Today we’re going to take a look at a monologue from one of Shakespeare’s great unsung heroes Paulina, from The Winters Tale. In this monologue we see a lot of pent up anger, fear and frustration thrown into the firing line of not just anyone but her King in this truly brave act of defiance. Let’s take a look.
The play begins with a catch up between two old mates: Leontes, King of Sicily and Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They’ve been having a grand old time, but after nine long months, Polixenes is keen to hit the road. Leontes desperately wants his pal to stay longer. And so he decides to send his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione, to try to convince the Bohemian King to delay his return. In no time at all, she convinces him to do exactly this. Hooray! Right? Wrong. Leontes is perplexed as to how she was able to convince Polixenes to stay so easily when he had failed. He suddenly grows suspicious that the child in her belly actually belongs his best friend! He orders Camillo, one of his Lords, to poison Polixenes, and Camillo’s like “Toootally! I’ll definitely do that!” Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. He tells Polixenes and they both flee to Bohemia.
Leontes is furious. He publicly shames Hermione, accusing her of being unfaithful, and claims the child she is carrying is illegitimate. He throws her in prison against almost everyone’s wishes and sends two Lords—Cleomenes and Dion—to the Oracle of Delphi to get some answers and some divine truth. In prison, Hermione gives birth to a girl. She gives the child to her best friend Paulina, and asks her to present it to the king in order to soften his heart. But this just makes him angrier. He orders Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, to abandon the child in a desolate place.
Cleomenes and Dion return from the oracle to find that Leontes has put Hermione on trial for her “crimes”. She unwaveringly asserts her innocence to the court and asks for the word of the oracle to prove it. The oracle is read and says that Hermione, Polixenes and Camillo are categorically innocent and that Leontes will have no heir until his lost daughter is found. Leontes cries “Fake news!” at this proclamation. However, in a cruel act of shouldn’t-have-said-that, word comes to Leontes that his son Mamillius has died from a wasting sickness brought on by the accusations against his mother. Hermione faints at this news and is carried out by Paulina. She soon returns, and when she does she says…
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 bygone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betrayed’st Polixenes, ‘twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant,
And damnable ingrateful. Nor was’t much
Thou wouldst have poisoned 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
Blemished 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 sweetest, dearest creature’s dead, and vengeance for’t
Not dropped down yet.
Studied: Deliberate or intentional
Oil: Vat of boiling oil used for torture
Lead: A cauldron of molten lead used for torture
Fancies: Fantasies or daydreams
Girls of Nine: Nine years old
Said I/You Have: Finished speaking
What tortures do you have in store for me, you tyrant?
What wheels? What racks? What flaying me alive? Or boiling me in lead or oil?
What kind of tortures will I recieve just for cursing you the way you deserve?
Your tyranny, working together with your jealousy, passing thoughts too inconcesquantial for little boys, too boring and envious than nine year old girls daydreams. Well look what they’ve done now, and if you can wrap your head around that then you’ll go mad.
Raving mad, because all of those were just tastes of that.
You betrayed Polixenes but that did nothing but show you that you were a damned, ungrateful, idiot.
It wasn’t even that bad that you tried to ruin Camillos life by getting him to poison a King compared to what you’d do today.
You abandoned your daughter and cast her into the wilderness, and even that wasn’t so bad, even though the devil himself wouldn’t have done that.
And it’s not even really your fault that the poor, weak, young prince died of a broken heart because of the actions of his foolish, disgusting father who destroyed his mother.
No none of that’s your fault. But what you did just now, and gentleman, be prepared to cry when I tell you. The Queen, the Queen, the sweetest, dearest creature, is dead, and vengeance for this has still not shown up.
Notes on Performance
This is a monologue where you can truly just let it rip and lay into whoever it is you’re talking to. Keep the stakes high, and really go in for the kill.
The next thing to remember is that Paulina is almost being sarcastic when she’s talking about how it’s okay that he’s done all these horrible things. She of course means it but frames it in this way in order to highlight the horror of what he’s just done.
And lastly keep in mind the history these two characters have. Paulina has served the King and Queen for most of her life and this history should be present in your characterisation.
For more Female Shakespeare Monologues