). She convinces him to promise that he will never remarry without her permission which she will give “when your first queen’s again in breath.”
Aha. Leontes and the rest of us think that that is never but Paulina is now dropping broad hints of what’s been going on for the past sixteen years.
Perdita and company arrive, she is revealed to be the king’s daughter, betrothed to the son of Polixenes, all are amazed, Paulina is reported (we don’t see this) to be torn between grief at the report of the death of her husband and joy that the oracle’s mystical message of the returning heir is now fulfilled. And we are told that there is a statue, so like Hermione that were one to speak to her she would answer. Seemingly Paulina has had something to do with the creation of this statue. We are invited to go and take a look.
So Paulina reveals what she has engineered. “Behold, and say ‘tis well,” she says in Act 5.3, drawing the curtain for all to see the statue. An older, wrinkled Hermione stands before them, and us. With skilled showmanship Paulina draws it out with admonishments not to touch the statue, with exclamations that she’ll remove the statue because Leontes is so upset by it, with concern that she will be accused of using “wicked powers” and finally: “Music, awake her; strike!” (Act 5.3).
Hermione lives. It is not a miracle. It is a loyal determined servant and friend who has had the courage and fortitude to defy the tyrant king, rescue the wronged queen, convince her to lie low until the time was ripe, then step up once again to the throne. A formidable friend, our Paulina.
Her rage, grief, intelligence, courage and perseverance make Paulina an exceptional woman. It is the way that she gives Hermione back to us and to Leontes that makes her magnificent. In a world, like our own, in which the questions of which is superior, art or nature, Shakespeare chooses to show that “in the badly flawed world depicted in The Winter’s Tale, art gradually emerges as one of the resources people can use... to correct old mistakes and to forge new realities...Paulina emerges as the chief representative of the ameliorative artist who uses her skills to make better the world around her” (Howell, pages 2888-2889).
Erik S. Mallin in Godless Shakespeare goes even farther. He shows that Paulina is not only outspoken but downright scary, if you happen to be Leontes. Shakespeare, through Paulina, shows that “[c]oercion and theatrical larceny are the dramatist’s tool for pushing his miracle through” (page 67). Miracle? Leontes and his court believe it to be so. And Paulina demands that they do so. She “requires” them to believe it a miracle – “it is requir’d / you do awake your faith” (Act 5.3). “Such requirement,” Mallin points out, “steals the marvellous from miracles. And the passive voice of concealed authority underlines her rhetoric of compulsion” (page 68). The scary part is that, like in all religious faith – and this play has often been praised as a Christian allegory – faith is “the work of conniving, torturing, withholding, and...suffering” (page 69). Shakespeare, Mallin tells us, “reverses” the Catholic tenet that faith is secret when he has Paulina force the faith of Leontes et al into the open. She has manipulated Leontes for sixteen years and now, in revealing the living statue of Hermione, his faith is required so that he doesn’t see that Paulina has made a fool of him. “The play,” Mallin said, “and Paulina, have an enormous stake in not showing works,” (page 69). In other words, in not showing all the work and preparation that went into creating the “miracle”. Mallin again: “Faith awakes, reason slumps into a coma” (page 69).
The Winter’s Tale is considered to be one of the miracle plays. Paulina is Shakespeare’s creation, used to show that miracles and faith are necessary in the theatre, and as theatre goers we let our faith awaken and our reason to slump into a coma. Is he telling us that the same applies to religion? Yes, I think that is what he is telling us. We, like Leontes, let ourselves be duped into believing things to be miraculous that have reasonable though sometimes manipulative causes.
And Pauline did all this! Determined to hide the workings of her “miracle”, she pulled it off.
Oh yes, she’s formidable. I would not want to be the one to deserve her righteous anger and vengeance. But as long as she aims her alarming skills as revenging artist and miracle maker towards the likes of Leontes – oh yes, I like her very much indeed.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Howell, Jean E. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
- Mallin, Eric S. Godless Shakespeare. 2007.
- The Winter’s Tale, BBC, 1980. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Leontes – Jeremy Kemp; Hermione – Anna Calder-Marshall; Polixenes– Robert Stephens; Paulina – Margaret Tyzack; Perdita – Debbie Farrington; Florizel – Robin Kermode; Autolycus – Rikki Fulton; Clown – Paul Jesson; Camillo – David Burke ; Antigonus – Cyril Luckham. For the most part I like this production very much. The minimalistic stage settings are perfect. Generally the cast is good, especially Calder Marshall and Jesson. I don’t much like Stephens as Polixenes though and something about Tyzack isn’t right as Paulina. As so often, many of the actors are too old for their roles, but the final scene is actually almost a tear-jerker. Definitely worth seeing.
- The Winter’s Tale, RSC, 1999. Director: Gregory Doran. Cast: Leontes – Antony Sher; Hermione – Alexandra Gilbreath; Polixenes – Ken Bones; Paulina – Estelle Kohler; Perdita – Emily Bruni; Florizel – Ryan McClusky; Autolycus – Ian Hughes; Clown – Christopher Brand; Camillo – Geoffrey Freshwater; Antigonus – Jeffry Wickham. In some ways this production is brilliant. The trial scene and the ending are very gripping, the sheep shearing scenes are lively, colourful and fun. Stage settings in the Barbican Theatre are terrific. But there’s just something a little off with the entire cast; nobody is quite right for their role and I simply can’t understand why Gilbreath chose to make her voice so strained and raspy. An odd mix, this one!
Seen on stage:
- Sadly, no.