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Statues and silence: the uncanny in The Winter’s Tale and its mythical sources

An ancient stone head with headdress, shot from below in a darkened room, the mouth is open
Photo by Olena Lev / Unsplash

Hermione’s uncanny transformation arrives at the end of a play threaded with horror.

Note: I found this dissertation I wrote in my third year at university! I enjoyed re-reading it, and I thought it might be of interest to fellow fans of the uncanny so I'm sharing it here, twenty years later.

The primary source of Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale1(1610-11) is Robert Greene’s popular novel Pandosto, The Triumph of Time published in 1588. Shakespeare follows the plot very closely, but crucially the famous “statue scene” from the final act of his play is absent from Greene’s novel, in which the Queen remains dead, and Pandosto (Leontes’ counterpart) finally commits suicide. The source most frequently cited for this miraculous final scene is the story of Pygmalion, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Not only is there a range of plausible sources and influences for Shakespeare’s transformation scene in addition to the Pygmalion myth, but that some of the themes emerging from these stories which receive great emphasis in The Winter’s Tale, are entirely absent from the sculptor’s story. In particular I will focus on the Freudian “uncanny” aspect of Hermione’s transformation, which comes at the end of a play threaded with horror. There appears to be no sense of the uncanny in the Pygmalion myth, but it is present in the stories of Orpheus, Alcestis, and Laodamia, I will read these myths as possible sources for the statue scene.

So where did the statue scene come from? As well as the context of Renaissance sculpture, and a tradition extending from Dante and Petrarch of women described as being like stone, or frozen like statues (Petrarch makes use of the myth of Pygmalion from Book Ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Sonnets 77 and 78 of his Rime Sparse) there are a number of instances of the statue-becomes-human motif in literature contemporary to Shakespeare.

For example, the anonymous 1605 play The Tryall of Chevalry, in which two friends fight over a woman until one believes he has killed the other. His remorse is ended, however, when what appears to be a statue of the dead friend comes to life. The ninth book of Amadis de Gauleby Feliciano de Silva (1542) contains two episodes of real or apparent transformation of people into statues and then complete or partial transformation back into people (and includes a shepherd called Florisel). Jonathon Bate mentions Campion’s Lords’ Masque, in which eight golden statues change into women.2Although performed in 1613, it indicates the popularity of the statue motif at this time. Though there is no concrete evidence to suggest Shakespeare read these sources, their existence points to the idea of the living statue as a trope common in literature of the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth centuries due to its source in classical myth.

Shakespeare would certainly have read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in translation if not in the original Latin, as Arthur Golding had published a popular translation in 15673, which was highly praised by writers of the time, such as William Webbe and Thomas Nashe. There is a wealth of Ovidian influence in the work of Shakespeare, explored by Jonathon Bate, and this influence is also present in the transformation of Hermione from statue to living woman in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale; the bears Pygmalion’s signature.

There is similarity between the two tales in addition to the shared motif of a female statue that becomes animate. Although Pygmalion’s skill as a sculptor creates a statue “as that ye would believe had life”, it is ultimately his prayers to Venus that transforms her, and afterwards it is noted that he piously “thankèd Venus with his heart.” This seems to parallel, in Act 5 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale, Paulina’s appeal to Leontes: “It is requir’d / You do awake your faith” (5.3 ll.94-5).

A belief in love, and its transformative power is common to both stories. But in both texts there is also an interest in the power of art, which is particularly overt in theMetamorphoses, as Pygmalion has created a statue that looks so alive it almost fools its own creator: “Yet he could not persuade / Himself to think it ivory.”

Three kinds of ‘art’ are powerfully at work in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale: there is the consummate skill of the sculptor “that rare Italian Master, Julio Romano” (5.2 l.98), Pygmalion’s Renaissance parallel. There is also the magical ‘art’ of Paulina; “an art / Lawful as eating” (5.3 ll.110-1), which blurs into the third form of ‘art’ in this scene, which is the art of theatrical representation, shared by both Paulina and Shakespeare. She is the demiurge here, the Prospero of this play, who draws attention to the supremacy of theatre’s transformative capacity.

But at the same time, both statues exist in a framework of misogyny. Pygmalion creates his “wench of ivory” after he has turned away in disgust from real women after witnessing the lustful behaviour of the Propoets and their fate: Venus turns them to stone. Crucially, Pygmalion’s statue (nameless in Ovid’s version of the myth) is not an exercise in verisimilitude; she is “Of such proportion, shape and grace as nature never gave / Nor can to any woman give.” She is better than the real thing, possessing nothing of “the vice whereof great store is packed within / The nature of womankind”. Leontes’ jealous ravings in Act 1 are also deeply misogynist, and recall the frenzied tirades of King Lear and Othello in their emphasis on the monstrosity and bestiality of women; their sexual incontinence is figured as a flood that must be restrained. Leontes believes of Hermione that “she has been sluic’d in’s / absence” (1.2 l.194) and that “other men have gates, and those gates open’d, / As mine, against their will.” (1.2 ll.197-8)

These similarities between Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth and the transformation scene at the end of The Winter’s Talehave been noted and explored by critics including Leonard Barkan, Lynn Enterline and Jonathon Bate. However, there is also a strong critical case that suggests other sources from classical mythology for Shakespeare’s statue scene, and this is supported by the absence of any of the uncanny effects that are present in The Winter’s Tale.

The concept of the uncanny is associated with Freud through his landmark essay “The Uncanny”4but his work built on that of his predecessor, Ernst Jentsch, who focused on the uncanny aspect of automata, of particular relevance to the discussion of animate statues.5The uncanny is, as Freud says, “undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror”6but it is not simple to define. An aesthetic term describing what is eerie or creepy rather than what is terrifying. It is often created by the presence of familiarity in an alien environment or the presence of something strange and unusual in a familiar setting. Automata, dolls, and mannequins have already been mentioned, but doppelgangers and doubles, prostheses, missing limbs, severed limbs or heads are also strongly uncanny. The fear of the dark is possibly the most common example, as even the most comforting environment is made strange by darkness. The uncanny aspects of The Winter’s Taleand its sources that I will focus on are the return of the dead, the uncanny female body, the problematic status of living statues, and the significance of silence.

According to Freud, the strongest uncanny feelings are produced by the idea of the return of the dead.7Death is present not only in The Winter’s Talebut also in the stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, Alcestis and Admetus, Laodamia and Protesilus. Characters are lost and sometimes reclaimed from death; theirs is a re-animation, compared to the animation of Pygmalion’s statue. These deaths bring with them narratives of loss and mourning which seem entirely at odds with the comedy and beauty of Ovid’s statue scene, but they are accompanied by a horror of the supernatural, and the fear created by violent death.

For example, Hermione’s death is sudden, and is anticipated by Paulina in language suggesting an attack: “This news is mortal to the queen: look down / and see what death is doing”(3.2 ll.146-7) The immediacy created by using the present tense rather than suggesting what death “will do” or “may do” is shocking, and the need to “look down” to see it presents the idea of Death as a beast, as a savage animal below the sightline. When Antigonus describes his dream/vision, Hermione is described as a “Creature” (3.3 l.19) herself, recalling the bestial death imagery and the Mariner’s warning about “Creatures of Prey” (3.3 ll.10-11) just a few lines earlier. A shadow of the monstrous is raised by Leontes’ question in the final scene: “What was he that did make it?” (5.3 l.62) refers to the preternaturally talented sculptor, but can also be read as part of Leontes’ realisation that he has turned his love to stone, and that this places him on a par with Medusa, and the basilisk; a monster, a “what” rather than a “who”.

The vision of Hermione that appears to Antigonus is terrifying. He creates an uncanny feeling by placing his disturbing vision in a familiar context of popular tales and contemporary revenge tragedies (including, of course, Hamlet) through the phrase “I have heard, but not believ’d, the spirits o’th’dead / may walk again” (3.3 ll.16-17). This haunting return is deeply unsettling; the woman we have seen until now seems to be transformed into a malevolent force: once she has delivered her prophecy, that he “ne’er shalt see / Thy wife Paulina more” (3.3 ll.35-6) she shrieks like a banshee. Antigonus’ death follows swiftly after, and though the infamous stage direction has much comic potential, his demise is gruesome and violent, and sits uneasily with the ensuing pastoral scenes.

Later, in Act 5 Scene 1 Paulina and Leontes’ conversation about his potential remarriage produces some gruesome images, when Paulina explains that the idea is “as monstrous to our human reason / As my Antigonus to break his grave, / And come again to me” (5.1 ll.42-3). Leontes agrees that it would make Hermione’s “sainted spirit / Again possess her corpse” (5.1 ll.57-8). Freud suggests that repetition can be deeply uncanny, especially when it appears compulsive or mechanical: the emphasis placed in both these quotes on “again” helps create an eerie sense of repetition, incessant even after death.

Death is the definitive difference between Hermione and Pygmalion’s statue. The latter has never been alive, and though inanimate she cannot be said to be dead. The full ambiguity of this situation is apparent in the phrase from Golding’s translation of the Metamorphosesin which the statue before her transformation is described as a “counterfeited corse”. Though “corse” can refer just to the physical body, it is far more commonly used to describe a dead body. The implication of this pairing of words is that Pygmalion has fashioned not an artificial person, but an artificial corpse, something two steps removed from life.

Pygmalion’s statue does not have the repetitive quality or the unnerving familiarity of the examples above. Freud suggests that an uncanny effect is experienced:

either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.8

The stories of spirits that Antigonus has heard are parallels to Freud’s “primitive beliefs”: their confirmation is frightening. At the very heart of the uncanny is a sense of return, of repressed content coming back. The return of the dead is thus particularly disturbing, as it echoes the return of repressed material from the dark unconscious. Since Pygmalion’s statue comes to life rather than returns to it, this uncanny sense is absent.

Parallels between the rising of repressed material from the unconscious and the return of the dead beloved are made particularly clear in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, also in Book Ten of the Metamorphoses. Orpheus leads her up from Hades into the light: the unconscious has frequently been associated with the underworld; both are places containing things apparently laid to rest, unseen, dark and unfathomable. When Orpheus disregards the word of Pluto (as Leontes disregards Apollo’s oracle and the word of Hermione) he glimpses Eurydice slipping away behind him, like a memory that almost surfaces.

Golding writes “This double dying of his wyfe set Orphye in a stound” recalling Leontes’ petrifaction by Hermione’s statue. In Book Five of the MetamorphosesOvid describes Ceres’ reaction to Proserpine’s disappearance, and Golding’s translation provides an interesting parallel to Orpheus and Hermione: “Hir mother stoode as starke as stone…And long she was like one who in another worlde had beene.” Eurydice’s double death also evokes Paulina’s instruction to Leontes: “Do not shun her / Until you see her die again, for then / You kill her double”(5.3 ll.105-6) Dying twice produces its own form of uncanny repetition, and the ambiguity of “her double” introduces the idea of the double or doppelganger, which is strongly linked with the uncanny for Freud. Is it Hermione that returns, or her double?

There are two stories from the Greek concerning resurrection, which may have been influences on Act 5 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale. Louis Martz and Martin Mueller both provide evidence of the possibility that Shakespeare read Greek texts, though possibly in translation. The story of Protesilaus and Laodamia was recounted by Latin elegists in various forms9, and was the subject of a play by Euripides, which now exists only in fragments.10Briefly, Protesilaus was the first warrior killed at Troy, and his wife, Laodamia, was so overcome with grief that she fashioned a statue of him out of wax that she would talk to. The gods took pity on her devotion and allowed Protesilaus’ soul to temporarily inhabit the figure so that he might speak with his wife one more time. This instance of the animated statue shares with The Winter’s Talethe transformation from resemblance to presence, and exhibits a similar kind of sympathetic magic to that which Paulina appears to use. When Protesilaus’ soul inhabits the wax figure, it is a confirmation of the “primitive beliefs” mentioned before, and produces an uncanny effect.

As in Orpheus’ sad story, the Greek myth of Alcestis concerns resurrection. Critics including J.H.P. Pafford and Martin Mueller have identified the story of Alcestis, as it appears in Euripides’ play of the same name11, as a possible influence on Act 5 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Taleby. Shakespeare would easly have had access to George Buchanan’s translation, which was reprinted several times in the late Sixteenth century. Admetus fears the return of the dead, like Leontes, that “the dead herself” will accuse him if he accepts another woman into his house, and when he first sees Alcestis again he fears she may be “some phantom from the depths.” She is silent and veiled, and the resemblance she bears to his dead wife has a dramatic effect on Admetus, it is “Too much”. She is uncanny because despite her alien presence she is familiar to him. She takes on a spectrality that is certainly eerie if not menacing.

The statue motif is introduced earlier in Alcestis:

I shall have the skilled hand of an artificer

Make me an image of you to set in my room,

Pay my devotions to it, hold it in my arms

And speak your name, and clasp it close against my heart,

And think I hold my wife again, though I do not,

Cold consolation, I know it, and yet even so

I might drain the weight of sorrow. (ll.348-354)

The crucial difference between this passage and the description of Pygmalion’s attention to his statue is Admetus’ inescapable awareness that it is not his wife, demonstrated by his qualifying phrases “though I do not” and “I know it”, which break up the fantasy, and mean the statue would provide only “cold consolation”. His motive is to alleviate grief rather than to escape loneliness. It is the sense of loss that is most striking, and in this case there is pathos attached to the absurd idea of holding a statue, rather than humour as in Pygmalion’s. This is also true for Leontes when he tries to kiss the statue of Hermione; the gesture is pathetic rather than comic.

The morbid cultural context of statues seems to suggest something uncanny. Kenneth Gross identifies the “melancholy and spectral character” of statues, created by “the sense of something ‘ended’”.12 Roland Poulin clarifies the peculiar morbidity of statues with reference to the origins of the art of sculpture:

One could say that the whole history of sculpture is one of relationship to death. Sculpture is the only one of the arts, of the various media to have worked the theme so directly, physically, whether through the death mask, tombs, sarcophagi, etc. … that is the theme which, I believe, is a constant in sculpture. The whole history of sculpture is one of relationship to death. 13

Paulina’s statue of Hermione is housed in a chapel, suggesting a funerary monument; Leontes’ comment that “The fixure of her eye has motion in’t” (5.3 l.67)need not dispel the image of the statue as a effigy upon a tomb, as a stroll around Westminster Abbey will reveal that during the late Sixteenth and earl Seventeenth centuries the dead were portrayed with their eyes open, though almost always lying upon the tomb as if on a bed. Standing funeral statues were beginning to make an appearance at the time Shakespeare was writing, but this form was not widespread.

Sarah Kofman14has related portraits that survive their subjects to the uncanny double; existing between life and death, both absent and present. Artistic likenesses present a form of return from the dead, at least for the spectator, which is what occurs when Hermione’s statue is presented to Leontes. As Elizabeth Bronfen puts it:

Similarity… topples all categories of oppositions that distinguish model from copy, the animate from the inanimate and makes signs semantically indeterminate, meaning undecidable.15

Leontes’ confusion is clear when he says “Thou art Hermione; or rather, thou art she / In thy not chiding”(5.3 ll.25-6). The statue is addressed in the first person, Hermione in the third, and when the two are conflated, the curious address, “thou art she”, stands out. A couple of lines later, Leontes refers to the statue as “this” (5.3 l.28). Hermione’s identity slips between the memory of his dead wife and the statue before him.

Bronfen points out the way in which the likeness acts as a double, shielding the spectator from the reality of death and decomposition, because it is not the Hermione, just a Hermione. The likeness prolongs her life, as a record of her appearance and reminder to the spectators, but it also replaces the identity of the dead queen with an art object. The statue is a “non-referential sign”16, representing something that no longer exists. It is the liminality of the representation that creates the uncanny effect: it hovers between life and death, at once comforting and terrifying. The statue as a double is also uncanny; it is an object with a familiar appearance but separate existence. It is a signifier with no signified, not uncannily missing a limb, but missing a whole body.

Often the female body itself is associated with the uncanny: Sarah Kofman, Janet Todd, and Philip MacCaffrey have explored the “uncanny woman” as she has become known. Elisabeth Bronfen argues “both ‘death’ and ‘woman’ function as Western culture’s privileged tropes for the enigmatic and for alterity.”17 Woman is linked so closely with death and ‘Otherness’ that the female body certainly falls into the realm of the uncanny. The symbolic female body seems unstable and fluid, continually changing through the menstrual cycle and seeming to become so different as to be alien during pregnancy. Male anxiety about the female body, its instability and mystery, seems to propel the uncanny effects of female transformation. Again, the Pygmalion story shows only a hint of the uncanny, but when we consider it in conjunction with the story that precedes it this increases dramatically.

Immediately preceding the Pygmalion myth is the story of the Propoets, the first prostitutes, whom Pygmalion turns away from in disgust to create his own, perfect, woman. In the Golding translation of Ovid it is said of the Propoets “that they waxed brazen fast, [Venus] turned them to stone”. The first Oxford English Dicionary definition of “brazen” means “made of brass” but the third is “hardened in effrontery; shameless”18. So in this remarkable line the Propoets, as they lose their shame, are like wax hardening as it cools. However, they harden into brass: tougher than wax, and much more difficult to melt, which is then transmuted into stone, which is altogether impossible to soften without volcanic heat. There is a sharp contrast between the statue’s pure ivory, which softens like wax beneath her lover’s fingers, and the flesh of the Propoets which hardens like wax into tough brass.

The movement between the two stories is chiasmic and mirrors the fate of Hermione, accused of brazenness, by Leontes: “As you were past all shame / (Those of your fact are so), so past all truth” (3.2 ll.82-3) she becomes stone, and is then “thawed” by Paulina. In Leontes’ eyes Hermione plays in turn the role of the Propoet andthe perfect ivory maiden. When the associations in this play between the movements of the moon and pregnancy are set in a wider context of lunar associations with women, menstruation and childbirth, the phrase “that they waxed brazen fast, she turned them to stone” from Golding’s translation of the Metamorphosesseems even more closely to mirror Hermione’s experiences. Her pregnant body “waxes” like the moon, and Leontes views this as a potent sign of her supposed adultery; as the Queen “rounds apace” (2.1 l.16) she becomes in his eyes more brazen.

While the Propoets and Pygmalion’s statue metamorphose, they harden or they soften. Still slightly uncanny, the transformations move in one direction, they are constant, whereas Hermione’s body alters throughout the play. She begins heavily pregnant, then she is nursing, she dies, she becomes stone, she softens and becomes human again, but older, and not maternal. Hermione seems to embody the uncanny flux of the symbolic female form.

Sarah Kofman argues that the female body is linked to Freud’s concept of the death drive19, and that part of the reason Freud himself found the death drive uncanny was because involves an association with the mother, and should be understood as an “internalisation of the forbidden mother”20. The figure of the mother is intimately connected with death; the conflation of womb and tomb was a popular motif in the Renaissance. In sharp contrast to the Pygmalion myth, motherhood is central in The Winter’s Tale. The opening words of the second scene begin a string of allusions and innuendo: “Nine changes of the watery star hath been” (1.2 l.1) plays upon the symbolic relationship between the moon, birth, and water. Hermione’s pregnancy is obvious from the beginning of this scene, but as Carol Neely has pointed out the language throughout the play seems preoccupied by birth and “issue”.21

She gives examples of “submerged metaphorical references” 22: for example in the narrated reunion of Leontes and Perdita; despite “broken delivery” (5.3 l.10), “Truth were pregnant by circumstance” (5.2 ll. 31-2) and “every wink of an eye, some new grace will be born” (5.2 l.111). Neely quite correctly identifies this language of pregnancy with the emphasis within the play on cycles of natural growth and change. Hermione says she has “preserv’d” herself “to see the Issue” (5.3 ll.127-8). Perdita is her own “issue”, the harvest of Hermione’s long winter, the “fruits of [her] body” (3.2 l.96), but also the issue of the prophecy, the fulfilment of it.

Elizabeth Bronfen suggests the uncanniness of the maternal body is linked to its “double coding of plenitude and lack.”23She reformulates the view that female genitalia suggest castration to the male gaze; the absence of a penis is horrifying, the most severe form of the uncanny produced by a missing limb. This unsettling gap must be reconciled with the fecundity of pregnancy. Female sexuality is imaginatively extremely potent; in many early modern texts it seems to be a source of corruption, for example Hamlet’s imaginative dissection of Gertrude, and Othello’s tirade against Desdemona, full of images of corrupt fertility. Bosola seems to share this view of the Duchess of Malfi, and Beatrice Joanna in The Changelingis frequently compared to a disease. Lynn Enterline points out that “Leontes’ swift turn to suspicion hinges on the power of his wife’s speech”24which he mistakes for erotic power. She jokes with Polixenes that “a lady’s Verily’s/ As potent as a lord’s” (1.2 ll.51-2) but hers proves more “potent” than Leontes’, as she convinces Polixenes to stay where he has failed.

Although there are hints in Golding’s translation at the sexual nature of Pygmalion’s relationship with his statue, there is no dangerous feminine sexuality to be negotiated. The use of “corse” suggests the carnal nature of his love, it is the body he desires, as there is nothing else, no previous existence like that of Hermione so no memory of love like that of Leontes. After describing the rich clothes Pygmalion dresses her in, Ovid mentions she was as beautiful naked, poetically “undressing” her through this sequential imagery. Golding uses the word “undressed”, which accentuates this erotic sense of disclosing, revealing the naked statue to Pygmalion and the reader. Shortly after this the statue is named Pygmalion’s “bedfellow”, and Pygmalion finally awakens her with his sexual caresses and a kiss.

The famous simile “all hardness, yielded underneath his fingers, as we see / A piece of wax made soft against the sun” is a beautiful image, but the following lines make the statue’s role perfectly clear “A piece of wax… drawn to be / In divers shapes by chafing it between one’s hands and so / To serve to uses.” She has been sculpted first from ivory, then from wax, to serve Pygmalion’s “uses”. She is quite literally a sex object, incapable of returning his caresses or speaking to him, Their relationship is an embodiment of Western sexual discourses around gender, explored by Laura Mulvey25, in which masculinity is linked with the gaze of the dominant subject who objectifies and fetishizes. Femininity is consequently connected with the passive object that is gazed upon. Though the relationship between man and statue is unusual, it produces no sense of the uncanny as it fits so perfectly into this standard gender paradigm.

This is also applicable to Hermione and Alcestis in their resurrected states, but surrounding both is a strong feeling of the uncanny, which is linked with their liminal status between life and death. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “automaton” captures the very ambivalence that makes automata uncanny. They can be, on the one hand: “A human being acting mechanically or without active intelligence in a monotonous routine.” But they can also be “figures which simulate the action of living beings”.26 Freud quotes from Jentsch’s 1906 essay at the start of his own: the fear of automata lies in the “doubt as to whether an apparently living being is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate.”27Leontes and Admetus both express confusion at their wives’ appearance; the resemblance for both is uncanny, but the knowledge that they are dead places them in the realm of possible automata. The effect is especially eerie as the audience know very little about Alcestis, and we are kept completely in the dark about Hermione. Jentsch mentions this:

In story-telling, one of the most reliable artistic devices for producing uncanny effects easily is to leave the reader in uncertainty as to whether he has a human person or rather an automaton before him in the case of a particular character.28

This is not to suggest that the audience of either play expects Alcestis or Hermione to turn out to be automata, but that their behaviour (or lack of it) and particularly their silence makes them appear strange.

Spectrality is introduced into marriage, as all the resurrected characters (Hermione, Eurydice, Alcestis, Protesilus) are wives or husbands. The importance of marriage is made distinct in the ‘recognition’ scenes in both Alcestisand The Winter’s Tale - there is a re-enactment of courtship, or a marriage ceremony, conducted by Heracles and Paulina respectively. Both characters initiate physical contact between the husband and wife, in particular they urge Admetus / Leontes to take the woman’s hand. In Alcestis, when Heracles commands Admetus “Put forth your hand and take this woman” this seems to be a reference to ancient Greek wedding rituals, which involved an unveiling of the bride (analialypteria 29) who was then led into the house by her husband. In The Winter’s Tale Paulina mirrors this closely by urging: “Nay, present your hand. / When she was young, you woo’d her: now, in age, / Is she become the suitor?” (5.3 ll.107-9) Placing these silent, resurrected figures in the context of marriage produces an uncanny effect: the alien is placed in familiar surroundings. This is particularly striking in Alcestis, as the English translation of das Unheimliche which is closest to its original meaning is “the unhomely”. The “unhomely” figure of Alcestis is led right into the home, creating an uncanny juxtaposition. Conversely, when Pygmalion’s statue comes to life, he is already in bed with it: it is the consummation of the “marriage” rather than the symbolic re-entry into society that is the focus of her animation. The situation is already bizarre and unfamiliar, so the uncanny sense is lost.

It is an intensely dramatic moment when Leontes exclaims, “Oh, she’s warm!” (5.3 l.109). Shakespeare builds up to it by repeatedly deferring the sensual experience of the statue for the characters, who are prevented from touching her. The uncanny sense is still present however, as he doesn’t address her directly, revealing his doubts about her animated status. Admetus is just as guarded: “May I touch her, and speak to her, as my living wife?” he asks, seeking validation that she is alive from Heracles. When Admetus does address her he fragments her in a distinctly uncanny fashion: “Oh, eyes / and body of my dearest wife, I have you now”. Admetus’ uncertainty about the living status of his wife is reflected in his incapability to address her directly as a person rather than just a body. This fits another part of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of automaton, as “a living being viewed materially.”30

When Leontes does touch Hermione, and feels that she’s warm the tactile shock is conveyed to the audience, as the revelation of her life comes through Leontes’ touch. The confirmation of her life and her consciousness comes when Hermione speaks. The point at which she speaks is deeply significant; despite the intensity of the moment Leontes takes her hand, the reunion of mother and daughter is carefully positioned as the climax of the scene.

Alcestis and The Winter’s Talealso enter the realm of the uncanny through their silence. Once she has descended her pedestal in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, Camillo charges Paulina with making her speak: “If she pertain to life, let her speak too!” (5.3 l.114), suggesting that unless she can speak, she can lay no claim on living. In his essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets” Freud writes: “in dreams dumbness is a common representation of death”,31which helps explain the uncanny effect caused by the silence of the once-dead Hermione. It is starkly different from the animation of Pygmalion’s mute ivory “wench” for whom the main signifier of her life is her blush, and the opening of her eyes: “She felt the kiss and blushed thereat and, lifting fearfully / Her eyelids up, her lover and the light at once did spy.” Hermione’s eyes are open, suggesting not only funerary monuments but also a form of waking death. Dead, unseeing eyes are uncanny, and open eyes on representations of the dead do not suggest a peaceful passing.

Hermione’s initial silence, which appears to indicate that she is not yet fully alive, finds its parallel in Euripides’ Alcestis, in which even once she has been returned to Admetus she can’t speak. Heracles explains that he is “not allowed to hear her speak… until / her obligations to the gods who live below / are washed away.” The silence of Alcestis is explicitly linked with death, as she seems to undergo a slow transition from death to life, but Hermione’s is unexplained. Alcestis’ silence tempers the joyful reunion, serving as a reminder of the king’s folly and the severe consequences, and the Hermione’s silence fulfils the same function as, crucially, she does not address Leontes at all in the final scene.

POLIXENES She embraces him!
CAMILLO She hangs about his neck!
(5.3 ll.112-13)

Because speech is at the heart of the play, (the starting point of Leontes destructive jealousy) her silence at their reunion is undeniably significant. The expected dramatic moment of her speech to Leontes is deflated by the sudden lapse into narrative, and this builds up the tension for when she finally does speak, pushing the reunion between mother and daughter into a newly significant position.Paulina even marks the strange gap in the scene:

That she is living,
Were it but told you, should be hooted at
Like an old Tale: but it appears she lives,
Though yet she speak not. Mark a little while.
(5.3 ll.115-18)

That “she is living” is only reported to us, as her silence places her uncannily between life and death. The ambiguity of “but it appears she lives” intensifies the strange atmosphere, and the way in which her life is qualified by her silence (she is alive in spite of it) suggests speech is a crucial signifier of life, and underlines the link between silence and death identified by Freud. Nicholas Royle32highlights the connection (itself unspoken) between silence and the death drive. Although Freud doesn’t mention the death drive in “The Uncanny”, in 1933 he refers specifically to “the mute and uncanny activity” of the death drive.33 In The Ego and the Id(1923) he writes: “The death instincts are by their nature mute… the clamour of life proceeds for the most part from Eros”. 34Freud links silence not only with death, but with the horrifying instinct towards death, which has sinister implications for Hermione’s conspicuous silence. The sense of the uncanny is only dispelled when she speaks, and even then it survives in trace at the invocation of a supernatural audience: “You Gods, look down”.

The Winter’s Tale is part of the group of Shakespeare’s later plays that are often referred to as ‘romances’, because of the strong mythical and miraculous element they all contain. Despite its central pastoral section, The Winter’s Taleis a dark romance, and a seam of supernatural horror runs through it, culminating in the resurrection of Hermione. On one level there is a miracle and a joyous reunion, but there is also an uncanny, eerie aspect to the romance world. The myth of Pygmalion, frequently cited as Shakespeare’s major source for the final scene, seems entirely disconnected from the uncanny. Considering as alternative influences the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Admetus and Alcestis, only heightens the disparity between the Pygmalion myth and Hermione’s restoration. Images of the dead returning, of automata, of the uncanny female form, create an uncanny effect that is matched in The Winter’s Tale. Unlike the pleasing dumbness of Pygmalion’s “wench”, Hermione’s striking silence in the final scene slices through the happy ending.


1 All quotations taken from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson, David Scott Kastan, rev. edn, (Arden, 2001) This edition is based on the 1623 Folio text.

2 Jonathon Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993) p.237

3 All quotations taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Arthur Golding, ed. Madeleine Forey, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002)

4 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (first published 1919) in Pelican Freud Library, 14, trans. James Strachey, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) pp. 335-76

5 Ernst Jentsch, ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ (first published 1906), trans. Roy Sellars, Angelaki vol. 2, no. 1: 7-16

6 Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ p.339

7 Freud, “The Uncanny” p.364

8 Freud, “The Uncanny” p.372

9 Cf. Catullus, Poem 68; Propertius 1.19; Ovid, Heroides 13

10 T.B.L. Webster, The Tragedies of Euripides, (London: Methuen, 1967) pp. 97-98

11 All quotations taken from ‘Alcestis’ in Euripides I, trans. Richard Lattimore, from The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore, (London: University of Chicago Press, 1955) pp.7-53

12 Kenneth Gross, The Dream of the Moving Statue. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992) p.15

13 Roland Poulin, http://cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/docs/poulin_clip6_e.pdf

14 Sarah Kofman, The Enigma of Woman. Woman in Freud’s Writings, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985

15 Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992) p.116

16 Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body, p.123

17 Elisabeth Bronfen, ‘The death drive (Freud)’, in Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, ed. Elizabeth Wright (Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp.52-7


19 The death drive is first mentioned in Beyond The Pleasure Principle, published in 1920, the year after “The Uncanny”.

20 Sarah Kofman, Freud and Fiction, trans. Sarah Wykes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), pp.160-1

21 Carol Neely “The Winter’s Tale: Women and Issue” in Shakespeare: The Last Plays, ed. Kiernan Ryan, (Longman: New York 1999) p.170

22 Neely, p.170

23 Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body, p.122

24 Enterline, Lynn “You speak a language that I understand not”: The Rhetoric of Animation in The Winter’s TaleShakespeare Quarterly, 48.1 (Spring 1997) p.17

25 Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (1975): p.6-18.


27 Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ p.339

28 Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ p.339

29 Robert C. Kelterer, ‘Machines for the Suppression of Time: Statues in Suor Angelica, The Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis’, Comparative Drama 24.1 (1990) 3-23, p.16


31Sigmund Freud, ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’ in Pelican Freud Library, 14, trans. James Strachey, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) pp. 239-40

32 Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) pp.86-88

33 Quoted in Royle, p.86

34 Quoted in Royle, p.86