Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: “Every Man Kills the Thing He Loves”: Object Use and Potential Space in The Winter's Tale
by Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.
August 25, 2005
This essay uses Winnicott's concepts of "object-use" and "potential space" to provide a "reading" of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. The Winter's Tale features fantasized destructiveness in a way that is almost unprecedented in Shakespeare's work. Leontes' attacks against his wife, Hermione, and his attempts to destroy her do not prevent her eventual survival of that destructiveness, as well as her lack of retaliation for her husband's destructive attacks. What Shakespeare presents his audience at the end of the play is a kind of "secular resurrection," a resurrection that stresses the central importance of Hermione's life, her aliveness, as manifested in her warmth and in her breathing. In Winnicott’s terminology, Hermione becomes an object that can be “used,” used to “feed back other-than-me-substance” into those around her, in a “world of shared reality.”.
LEONTES O, she's warm! If this be magic, let it be an art Lawful as eating. (V, iii, 109-11)
The final moments of The Winter's Tale, in which Hermione, wife of King Leontes of Sicily, returns from the dead as a statue-come-to-life, offer audiences of the play an occasion for "wonder" (1974, V.iii.22) that is almost unprecedented in Shakespeare's work. The wonder is at the fact of Hermione's corporeal presence, her aliveness, as expressed in Leontes' amazement at her touch: "O, she's warm!"--warmth, along with breath, being synonymous with life itself. This is one of those "post-Christian" (Bloom, 1998, p.518) moments in Shakespeare's drama, in this case a moment like the death of Cordelia in King Lear, which seems to recall aspects of the Jesus-story, while at the same time insisting on its radical difference: in this instance, as in Lear, on the purely human experience we are witnessing, its happening in this world and in this world alone.
This paper will offer a "reading" of the final scene of The Winter's Tale that is indebted to Winnicott's theory of object-use, where destructiveness leads, provided the object of attack survives (or does not retaliate), to a new kind of psychic clarity, a new appreciation of the object's "value" (Winnicott, 1969, p.90) as part of "a world of shared reality" (1969, p.94). The final scene of the play creates what Michael Eigen has called an "area of faith" (1981, p.109) (appropriately presided over by a character named Paulina), an area in which the audience both on and off the stage is given the opportunity to experience the related qualities of difference and aliveness in Hermione, to experience those qualities against what Winnicott calls "a backcloth of unconscious destruction" (1969, p.94), that "quality of 'always being destroyed' [which] makes the reality of the surviving object felt as such, strengthens the feeling tone, and contributes to object constancy" (1969, p.93). At the end of the play, when viewed from these perspectives, Hermione can be seen as having achieved a kind of strange otherness, to exist in an area beyond her husband's "projective mental mechanisms" (1969, p. 94), outside the "introjection-projection circle" (Eigen, 1981, p.112) created by "object -relating" (Winnicott, 1969, p.89), fully alive in her own right, and fully mortal as well.
In a previous paper, "Jesus and Object-Use: A Winnicottian Account of the Resurrection Myth" (1989), I made a similar argument: that the power of the resurrection story, the story of Jesus' brutal crucifixion and his miraculous survival of, or lack of retaliation for, the attacks leveled against his person, can be accounted for--at least in part--by the ways it reenacts the dialectic of object-use outlined in Winnicott's classic paper. But I want to extend that argument here into the "post-Christian" world of Shakespeare's late plays, a world that shows no split between the human and the divine. The presiding deity inside the world of The Winter's Tale, in fact, is gendered feminine and is associated with biological processes like childbirth and the growth of living things: the "good goddess Nature" (II, iii, 104) or "great creating Nature" (IV, iv, 88). In a way, in its representation of the dialectic, object-relating leading through fantasized destruction to a capacity for object-use, The Winter's Tale offers a kind of revision of the Christian resurrection story, a revision in purely human terms, a new tale (The Winter's Tale) to replace "an old" (V, iii, 118) one that may already be loosing its purchase on the renaissance imagination.1 That The Winter's Tale , and especially its ending, is such an obvious piece of human artifice, such a blatant piece of artistic contrivance, is part of the point: these are the fictions we tell one another, supreme fictions about our human world, requiring what Coleridge, in anticipation of Winnicott's "third area" (1967, p.102) or "potential space" (1967, p.103), famously calls "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, that contributes poetic faith" ( 1983, Vol.II, p.6). By Shakespeare's time theater was where you would turn to find the stories that had the power previously possessed by certain religious narratives and rituals, in the case of The Winter's Tale, the story, among many others, of the resurrection: the miraculous survival of someone--in this case a woman--who was believed to have been destroyed.2
That there is something intentionally self-conscious about all this on Shakespeare's part becomes clearer if one is acquainted with his chief source for the play's plot, Robert Greene's Pandosto. The Triumph of Time. Greene's novel, first published in 1588, is an Elizabethan potboiler about the destructive impact of jealousy. Despite some important changes (there is neither a Paulina nor her husband, Antigonus; Bellaria [Hermione] gives her husband better reasons to be jealous; she does not discover her pregnancy until she is in jail; and other minor details), Shakespeare sticks quite close to Greene's plot until the end of Act III. In Greene' novel the Queen, who had died after her newborn infant was sent out to sea and after the death of her son, remains dead, the victim of her husband's jealous attacks, and the novel ends on a tragicomic note with the marriage of Fawnia (Perdita) and Dorastus (Florizel) and the suicide of the widowed Pandosto (Leontes), who had tried to rape his daughter upon her arrival in his kingdom. For whatever reason, Shakespeare decided to "save" the Queen by introducing a completely new character, Paulina, as Hermione's guardian and the contriver of the new ending. Improbable as it seems, sixteen years pass between the time Hermione appears to die after hearing the news of her son, Mamilius', death and the time of the play's joyful conclusion, when all the living characters at least are brought back to Sicily and reunited with one another. The final scene takes place in Paulina's "gallery" (V, iii, 10) where she promises to unveil a statue of Hermione for Leontes and the others to admire. That statue actually turns out to be Hermione herself. The Queen has somehow survived (it does not pay to ask too many questions about exactly how). More crucially, she does not retaliate against her husband, who has endured sixteen years of grief for what he had done. Shakespeare's revision of Greene's ending to have Hermione survive shows him, wittingly or not, transforming destruction into something that can lead, paradoxically, to positive results, in this case the recognition on Leontes' part of his wife's value as a human being separate from himself and for that reason capable (in Winnicott's words) of "contribut[ing]-in to [him] according to [her] own properties" (1969, p.90) and not the properties he might imagine her to have. From now on, as long as both of them remain alive, she can be "used" (1969, p.93), in Winnicott's sense of that term, of course.
In the remainder of this paper I want to examine more carefully the process leading up to the play's ending, and then I want to examine the ending itself more closely. What I have said so far is only a bare outline, one that needs to be fleshed in through a closer examination of the text itself. Following this introduction, the paper will be divided into three parts. The first will examine the nature and consequences of Leontes' destructiveness through a discussion of the "trial" scene and its aftermath, the death of Mamillius and the beginnings of Leontes' repentance, in Act III. The second examines the aftermath of that repentance, the "new" Hermione who emerges out of Leontes' destructiveness sixteen years after her supposed death, focusing especially on the significance of the breath that appears to issue from her lips and the warmth of her body. And the third deals with the "miracle" that occurs in the play's final moments, the "secular resurrection" (Bloom, p.305) Shakespeare presents to his audience, one centered on a female figure and one that celebrates the sacredness of that figure's life--her mortality--as it is embodied in her warmth and in her breathing.
According to Winnicott's theory of object-use, "there is no anger in the destruction of the object...though there could be said to be joy at the object's survival" (1969, p.93). Winnicott deliberately uses the word "cavalier" to describe the subject's "treatment" (1969, p.89) of the object, "cavalier" meaning offhanded, careless, as men are when mounted on a horse. Leontes' destructiveness springs from a far more complex and tangled source, a fixed belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, in his wife's unfaithfulness and a fundamentally paranoid view of the world. The play even gives its audience insight into the origins of Leontes' madness during his interchange with his son, Mamillius, in Act I (I, ii, 110-166). The presence of Mamillius in the play's opening acts, in fact, serves to open a window backward onto Leontes' own boyhood past, the extreme vulnerability at the root of his later destructive behavior. But the scene in the play where Leontes' destructiveness is most in evidence is that of Hermione's trial. Examining it under the "high power" (1969, p.91) of Winnicott's theory tends to highlight certain aspects of the trial that might not otherwise be noticed. The scene concludes with the King's refusal to countenance Apollo's declaration, through his oracle, of the Queen's innocence, followed immediately by news of Mamillius' death and the collapse and apparent death of Hermione herself. The interesting thing about the trial itself, from the perspective of this discussion, is the interrelationship between Leontes' "actual impulse to destroy" (Winnicott, 1969, p.92) his wife, whom he has already destroyed "in (unconscious) fantasy" (1969, p.90) through his jealousy, and the "quality of externality" (1969, p.93) achieved by Hermione herself before her apparent collapse upon hearing of the demise of her son. Few, if any, female characters in Shakespeare's plays achieve the kind of independence and autonomy that Hermione achieves in this scene by withstanding her husband's verbal attacks (which represent a kind of murder). This is really the paradox at the center of Winnicott's argument in "The Use of an Object": that destructiveness and the achievement of objecthood go together; that they are virtually simultaneous and inseparable, provided, of course, that the object survives (that is to say, does not retaliate).
Hermione's quality of externality is embodied in the three long and profoundly eloquent speeches she gives in her own defense at the trial, speeches that are both logically consistent and rhetorically persuasive. I think it is safe to say that these speeches, coming from a female character, are unprecedented in Shakespeare's work, possibly in any of the literature of the period (compare them to Desdemona's acquiescence in the face of her husband's accusations). They represent something new, as if the play itself were bringing into being the quality of externality it was dramatizing through its representation of Leontes' destructiveness; as if the representation of that destructiveness were somehow inseparable from the new reality it was celebrating--Hermione's independence--and the play was actually doing--or performing--what it was about.
In the first of those speeches, Hermione defends her innocence on the basis of her "past life," which, she says, "hath been as continent, as chaste, as true/As I am now unhappy" (III.ii.33-5). In the second, she defends her behavior with Polixenes as showing a "love" (III.ii.64) entirely appropriate to the situation she was in and her husband's own expressed wishes. (When she tells Leontes after he has interrupted her with further false accusations, "My life stands at the level [aim] of your dreams," he responds, revealing how complete the break between "inner" and "outer" has become for him: "Your actions are my dreams" [III.ii.81-2], in other words, your actions are a confirmation of my own fantasies.) And in the third, in response to her husband's threats of torture and death, she offers reasons why those threats have no impact upon her, since she has already been denied so much. This speech, like the ones that precede it, possesses what Winnicott calls "the feeling of real" (1963a p.188), the feeling that the words that make it up are being spoken by an actual person with an interior life independent of others and completely resistant to the destructive attacks being leveled against her: the greater Hermione's resistance, the more "real" she feels, both to herself and to the audience that responds to her. This may have something to do with Hermione's faith in the "pow'rs divine [that]/Behold our human actions" (III.ii.28-9), a faith that appears to give her the strength to speak as forcefully and frankly as she does, overthrowing the ban placed on womens' speech. True, the things that matter most to her and that, having lost, render her immune to her husband's threats--his "favor" and her connection to her children--relate to her roles as wife and mother. But the firmness of tone bespeaks one who has transcended the limits of those roles and has attained genuine personhood. This is especially evident in the final lines of the speech, beginning with, "But yet hear this--mistake me not" (III.ii.109), where she accuses her husband of arbitrary tyranny3--"'Tis rigor and not law"(iii.ii.114)--invoking principles of universal justice ("law") grounded in "nature," or presided over by the "good goddess Nature" referred to by Paulina earlier in the play. Hermione's final declaration--"Apollo be my judge!" (III.ii.116)--and her wish that her father, "the Emperor of Russia," could see her "misery, yet with eyes/Of pity, not revenge" (III.ii.122-3) stand for the independence and autonomy she has achieved. She can now, in Winnicott's words, "be used" (1969, p.93), be experienced as separate and autonomous, although it will take sixteen years, or whatever sixteen years means in terms of psychic and spiritual growth, for Leontes to learn how to "use" her.
It is Mamillius' death, however, that registers the full impact of Leontes' destructiveness. Among the play's commentators, the philosopher Stanley Cavell is one of the few who have actually taken the death of Mamillius seriously. Cavell locates its significance as satisfying "the father's wish" (1988, p.196) for his son's death, a wish generated out of the scene previously discussed in which he catches Mamillius whispering his tale "of sprites and goblins" into his mother's ear ("Come on then,/ And give't me in mine ear" [II.i.31-2]).4 This would account for the feelings of uncanniness the play generates at the moment the news of Mamillius' death is delivered. The second that Leontes denies the truth of the oracle, a servant enters:
Serv. My lord the King! The King! Leon. What is the business? Serv. 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. Leon. How? gone? Serv. Is dead. Leon. Apollo's angry, and the heavens themselves Do strike at my injustice. [Hermione swoons] (III.ii. 142-47)
As Freud writes: "As soon as something actually happens in our lives to confirm the old, discarded beliefs we get a feeling of the uncanny; it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: 'So, after all, it is true that one can kill a person by the mere wish!'" (1919, p.247-8).
The even deeper significance of Mamillius' death at this point, however, is that it stands for--or takes the place of--the death of Hermione, registering the full impact and seriousness of Leontes' destructive attacks while at the same time allowing her to live. The cause of death is unclear, but it seems to result from some mysterious identification with the Queen's fate ("with mere conceit [thought] and fear/Of the Queen's speed [fortune]" [III,ii. 143-4]).5 This way the death can be looked upon almost as a kind of sacrifice, tragic and redemptive at the same time. For it is at the very moment that he receives the news of his son's death that Leontes awakens from his nightmare of jealousy. Mamillius' death also seems to signal the death of Leontes' own regressive fantasies, those which have their origin in his own boyhood. From now on, instead of recoiling, of being thrust backward or to the back side of things, Leontes is freed to advance, to grow in directions the play finds more natural and celebrates in its pastoral fourth act, its green world where desires are more fully allowed to express themselves. "I have too much believ'd mine own suspicion" (III.ii.151), Leontes confesses, reversing his prior paranoid declaration that "all's true that is mistrusted" (II.i.48), an important step in the separation of what Winnicott calls the "me" from the "not-me" (1971, p.109). This is the moment that "fantasy begins for the individual" (1969, p.90) because it is the moment that "dreams" ("your actions are my dreams") can be distinguished from the exterior world, in what Winnicott calls "the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated" (1953, p.2).
"WOULD YOU NOT DEEM IT BREATH'D"
At the end of The Winter's Tale what appears to be a statue, a work of art, turns out to be a living, that is to say breathing, human being--an even greater work of art still. This transformation is presented by means of another kind of art, the play itself, in which living actors impersonate fictional characters, one of whom (a boy) plays the role of a woman who impersonates the statue of "herself" at the end of the play. This final scene yields a complicated set of paradoxes concerning the relationship between art and life or, in the conventional terms the play uses, "art" and "nature." Art and nature are usually seen in some sort of opposition to one another but they come together at the end of The Winter's Tale in ways that are almost impossible to untangle, yet result for members of the audience in a theatrical moment--the moment of Hermione's awakening--of almost unprecedented pleasure and insight.
Winnicott dramatizes the moment when (to use his terms) a "subject" develops a capacity to use an "object" (1969, p. 89). The "object," of course (like Hermione), has to have survived the subject's attacks, "to be there," as Winnicott puts it in another context, "to receive the spontaneous gesture, and to be pleased" (1963b, p. 76). Then, in a moment of developmental growth playfully rendered by Winnicott,
The subject says to the object: 'I destroyed you', and the object is there
to receive the communication. From now on the subject says: 'Hullo
object!' 'I destroyed you.' 'I love you.' 'You have value for me because
of my survival of my destruction of you.' 'While I am loving you I am
all the time destroying you in (unconscious) fantasy.' (1969, p. 90)
This is where living, for Winnicott, actually begins, living "a life in a world of objects" (p. 90) and not mere screens that mirror the subject's own mental projections, "a world of shared reality." "But the price," Winnicott warns, "has to be paid in the acceptance of ongoing destruction in unconscious fantasy relative to object-relating" (1969, p. 90). That is, once the object is experienced as living "outside the area" of the subject's "projective mental mechanisms" (1969, p. 94) or "omnipotent control" (1969, p. 89), the subject can begin to come to terms with its fantasies of destruction, fantasies inevitably involved in loving another person, to see them as fantasies and even to accept their assistance "in the act of noticing what is there" (1969, p. 90) (by contrast with the projections themselves). This is what is responsible for what Winnicott calls the "quality of 'always being destroyed' [that] makes the reality of the surviving object felt as such, strengthens the feeling tone, and contributes to object constancy." The "as such" here means "as real" or "as itself," and not as some figment of the imagination, some dream. But that reality does have something magical about it, the magical quality of something perceived against "a backcloth of unconscious destruction," perceived, or felt, or however one wants to put it, against "a backcloth" (visualized as a "blackcloth") made possible by the "acceptance" of destructiveness itself, the loss that destructiveness would involve which only makes the finding all the more joyful.
Hermione's "reality" in the play's final scene--the special "feeling tone" that characterizes her metamorphosis from inanimate statue to living human being--depends more than anything upon her breath, her breathing, and the related phenomenon of her warmth. Both, breath and warmth, are outward, if only barely visible, signs of the life that animates her. This vital (literally!) element of the play's ending is first introduced by the third Gentleman in the penultimate scene when he describes the statue of Hermione that will be disclosed to the spectators--Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel, Perdita, Camillo, Paulina, and others--congregating in Paulina's "gallery" (V.iii.10) as
a piece many years in doing, and now newly perform'd by that rare
Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could
put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so
perfectly he is her ape. (V.ii.95-100)
Much debate surrounds Shakespeare's choice of the Italian painter (and possibly sculptor), Julio Romano, as the creator of Hermione's statue, or at least the person who put the finishing touches on it (the paint is supposed to be still drying when the statue is disclosed). "Jupiter saw sculptured and painted statues breathe and earthly buildings made equal to those in heaven by the skill of Julio Romano," Vasari writes in Lives of...Painters (Schanzer, 1987, p. 230). And Shakespeare certainly would have remembered how Sidney's "maker" in the Apology for Poetry shows his supremacy "over all the works of that second [or physical] nature....when with the force of a divine breath he bringeth forth things far surpassing her doings" (1985, p.17). The crux of the third Gentleman's account, however, is its emphasis on the limits of Romano's art: "had he himself eternity, and could put breath into his work, [he] would beguile nature of her custom [drive nature out of business]." Here, through the conditional tense, a crucial distinction is made between an Artist, say, "Nature," who has "eternity....and [can] put breath into his [or her] work," and one, like the human artist, whose resources are more limited, who can almost do it, but not quite. This is Shakespeare's reply to Sidney, his alternative of a living art that will be celebrated in the remainder of the play, as it becomes clear that the statue is no statue at all but Hermione herself, wrinkles and all, more perfect than any statue precisely because she is alive, as is evident in her breathing.
The biblical allusion behind the figure of the breathing statue, of course, is from the second account of creation, Genesis 2:7, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Authorized Version). The Hebrew word for "breath" in this context is neshama, which also means "soul," or the individualized being. Breath and soul are essentially the same thing. This is connected by analogy to the "wind," or ruach, of the opening of the Creation, which gets rendered into the Latin, spiritus (from spirare, "to breathe"), and hence into the English, "breath," from the Old English, braeth, odor, exhalation, as from things cooking or burning, like steam or smoke.6 This etymology reminds us of the interconnectedness between breath and life--and the sacredness of both--that is an essential feature of the Western tradition. (Winnicott himself writes that what he calls the "True Self comes from the aliveness of the body tissues and the working of body functions, including the heart's action and breathing," all of which make up "the experience of aliveness" [1960, p.145].)
The supposed statue of Hermione that is disclosed at the opening of the final scene of The Winter's Tale is made of stone, presumably marble. "Does not the stone rebuke me/For being more stone than it?" (V.iii.37-8), Leontes asks rhetorically, acknowledging the connection between his own previous hard-heartedness and numbing or deadening effect that hard-heartedness had upon his wife. The scene itself is almost the epitome of dramatic irony, as only Paulina knows that the statue of Hermione is actually Hermione herself disguised to look like a statue made of stone and painted to achieve the most realistic effect. This "realism," art's capacity to "mock" (V.iii.19) life with its lifelikeness, is the key to the scene's irony, since the wonder the supposed statue produces in its admirers is actually wonder at the beauty not of an inanimate work of art produced by a human artist, but of a living human being produced by an artistry no human could ever aspire to. This is what makes the question Leontes asks half way through the scene so ironic. Responding to Paulina's threat to "draw the curtain....lest your fancy/May think anon it moves" (V.111.59-61), Leontes wonders, "What was he that did make it?" and then turns to Polixenes and asks, completely unconscious of the meaning of his words, "Would you not deem it breath'd? and that those veins/Did verily bear blood?" (V.iii.63-5), to which Polixenes responds, equally unconscious, "Masterly done!/The very life seems warm upon her lip" (V.iii.65-6). The irony here, which is apparent only to Paulina (and to the members of the audience who have seen the play before) is that the outcome--or, in the play's terms, the "issue"--turns on Leontes' and Polixenes' ignorance of, their blindness to what they are really saying. They (and most members of the audience) think they are referring to a human artist--"What was he that did make it?....Masterly done!"--someone like Sidney's "maker," who "bringeth forth things surpassing [nature's] doings," when in fact (at least within the framework of the play) they are referring to another kind of artist altogether, the "good goddess Nature" or "great creating Nature." There is further irony in the fact that Hermione (not to speak of the actor impersonating her!) is actually breathing (and everything that signifies), that her "veins [do] verily bear blood," and that "the very life [is] warm upon her lip," all signs or tokens that the onlookers take to be manifestations of some human artist's skill but which are in fact the vital signs of "life" itself, something it takes "eternity" to create. This is what Winnicott calls "the substance of illusion" (1953, p. 3), or illusion in the service of truth, a role illusion can play even if that truth is not yet fully realized by those caught in the illusory experience, like the audience of the play itself, seeing and yet not seeing at the same time.
The scene's ironic dimension is further refined when Paulina offers to "afflict [Leontes] farther" (V.iii.75), to cause him more pain than he has hitherto felt at the sight of the woman he believes he has destroyed. Leontes accepts this "affliction" as having "a taste as sweet/As any cordial comfort" (V.iii.76-70), that is, any comfort that warms or invigorates the heart, especially a heart like his that had been turned to stone and is just now softening enough through suffering to receive and be awakened by these impressions. Turning his attention back to the "statue," Leontes remarks with wonder on what still appears to be its breathing, "Still methinks/There is an air comes from her," and then asks significantly, without understanding the full implications of what he is asking, "What fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?" (V.iii.77-9), what human instrument, however precise, could ever give the illusion--the ultimate achievement of the sculptor's powers of realistic representation--of breath itself, which is invisible to the eye? The question is obviously a rhetorical one. It echoes the earlier "What was he that did make it?" and expresses more wonder--even awe--than anything else. Once again, however, it is the answer to the question, of which both Leontes and the members of the audience who identify with him are only dimly aware, that contains the fundamental insight that will make the ending of the play possible: no instrument, however "fine," of purely human making "could ever yet cut breath." This could only be done by processes more mysterious than any human "maker" could ever comprehend, the processes of "great creating Nature" herself, the ultimate "Maker," or presiding deity, in the play's world. Again, the play has presented its audience with a paradox, using its own illusory devices to tease the audience out of thought and into a recognition of something more fundamental than thought normally gives access to, the miraculous nature of life itself, as signified by Hermione's breath, her breathing.
Further clarification of this moment and the centrality of breath in Shakespeare's anthropology is provided by the final moments of King Lear, when the playwright has the old and battered King try several experiments to see if his daughter is still alive. These experiments explicitly identify breath with life and vice versa. "O, [you] are men of stones" (V.iii.58), Lear cries out to the surrounding witnesses as he carries the body of his dead daughter on stage, "statues," in G.K.Hunter's words (1987, p. 309), "silent, frozen-still (in horror), and impermeable by grief." Here the statues are the onlookers, frozen into immobility, an appropriate image of the play's audience itself, as its members look on in helpless dismay at what is taking place on stage. In the first experiment, Lear holds a mirror (probably made of polished stone) up to his dead daughter's lips to see whether, by the mist on the surface, she is breathing or not. "Lend me a looking-glass," he commands, and then explains, "If that her breath will mist or stain the stone/Why then she lives" (V.iii.262-4). Here, in miniature, is an emblem of Shakespeare's own art, one that "hold[s]....a mirror up to nature" (Hamlet III.ii.22) to try to give its audience the opportunity to see indirectly, through the medium of his plays, what otherwise could not be seen directly with the eyes: the invisible breath or "spirit" that animates, that gives life--something of the original breath, perhaps, that Yahweh breathed into the dust of the earth to make it live. Sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, such insight is achieved only by seeing what is not there--the absence of breath, the absence of life only underscoring the preciousness, even the sacredness, of both.
His first experiment having failed, Lear tries another, a feather: "This feather stirs; she lives!" (V.iii.266). Again, the trick is visual, enabling one to see by the movement of an object what cannot be seen directly with one's eyes. But that experiment fails as well, leading to Lear's final, terrible question: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,/And thou no breath at all?" (V.iii.306-7 emphasis mine), where "life" and "breath" are explicitly identified through the metrical structure of the lines themselves. Here, the divide that separates the merely animal ("a dog, a horse, a rat") from the human ("and thou") can almost be felt on the pulses, although it is quite another matter, as the play so amply and horrifyingly demonstrates, to translate that feeling into action, to do something about the insight it affords.
The knowledge that King Lear provides at the end it provides through the medium of tragedy, through the medium of Cordelia's death, her absence of breath, as summed up in Lear's unbearable trochaic line, "Never, never, never, never, never" (V.iii.309), its repetition and falling rhythm virtually embodying the feelings of loss it expresses. As members of the audience, we only come to know the preciousness of Cordelia's life after it has been lost. The knowledge that The Winter's Tale provides at the end, by contrast, it provides through the medium of "romance," working a variation on the conventional dream of the moving statue, to celebrate Hermione's "life" as embodied in her warmth and her breath. The two endings, Lear's and The Winter's Tale's, are, so to speak, two sides of the same coin. Lear ends as the old King dies, apparently imagining he can see some sign of life, some breath issuing from his daughter's lips, visualized perhaps by the accidental movement of the feather--"Look on her! Look her lips./Look there, look there!" (V.iii.311-12). This leaves the audience in an almost unmitigated condition of despair, the only consolation being that, as Kent had put it earlier in the play, "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery" (II.ii.165-6), only those suffering in the lowest and most depressed condition are granted miracles. By contrast, the end of The Winter's Tale provides the "miracle" that the ending of the earlier play deliberately refused its audience, as, presided over by Paulina, and within the "intermediate area" Winnicott, 1953, p. 3) or "potential space" provided by her "gallery," Hermione's statue turns out to be alive after all, turns out to embody the paradox of life itself, that it is absolutely ordinary, yet absolutely miraculous at the same time, all the more miraculous for its ordinariness, its warmth and its breathing.
THE "MIRACLE" AT THE END
For the "miracle" at the end of the play to take place, however, a certain "capacity" must be reawakened, the "capacity to believe," "believe," that is, in the root sense of the word, "to trust, to love." The play calls this "faith" in order to distinguish it from the etymologically newer sense of "belief" that dominates the first half of the action, "belief" having to do with the conviction of certainty which leads to the corrosive skepticism that Stanley Cavell argues is the source of Leontes' destructiveness (1979, p. 481).7 Paulina sets this capacity to believe as the condition for witnessing Hermione's movement, implicitly addressing the audience offstage as well as on:
It is required You do awake your faith. Then, all stand still. Or those that think it is unlawful business I am about, let them depart. (V.iii.94-97)
Here it becomes unavoidable not to confront the significance of Paulina's name, a feminine form of Paul which compliments, in a cross-gendered way, the masculine form of mamilla (or nipple, a diminutive of mamma, the Latin for breast) that Shakespeare used to construct Mamillius' name. Combined with Paulina's reference to "faith," there are unmistakable religious connotations here, even connotations that point to the miracle of the resurrection itself, the central event in the Christian myth, the moment of Jesus' return from the dead.
Stephen Orgel has written that Paulina's reference to "faith" calls attention to "the interrelationships between art, magic, religion and theater [that] form a topos for aesthetic experience in the age" (Orgel, p. 61). But what of the feminization of Saint Paul's name? In a play that has been so self-conscious about developmental questions from the start, a play the world of which is presided over by a feminine deity, "the good goddess Nature," it is difficult not to imagine that this naming does not have some significance. Thinking with Winnicott, I would say that the switch to Paulina is Shakespeare's way of acknowledging that a capacity for "faith" has its roots in the infant's earliest relations with the maternal, the special nature of the infant-mother bond. True, Paulina is not a particularly maternal figure (although she has given birth to three daughters). She is more "priest-like" than anything else. But she is feminine, and her femininity, combined with her almost religious devotion to Hermione, points in the direction of faith's ultimate grounding in the "potential space" between mother and child.
That the play considers that space "sacred" (Winnicott, 1967, p. 103) is vividly dramatized in Hermione's protest against her husband's violation of it during the trial scene when she describes her daughter's abduction:
My third comfort, (Starr'd most unluckily) is from my breast, (The innocent milk in it most innocent mouth) Hal'd out to murther (III.ii.98-101),
a description reminiscent of Lady Macbeth's fantasy of plucking her "nipple [mamilla] from [the] boneless" gums of her imagined infant "while it was smiling in [her] face" and dashing its "brains out" (I.vii.57-8). But there may be other "religious" connotations at work in Shakespeare's evocation of this image as well. As the medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum reminds us, "the affective piety of the high Middle Ages" was often expressed in terms that portrayed Jesus as an explicitly maternal figure. "It was part," she says, "of a growing sense of God as loving and accessible....a more accepting reaction to all natural things, including the physical human body" (1984, p. 129-30). The image of the mother and child, so popular in medieval and renaissance painting, expresses this aspect of the Godhead:
[Since] in medieval medical theory breast milk [was thought to be]
processed blood, what writers of the high Middle Ages wished to say
about Christ the savior who feeds the individual soul with his own
blood was precisely and concisely said in the image of the nursing
mother whose milk is her blood, offered to the child. (p. 132-33)
Shakespeare didn't need to read Bynum in order to suggest connections between a capacity for faith and the infant's bond with the maternal. Winnicott locates these connections in the "third area....that which initially both joins and separates the baby and the mother when the mother's love, displayed or made manifest as human reliability, does in fact give the baby a sense of trust or of confidence" (1967, p. 103), trust or confidence which later develops into a capacity for faith. So, when Paulina requires the spectators both on and off the stage at Hermione's unveiling to "awake [their] faith," what she is really asking them to do is to allow themselves to experience a kind of positive regression back to the trust (hopefully) characteristic of the infant's earliest relation to its environment. This is Winnicott's "relaxed self-realization" (1971, p. 108), which allows certain kinds of miracles to occur.
This particular miracle, of course--in the usual sense of something believed to be of supernatural origin--is no miracle at all, unless one goes back to the root meaning of the word, mirari, "to wonder at." But the play trades on a miracle, the central miracle of the Christian story. Allusions to the resurrection are unmistakable. "Come;/I'll fill your grave up," Paulina says, as Hermione begins to descend from her platform,
Stir; nay, come away; Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him Dear life redeems you. (V.iii.100-4)
And after Hermione has descended and been reunited with Leontes, Paulina gives another hint that it is a version of the resurrection story that is being reenacted here:
That she is living, Were it but told you, should be hooted at Like an old tale. (V.iii.115-17)
What "old tale" she doesn't mention. But the enigmatic centrality of Paulina's remark suggests that it is the "old tale" of Jesus' miraculous triumph over destructiveness, his "return" to life that is central to the Christian religious tradition.
But surely it is the differences between the theatrical moment of Hermione's "resurrection" and reunion with Leontes and the moment in the "old tale" in which Jesus returns from the dead that Shakespeare intends his audience to recognize as well as their similarieties. The first, most obvious of these differences is the substitution of a "female" figure, Hermione, for a "male" one, Jesus, although, as we have seen, in the case of the latter, gender is a rather unstable concept: Jesus' maternal function can be just as important as "his" paternal one (his symbolic role as child is important as well, but it is not relevant in this context, unless we recall Mamillius' sacrificial death). The play's ending, then, by featuring the return from the dead of a maternal figure, Hermione, points to the developmental roots of the resurrection story. It points to that story's origins in the destructive impulses which, when there is survival and lack of retaliation, can result in a new relation toward the object, as something "real" in ways that allow it to "feed back other-than-me substance into the subject," substance, or essential matter, that is genuinely nourishing precisely because it comes from something "outside the area of the subject's omnipotent control," something really "other" because of "the quality of 'always being destroyed'" that makes it available for "use." This speculation is supported by the role Paulina plays at the end, as a figure of mixed gender (Leontes calls her "a mankind witch" [II.iii.67-8] when she tries to persuade him of his wife's innocence earlier in the play), one whose function it is to take Leontes and the members of the audience who identify with him back to an "area of faith," a space from which more genuine growth (the play's primary interest, after all) is possible.
The second major difference between Hermione's "resurrection" and the Jesus story, of course, lies in the fact that Hermione's death never actually occurred, only symbolically with the death of her son and her sixteen-year absence from the play's action. She was "alive" all along (although the play cloaks the precise nature of that aliveness and her whereabouts in mystery), subject to the same laws of "Nature" that every other character in the play is subject to, as is evidenced by the wrinkles Leontes notices on what he takes to be his wife's statue near the end ("But yet, Paulina,/Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing/So aged as this seems" [V.iii.27-9]).
Hermione's "counterfeit" death is comically prefigured in Shakespeare's work by Falstaff's "death" (and "resurrection") in the final act of Henry IV, Part I. There, Falstaff fakes his own death in order to avoid being actually killed by Douglas the Scot. Rising up (the stage directions are explicit: "Falstaff riseth up") after the Prince's vacuous farewell speech, Falstaff uses the occasion to celebrate the basic goodness of life itself, the principle of vitality for which he has stood throughout the entire play:
I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit
of a man who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying when a man
thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life
"The true and perfect image of life indeed": that would be a good way of describing "Hermione" in the final moments of The Winter's Tale, as the embodiment of "life" itself. Somehow you need "art," especially an art the medium of which lies somewhere between the verbal and the sculpted, to represent that "life." You need "art" to produce "life," or the next best thing, a heightened awareness of it that borders on the sublime.
And here is where Paulina's adjective "old" in "like an old tale" begins to carry even more weight. What it implies, of course, is that The Winter's Tale itself is presenting its audience with a "new tale," an unmistakable allusion (if we are willing to think in these terms) to the traditional Christian distinction between the Old and New Testaments. So what is it here that makes the "tale" told in the New Testament of Jesus' death and rebirth "old" in relation to the "new" Winter's Tale, that in effect supplants it, as the figure of "Time" at the opening of the fourth act says that he "shall...do/To th' freshest things now reigning, and make stale/The glistering of this present as my tale/Now seems to it" (IV.i.12-15)? What is new, of course, is the stress the final scene places on Hermione's bodily aliveness, in effect, her mortal, not her immortal, nature. It is mortalness that is miraculous here, not immortality. This it does through its emphasis on the "miracle" of her breath, her breathing, and the bodily warmth that is inseparable from those functions, "the aliveness of the body tissues and the working of body functions, including the heart's action and breathing." This is what makes the moment when Leontes and Hermione touch hands for the first time in sixteen years so miraculous, because in feeling her warmth, he is feeling "dear life" itself:
O, she's warm! If this be magic, let it be an art Lawful as eating. (V.iii.109-11)
And it seems appropriate that the play, as interested as it is in growth, in giving its audience the opportunity to grow along with its characters, should (almost) end with an allusion to that most primary of all human activities, eating and nourishment, with all its eucharistic connotations as well (back to Mamillius' name!).8 But then that is how the play itself has been feeding back "other-than-me substance" into its audience all along, culminating in its great celebration of human aliveness embodied by the figure of Hermione at the end--how it has been asking to be "used."
1 For a complimentary discussion of this topic see, Julia Reinhard Lupton, The Afterlives of the Saints (Stanford, Stanford UP, 1996), which concludes with a chapter on The Winter's Tale.
2 This was, in fact, a common motif in the plays of the period. "The 'coming to life' (or resurrection) of a person who had been thought dead occurs in over one hundred plays of Shakespeare's age" (Sokol, 1994, p. 160).
3 Cf. Stephen Orgel's observation in his "Introduction" to the recent Oxford edition of The Winter's Tale: "Hermione's trial is the mirror of a critical moment in English history. The idea of a queen charged with adultery and treason on trial for her life would still have had considerable resonance in the England of 1610--so much resonance, indeed, that in Shakespeare's drama about the romance of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, its tragic conclusion cannot be so much as hinted at" (Orgel, p. 29). Freud's epithet, "His Majesty the Baby," (1914, p. 91) seems relevant in this context.
4 "If the story of Oedipus is somewhere behind Leontes and Mamillius, it is a version of the story in which Laius wins" (Orgel, 1996, p. 34).
5 Cf. Richard Wheeler's perceptive observation: "Mamillius is the real victim of the assault on Hermione that takes place within the sphere of Leontes' destructive omnipotence; Mamillius dies when he is deprived of the essential maternal presence Leontes destroys in fantasy. The loss of Mamillius in the actual world confirms its independent existence...." (1981. p. 217).
6 The OED reminds its readers to compare this to the Sanskrit, atman, meaning soul or self, which is believed to originate from the root an, "to breathe."
7 The OED offers some interesting insight into the tangled history of these two words that is relevant to the ways the play uses them: "Belief was the earlier word for what is now commonly called faith. The latter originally meant in Eng. (as in OFrench) 'loyalty to a person to whom one is bound by a promise or duty, or one's promise or duty itself,' as in 'to keep faith, to break faith,'...but the word faith being, through OF. fei, eeith, the etymological representative of the Latin fides, it began in the 14th century to translate the latter and in the course of time almost superceded 'belief,' esp. in theological language, leaving 'belief' in great measure to the merely intellectual process or state...Thus 'belief in God' no longer means as much as 'faith in God.'" ("Belief")
8 "It is fitting that Leontes, as he clasps Hermione's hand....characterizes his reunion with her in terms of the most primitive, elemental human activity, begun at the mother's breast." (Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare [Berkeley: U of California Press, 1981] 219).
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Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Brooke Hopkins, Ph.D.