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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001) 317-334

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Knowledge and Belief in The Winter's Tale

Walter S. H. Lim

At the narrative moment immediately preceding the animation of Hermione's statue, Paulina exhorts Leontes, "It is requir'd / You do awake your faith." 1 Faith in what? For Leontes, it is faith in the reality of miracles, the coming back to life of a queen who has been dead sixteen long years. For William Shakespeare's audience, it is faith tied to the willing suspension of disbelief, a readiness to accept that theater is capable of representing just about anything. But it is not only in the representational space of theater that the dead find themselves coming back to life. Scripture itself purports to offer inerrant accounts of people who have come back from the dead: the daughter of the Shunamite woman in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings, Jarius's daughter, Lazarus, and, of course, Christ himself, described typologically as "the first-fruits of them that slept." 2 The animation of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale finds its informing source not only in the mythic account of Ovid's perennially popular Pygmalion, but also in the stories of resurrection afforded by Scripture. With regard to the Bible, one source Shakespeare appears to have had in mind when producing The Winter's Tale is the book of 2 Kings. The bear's devouring of Antigonus is Shakespeare's revision of the story found in this book, of how the prophet Elisha called up a bear to kill off some young kids who had the audacity to mock his bald pate. 3 The book of 2 Kings also offers the following account of miraculous resuscitation that might have constituted a central scriptural source informing Shakespeare's representation of the enlivening statue: [End Page 317]

And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed. He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the LORD. And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm. Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.

(2 Kings 4:32-5)

Any raising of the dead marks an epochal fracturing of natural law, an infringement that is also an indelible sign of the miraculous. Such miracles can heighten the experience of faith and reinforce religious conviction. So, when Shakespeare invokes the language of faith and religious conviction to attend the restoration of Hermione, is he propounding a specifically scriptural vision of faith?

Clearly Scripture offers an important context for framing the phenomena of enlivened statues and rising corpses, but, as this play reminds us, so does classical mythology. Myth announces its presence in The Winter's Tale in a self-conscious way. In addition to the informing presence of Ovid's Pygmalion that enables the resolution of Shakespeare's romance plot, The Winter's Tale also locates its setting in Sicily, where the Vale of Anna--the meadow from which Persephone is abducted by Pluto--is located. Perdita's expostulation--

             O Proserpina,
For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let'st fall
From Dis's waggon!


--ties Shakespeare's tale told in the winter directly to Persephone's presence in Hades and her absence from the natural world. In general, the Renaissance poet is equally at home in both the worlds of the classics and of Scripture, facilitating them with ease within the representational space of his literary production. This ease is, however, not the exclusive norm, and tensions do sometimes surface, as famously registered in Jesus' repudiation of the kingdom of classical learning and knowledge offered...


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