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Hermione’s Wrinkles, or, Ovid Transformed: An Essay on T h e W in te r ’s T a le Martin Mueller In his Poetics Aristotle grants the playwright considerable freedom to make changes in the stories he dramatizes as long as he does not “undo” their basic sequence of events (14.53b22). Only in a parodistic comedy can Orestes and Aegisthus walk off the stage reconciled (13.53a37). But for two significant ex­ ceptions, Shakespeare by and large observes this Aristotelian maxim wherever he has a dominant and well-known source. In King Lear he replaces the restoration of Lear and his peace­ ful death by the tragic deaths of Cordelia and Lear. In Greene’s Pandosto, the source of The Winter’s Tale, the queen dies, and the king, despite the happy reunion with his daughter, commits suicide in a fit of melancholy. Shakespeare keeps Leontes alive and in spectacular fashion resurrects Hermione.1 The theatrical and critical history of the two plays is ample evidence for Shakespeare’s boldness in “undoing” the plots of his sources. We may no longer feel tempted to improve Shake­ speare by keeping Cordelia alive, but the argument about Hermione is far from settled, and the need for apologies, such as this one, is still felt. I propose in this paper to look at Shake­ speare’s “invention” of the last scene and to relate its thematic structure to the ingenious strategy of deception by means of which Shakespeare elicits from his audience the response which the spectator in the theatre, if not the critic in his study, has never failed to provide.2 Let us for a moment accept the resurrection of Hermione as a mere coup de théâtre and ask how the author manipulates the expectations of his audience with regard to it, assuming a “firstnight ” audience some of whom may have immediately recognized 226 Martin Mueller 227 the new play as the reworking of a well-known contemporary short story. We recognize immediately that Shakespeare shame­ lessly exploits his “invention.” Not only does he withhold in­ formation that might point to the inference that Hermione is still alive, but he plants strong signs that force the spectator to believe in Hermione’s death. We cannot, for instance, doubt that Leontes will realize his intention to see the “dead bodies of my queen and son” (III.ii.233)—indeed, at the end of the play Leontes says so himself and wonders how it was possible: “for I saw her,/ As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many/ A prayer upon her grave” (V.iii.139-41). What seems to be clearly a vision of the late Hermione appears to Antigonus, a man who, like Horatio, is not easily taken in by ghosts: I have heard, but not believed, the spirits o’th’dead May walk again. If such thing be, thy mother Appeared to me last night, for ne’er was dream So like a waking. (Ill.iii. 15-18) The Hermione who appears “in pure white robes, like very sanctity” (III.iii.21-22) is a donna angelata, like Milton’s “lateespoused saint,” and behaves like a visitor from another world to which she returns as “with shrieks/ She melted into air” (III.iii.35-36) .3 Perhaps the artificial rhetoric with which Paulina announces the death of Hermione is a sign pointing to the truth (Ill.ii. 173200 ), and, as many critics have pointed out, the fifth act con­ tains a number of increasingly overt signs pointing to the possi­ bility that Hermione is still alive. But given the strength of the opposite signs and the expectations they are intended to set up, these latent pointers to the truth are necessarily lost on a naive spectator and barely disclose themselves at a second or third reading. Such crass deception of the audience is unique in Shake­ speare and has repeatedly given rise to the speculation that the text we have is a revised version that still shows traces of an ear­ lier version in which Hermione really died. This hypothesis has not been positively disproved and would no doubt be held more widely if speculations...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 226-239
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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