Feminism In Shakespeares The Winters Tale English Literature Essay

Feminism as a concept goes back to the beginning of creation when the Creator made male and female the basic components of living. The story of Adam and Eve at Eden is a clear evidence that God has created both sexes to be equal human beings.(1)

As a movement, Feminism begins at the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the women’s movement of the 1960s and early 1970s the subject of Feminism was women’s experience under patriarchy, the long tradition of male rule in society which silenced women’s voice, distorted their lives, and treated their concerns as peripheral(2). In literature which is widely used throughout ages, the role of women and their interests and concerns have been expressed historically.

In the romantic comedies, women were the catalysts to love’s libration; in "The Winter’s Tale" they are the workers of its transformation. Here, for the first time since those comedies, women use wit and realism in the service of passion to mock male folly, to educate men, and to achieve a fruitful union with them. In the tragedies, however, powerful women – Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, Volumina, Cleopatra – are destructive, while the women who inherit the virtues of the comedy heroines – Portia, Juliet, Ophelia, Desdemona, Emilia, Cordelia – are powerless and are destroyed.

"The Winter Tale" begins in a limited masculine world which appears to be entirely harmonious and self-suficient. It purports to control time and space through the ideal changeless friendship of Leontes and Polixenes and through the ideal prince Mamillius, who "makes old hearts fresh"(3) and will perpetuate Leontes’ kingdom. Women are strikingly absent from the idyllic picture drawn by Camlio and Archidamus. They are the "matter" (I.i.35) which threatens it but will become the source of a harmony richer and less fragile than this one. Though the play begins without mention of women, it concludes with an extended acknowledgement of their power and centrality.

Leontes jealousy in the opening acts is a darker, more dangerous version of the foolishness of the comedy heroes. His "weak-hinged fancy" (II.iii.117) creates the objects of jealousy as the comedy lovers created the objects of their love; he, like Theseus, recognizes the mechanics of this process; "With what’s unreal thou coative art, / And fellow’st nothing" (I.ii.141-42). As the lovers conventionalized the objects of their love into ideal Petrarchan mistresses, so in his jealousy Leontes transforms Hermione into an abstract "hobbyhorse" (I.ii.276) a "thing" (ii.i.82).(4)

At the root of Leontes’ folly are his divorce of sexuality from love and his resulting vacillation between the idealization and degradation of women. Both Leontes and Polixenes are nostalgic for their innocent pre-sexual boyhood when each had a "dagger muzzled, / Lest it should bite its master" (I.ii.156-157), and their "weak spirits" (were not yet "higher reared / with stronger blood" (I.ii.72-73). Both blame their "fall" into sexuality on women, who are "devils" (I.ii.82), seductive and corrupting. The boyhood friendship is a protection against women, sex, change, and difference. It is no wonder Leontes wants Polixenes to stay longer in Sicily.(5)

If the kings’ friendship with each other takes precedence over their relationship with their wives, so too does their intimacy with their sons. But this relationship is corrupted as well. Their affection for their sons is as narcissistic and stifling as their affection for each other. The fathers see their children as copies of themselves, extensions of their own egos, guarantees of their own innocence. Just as Polixenes describes the friends as "twinned lambs" (I.ii.67), so Leontes repeatedly insists that his son is "like me" (I.ii.129). Polixeness description, in which Leontes concurs, of the self-justifying use he makes of his son sums up the attitudes of both toward their children:

He is all my exercise, my mirth, my mater;

Now my sworn friend, and then mine enemy;

My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all.

He makes a Jaly’s day short as December,

And with his varing childness, cures in me

Thoughts that would thick my blood.


The women in the play are the "cure" for the "thoughts" that "thick" Leontes’ and Polixes’ "blood". They are witty where the men are solemn, they are at ease with sex where the men are uneasy about it, and they take for granted change and separation. While mocking male folly they provide an initiation into the realities of love, sex, marriage and children. In them we have Shakespeare’s final marvelous transformations of the roles of good wives shrew, and beloved.

Hermione’s character and role have been much praised but little analyzed by critics. The extraordinary dignity and control with which she responds to Leontes’ accusations have obscured her earlier vivacity. In the opening scene she is remarkable for her wit and overt affection for Leontes. She takes pleasure in competing verbally with men "A lady’s verily’ is / As potent as a lord’s" (I.ii.50-51), she remarks to Polixenes. But, though quick and sharp, her wit is inevitably good-natured and affectionate(6). She uses her persuasion of Polixenes as occasion to emphasize her love for Leontes: "Yet, good deed, Leontes, / I love thee not a jar o’th’clock behind/ what lady she her lord" (I.ii.42-44). And after talking Polixenes into staying, she diplomatically pacifies him by drawing him out on his favorite topic – the boyhood friendship. She wittily denies Polixenes’ notion that marital sex implies "offenses" (I.ii.82) and goes on to counsel Leontes in the appropriate management of it: "… You may ride’s / with one soft kiss a thousand furlongs, ere / With spur we heat an acre" (I.ii.94-96).

Her relationship to her children is similarly healthy, free, physical. She affirms her physical ties to them: Mamillius is "the first fruits of my body" (III.ii.95), and Perdita, her baby, is "from my beast, / The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth / Haled out to murder" (III.ii.97-99). But she does not use her children to reflect herself. At the beginning of Act II, scene i, in one of the most apt of the play’s numerous realistic touches, she is quit simply tired of Mamillius: "… he troubles me, / Tis past enduring" (II.i.1-2). Later, when she is for [him] again" (22), she asks him to tell her a tale rather than imposing tales on him as Leontes does. Leontes, reinterpreting Hermione’s "actions", "dreams" a horror story (III.ii.80), and her power to reach him is lost. His fantasy dominates the first three acts. With his denial of her particularly, her words, her offspring, she dies to him.

Hermione remains a powerful presence in the play. Indeed, she must be seen as its very human deity. And if she is the presiding deity of the play, Paulina is her priestess whose power lies in her "medical words" (II.iii.36) as she recognizes and as Leontes eventually acknowledges(7). But although early in the play Leontes tries to reduce her to the comically unattractive role of shrew, she transforms and transcends the role. She acts not out of ill will but out of affection for the man she "baits". She believes Leontes is salvageable – and worth saving. So, unlike Camillo, she sticks out the task to its conclusion. Her attack on Leontes, unlike those of Antignous, are calculated, judicious, positive. While attacking Leontes’ folly, she offers him alternatives to it. She first urges him to accept and bless Perdita, using the argument, designed to please him and to dispel his suspicious, that the child is "the whole matter / And copy of the father" (II.iii.97-98). After her tirade against Leontes following Hermione’s "death", Paulina offers him one last chance to "see" Hermione – "… if you can bring / Tincture or luster in her lip, her eye, / Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you / As I would do the gods" (III.ii.202-205). Finally, she presents him with an image of penance which he accepts as the commencement of his "reaction" (238).

Paulina, sharing many of Hermione’s qualities and present when she is absent, is a surrogate for her mistress. But she can lead Leontes toward a reunion with Hermione as Hermione herself cannot because she assumes an unthreatening, a sexual role. At first, Paulina takes on an explicitly masculine identity. Bringing Perdita to Leontes, she substitutes for the "minister of honor" (II.ii.49). Hermione feared to approach. Arriving, she urges the timid lords to "be second" (II.iii.26) to her and later makes explicit her warrior’s role – "[I] would by combat her good, so were I / A man, the worst about you" (II.iii.59-60). But after Leontes has accepted Hermione’s innocence and Paulina’s tutelage, Paulina changes her strategy. She makes as if to drop loquaciousness ("I’ll say nothing" [III.ii.230]) and identifies herself as a woman subordinate to Leontes – "Now, good my liege, / Sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman" (III.ii.224-25). She is now no longer the "mankind witch" (II.iii.66) of her scene with Leontes but a "good day" (III.ii.172) who closely resembles Hermione. By Act V. scene i, Paulina and Leontes have achieved understanding and reciprocity; their long, intimate, chaste friendship is a transformation and vindication of Hermione’s and Polixenes’(8).

As Hermione’s virtues are regenerated for Leontes in Paulina they are regenerated for the audience in Perdita. In her flower speeches with their embrace of change and pity for maidenhood, in her image of Florizel as "a bank for love to lie and play on" (IV.iv.130), and in her easy assumption that Florizel should "Desire to breed by me" (IV.iv.103), Perdita expresses a frank and whole-hearted acceptance of sexuality that recalls Hermione’s in the opening scene. She shares too with her mother and Paulina what Tillyard calls her "ruthless common sense(9), and employs it as wittily and adeptly as they to deflate men’s exaggerated rhetoric and vapid generalization – whether Camillo’s about "affection" (IV.iv.579) or Polixenes’ about art and nature.

But Perdita is important not only as character and symbol but also for the responses which she generates, for the healthy relationships in which she participates. Florizel, in comparison with the heroes of the comedies, is a remarkable lover. His courtship, unlike Lenote’s "crabbed" (I.ii. 102) one, is joyous and confident. He acknowledges Perdita’s sexuality and his own, identifying himself with the gods who have "taken/ the shapes of beasts upon them" (IV.iv.26-27) but controlling his burning "lusts" (34). He delights in Perdita’s frankness, her beauty, her wit, in her "blood" which "looks" out (IV.iv.160). His unconventional praise of her – "When you speak, sweet, / I’d have you do it even…" (IV.iv.136) – reveals his appreciation of her singularity. He praises not her looks, but her "deeds" – each – each of them – reversing Leontes’ disgust at Hermione’s second "good deed" and purifying the word’s sexual implications.(10)

As Florizel is a model lover, so the old shepherd is a model father; his relationship with his children is at every point contrasted with Leontes’. Believing, like Leontes, that Perdita is a bastard (although not, of course, his), he takes her up "for pity" (III.iii.75). He does not treat his children as possessions but rather as friends whose independence he respects and whose innocence he knows better than to count on. He makes Perdita mistress of the feast and urges her to "lay it on" (IV.iii.41-42), to behave with the boldness, warmth, and flirtatiousness embodied in his remarkable reminiscence of his dead wife.

When my old wife lived, upon

This day, she was both pantler, butler, served cook;

Both dome and servant, welcomed all, served all:

Would sing her song, and dance her turn, now here

At upper end o’th table, now i’th middle;

On his shoulder, and his; her face o’fire

With labor and the thing she took to quench it,

She would to each one sip.


The shepherd’s praise of his wife resembles Florizel’s more formal

praise of Perdita – in its rhythms, its repetitions, its emphasis on particular and multiple actions, and its reference to singing and dancing(11).

The shepherd, like all the inhabitants of the Bohemian countryside, views youth as a period of wantonness, not innocence. He contemplates with exasperated tolerance the age "between ten and three-and-twenty" occupied with "getting werches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting" (III.iii.58-62). He speaks from experience, it seems, for the clown tells him, "You’re a made old man; if the sins of your youth are forgiven you" (III.iii.119-20). The "delicate burden" of Antolycus’ ballad urges, "Jump her, and, thump her" (IV.iv.194-96), for chastity is temporary and unnatural in the fourth act of the Winter Tale. Better to be the usurer’s wife, "brought to bed of twenty money-bages at a burden" (IV.iv.264-65) than to be the woman turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her" (281-82). "Red blood resigns" throughout the act as in Autolycus’ introductory song; all are caught in its pulsing rhythms, even-temporarily – Camillo and Polixenes, enthusiastic participants who welcome the rough satyrs’ dance by the "men of hair" (IV.iv.230)(12).

Meanwhile, red blood is thawing in Sicily as well. Returning there in Act V, we discover that Leontes has not been simply worn down by a winter of abstinence and penance, "naked, fasting, / Upon a barren mountain" (III.ii.209-10) – in effect a bleaker form of the eternal summer of youth which he with Polixenes had longed for, equally changeless, endless. Instead he ahs been changed, regenerated. His transformation is apparent in his acknowledgement of guilt, his chastened rhetoric, but must of all in his new apprehension of Hermione. She is seen no longer as a conventional abstraction, but as a unique woman – "no more such wives, therefore no wife" (V.i.56). He now honors her love as "the sweetest companion that e’er man / Bred his hopes out of" (V.i.11-12) and he longs for her kisses (and for her words as well): "Then, ever now,/ I might have looked upon my queen’s full eyes, / Have taken treasure from her lips" (V.i.52-54). He is also able, with Paulina’s help, to conceive of her as human, flawed, "soul-vexed" (59) – liable like himself to jealousy, anger, vengefulness, and berating him on his choice of a new wife(13).

Leontes recovery of his wife prepares him for a renewed and transformed relationship with Perdita and Florizel and with Polixenes. The sight of the children once again brings back memories of the boyhood friendship – not of innocence, but of "something widely / By us performed before" (V.i.129-30). He and Polixenes are no longer" twinned lambs" but have "branched now". Throughout the scene Leontes contrasts himself with his friend, and, discovering that Perdita and Florizel have eloped, he breaks with Polixenes to become "friend" to the couple’s "desires" (V.i.230-31). Florizel begs him, "Remember since you owed no more to Time / Than I do now: with thought of such affections / Step forth mine advocate" (217-20); Leontes does exactly this. His reference to Perdita as a precious mistress" (223) and his too-youthful gazes at her reveal, not incestuous desires, but Leontes’ acceptance of his own courtship and his own desire to "enjoy" Hermione "I thought of her / Even in these looks I made" (227-28).

Leontes’ willingness to identify his own affections with the couple’s precipitates the multiple recognition scene with Camillo, Perdita, and Polixenes. Even this scene is filled with the presence of Hermione; hers and Perdita’s longings for each other generate the final scene. Hermione, like the old subjects in the first scene of the play, has been "content to die", but has "desired" her "life" to "see" Perdita a woman (I.i.42-44). Perdita in turn, although now blessed with three fathers, a brother, lover, and a mother of sorts in Paulina, yearns for contact with her natural mother "that ended when I but began" (V.iii.45). Leontes, however, is the most active participant in the final scene, for it is his recovery of Hermione which explains and facilitates the other reunions(14).

The final scene then is symbolic of Leontes’ acceptance of Hermione as fully his wife. As Othello, at the last, transformed the sleeping Desdemona into "monumental alabaster", so Leontes, at the first, would have preferred, in a sense a Hermione who was a statue. He distrusted her wit, her warmth, her blood ("You charge him too coldly," Hermione complained to him, and his delusion erupted with the words, "Too hot, too hot" [I..ii.30, 108]). Now he explicitly longs for her "warm life", her "blood", her "breath", her speech (V.iii.35, 65, 79), and he imbues the statue with them. His determination to kiss the statue signals Paulina that he is ready for reunion with the woman, Hermione. But the moment of reunion is as painful, laborious as birth. Paulina, acting as midwife for both, must urge Hermione out numbness and then must stop Leontes from rejecting her once again(15).

Do not shun her

Until you see her die again, for then

You kill her double. Nay, present your hand.

When she was young, you wooed her; now, in age,

Is she become the suitor?


Finally, the reading of "The Winter Tale" suggests some respects in which it differs from the other romances. Although family reunions and the rejuvenation of family relationships are at the heart of all the plays, in non of the others do fully developed women characters play central active roles. "The Winter Tale", perhaps, seems without strain on contrivance. Only in it the final reunions work symbolically and dramatically and psychologically, for only here are the women who are crucial to them accepted into the play as fully human figures "freed" and "enfranchised" from imprisoning roles and imprisoning conceptions projected on them by foolish men.


Wafa Salim Mahmood, The Dramatic Function of Female Characters in Five Shakespearean Tragedies: A Feminist Approach. (Mosul, Unpublished M.A. Thesis, University Press, 2005), p.4.

Julie Riviken and Michael Ryan, "Feminist Paradigms" in Literary Theory: AN Anthology, ed. Julie Riviken (USA, Blackwell Publisher Inc., 1998), p.527.

All quotations are from The Winter’s Tale, ed. J. H. P. Pafford (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1963).

In "Recognition in "The Winter’s Tale" in Essay on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, ed. Richard Hosley (London: University of Missouri Press, 1962), p.238.

Ibid., p.257.

Carol Thomas Neely (1973). "Women and Issue in The Winter’s Tale", in Philological Quarterly, Vol.XII, pp.185.

Frand Kermode, ed. The Winter’s Tale (New York: New American Library, 1963), p.55.

David Holbrook, Images of Women in Literature (New York: New York UP, 1989), p.120.

Alvin B. Kernan, Shakespeare’s Last Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1938), p.47.

Ibid., p.63.

Mary R. Beard, Women As Force in History: A Study in Tradition and Realities (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p.123.

Ibid., p.125.

C. R. Swift, et al., The Women’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p.30.

Carol Thomas Neely (1973). "Women and Issue in The Winter’s Tale", in Philological Quarterly, Vol.XII, pp.189.

Harry R. Earvin, Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approach (London: Blackwell UP), p.90.