A Feminist Perspective of Paulina in The Winter's Tale
Feminist criticism explores gender themes in literature, assesses the worth of female characters, promotes unknown women writers, and interprets the canon from a politically-charged perspective. Shakespeare has proven more difficult to categorize than other white male masters of the written word, precisely because of the humanity of his female characters. Critic Kathleen McLuskie urges feminists to "assert the power of resistance, subverting rather than co-opting the domination of the patriarchal Bard" (McLuskie 106). Yet many feminists find strength in Shakespeare. Irene Dash, for instance, proclaims that "Shakespeare's women characters testify to his genius .... they learn the meaning of self sovereignty for a woman in a patriarchal society" (Dash 1). Paulina of The Winter's Tale provides support for Dash's argument. With courage and passion, Paulina defends Hermione against chauvinistic paranoia and enshrines female virtue.
Perhaps the best testimony to Paulina's power is the historical reaction of male critics. In 1733, editor Lewis Theobald condemned Paulina as "too gross and blunt" for daring to call the King "downright a Fool" (Dash 135). In 1863, scholar Charles Cowden Clarke whined that Pauline was excessive: "... she does play the tattoo upon his skull with amazing vivacity and after he is down, too .... Paulina cannot forego the gratification of punching him in his maundering distress" (Clarke 356). In 1969, Fitzroy Pyle acknowledged Paulina's "goodness" but applied the label "militant" (Pyle 41).
With a similar sentiment but more blatantly hostile language, the fictional King Leontes abuses his adversary Paulina with sexist insults. He screams "witch," "crone," and "gross hag" (II. iii. 66,74,106). Amazingly, 377 years after Shakespeare wrote this play, radical-lesbian-feminist-theologian Mary Daly would reclaim Leontes' invectives in her controversial Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Daly re-defines crone as a "survivor of the perpetual witchcraze of patriarchy" and describes hags as "haunting the Hedges/Boundaries of patriarchy, frightening fools and summoning Weird Wandering Women into the Wild" (Daly 114,136). For daring to speak the truth, for refusing to be silenced until her message is conveyed, Paulina receives furious threats from the patriarchal ruler. Neither husband nor King can...