The Winter’s Tale
Act Five, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: In Sicily, Leontes, still in mourning for Hermione, vows not to marry again without Paulina’s consent. When Florizel and Perdita arrive Leontes is captivated by the young couple, but Polixenes has discovered that they fled Bohemia and pursues them to Sicily. The truth is revealed, however, the Shepherd tells the story of his discovery of the infant Perdita, and father and daughter are happily reunited. Everyone then goes to Paulina’s house to view the statue of Hermione that had recently been erected there. While the company marvels at its very life-like qualities, Paulina commands the statue to descend. The living Hermione steps forward.
So how many of you saw that coming? While we are not shown on stage what seems to be the point of the action, Perdita’s long-awaited reunion with her father (as we are in Pericles), Shakespeare still has one very large coup de theatre up his sleeve. Grieving for his dead wife, Leontes has promised a commemorative statue of her, commissioned by Paulina. The time for it to be unveiled drawing near, Perdita joins her father to witness her first-ever sight of her mother, but as the curtain is drawn it is Leontes who seems the most moved by what he sees. But then, something truly incredible happens. Paulina calls out to the statue, “’Tis time. Descend.”
Be stone no more. Approach.
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir. Nay, come away.
Bequeath to death your dumbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.
The effect of this most theatrical moment is near impossible to reproduce on the page, not least because Hermione’s apparent reawakening from the dead is as much a shock for the offstage audience as it is for the dumbstruck Leontes. The last we heard, Hermione had fainted, apparently fatally – yet here she is, alive (and as Leontes somewhat breathlessly observes) “warm.” “If this be magic,” he exclaims, “let it be an art/Lawful as eating” (5.3.110-11). Paulina’s early threat to the King, that only if he could give the dead Hermione “heat outwardly or breath within” would she serve him, has come mysteriously and mystically true. The moment is astonishing to us not merely because it is unlooked-for, but it is also undeserved. Leontes really has no right to expect his wife to be restored, just as there is really no reason why Hermione should want to go back to the husband who destroyed everything they shared, even after sixteen years of remorse for what he’d done. But Shakespeare, preparing his audience for an improbable “winter’s tale”, let us – if we want to that is, believe in something infinitely more wondrous. Paulina’s words to Leontes address us as well, “That she is living,” she proclaims,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old tale. But it appears she lives…
Northrop Frye: “The real world (at the end of The Winter’s Tale) has none of the customary qualities of reality. It is the world symbolized by nature’s power of renewal; it is the world we want; it is the world we hope our gods would want for is if they were worth worshipping.”
From Tony Tanner (whose appreciation of the late plays I very much enjoy):
“Back in Sicilia, in the first scene of the last act, the whole issue of ‘issue’ is becoming increasingly urgent. After sixteen years of, as one gathers, pretty stiff penance, Leontes still has no heir. His courtiers are pressing him to marry again, but Paulina – still acting as the uncompromising voice of conscience and the sleepless guardian of memory – reminds the King that the wife he killed was ‘unparalleled,’ and repeats the oracle’s prophecy that he will have no heir ‘Till his lost child be found’ (V.i.40). Leave it to the gods:
Care not for issue,
The crown will find an heir.
As for his marrying again – never; unless another ‘As like Hermione as is her picture’ appears. Paulina makes a binding request of the King:
give me the office
To choose you a queen; she shall not be so young
As was your former, but she shall be such
As walked your first queen’s ghost, it should take joy
To see her in your arms.
Not that Leontes, or we, should have an inkling of the fact, but Paulina is preparing her ground. A final exchange emphasizes what will be a crucial word:
My true Paulina,
We shall not marry till thou bidd’st us.
Shall be when your first queen’s again in breath;
Never till then.
(V.i.81-4 – my bold letters)
Then Florizel makes his entrance with Perdita, presented as a princess from Libya. To Leontes, she looks a ‘goddess’ (V.i.131), and he invokes blessings upon the pair:
The blessed gods
Purge all infection from our air whilst you
Do climate here!
In fact it is they who will be the disinfecting agents of the Sicilian climate, purging an air poisoned and made sterile by Leontes. But when a lord announces the arrival of a furious Polixenes, threatening ‘divers deaths in death’ (V.i.202 – which means tortures) to poor Shepherd and clown, and hell-bent on catching the young couple and preventing their marriage, it seems that winter has come again and infection returned to the air.
All the more surprising, then, that the next scene brings us a series of excited gentlemen telling of royal recognitions and reunions. Suddenly, the air is clear, all anger lost in grateful celebration.
Nothing but bonfires. The oracle is fulfilled; the King’s daughter is found; such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it.
The identity of Perdita is revealed, though the whole matter strains credulity.
This news, which is called true, is so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion. Has the King found his heir?
Again that problem – can it really be proved? The confident Third Gentleman answers with an arresting image:
Most true, if ever truth were pregnant by circumstance; that which you hear you’ll swear you see, there is such unity in the proofs.
The usual gloss on the opening image is ‘if ever truth was made convincing by evidence’; but, as we have seen, pregnancy and birth are at the centre of this play, and we can look a little closer than that. ‘Circumstance’ is circumstances, and circumstantial evidence. This news is true if these have ever made truth pregnant, swelled it out (not that is ‘by,’ not ‘with’). Truth will then presumably deliver, in time, a child of truth; or, as here, a true child. But it has to be prefaced by that conditional ‘if.’ The ‘proofs’ and ‘many other evidences’ (V.ii.41) certainly seem conclusive, and no one would wish to doubt them. We, of course, have been privileged to see enough to know that it is true. But for the gentlemen of Sicilia, and for the King, the ‘evidences’ can only be ‘circumstance,’ circumstantial – a jewel, a mantle, some letters, (handkerchief and rings to establish the fate of Antigonus), a facial resemblance; again, the ‘proof’ depends on materialities. Here, it seems overwhelming, and the wonder is only temporarily laced with doubt (‘the verity of it is in strong suspicion.’) But Posthumus thought the ‘evidences’ presented to him by Iachimo were overwhelming as well. Shakespeare is not trying to spread skepticism. There is, it seems to me, simply an unspoken reminder that, no matter how great our hunger for certainties, there is a point when trust must take over. ‘Proofs’ can only go so far; love must go further.
Third Gentleman asks Second if he saw the meeting of the two kings. He did not. ‘Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of” (V.ii.45-6). Nevertheless, speak of it is what he does, at length and to enthralling effect. As he promised, ‘that which you hear you’ll swear you see.’ First Gentleman has described the meeting of Leontes and Camillo – ‘There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture’ (V.ii.14-15). A speaking dumbness and the language of gesture – this applies to the main participants in the great scene of reunion. But why does not Shakespeare give us the scene direct? Why these, entirely amiable, chattering gentlemen? Why narration, rather than drama – or let us say, narration as drama? Why can’t we see the meeting of the kings? It is quite instructive, even amusing, to see the explanations which have been offered. The usual line is that Shakespeare must have felt that he had done the father-daughter reunion in Pericles, so here he relegated it in order to highlight the reunion of the husband and the wife. But Shakespeare is surely a more resourceful and imaginative playwright than that. If he fills the stage with breathless talk for a whole scene, prior to a scene which sill center on stone, silence, and sight, you may be sure that he is after a particular effect. As far as I am concerned, only Leonard Barkan has appreciated what Shakespeare is doing.
‘The lack of dramatic three-dimensionality here sets the stage for the scene in which the three-dimensional medium of sculpture becomes that of drama by metamorphosis. The speech-without-drama of this scene is contrasted with the statue-with-silence of the following scene. The verbal without the visual is empty, while the visual without the verbal is frozen. Only Shakespeare’s medium can effect the marriage.’
In fact, the gentlemen refer to the statue of Hermione (it is the first we have heard of it) just before they leave. The reference is perfectly placed. It comes immediately after Third has described the moving moment when Perdita learned the details of her mother’s death and wept, with a dolorous ‘Alas.’ ‘I am sure my heart wept blood. Who was most marble there changed color, some swooned, all sorrowed’ (V.ii.95-7). He then proceeds to tell them that Perdita has gone to see ‘her mother’s statue, which is in the keeping of Paulina.’
A piece of many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione, that they way one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer.
With hindsight, one may say that this is preparing us for the final scene. But there is a lot more going on than that.
With the return of Perdita – let us say – the people of the Sicilian court who have been, effectively, turned to marble through the disastrous life-destroying nihilism of Leontes, are flushed with life-returning blood again. Her mother, most regrettably, was terminally frozen out of life by Leontes. But, it appears, she has been memorialized, monumentalized, as a statue – turned to marble in another sense. And by Julio Romano. Now it is not often that Shakespeare refers to an actual Renaissance artist by name in his plays, so this departure from practice invites our attention. Never mind that it another unashamed anachronism (Romano’s dates are 1492-1546), it must be signaling something directly relevant to the play at this stage. By common agreement, Shakespeare’s most likely source for the name, and his reason for using it, lies in Vasari’s Lives (published in 1550). There he would have found – in Latin – a transcription of the epitaph on Giulio Romano’s tomb, which, translated, is:
‘Jupiter saw sculpted and painted bodies breathe and the early building made equal to those in heaven by the skill of Giulio Romano. Thus angered he then summoned a council of the gods, and he removed that man from the earth, lest he be exposed, conquered, or equaled by an earth-born man.’
Sculpted bodies that seem to breathe; works of art which rival (and thus threaten) divine powers of creation – Shakespeare is further preparing for his last act, which, among other things, effects perhaps his most profound plumbing of the provenance, the power, the privilege, and finally the limitations, of art, in miraculously compacted form.
To get some sense of how much lies behind this final scene, it will help to have before us passages from two stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I have mentioned the general importance of the Pygmalion story for late Shakespeare; now, some of the details become particularly pertinent. They concern the actual period of transition when Pygmalion’s master-work passes from ivory to flesh and blood, and the statue moves into life.
It seemed to be alive,
It’s face to be a real girl’s, a girl
Who wished to move…
… is it flesh
Or ivory? Not ivory still, he’s sure!
And he kissed her as she lay, and she seemed warm
…beneath his touch the flesh
Grew soft, it’s ivory hardness vanishing
His heart was torn wonder and misgiving,
Delight and terror that it was not true
She was alive! The pulse beat in her veins!
… she…shyly raised
Her eyes to his and saw the world and him.
The other story is that of Deucalion, curiously enough referred to earlier (for only the second time in Shakespeare) by Polixenes in an entirely different context. Shakespeare leaves his traces in unexpected places. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha are the sole survivors of the great Deluge visited by an irate Jupiter on an impious people. Facing a desolate, unpeopled world after the waters subside, Deucalion longs for some of his father’s (Prometheus) magic to ‘restore/Mankind again and in the moulded clay/Breathe life.’ Consulting the oracle of Themis as to how to repair the loss of mankind, they are instructed – ‘cast behind you your great mother’s bones.’ Initially baffled, they decide that this can only refer to the stones which lie around them on the ground, and they duly throw them over their shoulders.
Those stones (who would believe did ancient lore
Not testify the truth?) gave up their hardness;
Their rigidness grew slowly soft, and, softened,
Assumed a shape, and as they grew and felt
A gentler nature’s touch, a semblance seemed
To appear, still indistinct, of human form,
Like the first rough-hewn marble of a statue,
Scarce modeled, or old old uncouth images.
The earthy part, damp with some trace of moisture
Was turned to flesh; what was inflexible
And solid changed to bone; what in the stones
Had been the veins retained the name of veins.
In a brief while, by Heaven’s mysterious power,
The stones the man had thrown were formed as men,
Those from the woman’s hand reshaped as women.
Hence we are hard, we children of the earth,
And in our lives of toil we prove our birth.
These two ‘magic’ moments of stone gradually giving way to/becoming life – moments which should give us what Thomas Mann referred to as ‘the archaic shudder of myth’ – the hard becoming soft, the cold acquiring warmth, stillness beginning to move – these moments are vital for Shakespeare. And the gradualness is important: these are not sudden jumps – now stone; hey presto, now life. Rather, the one almost imperceptibly gives way to the other, so that it would be very difficult to mark a point at which the actual transformation took place, albeit that the time it takes is ‘brief.’
When the last scene opens in the chapel in Paulina’s house, a remark from Leontes make it clear that they – which means all the main characters and some courtiers – have already spent some time looking at works of art – ‘Your gallery/Have we passed through, not without much content/In many singularities’ (V.iii.10-12). They have, as it were, had a preliminary immersion in the realm of aesthetic artifacts. And now Paulina ‘draws a curtain and discovers Hermione standing like a statue’; or, for the onlookers and the audience, we should, at this point, more accurately say – a statue standing like Hermione. We are to take it that they all stand still and silent – rapt, is perhaps the word. (Paulina – ‘I like your silence; it the more shows off your wonder.’ V.iii.21-22) It is then that Leontes remarks that his Hermione was not so wrinkled, which Paulina turns into a further compliment to the artist who ‘makes her/As she lived now’ (V.iii.31-2). The artifices of eternity must somehow incorporate the inexorabilities of time.
Leontes addresses the ‘statue’; indirectly (you don’t talk to stone), and then directly (you man if it seems to be the life it images):
Oh, thus she stood,
Even with such life of majesty – warm life,
As now it coldly stands – when first I wooed her.
I am ashamed: does not the stone rebuke me,
For being more stone than it? O royal piece!
There’s magic in thy majesty, which has
My evils conjured to remembrance, and
From this admiring daughter took the spirits,
Standing like stone with thee.
This is a peak moment, before the scene begins to move on. We are to imagine Perdita standing next to the ‘statue’ of her mother – in her almost divine beauty, she represents “perfection of the life’; while the mother, through the almost divine art of the maker, represents ‘perfection of the work’ (the terms are again from Yeats). Art and life, for one impossible tremblingly arrested moment, seem momentarily identical, indistinguishable, at one. While Leontes realizes that the statue forces him to confront the question – who, in their relationship, was really the ‘stone’ one? Penance and time have brought softening (as well as wrinkles), and it is time for some frozen hearts to melt.
For a while, Leontes wants to prolong the arrested moment – ‘Do not draw the curtain…Let be, let be! (V.iii.59, 61) – ‘gazing on this sphinx-like boundary between art and life’ as Wilson Knight has it. He permits himself what, at this stage, must seem like Pygmalion-esque fantasies:
See, my lord,
Would you not deem it breathed? And that those veins
Did verily bear blood?
The very life seems warm upon her lip.
The fixture of her eye has motion in ‘t,
As we are mocked with art.
(V.iii.63-8, my bold)
His now positive and appreciative gaze seems almost to be reassembling his wife’s body part by part, conferring warmth on what he had once frozen into stone. Paulina purports to be anxious that Leontes will be ‘so far transported that/He’ll think anon it lives’ (V.iii.68-9), and Leontes replies that he would like to live in that delusion (that the stone seems to be hovering on the brink of life) indefinitely – ‘Make me think so twenty years together’ (V.iii.71). Then he pushes his fantasy to the limit – ‘methinks,/There is an air comes from her’ (the ‘it’ of the statue has become ‘her’): ‘What fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?’ (V.iii.77-8). Romano’s genius was that he carved statues that seemed to breath (lifelikeness was the supreme merit of art for the ancients). Leontes determines to take this literally and he moves to put flesh on stone – ‘Let no man mock me,/For I will kiss her’ (V.iii.79-80). At which point Paulina, now curator, director and priestess all together, makes her final move; and remember that this should be as much of a shock and surprise to us as it is to the people gathered in the chapel.
Quit presently the chapel, or resolve you
For more amazement. If you can behold it,
I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend,
And take you by the hand – but then you’ll think,
Which I protest against, I am assisted
By wicked powers.
Black magic, white magic? We are in a ‘chapel,’ which suggests Christian transforming grace; but we are in pre-Christian times, foregrounding pagan metamorphosing power. Leontes is content to accept any new miracles Paulina can effect with the Hermione-statue, ‘for ‘tis as easy/To make her speak as move’ (V.iii.94-5). Here is the moment which marks and acknowledges the essential difference – art can do almost anything; but only (human) life can breathe, and speak, and move. Paulina (telling anyone who think ‘it is unlawful business I am about’ to leave – no one moves, the onlookers have become statuesque: V.iii.95-7) makes her master-stroke and works her (white) magic.
Music awake her; strike.
‘Tis time, descend, be stone more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel; come;
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir; nay come away;
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs.
(V.iii.98-103 – my bold)
There it is, the key word: everything that has been stilled, frozen, arrested into a long sterile winter now ‘stirs’ as ‘Hermione comes down.’ As she steps out of art back into life – and time – it is as if Hermione had simply been standing still for sixteen years in a state of suspended animation (Barkan’s term). In this, she also stands for – embodies, figures – the kingdom of Sicilia of which she is Queen. But Perdita has returned. And it is to her, and only to her, that Hermione addresses her one speech (not one word for Leontes): [MY NOTE: GOOD POINT!]
You gods look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head
thou shalt here that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.
Ceres and Proserpina are reunited. Perdita is the ‘issue’ in every sense.
When Hermione steps down, Leontes gasps:
Oh, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.
It may seem strange to invoke ‘eating’ at this point, but then we recognize just how apposite it is. Eating is what every living body has to do, if it is to stay ‘warm’ with circulating blood. A magic as lawful as eating has nothing supernatural about it. There has been no divine – much less nefarious – intervention. Hermione’s body has been a living body throughout, only arrested and concealed for sixteen long, barren years. The only ‘magic’ is Paulina’s ‘art,’ and her thaumaturgy is that of a dramatist. The last scene, with its stunning coup de theatre, is stage-managed by Paulina (note the importance of music). Shakespeare is quite self-consciously putting his own art on stage – Paulina’s chapel is Shakespeare’s theatre in little. ‘If you can behold it,/I’ll make the statue move’ (V.iii.87-8) – Shakespeare is effectively speaking to his own audience through Paulina. When Leontes first sees the statue, he asks, in amazement – ‘What was he that did make it?’ (V.iii.63). For that moment, Hermione is at once a statue, a woman, and an actor. So how should we answer Leontes’ question? Julio Romano? Shakespeare? Great creating nature? or…but no – finally it is the unanswerable question.
When the First Gentleman describes the meeting of Leontes and Camillo he says:
they looked as they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed. A notable passion of wonder appeared in them.
or one destroyed: there are some phenomena – events, spectacles – which cause a response in which the wonderful is indistinguishable from the terrible. There is a description of Tolstoy’s face while he listened to great music – an expression of horror came into it. Just so with this play. It does not merely please and entertain. It should leave us aghast, uncertain of just what sort of extraordinary thing it is we have just witnessed. In these last plays Shakespeare is touching on ultimate matters in quite amazing ways. Indeed, he might even have surprised himself.”
And from Marjorie Garber:
“In the second scene of this final act, a further wonder is revealed, a wonder so surprising and unbelievable that it is twice compared to an ‘old tale’ – the truth of which the audience has been long aware – that Perdita is the King’s lost child. The fact that we are indeed aware of this may be one reason why the revelation takes place offstage. For to the spectators in the theater this is old news, while to the courtiers who report their amazement, it is powerfully new. The technique is the same as that used in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, where the horror of the onstage spectators, the Doctor and the Waiting-Gentlewoman, renews the audience’s sense of anguish at a murder whose perpetrator and method we have already seen for ourselves. In Pericles we were witness to two parallel reunions, of parent and child and of husband and wife; in The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare refines his technique, subordinating the offstage meeting of father and daughter, preparing the way for an even more astounding scene. Thus we are in effect backstage with the courtiers; each new lord who arrives adds a piece of the puzzle. The language of the First Gentleman seems to echo the prevailing theme of Whitsun, or Pentecost: ‘There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture. They looked as if they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed.’ (5.2.11-13). But it is the Third Gentleman whose report is of the greatest interest. Describing Perdita’s response to the story of her mother’s death, he says, ‘[S]he did, with an ‘Alas,’ I would fain say bleed tears; for I am sure my heart wept blood. Who was most marble there changed colour. Some swooned, all sorrowed.’ (5.2.78-82). Once again, a figure of speech is about to become reality. The gentleman’s phrase – ‘Who was most marble there changed color’ – serves as a hint and a preparation for the literal turning of marble into color with the awakening of Hermione. (Classical statues were originally painted, but much Renaissance statuary, imitating the condition of marble pieces discovered after centuries had passed, was monochromatic.)
As for the third scene, it is difficult to know what to say. Though he may have matched the gradualism, the suspense, and the enchantment of this scene elsewhere, surely Shakespeare never surpassed it. The presiding genius of this scene is neither Time (who in a way governed the first scene, the seasonal myth) nor Autolycus (who was present onstage in the second, underscoring and sharpening the account), but the final artist and wonder-worker of the play, Paulina. The scene is set in her home, which is described as both a chapel and a gallery. The visitors are led through the other exhibits, in the first of Paulina’s delaying maneuvers, and then at last they are set before the statue, and Paulina draws the curtain. ‘Prepare,’ she says, ‘[t]o see the life as lively mocked as ever/Still asleep mocked death.’ (5.3.18-20). Silent they stand in front of it, lost in wonder. Leontes notes the statue’s wrinkles, and is reminded of the carver’s excellence in imagining what Hermione would have looked like had she lived. Perdita kneels to kiss the statue’s hand, and is asked to hold off, to show patience: ‘the colour’s/Not dry.’ Leontes urges Paulina not to close the curtain, and she cautions – revealing another clue to an offstage audience that is not yet in on her secret – ‘No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy/May think anon it moves.’ Slowly, deliberately, the spell is woven: ‘Would you not deem it breathed, and that those veins/Did verily bear blood?’ and ‘The very life seems warm upon her lip,’ and, especially, echoing the ambivalently allusive reference to ‘our carver:’
There is an air comes from her. What fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath?…
As Leontes moves to kiss her, and is gently checked by Paulina – ‘Shall I draw the curtain?’ – the action turns double, aimed at both onstage and offstage audiences at once. ‘It is required/You do awake your faith,’ declares Paulina, to Hermione’s family and to the spectators in the theater, and then:
Music; awake her; strike!
[To Hermione]: ‘Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more. Approach.
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir. Nay, come away.
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.
[To Leontes]: You perceive she stirs.
In this moment Paulina is a true descendant of her namesake, the Apostle Paul, who spoke to the Ephesians and the Romans of awakening out of sleep to redemption, and to the Corinthians of the natural body and the spiritual body, the earthly and the heavenly. ‘Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed.’ (I Corinthians, 15:51). Yet if Paulina is herself Pauline, and the scene a visibly Christian one, transforming the diurnal and cyclical into the redemptive, so, too, is she here evoking a recognizably mythic and Ovidian scene, for we are very close, at this moment, to the myth of Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus, and a sculptor. Pygmalion, shocked at the vices of earthly women, made an ivory statue and fell in love with it. He kissed it and touched it, praying to Venus for a lover like his ivory girl. Venus answered his prayer, bringing the statue to life, and giving her to Pygmalion. The couple married, and in nine months, Pygmalion’s wife gave birth to a girl (Metamorphoses, book 10). Thus the story of Pygmalion foreshadows the story of Leontes, whose wife became a statue for a time, and whose daughter, reunited with her parents, brings the narrative to a close worthy of dramatic romance. The Winter’s Tale charts the union of the myth of Proserpina and Pygmalion, the story of natural cycle and the story of art and desire.
The Proserpina story concludes with the reunion of a mother and daughter, and we might note that at the end of the play there is a triad of women – Hermione, Perdita, and Paulina – who seem closely bound to one another. Although after the revelation to her husband that she is alive – ‘If this me magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating,’ cries Leontes – Hermione ‘hangs about his neck,’ her first public words in sixteen years are spoken not to the husband but to her daughter, for whose sake, she says, encouraged by the oracle, she has ‘preserved’ herself to see her child again. The set of three marriages or remarriages with which the play ends (Leontes and Hermione; Perdita and Florizel; Paulina and Camillo) is thus matched by a shift from the autocratic, wrathful, and almost tragic male rule of the King to the collective and collaborative female ‘magic’ of the women, who have sustained one another and their secret to see the oracle fulfilled.
There is, moreover, one additional pattern that lies beneath the surface and calls for our attention, a pattern both more basic and more metadramatic, since it speaks to the very condition of the play as a theatrical event. As we have noted, when Paulina says, ‘It is required/You do awake your faith,’ she is speaking to the offstage audience as well as to the members of Leontes’ and Polixenes’ courts. Generations of scholars, directors, actors, and audiences have recognized that the astonishing phenomenon with which this play closes, the statue that comes to life, is a strong and apt figure for the transformative power of drama in general and of Shakespearean drama in particular. Evoking the audience’s aid – as in other plays, like As You Like It and The Tempest, the chief actor will do in the epilogue – Paulina re-creates art as life, and life as art. The statue ‘is’ the play. Just as the shepherdesses who listened to (and bought from) Autolycus loved a ballad in print, ‘for then we know they are true,’ the statue of Hermione is the extraordinary emblem of Shakespearean craftsmanship – a blend of nature and art, awakened by the faith of the Shakespearean audience, the same power that centuries later Coleridge would call the ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ but here dramatized and set before our eyes. The statue comes to life, as the play comes to life, as Shakespeare’s dramatic universe in all its complexity and variety comes to life upon the stage, crafted in part by Time, the Chorus; in part by Autolycus, the errant spirit of fertility, the snapper-up of unconsidered trifles; in part by Paulina, with her biblical name and her quasi-magical powers. As the couples depart the stage to discuss what they have seen and heard – ‘Hastily lead away,’ commands Leontes – the debate of Nature and Art is restaged as the age-old problem of dramatic ‘reality,’ where Polixenes’ phrase may prevail. The art itself is nature.”
So…what’s your take on Act Five? Were you surprised? Did it work for you? What does it mean?
My next post will be Sunday evening/Monday morning – more on Act Five
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.