Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Gender

By William Shakespeare

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Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak you. (1.2.5)

Here, Leontes asks Hermione (who has been silent up to this point in the scene) to weigh in on the conversation about whether or not Polixenes will remain in Sicily. At the same time Leontes invites his wife to speak up, he seems to be also complaining that Hermione hasn’t done enough to help convince Polixenes to extend his visit. We can also detect a note of sarcasm in this line. By pointing out Hermione’s “tongue-tied” silence, Leontes implies that, ordinarily, Hermione (and all other women) speak too much. In the play, we see that the exact opposite is true of Hermione, who speaks with eloquence and grace, especially when she defends herself at her trial in Act 3.

Thou want'st a rough pash and the shoots that I have,
To be full like me: yet they say we are
Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
That will say anything but were they false
As o'er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false
As dice are to be wish'd by one that fixes
No bourn 'twixt his and mine, yet were it true
To say this boy were like me. (1.2.13)

We discuss this passage in “Jealousy” but it’s worth mentioning here also. As Leontes considers whether or not Mamillius looks like him (and whether or not he’s actually Mamillius’s biological father), he reveals a misogynist attitude toward women. According to Leontes, women “will say anything,” meaning, women are all liars. It seems that Leontes's distrust of women can partially explain why he’s so quick to suspect that the lovely and ever-faithful Hermione is cheating on him.

It’s also important to note that Leontes's obsessive fear that Mamillius (who looks exactly like him) may not be his biological son is a pretty common theme in Renaissance literature, especially Shakespeare’s writing. Because Shakespeare’s world was a patrilineal society (a man’s wealth and titles always passed down to his eldest son), it was important for men to have legitimate heirs. The problem, as Leontes points out throughout the first Act, is that a man has no way of knowing for certain whether or not he’s a child’s biological father. (Something we often forget in an age of DNA testing.) This anxiety about paternity goes a long way to explain the kind of obsessive fears of cuckoldry (being cheated on by one’s wife) we see throughout The Winter’s Tale and Shakespeare’s larger body of work.

We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly 'not guilty;' the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours. (1.2.10)

When Polixenes describes his childhood friendship with Leontes, he emphasizes their purity and innocence by suggesting that they seemed exempt from the charge of original sin (the religious doctrine that says all human beings are born tainted because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden). In other words, Polixenes implies that he and Leontes were two innocent “lambs” until they grew up and became interested in women and sex. While Hermione finds this whole idea amusing (she laughs and jokingly says “your queen and I are devils”), Polixenes’s suggestion that women are the root of man’s loss of innocence echoes throughout the first three acts of the play, where Leontes unjustly punishes his wife for a sexual crime she hasn’t committed. If you want to think about this some more, check out our discussion of this passage in the context of “Jealousy.”

There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: (1.2.18)

Once Leontes gets it into his mind that Hermione is sleeping with Polixenes and carrying the man’s love child, he insists that, historically, cheating wives are an all-too-common problem. What’s interesting about this passage is Leontes's crude metaphor, which links a woman’s vagina with a private “pond” that can be “fish’d” by any man with a pole.

My wife's a hobby-horse, deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench that puts to
Before her troth-plight: say't and justify't. (1.2.28)

When Leontes crudely calls his wife a “hobby-horse,” he suggests that she’s like an animal that can be mounted and ridden by men. Not only that, but he compares her, in a derogatory way, to a “flax-wench” (a low-class girl who works with flax), which suggests that Leontes believes sexual promiscuity can make a queen as lowly as a commoner. This helps to explain why Leontes feels justified in locking the queen away in prison, which further strips her of dignity.

Give me the boy: I am glad you did not nurse him:
Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you
Have too much blood in him. (2.1.3)

When Leontes seizes Mamillius from his mother, he declares that’s he’s glad his son had a wet-nurse because Mamillius is already too much like his mother. Say what!? Leontes (like Shakespeare’s contemporaries) believes that breast milk can transmit a nursing woman’s traits and characteristics to an infant. (We’re not kidding. There are even sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advice books about how to choose the best wet-nurse so your kid doesn’t grow up to be a loser.) Mamillius, whose name is derived from the word “mamma” (meaning “breast” in Latin”), is closely linked with his mother and a woman’s capacity to nurture children in general. (Makes sense, given that young Mamillius spends most of his time with Mama Hermione and her ladies in waiting.) Because he believes Hermione has cheated on him, Leontes can’t stand the idea of Mamillius being close to his mother or similar to Hermione in any way. Check out our “Character Analysis” of Mamillius if you want to think about this some more.

The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
I do give lost; for I do feel it gone,
But know not how it went. My second joy
And first-fruits of my body, from his presence
I am barr'd, like one infectious. My third comfort
Starr'd most unluckily, is from my breast,
The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,
Haled out to murder: myself on every post
Proclaimed a strumpet: with immodest hatred
The child-bed privilege denied, which 'longs
To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried
Here to this place, i' the open air, before
I have got strength of limit. (3.2.5)

Hermione points out the injustices she’s suffered as a woman grossly abused by her jealous husband: she’s lost her position as queen, she’s been rejected by her husband, she’s been barred from seeing her first-born child (Mamillius), and her second-born child (Perdita) has been torn from her breast and is probably dead. What’s more, Hermione wasn’t even given the “childbed privilege” (she wasn’t allowed to rest and recuperate in private after giving birth).

History Snack: The “child-bed" privilege is also called a “lying in” period. It refers to a mother’s right to rest and recuperate in seclusion (only her closest women friends, relatives, and servants were allowed to hang out in her private chamber) after giving birth. This was a huge deal in Shakespeare’s England, especially given the fact that people thought outside air was harmful to mothers who had just delivered babies. The fact that Leontes allows Hermione to deliver her baby in prison and deprives her of her lying-in period speaks to Leontes's brutality.

A callat
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me! (2.3.13)

Leontes is outraged when Paulina stands up to him and insists that he acknowledge his newborn child (Perdita). In this scene, he calls Paulina a “callat” (a scold and/or a whore) and accuses her of brow-beating her husband (Antigonus). Elsewhere, Leontes calls her a “man-witch” and accuses her of hen-pecking Antigonus (2.3.10). The abuse Leontes heaps on Paulina is in keeping with an all-too-common Renaissance notion about women – those that talk “too much” are monsters that abuse their husbands and invert proper gender relations (wives were supposed to be quiet and obedient to their men). This attitude can also be seen in plays like The Taming of the Shrew, where Katherine Minola is repeatedly accused of being a scold. Compare this passage to 1.2.5 (above), where Leontes makes a similar comment about his wife.

A gross hag
And, lozel, thou art worthy to be hang'd,
That wilt not stay her tongue.
Hang all the husbands
That cannot do that feat, you'll leave yourself
Hardly one subject. (2.3.13)

Oh, look, Leontes is bashing women again. Here, he calls Paulina a “hag” for being loyal to Hermione and for refusing to pipe down when Leontes orders her to be quiet. What’s interesting about this passage is the way Leontes also attacks Antigonus’s masculinity. Because he can’t keep his wife under control, so to speak, Leontes says he should be “hang’d.” Antigonus’s response isn’t much better. He implies that Leontes is going to have to hang all the husbands in kingdom because all the women are so out of control in Sicily. Whatever, guys.

First Lord
Say no more:
Howe'er the business goes, you have made fault
I' the boldness of your speech.
I am sorry for't:
All faults I make, when I shall come to know them,
I do repent. Alas! I have show'd too much
The rashness of a woman: he is touch'd
To the noble heart. What's gone and what's past help
Should be past grief: do not receive affliction
At my petition; I beseech you, rather
Let me be punish'd, that have minded you
Of what you should forget. Now, good my liege
Sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman:
The love I bore your queen--lo, fool again!--
I'll speak of her no more, nor of your children;
I'll not remember you of my own lord,
Who is lost too: take your patience to you,
And I'll say nothing. (3.2.5)

Even after Leontes repents for causing the death of his wife and son, it seems like Paulina goes out of her way to constantly remind Leontes of what he’s done. After a lord chastises her for reminding Leontes that Hermione is dead, Paulina says something like, “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry. Please forgive me for being such a foolish and big-mouthed woman. I didn’t mean to remind you that you basically killed your wife and both your kids.” Is she serious? We don’t think so. We think she’s being sarcastic, especially given that Leontes has made such a big deal about mouthy women throughout the first two acts of the play. What’s more, Paulina’s mock apology seems like another excuse to torture Leontes by reminding him, again, that he’s caused the deaths of his family members. That said, we’ve seen some actresses play this scene straight, so one could make the case that Paulina’s sincerely sorry about being such a “foolish woman.” In other words, while Polixenes and Hermione are engaging in friendly banter, there’s a very dark subtext to be found in their conversation.

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