Spoiler alert: something magical happens in the last scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. If you haven’t read or seen it—maybe you’re waiting for Folger Theatre’s upcoming production, which begins March 13—stop reading now. We don’t want to ruin it for you.
If you’re familiar with The Winter’s Tale, you know that in the first part of the play, Leontes, king of Sicilia, is hosting his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Suddenly, Leontes becomes unreasonably convinced that his wife, Hermione, has committed adultery with Polixenes. Leontes calls for Polixenes to be killed, but he escapes.
Hermione, under arrest, gives birth to a daughter; Leontes orders the baby to be taken overseas and abandoned. The death of the couple’s young son, Mamillius, brings Leontes to his senses. But it is too late. Word arrives that Hermione, too, has died. In Bohemia, a shepherd finds and adopts the baby girl, Perdita.
The final scene takes place sixteen years later. Perdita, miraculously, has returned to Sicilia, and Leontes is reunited with the daughter he never knew. The play’s greatest miracle, though, is yet to come: a statue of Hermione, who has been dead for sixteen years, magically comes to life.
Music, awake her! Strike!
’Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more. Approach.
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir, nay, come away.
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.—You perceive she stirs.
Start not. Her actions shall be holy as
You hear my spell is lawful. Do not shun her
Until you see her die again, for then
You kill her double. Nay, present your hand.
When she was young, you wooed her; now in age
Is she become the suitor?
O, she’s warm!
In The Empty Space, British director Peter Brook wrote that “a very subtle construction hinges on the key moment when a statue comes to life… the statue that comes to life is the truth of the play.” Barry Edelstein, artistic director of The Old Globe in San Diego, told us that Leontes’s line “O, she’s warm!” is his favorite line in Shakespeare. Michael Tisdale, who plays Leontes in Folger Theatre’s upcoming production, calls it “one of the most magical turns of any play in history.”
What happens in the statue scene? When Hermione is reunited with her husband and daughter, is it a joyful reconciliation? Or is forgiveness impossible given the enormity of Leontes’s crimes? Hermione does not speak to Leontes after she awakens. Is she silent because, as Claudio says in Much Ado About Nothing, “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy?” Or is she silent because, as Peter Hall once suggested while rehearsing for a production of the play in 1988, “it is impossible to re-meet your husband who killed your son and put you in prison after sixteen years without a great deal of anguish and difficulty?”
That’s not the only question the statue scene raises. Was Hermione ever really dead? In their introduction to the 2007 Cambridge University Press edition of The Winter’s Tale, Susan Snyder and Deborah T. Curren-Aquino write that “just when awe is at its most intense, Shakespeare undercuts the wonder with Hermione’s statement that she never really died.” They’re referring to her lines to Perdita:
Where hast thou been preserved? Where lived? How found
Thy father’s court? For thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
Myself to see the issue.
“When read in light of Paulina’s proposed scenario by which she would select a new wife for Leontes…along with reports of her private visits to a “remov’d house”… and her protestations not to touch the freshly painted statue—Hermione’s startling revelation becomes the new truth.”
On the other hand, in an essay included in the Folger’s edition of The Winter’s Tale, Stephen Orgel notes that in Act 3, Leontes says, “Prithee, bring me / To the dead bodies of my queen and son. / One grave shall be for both.” Orgel writes that at that point in the play, at least, “we are allowed no doubt about the reality of the deaths… if at the play’s end, Leontes is being deceived by Paulina about the reality of death, so by the same token are we being deceived by Shakespeare. . . the play’s stagecraft has rendered the question irrelevant: she has been dead.”
Hermione’s resurrection leaves us with more questions than answers. Because of the scene’s head-spinning ambiguity, directors, actors, illustrators, and readers are free to dream up their own stagings of the scene, all of which might say something new and different about the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption.
We dug into the Folger’s collection and found a handful of images of the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale—prints, photographs, drawings, and more. On Monday, March 12, check out our Instagram and Twitter profiles as we share some of our favorites. Have you ever seen or worked on a production of The Winter’s Tale with its own take on the statue scene? Do you own an illustrated edition of the play? What do you think happened to Hermione? Share your favorite stagings of the famous scene, or of other key moments in The Winter’s Tale, with the hashtag #ImaginingShakespeare.