Healing in The Winter’s Tale

Guest blogger, Katherine Arnold, writes…

For this affliction has a taste as sweet
As any cordial comfort. Still, methinks,
There is an air comes from her: what fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath? Let no man mock me,
For I will kiss her.

The Winter’s Tale, V, iii

My most vivid impression of a scene in Shakespeare’s plays takes place, odd as it may sound, in a work I have never seen performed. The startling transformation of Queen Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale sparked my sudden, belated appreciation for the play both as a work in isolation and for its vibrant connections to other literature. The moment marks the reconcilement of the royal families, the younger generation with the older, and Hermione with her repentant husband, which presented, to me, clear evidence of the beautiful possibilities a gesture of forgiveness offers for familial and spiritual revival. Moreover, her return, following the romance of Perdita and Florizel, completes the transition from the winter of the play’s first three acts to the spring of the final two.

The captivating image of a living statue led to a series of questions and, in turn, fascination with the indicated complexities. How could the actors be positioned onstage? What gestures and expressions would they have? Would there be a line of symmetry between the family members of Sicily and Bohemia, and how could the significance of the moment be extended? While the written words and speech had initially taken my attention, in a form where visual actions hold as much importance on stage, these questions began my appreciation for the variety of potential interpretations (has Hermione been alive, or is it magic? Does she accept Leontes’s remorse as genuine?) which change and colour any performance (or, in this case, reading) of a play.

These considerations, as well as the play’s connection to another piece of literature, led to the unexpected penetration of the issues of remorse and healing through knowing a different set of characters from another time period. My first encounter with the statue’s transformation came, after all, through reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (Gwendolen Harleth takes up the role of Hermione, directing Rex Gascoigne to play Leontes, and kneel and kiss the hem of her dress) which presents a striking, unforgettable view of Shakespeare’s characters for the purpose of a novel. The play, far from standing untouched through time, has both history and descendents in works of literature, releasing exhilaration for the questions that arise among layers of meaning. Even a reading of Hermione’s return elicited this vivacity, an affirmation of the openness of Shakespeare’s work to our joys and our experiences.

Katherine Arnold

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