Comparing Shakespeare to Myth: The Winter’s Tale and Rhiannon

CinnyShakes Winter’s Tale Cover Art

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale depicts a story about a crazed, jealous king and his family’s fate. Loyalty was the strongest theme in this play, followed by forgiveness. King Leontes assumed his wife, Hermione, had betrayed her loyalty to him by having an affair with the King of Bohemia. Many had tried to lead him away from this assumption, but he could not be willed. She was pregnant with Leontes’ child, and after baby Perdita was born Leontes called for the deaths of Hermione and Perdita, assuming the baby was from his friend, the king of Bohemia. Perdita was to be abandoned in the woods and Hermione was imprisoned. Hermione and her servant seemingly faked her death, though it does not explicitly say this in the play, but it is made obvious in the end.

Paulina and her loyalty to Hermione was unwavering. She risked everything to ensure that Hermione could get away from Leontes, but could not save the baby, as her husband had to leave the baby in the woods. Antinogus was then attacked and killed by a bear. The bear left the baby unharmed. The baby grew up as a daughter of a shepherd, but she possessed great skill and unmatched manners, as if she were royalty. She fell in love with the prince of Bohemia, and was engaged to be married to him. This is how she found her way back to her real father, Leontes, and her mother, who had been in hiding and came back to reveal herself to Leontes once he had calmed, 16 long years later. Everyone was forgiven, and everyone was reunited.

The treatment of Hermione after the baby’s birth and exile was a very familiar theme to me, and I began to do research on Hermione the character, her daughter Perdita, and Paulina, the faithful and loyal servant.  I could link this back to a Celtic Goddess, or many of them, who represent the maiden, the mother, and the crone. (O’ Toole). The triple goddess can be linked with many celtic and welsh goddesses, not only one. This same theme can be seen in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well, with the witches of fate. This led me to my research on the similarities between Hermione and a particular Welsh goddess.

 

Rhiannon riding in Arberth; from the Mabinogion

After reading The Winter’s Tale there was one particular story that stuck out to me: the folk story of Rhiannon. Rhiannon is the Welsh goddess of horses, birds, and fertility. The story of Rhiannon also has themes of loyalty, forgiveness, lost babies, scorned women, and crazy baby daddies with the dangerous power of kings.

Rhiannon and her husband, King Pwyll, were able to conceive a child. The newborn was named Pryderi, but was unfortunately stolen in the middle of the night from his bed. Rhiannon was accused of killing her child, after her maid’s framed her with the blood of an animal. She was hated, abused, and forced to carry people on her back as a punishment of “killing” the king’s only child.

Pryderi was found outside of a stable as a newborn and was raised by Teyrnon, a lord in Gwent and a man who raised horses. The night Teyrnon found the newborn, he saw a great forest beast (perhaps a bear?) who was preying on his mare’s newborn foals. The beast was never specifically named or described in the Mabinogi (the stories of Pwyll and numerous other legends), but only was claimed to have had large claws. Pryderi, however, was left unharmed. Teyrnon took him in and raised him as his own son, a much more humble station than son of a king and goddess. Pryderi matured quickly, and grew faster than a normal human child would. He was quite skilled and talented, and he was clearly a much more noble birth than what was assumed before. Teyrnon knew that this was the king’s lost child, and returned him to be with his parents, where all was forgiven and everyone was reunited.

 

Although these stories are not exactly the same, as Hermione is not a great goddess of horses, and her daughter is not a demi-god, there are many similarities. Both stories tell of a lost child, and the mother’s punishment for the loss, one way or the other. The grief the mothers feel is more real than the fantastical tales that go with them. Both stories examine the treatment of women, even though both women were truly innocent. Both stories show kings, mad with disillusion, and the betrayal of their queens. Wives they once cherished were practically dethroned due to misunderstandings and lies. Though the women were royalty and bore these men children they were still treated as lesser people and not trusted when questioned about their supposed crimes. They were still seen as less than the king, and one was even a goddess! The lost children were taken in, and given humble beginnings, unharmed by the true nature of the world (the bear and the beast). The children represented innocence, and the innocence was taken from their mothers as well as they were unfairly punished by their too powerful husbands. Both children were returned at a later age to their rightful parents. Both families were reunited, and both families gave each other forgiveness. Both stories bore themes of loyalty, in different shapes and forms, depending on the relationships. For example, Paulina’s loyalty to Hermione, Rhiannon’s loyalty to her husband, Teyrnon’s loyalty to king Pwyell, Antinogus’ loyalty to Hermione and his own moral conduct. Forgiveness is clear in the end, where everyone forgives the kings, which seems pretty outlandish, since they ruined their entire families and relationships because they did not want to believe their wives.

It is clear in this work, and in other works by Shakespeare that he was often influenced by legends and myths.

 

 

Works Cited

 

O’Toole, Peter. The Women of The Winter’s Tale Pt. 2: Perdita. Classics on the rocks. 2016. https://www.classicsontherocks.org/single-post/2018/07/08/The-Women-of-The-Winters-Tale-Pt-2-Perdita. Accessed November 12, 2020.

Wales History. Mabinongion: First Branch. British Broadcasting Company. BBC.co.uk. 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/myths_mabinogion_01.shtml. Accessed November 12, 2020.

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