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III. Midwives and Magical Medicine

Scholars discussing

The Winter’s Tale

have said much

about the magical nature of the last scene of the play,



rarely has attention been given to its medicinal meanings or

implications, in particular Paulina’s symbolic midwifery and

the complex image of “birth” itself. Indeed, Carol Thomas

Neely claims that “the play’s central miracle


is human,

personal, physical, and female. . . . Childbirth is the literal and

symbolic centre of the play” (1999: 169-70). The birth image

is especially emphasized in the play’s second half, beginning

with the shift to the young Perdita

who is closely associated

with the powers of transformation and rebirth


culminating in Paulina’s magical or alchemistic revivifying of


For midwives, it is important to know the most favorable

time for a baby to be born, that is, the time most in accordance

with nature, and the “mankind witch” Paulina knows this well.

As Paracelsus notes, to borrow from Jolande Jacobi: “Only

when the time has been fulfilled, and not before, does the

course of nature and art set in” (1958: 82)

this art, in

Paulina’s case, is the art of midwifery. The midwife is also a

kind of alchemist, one who knows that the birth of a new life is

the final stage in the course of nature, the stage at which the

fetus has been fully purified, has become a quintessence like

the Philosopher’s Stone itself, just as the silent stone of

Hermione’s statue is turned into sound and sense. Like those


The critic D’orsay W. Pearson, for example, argues that Paulina fully

exhibits the image of the “urban witch”

“[b]awd, midwife, agent of the

forces of evil” (1979: 201)

in English Renaissance drama, one which can

also be found in three other plays a decade before Shakespeare composed

The Winter’s Tale

: namely, Thomas Heywood’s

The Wise Woman of


, Ben Jonson’s

The Alchemist

, and Thomas Middleton’s

The Witch

(1979: 199).