Hermione, Queen of Sicily, is the lovely wife of King Leontes and the doting mother of Mamillius and Perdita. After she’s unfairly accused of cheating on her husband, she’s thrown into prison, where she gives birth, prematurely, to a daughter (Perdita). Soon after, she stands trial for adultery and treason, during which we’re told she is dead (3.2.3). Sixteen years later, however, she’s “resurrected” and reunited with her family in one of Shakespeare’s most astonishing scenes (5.3.11).
During the trial, we learn a lot about Hermione’s character. While her jealous husband slings false accusations at her, Hermione remains eloquent and poised as she calmly denies any wrong doing. This is pretty surprising, given that she’s recently given birth to a daughter (in prison) and has been barred from seeing her young son. The news of Mamillius’s death, however, is too much for her to bear – she passes out and, later, we’re told that she’s died of a broken heart (3.2.3).
Literary critic Stephen Orgel reminds us that, over the years, there’s been some speculation that Hermione is a thinly veiled allegory about King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded after being tried and convicted of adultery in 1536. We’re not sure whether or not this is true, but Shakespeare’s portrayal of this unfairly accused character is pretty sympathetic.
When Hermione’s life-like statue, which is supposed to have been created by the artist Giulio Romano, seemingly comes to life in the play’s final act, audiences are usually just as shocked and amazed by the dramatic scene as the characters on stage. (We should also point out that this scene seems to have been inspired by the story of Pygmalion, the artist whose love brought his statue to life in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)
Yet, it’s not entirely clear if Hermione has actually been resurrected by Paulina or if she’s been alive the whole time. On the one hand, it seems like Hermione’s return really could be a miracle, one that’s instigated by the equally miraculous return of Hermione’s long lost daughter, Perdita. On the other hand, we could also argue that Paulina has just stashed Hermione away for sixteen years in order to punish Leontes and orchestrate a big, dramatic moment. There’s evidence to argue either way. So, is Hermione’s return a cheap parlor trick, or is it a moving gesture that speaks to the possibility of second chances and hope for the future?