However, well aware of the traditional (religious,
political and patriarchal) prejudices against alchemy and
midwifery, Paulina must avoid being seen as practicing a sort
of witchcraft in bringing the statue “alive.” On the other hand,
in performing this ritual act she clearly will be acknowledging
that she is using magic, and so she would seem to be caught in
a dilemma. Indeed, this is exactly the situation those early
modern women medical practitioners and midwives found
themselves in. As Doreen Evenden puts it: “[c]losely allied to
the baptismal function, in the opinion of historians, was the
concern that the midwife might engage in witchcraft and place
in jeopardy the soul of the unbaptized infant” (2000: 27).
Paulina’s playful reference to this “unlawful business”
before magically bringing the “statue” to life in front of
Leontes, the representative of patriarchal authority, is more a
witty and ironic reference to the traditional attitude toward
midwifery and witchcraft than a direct challenge to the king.
Even so, her role as midwife does transgress the accepted
boundaries of patriarchal medical authority inasmuch as it
involves the implicit use of magic power, and yet Shakespeare
has the powerful patriarch, Leontes himself, officially declare
that this magic of Paulina’s is just as “lawful” as the natural,
basic need for life.
However, here Evenden continues: “The myth of the midwife as witch,
however, has finally been demolished in a recent scholarly study by David
Harley, who argues that by accepting the evidence of demonologists instead
of examining early modern sources, historians have erroneously
perpetuated the ‘myth’ linking midwifery and witchcraft” (2000: 27).
Deborah E. Harkness holds a similar view. Considering the inadequacy of
the historical medical records which were traditionally based on the stories
told by the physicians of the College and elite surgeons, Harkness adopts
the views of people in the streets, houses, churches, and hospitals of
London city, and concludes that “these Elizabethan women emerge as
competent caregivers. . . . These women were at the very heart of London’s
medical world. . . . Perhaps that is why so many male practitioners found
them so very threatening” (2008: 83-84).