Friday, March 6, 2015

Hermione's statue in Winter's Tale: is Leontes Pygmalion or not?

Shakespeare's Winter's Tale concludes a stunning scene of transformation in its final act. Queen Hermione was reported to have died in the most abject circumstances some sixteen years earlier (WT 3.2.3). Over the years her memory has been kept alive by a sculpted likeness by her husband's Leontes. In the play's finale a remarkable denouement occurs to the amazement of the on-stage characters (as well as the audience, to be sure). Some critics see the transformation of the statue into a living Hermione (WT 5.3.11) as a a parallel to Pygmalion's creation in the classical myth (Ov. Met. 10.243-98).

Engraving by Robert Thew of Wm Hamilton, R.A.,
"Statue of Hermione".
Jane Davidson Reid's Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts lists the statue of Hermione as a usage in the Pygmalion article (p. 956). Corroborative scholarship includes Carroll (1985) 213ff. and Barkan 1986 283-87.

The MythMatters blog's reader(s) know(s) of my reticence to allow Shakespeare's Hamlet to be listed as a usage of the Orestes myth. Nutshelled: Hamlet clearly references Neoptolemus' murder of Priam and imposes the mythic paradigm of that narrative upon the events raging in Elsinore and in Hamlet's tormented mind; overt reference to Orestes' plight is wholly lacking in the bard's masterpiece. When Shakespeare alludes to a classical myth, in my opinion, he knows how to do so, and he tends to let his audience know it.

The Winter's Tale's application of a classical myth is somewhat problematic for my narrow definitions of what is allowable in Shakespearean myth-use criticism. For, I see no overt reference to Pygmalion and his ivory girl (aka Galatea in post-classical parlance). Criticism perhaps ought to pause at the threshold of treating this "parallel" — i.e. Leontes:Pygmalion::Hermione:"Galatea" —and settle merely to observe that the scene merely seems to draw upon the Ovidian forebear. Yet, that positively-spun Pygmalionism infuses Leontes' dedication to his lost wife, who after years of separation comes back to him. Presumably all the work that Pygmalion had put into prayers to Venus and into masterful craftsmanship has been expended by Leontes in the interim since Hermione's unfortunate demise. (The play's text itself states that not Leontes himself but one Giulio Romano had sculpted Hermione's likeness for the widowed king.)

Shakespeare clearly knew Ovid's Metamorphoses. The Pygmalion myth comes into Western literature through no other way than through the text that the bard is known to have read, at least in Claxton's translation if not in Latin, in his school days. Reid offers as "classical sources" for Pygmalion "Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.243-98. Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3.14.3." However, that latter passage includes no tale of an animated sculpture: "οὕτος [Κινύρας] ἐν Κύπρῳ, παραγενόμενος σὺν λαῷ, ἔκιστε Πάφον, γήμας δὲ ἐκεῖ Μεθάρμην, κόρην Πυγμαλίωνος Κυπρίων βασιλέως..." (Cinyras migrated to Cyprus with a people, founded Paphos, and married there Metharme the daughter of Pygmalion the king of the Cypriots). Ovid alone gets the provocative sculptor into our literary tradition.

Was Shakespeare working with the Pygmalion story as he received it in Ovid's Metamorphoses/ The motif of a statue-made-flesh was certainly available to him. But does Leontes become a Pgymalion in the Winters Tale? I'm leaving the jury out a bit longer.

BYU's dramatic production of WT in late March 2015 may give me a chance to watch the play and sharpen my judgement.


MIT's Shakespeare project text:
J. Miller, "Some Versions of Pygmalion: in C. Martindale, ed., Ovid Renewed (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: metamorphosis and the pursuit of paganism (New Haven, 1986).
William C. Carroll, The Metamorphosis of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton, 1985).


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