Speaking of his king's command to stay [his wife's] tongue, (The Winter's Tale, 2.3.110) Antigonus very succinctly states the theme of female empowerment in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Throughout the play, Shakespeare employs various strategies to communicate this idea. One such strategy was Shakespeare's utilization of an unusual structure wherein the first half of the play was tragic and the latter half was comedic. Additionally, throughout the text, Shakespeare often references myths, older stories, and the supernatural to aid in the development of the strong woman theme. Shakespeare also uses three women as the catalysts of his play who affect the outcome in vastly different but equally effective ways.
Right from the outset of the action of the play, Hermione is upstaging her husband and her king, Leontes. By convincing Polixenes to stay in Sicilia awhile longer, she does what Leontes could not.
[...] The first thing we notice about these characters is their similar opinion of the king regarding his behavior towards his queen or his daughter: they all think Leontes is in the wrong. When broached with the king's suspicion of his wife's infidelity, Camillo tells Leontes to cured/Of this diseased opinion.” ( 1.2 .295-6) Antigonus goes even farther with his words when he tells Leontes he will “pawn the little blood which [he has] left” to save young Perdita from the cruel fate to which the king wishes to subject her. [...]
[...] She is, in fact, such a strong character, that to bring out the inner strength of this woman requires no literary allusions or structural devices. The strength of the actions of this character is loud enough to speak for itself. From a lowly jailor to her husband to King Leontes, she bullies, manipulates, and chides them all into doing whatever she deems best. The jailor, who already thinks of Paulina as a “worthy lady” ( 2.2 presents almost no obstacle when pressed to allow Paulina to take Hermione's daughter to Leontes in the hope that may soften at the sight o' th' child.” ( 2.2 .40) However, Paulina's insistence sets the chain of events in motion that will allow Shakespeare to shift the tone of the story from tragedy to comedy. [...]
[...] The strength of the last of the three important female characters in The Winter's Tale is undoubtedly the least obvious of the three, and can mostly be found when looking at both the structure of the play and a few of the more obscure mythological references in the play. One of the most interesting things about this play is the structure of two plays within a play that Shakespeare uses. The first half of the play takes place in Sicilia and contains many elements of a tragic play, including but not limited to the deaths of Mamillius, Hermione (well, supposed death), and Antigonus. [...]
[...] Look down/ And see what death is doing.” ( 3.2 .148-9) At this point, Paulina may actually believe the queen is dying; however, from her dialogue later in the play, it is fairly obvious that her angry tirade upon coming out is an act devised to bring Leontes out of his overpowering jealousy. Her ploy works as Leontes penitently responds: Go on, go on. Thou canst not speak too much. I have deserved All tongues to talk their bitt'rest. ( 3.2 .214-16) As was mentioned before, it becomes readily apparent through Paulina's constant manipulation of the king that not only does Paulina know Hermione is alive, but also that she has been keeping her continued existence from common knowledge until, as she says, lost child be found.” ( 5.1 .40) For instance, at one point, Paulina requires Leontes to have her permission before he marries again then proceeds to tell him that he will not marry: Unless Another, As like Hermione as is her picture, Affront his eye. [...]
[...] In the play, Hermione seemingly dies and is presumed to have gone to the Underworld, as dead souls are wont to do. What is important about her supposed journey is the instance of time in which it happens. At this point, Perdita has already been sent away with Antigonus to the purposed end of the child's life, and the whole court has heard the news of Sicilia's heir, Mamillius's, death. Before we go any further, it is important to note the language used by Camillo and Archidamus in the first scene of the play. [...]
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