Joanna Michal Hoyt bears down on The Winter's Tale
Antigonus and the Bear: A Cautionary Reflection on the Power of Prayer
Joanna Michael Hoyt
Joanna Michael Hoyt
Ask and it shall be given to you.—Jesus, Matthew 7:7
GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY.—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
Exit, pursued by a bear.—Shakespeare, stage direction from The Winter’s Tale
“Pray. It Works.”
The message beams from T-shirts, bumper stickers and billboards. Presumably those who pass this promise on see it as an unequivocal recommendation. What about the frightening consequences of the promise that ‘to him who asks it shall be given?’ Leave aside for the moment the fear that God may be listening to Those Obnoxious People Who Ask For The Wrong Things. What if God hears our prayers? What about the gap between the world we pray for, the kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven, and the world we live in and are too often conformed to and comfortable in? What would happen to us if that gap closed? Would we be glad to see our prayers answered?
Shakespeare seems to have been vividly aware of the gap between our praying and our living. He dramatizes the gap itself in plays including Hamlet and Measure for Measure, and he explores the possible consequences in The Winter’s Tale, ending in the direction quoted above.
Words Without Thoughts: Prayer and the Divided Mind
Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, the fratricide and usurper, trying to talk himself into—or out of—praying, says,
“…O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?”
That cannot be, since still I am possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, my own ambition, and the Queen.
May one be pardoned, and retain th’offence?”
He seems to know he can’t, but he is definitely not planning to give up crown, ambition or Queen, and he tries kneeling and praying anyway. This doesn’t seem to help his soul—he says afterward, “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” and he goes on to plot further murders. It does save his life temporarily, since Hamlet, who had just nerved himself for revenge, sees him praying, decides he wants him damned as well as dead, and lets him be. But this reprieve, given the ill intentions on both sides, only widens the scope of the tragedy so that more lives are destroyed.
Claudius is one of Shakespeare’s more unmitigated villains, and we may hope that he’s not much like us. But Shakespeare also knew that plenty of more ordinary people find their prayers hobbled by the offences they wish to retain. Early in his dark comedy Measure for Measure a group of loose-living gentlemen are discussing politics when one exclaims, “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!” His friend Lucio laughingly compares him to the sanctimonious pirate who went to sea with the Ten Commandments, except that he scraped out “Thou shalt not steal.” To which the first speaker replies: “Why, ‘twas a commandment to command the captain and all the rest from their functions; they put forth to steal. There’s not a soldier of us all that during the thanksgiving before meat do relish the petition well that prays for peace.” They argue and laugh about prayer for a little while, all maintaining that they take part in it regularly and praising it (“Grace is grace, despite of all controversy,” Lucio tells another friend, “as for example thou thyself art a wicked villain despite of all grace…”)and then shift to joking, a bit uneasily, about each other’s venereal diseases.
This, perhaps, strikes a little closer to home. We are deeply enmeshed in an economic and political system undergirded by violence and by economic exploitation which seems closely akin to stealing. We live in a culture of self-promotion which doesn’t tend to encourage honesty or humility. There’s a large gap between our society and the Kingdom of God which we ask to come on Earth as it is in heaven. Yet many of us live rather comfortably in our niches in this system and continue to carry out its functions. How do our lives in this system change our prayers? How do our prayers change our lives in this system?
Their Sacred Wills Be Done: The Terrible Speed of Mercy
Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale is not light-minded like the gentlemen in Measure for Measure nor wicked like Claudius. He’s a kind man from first to last, his prayers are sincere, and it appears that his life falls out of harmony with them, not through greed, but through a simple failure of nerve, or possibly a misguided sense of duty.
Since The Winter’s Tale is not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, I’ll summarize it here, with an emphasis on Antigonus’ part. King Leontes of Sicilia falls into insane jealousy. He believes that his wife and queen Hermione is having an affair with his best friend, and that the child she carries is a bastard. When Leontes arrests Hermione on charges of adultery and treason everyone else in the court knows the king is wrong, and they try to tell him so. Antigonus, one of his lords, tries to gently coax him out of his misapprehensions, first with humor and then with plain warning, but he backs off when Leontes won’t listen.
Antigonus’ beloved and formidable wife Paulina takes a firmer stand. She talks her way into the prison, comforts Hermione, and takes Hermione’s newborn daughter Perdita to show the King. When Leontes doesn’t receive the child kindly Paulina calls him mad, treacherous and tyrannical, and when Leontes threatens to have Paulina burnt she snaps back, “I care not. It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in’t…” Leontes, trying to convince himself and everyone else that he isn’t a tyrant, doesn’t act on his threat but has her forcibly put out of his presence. Then he turns in fury on Antigonus, blaming him for Paulina’s entry and demanding that he kill the child she has had to leave behind. When Antigonus protests Leontes asks him what he will adventure to save the brat’s life.
“ …At least thus much;
I’ll pawn the little blood which I have left
To save the innocent; anything possible.”
Leontes then commands him to swear on the royal sword that he will do the King’s bidding; receiving the promise, he tells Antigonus “on [his] soul’s peril and [his] body’s torture”—and the death of his wife— to take the child out of Sicilia and abandon it in a deserted place without telling anyone where to find it. Antigonus is dismayed, but he swears again to obey. He adds, to the King, “Sir, be prosperous in more than this deed does require,” and to the child, “and blessing against this cruelty fight on thy side.”
His prayer for the child is heartfelt, but he doesn’t fight on the child’s side himself. Perhaps he fears for Paulina, perhaps for his own life. Perhaps he believes that his soul will be in peril if he breaks his oath to the King; the play being set in pagan times, he presumably has not been warned that whoever tries to save his life (or his soul; the words are the same in Greek), will lose it, though the Christian audience may remember this. Whatever his reasons, Antigonus obeys the King’s order to the letter—indeed, goes somewhat beyond his orders by leaving the child in a place reported to be full of dangerous wild animals in the midst of a terrible storm. The sailors believe that the gods have sent the storm in anger at the child’s abandonment; hearing this, Antigonus replies “Their sacred wills be done.” The Christian reader may hear echoes that Antigonus could not: the prayer for God’s will to be done may become familiar to us by daily usage, but it’s also what Jesus prayed, in terrible earnest, on the night before he died.
Nor can Antigonus know that the King would gladly release him from his oath. After Antigonus’ ship sets sail the Queen is brought to trial, Apollo’s oracle pronounces her innocent, the King declares he doesn’t believe the oracle, his only son and heir (whom, at his worst, Leontes has still known and loved as his) dies in fear for his mother’s life, and Hermione swoons with grief and is taken away, and then pronounced dead, by Paulina, who fiercely upbraids the King and defies him to do his worst. Instead Leontes announces his intention of spending the rest of his life in repentance, guided by Paulina. But it’s too late to send a countermanding order to Antigonus.
On the wild coast Antigonus lingers to ask for Perdita the protection he has just failed to give her—“Blossom, speed thee well!”—and to grieve over her at length, until his measured lamentations break into panicked speech and his part ends abruptly with Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” We learn from later dialogue that the bear has caught and eaten Antigonus under the gaze of a sympathetic soul who feels sorry for Antigonus but doesn’t see his way to offering any practical help.
This looks like a particularly brutal form of poetic justice. But there’s more to it. The bear, following Antigonus, leaves Perdita behind to be found by a kind shepherd. She grows up in the shepherd’s house, loves and is loved by the son of King Polixenes, and eventually finds her way back to Sicilia, to be reconciled not only with her penitent father but also with her mother, who is mysteriously restored by Paulina after Leontes acknowledges his daughter. The final scene of restoration and reconciliation is one of the strangest and loveliest in Shakespeare’s strange and lovely works.
Antigonus isn’t there to see the happy ending; at the time of his death the play is still unfolding as a tragedy, and his part in it is tragic enough. Nevertheless all his promises have been kept and all his prayers have been answered. Perdita has indeed been blessed and has sped well. Leontes has prospered better than his jealousy and implacability deserved. Antigonus has kept his bad vow to his King, and nevertheless the child has been saved at the sacrifice of Antigonus’ life, as he promised. It may be presumed that the will of the gods has been done.
That will could doubtless have been carried out in other ways. What would have happened if Antigonus had suited his actions to his heartfelt words and delivered the child into the shepherd’s care himself? Paulina openly defies the King’s commands and yet lives to raise her fatherless daughters and restore the King to his rightful mind and, finally, to his family. She freely risks her life for love and honesty, and she saves her life and others. But taken as a whole Shakespeare’s works do not promise that such courage is always rewarded. Cordelia risks her life for love and honesty and is killed.
We don’t get to find out what would have happened, in Shakespeare or in life, only what actually does happen. Antigonus constantly prays well and earnestly, He lives inconstantly, torn between generosity and fear. If he could see the whole story from the far side of death, would he be pleased to have been taken at his word? Would he see his sad ending and its service of the play’s happy ending as a kind of terrible mercy?
What about us?