Shakespeare’s Own Metamorphosis: From Hermetic Revenge to Ovidian Alternatives in The Winter’s Tale

Lien Van Geel


This paper explores transformation in connection with female agency in The Winter’s Tale, which features Hermione’s metamorphosis. In this play late in Shakespeare’s career, not only do we see Shakespeare writing at the height of his artistic powers, but we can also glimpse his own transition into a more perceptive reader of Ovid. Despite Shakespeare’s arguably limited treatment towards women early in his oeuvre, he demonstrates an aesthetic transformation with his final romance, with Hermione’s resurrection as supreme example. In this paper, I demonstrate how Shakespeare forgoes his former preoccupation on revenge to value forgiveness in The Winter’s Tale, where he invents creative alternatives to masculine authority by empowering women through female rhetoric, agency, and transformation, resulting in a more complex representation of gender. I argue that the aesthetic transformation in both The Winter’s Tale and the playwright himself appears most explicitly in the statue scene in V.iii, in which Shakespeare reveals a more developed understanding of Ovidian episodes than he demonstrated earlier in his career in plays such as Titus Andronicus. Specifically, Shakespeare rereads and re-contextualises Ovid in order to distance himself from the insular logic of revenge, and in this process he creates alternatives to masculine power by reworking the tales of Pygmalion and Orpheus and Eurydice. I conclude that The Winter’s Tale provides an inherently different representation of females, characterized in their newfound eloquence and agency through the Ovidian intertext. As opposed to his previous plays, Shakespeare grants female characters more creative and productive possibilities to shape their own fates. Even in the earliest scenes of the play, females possess qualities like eloquence, initiative, and perseverance; this pattern does not at all change by the end of the play, as Hermione is redeemed through Paulina’s aesthetic vision. The force of Paulina’s Ovidian-inspired creation, I will argue, transforms the male characters in the play and turns the playwright’s classicism into contemporary critique. I argue that Shakespeare has become the honey-tongued Ovidian equal at last, as he no longer fears female power or oppresses it through hermetic revenge; he grants the women eloquence, agency, and creative alternatives, which leads to their empowerment.


Shakespeare; Ovidian Myth; Intertextuality

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