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Shakespeare's Characters: Hermione (The Winter's Tale)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 12. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

The character of Hermione exhibits what is never found in the other sex, but rarely in our own, yet sometimes — dignity without pride, love without passion, and tenderness without weakness. To conceive a character in which there enters so much of the negative, required perhaps no rare and astonishing effort of genius, such as created a Juliet, a Miranda, or a Lady Macbeth; but to delineate such a character in the poetical form, to develop it through the medium of action and dialogue, without the aid of description; to preserve its tranquil, mild, and serious beauty, its unimpassioned dignity, and at the same time keep the strongest hold upon our sympathy and our imagination; and out of this exterior calm produce the most profound pathos, the most vivid impression of life and internal power — it is this which renders the character of Hermione one of Shakespeare's masterpieces.

Hermione is a queen, a matron, and a mother; she is good and beautiful, and royally descended. A majestic sweetness, a grand and gracious simplicity, an easy, unforced, yet dignified self-possession, are in all her deportment, and in every word she utters. She is one of those characters of whom it has been said proverbially that "still waters run deep." Her passions are not vehement, but in her settled mind the sources of pain or pleasure, love or resentment, are like the springs that feed the mountain lakes, impenetrable, unfathomable, and inexhaustible. . . .

She receives the first intimation of her husband's jealous suspicions with incredulous astonishment. It is not that, like Desdemona, she does not or cannot understand; but she will not. When he accuses her more plainly, she replies with a calm dignity : —

"Should a villain say so,
The most replenish'd villain in the world,
He were as much more villain; you, my lord.
Do but mistake."
This characteristic composure of temper never forsakes her; and yet it is so delineated that the impression is that of grandeur, and never borders upon pride or coldness: it is the fortitude of a gentle but a strong mind, conscious of its own innocence. Nothing can be more affecting than her calm reply to Leontes, who, in his jealous rage, heaps insult upon insult, and accuses her before her own attendants as no better "than one of those to whom the vulgar give bold titles"; —
"How will this grieve you,
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
You have thus published me ! Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me throughly then to say
You did mistake."
Her mild dignity and saint-like patience, combined as they are with the strongest sense of the cruel injustice of her husband, thrill us with admiration as well as pity; and we cannot but see and feel that for Hermione to give way to tears and feminine complaints under such a blow, would be quite incompatible with the character. . . .

The character of Hermione is considered open to criticism on one point. I have heard it remarked that when she secludes herself from the world for sixteen years, during which time she is mourned as dead by her repentant husband, and is not won to relent from her resolve by his sorrow, his remorse, his constancy to her memory — such conduct, argues the critic, is unfeeling as it is inconceivable in a tender and virtuous woman. Would Imogen have done so, who is so generously ready to grant a pardon before it be asked? or Desdemona, who does not forgive because she cannot even resent? No, assuredly; but this is only another proof of the wonderful delicacy and consistency with which Shakespeare has discriminated the characters of all three. The incident of Hermione's supposed death and concealment for sixteen years is not indeed very probable in itself, nor very likely to occur in every-day life. But, besides all the probability necessary for the purposes of poetry, it has all the likelihood it can derive from the peculiar character of Hermione, who is precisely the woman who could and would have acted in this manner. In such a mind as hers, the sense of a cruel injury, inflicted by one she had loved and trusted, without awakening any violent anger or any desire of vengeance, would sink deep — almost incurably and lastingly deep.

So far she is most unlike either Imogen or Desdemona, who are portrayed as much more flexible in temper; but then the circumstances under which she is wronged are very different, and far more unpardonable. The self-created, frantic jealousy of Leontes is very distinct from that of Othello, writhing under the arts of lago: or that of Posthumus, whose understanding has been cheated by the most damning evidence of his wife's infidelity. The jealousy which in Othello and Posthumus is an error of judgement, in Leontes is a vice of the blood; he suspects without cause, condemns without proof; he is without excuse — unless the mixture of pride, passion, and imagination, and the predisposition to jealousy, with which Shakespeare has portrayed him, be considered as an excuse. Hermione has been openly insulted: he to whom she gave herself, her heart, her soul, has stooped to the weakness and baseness of suspicion; has doubted her truth, has wronged her love, has sunk in her esteem, and forfeited her confidence. She has been branded with vile names; her son, her eldest hope, is dead - dead through the false accusation which has stuck infamy on his mother's name; and her innocent babe, stained with illegitimacy, disowned and rejected, has been exposed to a cruel death. Can we believe that the mere tardy acknowledgement of her innocence could make amends for wrongs and agonies such as these? Or heal a heart which must have bled inwardly, consumed by that untold grief "which burns worse than tears drown"?

Keeping in view the peculiar character of Hermione, such as she is delineated, is she one either to forgive hastily or forget quickly? And though she might, in her solitude, mourn over her repentant husband, would his repentance suffice to restore him at once to his place in her heart; to efface from her strong and reflecting mind the recollection of his miserable weakness? Or can we fancy this high-souled woman — left childless through the injury which has been inflicted on her, widowed in heart by the unworthiness of him she loved, a spectacle of grief to all, to her husband a continual reproach and humiliation — walking through the parade of royalty in the court which had witnessed her anguish, her shame, her degradation, and her despair? I think that the want of feeling, nature, delicacy, and consistency would lie in such an exhibition as this. In a mind like Hermione's, where the strength of feeling is founded in the power of thought, and where there is little of impulse or imagination — "the depth, but not the tumult, of the soul" — there are but two influences which predominate over the will — time and religion. And what then remained but that, wounded in heart and spirit, she should retire from the world? Not to brood over her wrongs, but to study forgiveness, and wait the fulfilment of the oracle which had promised the termination of her sorrows. Thus a premature reconciliation would not only have been painfully inconsistent with the character; it would also have deprived us of that most beautiful scene in which Hermione is discovered to her husband as the statue or image of herself. And here we have another instance of that admirable art with which the dramatic character is fitted to the circumstances in which it is placed: that perfect command over her own feelings, that complete self-possession necessary to this extraordinary situation, is consistent with all that we imagine of Hermione; in any other woman it would be so incredible as to shock all our ideas of probability.

This scene, then, is not only one of the most picturesque and striking instances of stage effect to be found in the ancient or modem drama, but by the skilful manner in which it is prepared, it has, wonderful as it appears, all the merit of consistency and truth. The grief, the love, the remorse and impatience of Leontes, are finely contrasted with the astonishment and admiration of Perdita, who, gazing on the figure of her mother like one entranced, looks as if she were also turned to marble. There is here one little instance of tender remembrance in Leontes, which adds to the charming impression of Hermione's character: —

"Chide me, dear stone! that I may say indeed
Thou art Hermione; or rather thou art she
In thy not chiding, for she was as tender
As infancy and grace."

* * * * * *

"Thus she stood,
Even with such life of majesty — warm life —
As now it coldly stands — when first I woo'd her!"

The effect produced on the different persons of the drama by this living statue — an effect which at the same moment is and is not illusion — the manner in which the feelings of the spectators become entangled between the conviction of death and the impression of life, the idea of a deception and the feeling of a reality; and the exquisite colouring of poetry and touches of natural feeling with which the whole is wrought up, till wonder, expectation, and intense pleasure hold our pulse and breath suspended on the event — are quite inimitable.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


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