Religious Reconciliation in the Ransomed World

Sean Rigsby was a student this past summer in ACMRS’ Oxford Study Abroad program, where he studied with Professor Ralph Hanna and Dr. Sharonah Fredrick. In Dr. Fredrick’s class, Shakespeare, The New World, and the Age of Empire students studied the play A Winter’s Tale as a dystopian counterpoint to the idyllic image of the Americas in The Tempest. The following article is based on an essay which Sean wrote in the class, and constitutes a fine example of how ACMRS’ summer study stimulates long-lasting interest in medieval and Renaissance/Early Modern literature.

By Sean Rigsby

ASU Online Undergraduate Student in English and Oxford 2016 Alumnus

In attempts to portray a climate of religious division, and in a stark departure from Elizabethan policy under James I, Shakespeare imprints a significant amount of religious imagery into his conclusion of The Winter’s Tale. Thus, he evokes both pagan oracles and traditional Catholic ritual. The act opens with Cleomenes consoling his lord of “saintlike sorrow” and to asking him to discontinue weeping, having given “more penitence than done trespass” (5.1.2, 5.1.4). The practice of idolatry follows with the naturalist portrayal and worship of the Hermione statue. Perdita is depicted kneeling to her mother’s altar and “implore[ing] her blessing” (5.3.50). Hermione garners many adorations ranging from the “perfect woman,” to one of “virtues”, and elevated so high that there are “none [more] worthy” (5.1.17, 5.1.8, 5.1.42).

This virtuous reflection appears strangely similar to the Virgin Mary of Catholic tradition. Elizabeth herself diplomatically adopted this moniker, reinforcing faith in the Anglican Church and providing a courteous nod to the interspersed Catholic population. Shakespeare takes liberty with this identity, declaring, “No more such wives,” remembering his sovereign patron (5.1.67). Elizabeth can be heard awakening to the regressive policies of her successor, asking “why to me?” (5.1.71).

Interestingly, Catholic imagery coexists harmoniously along side the pagan gods and customs that dominate most of the play. The second gentleman informs the audience that “the oracle is fulfilled” and the prodigal daughter has returned to Sicilia (5.1.24-5). I feel a parallel can be created between these religious happenings and the Protestant movement. Protestantism rescinded any acts of penitence, a fundamental practice in Catholicism. Scenes 1 and 3 of Act V are depictions of action, while Scene 2 is secondhand gospel, giving ultimate authority to words. It is the only scene in the act where speech is dominated by prose rather than verse. This juxtaposition may be likened to the high speech of the Latin Bible, read by clergymen, versus the Geneva and King James Bibles that made the gospel available in English. The first of these, the Latin Bible, was the one with which Shakespeare would have grown up with, the later published the same year as The Winter’s Tale. Protestantism as a movement is closely tied to the promotion of the gospel in vernacular language, whereas Latin remained the Catholic standard for over a millennium.

Paulina adopts the role of priest, and only by her grace can Leontes find the salvation of his wife. She is given “the office to choose” Leontes a queen (5.1.96-7). One she describes as “not so young...but she shall be such as, walked your first queen’s ghost” (5.1.97-9). She is the keeper of the blessed majesty and purity that Hermione has come to represent, declaring, “the stone is mine” (5.3.69-70). The text and stage direction imply Hermione was never truly dead. The statue in question has aged in perfect union with the time. Paulina insists that the figure cannot be touched for fear of damage; she slowly leads on the group of onlookers, threatening to conceal Hermione again. For sixteen years Hermione has hid in Paulina’s keeping and now, only after the arrival of her daughter does Paulina feel the time ripe for revival.

Paulina delivers Shakespeare’s answer to his opinion of the world, revealing his humanism. The world seems perpetually heading toward complete and utter destruction. Tragedy in Silicia is followed by an illusory pastoral in the New World. Nevertheless, two apparently different religious sources harmoniously provide the lost daughter of prophecy and the resurrection of the most virtuous queen. It is not without cost: Antigonus and Mamilius have paid the ransom. The mechanisms by which the world is saved from certain doom are simple two: “It is required you do awake your faith,” and maintain it, until Time has deemed sufficient (5.3.118-9).

Works Cited: Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Sean Rigsby is a senior in the ASU Online English undergraduate program and regular member of the CLAS Dean's List over the past two years. He currently resides in Charlotte, NC where he has spent the past three years training and becoming Collegiate and National Bronze Medalist in Olympic Weightlifting. Upon graduation, Sean intends to prepare for applications to several Doctoral programs in English across the US and further pursue research in Early Modernism.