Category Archives: mythology

Feminine Magic in The Winter’s Tale

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~ daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty; violets, dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes ~

The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611 and is one of the last plays, written near the end of Shakespeare’s career. Among his influences for this tale, Ovid’s Metamorphosis would be the most recognizable – from the invocation of gods, goddesses and the Delphian oracle to the spectacularly arbitrary loss-of-life and a transformative ending.

The play begins with King Leontes of Sicilia, who becomes insane with irrational jealousy over his wife, Queen Hermione. The entire court knows their beloved queen to be innocent. This court from the highest lords to the humblest servants, feel the injustice of the king’s accusations, though they can only whisper of his lunacy for fear of angering him further. Queen Hermione grapples with her own powers of speech: she is an eloquent and persuasive speaker, yet this very gift invites profound misfortune. King Leontes resembles other mad kings in Shakespeare: King Lear, for example, a play which also deals with themes of silence vs. speaking, as when Lear implores his daughter, Cordelia, to speak-up in defense of her love for him, but when she does speak, he trusts her even less. These mad kings are riddled with egotism, mistrust, irrationality and rage. Their accusations are outrageously misplaced, and their fears beget more fear, their thoughts mutate and become so clouded that no one else can penetrate the madness.

The queen is accused of treason, adultery and even a plot to murder. Her remarkable equanimity and rationality rely on the known capriciousness of the planets and on the protection of the gods.

… if powers divine

Behold our human actions – as they do-

I doubt not then but innocence shall make

False accusation blush, and tyranny

Tremble at patience. – 3.2.27-31

 

Hermione’s gift for eloquence would surpass any defense attorney, were she awarded one. Not only does she defend her own innocence but also that of Camillo and of King Polixenes. She openly admits to loving Polixenes but only to the extent that would become a queen and host, and furthermore obeyed the very command of Leontes himself. She recalls with superior fluency how Leontes urged her to speak and persuade his friend Polixenes to stay in Sicilia longer. Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak you. (1.2.27), were Leontes’s words. Yet this was the point at which the king became insanely jealous. Lamentably, Hermione’s stunning poise cannot save her from her husband’s twisted law. Not even the proclamation of the Delphian oracle can sway a mad king’s will.

It is the season of winter, and before she is accused, Hermione plays with her son Mamillius, her little prince, and asks him to tell her a tale. He decides to tell her a sad tale.

A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one

Of sprites and goblins. – (2.1.27)

 

The boy’s short lines, these few words, are startling, as they portend the tragedy that strikes his family. Leontes disregards the oracle’s avowal of Hermione’s innocence. It is universally known that any word from the Delphian oracle is a direct communication from the God Apollo, and so the tragedy that strikes Leontes’s son, Mamillius, was not surprising to the realm, but vastly devastating.

Personified Time introduces Act 4 as the Chorus singing its diegesis. As if the shift from extreme heartbreak in winter to the hope of spring, sixteen years later, needs a comforting preamble; Time helps us imagine the baby girl, who was cast away by a raging king, blossoming into a beautiful young woman of sixteen – raised a shepherd’s daughter, in faraway Bohemia. Thus, Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, becomes a gentle shepherdess living in a pastoral environment. The setting is biblical with its rolling hills and flocks of sheep watched after by a benevolent shepherd, Perdita’s rescuer. Such a contrast to the violent world she was born into; and yet, a part of Hermione has been preserved through her daughter. Act 4 is full of spring, festivals, masquerade, disguise and new love. The love story of Florizel, a prince, and Perdita, a princess who is only known as a humble shepardess, contains elevated language, pastoral delight and interminglings of identity. Their dialogue is a mixture of romance, flirtation and noble devotion, as when Florizel praises Perdita at the Sheep Shearing Festival:

*What you do

Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,

I’d have you do it ever…

 

Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.

 

Like Proserpina, of the Roman myth, Perdita was violently separated from her mother: Proserpina by abduction and Perdita by banishment, which was thought to be death. Shakespeare seems to group them together when Perdita conjures the spirit of the child-goddess who knew the names of all the flowers in her realm. Similarly, Perdita knows all varieties of flowers by name, as she is the host of the Festival. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines were knowledgeable in flowers and herbs. Ophelia, for instance, could identify herbs, in particular, and could tell their meanings and their magical or medicinal uses. This, however, was one more brand against Ophelia and her sanity. By contrast, with Perdita, her flower-poetry gives her more enchantment.

Handing out rosemary to King Polixenes and Lord Camillo, she says:

For you there’s rosemary and rue… these keep

Seeming and savour all the winter long.

Grace and remembrance be to you both… (4.4.74-47)

 

Implying, without really knowing, that someone or something needs to be remembered of winter. To which, Polixenes further implies when he speaks of art and nature – that marrying and mixing nobility with a baser stock would be disgraceful. He may even have called her a bastard. But Perdita then gives the king more flowers:

Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,

Marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping. These are flowers

Of middle summer, and I think they are given

To men of middle age. (4.4.104-108)

 

Thereby putting Polixenes in his place and putting an end to any discussion of people who marry only because of their royal birth or lack thereof. Still, the king’s disapproval of his son’s engagement to Perdita sends the lovers fleeing.

Florizel and Perdita’s sudden appearance in Sicilia could not be more timely. King Leontes, now many years repentant in his guilt and sorrow, is nostalgic enough to be Florizel’s advocate. The king has changed. He is vulnerable and therefore eager for any show of love and forgiveness. He is open to the improbable, as is the reader, having felt all of the grief and suffering of this family. Shakespeare gives Perdita the power to verbalize, in one word, our feelings about Hermione’s unfair fate: “Alas”, is her single utterance, thereby unleashing the collective sorrow entirely.

Queen Hermione has the last word in an improbable reuniting, while her friend and savior, Paulina, has provided the creative force, the feminine direction for this final, spectacular denouement. In one sense, sixteen years would be a long season of transformation, in which Hermione could return as a rare beauty – recreated as a supernatural specimen of nature. Much happiness would bubble-up on the stage as a result; still, the terrible loss of life – and of years and the irreversible damage makes this a real tragedy, though it has been catalogued a tragicomedy.

 

 

 

*(4.135-137…143-146)

 

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Orpheus, from Greece to Brazil

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

From tales of wood nymphs transformed into trees or rivers, to gods arbitrarily helping or abducting humans, the Greek myths embody tragedy and comedy, love and hate, beautiful beings and repulsive ogres, and nature in all its unfathomable splendor. Of all the myths, the story of Persephone and the story of Orpheus must be the saddest. In Persephone, the young goddess of spring is abducted by Pluto and carried off to Hell. In Orpheus, two lovers are torn apart not once but twice, as Eurydice slips back down into the Underworld.

What is most extraordinary is that the myths were such brilliantly crafted tales and personifications, perhaps most lovingly interpreted by Ovid. The story of Orpheus was first penned by the Greek poet, Apollonius Rhodius, in The Voyage of the Argo, in the third-century, B.C.. Both Virgil and Ovid, two Roman poets from the Greco-Roman time period, continued the Orpheus tale with Orpheus and Eurydice

In this way, Apollonius passed along the historia of Orpheus, in the written tradition, influencing other ancient writers, who enlarged and enhanced the story, allowing the aeons to transform it into mythology for the world’s enjoyment and interpretation.

As the story goes, Hermes, the messenger god, invented the lyre and handed the instrument down, first to Apollo, the “magical musician”, and then to Orpheus. Apollo, the god of light and truth, was the father of Orpheus. Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, was his mother. Hence, Orpheus came from an exceptionally melodious lineage.

Of the Muses, Hesiod is quoted as saying:

He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.

The Story of Orpheus

It was said that Orpheus could sing and play music more sweetly than any mortal in all of Thrace. Indeed, he could move rivers, rocks and trees and attract the birds and animals to his side.

Half-human, half god, Orpheus also attained the adoration of the nymphs and Naiads: from beautiful maidens and lesser deities of the woods, rivers, trees and meadows, to the formidable, maenads, worshipers of the Bacchante, who, in Ovid’s version, ultimately destroy Orpheus out of jealousy.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus is married to Eurydice;

The new-wed bride,
Roaming with her gay Naiads through the grass,
Fell dying when a serpent struck her heel.

And in so dying, Eurydice is whisked away to the Underworld, much like Persephone, to the place of death, in Greco-Roman mythology, where all souls go in the final end. But the love of Orpheus and the loss that he feels is so great, that he travels to the Underworld and pleads his case before Hades to have his wife, Eurydice returned to life.

He plays upon his lyre and sings to all the host of the Underworld;

So to the music of his strings he sang,
And all the bloodless spirits wept to hear…
Then first by that sad singing overwhelmed,
The Furies’ cheeks, it’s said, were wet with tears…

Orpheus wins his wish. Hades grants that Eurydice return to the upper-realms with her husband, but with the stipulation that he is not to look back at her as they ascend to the light, Orpheus leading the way.

As the tragic tale goes, Orhpeus, in a fit of concern, does look back just as Eurydice is about to step up into the earthly realm, and the ill-destined bride descends, like mist, back down the dark tunnel into the Underworld again.

And now they neared the edge of the bright world,
And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,
He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.

He stretched his arms to hold her – to be held –
And clasped, poor soul, naught but the yielding air.
And she, dying again, made no complaint
(For what complaint had she save she was loved?)
And breathed a faint farewell, and turned again
Back to the land of Spirits whence she came.
The double death of his Eurydice,
Stole Orpheus’ wits away.

And so Orpheus is left to sing and play beautiful, sad songs in the forests and meadows, by the rivers and under the trees, for the next three years, loved by many women, but loving none in return.

Then, Ovid continues the tale in The Death of Orpheus, wherein the Maenads, those jealous, pleasure seekers of Bacchic’ orgies, explode into a frenzied rage and destroy Orpheus with the violence of a pack of wolves.

Of Thracian women, wearing skins of beasts,
From some high ridge of ground caught sight of him.
‘Look!’ shouted one of them, tossing her hair
That floated in the breeze, ‘Look, there he is,
The man who scorns us!’

Re-telling the Myth

Many poets and writers have since developed and retold the myth, using the themes of ill-fated love and the immortals in such stories as Pyramus and Thisby or Romeo and Juliet. And Orpheus has found his way into opera, art, theater and film as well.

In the film, Black Orpheus, the setting is Rio de Janeiro during the wildly colorful and musical celebration of Carnival, which takes place during Lent. This makes for a brilliant tableau for the ancient tale. Since the Brazilians feel connected to the Greeks and make up a multi-faceted culture of strongly Catholic beliefs, with people of indigenous-Indian, Italian, Portuguese, German, French and African descent, their story is rich with the traditions of these combined groups.

From the film, Black Orpheus

From the film, Black Orpheus

This softly colorized film-version of the myth of Orpheus was directed by Marcel Camus, using a cool, samba musical score by bossa nova jazz legends, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa. Lots of symbolic detail can be deciphered from the beginning until the ending scenes. Through personifications of Hermes, the Muses, “Mira” – a jealous maenad, and Death or Fate, the Brazilians express their love of the Greeks, revering their stories and retelling their myth.

Yet, the Brazilians celebrate the illumination of the human spirit through the music and dancing of Carnival. Innocence shines through in the joy of their faces. And the very enchanting children of this film embody the true essence of dance. The bright colors and natural, instinctual rhythm of their remarkable “African beat” becomes that of a folk religion, mixing the Christ, Greek Mythology and African mysteries into one.

The festival costumes represent the Greco-Roman as well as the French, with Orpheus and Eurydice wearing Greek garments of a Golden Era, while the Maenads are dressed up in the flamboyance of French Versaille, illustrating the excesses of Marie Antionette and Louie XVI alongside street urchins and the very poor.

In the end, Mira, the frenzied Maenad, hurls a stone at Orpheus, as she does in the mythology. Camus remains true to Ovid by bringing Orpheus and Eurydice ultimately back together in death, but through the perspective of this romantic, creative, Brazilian film medium.

Black Orpheus won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960. Moreover, the film brought wide recognition and popularity to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

References:The Metamorphoses by Ovid

(A version of this post originally appeared in my HubPages blog.)