"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.
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
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?
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.