Paulina's Paint and the Dialectic of Masculine Desire in the Metamorphoses, Pandosto, and the Winter's Tale

By Davis, Joel | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Paulina's Paint and the Dialectic of Masculine Desire in the Metamorphoses, Pandosto, and the Winter's Tale


Davis, Joel, Papers on Language & Literature


Midway through the tragic action of The Winter's Tale, just after the jealous king Leontes has arrested his queen, Hermione, on apparently baseless charges of adultery and treason, the counselors of the realm try to bring their king to his senses. * Should Hermione prove unfaithful, an astounded Antigonus vows, "I'll keep my stables where / I lodge my wife; I'll go in couples with her; / Than when I feel and see her no farther trust her" (2.1.133-36) (1)--that is, he will from this moment on ensure his own wife's fidelity by never allowing her outside the field of his vision or beyond the reach of his hands. The king's most trusted advisor thus suggests that Leontes's drive to know Hermione's sexual behavior is really a drive to possess her physically. In fact, Leontes is jealous because he has eroticized the courtly touches--"paddling palms, and pinching fingers" (1.2.115)--he has seen exchanged between Hermione and his friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia. But, as Hermione points out, Leontes had entreated the queen to persuade Polixenes to remain in Sicilia and had watched her perform this persuasion. The king is the cause of his own jealousy because he is a voyeur, at once aroused and made jealous by watching the object of his desire perform an act of (courtly) seduction at his bidding. Antigonus points out that, were Leontes to satisfy his desire to possess Hermione physically, he would short-circuit the logic of voyeurism that makes Hermione desirable in the first place.

This essay traces how the interplay between visual and tactile knowledge both stimulates and constitutes masculine desire in The Winter's Tale and in some of its more important sources and analogues. Book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Robert Greene's popular 1588 romance, Pandosto, and The Winter's Tale itself all generate masculine desire through visual and tactile language. All of these texts are also inhabited by versions of two intimately related mythological figures, Orpheus and Pygmalion. (2) These figures, who lose and gain a wife respectively, are the focal point of book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Their stories express the voyeuristic logic that, in turn, governs the intrusion of jealousy into the marriages in The Winter's Tale and Pandosto.

The female bodies these three works portray and the sensuousness with which they portray them argue that sexuality is the basis on which to understand beauty and power. In Ovid and his Renaissance proteges, sexuality is often understood as the superfluity that cannot be contained in power relations or accounted for in paradigms of beauty, and students of Renaissance literature speak of sexuality in terms of fluidity and resistance to hypostatizing systems. In Rabelais and His World, M. M. Bakhtin invokes a dialectical pair particularly useful for understanding this Ovidian literary tradition: "classical" and "grotesque" bodily representation. Bakhtin traces a tradition of portraying bodies as open, fluid, changing, procreative, unfinished, and part of a continuous cycle of living and dying that reveres death, decay, dirt, and excrement as fundamental to life, growth, order, and beauty (23-30). "The last thing one can say of the real grotesque," Bakhtin writes, "is that it is static; on the contrary it seeks to grasp in its imagery the very act of becoming and growth, the eternal incomplete unfinished nature of being" (52). He finds, as the Renaissance progresses, an increasing tension between this "grotesque" tradition of literary representations of the body and another, "classical" tradition of literary representations of the body, in which the body is presented as closed, completed, static, and separate from the world--a tradition which likewise distinguishes absolutely between dirt and excrement, on one hand, and life and order, on the other, as unrelated things of completely different orders. Bakhtin's distinction between "classical" and "grotesque" sharpens our understanding of the erotic and aesthetic play of power, and these terms from Rabelais and His World, rather than its version of literary history, help us understand the Ovidian aesthetic in Renaissance literature. …

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