Paulina's name

It is interesting to ponder why Shakespeare gave Paulina her name. It is a female version of Paul, and it is interesting to note that, like Saint Paul, she advocates salvation through penitence and faith, telling Leontes (in Act V, sc iii) that ‘It is requir'd / You do awake your faith.' Could Shakespeare have had this theological link in mind in choosing her name?

Paulina as truth-teller

Paulina (See also: Camillo) is one of several faithful servants in Shakespearean drama, and is also a truth-teller; she will not flatter Leontes, nor will she stay quiet when she thinks he needs to be told how wrong he is.

It is evident that she has a reputation for outspokenness in Leontes' court: as she arrives to see Leontes (in Act II, sc iii) he rebukes her husband Antigonus -

‘I charg'd thee that she should not come about me.
I knew she would.'

Obviously he has experienced her unstoppable directness before.

Paulina's worth

The first time we meet Paulina is in Act II scene ii, when she goes to see Hermione in prison. Shakespeare ensures that we know how to esteem her from the outset:

  • When she asks the gaoler, ‘You know me, do you not?', he unhesitatingly replies: ‘For a worthy lady / And one who much I honour.'
  • Her husband, too, even when she is creating a disturbance by insisting on tackling Leontes (in Act II, sc iii) knows that she is in the right and worth respecting. In response to Leontes' angry question,
‘What! Canst thou not rule her?'
Antigonus tells him,
‘When she will take the rein I let her run;
But she'll not stumble.'
  • In the last act of the play, Leontes acknowledges her worth publicly, calling her ‘My true Paulina' (scene i), ‘grave and good', and ‘Good Paulina' ‘whose worth and honesty /Is richly noted' (scene v). (See also: Camillo.)

Paulina as healer

From the moment when Paulina first confronts Leontes (in Act II, sc iii), she sees her task as bringing him back to his right mind, and curing him of his delusions about Hermione. Paulina knows that she is right to speak directly as that is the only way to counteract the ‘illness' affecting Leontes' reason. She criticises those who fail to tell him the unpalatable truth:

‘I come to bring him sleep. ‘Tis such as you,
That creep like shadows by him, and do sigh
At each his needless heavings; such as you
Nourish the cause of his awaking. I
Do come with words as medicinal as true,
Honest, as either…'

Calling herself ‘your physician' as well as ‘your loyal servant' and ‘your most obedient counsellor' she knows that the process will be painful, and that he will not welcome her words. She ‘dares' to appear less comforting than others, and to challenge his tyranny. (See also: Disease and healing).

Paulina's role in Leontes' redemption

Once Hermione appears to die, it is Paulina who undertakes the task of bringing Leontes to penitence and redemption. She tells him clearly (in Act III, sc ii) that he can never deserve forgiveness:

‘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 wert.'

Her forthright accusations, however, can help him: he immediately responds with an acknowledgement:

‘Go on, go on:
Thou canst not speak too much: I have deserv'd
All tongues to talk their bitt'rest.'

Keeping memory alive

  • Even while Paulina apparently retracts, telling Leontes that she should not have [re]‘minded' him of ‘what (he) should forget', she simultaneously does remind him, speaking of all the deaths and grief for which he is responsible
  • When we meet Paulina and Leontes again in Act V, we discover that his other courtiers feel that he has ‘done enough', and has ‘perform'd / A saint-like sorrow'. Only Paulina keeps him constantly aware of his sins, for which he can never ‘do enough' penance to feel he deserves redemption
  • She speaks of Hermione as ‘She you kill'd', keeping the queen's memory alive, just as she has secretly kept Hermione until the promise implied by the oracle shall be fulfilled.

Paulina's part in the ‘resurrection' of Hermione – and of Leontes

As a Romance Play (See: Introduction) The Winter's Tale is less realistic than most plays. We are often reminded of elements of the supernatural and marvellous in its plot – such as the arrival of the figure of Time in IV. i. So it is perhaps unhelpful to ask how Paulina managed to hide away Hermione for sixteen years:

  • In Act III, sc ii Paulina declares of her mistress,
‘I say she's dead: I'll swear't… go and see.'

Because of her reputation for honesty, Leontes does just that:

‘Prithee, bring me to the dead bodies of my queen and son.'
  • In the final speech of the play, Leontes wonders how Hermione can be alive:
‘But how, is to be question'd; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead; and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave.'

Caught up in the wonder of the last scene, the audience is unlikely to ask such questions at the time. Paulina has been presented as performing a miracle – not just by having a ‘statue' come to life, but by having brought Leontes to the point where, on seeing it, he can acknowledge that it is ‘piercing to my soul' and that he is ‘asham'd'.

The sorrow and penitence that she has made him endure, culminating in seeing Hermione as if alive – and then alive in reality - has given him new life too:

‘For this affliction has a taste as sweet / As any cordial comfort'.
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