David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scenes 1-2

— 2.1 —

In a room in King Leontes’ palace, Queen Hermione; her son, Mamillius; and some ladies were present.

Playfully, Queen Hermione said to the first lady, “Take the boy. He so pesters me that I can’t endure it.”

The first lady said to Mamillius, “Come, my gracious lord, shall I be your playfellow?”

“No, I’ll have nothing to do with you.”

“Why not, my sweet lord?”

“You’ll kiss me hard and speak to me as if I were still a baby,” he replied.

He then said to the second lady, “I love you better than I love her.”

“Why, my lord?” she asked.

“Not because your brows are blacker,” he said, “yet black brows, they say, become some women best, as long as there is not too much hair there, but only a semicircle or a half-Moon made with a pen.”

“Who taught you this?” the second lady asked.

“I learnt it from women’s faces,” Mamillius replied. “Please, tell me what color are your eyebrows?”

The first lady replied, “Blue, my lord.”

“No, that’s a joke,” Mamillius said. “I have seen a lady who had a blue nose, but not blue eyebrows.”

“Listen,” the first lady said. “The belly of the Queen your mother grows round quickly. She is pregnant, and we ladies shall soon present our services to a fine new boy or girl one of these days; and then you will want to play with us, if we will let you.”

The second lady said, “The Queen’s belly has grown recently into a good size. May the childbirth go well!”

“What are you talking about?” Hermione asked the ladies.

She then said to her son, “Come, sir, I am ready now for you again. Please, sit by me and tell me a tale.”

“Shall the tale be merry or sad?” Mamillius asked.

“As merry as you want,” Hermione replied.

“A sad tale’s best for winter. I have a tale about ghosts and goblins.”

“Let’s hear that, good sir,” Hermione said. “Come on, sit down. Come on, and do your best to frighten me with your ghosts. You’re good at it.”

“There was once a man —”

Hermione said to Mamillius, “Come, sit down; then go on with your story.”

“He dwelt by a churchyard. I will tell it softly; yonder crickets shall not hear it.”

The “crickets” were the ladies, who were chirping — talking — among themselves.

“Come on, then,” Hermione said, “and whisper it in my ear.”

King Leontes entered the room. With him were his advisor Antigonus, some other lords, and some attendants.

“Was King Polixenes seen there?” King Leontes asked. “Was his entourage? Was Camillo with him?”

The first lord said, “I saw them behind the grove of pines; never have I seen men hurry so on their way. I watched them until they reached their ships.”

“How blessed am I in my just censure, in my true opinion!” King Leontes said. “All my suspicions are justified. But I wish that I had lesser knowledge! How accursed I am by being so blessed with knowledge! I would be much happier if I did not know what I know.

“A spider may be steeped in a cup, and one may drink, depart, and yet suffer from no venom, for the drinker’s knowledge is not infected, but if one should show the spider to the drinker and make known to him what he has drunk, then the drinker vomits, and his sides heave violently.

“I have drunk, and I have seenthe spider.

“Camillo was King Polixenes’ accomplice in this; he was his pander. There is a plot against my life and my crown. All’s true that I mistrusted — all that I suspected is true. That false villain — Camillo! — whom I employed was pre-employed by King Polixenes. Camillo has revealed to King Polixenes what I learned, and I remain a tortured thing. Yes, I am a counter in a game for them to manipulate at will.

“How is it that the back gates were opened to them so easily?”

“They opened because of Camillo’s great authority,” the first lord said. “They open at Camillo’s orders no less than at your orders.”

“I know that to be true only too well,” King Leontes replied.

He said to Queen Hermione, “Give me the boy, our son. I am glad you did not breastfeed him. Although he bears some signs of me, yet you have too much blood in him.”

“What is this?” Hermione asked. “Some kind of game or joke?”

“Take the boy away,” King Leontes ordered. “He shall not come into her presence. Take him away! Let her entertain herself with the child that is now swelling her belly.”

He said to Queen Hermione, “King Polixenes has made your belly swell up like this.”

Thinking still that this must be some kind of game or joke, Hermione replied, “But I say that he did not, and I will be sworn that you will believe what I say, no matter how much you might be leaning to the wrong belief.”

Swearing and saying are different. Hermione at this time believed that if she merely said something without swearing to it that her husband would believe her.

King Leontes said, “My lords, look at her. Look at her carefully. If you were to be about to say, ‘She is a good lady,’ the justice of your hearts would add, ‘It is a pity she is not honest and honorable.’

“Praise her only for her exterior form and beauty, which truly deserve high praise, and immediately will come the shrug, the hum, aka hmm, or ha, these hints of deficiency that the voice of defamation uses — oh, I am mistaken because I should have said that the voice of mercy uses because the voice of defamation will sear virtue itself. Mercy requires you to use these shrugs, these hums and ha’s, after you say, ‘She’s beautiful,’ but before you can say, ‘She’s honest and chaste.’ Mercy does not want to say the truth openly and clearly. But let it be known from the man who has the most reason to grieve the truth — Queen Hermione is an adulteress.”

“Should a villain say that I am an adulteress,” Hermione said, “even if he were the most complete villain in the world, his saying this would make him twice the villain he was. You, my lord, are mistaken.”

“You are mistaken,” King Leontes replied. “My lady, you have mistaken King Polixenes for King Leontes! You thing! I will not call a creature of your place the word that you ought to be called —”

He thought, Whore!

“— lest uncivilized people, making me the precedent, should use such language to refer to people of all social classes and neglect to make a civilized distinction between a Prince and a beggar.”

He said to the other adults in the room, “I have said that she’s an adulteress. I have said with whom. In addition, she’s a traitor and Camillo is her accomplice. Camillo is a man who knows what she ought to be ashamed of, even if it were known only by her most vile principal, King Polixenes — she’s a bed-swerver and adulteress. She is even as bad as those whom vulgar people give the nastiest names, yes, and she knew in advance about King Polixenes’ and Camillo’s recent escape from me.”

“No, I swear by my life,” Hermione said, “I know nothing about any of this. After you have come to clearer and true knowledge, you will be grieved because you have thus accused me in public! My good lord, when you say then that you were mistaken now, it shall scarcely fully make up for this accusation.”

“You are wrong that I am mistaken,” King Leontes said. “If I am mistaken in those foundations that I build upon, then the entire Earth is not big enough to bear the weight of a schoolboy’s toy top.”

He said to his attendants, “Take her away! Take her to prison! Anyone who will speak up for her is himself implicitly guilty because he is speaking up for her.”

“Some ill planet is reigning now and casting bad astrological influences,” Hermione said. “I must be patient until the Heavens look at me more favorably.

“My good lords, I am not prone to weeping, as women commonly are. The lack of such useless dew perhaps shall make you lack pity for me, but I have lodged here in my heart honorable grief that burns worse than tears drown. I ask you all, my lords, to judge me as your benevolent tendencies shall best instruct you. Now let the King’s will be performed!”

No one had moved to take Hermione to prison because no one believed that she was guilty of adultery and everyone was impressed by her dignity.

 King Leontes asked, “Shall I be obeyed?”

“Who is it who goes with me?” Hermione asked. She was soon to give birth, and so she needed attendants to take care of her.

She asked her husband, “Please, your Highness, allow my women attendants to be with me; for as you can see my plight requires it.”

She said to her servants, “Do not weep, good fools; there is no cause for weeping. If you should know that your mistress has ever deserved prison, then you may abound in tears as the truth about me comes out. But right now this imprisonment I go to is for my better grace. I shall gain spiritual rewards by suffering.”

Adieu, my lord. I never wished to see you sorry; now I trust I shall.

“My women, come; you have permission to go with me.”

King Leontes ordered his attendants, “Go, do our bidding; take her away!”

Hermione, guarded, exited with her female attendants.

The first lord said, “I beg your Highness, call the Queen back again.”

Antigonus, a lord and advisor who was married to Paulina, one of Queen Hermione’s confidants, said to King Leontes, “Be certain that you are doing the right thing, sir, lest your justice result in violence, in which case three great ones will suffer: yourself, your Queen, and your son.”

The first lord said, “For Queen Hermione, my lord, I dare to lay my life down and I will do it, sir, if it pleases you to accept it. I swear that the Queen is spotless in the eyes of Heaven and to you — I mean that she is innocent of this adultery that you accuse her of.”

Antigonus said, “If it should be proved that Queen Hermione is guilty of adultery, I will watch where I lodge my wife — as I keep my mares away from stallions, I will keep my wife away from men. I’ll go about with a leash tied to her so that I can keep an eye on her. I will trust her no farther than I can feel and see her because every inch of every woman in the world — indeed, every gram of every woman’s flesh — is false, if Queen Hermione is false and an adulteress.”

“Be quiet, everyone!” King Leontes ordered.

The first lord began, “My good lord —”

Antigonus interrupted and said to King Leontes, “It is for you we speak, not for ourselves. Some manipulator who will be damned for misleading you has abused you. I wish that I knew who the villain is — I would make his life on Earth a living Hell!

“If Queen Hermione is honor-flawed, I know what I will do. I have three daughters; the eldest is eleven years old, and the second and the third are nine and about five years old. If it is true that Queen Hermione is an adulteress, they’ll pay for it, I swear. I’ll sterilize all my daughters. By age fourteen, they shall not be able to give birth to bastards. My daughters are co-heirs; I have no sons and so my daughters will inherit and share my possessions. I would rather sterilize myself and remove all chance of my ever having sons than to allow my daughters to give birth to bastards.”

“Stop talking,” King Leontes ordered Antigonus. “I want to hear no more. You smell this business with a sense as cold as a dead man’s nose, but I see it and feel it as you feel me doing this” — here King Leontes grabbed and pulled Antigonus’ beard — “and as you see my fingers.”

Antigonus replied, “If it is true that Queen Hermione is an adulteress, we need no grave in which to bury honesty and chasteness because there’s not a grain of it left to sweeten the face of the whole dungy earth.”

“What!” King Leontes said. “You do not believe me! Do I lack credit?”

The first lord said, “I swear upon this ground that I would prefer that you lacked credit than I, my lord. You say that Queen Hermione is guilty; I say that she is innocent. It would please me better to have her honor proved true than your suspicion, no matter how you might be blamed for being wrong.”

Using the royal plural, King Leontes replied, “Why, what need have we to debate with you about this? We will instead follow our own powerful feelings. Our prerogative has not been to ask you for your advice; instead, our natural goodness has given you information and facts. If you lack or pretend to lack the intelligence to understand what we have told you — if you cannot or will not admit that this is true, as we have done — then know that we need no more of your advice. The matter, the loss, the gain, and the ordering of it are all properly our own business.”

“And I wish, my liege,” Antigonus said, “that you had kept quiet and only in your silent judgment had worked out the problem, without making it public.”

“How could that be?” King Leontes said. “Either you are very ignorant because of your age, or you were born a fool. Camillo’s flight, added to the intimacy in public between King Polixenes and Hermione, which was so shameless and obvious that it gave rise to great suspicion of adultery — a suspicion that lacked only seeing them actually commit adultery — along with all the other evidence, show that I am right and that we must take action.

“Yet, for a greater confirmation, because in an act of this importance it would be a shame to be rash, I have sent to sacred Delphos, to Apollo’s temple, Cleomenes and Dion, whom you know to have more than adequate competence. They will consult the oracle of Delphos, who is known to tell the truth, and they will bring back the words of the oracle. The spiritual counsel of the oracle will be revealed, and it shall either stop or spur me. Have I done well?”

Delphos is a name for Delos, the island where the god Apollo was born.

The first lord approved of this action: “Well done, my lord.”

“Though I am satisfied that I know the truth and I do not need more than what I know,” King Leontes said, “yet the oracle shall give rest to the minds of other people, such as that man whose ignorant credulity will not believe the truth.”

He was speaking in particular about Antigonus.

King Leontes added, “We have thought it good that Hermione shall be confined away from our presence lest that the treachery of the two fled from here — King Polixenes and Camillo, who planned to murder me — be performed by her.

“Come, follow us; we will speak in public. This business will cause everyone concern. It will arouse everyone.”

Antigonus thought, It will arouse everyone to laughter, I believe, if the good truth were known. It is ridiculous to think that Queen Hermione has committed adultery.

 — 2.2 —

Paulina was visiting the prison in which Queen Hermione was kept. She was trying to see her and talk to her. Accompanying her were a gentleman and some female attendants.

Paulina said to the gentleman, “Call the jailer to come to me; tell him who I am.”

Paulina’s husband was Lord Antigonus; her rank was high in Sicily.

The gentleman exited to carry out the errand, and Paulina said to herself about Queen Hermione, “Good lady, no court in Europe is too good for you, so why are you in prison?”

The gentleman came back with the jailer.

Paulina said to the jailer, “Now, good sir, you know who I am, don’t you?”

“I know that you are a worthy lady and one whom I much respect,” the jailer replied.

“Then please take me to Queen Hermione.”

“I cannot, madam,” the jailer replied. “King Leontes has given explicit orders that prevent me from doing that.”

“Here’s a lot of ado,” Paulina said. “You lock up honesty and honor from the access of noble visitors!”

She said sarcastically, “Is it lawful, do you think, for me to see her female attendants? Can I see any of them? Can I see Emilia?”

“Madam,” the jailer said, “if you will order your attendants to leave, I shall bring Emilia here.”

“Please, bring her here,” Paulina said to the jailer.

To her attendants, she said, “Please go into another room.”

Her female attendants and the gentleman left.

The jailer added, “Madam, I must be present during your conversation with Emilia.”

“Well, so be it,” Paulina replied.

The jailer departed, and Paulina said to herself, “Here’s such ado to make no stain a stain that cannot covered up with a dye job. Queen Hermione has committed no sin and yet people are going to a lot of trouble to make it seem that she has committed a sin that cannot be concealed.”

The jailer returned with Emilia.

Paulina asked Emilia, “Dear gentlewoman, how is our gracious Queen Hermione doing?”

“She is doing as well as one so great and so forlorn can bear up. Because of her frights and griefs, which are greater than any tender lady has ever borne, she has given birth prematurely.”

“To a boy?” Paulina asked.

“A daughter, and a good, healthy baby; she is vigorous and likely to live. The Queen receives much comfort from her daughter, and she says, ‘My poor prisoner, I am as innocent as you.’”

“I agree,” Paulina said. “Queen Hermione is as innocent as a newborn babe. Curse these dangerous unsafe fits of lunacy in King Leontes! He must be told about the birth of his daughter, and he shall. A woman should tell him, and I will take the job upon me. I will tell the truth and not flatter the King. If I prove honey-mouthed and flatter the King, let my tongue blister from the lies I tell. Also, let my tongue never again be the trumpeter to my red-faced anger.”

In this society, a herald, dressed in red, sometimes bore an angry message. A trumpeter would precede the herald. Paulina planned to bear an angry message to King Leontes; she would be red-faced because of her anger, and her tongue would trumpet her angry message.

Paulina added, “Please, Emilia, present my compliments to the Queen. If she dares trust me with her little babe, I’ll show it to the King and undertake to be her loudest, most vigilant advocate. We do not know how he may soften at the sight of the child. The silence of pure innocence often persuades when speaking fails.”

Emilia replied, “Most worthy madam, your honor and your goodness are so evident that this your voluntary undertaking cannot miss having a successful result. No other lady living is so suitable to undertake this mission. If it will please your ladyship to wait in the next room, I’ll immediately tell the Queen of your most noble offer. Just today she vigorously debated whether to implement this same plan you are advocating, but she dared not ask any worthy official to carry it out because she was afraid that they would refuse to do so.”

“Tell her, Emilia,” Paulina said, “that I’ll use the tongue I have in the Queen’s behalf. If words of wisdom flow from it the way that courage and boldness will flow from my heart, let no one doubt that I shall do good.”

“May you be blest for it!” Emilia said. “I’ll go to the Queen. Please, come a little nearer.”

The jailer, who was concerned that King Leontes could punish him, said to Paulina, “Madam, if it pleases the Queen to send the babe, I do not know what will happen to me if I allow the babe to leave the prison. I do not have an order to allow the babe to leave.”

“You need not fear anything, sir,” Paulina said. “This child was a prisoner in the Queen’s womb and is by the lawful process of great nature freed from it and therefore is a free being. The babe is not a party against whom the King is angry, and the babe is not guilty of — if the sin should exist — the sin of the Queen.”

“I believe what you say,” the jailer said.

“Do not be afraid,” Paulina said. “I swear by my honor that I will stand between you and danger.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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