You Speak a Language That I Understand Not: The Rhetoric of Animation in The Winter's Tale - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"You Speak a Language That I Understand Not": The Rhetoric of Animation in The Winter's Tale

Lynn Enterline, Yale University

Between Leontes's opening imperative, "Tongue-tied our queen? Speak you" (1.2.28), and the final act, where Hermione as living statue returns to her husband yet says nothing directly to him, The Winter 's Tale traces a complex, fascinated, and uneasy relation to female speech.1 A play much noted for interrogating the "myriad forms of human narration"2—old tales, reports, ballads, oracles—The Winter 's Tale begins its investigation of language when Hermione tellingly jests to Polixenes, "Verily, / You shall not go; a lady's 'verily' is / As potent as a lord's" (11. 49-51), for Leontes's swift turn to suspicion hinges on the power of his wife's speech. Unable to persuade Polixenes to stay, he first expresses annoyance when Hermione is able to do so. Polixenes has just assured his boyhood friend "There is no tongue that moves, none, none i' th' world, / So soon as yours could win me" (11. 20-21). Nonetheless, it is Hermione's tongue, not her husband's, that wins Polixenes. "You, sir, / Charge him too coldly," she chides Leontes before persuading their friend to stay (11. 29-30). Leontes therefore shifts quickly from "Well said, Hermione" (1. 33), to churlish acknowledgment of her rhetorical power. He understands her persuasive speech not as obedience to his desire—since he is the one who commanded "Speak you"—but as a force that eclipses his own:

LEONTES  Is he won yet?
HERMIONE He'll stay, my lord.
LEONTES  At my request he would not.

(11. 86-87)

From Hermione's success, jealous deductions quickly follow. Indeed, the first hint that something is amiss in this marriage is this seemingly minor quibble over who speaks to better purpose and who is the better rhetorician. When he later broaches with Camillo Polixenes's decision to stay, Leontes confirms his suspicions on the basis of his own earlier failure to persuade:

CAMILLO You had much ado to make his
anchor hold,
When you cast out, it still came home.
LEONTES  Didst note it?
CAMILLO He would not stay at your petitions,
His business more material.
LEONTES  Didst perceive it?

(11. 213-16)

Outdone in rhetorical power by his wife. Leontes makes two interpretive moves to reassert control over her language. First, he reminds Hermione of her answer to his proposal of marriage—in fact, he quotes her words of assent, "'I am yours for ever'" (1. 105)—and calls those words a "better" speech than the one to which Polixenes has yielded. And, second, he reads as evidence of infidelity the conversation he has himself induced between Hermione and his friend: "Too hot, too hot!" (1. 108). Making himself arbiter of Hermione's language, Leontes approvingly quotes the words he prefers while giving a fixed, suspicious meaning to the ones he does not. The scene's pronounced interest in acts of persuasion, one failed and the other successful, produces an odd effect: plunging into Leontes's jealousy, the scene makes his unreasonable emotion appear to be the consequence of this rivalry between male and female speech. As the drama quickly unfolds, we watch the king turn a rhetorical anxiety—why do her words achieve the desired effect where mine do not?—into a sexual one, minimizing his wife's superior rhetorical skill by interpreting it narrowly as the consequence of her erotic power. In Act 5, however, Hermione returns as a theatrical version of Pygmalion's silent statue to the husband who was once so jealous of her tongue. Almost but not quite "tongue-tied," she addresses herself to her lost daughter only. (I will return to her words to Perdita at the end of this essay.) After her theatrical metamorphosis, Hermione does not address the man who doubted her to the brink of annihilation. Having once triggered a terrible response with her voice, she now evades the problem by saying nothing to Leontes.3

I am tempted to say Hermione has learned her lesson. But as I hope to show, The Winter's Tale defies an intuitive understanding of the difference between speech and silence—or, for that matter, the difference between agency and impotence, male and female, often allied with it. The elaborate Pygmalion fantasy offered in the last scene as a way to resolve the problems inaugurated by Hermione's initially "potent" tongue tells us that before we can begin to hear the full resonance of her concluding silence, we must consider the relationship between, on the one hand, the trope of the female voice in the Ovidian-Petrarchan tradition that Shakespeare inherits and transforms in this play and, on the other, the quite specific rhetorical concerns through which The Winter's Tale reads that tradition, turning it into theatrical metacommentary. Any reading of the play's uneasy fascination with the female voice, that is, must take account of the complex literary legacy of Pygmalion's obsession with his mute simulacrum. As this silent figure passes from Ovid to Petrarch to Shakespeare, it criticizes even as it perpetuates a mysterious tie between love of art and hatred for women. Narratives of rape and misogyny frame the figure of the animated statue, tranishing the luster of a story that otherwise seems to be about love for beautiful form, visual as well as verbal. The literary legacy of Pygmalion's statue asks readers, therefore, to think again about the consequences of the many kinds, and discourses, of love.

I should preface this analysis by noting that when I speak of a "female voice" in this play, I mean to designate a pervasive and seductive trope—a discursive effect, not a prediscursive fact. Through the sound of the very "female" voice that inaugurates Leontes's jealousy, I will argue, the play distances itself from the king's essentializing effort to dismiss Hermione's rhetorical power by understanding it as erotic power only. Of course the arbitrary force of Leontes's jealous interpretation of his wife's tongue raises troubling questions about the violence latent in such culturally pervasive ideas as those of "male" speech and "female" silence. Because The Winter's Tale was written for a transvestite theater, moreover, I do not presume a given—or, more important, an intelligible—phenomenon anterior to the language that gives it shape (for instance, "woman" or "the female subject"). Reading the way in which the voices of Hermione and Leontes affect and implicate each other, I hope to show, tells us that—like Echo and Narcissus or Salmacis and Hermaphroditus—female and male voices in this very Ovidian play are locked in a mutually defining, differential embrace. An analysis of the "female voice" in The Winter's Tale is important precisely because it must change our understanding of that term.

Renaissance revisers of the Metamorphoses routinely adopt such stories as Ovid's Pygmalion as a way to comment on the medium of their appearance; Shakespeare is no exception. Ovid's own generic experimentation, his rhetorical and poetic self-reflexivity, and his habit of linking oral/aural dilemmas to visual ones encouraged in Renaissance imitators a highly self-conscious practice of borrowing.4 Erotic stories from the Metamorphoses became highly charged reflections on the power (and dangers) of the story's very medium—whether painting, poetry, music, or drama. Such self-conscious visitations prepare us for Shakespeare's much noted—and celebrated—effort to turn Ovid's story of Pygmalion into one about the transforming powers of theatrical representation, about a theater that succeeds where even Orpheus failed: "I'll fill your grave up" (5.3.101). Because the idea of the living statue plays a crucial role in Shakespeare's claims for the theater and in our own critical reception of those claims, it becomes vital that we understand the epistemological and ethical consequences of the rhetoric of animation. For Shakespeare's final invocation of the living statue's "magic" draws on a story that self-consciously proposes a close yet opaque alliance between aesthetics and misogyny. I will suggest that, in silence as in speech, the female voice in The Winter 's Tale allows us to interrogate the terms and the limits of that alliance.

I. "Shall I Be Heard?"

(Shakespearean Criticism)


To apprehend the burden Shakespeare assumes when he has Paulina tell Hermione to "bequeath to death" her "numbness," we must remember the symbolic and libidinal economy that informs the Pygmalion story in the two chief texts that gave it such tenacity as a fiction about voice, masculinity, and desire: Ovid's Metamorphoses and Petrarch's Rime Sparse. As Leonard Barkan writes, Hermione's metamorphosis enacts "a kind of marriage of Pygmalion and Petrarchanism."5 In the Rime Sparse, Petrarch draws on numerous Ovidian characters to represent his own situation of unfulfilled desire; and in a pair of sonnets that praise Simone Martini's portrait of Laura, he brings Ovid's story of Pygmalion into the cycle as a particularly compelling analogue for his own predicament.6 Two rhetorical issues are central to both Petrarch's and Shakespeare's versions of Ovid's Pygmalion: the trope of apostrophe and the language of praise or epideixis. By lamenting the picture's silence—"if only she could reply to my words!" ("se risponder savesse a' detti miei!")—Petrarch's apostrophe creates the fiction of his own voice; a second apostrophe accentuates the fiction of a voice and the language of epideixis at once: "Pygmalion, how much you must praise yourself for your image ("quanto lodar ti dei") if you received a thousand times what I yearn to have just once!" (78.11, 12-14).7 In these concluding lines Petrarch rewrites Ovid's story according to one of the Rime Sparse's controlling signifiers: lodare. He thereby refashions Ovid's Pygmalion in his own image, reading him as an artist devoted to praising himself for the excellence of his simulacrum. Petrarch derives the name Laura from the Latin laudare and, according to the Secretum, loves the name just as much as he loves the lady herself.8

In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare reads the tradition Petrarch's poetry inaugurated in precise rhetorical terms—in terms, that is, of the power of address and of epideixis. Long before staging his own kinds of address to a composite Ovidian-Petrarchan statue ("Chide me, dear stone" or "descend; be stone no more; approach" [5.3.24, 99]), Shakespeare fits the representation of Hermione (and Leontes's relation to her) into a meditation on epideictic speech. Where The Rape of Lucrece explores the violent consequences of Petrarchan epideixis—because "Collatine unwisely did not let / To praise" Lucrece to other men (11. 10-11), rape is the consequence9The Winter's Tale gives us a Hermione who, in jest, offers herself as the beloved object of praise:

What? have I twice said well? When was't
I prithee tell me; cram's with praise, and
As fat as tame things. One good deed dying
Slaughters a thousand waiting upon that.
Our praises are our wages.


Understood in light of Shakespeare's critique of praise in The Rape of Lucrece, Hermione's pose as epideictic object for her husband while in the presence of another man should alert us that the rhetorical competition between Hermione and Leontes may already have entered the troubled world of Petrarchan verbal exchanges gone awry. Indeed, Hermione's very participation in a rhetorical competition with one man to vie for another man's ear alerts us that culturally dominant alignments of gender and rhetoric do not pertain. Her "potent" rhetoric disrupts received expectations for epideictic speech. And so in this play, terrible consequences attend Hermione's speaking, even though Leontes is the character whom her playful remarks about praise might lead us to believe will follow Collatine as ill-fated epideictic rhetorician. Instead of hearing more from Leontes, however, we hear from Hermione; and what she speaks about is her own power of speech. Her balanced syntax hints to the jealous ear that, just as they are matched in her discourse, the two men may be equivalent objects for her exchange: "I have spoke to th' purpose twice: / The one for ever earn'd a royal husband; / Th' other for some while a friend" (11. 106-8). As if following her lead into the language of payment and exchange, Leontes begins to angle for proof by changing Hermione's equation of the two men into a marketplace where she is their commodity: "Hermione, / How thou lov'st us, show in our brother's welcome; / Let what is dear in Sicily be cheap" (11. 173-75). While the rest of the play may seem to return to expected discursive convention by making Hermione (and her fidelity) the enigmatic object of others' discourse—in praise and in slander—that predicament, we should remember, is initiated in Act 1 by the unexpected power of her persuasive tongue.

The play's most striking debt to the Petrarchan tradition, of course, emerges in the final scene when a stony lady comes to life. Both Ovid and Petrarch use what Kenneth Gross aptly calls "the dream of the moving statue" as an erotic, synesthetic investigation of the status of the human voice and the consequences of rhetorical speech. In both, as in Shakespeare's play, this investigation occurs by way of a meditation on the success or failure of an address. In each of the three texts, this address draws our attention to the way that all parties present are implicated in and defined by the verbal event. Before looking more carefully at Petrarch's version of Pygmalion, however, we must first understand the complex connections between rhetoric, voice, and sexuality which he inherited from Ovid's poem.

In the Metamorphoses, Pygmalion's wishes come true because he addresses words of prayer to Venus. The story of animation, the event of the statue's motion, offers an erotic version of a rhetorician's dream. The scene's action and considerable dramatic effect (waiting for a statue to move) derives from a pun on the desired end of rhetorical speech. Drawing on the contemporary word for rhetorical power—the power, that is, to "move" (movere)—the narrator tells us that in his statue, Pygmalion believes he has an audience who "wants to be moved" (X.251).10 And because the narrator of the story is the grieving Orpheus, yet another compelling fantasy about the voice's power informs the ivory maiden's animation. Shakespeare, too, connects the stories of Orpheus and Pygmalion. After the "statue" moves, Paulina warns Leontes: "Do not shun her / Until you see her die again, for then / You kill her double" (5.3.105-7). Paulina's imperative deftly combines the story of Pygmalion's statue with that of Orpheus's Eurydice by implying two things: like the statue, Hermione has come to life; and because of this animation, she may, like Eurydice, die twice. Indeed, Golding's translation of Ovid's text may have suggested Paulina's wording. For Ovid's version of Eurydice's "twin" death—"stupuit gemina nece coniugis Orpheus" (X.69)—Golding renders, "This double dying of his wyfe set Orphye in a stound."11

The interwoven stories of Orpheus and Pygmalion seem, at first glance, to propose a familiar hierarchy between male verbal agency on the one hand and female silence and death on the other. Where the sculptor's prayer succeeds, the statue says nothing and has no name; where Orpheus's song momentarily takes over the narrative of the poem—thus predicating Book X of the Metamorphoses itself on Eurydice's absence—Eurydice utters a barely audible "vale " before "falling back again to the place whence she had come" (X.63). As Petrarch realized, the first (male verbal agency) seems to depend on the second (female silence and death). But trouble soon disturbs this too-sanguine version of male vocal power. Once able to move the inanimate world by "moving his voice in song" ( "hoc vocem carmine movit" [1. 147]), Orpheus dies because Bacchic (female) noise drowns out his voice: the "huge uproar" of discordant flutes, horns, drums, "and howlings of the Bacchanals" overwhelms the sound of Orpheus's lyre ( "ingens / clamor . . . et Bacchei ululatus " [XI. 15-18]). Once-listening stones turn to weapons, stones now "reddened with the blood of the bard whose voice was unheard" ("saxa / non exauditi rubuerunt sanguine vatis" [II. 18-19]). And where Pygmalion succeeds in animating his beloved, his narrator fails. Having won Eurydice only to lose her again through his own action, Orpheus then sings a song in which we hear the story of yet another beloved woman given life through art. Orpheus's failure underwrites the story he tells, making the fantasy of the statue's animation part of the wishful fort-da game of his impossible desire. These interwoven narratives therefore tell us that power is fleetingly, intermittently, and only phantasmatically granted the male voice. And they tell us, moreover, that his voice may not be the only sound that matters.

Still, we must acknowledge that Eurydice's death and the unnamed statue's silence in the Orpheus-Pygmalion sequence conform to a larger fantasy, first proposed in Book I of the Metamorphoses, in which male vocal triumph requires female absence or resistance. Two stories of attempted rape—Apollo's pursuit of Daphne and Pan's of Syrinx—tell the origins of epideictic and pastoral poetry by presenting a rigid sexual division of labor in the production of song. Close on Daphne's heels, the god of poetry fails to persuade and so becomes himself because she eludes his grasp.12 And hard on the heels of that encounter follows Pan's pursuit of Syrinx, an...

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Ii. "Not Guilty"

(Shakespearean Criticism)


We have seen that when Shakespeare adopts the imagined scene of speaking to a stony lady as a way to repair the devastation caused by Leontes's jealousy, he turns the conflict between male and female verbal power into a meditation on Ovidian and Petrarchan rhetoric in general and on the role of the female voice in that literary legacy in particular. Before looking more closely at the telling role female voices play in The Winter's Tale, however, we must examine the vicissitudes of the voice in the Rime Sparse, particularly for those Ovidian characters whom Petrarch borrows as so many figures for his own situation. Like many of his literary contemporaries, Shakespeare...

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Iii. "Be Stone No More"

(Shakespearean Criticism)


The literary figure to whom Shakespeare turns to explore such a vexed relation to the world is Ovid's Pygmalion.46 For both skepticism and projection join hands to fashion Leontes's misery (e.g., "Your actions are my dreams"). On David Ward's persuasive argument for retaining the punctuation of the First Folio and for remembering the contemporary meaning of "coactive" as "coercive" or "compulsory" (and not merely "acting in concert"), Leontes's speech about "affection" is stressing "the coercive nature of affection," its "action upon the 'nothing' it generates in the imagination" (as Ward parses it, "Affection . . . Thou . . . Communicat'st with...

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