I’m wary of tying Shakespeare’s plays too closely to his life. But I think it’s worth noting his concern with daughters in his last plays — especially daughters who are lost and then found again. In Pericles we have Marina, the Child of the Sea. In The Winter’s Tale we have Perdita, the Child Who Was Lost. In The Tempest, we have Miranda, the Child of Miracles.
When Shakespeare retired from the theater and took up full-time residence in Stratford — sometime around 1610-1613 — he came home to his wife Anne and his daughter Judith. (To simplify the calculations, I’m going to use 1611 as the year of his retirement: it’s a year often suggested as the year for both The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, the last two plays he wrote without a collaborator.) Judith was 26 years old and unmarried. Her twin brother Hamnet had died 15 years earlier.
There had been other deaths marking the new century like a steady drumbeat. Grandfather John died in 1601, when Judith was 16. Uncle Ned — Shakespeare’s youngest brother — had been close to her in age and had lived in the same house with her for 11 years. Uncle Ned had followed his brother to London to become an actor, but he hadn’t cut much of a figure for himself when he died in 1607, at the age of 27. He was buried in the dead of winter, in a church a few blocks from the Globe Theater, on a day when the Thames itself was frozen solid.
By then Judith’s sister Susanna had married the physician and Puritan John Hall and moved out of New Place. The Halls had a child, Elizabeth, who would have been 3 years old in 1611.
Judith’s grandmother Mary died the year Elizabeth was born, in 1608, when Judith was 23. Uncle Gilbert died in 1612 just after our proposed date for Will’s retirement. Uncle Richard, the last of Will’s brothers, died a year after that.
When Will came home, he came home to a shrunken family. His sister Joan and her husband lived in the old place on Henley Street. His daughter and her small family lives at Hall’s Croft near the church. His wife and younger daughter lived with him at New Place. Nobody knows where his two surviving brothers lived: there may be a trace of Gilbert in London as a haberdasher, but he died in Stratford, unmarried; Richard died in Stratford too, but his life is a complete blank.
That was it.
So…. about Judith and marriage. People at that period in England tended to marry much later than now, often because of apprenticeships. If a man became apprenticed at 18 and served for the usual 7 years, he would be 25 before he was able to marry. As has often been pointed out, when William at 18 married Anne Hathaway at 26, he was the outlier, not her.
We don’t know anything about Judith’s private life and can’t read anything into her unmarried status except to note that several years after her (slightly) older sister had gotten married and started a family, she was still living at home. And it may be permissible to read backward from 1616, when she finally did make a match at the age of 31, only to have it turn out to be an exceptionally bad one. Her debt-ridden husband, after the marriage had occurred, ended up having to do public penance for fornication (the other party being a woman who died in childbirth, naming him as the father). Shakespeare revised his will the next day to make sure that Judith’s inheritance, meager as it was, was safe from her husband’s grasp. She and her husband Tom had several children together, all of whom died young.
Getting back to my original point after this long digression: I know this is the rankest kind of speculation, but is it possible that Judith Shakespeare is the Child Who Was Lost?
(The film All Is True seemed to take this line. On the whole, it did a good job giving a sense of what Shakespeare’s last years would have been like. But the plot device of having Hamnet take credit for Judith’s poetry and then drown in two feet of water…. and then having Anne lie to Will that Hamnet died of the plague, and Will taking 20 years to figure out that no one else had died of the plague that year, as if somehow he wouldn’t have known that…. nah. Didn’t work.)
Or coming at it from another angle…. Some scholars have suggested that the same boy actor played Mamillius and Perdita. How old is Mamillius? Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Mamillius is a kind of stand-in for Hamnet and that he is around 11, the same age as Hamnet, when he dies; and that 16 years later, in the world of the play, he is “reborn” as his sister. Had Mamillius lived, he would be the same age as Hamnet at the time the play was written…. the same age that Judith, Hamnet’s twin, actually was. If Mamillius/Perdita is the Child Who Was Lost, both parts being played by the same actor, and somehow capturing some of the psychic energy of Hamnet/Judith, it may help explain in another way some of the great sadness that tinges this play.
This is all pure speculation and may all be hogwash. But there is a deep and poignant feeling of sorrow in the play, and I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare’s personal situation added to its emotional charge.
And so in that roundabout way, we enter the world of The Winter’s Tale.
And what about that world? I’ll start off by observing that Leontes is insane. Like another orange-haired turd of my acquaintance, he evaluates his subordinates on a single criterion: loyalty. Do they support his crazy accusations or do they try to talk him out of it? Many of them, to their credit — chief among them Antigonus — try to talk him out of it. For his pains, Antigonus is given a dangerous mission that will, in fact, lead to his death.
Leontes feels nothing but rage when confronted with his newborn daughter. (She was born in prison, where the pregnant Hermione was confined when Polixenes escaped.)
This brat is none of mine,
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!
He can’t touch Polixenes, safely stowed in his own kingdom, but he can burn his wife and his child at the stake. Most medieval and early modern forms of execution were painful, but burning to death was probably one of the most painful. Part of the entertainment value lay in the screams of the dying as they struggled against the ropes binding them to the stake. As a mercy, women were sometimes strangled before the fire was set, but not always.
Leontes orders Antigonus to take the child to the place of execution; otherwise he, Leontes, will kill it with his bare hands.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou, that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence,
And see it instantly consum’d with fire.
Even thou, and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done
(And by good testimony), or I’ll seize thy life,
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so;
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out.
Leontes is sick in the head. All we’ve seen Hermione do is have a private conversation with Polixenes, and — if we take Leontes’ descriptions as accurate — affectionately hold his hand. But Leontes has already gone far beyond this in his mind. He describes their behavior thus to Camillo (in a speech that is, by the way, a textbook example of how to construct a Shakespearean speech).
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty)? Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.
“Kissing with inside lip” must be what (in high school) we used to call “French kissing.” If so, then yeah, it’s a pretty safe bet that Leontes’ cause is lost. But Camillo recognizes the accusation as an insane fantasy, and the play loses all meaning if there’s the slightest hint that Leontes’ jealous fantasies might be true.
We don’t get to see him drawn into jealousy by an outside agitator like Iago. Before the play even begins, he’s already in the grip of a deadly passion, although it’s quite a ways into the first act before he lets us see it. The immediate trigger is his wife Hermione playing handsies with his best friend Polixenes.
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practic’d smiles,
As in a looking-glass; and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ th’ deer—O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows!
As a footnote, it’s a curious thing how often the “paddling” or “playing handsies” shows up in Shakespeare. The most immediate parallel is in Othello, where Iago observes Desdemona and Cassio making a little too free — so he thinks — with each other’s hands.
He takes her by the palm; ay, well said, whisper. With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do; I will gyve thee in thine own courtship.
Iago makes his meaning explicit when he talks to Roderigo later.
Bless’d pudding! Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Didst not mark that?
Yes, that I did; but that was but courtesy.
Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embrac’d together.
In Sonnet 128, he imagines a keyboard making free with his mistress.
How oft when thou, my music, music play’st
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand.
Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of “paddling” as well, although in his case the location has changed, and the effect is even seedier.
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn’d fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out....
But back to Leontes and his sudden rage. He fights with himself to avoid taking it out on his son, suspecting at the same time that his son might not be his.
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ’s absence,
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor—by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
The upshot is that he orders his underling Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo, who can see how irrational Leontes’ jealousy is, instead helps Polixenes to escape the city.
By the way…. I have to take a minute here to mention a particular image. Whatever else it has, The Winter’s Tale has one of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare.
There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink; depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected), but if one present
Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.
I have drunk, and seen the spider. As a Shakespeare quote, this doesn’t get nearly enough love. The shock of drinking — let’s say a mug of coffee for the sake of argument — and finding a spider at the bottom of the mug would be enough to put me in the hospital. Or at least send me to bed for a week.
The Norton editors, excellent in all other respects, apply their standard copy-editing rules to this passage and remove the final comma. For me, this ruins it. That last line needs a slight catch in the middle, a hesitation: otherwise it races on at breakneck speed and the line gets lost.
Fortunately Hermione has the presence of mind to meet the onslaught of Leontes with dignity and greatness of heart. Her trial is a mockery. As she says, her only defense is her word, and her word is exactly what she’s been charged with breaking.
Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation, and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say “Not guilty.” Mine integrity,
Being counted falsehood, shall (as I express it)
Be so receiv’d.
But she makes her case anyway, without descending into the kind of vituperative accusations that Leontes richly deserves. She is a wonderfully strong woman. Faced with this most horrible of accusations, she faces it down without flinching: at no point does she lose her self-possession or her calm dignity — not until the news of her son’s death causes her to collapse and (apparently) die of shock.
Leontes tries to cow her with a sentence of death.
You had a bastard by Polixenes,
And I but dream’d it. As you were past all shame
(Those of your fact are so), so past all truth;
Which to deny concerns more than avails; for as
Thy brat hath been cast out, like to itself,
No father owning it (which is indeed
More criminal in thee than it), so thou
Shall feel our justice; in whose easiest passage
Look for no less than death.
But she never falters.
Sir, spare your threats.
The bug which you would fright me with, I seek.
The oracle of Apollo vindicates her absolutely, without a trace of the ambiguity oracles were supposedly famous for.
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.
But even then Leontes refuses to bend: instead, he curses the god as a liar. And then on the instant the gods break open the sky and pour down their revenge.
My lord the King! The King!
What is the business?
O sir, I shall be hated to report it!
The Prince your son, with mere conceit and fear
Of the Queen’s speed, is gone.
At this news, “Hermione swoons,” and predictably her lady-in-waiting Paulina — the wife of bear-eaten Antigonus — announces that she has also died of grief and shame.
When I have said, cry “Woe!”—the Queen, the Queen,
The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead, and vengeance for’t
Not dropp’d down yet.
The higher pow’rs forbid!
I say she’s dead; I’ll swear’t. If word nor oath
Prevail not, go and see. If you can bring
Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye,
Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you
As I would do the gods. But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair.
Leontes finally gets the message, but of course it’s too late. (The notes to the Signet Classic Shakespeare suggest that Shakespeare, at this stage in the writing, may not have decided yet to revive Hermione. In the original novel by Robert Greene, she’s dead and buried, and the Leontes character ends up dead by his own hand.)
The play is about to pull one of the greatest reversals in all of Shakespeare, a shift from this appalling tragedy to a song-filled pastoral with dancing, sheep, and pick-pockets.
But before that, of course, there’s the famous stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear and the problems of interpretation it entails.
I’ve heard it asked, as a serious question, whether the bear that pursues Antigonus (and rips out and eats his shoulder-bone offstage) was, in the original staging, a real bear or a man in a bear suit.
Let’s think about it for a minute. I won’t deny that some bears in London may have been trained to dance and entertain a laughing crowd. But the majority of bears were there for bear-baiting. They were trained to kill.
So…. a thought experiment. Here we have a scene, and Richard Burbage insists on using a live bear. There are several problems that have to be resolved. (1) The bear has to be quietly kept backstage until the time for his appearance arrives. No roaring, or the surprise is spoiled. In the meantime he has to be prevented from eating any of the actors in the tiring house. (2) Once on stage, he has to know that he’s supposed to chase Antigonus, and not anyone else who might happen to be onstage. (Sometimes wealthier spectators had seats on the stage, the better to see and be seen.) (3) He has to be prevented from eating Antigonus or any of the spectators. (4) There being no railing or anything else between him and the audience in the pit, he has to be prevented from leaping off the stage and massacring spectators in that trapped, enclosed location. (5) This has to be repeated every time the play is put on — kind of like Russian roulette.
All things considered, I’m pretty sure it was a man in a bear suit.
Antigonus is a kind of character type, one that Shakespeare turned to from time to time in the latter part of his career. He may have conceived of the type originally as a scaled-down version of Polonius. He’s a humorous advisor: humorous in the modern sense, not in the medieval sense: wise, good-natured, and a bit slow on the uptake. He played a supporting role in Coriolanus as Menenius. He turns up again in The Tempest as Gonzalo.
He assures Leontes his wife is honest.
If it prove
She’s otherwise, I’ll keep my stables where
I lodge my wife; I’ll go in couples with her.
“Going in couples” means being leashed together with her like two hounds on a hunt. He goes further.
Be she honor-flaw’d,
I have three daughters: the eldest is eleven;
The second and the third, nine, and some five;
If this prove true, they’ll pay for’t. By mine honor,
I’ll geld ’em all; fourteen they shall not see
To bring false generations. They are co-heirs,
And I had rather glib [castrate] myself than they
Should not produce fair issue.
A minor observation on this speech. He has three daughters, the eldest being 11 years old. In the normal run of things, this would put Antigonus in his mid-thirties — or possibly younger, if like many lords he married early. But he’s usually played as an older man, and his wife Paulina as an older woman. On the other hand, if they’re younger, it makes Leontes’ match-making at the end — marrying Paulina to Camillo — a little less grotesque.
His death is horrifying, though it can be and has been staged for laughs. Someone in the Shakespeare2020 group remembered a staging that I find particularly moving, and it’s the one I’d like to “remember” Antigonus by.
I never saw
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamor!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase;
I am gone forever.
(Exit pursued by a bear.)
Thus the Folio. Picture it this way: the bear roars offstage, and Antigonus cries out “A savage clamor!” The bear enters and begins sniffing around the bundled child Perdita. To distract the bear, Antigonus shouts “This is the chase [the quarry]!” — in other words, Here I am, take me instead. So his death is not a comic interlude but a noble sacrifice.
I hereby declare this the Definitive Davis-Approved Staging of the Bear Scene. Accept no substitutes.
There’s a wonderful splash-panel of a scene in the fourth act, a country masque so artfully constructed that it almost seems to have been conceived as a stand-alone entertainment. It starts and ends with the thief and conman Autolycus, who shows up out of nowhere: and with him comes a glorious scene of springtime singing and dancing.
The lark, that tirra-lyra chaunts,
With heigh, with heigh, the thrush and the jay!
Are summer songs for me and my aunts,
While we lie tumbling in the hay.
“My father nam’d me Autolycus,” he says, “who being, as I am, litter’d under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsider’d trifles.” There have been biographers of Shakespeare — AL Rowse was one — who thought this was an apt self-description: Shakespeare himself, taking clues and cues from everyone and everywhere, was himself a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles — trifles that he refashioned into masterpieces like this one.
As a footnote, the RSC editors gloss the name Autolycus as “the Wolf Himself” or “the Lone Wolf” — and add, helpfully, that the Wolf in myth was a sneak and a thief. That’s not the Wolf that I remember, but there you go. In Greek myth, at least to Homer, Autolycus was the grandfather of Odysseus.
As another footnote…. yeah, there’s a scene break between the scene with Autolycus and the sheep-shearing scene proper, but I’m ignoring it. On the fluid Elizabethan stage, it would all run together, and so I’m sticking to my story, even though the running-scene-happy RSC editors disagree in this instance. I’m staking the claim that Act 4 scenes 3 and 4 were written and staged as a single scene.
One the things Autolycus has for sale is ballads, and the country folk at the sheep-shearing are crazy about ballads. He sells out his stock almost immediately, and in the ensuing songfest he manages to steal a boatload of purses — some of the multitude being so distracted, he says, that he could have cut them off the very codpieces. In the course of the scene at least three ballads are performed — this is almost a scene out of a Broadway musical — and two major dance numbers, one a Dance of Shepherds and Shepherdesses and one a Dance of Twelve Satyrs.
Perdita, rescued by the shepherd and his son at the end of the first part of the play, has grown almost to adulthood here, and through one of the coincidences that writers like Shakespeare and Victor Hugo love to employ, she has fallen in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes — the man Leonides tried to murder 16 years earlier. Leonides has come to his senses, and after the death of his wife and son and the disappearance of his newborn daughter — a disappearance that he commanded — he has reconciled with Polixenes, although they’ve had little to say to each other in the meantime. He has no way of knowing that his Child Who Was Lost has survived to become the beloved of Polixenes’ son.
Polixenes turns out to be not a very nice guy either. He spies out the way Florizel has been courting a lowly shepherd’s daughter, none of them (of course) suspecting the truth about Perdita, and he sails in during the sheep-shearing and busts everything up. He makes horrifying threats: he will disinherit Florizel, hang the shepherd for treason, and have Perdita mutilated so that she can never again use her beauty to tempt men. Fortunately Camillo is still around — Camillo, the man who saved Polixenes’ life when Leontes was trying to kill him; and Camillo works quickly behind Polixenes’ back to blunt the effect of his rage, with the side benefit of giving himself a chance to go home. Florizel loves Perdita? Very well; they can take ship for Sicilia, and Camillo will provide letters that will make it look like they’re on official business from Polixenes.
Meanwhile the shepherd and his son, terrified at the punishments they are threatened with, gather the evidence they found with the abandoned Perdita that prove she is not related to them and is in fact a rich heiress of somebody. Autolycus, still singing and chuckling over his day’s haul, impersonates a courtier and promises to help by bringing them to Polixenes. (But first he enjoys a little knife twisting by bringing up the threatened hanging again, and adding to it a threat to have the shepherd’s son flayed alive, then covered with honey and stung with wasps, then drenched with hard liquor, then left to bake in the sun and be “with flies blown to death.” Another nice guy.)
One sour note for me in the play is the old Hidden Royalty wheeze. Shakespeare likes to argue that blood will tell. Perdita proves herself worthy of marrying Florizel not because of her inherent personal qualities but because she is, by blood, an actual princess. The Shepherd found her with a treasure chest and knew she’d come from a rich background, but didn’t know how rich until the truth came out. But it didn’t matter what he knew or didn’t know. In Shakespeare’s thinking, high-born people have a different genetic makeup that will be evident in their behavior, in their graciousness, in every quality they possess, no matter what kind of environment they’re raised in. To someone like me, steeped in American democratic idealism, this is a particularly unsavory idea: it’s one of the biggest barriers to thinking of Shakespeare as “one of us.” Shakespeare sees society as deeply stratified and rightfully so. The rich are different from you and me: they’re better people — kinder, smarter, braver, better deserving of their positions of leadership. They have, as that other orange-haired turd would say, good blood.
A digression on wool. At the beginning of Act 4, the shepherd’s son is trying to work out a complicated sum.
Let me see: every ’leven wether tods, every tod yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred shorn, what comes the wool to?
On the subject of how many tods may be had from so many sheep, and how much money can be expected as profit, it may be worth noting that Shakespeare’s father ran a side business — illegally — in wool. He was brought up on charges more than once for it. It was illegal because he wasn’t a member of the authorized guild for dealing in wool. It’s possible that a crackdown on such “wool-brogging” played a role in his financial difficulties, which in turn may have played a role in cutting short his son’s education.
By the time Shakespeare came to write The Winter’s Tale, it’s possible he’d been so long out of the trade that he had to check with someone to refresh his memory: Dickon, my friend, what pound and odd shilling does a tod yield these days? But whether he had the figures at his fingertips in 1611 or not, at one point in his life, he knew.
The sheep-shearing has ended in a kind of shambles (using the word in its figurative sense, of course), but there is a clear sense that the play is speeding toward a conclusion. Shakespeare still has a couple of major surprises up his sleeve, though.
Act 5 Scene 2 starts off in a way that uses several of the stage tricks we’ve seen before. The scene begins in the middle of a conversation. And it quickly becomes apparent that, although one of the participants is Autolycus, this is a variation on the old Two (or Three) Lord Exposition wheeze.
Beseech you, sir, were you present at this relation?
I was by at the opening of the fardel, heard the old shepherd deliver the manner how he found it....
I would most gladly know the issue of it.
I make a broken delivery of the business....
(Enter another Gentleman.)
Here comes a gentleman that haply knows more. The news, Rogero?
Nothing but bonfires.
But there’s something even bigger going on here. Shakespeare has been rapidly building up to the Big Discovery Scene, when Leontes discovers that Perdita is his long-lost daughter, and Polixenes arrives to give his blessing at last to the marriage of Perdita and Florizel, and the Shepherd and his son are amply rewarded for taking care of the Princess for lo these many years (without ever suspecting who she was) and Peace Proclaims Olives of Endless Age.
And then Shakespeare doesn’t show us any of it.
He yanks the rug out from under our expectations and relates the whole scene in narrative between Autolycus and the Three Gentlemen (because of course a third one turns up to fill in the gaps in the story).
Did you see the meeting of the two kings?
Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of. There might you have beheld one joy crown another, so and in such manner that it seem’d sorrow wept to take leave of them, for their joy waded in tears.
It’s not as if Shakespeare wasn’t able to write a scene like that if he wanted to. So…. he didn’t want to.
What, pray you, became of Antigonus, that carried hence the child?
Like an old tale still, which will have matter to rehearse, though credit be asleep and not an ear open: he was torn to pieces with a bear. This avouches the shepherd’s son, who has not only his innocence (which seems much) to justify him, but a handkerchief and rings of his that Paulina knows.
Why would Shakespeare suddenly pull up short and give us this scene by messenger? Because he’s just had a brainstorm — he’s going to bring Hermione back from the dead, and that’s going to be the big splash panel that ends the play, and he wants to make sure nothing distracts the audience’s attention from what he’s about to show them.
And a big splash panel it is too. This blog entry is going to end abruptly because I’m not sure how much I can say about the last scene of the play. There are few scenes in Shakespeare that move me to tears as profoundly as the end of The Winter’s Tale. It is almost enough to make me believe in the concept of grace. It is certainly enough to make me want to.
In three words, Shakespeare has rewritten King Lear and redeemed all the sorrows that ever that old man had felt.
O! she's warm!
and then…. she moves.