This is the iconic monologue from The Winter’s Tale. If you are looking for an audition piece, or just a really great piece of text to work on, look no further. It’s powerful, direct and full of emotion (everything you want in a monologue). This is one of the best Shakespeare monologues for women, and we would highly encourage you to explore it further.
The Winter’s Tale is a strange beast in Shakespeare’s canon. It’s one of his ‘problem plays’, which is to say a work that defies any singular, easy categorisation. It begins as a serious drama, before transitioning into a strange and fantastical almost-comedy. Seriously: Hermione dies and then returns, sixteen years later, as a living statue.
The focus of this article, however, takes place near the climax of the first section. Hermione has been accused of adultery by her husband Leontes—the King of Sicily—and is making her case for her innocence.
This monologue takes place in a “court of justice”. That can be interpreted in different ways but the important element is that it’s a formal space: a courtroom. Hermione is being judged, and this imposing dynamic plays a key role.
Sir, spare your threats.
The bug which you would fright me with I seek.
To me can life be no commodity;
The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
I do give lost, for I do feel it gone
But know not how it went. My second joy,
And first fruits of my body, from his presence
I am barred, like one infectious. My third comfort,
Starred most unluckily, is from my breast,
The innocent milk in it most innocent mouth,
Haled out to murder; myself on every post
Proclaimed a strumpet; with immodest hatred
The childbed privilege denied, which ’longs
To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried
Here, to this place, i’th’ open air, before
I have got strength of limit . Now, my liege,
Tell me what blessings I have here alive,
That I should fear to die. Therefore proceed.
But yet hear this – mistake me not – no life,
I prize it not a straw, but for mine honour,
Which I would free – if I shall be condemned
Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else
But what your jealousies awake, I tell you
’Tis rigour, and not law. Your honours all,
I do refer me to the oracle.
Apollo be my judge.
Our first stop, as always, is to identify and define any unfamiliar words or phrases in the piece. This will help give the work some context, and allow you to use the language to your advantage in Hermione’s pursuit of her objective.
Apollo: The god of (among other things) the sun, music and—in this context—divination of truth and the future.
Bug: From ‘bugbear’, an imaginary creature of fear. In this context, the accusations against her are not only frightening, but false.
First Fruits: A biblical term referring to things planted for the future; also a reference to Hermione’s own physical form (and pleasure.)
Haled: Dragged, forced out.
Oracle: Famed fortune-tellers who would speak truths. In The Winter’s Tale, they are asked by Leontes about his wife’s fidelity.
Starred: Pertaining to fortune; in this context, Hermione’s bad luck.
Strumpet: A promiscuous woman.
Notes on Performance
#1 State of Mind
A huge consideration is Hermione’s state of mind. She has been through a huge amount before the start of this monologue and we want to see that as you enter into performance. Consider the ‘moment before’ and given circumstances of the scene, and let them guide you.
#2 Don’t Play the Victim
Once you understand the extent of what Hermione has been through, the obvious summation is that she is in despair and defeated by her situation. This is an unhelpful way to play this monologue. Remember to never fall into the trap of being the victim of the character’s circumstances. Even here she is fighting for what she believes. Plot strong actions and pursue your objective with everything you have!
#3 Find the Love
The interesting thing about Hermione is that even though Leontes has betrayed her so completely, she still feels enormous love for her husband. Remember the character relationships—plot these out on paper before you attempt the scene if you think that might help. Then, in performance, call on these relationships to give the piece dramatic stakes on which you can build.