The Battle for Feminist Approval: 
Paulina in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

Written by Elizabeth Brunner, 1995,  for English 431 at Cal Poly under Professor Steven Marx

"Feminist criticism, we should remember, is a mode of praxis. The point is not merely to interpret    literature in various ways; the point is to change the world"  -- Patrocinio Schweickart, 1989 (24)

      Feminist criticism explores gender themes in literature, assesses the worth of female characters, promotes unknown women writers, and interprets the canon from a politically-charged perspective. Shakespeare has proven more difficult to categorize than other white male masters of the written word, precisely because of the humanity of his female characters. Critic Kathleen McLuskie urges feminists to "assert the power of resistance, subverting rather than co-opting the domination of the patriarchal Bard" (McLuskie 106). Yet many feminists find strength in Shakespeare. Irene Dash, for instance, proclaims that "Shakespeare's women characters testify to his genius .... they learn the meaning of self sovereignty for a woman in a patriarchal society" (Dash 1). Paulina of The Winter's Tale provides support for Dash's argument. With courage and passion, Paulina defends Hermione against chauvinistic paranoia and enshrines female virtue. 

      Perhaps the best testimony to Paulina's power is the historical reaction of male critics. In 1733, editor Lewis Theobald condemned Paulina as "too gross and blunt" for daring to call the King "downright a Fool" (Dash 135). In 1863, scholar Charles Cowden Clarke whined that Pauline was excessive: "... she does play the tattoo upon his skull with amazing vivacity and after he is down, too .... Paulina cannot forego the gratification of punching him in his maundering distress" (Clarke 356). In 1969, Fitzroy Pyle acknowledged Paulina's "goodness" but applied the label "militant" (Pyle 41).

      With a similar sentiment but more blatantly hostile language, the fictional King Leontes abuses his adversary Paulina with sexist insults. He screams "witch," "crone," and "gross hag" (II. iii. 66,74,106). Amazingly, 377 years after Shakespeare wrote this play, radical-lesbian-feminist-theologian Mary Daly would reclaim Leontes' invectives in her controversial Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Daly re-defines crone as a "survivor of the perpetual witchcraze of patriarchy" and describes hags as "haunting the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women into the Wild" (Daly 114,136). For daring to speak the truth, for refusing to be silenced until her message is conveyed, Paulina receives furious threats from the patriarchal ruler. Neither husband nor King can deter Paulina from her vow to use "that tongue I have"  with "boldness from my bosom" (II.ii.51-53).

      Feminism demands role models who not only critique the system but also prescribe alternatives and take concrete action. After forcing Leontes' to face the brutal result of his jealousy, Paulina assumes behind-the-throne control. Leontes agrees to marry again only with her permission, despite the pressure to produce a heir. As Carol Thomas Neeley describes, Paulina changes from "shrew to wise counselor and engineers the penance that will transform his [Leontes'] tragic actions to a comic conclusion" (Neeley 223). Combining magic with wisdom, Paulina becomes goddess-like by breathing life into the statue of Hermione. Paulina fulfills a multitude of feminist expectations, both action-based and symbolic: she confronts the patriarch, she defends the sisterhood, she speaks for vulnerable children, she memorializes womanhood, she worships the great Goddess Nature, she preserves artistic beauty, she strives for gender reconciliation, and she finally restores balance in the community.

Works Cited

Clarke, Charles Cowden. Shakespeare-Characters; Chiefly those Subordinate. London: Smith & Elder, 1863. Reprinted by AMS Press, NY, 1974. 

Daly, Mary and Jane Caputi. Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987. 

Dash, Irene. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. 

McLuskie, Kathleen. "The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare." Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, editors. London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985. 

Neeley, Carol Thomas. "The Winter's Tale: Women and Issue" (1985).  Reprinted in the Signet Classic Edition of The Winter's Tale. New York: Penguin, 1988. 

Pyle, Fitzroy. The Winter's Tale: A Commentary on the Structure. New York: Routledge & Paul, 1969. 

Schweickart, Patrocinio. "Reading Ourselves." Speaking of Gender. Elaine Showalter, editor.  New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1989. 


 

Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Email: liz@grantproposal.com
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner