In college I was introduced to both King Lear and The Winter’s Tale at the same time, and I’ve always thought about them together. This poem attempts to run two crucial moments in each play in parallel—Lear’s discovery that his greatly beloved daughter Cordelia has been executed, and the breathtaking reappearance in The Winter’s Tale of Hermione, the queen of Sicily, believed to have been dead for sixteen years after being falsely accused of adultery.

Is Hermione, as she claims, returning from a hidden retreat, or has she actually been resurrected? Shakespeare lets you play it ambiguously, and my favorite C.S. Lewis poem, “Hermione in the House of Paulina,” says it’s a bit of both. At any rate, the poem maintains that the question Lear asks—laying a feather on Cordelia’s lips and being deceived that it moves and she lives—cannot be answered within the confines of the play. Lear asks for the gods and gets no answer. Leontes, Hermione’s widower, gets an answer from the gods that he does not expect. What answer do we get? And from whom?

 

Lear cries out in darkness for his love,

parting each cloud to touch the clouds beneath;

he tears apart the gods to find the skies

alone with foolishness upon the heath.

Cordelia, Cordelia, return,

do not die now or ever on that stage.

The feather stirs; O Lear, she lives transformed,

Hermione who heals her husband’s rage.

 

Into a world with its own mind-blown heaths

and jealous tyrants, healing finds a birth—

we tear apart the skies and find the gods

are ruling and forgiving still on earth.

Behind both god and sky, the master pen

is scripting out each universe at will;

Cordelia dead, Hermione reborn,

which is the final answer? Bend your quill

and tell us that, behind these lifetimes shaped

by godlike powers that art laid in your hand,

there is a power of love surpassing art

who scripts this life we cannot understand.

Viola Allen as Hermione in a Winter’s Tale, performed in 1904.
Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
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