Wow, what a title- a long one and one you probably never expected to see on this blog. However. I’m a history nerd. Also, I had to write a research paper for my literature class, and I figured I may as well share it, because otherwise all my hard work will be buried forever. XD
So, here you are! Presenting my research paper, hopefully you enjoy it! 🙂 (note: my lit class teacher told me some places need citations since some of the info is not, as I thought, common knowledge. As my paper has already been graded, and this is a blog post, I’m not going to add in more citations. So.)
The Historic Parallels in the Winter’s Tale
The exact year that William Shakespeare started writing his plays is unknown, however, the general belief is that Shakespeare wrote his plays between 1590 and 1613. Queen Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603. Thus, Shakespeare would have been very familiar with his sovereign’s parentage.
Elizabeth I was the daughter of the infamous Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who is probably the most well known of Henry’s six wives. In The Winter’s Tale, Hermione faces very similar circumstances to what Anne faced, and indeed, Anne Boleyn’s biographer, Eric Ives, thought that The Winter’s Tale was based on Anne’s circumstances (“The Winter’s”).
The first similarity between Anne Boleyn and Hermione are the charges they were accused of. Hermione was accused of adultery. Anne was also accused of adultery, but in addition, she was also charged with incest, witchcraft, and treason, though she wasn’t convicted of all of those. Hermione was clearly innocent.
Today, the general consensus is that Anne was also innocent, but while the courtiers in The Winter’s Tale believed in and defended Hermione’s innocence, the people of Anne’s country were completely against her. However, when Queen Elizabeth I rose to power, she defended her mother, so Shakespeare very likely believed in Queen Anne’s innocence. At any rate, if The Winter’s Tale was indeed based on Anne’s circumstances, it seems that Shakespeare did believe Anne’s innocence. (Or perhaps, he just didn’t want to upset his sovereign, and patron.)
There was not a single logical piece of evidence against Hermione, only Leontes’ imaginings. Anne did have a piece of evidence against her, but that was the confession of a single man. This man was named Mark Smeaton, and he gave his confession while under torture. Of five men accused, he was the only one to eventually plead guilty to being one of Anne’s lovers. We cannot know whether he made the confession up in hopes of being released, or whether being under torture made him give a real confession.
Kings Leontes and Henry VIII both accused their faithful wives of charges they did not commit. For Leontes, this was an out of the ordinary thing. He was enveloped in a cloud of rage and jealousy. That was not his usual nature at all.
Henry, on the other hand, is known for his fickle nature when it comes to his wives. He was continuously changing his affections from one woman to the next. He made changes to the church just so that he could divorce his first wife (and later, he also ended up divorcing his fourth wife), and accused and beheaded his second and fifth wives. Some people think that this was just Henry’s nature, but other sources believe otherwise.
It is known that Henry suffered several blows to the head during jousting matches and other occasions. Doctors, scientists, and historians now think that those blows to the head caused brain damage, which changed his personality (Hathaway). There is no explanation as to why Leontes had a sudden change in personality, however, and no explanation as to how he went back to normal just as suddenly.
Probably the biggest difference between Anne and Hermione’s cases are that Hermione was never actually convicted and punished, while Anne was. Anne’s punishment was execution. Hermione’s cause of death appeared to be shock at the death of her young son, though of course, we find out at the end that she didn’t actually die and instead went into hiding to wait for the right time to reveal herself.
Anne and Hermione also had different ways of defending themselves while on trial. Hermione tried to defend herself, but Anne seemed resigned to her fate. She probably knew from the minute she was accused that she was doomed, as there is usually no way of arguing with a king and a court who have made up their minds.
Even as Anne was about to die, she blessed her husband and his reign: “I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord” (Hanson).
While Queen Hermione did make a gallant attempt to defend herself, some of her words at her trial are, however, very similar to Queen Anne’s words just before she was executed: “Since what I am to say must be but that which contradicts my accusation, and the testimony on my part no other but what comes from myself, it shall scare boot me to say ‘Not guilty;” (Shakespeare 41).
Anne was born in the United Kingdom, but she did spend some time in France growing up. Ultimately, though, she was born and grew up in the country she later helped rule. Hermione, however, states: “The Emperor of Russia was my father” (Shakespeare 44). That suggests that Hermione probably was born and grew up in Russia, before marrying Leontes and moving to Sicilia.
Hermione was higher in rank than Anne when they were young, given that Hermione’s father was apparently an emperor. Anne’s father was an earl and her mother was a countess. When they married, they both became queens, thus making them an equal or at least somewhat equal rank.
At the end of Hermione’s story and the end of Anne’s short life, the two queens both have only one surviving child, both of which are girls. Hermione’s little son, Mamillius, dies early in The Winter’s Tale, leaving Hermione and Leontes with only one child, Princess Perdita, who is, of course, cast out, but later found.
Anne had one daughter, who grew up to be Queen Elizabeth I, and three miscarriages, which is very likely one of the things that pushed King Henry VIII to execute her. Henry was desperate to have a male heir, and since Anne couldn’t produce one, he got tired of her and thus started to want to get rid of her so he could find another, more suitable wife. After all, what was a kingdom without an heir?
When Leontes accused Hermione, her ladies and servants remained loyal to her, especially Paulina. They did their best to make their queen comfortable while she was in prison, and Paulina did her best to try to bring Leontes to his senses, though in the end, she did end up making the whole situation slightly worse. Her intentions, however, were pure and well meant.
Anne did not seem to be as fortunate. There is no record of any of her ladies defending her or trying to make her comfortable in her last days, or if there is a record of any, it is not readily available. Perhaps her ladies were just too scared to try to stand up to Henry, or perhaps they just weren’t loyal at all. We don’t know and probably never will. The only lady who it seems was for Anne was possibly her old nurse. It is said that “Mrs. Orchard was in the gallery at the trial of Anne Boleyn when the Duke of Norfolk condemned Anne to be burned or beheaded at King Henry’s pleasure. At those words, she “shrieked out dreadfully” (Larson).
Hermione’s story ended at the end of the play. She was reunited with her repentant husband and her long lost daughter. There would probably be a wedding in her future, between her daughter Perdita and Prince Florizel, she might have more children, as after the death of her son, Mamillius, Sicilia still needed a male heir, and she would probably have grandchildren in the future, as well.
Anne was not so fortunate. Her story ended at the end of her life. On May 19th, 1536, she was beheaded by a French swordsman. Her execution had been delayed twice. The five men who had been accused and convicted with her were also killed, but on different days. They were also beheaded, which was considered “fortunate”, because King Henry VIII could very well have condemned them to die in more gruesome, painful ways, such as hanging and being drawn and quartered. Anne had been queen for only three years, which made her the wife married to Henry VIII the third longest. (Catherine Parr beat her by only a few months for the spot as second longest marriage.)
Hanson, Marilee. “Anne Boleyn’s Speech At Her Execution – Primary Sources.” English History, 19 Mar. 2015, englishhistory.net/tudor/anne-boleyn-speech-at-her-execution.
Hathaway, Bill. “Did Henry VIII Suffer Same Brain Injury as Some NFL Players?” YaleNews, Yale University, 2 Feb. 2016, news.yale.edu/2016/02/02/did-henry-viii-suffer-same-brain-injury-some-nfl-players.
Larson, Rebecca. “The Ladies Who Served Anne Boleyn.” Tudors Dynasty, 18 Sept. 2017, http://www.tudorsdynasty.com/ladies-served-anne-boleyn.
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale: Oxford School Shakespeare (Oxford School Shakespeare Series). UK ed., Oxford University Press, 2013.
“The Winter’s Tale.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Winter%27s_Tale. Accessed 14 June 2020.