The woman who will ultimately minister to Leontes, his wife’s devoted friend Paulina, has to learn some things herself about repentance. In her (certainly righteous!) anger at the king immediately after Hermione seems to die, Paulina (played by Dame Judi Dench in the production I saw) spits the following words:
But, O thou tyrant! Do not repent these things, for they are heavier Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee To nothing but despair. A thousand knees Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting, Upon a barren mountain and still winter In storm perpetual, could not move the gods To look that way thou wert.
It’s very bad advice. Even a great sinner should be called to repentance—not because he can somehow justify himself through mortal effort, but because there is divine aid on offer. The picture Paulina paints here sounds a little like purgatory, but it’s fruitless and eternal—more like hell. Carried away by her condemnation of tyranny, Paulina makes Leontes’ crime into an idol, making the sin more powerful than God. Contrition cannot be an end in itself, nor can we settle for “nothing but despair.” We were made to be with God. Horror at our sin, the breach in that relationship, should spur us to seek grace.
There is a parody version of Catholicism that is just like Leontes’ sick contrition, dwelling hopelessly in the sins of the past. But the gift of penance is the absolution of sin. In faith we bring our contrite broken hearts to the Lord’s ministers, knowing the wholeness of grace awaits us.
Paulina plays the priestly role in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale. She no longer counsels contrition-without-hope; the return of a lost princess has inspired her to offer what absolution she can. She reveals to us the gracious queen, and speaks with a holy voice when she tells the king, “It is required you do awake your faith.” He needs faith that his crime (though great) has not broken him or his family beyond supernatural repair. And lo, the statue walks, and speaks. It is Hermione. After a winter of so many years, spring is come again.
There is an icy pang to contrition, but spring always follows, in the hope that the Lord of New Life can be alive in us.
Alexi Sargeant is an aspiring playwright and director who studied at Yale University, and is now an assistant editor at First Things magazine.