David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scenes 1-2

— 3.1 —

Outside an inn in Sicily, Cleomenes and Dion were talking.

Cleomenes said about Delphos, which was sacred to the god Apollo, whose birthplace it was, “The climate is delightful, the air most sweet, the island fertile, and the temple much surpassing the usual praise said about it.”

Dion replied, “I shall talk about, because they are what most impressed me, the celestial vestments — that is the name that I think I should use to describe them — and the reverence of the serious people who wore them. And, oh, the sacrifice! How ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly it was in the offering!”

“But out of everything, the blast of thunder and the ear-deafening voice of the oracle, which was like the thunder of Jove, so overwhelmed my senses that I was nothing,” Cleomenes said.

“If the result of the journey prove as successful to the Queen — I hope that it will be so! — as it has been to us rare, pleasant, speedy, the time it took to make the journey is very well spent.”

Cleomenes said, “May great Apollo make everything turn out for the best! I do not like these proclamations we have seen that cast aspersions on Queen Hermione and accuse her of serious crimes and sins.”

“Our violently speedy journey and carrying of the oracle written by the priest at Delphos will either clear Queen Hermione’s name by pronouncing her innocent or end this business by pronouncing her guilty. Inspired by the god Apollo, his priest knows whether Queen Hermione is innocent or guilty. Apollo’s great divine sealed up the oracle — the god’s words — and when those words are read, something remarkable will become known. Let’s go! We have fresh horses! May the outcome of our journey be good and gracious!”

 — 3.2 —

In a court of justice were King Leontes and some lords and officers.

King Leontes said, using the royal plural, “Let this trial begin, although it causes us great grief and strikes right at our heart. The defendant is the daughter of a King, our wife, and one too much beloved by us. Let this trial clear us of the charge of being tyrannous, since we so openly proceed in justice, which shall have due course, whether the trial ends with the defendant being pronounced guilty or ends with the defendant being pronounced innocent.

“Produce the prisoner.”

An officer said, “It is his Highness’ pleasure that the Queen appear in person here in this court. Silence!”

Queen Hermione, her guards, Paulina, and some female attendants entered the courtroom.

King Leontes ordered, “Read the indictment.”

The officer read, “Hermione, Queen to the worthy Leontes, King of Sicily, you are here accused and arraigned of high treason in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign lord the King, your royal husband. When the murder plot was partly revealed by circumstances, you, Hermione, contrary to the faith and allegiance of a true subject, advised and aided the would-be assassins, for their safety, to flee by night.”

Queen Hermione said, “Since what I will say must be only that which contradicts my accusation and since no one except me will testify on my behalf, it shall scarcely help me to say ‘not guilty.’ My integrity is already thought to be nonexistent, and so my plea of ‘not guilty’ will not be believed.

“But there is this: If divine powers see our human actions — and they do — I do not doubt but innocence shall make false accusation blush and patience make tyranny tremble.

“You, my lord the King, best know, although you will pretend not to know, that my past life has been as continent, as chaste, and as true as I am now unhappy. This is more than a play can equal, even if it is created and played in order to fascinate spectators. Look at me! I am a fellow of the royal bed, wife to the King. I own a share of the throne. I am a great King’s daughter. I am the mother to a Prince who hopes to rule the Kingdom one day. Yet here I am standing so I can plead in vain for life and honor in front of anyone who wants to come and hear.

“As for life, I prize it as much as I prize grief, which I can do without. As for honor, it is a heritage that descends from me to my children, and I will fight for only that.

“I appeal to your own conscience, sir, King, before Polixenes came to your court. Remember how I was in your favor and how I deserved to be so. Since Polixenes came to visit you, what behavior so wrong have I committed that I am forced to appear now in court? If I have gone one jot beyond the boundary of honor, either in act or intention, may the hearts of all who hear me be hardened, and may my closest relatives cry ‘Damn you!’ as they stand by my grave!”

King Leontes said, “I have never heard yet of anyone who had the impudence to commit a bold sin but lacked the impudence to deny that he or she had committed that sin.”

“That’s true enough,” Queen Hermione said, “although it is a saying, sir, that does not apply to my actions.”

“You will not admit it,” King Leontes said.

“I will not at all acknowledge sins other than the so-called ‘sin’ I am accused of. That is what I will talk about. Let me talk about Polixenes, with whom I am accused of committing adultery and treason. My friendship with him was such as he honorably deserved. I gave him the friendship that becomes a lady like me; that friendship was even such as you yourself wanted me to show him. I did not go beyond that kind of friendship, and if I had not shown that kind of friendship I think that I would have been showing both disobedience and ingratitude to you and to your friend, who had freely expressed his friendship for you ever since he could speak, from infancy.

“Now, as for the charge of conspiracy, I do not know how it tastes; and I would not even if it were dished on a plate so I could taste it. I know nothing about conspiracy. All I know of the charge of conspiracy is that Camillo was an honest man. As for why he left your court, the gods themselves, if they know no more than I do, are ignorant.”

King Leontes said, “You knew of his departure, as you know what you have undertaken to do in his absence.”

King Leontes was accusing his wife of planning to murder him following the flight of Camillo and King Polixenes.

“Sir, you speak a language that I do not understand,” Queen Hermione said. “My life is being targeted by your dreams, and I will lay my life down.”

“Your actions are my dreams,” King Leontes said sarcastically. “You had a bastard by Polixenes, and I only dreamed it. As you were past all shame — those who are guilty of your crime are past all shame — so you are past all truth. Denying this will hurt you more than help you. Just like your brat has been cast out, left by itself, with no father owning it — which is, indeed, a criminal act that you are more responsible for than it — so you shall feel our justice, whose easiest punishment will be no less than death.”

A harder punishment would be to have her tortured and then killed.

“Sir, spare your threats,” Queen Hermione said with dignity. “The bugbear — death — that you would frighten me with is something that I seek. To me life can be no profitable existence. The crown and comfort of my life — your favor — I give up as lost; for I feel that they are gone, although I do not know how they vanished.

“My second joy is my son, the first-fruits of my body, but I am barred from his presence as if I were infected with a contagious disease.

“My third comfort is my daughter, who was born under a very unlucky star. She has been taken from my breast, with the innocent milk in its most innocent mouth, so it can be murdered.

“I myself am proclaimed to be a strumpet on proclamations that have been displayed on every post. With immodest hatred, people have denied me a period of rest following childbirth, which is a privilege that belongs to women of every social class. Finally, I have been rushed to this place, in the open air, before I have gotten my strength back following childbirth.”

In their society, fresh air was regarded as unhealthy for invalids.

Queen Hermione continued, “Now, my liege, tell me what blessings I have here while I am alive that should make me fear to die? Therefore proceed. But yet hear one more thing: Do not misunderstand me. I do not value my life as much as I value a straw, but I do value my honor, which I want to be cleared. If I am judged guilty and condemned because of mere surmises, without any other evidence, I tell you that the judgment is tyranny and not law.”

She said to the court, “Your honors, I submit myself to the oracle. Let Apollo be my judge!”

The first lord said, “Your request is entirely just. Therefore, officers, bring forth, and in Apollo’s name, his oracle.”

Some officers exited to get Cleomenes and Dion and the oracle that they had brought back from Delphos.

Queen Hermione said, “The Emperor of Russia was my father. I wish that he were alive, and here watching his daughter’s trial! I wish that he could see the completeness of my misery with his eyes filled with pity, not revenge!”

The officers returned with Cleomenes and Dion.

An officer said, “You shall swear upon this sword of justice, that you, Cleomenes and Dion, have both been at Delphos, and from thence have brought back this sealed-up oracle, which was by the hand of great Apollo’s priest delivered to you, and that, since then, you have not dared to break the holy seal nor read the secrets in it.”

Cleomenes and Dion said, “All this we swear.”

King Leontes said, “Break the seals of the oracle and read it out loud.”

The officer read, “Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten and legitimate; and the King shall live without an heir, if that babe who is lost is not found.”

The lords recited, “Now blessed be the great Apollo!”

Hermione said, “May Apollo be praised!”

King Leontes asked, “Have you read truthfully what is written in the oracle?”

The officer replied, “Yes, my lord; exactly as it is here set down.”

King Leontes said, “There is no truth at all in the oracle. The trial shall proceed: This is mere falsehood.”

By saying that, King Leontes committed blasphemy. He was calling the priest of Apollo a liar, and by extension he was calling the great god Apollo a liar. Insulted gods often quickly take vengeance.

An excited servant entered the courtroom and said, “My lord the King! The King!”

“What is the matter?” King Leontes asked.

The servant said, “Sir, I shall be hated for reporting this news! The Prince your son, through merely imagining and fearing what would happen to his mother the Queen, is gone.”

“What do you mean? Gone?” King Leontes said.

“He is dead,” the servant replied.

King Leontes repented immediately, saying, “Apollo is angry; and the Heavens themselves strike at my injustice.”

Queen Hermione fainted.

King Leontes said, “What is happening there?”

Paulina replied, “This news is mortal to the Queen. Look down and see what death is doing to her.”

“Take her away from here and care for her,” King Leontes ordered. “Her heart is only over-stressed; she will recover. I have too much believed my own suspicions. Please, tenderly give her some remedies to help her.”

Paulina and the ladies exited, carrying Queen Hermione.

King Leontes said, “Apollo, pardon my great profaneness against your oracle! I’ll take steps to be reconciled with Polixenes, newly woo my Queen, and recall the good Camillo, whom I proclaim to be a man of truth and of mercy.

“When I was carried away by my jealousies and began to think bloody thoughts about revenge, I chose Camillo to be the person to poison my friend Polixenes. This would have been done, but the good mind of Camillo delayed implementing my command to quickly murder Polixenes, although I threatened him with death if he did not kill Polixenes and although I promised to reward him if he did kill Polixenes. Camillo, who is very humane and filled with honor, went to my Kingly guest and revealed my plot. He left his fortune and possessions, which you know are great, here, and he committed himself to the hazard of all uncertainties, with no riches other than his honor. How he glistens through my rust! And how his pity makes by contrast my deeds all the blacker!”

Paulina returned and said, “Grief and pain! Cut the tight laces of my bodice so that I can breathe, or my pounding heart will break the laces and break itself, too.”

The first lord said, “What is wrong, good lady?”

Paulina said to King Leontes, “What well-thought-out torments, tyrant, do you have for me? What wheels upon which to break my body? Racks? Fires? What flaying — being skinned alive? Boiling, either in cauldrons filled with lead or with oil? What old or newer torture must I receive, whose every word deserves to suffer your very worst torture?

“Your tyranny working together with your jealousies — imaginings too weak for boys, and too simple-minded and silly for nine-year-old girls — think what your tyranny and jealousies have done and then run mad indeed, stark mad! Why? Because all your former foolish actions were but tastes of this new evil you have caused.

“That you betrayed Polixenes is nothing; that merely showed that you, a fool, are inconstant and damnably ungrateful. Nor did it count for much that you would have poisoned good Camillo’s honor by making him kill a King. These are poor sins in comparison with your more monstrous sins.

“Another poor sin was your casting forth to crows your baby daughter, although a Devil would have shed tears in Hell before he had done such an action. Nor is it directly your fault that the young Prince, whose honorable thoughts — thoughts lofty for one so young — cleft the heart that could believe that a grossly foolish father had blemished his gracious dam. This is not, no, your responsibility, but this sin — lords, when I tell you what that sin is, mourn greatly — the Queen, the Queen, the sweetest, dearest creature is dead, and vengeance for her death has not yet dropped down from Heaven.”

“May Heaven forbid it!” the first lord said.

“I say that the Queen is dead,” Paulina said. “I will swear it. If you won’t believe either my words or my oath, then go and see her for yourself. If you can bring color or luster to her lips and her eyes, make her body warm again, or make her breathe again, I’ll serve you as I would the gods.

“But, oh, you tyrant! Do not repent these sins, for they are heavier than all your sorrow can expiate; therefore, do nothing except despair. A thousand knees kneeling for ten thousand years, the penitents naked and fasting upon a barren mountain during a perpetual winter storm could not move the gods to look in your direction and forgive your sins.”

King Leontes said, “Go on. Continue. You can not criticize me too much; I have deserved for all tongues to talk their bitterest about me.”

The first lord said to Paulina, “Say no more. Whatever happens as a result of the King’s actions, you have committed a fault by being too bold in your speech to him.”

“I am sorry,” Paulina said. “All the faults I make, when I come to know that I have committed them, I repent. Look! I have showed too much the rashness of a woman: King Leontes is touched all the way to his noble heart.”

She said to the King, “What’s done and gone and what’s past help should be past grief. Do not grieve because of my words. I beg you to instead punish me, who has reminded you of things that you should forget. Now, my good liege, sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman. The love I bore your Queen — ah, I am a fool again! — I’ll speak of her no more, nor of your children. I will not remind you of my own husband, Antigonus, who is lost to me, too. Be patient and endure your suffering, and take your patience to you — I’ll say nothing.”

“You spoke well when you spoke the truth,” King Leontes said. “You were speaking the absolute truth. I much prefer to hear you tell me my sins than to hear your words of pity. Please, take me to the dead bodies of my Queen and my son. They shall be buried in one grave. On the grave monument shall appear the causes of their death, which will always shame me.

“Once a day I’ll visit the chapel where they lie, and I shall shed tears there as my recreation. As long as my health will allow me to do this exercise, so long I daily vow to do it.

“Come and lead me to these sorrows.”

The word “recreation” meant “exercise,” but repentance and suffering were to lead to re-creation. Repentance and suffering — and the grace of God — would make King Leontes a better person.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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