Today, the Book Princess talks about women’s power to avert tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays:
In most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the women are usually passive or barely present – it is the men who act, often foolishly and destructively, but acting nonetheless. Women like Desdemona and Ophelia fail to fight injustice towards themselves until it is too late, and even Juliet, who does have some agency, chooses not to fight her parents and her society by making her relationship with Romeo public until it is too late.
When women are active in the tragedies, their power is usually destructive, seducing the men away from the proper course – Lady Macbeth berates her husband for not wanting to betray and kill his king for his own ambition, telling him, “yet do I fear thy nature;/It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness”(Macbeth, 1.5.16-17), convincing him kindness and loyalty is weakness and thus unmanly; Cleopatra convinces Antony to stay with her for love, not to do his duty in Rome, and thus allows the politics of Rome to destroy both of them. Hamlet, berating himself for inaction, compares himself to “a whore [who] unpack[s] my heart with words” (Hamlet, 2.2.585), telling us that he believes that women’s power, if they have any such, only lies in their words, and that he, a man, should be an actor, a doer.
It is almost exclusively in the comedies where women have power – even the part of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is powerful follows comic patterns, until the duel that turned it into tragedy, and Lady Macbeth, after her moment of evil persuasion, goes mad and loses even the power to know her own mind. As we’ve discussed before, it is only in the comedies that women dress as men, freeing them to flout societal norms, to be themselves and shape events for good and happiness. But comic rhythms are different, so one might dismiss the relationship between powerful women and averted tragedy in most of these cases. There is one comedy, However, A Winter’s Tale, in which I think it is fair to say that a woman with power is the primary cause of averted tragedy.
A Winter’s Tale begins with a condensed and slightly modified version of Othello – Leontes becomes convinced his wife Hermione is unfaithful to him with his friend Polixenes and, burning with jealousy, Leontes decides to kill her (though he convinces himself it is just). Unlike Othello and Desdemona, however, Leontes and Hermione have a son, and Hermione is expecting a second child. Hermione, sent to prison for a crime she did not commit – though she argued her innocence eloquently – has a baby girl, and her friend Paulina brings the child to Leontes, hoping he will relent, but he rejects the baby, saying she isn’t his. Paulina does not listen quietly. Though he is the king, though he is ignoring logic, mad with jealousy, and might do anything to her, she tells him exactly what she thinks of what he is doing, saying,
It is a heretic who makes the fire,
Not she who burns in’t. I’ll not call thee tyrant;
but this cruel usage of your queen
(Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hing’d fancy) something savors
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world. (AWinter’s Tale, 2.3.115-121)
Leontes forces her out, and, despite her words, sends a man to leave the child to die – then he rejects the oracle’s announcement of Hermione’s innocence and would have sentenced her to death, but for the news that his son had died for fear of his mother’s fate, which sent Hermione into a swoon.
Thus far, tragedy – but again, Paulina steps in. She tells Leontes that Hermione is dead and that it is his fault, not allowing his attendant lords to coddle him – he accepts her rebuke and accepts her counsel. Sixteen years later, the lost child, Perdita, makes her way back to them, and when her identity is revealed, Paulina unveils the living Hermione, whom she had hidden until some forgiveness were possible – when Hermione’s child was restored. While an unusual comedy, it is without a doubt Paulina’s presence that saved this play from tragedy – it is women’s voices that redeem this play.
Sometimes circumstance creates tragedy – sometimes people do. But it is only when individuals, particularly women, stand up against the force of tragedy for what they know to be right, that tragedy has a hope of being overcome.