Death, Dildoes and Daffodils: a queer winter’s tale (full paper)

by nike, November 24, 2014

Screenshot 2014-11-24 17.24.07A little while ago, I delivered a creative paper at the ANZSA (Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association).

I posted the abstract for this paper on my blog a while ago, and thought I’d follow up by sharing the text of the performance.

The piece is an examination of the 16 year ‘gap’ in the play, during which Hermione is absent from the court, and Perdita is believed dead, abandoned on an island by Paulina’s husband, Antigonus.

I’m not much of a performer, so quite possibly the text-only version is the better way to experience the paper 🙂

There are some bits in this that are direct quotations from Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale. I give the act/scene citations at the end of the paper.

1. This ungentle business

The night before my husband’s death, Hermione

appeared before him:

a vessel of … sorrow,

So fill’d and so becoming: in pure white robes,

Like very sanctity.[1]


This vision of the good queen spoke to him, saying:

… for the babe

Is counted lost for ever, Perdita,

I prithee, call’t. For this ungentle business

Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see

Thy wife Paulina more.[2]


Antigonus, my husband, had been sent by her husband

to expose her newborn daughter in the desert,

that it might be suckled, or devoured, by wildness.

So men send other men to deal with our fair spawn.

They dream of magical beings: of ravens and wolves

who will suckle, rage or ravage our innocent babes.

They send fools to distant oracles, to glean the wisdom

that cannot be found in their own untrusting hearts.


He lay the child on the earth while a storm raged

saying she was … like to have

A lullaby too rough: [3]

And here, another apparition came: a bear,

great and furious as a storm. She pursued him

along the shore, mocking his indignant roars

with murderous fury of her own.

Some say it was a wild thing that pursued him—

a native of Bohemia–but ‘twas Callisto, mother

of Arcas, who stepped from the heavens to the earth

to wreak maternal vengeance.

Her ears and teeth were made of stars, her eyes

and gut and claws. She gutted Antigonus like

a fish, left him wriggling on the storm-wreck’d shore.


2. Your first death

The night of your first death, I placed a pillow ‘neath your neck,

spread your bride’s pale skirts across the stone, and

powdered your pink cheeks with chalk. You lay still

and cold as death until you heard your husband’s boot

strike the stones of the chapel floor. No eye but mine

saw your hand dart out and clasp that of your dead son.


You lay, bridal and innocent. Your belly still half-swole,

the blood of the childbed staining the tomb on which you lay.

Leontes knelt at your side, summoned false tears

and wept for all that his foolishness had wrought.


I knelt beside him, bent my head to pray

that your false death would fool the grieving king.

He took your hand and turned it, held your soft

fist against his cheek. Oh, but her hand

it is still warm, he cried.

It is your hot tears that make it so, said I.


3. Hundred horse chestnut

That night, when I smuggled you home, there was a storm

And we, like the Aragon queen and her hundred knights,

took shelter beneath the ancient elm that stands

between the palace and my modest home.

Just two we were. And you so weary with all you had lost–

A son, a daughter, a kingdom, and a husband—

that you could barely stand for weeping. I gave you

my shoulder, held you fast against me, and watched

rain drip from the catkins. Look here, I said.

They are as soft and useless as my husband’s quill.

Though these, no doubt, will bear some fruit.


4. A quiver? A diletto?

By the time we reached the house it was dark

And all the fires were out. I wrapped you in my bearskin

and settled you in a chair by the fire while I knelt

and blew the embers into flames. The room was dark,

and muddled. As the flames caught they threw

strange shadows on the walls. So many books,

you said, and stood to run your hand across

their spines. So many words. You lifted up a paper

from the desk. A dozen more spilled to the floor

and something heavier among them. Something

unfamiliar. What is this? you asked. I turned and

stood, tried to take it from you hand. A quiver? I said.

A diletto? You brought it to the fireside, knelt

to hold it in the light, and laughed. A quiver?

For what arrows, sweet Paulina? To slay what

beast? Your face, turned up towards me,

was flushed with more warmth than a fire

can induce. You stood, and held the implement

against your groin. Twirled it heavily. Shall

I slay you then, with this your weapon? Or

are you slain already? I grasped the thing and

pulled you closer. The leather soft and supple

in my hand. Look here, I said, and showed you

how the thing was hollow and how, within

its vulgar depths, were hidden quills and ink

and wax. Scrolled treason and translated
sedition. You frowned. I laughed. It is

my cunning quiver, good queen. The one I wear

when travelling as a man. When dealing in

secrets and trading in lies. It is also a fair

hiding place for the letters I carry, the ballads

and pamphlets that cannot be found

in a good man’s pocket.

                                    Are you, then, fair

Paul, a good man? you said.

                                    I am your man,
good queen. And your woman, both. I

will be whichever you most urgently require.


Come then, you said, and prick

my conscience with your quill.


5. With lullaby, be thou content

There is a walled garden in my home. Inside, a parterre

with six angled beds and paths that meet, not at a fountain

but a stone dais. Once, there was a statue in the centre:

Two doves atop a globe, held aloft by a marble maid.

But she, like many a maid, fell one night and was removed.


Confined to the house for so many years, this

was where you took your walks. The gravel paths

your meditation’s groove. Here, is where

you mourned your son. Two paths that cross,

and cross again. Here, your daughter’s loss was marked

in miles of patient circumnavigation.


Some nights I woke to an empty bed, to the

soft crunch of gravel ‘neath your bare feet.

To the sound of your voice, singing a lullaby

to the distant moon. Sweet daughter, you sang,


Eke lullaby, my lovely child,

My little bird, now take thy rest,

Since death is long, and never sleeps

Keep close thy life, for so is best.

With lullaby be thou content,

With lullaby thy fears relent,

Let others fear the wolf that bites

Thou art too sweet for death’s delights.[4]


6. A glottal stop

I was thinking of you as I walked along the Linguaglossa Road

towards home. Thinking, too, of some fair rhyme to please you

A linguist’s pastime this: to make a bawd’s joke of my profession

A woman with a cunning tongue? A cunning woman’s tongue?

A cunning woman on a linguist’s path? A glossia, a glottal


And stop I did, for there beneath the hundred horse chestnut you stood,

or leaned, while vile Autolycus – that liar, that thief – placed his lips

on your fair cheek, and fossicked with his hand inside your pocket.

I heard you cry-–too faint, too false—and saw you draw away.

Against his breast you pressed a letter. He turned away, the letter fell.

You took his arm and pulled him back. Put the letter in his hand.

Purple paper, yellow ribbons. A red heart for a seal. Oh, love,

good queen, fair Hermione, what false beribboned heart is this?


7. The postman’s fee

It was early spring in our fifteenth year. I came

upon you on your knees in the walled garden.

The bare earth turned, and dark. New beds

pegged out with stakes and string. A wide hat

on your head, and your skirts plucked up

like a shepherdess’s daughter. At your hip a

stringed bag, like a miniature net, filled with

bulbs. Bent like a crab you moved along, dibbling

in the soil and burying, one by one, your

treasures. How now, what’s this? I called,

coming in from the road in my gentleman’s


There’s rosemary and rue; these keep

Seeming and savour all the winter long: [5]

These two are for grace, and for remembrance.


Have you need of herbs to remember me?


You smiled up at me, and caught the kiss

I leaned down to plant.

Not you,

fair Paul, it is my daughter this garden

does remember. These are her wishes, her

sweet blossoms, planted in our private place.


You stood, and gestured round the partierre. Here,

there will be daffodils,

That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,

But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes

Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses

That die unmarried, ere they can behold

Bight Phoebus in his strength—a malady

Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and

The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,

The flower-de-luce being one! O, with these blooms,

I will make garlands, for my sweet daughter,

To strew her o’er and o’er![6]


It has been fifteen years, I said, since that small girl

was left in some forsaken place. My husband’s

bones returned without his flesh to bind them.

Your daughter—


Perdita. She has a name. Pray call her by’t.

I knelt beside you. Lifted a moist handful

of soil and inhaled. Good earth, it was, and

rich with life. As she, your lost daughter,

was not. Hermione, I said. Dear heart.

It has been fifteen years. We’ve had no word.

No letter. You must let go of this false hope.

Your daughter is death’s daughter now.


                        [Herm] You have had no sign,

you said, and plucked a bulb from your pocket,

passed it into my hand. But here, look

what she has sent to me.


Where did these come from? I said. These

bulbs and seeds, these marigolds and marjoram?


From Perdita, you said. From Autolycus.


THAT thief! That—I could not speak. All at

once I saw you ‘neath the hundred horse chestnut

your hand pressing a letter to his heart. His mouth

on your fair cheek.


Oh, Paul, you said. Don’t

be a fool. Do you think I would kiss a man—a man

like that—when I have you?


                                                I saw you.


You saw what, exactly? … Oh. Oh! You put down

your dibbler and your bulb. Stood and took

my hands in your own. I nearly wept, to see

your skin so dark, your nails so broken

and stained. Oh, Paul. It is not such a wicked secret.

All these years, I have met him ‘neath the

chestnut tree to pass him letters, that is

true. And every year he takes them, for a kiss.

His postman’s fee, he calls it.


Some postman! I cried.


You wiped at my hot face with your sleeve,

and smiled as though I were a child. He is a postman

and a peddlar, you said, and the deliverer

of my letters to Perdita.


How can he deliver letters to a lost child?

He might as well deliver clouds to angels!


You reached into your pocket, then,

and drew out a tightly-folded note.

A girls’ hand—with a heart to dot the i—

To Mother, the letter said, from Perdita.


I don’t understand, I said. I thought she was—


You nodded, and we turned towards our home.

The light was fading, and the earth grew cold.

Familiar stars glittered in the sky: fair Callisto

and her child. Come inside, you said. I’ll light

the fire. There is more I have to tell you.


8. Dear Winter

Dear Winter, come you further in, fingering the wormholes of Hermione’s heart?

Sixteen times she and I have wintered in this hall, warmed each other’s beds.

She has risen over me, ridden high as a conqueror on the waves of my flesh

And I, divided, have fallen eagerly beneath each victory cry.


Autolycus, that finest of the mortal thieves, could not take her hand from mine.

But you, Death, (Shall I speak your True Name, now that you have come so near?)

Have sown hard seeds in her breast. She swells and hardens in my hand;

Shadows bloom on her skin and death’s cold snow rushes in at every breath.


Bulbs wintering in the soil do not dream of the garden’s destruction;

The seeds you planted in her breast will never bloom. Not on my watch.

She has given enough already. My love is sharp and narrow as a sword;

Hot as the bee’s barbed sting. I will cut your canker out.


9. breast, bone, belly

How quick, how cruel, how deep Death came

Burrowing from breast, to bone, to belly.

No knife, no poultice, no physic could detach

her from you. God knows we tried. But at each

incursion our enemy turned, laughed. Sweet

as your sickly breath, Death smiled at our frail

efforts. Too soon we knew that there was nothing

more to do. You were the first to call a stop.

Stop. These are my last days, you said, do not

fill them with false hope. I want, instead,

to plant a tree. To see Perdita’s bulbs

put in. The walled garden, then, became

your final theatre.     It was late afternoon

in our sixteenth year. Autolycus came

upon us, working in the walled garden.

The beds were bright with flowers and you

sat watching while I weeded the daffodils.

How now, what’s this? he called,

coming in from the road in gentleman’s

attire. Why so quiet, why so still,

When I bring good news, old friend?


Good news? you said, and I saw that old,

false hope rise in your cheeks.

Yes, yes!

he said, trotting along the paths, plucking

rue and rosemary. Think you this would

make a pretty posy for my buttonhole?


                        [Herm] What news?


[Auto] News? Oh! A wedding, a resurrection, a quiet

revolution. Perdita is coming home,

a suitor in her pocket and a king at her

heels. Her father suspects nothing, but soon

his kingdom will be hers. A ghost princess

returns from the desert of wolves and bears,

and a dead queen, too, must soon

be resurrected.


[Herm] Perdita is coming home?


[Auto] And you are discovered, good queen. The king

has ears and eyes in the hundred horse chestnut

and in the physic’s chambers. In the walls of this

your garden, too. He is coming. She returns. And

all that was once hidden will too soon be revealed.


10. Are they near?

The last time we were alone, you were standing

on the dais in our walled garden. Perdita’s blooms

growing at your feet. It was late afternoon and you

were weary. Are they near? you said. I looked

along the road and saw dust, rising in the distance.

They are coming, I said, and drew the curtain closed

around you. There, as though in a lover’s tent,

I lay one last kiss on your cheek. Your flesh

was cold. I could almost believe you a statue.


Are they near? you said. I listened for the beat

of horses, for the rattle of the harness.

They are near, I said, and bent to arrange the

long hem of the chiton at your feet. Remember,

when they come, you must not breathe, must not



            [Herm] Until you give the word: until

you say ‘perceive she stirs’. You will follow us

to the palace?


Yes, I said. I will follow you wherever you are

moved to go, so long as you have need of me.


[Herm] Are they near? you said.


I heard the scuff of sandals in the road, smelt

leather, lilacs and horses. They are here, I said.

I could not meet your eyes, but you, in any case,

were looking towards some other love. Long

lost, and now returned.


11. Your second death

The night of your second death, I placed a pillow ‘neath your neck

pulled the sheets up over your cancer-wasted body, and

kissed your pale cheeks. You looked so warm, so lifelike,

I was sure you would wake when you heard the strike

of Perdita’s boot on the stone-flagged floor. No heart but mine

broke when you did not move. Did not take a breath.


You lay, peaceful. Ruined. Your chest flat and swaddled,

your face bald of curls, or lashes or brows.

Perdita knelt at your side, took your unfamiliar hand

and wept for all her father’s foolishness had wrought.


I knelt beside her, bent my head to pray

that your second death would be as fleeting as the first.

I took your hand and turned it, upwards like a tulip

or a daffodil. Kissed the tips of each pale petal.

Oh, but your hand, it is still warm! I cried.

Perdita put her arm around me, drew me away.

It is your hot tears that makes it so, she said.

12. To sum up, honestly

To sum up. Honestly,

I am not very good at sum-

ming up.


As a linguist I was trained to strive

for exactitude; to believe that

rigorous imitation – without residue, without

loss – is possible.

But here it is, the residue of you, which does

not, can not, never will

exist again. It moves like

a daffodil like

a doxy like

red blood in this:

my winter’s tale.



Jankowski, Theodora A. “. . . in the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare‘s Plays.” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Ed. Dympna Callaghan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 299-319.

[1] III, iii, 1514-1516

[2] III, iii, 1524-1528

[3] III, iii, 1546-1547

[4] This lullaby is very, very loosely based on the rhythm and rhyme scheme of ‘Gascoigne’s Lullaby’ by George Gascoigne (1534? -1577)

[5] IV, iii, 1943-1944

[6] IV, iii, 1997-2008

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