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incursion into a patriarchal territory where women’s silence

was considered an appropriate form of conduct, even a virtue,

which is why Leontes says to Hermione (though ironically he is

here prompting her to speak): “Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak

you” (1.2.27). A women’s silence was considered, in the early

modern period, to be a large part of her duty as a woman, for

a loose tongue was thought to imply a loose body, that is, a

predisposition to commit sexual transgressions. “Silence, the

closed mouth,” as Peter Stallybrass notes, “is made a sign of

chastity. And silence and chastity are, in turn, homologous to

women’s enclosure within the house” (1986: 123-144).

Hermione’s silence when she first comes on stage is thus in

accordance with the contemporary books on a woman’s proper

conduct in the presence of her husband and his male friend.

Thus what Leontes finds objectionable in Hermione has

more to do with her female wit and eloquent powers of speech

than with her chastity, and his sudden jealousy masks his

anxiety about his wife’s feminine power, one that could

potentially overpower and dominate him. This echoes the

thinking of the early modern European Church and the courts

(governments), where women who seemed too clever or wise,

in particular the women healers, were accused of witchcraft for

their use of magical herbs or words (spells). In facing his

queen’s mysterious and enchanting verbal power, Leontes

confronts his own inner fear, his insecurity about the validity

of his authoritative male subjectivity. That is, his wife’s

superior ability to talk to, and to persuade, Polixenes shames

him, as does the thought that he may lose his power to control

her, in particular to control her skill in using her linguistic

talents and wit and thereby “winning” (1.2.86) her verbal duels

with him

as might an evil enchantress in the early modern


The enchantress in the early modern era, by using her

tongue to exercise her power, can create medicinal effects: