The Winter's Tale Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- The Theatre
- Ideas of nature
- The pastoral tradition
- The seasons
- Natural and unnatural development
- The nature of humanity
- The higher powers
- Spiritual re-creation
- The plays and playing
Hermione is one of Shakespeare's most gracious, charming and impressive heroines.
Hermione's delightful qualities
When we first meet her (in Act I, sc ii), Hermione is confident of her husband's love, and in that confidence she can banter and joke about making Polixenes stay. Her good-natured response to Polixenes' suggestion that Hermione and his own wife are ‘temptations', and to Leontes' comment that she has spoken better ‘Never but once', show her wit and spirit.
The same qualities are evident when we next meet her, in Act II scene i. Although she begins the scene by purporting to be tired by Mamillius, this is rapidly shown to be a momentary interval, owing to her advanced pregnancy. She quickly calls him back, and invites him to tell her a story. It is this happy maternal scene which is interrupted by Leontes' arrival when he sends her ignominiously to prison.
Hermione's dignity and sense of honour
From the moment when Leontes has her taken to gaol, we see another side of Hermione – a side which develops and strengthens throughout the rest of Acts II and III: her dignity and sense of personal honour. She never berates Leontes, never cries out in anger or distress. But she does tell him clearly and firmly that he is wrong:
(The most replenish'd villain in the world)
He were as much more villain: you, my lord,
Do but mistake.'
Her use of the formal ‘you' and ‘my lord' show us that even in this extremity she never forgets the respect due to Leontes – and to her own position as queen. (See also: Thee, thou and you.)
As she is taken away to prison, her words speak of her consciousness of her own innocence and also of her acceptance of undeserved suffering as a means of spiritual grace:
There is no cause: when you shall know your mistress
Has deserv'd prison, then abound in tears
As I come out: this action I now go on
Is for my better grace. Adieu, my lord:
I never wish'd to see you sorry; now
I trust I shall.'
Hermione on trial
This same strong, dignified manner of speaking characterises her long speeches in the trial scene, where enjambement frequently adds a sense of fluency and where her sentences are grammatically complex, suggesting someone intelligent and able to put forward a logical argument.
In addition, her natural rhetoric is carefully organised and sustained– for example, she moves with a sense of increasing grief through the enumeration of the loss of the ‘crown and comfort' of her life, then of her ‘second joy' and ‘third comfort' and her other humiliations, climaxing with ‘Now, my liege, Tell me what blessings I have here alive.'
There is, however, also an underlying note of passionate conviction which increases as she speaks of her children and of her own honour; this is a woman who knows her own worth and is not prepared to accept unjustified disgrace.
The ‘resurrected' Hermione
In contrast to the several long speeches she makes in the trial scene, the Hermione of the last scene of the play is restrained. Shakespeare gives her only one speech of seven lines; the first two and a half lines are a prayer to the gods to bless Perdita, to whom she then addresses the rest of her words. She has, she says, only lived to see her child again.
She has no words for Leontes; but words are not needed. She has already come down from the pedestal she stood on and embraced him. Her acceptance of him, and the way in which ‘she hangs about his neck', show that she knows this is the king she loved, and to whom she had said as they courted, ‘I am yours forever'. The phrase might also have reminded Shakespeare's audience of another restored relationship when, after a long parting, a wronged person embraced the one who had caused them such distress – the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son (Luke 15:20).
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
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