The Winter’s Tale: That final scene

In the past, I’ve discussed the two scenes that are the bane of any director taking on The Winter’s Tale: the first scene in Bohemia, during which Antigonus must exit pursued by a bear, and the final revelation of Hermione. There is this wonderful ambiguity in that last one. Is her revival a miracle, a statue coming to life, or has she been alive all this time? Most productions that I’ve seen have gone the miracle route (though I have a hunch last year’s OSF production was trying to get it both ways).

But the more I look at it, I’m not sure there are two ways.

I don’t think it’s a miracle. I think Paulina has kept Hermione there for sixteen years. I think she wants to present the revelation as a miracle to Leontes, to grant him his long sought-for but always-denied release from punishment, but only after he’s earned it. Well, at least external punishment–I think the reunion with Hermione is going to start a whole new cycle of self-punishment (which may be part of Paulina’s plan as well).

So why do I think this? Most of this is sub-textual, but here goes…

I want to work backward. Hermione’s final words in her last speech (which is, alas, her only after the gap of time) are key:

 For thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.
  • V.iii.125-8

“Preserved.” So, not a statue. The question then becomes this “oracle / [that] Gave hope.” None of message from Apollo’s oracle gives hope:

Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found.
  • III.ii.131-4

I mean, I guess you could find hope in that “if” (as they say in As You Like It, there is “much virtue in ‘If’” [AYLI V.iv]), but that’s a stretch. And if you’re willing to take that stretch (and let’s face facts, at the end of this play, no matter your interpretation, you’re gonna be stretchin’ like a yogi), you might as well take the stretch that Paulina privately sent for a new declaration from the oracle once she had a live Hermione on her hands.

If Hermione’s not a statue, then all of Paulina’s hemming and hawing over the statue’s painting and “the color’s / Not dry” (Winter’s V.iii.47-8) is but a delaying tactic until Paulina feels Leontes is ready, until she feels it’s time to reward his “faith” (V.iii.95). Until Hermione’s movement, Paulina’s descriptions of Leontes’ actions were more to do with madness and imagination than faith: “wrought” (V.iii.58), “your fancy” (V.iii.60), “so far transported” (V.iii.69), “far stirred … afflict” (V.iii.4, 75), “amazement” (V.iii.87).

Also, now making sense are all the “oh, she looks so real” comments…because, well, she is. Of course, a real woman would need (as my old man would say) “three squares and a cot”: food and shelter. And in the almost Cymbeline-like exposition we get in Act Five, Scene Two, we learn that Paulina “hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house [where the “statue” was]” (V.ii.103-5). Food and shelter.

Remember, too, that the report of Hermione’s death comes from Paulina herself, and the wording of that report is interesting to say the least: “I say she’s dead; I’ll swear’t. If word nor oath / Prevail not, go and see” (III.ii.201). Paulina says Hermione’s dead, and she’s willing to swear it…but she doesn’t swear it. Methinks this distinction is of some import.

As is the difference between doing and meaning, the act and intention. Why do I bring this up? Well, at the beginning of that final scene, when she’s about to reveal something should could have sixteen years earlier, she tells Leontes, “What, sovereign sir, / I did not well, I meant well” (V.iii.2-3). What she has done might be interpreted as wrong or cruel (you know, like keeping the queen in hiding for 16 years), but her intentions were good.

So why doesn’t she bring back the revived Hermione in Act Three? Especially after Leontes’ long speech of regret, remorse, and admitted guilt? First, she doesn’t hear this speech. Second, (even if she did hear this speech) Leontes’ speaks it, he says it; he never swears it. And as I said before, this seems to be an important distinction. And if swearing (making “a solemn declaration or statement with an appeal to God” [“swear, v.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, June 2017]) is important to her, then the oracle would be, too. Maybe this is why she waits: she waits to send another request to the oracle, one that will return with a message of hope.

Yes, I know a lot of this is subtext and supposition (and the interpretation is questionable), but the ending of The Winter’s Tale requires it, no matter which interpretation you choose. For example, If you want a miracle, then why does Hermione say she’s been preserved?

I used to think it was a miracle, but now that I think of all the other Shakespearean miraculous reunion/revivals (especially those in the romances), there’s always some explanation.

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