David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 3

 — 2.3 —

King Leontes was alone in a room in his palace.

He said to himself, “I cannot sleep either at night nor during the day. I am showing weakness — mere weakness — in this. If only the people who caused my distress were not still alive — well, if one of the causes of my distress were not still alive. The adulteress Queen Hermione is within my power, but the licentious King Polixenes is quite beyond the reach of my arm. He is out of range of any plot my brain can come up with, but I can hook her to me the way that grappling hooks can seize a ship at sea. If she were gone, given a death by being burned alive, I may be able to sleep a little again.”

He heard a noise and said, “Who’s there?”

A servant entered the room and asked, “My lord?”

“How is my son?” King Leontes asked.

“He slept well last night; it is hoped that his sickness is over.”

“This shows his nobleness!” King Leontes said. “Learning about the dishonor of his mother, he immediately declined, drooped, took it deeply, fastened and fixed the shame of it in himself; this harmed his spirit, affecting his appetite and his sleep, and he completely languished.

“Leave me alone. Go and see how he fares.”

The servant exited.

“Damn! Damn!” King Leontes said. “Let me not think about King Polixenes. Thoughts about me getting revenge upon him end up hurting only myself. He is a very mighty King, and his supporters and his allies are also very mighty — so mighty that I cannot get revenge upon him. So I will let him be until a time may be right for me to get vengeance against him.

“But I can get vengeance against Queen Hermione right now. Camillo and King Polixenes are both laughing at me; they are entertained by my sorrow. They would not laugh if I could reach them, nor shall she — because she is within my power.”

Paulina, carrying the daughter of King Leontes and Queen Hermione, entered the room. With her were Antigonus, some lords, and some attendants. Antigonus and the lords were trying — but failing — to prevent her from entering the room.

The first lord said, “You must not enter.”

“My good lords,” Paulina said, “instead of resisting me, be my supporters. Do you fear King Leontes’ tyrannous passion more than you fear for Queen Hermione’s life? She is a gracious and innocent soul; she is more free from sin than he is jealous.”

Antigonus, her husband, said, “That’s enough.”

A servant said, “Madam, King Leontes has not slept tonight; he has commanded that no one should come and see him.”

“Don’t be so vehement, good sir,” Paulina said. “I have come to bring King Leontes the ability to sleep. Such people as you who creep like shadows by him and pity every one of his needless and unnecessary sighs do him no good. It is such people as you who nourish the cause of his inability to sleep. I have come with words that are as medicinal as they are true; my words are honest and they will purge King Leontes of that mood that keeps him from sleeping.”

“What is that noise?” King Leontes asked.

Coming closer to King Leontes, Paulina replied, “This is not noise, my lord; this is a necessary conference about getting some godparents for your Highness’ daughter.”

She showed King Leontes’ infant daughter to him.

“What!” King Leontes said. “Take that audacious lady away! Antigonus, I ordered you to not allow her to come near me. I knew she would try to see me.”

“I told her not to try to see you, my lord,” Antigonus said. “I told her that if she tried to see you she would arouse both your displeasure and mine.”

“What! Can’t you make your wife obey your orders?” King Leontes asked.

“When he orders me to avoid all dishonesty, he can,” Paulina said. “In this business, however, he cannot make me obey his orders unless he takes the course that you have done with your own wife — commit me to prison because I have committed an honorable action.”

“You heard her,” Antigonus said to King Leontes, “When she takes the reins and thereby takes control, I let her run, but she will not stumble.”

He meant that he gave his wife much freedom, but his wife acted correctly. In fact, his wife was acting ethically by ignoring his and the King’s orders and insisting on talking to the King.

“My good liege,” Paulina said, “I have come to you. I beg that you listen to me — your loyal servant, your physician, and your most obedient counselor — yet I am the person who dares to appear less than those things in your eyes because I will not approve of your evils, unlike most of the people who only appear to be loyal to you and only appear to serve you well. I say to you that I have come from your good Queen.”

“Good Queen!” King Leontes said.

“Good Queen, my lord,” Paulina repeated. “Good Queen; I say good Queen. If I were a man, I would prove her innocence with a trial by combat, even if I were the most menial and the weakest man around you.”

“Force her to leave,” King Leontes ordered.

“Let the man who regards his eyes as mere trifles be the first to lay hands on me,” Paulina said. “I will leave under my own power, but only after I have finished my business here. The good Queen, and yes, she is good, has given birth to your daughter. Here she is; your Queen commends this girl to your blessing.”

Paulina lay the infant Princess on the floor.

“Out!” King Leontes ordered. “You are a mannish witch! Take her away! Throw her out the door! She is a bawd who keeps the secrets of those illicit lovers for whom she is the go-between!”

“That is not true,” Paulina said. “I am as ignorant of such an occupation as you are when you call me a bawd, and I am no less honest and chaste than you are mad. That is enough, I say, as this world goes, for me to be regarded as honest and chaste.”

“Traitors!” King Leontes shouted. “Will you not push her out of the room? Give her the bastard.”

He shouted at Antigonus, “You dotard! You are hen-pecked. Your dame Partlet has shoved you from your roost. Pick up the bastard. Pick it up, I say, and give it to your crone.”

Paulina said to her husband, “Your hands will be forever despised if you pick up the Princess and so acknowledge that false and base name of ‘bastard’ that King Leontes has unjustly given to her!”

King Leontes said about Antigonus, “He is afraid of his wife.”

“I wish that you were afraid of your wife,” Paulina replied. “If you were, you would acknowledge that your children really are your children.”

“This is a nest of traitors!” King Leontes shouted.

“I am not a traitor,” Antigonus said. “I swear it by the Sun.”

“And I am not a traitor,” Paulina said, “nor is any man here except one, and that man is the King himself because he is betraying and slandering the sacred honor of himself, his Queen, his son who hopes to become King one day, and his infant daughter. Slander has a sting that is sharper than the sword’s. King Leontes will not remove the root of his opinion, which is as rotten as ever oak or stone was sound. As the case now stands, slander is a curse that he cannot be compelled to remove. As King, Leontes is above the law; if he were not King, Hermione could seek justice in a court of law.”

“She is a nag and a scold who recently beat her husband and now torments me!” King Leontes said. “This brat is no child of mine; it is the child of King Polixenes. Take it away, and together with its dam — Queen Hermione — throw it into fire!”

“This child is yours,” Paulina said. “And, if I may lay the old proverb to your charge, it is all the worse for looking like you.

“Behold, my lords, this infant girl. She is a copy of her father. Although the print is little, the whole matter and copy of the father — his eye, nose, lip, the way he wrinkles his forehead, the cleft in his chin and the pretty dimples in his cheeks, his smiles, the very mold and frame of his hands, fingernails, and fingers — can be found in her.

“Good goddess Nature, you who have made this infant resemble so much her father, if you have the ordering of her mind, too, do not give her jealousy, lest she suspect, as he does, that her future children will not be her husband’s!

“King Leontes’ jealousy is silly. How silly is it? It is as silly as a jealous woman who has always been faithful to her husband but who is nevertheless afraid that her husband’s infidelity may cause the children to whom she has given birth to be illegitimate!”

King Leontes shouted, “You are a gross and rude hag and, you, Antigonus, you loser, you ought to be hanged because you will not make your wife shut up.”

“If you hang all the husbands who cannot make their wives shut up, you’ll find yourself with hardly one subject,” Antigonus replied.

“Once more, take her away,” King Leontes ordered.

“A most unworthy and unnatural lord can do no more evil than you have done,” Paulina said.

“I’ll have you burnt to death,” King Leontes said.

“I don’t care,” Paulina said. “If you have me burnt to death, the heretic will be the person who causes the fire to be made, not the woman who burns in it. I will not call you a tyrant, but this most cruel treatment of your Queen, with you unable to produce any evidence against her except your own weak-hinged imagination, stinks somewhat of tyranny and will make your reputation in the world ignoble and scandalous.”

“By the oaths of loyalty that you have sworn to me,” King Leontes said, “I order you to throw this woman out of my chamber! If I were a tyrant, would she still be alive? If I were a tyrant, she would not dare to call me a tyrant. Throw her out!”

Finally, some lords approached Paulina to physically throw her out.

“Please, do not push me,” Paulina said. “I am leaving. Look after your baby, my lord; it is your legitimate offspring. May Jove send her a better guiding spirit than you! Why are you lords using your hands to throw me out? You lords who ignore the King’s foolish behavior will never do him any good — not one of you. And so farewell; we are gone.”

She departed. A couple of lords followed her to make sure that she was really leaving.

King Leontes said to Antigonus, “You, traitor, have set on your wife to do this. This is my child, she said? Take it away! You, Antigonus, who have a heart that pities it, take it away and see that it is immediately thrown into a fire and burnt up. You, Antigonus, and only you do this. Do this immediately, and within this hour bring me word that it has been done, and bring me evidence — good testimony — that it has been done, or I’ll seize your life and all the property that you call your own. If you refuse to obey my order and want to encounter and suffer my wrath, say so. The bastard’s brains with these my own hands I shall dash out. Go, take it and throw it in the fire because you are the one who made your wife, Paulina, do this.”

“I did not do that, sir,” Antigonus said. “These lords, my noble fellows, if they please, can testify that I am innocent of that charge.”

A lord said, “We can.”

Another lord said, “My royal liege, Antigonus is not guilty of Paulina’s coming here.

“All of you are liars,” King Leontes said.

A lord replied, “Please, your Highness, give us better credit than that. We have always truly served you, and we beg you to acknowledge that, and on our knees we beg, as recompense of our valuable services to you both in the past and to come, that you change your mind about throwing this infant into the fire. That deed is so horrible and so bloody that it must lead on to some foul result. We all kneel before you.”

“Each wind that blows treats me like a feather,” King Leontes said. “Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel before me and call me father? It is better to burn it now than to curse it then. But so be it; let it live.”

He instantly changed his mind and said, “No, it shall not live.”

He then said, “You, sir, Antigonus, come here. You have been so tenderly officious along with your wife, Paulina — or should I call her Lady Margery Hen, your midwife there — to save this bastard’s life. Yes, it is a bastard. I am as sure of that as I am that your beard is grey. What will you do to save this brat’s life?”

“Anything, my lord, that I have the ability to do and that is honorable. I will do at least this much — I will pawn the little blood and few years that I have left to save this innocent baby. I will do anything that is possible.”

“What I ask you to do shall be possible,” King Leontes said. “Swear by the cross-piece of this sword that you will perform my bidding.”

“I will swear, my lord.”

“Listen carefully and do what we tell you to do,” King Leontes said, using the royal plural. “If you fail to do exactly what we tell you to do, the result shall not only be death to yourself but to your lewd-tongued wife, whom for now we pardon. We order you, who have sworn to obey us, to carry this female bastard away from here and bear it to some remote and deserted place quite out of our dominions, and that you leave it there, without any more mercy. Let it protect itself; let it be exposed to wild animals and the weather. As by strange — unusual and foreign — fortune this baby came to us, I do justly order you, on your soul’s peril — if you break your oath, your soul will be sent to Hell — and your body’s torture, to leave it in some foreign place where fortune and luck shall either bring it aid or death. Pick up the infant.”

Antigonus picked up the baby girl and said, “I swear to do this, although an immediate death would have been more merciful for the baby.

“Come on, poor babe. I hope that some powerful spirit will instruct the hawks and ravens to be your caretakers! Wolves and bears, they say, have cast aside their savageness and done such offices of pity.”

Antigonus was thinking of such stories as that of a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus, who founded the city of Rome. He may have also been thinking of 1 Kings 17:6: “And the ravens brought him [the prophet Elijah] bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.”

Antigonus then said to King Leontes, “Sir, I hope that you are more prosperous than you deserve to be because of this deed!”

He then said to the baby girl, “And may Heaven send mercy to fight on your side against this cruelty. Poor thing, you are condemned to die!”

Antigonus departed, carrying the baby girl.

King Leontes said, “No, I’ll not rear the child of another man.”

A servant entered the room and said, “If it please your Highness, an hour ago messages came from the men whom you sent to the oracle. Cleomenes and Dion have safely arrived from Delphos. Both of them have landed on our country’s shore, and they are hurrying to your court.”

A lord said, “If it please you, sir, their speed has been unprecedented.”

“They have been absent twenty-three days,” King Leontes said. “They made good speed. This is evidence that the great god Apollo wants the truth about my wife to be known quickly.

“Prepare yourselves, lords. Summon a session of court so that we may arraign our most disloyal lady. She has been publicly accused, and so she shall have a just and open trial. As long as she lives, my heart will be a burden to me.

“Leave me, and do what I have ordered you to do.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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