My Favorite "Moment of Happiness/Celebration in Shakespeare"

Henry Stacy Marks (1829-1898), pen and ink drawing of The Winter's Tale Act Five

Last year, Andy McLean, who was compiling a series of posts for the Bell Shakespeare blog, asked me to choose my "favorite moment of happiness/celebration in Shakespeare." Here's an explanation of my choice.

Moments of happiness in Shakespeare often come as a surprise to his characters, the most extreme examples being when loved ones thought to be dead are revealed to be alive. This happens in Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. In each of these except Pericles, characters are manipulated into believing themselves responsible for their loved ones' deaths. In Much Ado and Winter's Tale, Friar Francis and Paulina make Claudio and Leontes believe that Hero and Hermione have died of shame. In The Tempest, Ariel appears in the guise of harpy to tell Alonso that his ill treatment of Prospero and Miranda has angered "the powers" that caused his son's death. When Claudio, Leontes, and Alonso have acknowledged their guilt and repented, they are granted the seeming resurrections of their loved ones in the plays' joyful climaxes. 

Leontes' story differs in that he actually is responsible for a death–sixteen years of repentance aren't enough to bring his son back to life. The climax of his play differs as well. 

First, it's preceded by a false climax: Leontes' reunion with his lost daughter, which is given to us second-hand, reported by Paulina's steward. The steward describes everything the audience expects for the play's actual climax: Leontes' lost daughter is found, he and his childhood friend are reconciled, and his daughter and her beloved are married. But what should be a joyous occasion turns to grief as Leontes remembers his wife: "Our king, being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter, as if that joy were now become a loss, cries, 'O, thy mother, thy mother!'" Leontes' grief spreads to his daughter and then to everyone watching: "Who was most marble there changed color; some swooned, all sorrowed: if all the world could have seen it, the woe had been universal."    

The metaphor of marble changing color foreshadows the play's real climax, in which the statue of Hermione comes to life. Unlike the resurrections of Hero in Much Ado, Thaisa and Marina in Pericles, and Ferdinand in The Tempest, Hermione's resurrection surprises the audience. We had no reason to believe Paulina lied when she swore that Hermione was dead: she invited everyone to see the corpse for themselves, to try to revive it. And Leontes said that that Hermione would be buried with her son, and that he would visit her grave every day–we had no reason to believe that this didn't happen during the sixteen years dividing the play's two halves.   

Another scene, reported rather than shown, reinforced the idea that Hermione was dead. On the coast of Bohemia, Antigonus told us that Hermione's ghost visited him in a dream. What he describes resembles scenes in Julius Caesar and Macbeth in which spirits of the dead appear to guilty characters. It most closely resembles the scene in Richard III where the spirits of Richard's victims appear to him in a dream before he is killed on Bosworth Field. Hermione curses Antigonus for abandoning Perdita and moments later he is torn apart by a bear. An unspoiled Winter's Tale audience shouldn't expect Hermione to return to life any more than it expects it of other ghosts in Shakespeare. Her resurrection is the only true surprise ending in his plays.   

In other plays with seeming resurrections, Shakespeare lets the audience know that supposedly dead characters are alive, creating suspense and dramatic tension that is relieved in the plays' climaxes. The effect in The Winter's Tale is different. Rather than watching Leontes' surprise, we experience it with him. 

H.S. Selous, 1864-68
We may be pulled so far into his point of view that we forget that Hermione is having a similar experience, discovering that her daughter is still alive. For the sixteen years that Leontes was repenting his crimes, Hermione was praying to see her daughter again. For me, the most moving moment of happiness in Shakespeare are her first words in the play's climax: 
     You gods, look down
     And from your sacred vials pour your graces
     Upon my daughter's head!


Andy said…
A brilliant pick. Thank you for sharing this, Robert.