For the second half of its 2012-2013 the Shakepseare Theater company in Washington, DC is currently putting on performances of Coriolanus, Wallenstein, and The Winter’s Tale. The first two plays are being performed in a pair the company is calling the Hero/Traitor Repertory, but it’s also fascinating to read the two Shakespeare works currently in production, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale, together. Though the former is a tragedy set in ancient Rome about a war hero who becomes the enemy of his city when he refuses to temper his manner to secure elected office, and the latter is a comedy of mistaken identities set in Sicily and Bohemia, both plays have tremendous roles for older women, Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother in the play that bears his name, and Paulina, advisor to the royal family of Sicily, in The Winter’s Tale. And to a certain extent, both plays are about what happens when women are barred from formal roles in public life, or when their voices are ignored.
In Coriolanus, Volumnia is the model of a Roman mother, a woman who has raised a great war hero. But while Marcius (the name her son bears before he is given the title Coriolanus in recognition of his war service) can do what Volumnia cannot, represent his country on the battlefield and win honor and political power by doing so, Coriolanus lacks his mother’s deft political perception and ability to compromise when necessary. To a certain extent, this is Volumnia’s fault in raising him. She’s the kind of woman who tells her daughter-in-law “If my son were my husband, I / should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he / won honour than in the embracements of his bed where / he would show most love,” and insists that if Marcius were killed in battle “Then his good report should have been my son.” Marcius’ success is a proxy for Volumnia’s own ambitions. When he wins his greatest victory yet and is poised to become a consul, she reflects, “I have lived / To see inherited my very wishes / And the buildings of my fancy.”
But she may actually be more fit to make the compromises necessary to hold that office than her son is. “Pray, be counsell’d,” Volumnia begs her son when he’s furious at having to go through the rituals to make him consul, including hearing himself praised for his accomplishment, and seeking the approval of Rome’s ordinary citizens, who he has nothing but contempt for. “I have a heart as little apt as yours, / But yet a brain that leads my use of anger / To better vantage…You are too absolute; / Though therein you can never be too noble.” The implacable nature that leads Coriolanus to storm entire cities by himself, and to fight his bitter enemy in single combat makes him an incredibly terrible politician. Volumnia may never have been able to kill in battle the way her son does, but it’s a shame she isn’t allowed to stand for office in his place. Coriolanus may be repulsed by the prospect of compromise, but Volumnia understands a politician’s job all too well: “I would dissemble with my nature where / My fortunes and my friends at stake required / I should do so in honour.”
She isn’t all triangulation and compromise, though. When her son is exiled as an enemy of the people and turns on Rome, leading an army against the city in an act of personal vengeance, Volumnia is the person who confronts her son with the destruction his pride has caused, asking him “Think’st thou it honourable for a noble man / Still to remember wrongs?” And she urges her daughter-in-law to move from a woman’s form of communciation to a man’s. “Daughter, speak you,” she tells the younger woman. “He cares not for your weeping.” Ultimately, she succeeds at getting her son to call off his attack, and there’s something bittersweet when Menenius, a Roman senator, declares that “This Volumnia
Is worth of consuls, senators, patricians, / A city full; of tribunes, such as you, / A sea and land full.” It’s an awful waste of her talents that a woman of that value can only express them through, or in the matter of her son.
In The Winter’s Tale, Paulina, a noblewoman, seems to have somewhat more formal power in the court of Leontes, the king of Sicily. When Leontes, in a jealous rage, imprisons his wife Hermoine on the charge of committing adultery with his childhood friend Polixenes, now grown to be King of Bohemia, Paulina’s gender isn’t a barrier to her speaking up in Hermione’s defense. “He must be told on’t,” she reflects when Hermione gives birth to a daughter early under great stress, “and he shall: the office / Becomes a woman best; I’ll take’t upon me.” When Leontes persists in his accusations, Paulina is the main character brave enough to tell her King what his jealousy is turning him into. “I’ll not call you tyrant,” she warns him. “But this most cruel usage of your queen, / Not able to produce more accusation / Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours / Of tyranny and will ignoble make you, / Yea, scandalous to the world.”
She’s right. Ignoring both her and the Oracle at Delphi, whose prophecy tells Leontes that not only is Hermione innocent, but that he will have no heir until he accepts the truth, Leontes insists that Hermoine is guilty, and condemns her daughter, who he insists is the product of her affair with Polixenes, to be abandoned in the wilderness to die. Even when Leontes has made his will, and his descent into madness clear, Paulina, quite bravely, continues to tell him the truth:
What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling?
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny
Together working with thy jealousies,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine, O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was’t much,
Thou wouldst have poison’d good Camillo’s honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done’t:
Nor is’t directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish’d his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last,–O lords,
When I have said, cry ‘woe!’ the queen, the queen,
The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead,
and vengeance for’t
Not dropp’d down yet.
It’s only when Apollo punishes Leontes for his intransigence, killing his son with disease and letting Hermoine (seemingly) die of grief that the king realizes what he’s done and turns to Paulina for counsel and help in doing penance. Sixteen years later, it’s Paulina who helps reconcile Leontes to his daughter, who was saved in Bohemia by a shepherd and has grown up and gotten engaged to Polixenes’ son, and reveals that Hermoine was not dead but in hiding, waiting for her husband to redeem himself and to reveal how much he regrets his actions against her. As a reward, Leontes gives Paulina a new husband (her first died after bringing Hermione’s daughter to safety), Camillo, a wise and moral advisor to Leontes who fled the country when the king in his madness ordered him to murder Polixenes. It’s a fitting act: both of the servants who were loyal to his best self and not merely his will in anger end up with their spouses who are their equals, and the couple will share Leontes’ ear.
At the end of the play, Leontes has recovered himself not just by reuniting with his wife and daughter, but listening to Paulina, which he should have done in the first place. “Good Paulina,” he asks her, “Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely / Each one demand an answer to his part / Perform’d in this wide gap of time since first / We were dissever’d: hastily lead away.” If only the men of Rome were able to see talent so clearly when it was before them, and to give power to the people who posses it, no matter their gender. In our time, there’s something fitting about the fact that Volumnia is a character in a tragedy, and that Paulina, who counsels kings and wins their respect, is in a fantastical comedy.