The Queen of Kings: The Protrayal of Female Authority in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare appears to be the story of one king’s unfounded and paranoid descent into madness. However, the New York City Pearl Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare looks into this psychological instability and seeks to identify its catalysts as they relate to the plot, one of the less obvious ones being the rivalry that exists between males and females when assuming positions of power. Solely through reading the text, this conflict would not be so easily recognized. The casting and staging of this production intentionally highlight this contention and breathes a strong, feminine life into the discourse of The Winter’s Tale that a reader cannot conjure up just in his or her mind’s eye. Despite only having 3 women in a cast of 10(all of whom assume the parts of multiple female characters over the course of the play), this trio of ladies command the attention of the audience, take ownership of the stage, and deliver lines in ways that not all male characters of The Winter’s Tale can seem to achieve. The portrayal of the character of the maid Paulina in Act II Scene III of The Winter’s Tale, and her interaction with King Leontes of Sicilia sets this rivalry at the forefront of the stage and serves as a universal example of this trend that fuels the conflict of The Winter’s Tale.  It both represents Leontes’ insecurity stemming from his inability to be an authoritative and influential male monarch, and the ability of a female figure to be both matronly and kind, but also naturally authoritative and influential in ways that men, try as they might, cannot seem to master the nature and nurture of.

Act II Scene III literally brings conflict to the stage, as the handmaid of the banished Queen Hermione, Paulina, comes bearing a swaddled baby in her arms with the intentions of presenting it to King Leontes, in the hopes that seeing his own likeness in the infant will convince him that his wife has not committed adultery with and given birth to the child of his brother king, Polexinus. Determined and aggressive, she storms in from stage left, in contrast with the soft and meek existence of this newborn child she holds, and makes a beeline for the dazed and confused Leontes, who does not expect her arrival. Paulina’s strong footsteps and instant, authoritative pursuit of king Leontes puts her in a position of power over the course of her performance, she literally stalks him down the stage until he has moved from center stage to stage right and she has assumed his spot in the middle. Leontes, dressed in a ratty, dirty grey sweater, with greying hair and in a physical and mental condition of disarray, cannot seem to hold himself together while Paulina, essentially, gives him a piece of her mind. Although taller than her, and of a higher social class than her as king, Leontes’ presence cannot seem to counteract that of this small maid with a strong- will and sharp wit, cradling a baby girl. The baby in her arms would make her appear vulnerable and weak in comparison to a king, but Paulina’s expertise in clever rhetoric, like that of her queen, serves as armor against a king who finds no success in words, but instead entreats Paulina’s own husband, Antigonus, to seize her and have her burned at the stake for committing treason against him in the queen’s defense.

However, earlier on in The Winter’s Tale, Antigonus himself admits that when it comes to women, men don’t stand a chance against their word and authority. This statement is met with polite conversational chuckles at the dinner party, but both the men and women of The Winter’s Tale know that it is not so much in jest, but truth, that this conclusion is made. In response to her arsonous fate, Paulina responds:

 

I care not:

It is an heretic that makes the fire,

Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant;

But this most cruel usage of your queen,

Not able to produce more accusation

Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours

Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,

Yea, scandalous to the world(II. III. 114- 119).

 

She has no reservations whatsoever about telling King Leontes off, and she does so with gusto, as the audience could see spit flying from her mouth as she faced him and let him have it. Here in Act II, Scene III, Paulina very cleverly tells Leontes that he is tyrant who is cruelly abusing his wife for no better reasoning than the nonsensical, fantastical, untrue ideas that he has made up in his own mind. She doesn’t even care if she gets burned at the stake for it, because this whole problem of his wife cheating on him is something that was his own creation, that he made up in his own mind, so if she dies, that is due to his choices, not her own. She says it, and she gets away with it too, as she never explicitly says to Leontes “You are a tyrant”. Instead she presents to him a real- life example that alludes to the idea of his heretical, tyrannical ways. In contrast, Leontes is not skilled enough to deliver subliminal messages in his speech, and instead relies on direct discourse and physical violence when he calls her “a mankind witch… a nest of traitors… a callact of boundless tongue” and a “gross hag” and says he’ll have her burnt(210- 213). A considerable amount of Leontes’ insecurity in The Winter’s Tale stems from his in inability to deliver speeches or words of authority and substance in the same way that his wife can- Hermonie and other female characters in both the text and production tend to overshadow Leontes with they type of words they choose to say and how they say them. In Act II scene III, Paulina overshadows Leontes and gets away with it with the Shakespearian equivalent of a rap- battle *mic drop* as she advises the king to “look to his babe” and lays the baby on stage and simply walks away, uncaptured, unburned and unscathed.

Not only do Paulina and the other women of The Winter’s Tale show up the men with their language skills and their no- nonsense, business oriented demeanors, but they also are effortlessly able to be both maternal and caring while they establish authority. Paulina reveals her instinctually female abilities through being the queen’s main confidant and being entrusted with the child- she is the kind of female that you could trust to be your child’s babysitter, but you could also trust to tell- off the school bully. It so just happens that her stage presence is one that cannot be ignored. Leontes however, spends much of the play being cast aside and upstaged, and he is so poor a parent and nurturer that he cannot even bring himself to look at this small baby girl who manages to intimidate him simply by existing. Men are supposed to naturally assert dominance and have authority- it is their “nature”. To be a kind and compassionate father, that is the nurture, which men have to practice in order to be able to perform, it is not instinct. Leontes does not concern himself with the nature of the female sex, and instead concerns himself with become the ideal male monarch who burns heretics at the stake and uses his nature to achieve power. It’s a running joke that men are bad with words but good with their fists- Leontes attempts to do that much, but cannot even succeed. He is so wrapped up in this ideal of the “perfect king”, which does not really exist. Meanwhile, Paulina is able to embody both the nature and the nurturing aspects of both genders, and that is what makes her more powerful than any man she encounters in The Winter’s Tale. In a way, she is that ideal man, and is even better than the ideal monarch, but she does it all as a woman.

This idea of the power super- woman that can do everything a man can do, but even better can be seen in 21st century New York City’s business scene. If you walk down Wall Street, you’ll see women in structured business suits and patent leather heels, suitcases and files on hand, strutting down the sidewalk ready to go into a conference room and steal the show. They can do everything- pitch ideas, sell a product, bring in revenue, and even withstand an entire day of standing and walking in high heels. Men in the business world are intimidated  by these women who come into a male- dominated workforce, and can do everything they do and bring in a feminine touch without minimizing their authority. And at the end of the day, these very same women take off their heels, pull a pair of flats out of the purse, slip them on and take the train home to their families, their kids and their domestic lives. On the daily, these women assume the two roles- the prowess of the nature, and love of the nurture, mastering both for a living. Meanwhile, the stereotype stands that a father can work in the office, but can’t even put their preschool daughter’s hair into two pigtails or make their lunch. The ability of women to be gentle and nurturing does not diminish their authority as leaders, but rather enriches it is they embody the ideals that many men find difficulty embodying.

The Winter’s Tale, which could be seen as a story about how a man struggles to establish his manliness in a male- dominated world, in fact can also be seen as a story of how women can assert both their femininity and masculinity in a male- dominated world and are able to take charge, right under the noses of the very men they work for. Women are just doing what they do, and men, who attempt to nature more than nurture, recognize this as a threat and thus this rivalry of authority is born. The question I now raise is, is our society filled with  Leonteses who create conflict where in fact there is one, because it is certainly filled with many Paulinas willing to call them out.

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