Hermione as a Russian: Is The Winter’s Tale an Alternative History?

Maria Eliferova


One of the enigmas of The Winter’s Tale is its specification that Hermione’s father was ‘the Emperor of Russia’. This detail is clearly derived from Greene’s Pandosto, however the biographies of the respective characters are switched. In Greene, ‘the Emperours daughter of Russia’ is the wife of Egistus, the character whose counterpart in Shakespeare is Polixenes (remember that Shakespeare reversed the countries as well, making Polixenes King of Bohemia rather than Sicily).

As of 1611 when The Winters Tale was likely written, only one Russian had officially declared himself Emperor – that is, False Dmitry I (long dead, having been killed in 1606). Greene who died in 1592 would not be able to know about him. There is, however, some evidence that the English would occasionally and informally refer to Ivan the Terrible as ‘Emperor’. What sort of historical reality is depicted by Greene and Shakespeare?

Apart from the non-existent (yet conceivable for the 16th-century English) figure of ‘Russian Emperor’, the sole oddity of Greene’s world is the fact that his (fictitious) characters worship pagan gods.  Along with the fictitious names of kings, these are the markers that efficiently remove the story from any historical context and create the sense of fairy-tale literary convention.

Shakespeare’s world, however, is much more complex. Shakespeare introduces in the story a geographic anomaly (the non-existent sea coast of Bohemia), clear signs of modernity (that is, the printing press and junk reading – his shepherdess are literate, but their reading tastes are deplorable), and, to have everything confused even more, Giulio Romano who had died well before Shakespeare’s birth and never practiced sculpture: yet Pauline claims that the paint on the alleged statue of his work is still wet. These oddities are, in fact, well explicable if one suggests that The Winter’s Tale belongs to the genre of alternative history: in this alternative world, Bohemia has sea coasts, Christianity is superseded by the restored paganism, literacy has spread much wider that in Shakespeare’s actual world, and Giulio Romano has become a sculptor.

Ключевые слова

alternative history; English-Russian connections; Shakespeare; The Winter’s Tale

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