Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Johns Hopkins University Press
The Winter’s Tale and Henry VIII are built on a paradox—their women protagonists acquire increased moral authority even while they are being demoted and persecuted. The structure of these plays supports this empowering through a series of spectacles of female fictive kinship. While male kinship, especially patrilineage, is central to the construction of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, female fictive lineage is crucial to the vision of these two plays. Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale visually and verbally construct succession through a series of mutually sympathetic female figures who are not necessarily biologically related: Hermione/ Paulina/Perdita; Katherine/Anne/Elizabeth. Shakespeare draws on a range of sources to represent women as inheriting intangible but important strengths from one another. This paper will explore how two of these sources—Marian mythology and the historical events of Henry VIII’s relations with his wives and children—function in rich interplay with one another in both plays. The plays appeal to the audience’s collective memory of both sources. Elements of Mariology critique male-female relations and suggest visionary resolutions which resonate with the medieval past and look forward to an imagined Utopian future.