Tag Archives: shakespeare

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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Castaways

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Shakespeare’s The Tempest may be the definitive castaways-tale. There is the duke, Prospero, who becomes usurped from the throne by his own brother and put to sea, along with a baby girl, in a meagerly provisioned, shoddy boat. Ovid, Shakespeare’s unofficial muse, used this suspenseful theme in the mythical tale of Perseus. Similarly, there is an island on which the two exiled royals find refuge and where they ultimately long for a return home. In both Shakespeare and Ovid, the castaways survive with the unusual advantage of magic.

The Tempest’s Prospero has spent his life studying books of the supernatural within the sequestered comforts of his beloved Milan. Now, many leagues from his homeland, surviving for approximately twelve years on a faraway island in the Mediterranean, Prospero has been plotting with his art to conjure a storm, a tempest, which will bring his enemies to the island. It takes a tremendous amount of control to accomplish such a feat, and Prospero certainly is something of a control freak at best and a cruel brute at his worst.

Though he adores his daughter, Miranda, Prospero is manipulative with her in the way he controls her thoughts and her memory and even what she sees:

The fringed curtains of thine eye advance,
And say what thou seest yond. 1.2.411,412

With cunning conversation, he allows for certain memories to filter in. But when Miranda begins to recall too much, Prospero utilizes his absolute power to knock her out with sleep. So, Miranda is continually awakening from naps with a quizzical look on her face. Still, she has very early memories that appear to be surreptitiously pressed on her by Prospero:

’Tis far off,
And rather like a dream than an assurance
That my remembrance warrants. Had I not
Four or five women once that tended me? 1.2.46-49

Mirada, (whose very name is phonetically similar to the words memory and remember), speaks with eloquence about what she does or does not recall of her early childhood in Milan. She is the angelic, innately wise ingenue that Shakespeare often employed for his female characters.

Since landing on the isle, Miranda has been under Prospero’s tutelage and influence. Yet, her temperament hardly resembles her father’s. For instance, while Prospero has enough angry aggression to create a violent tempest that would bring a ship crashing in flames to the shore, Miranda has not inherited any of his meanness; in fact, she sympathizes with the crew:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! 1.2.5,6

As they made the island their home, Prospero had quickly acquired slaves: Caliban, (an anagram of cannibal,) a native of the island who is referred to as a grotesque creature – and Ariel, a male or kind of asexual sprite, who had been imprisoned in a tree trunk by Caliban’s mother, a witch. The witch has since died, so Prospero frees Ariel from the tree, but imprisons the airy spirit all the same with threats of returning him to the tree if he does not obey:

Thou liest, malignant thing! Hast thou forgot
the foul witch Sycorax… 1.2.259,260

In keeping with this colonialist trope, Shakespeare has Prospero commanding these two slaves for the magician’s own purposes in raising the storm and using his minion, Ariel, to perform spritely tricks on the royals, who wash ashore. Indeed, Ariel is eternally on-call to carry out fantastic, magical activities all across the island. Hence, Prospero, who was exiled, has exiled his captors to the imprisonment of slavery and bondage.

The dialogue is highly poetic even between the oppressed Caliban and his master, for Prospero and Miranda taught Caliban to speak, thus he speaks their elevated language, yet he resists their complete control by saying:

You taught me language; and my prophit on’t
is, I know how to curse… 1.2.365-366

On the other hand, Ariel addresses Prospero as he would want to be addressed:

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail!… 1.2.189

However, Ariel’s salutations to Prospero are so slavishly sycophantic, one might mistake it for mockery. But Ariel has been promised the carrot of eventual freedom; and so, the invisible sprite dashes from one side of the island to the other and then out into the middle of the sea before you can blink, in order to fulfill Prospero’s deeds.

With Ariel, there are many references to the Greek gods and goddesses, unicorns, mysterious incantations and mythical masques and pageants. In Act IV, a magnificent engagement-ceremony is performed for Miranda and Ferdinand, who fall in love at first sight. With a fantastic tableau and supernatural arias, Ariel conjures the spirits of Queen Juno and the goddess Ceres. Invoking the Proserpine myth, Ceres must first be assured that Venus was not a part of this union, for Ceres has forsworn the Goddess of Love because of the way Venus sealed the fate of Ceres’ daughter, Proserpine, who was abducted by the King of Hell to become the Queen of the Underworld. After Ceres has the assurance that Venus had no part in this coupling, the engagement-ceremony for Miranda and Ferdinand is then blessed by Juno, Ceres and the singing and dancing of ethereal spirit-nymphs.

Unlike Ovid himself, who was exiled by Augustus Ceasar to the island of Tomis in the Black Sea, Prospero attains his desired outcome: the royals and their lords land – setting the stage for the magician’s machinations. In perfect, Shakesperean writerly-timing, the newly arrived men notice the enchantments in the sultry island:

These are not natural events; they strengthen
From strange to stranger. 5.1.227,228

Still, the royals and their men soon speak of plans to establish an ideal government in a sort of utopian society. Politically, however, their ideals only lead them to contradiction, debate and trechery. And as with most Shakespearean plots, the jesters stumble on stage to mock everything that is taking place in the play.

Meanwhile, Prospero and Miranda are prized with the most philosophical and poetic lines, as when Prospero addresses his new, prospective son-in-law, Ferdinand; Prospero councils:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep… 4.1.156,- 158

Another poetic tool, personification, is generously used throughout the play, as when Prospero personifies time:

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey, and time
Goes upright with his carraiage… 5.1.1

Finally, Prospero’s solemn speech in Act V has been attributed to Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater. Spectacular as it is, the soliloquy is too long to quote here, (5.1.34-57), as is Prospero’s epilogue, a prayer, really, of farewell and forgiveness. (Epilogue)

Yet, Miranda utters the most famous and widely used lines in The Tempest when she says:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! 5.1.182-185

These are the words she speaks as all of the survivors of the tempest gather around Prospero. They are highly optimistic words that can be broadly interpreted coming from innocent Miranda, who could not recall seeing another man, other than her father, Prospero, and a slave, Caliban, her entire life.

{photo taken with my BlackBerry}