This is Yolanda's second blog entry for the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale, in which she talks about the orignal practices from Shakespeare's time that have been followed in the making of the production, and Hermione's relationship with her family.
Transcript of Podcast
I’ve been looking at pictures of pregnant women from the seventeenth century because I had a really interesting costume fitting this week. At the beginning of the play Hermione is pregnant and then I go into prison and have the child, so I’m not pregnant anymore in the trial scene. Being an original practices production, we’ve been thinking about what would happen costume-wise. Jenny told me that what women used to do was wear their skirts on back to front to cover pregnant bumps; cloth was valuable so they had to make the best use of it. When Hermione is pregnant and I’ve got a bump, I wear my skirt back to front. It's slightly open at the back but that would have been pinned and there's a big cloak that means you never see the back of the skirt. After the birth, the skirt would be worn normally again and that's what Hermione will do.
Jenny gave me this book of portraits so I could see what pregnant women would have worn in Tudor and Stuart times. Although many women seemed to spend most of their adult lives in a state of pregnancy, apparently there aren’t many 17th Century portraits of pregnant women – some of the women in the book hardly look pregnant at all because the clothes emphasise a narrow shape rather than a bump! Pregnancy was not regarded as an attractive state to be in, so it was hidden as far as possible – it was thought to be ‘indecorous.’ There's one beautiful portrait shows a woman who is obviously extremely big with child and you can see that her clothes are covered in pearls. I wondered why her dress was so ornate and then I read that the number of pearls shows her high status, and that pearls were emblems of purity. They were also the associated with the virgin martyr St. Margaret of Antioch who was the patron saint of childbirth.
It's been proposed that wearing pearls during pregnancy was a way of invoking St. Margaret's beneficent influence. While it's estimated that only one woman in 100 died in childbirth in early modern Britain, the contemporary perception was that the risk involved for mother and child was extremely high: they thought they would need all the help they could get. Pregnancy then was actually quite morbid; pregnant women would often prepare for the worst and ask for cloth and things to be buried in because they never knew what was going to happen. Although it's a joyful time because of the pregnancy and the idea of a child, it was also a time to reflect: what would happen if you weren’t around anymore?
Another picture shows a woman with her family; you can just see she's just a little bit pregnant and she's got six children with another one on the way. Seven children… I don’t know when children were considered to be past the ‘danger age’ but infant mortality was very high too and even if you survived pregnancy, you never knew exactly what would happen to the child afterwards.
Hermione has one child, Mamillius, and she's pregnant with another. Mamillius is meant to be about seven, so during that time in between she could have possibly miscarried? They don’t mention. There aren’t any other children so half way through the play Leontes is left without an heir. What's happened to his mother causes Mamillius to die of heartbreak. He's ill, but they say he dies heartbroken. Perdita is abandoned in another country. The Oracle says that unless the child is found, Leontes will not have an heir. I think that's why Hermione stays in hiding for sixteen years. She pretends to be dead because she's waiting for the day that her daughter comes back. She tells Perdita that she preserved herself to see the issue, to see her child again:
[…] For thou shalt hear that I,
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserv’d
Myself to see the issue.
That's the only reason she's stayed alive. I’ve been thinking about two things. I thought she couldn’t live with her husband if she came out of hiding before Perdita's return. Obviously she loves her husband and eventually forgives him, but the only reason I can play that is because the child has been found. There would be so much resentment otherwise: because of the stupid things you did, my son died and my daughter is lost forever. How can you go back and love someone with that history? The other thing is that she knows Leontes is repentant: every single day for 16 years he's gone to a tomb to pray and beg for her forgiveness. She knows that he's sincerely repentant. Even so, I feel that unless that child is found or there's news of her, there's no way she can go back to him. It just wouldn’t work. The only time when she can come back is when she does come back; when Perdita reappears. Then the family is together and she can return and forgive.
We’ve done some work on the final scene when the family is reunited. It's a very difficult scene – it's also one of those scenes which everybody finds very moving. Just watching it as the statue, I think they find the whole idea of this statue being observed and then coming to life very beautiful and they can’t quite believe that it's happened. When Hermione does speak, she doesn’t speak to Leontes; she only gestures to him and then hugs him. There are no words for him. The only person she speaks to is her daughter.
We worked on that just briefly, finding out just how close you can get to a person who's pretending to be a statue. Another question was how quickly you can believe that person is a statue? I think it would be interesting to go to Covent Garden and talk to one of the performers who stand there as living statues – just to find out how they do it, because they stand very, very still. I’ve been given a fantastic poem all about how I have to do it! It's written but someone called Edwin Morgan and he's pretending to be Shakespeare giving instructions to the boy actor who is going to play the statue. The instructions are very funny… basically I must be VERY, VERY STILL!*
I imagine that Shakespeare used the discovery space at the back of the stage for the statue, just within the tiring house doors. Maybe that where they would have seen her – there are references to a curtain being drawn and you could have a curtain across the front of the discovery space. The way we’re doing it, that's where I’m found but then I’m brought forward to the centre of the stage on a plinth. They’ve made a pedestal with something for me to lean on. I’ve looked at pictures of actresses throughout history who’ve played the part and what they have used and they’re very funny. Some, like Ellen Terry for instance, had very simple poses, which is what I’m trying to go for. You look at other poses and think ‘How did they manage to stay still like that?!’ They must have been doing it for the painting as they couldn’t possibly have acted like that on stage – with hands up in the air, holding their veils out! Stage Management tested the logistics of our plinth, so we know it won’t make me wobble!
Another thing to help me look still as a statue is that I’ve got quite a heavy cut velvet costume which hangs stiffly. As the Globe is open air, any breeze will make cloth shake and move. I’ve chosen to hold one hand in the centre of my chest with a very ornate lace handkerchief that looks as though it's been chiselled. The lace comes from Ravello in Italy which is north of Genoa; the ladies of Ravello have made this lace in the handkerchief. Then I shall have some more lace on my costume at some point which is made by ladies of Essex who won a lace-making competition and we have got their lace. It's great because it's all been handmade and it has a history.
The Tudor Group visited us and they were as fantastic as always – they spend part of the year living a Tudor lifestyle (as far as possible) and they told us many, many wonderful things that will be useful for original practices. We learnt all about the social etiquette; when to bow or take your hat off, how flamboyant you can be. We also learnt what would have been considered disrespectful. Manners were considered such an important part of good breeding that if you were disrespectful of a person and refused to bow, actually that said more about you than the other person – so if you didn’t like someone you would sometimes go to the other extreme and to be really particular with proper etiquette.
We are always told that people at that time didn’t wash and that Queen Elizabeth had a bath twice a year ‘whether she needed them or not.’ Therefore we think that people at that time were really dirty. I found out from the Tudor Group that Elizabethans would have washed but they didn’t immerse themselves in water and they didn’t wash their clothes because their clothes would have shrunk. They had a ‘head to toe’ wash as we do when we can't have a bath or a shower… hands, face, neck, feet, so they would have been cleaner than we think. And also they did something called ‘dry washing’ which is when you exfoliate with a cloth: in fact you can keep clean just by doing that.
We talked about hair washing too. After women got married they didn’t show their hair and long hair was a sign of virginity; you only wore your hair completely down the day you got married or if you were a young girl. Otherwise hair was kept under caps but nonetheless they have recipes for the early modern equivalent of shampoo! They would put lots of different herbs and juices in water in order to keep hair shiny. It's interesting to think that Elizabethans connected bad smells with disease; if you smelt badly, you were connected with disease and people would keep away. Therefore Elizabethans did their best to smell sweetly whereas we assume they would have stunk. Apparently the Elizabethan nickname for the groundlings – ‘penny stinkards’ – is a bit misleading!
*Edwin Morgan – ‘Instructions to an Actor’
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.