‘which ’longs to women of all fashion’: Churching and Shakespeare's The Winter Tale
In Act 3, scene 2 of The Winter’s Tale, Leontes brings his wife Hermione to trial, formally charging her with conducting an adulterous relationship. During her defense, Hermione rightly complains that she has had ‘the child-bed privilege denied, which ‘longs / To women of all fashion’. In this trial scene Shakespeare draws attention to the fact that Leontes, in his hasty condemnation of his wife, not only denies Hermione her month of privilege after giving birth and exposes her to the public humiliation of not being afforded a proper churching ceremony, but also deliberately disregards the divine oracle. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been aware of the fact that Hermione’s first public appearance should not have been her trial, but instead her churching. Thus, the personal, legalistic action that Leontes puts forward as a matter of state usurps the obligations of religious discipline and church authority that are not simply wrongs she suffers individually, but ones that affect the community at large. As a consequence of the breech in divine order caused by Leontes, Hermione’s reappearance in the play’s final scene serves as a delayed churching service that reaffirms the redemptive themes so often discussed in this play. Further, the epistemological concerns found throughout The Winter’s Tale regarding the apprehension of truth are resolved, specifically, in Hermione’s reintegration into public life and, more broadly, in the affirmation of a dialogic unity attained through shared communal knowledge.
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