“The office becomes a woman best”. Alchemy, Women, and Healing in The Winter’s Tale


Abstract – The purpose of this study is to discuss the role of women in one of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Winter’s Tale, in the light of the alchemical and medical context of early modern England. Recent criticism has rescued from oblivion the significant position of women in the healthcare system of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, demonstrating that female practitioners were highly respected in their communities as caregivers, nurses, housewives, and also alchemists. Alchemy, in particular, was one of the areas in which women were most actively involved and renowned figures like Queen Elizabeth and Mary Sidney Herbert engaged in alchemical studies. Moreover, the art of alchemy itself is usually portrayed as a lady in contemporary treatises. By considering the analogies between alchemical and dramatic art and their association with the female dimension, this essay aims at shedding further light on the characters of Queen Hermione, her daughter Perdita, and Lady Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. If Hermione, whose name recalls the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, stands for the feminine aspect of matter that has to be reconciled with its male counterpart, then it can be assumed that King Leontes is the rex chymicus, who is the protagonist of several alchemical allegories and symbolises the raw matter that has to be transmuted into gold. It follows that Princess Perdita can be read as the philosophical child, the fruit of the chemical wedding between the royal couple. Finally, in the alchemical performance of the romance, Paulina functions as a personification of the art of alchemy and, as a dramatist, directs the events. She is driven throughout the play by the intention of reuniting the king and queen, Leontes and Hermione, and, in an obliquely alchemical way, employs her magical art to mend nature, thus actualising the healing effects of both alchemy and drama.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22390359v30p307

Keywords: Shakespeare; Women; Renaissance drama; Alchemy; Hermeticism


Abraham L. 1990, Marvell and Alchemy, Scolar Press, Aldershot.

Abraham L. 1991, ‘The Lovers and the Tomb’: Alchemical Emblems in Shakespeare, Donne, and Marvell, in “Emblematica” 5 [2], pp. 301-320.

Abraham L. 1998, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Adelman J. 1992, Suffocating Mothers. Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Tempest’, Routledge, New York.

Archer J.E. 2007, “Rudenesse itselfe she doth refine”: Queen Elizabeth I as Lady Alchymia, in Connolly A. and Hopkins L. (eds.), Goddesses and Queens: the Iconography of Elizabeth I, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp. 45-66.

Archer J.E. 2010, Women and Chymistry in Early Modern England: the Manuscript Receipt Book (c. 1616) of Sarah Wigges, in K.P. Long (ed.), Gender and Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Culture, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 191-216.

Artaud A. 1958, The Theatre and Its Double, translated from the French by Mary Caroline Richards, Grove Press, New York.

Artis auriferae, 1593, Excudebat Conr. Waldkirch, Expensis Claudij de Marne, Basileae, 2 vols.

Ashmole E. (ed.) 1652, Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, Printed by J. Grismond for Nathaniel Brooke, London.

Aubrey J. 1898, Brief Lives, chiefly of Contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the Years 1669 & 1696, edited from the author’s manuscripts by Andrew Clark, Clarendon Press, Oxford, vol. 1.

Baker G. 1576, The newe Iewell of Health, wherein is contayned the most excellent Secretes of Phisicke and Philosophie, Henrie Denham, London.

Bicks C. 2003, Midwiving Subjects in Shakespeare’s England. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World, Ashgate, Aldershot.

Brann N. 1985, Alchemy and Melancholy in Medieval and Renaissance Thought: A Query into the Mystical Basis of their Relationship, in “Ambix” 32 [3], pp. 127-148.

Bonus of Ferrara P. 1546, Pretiosa margarita novella, Apud Aldi filios, Venetii.

Califano S. 2015, Storia dell’alchimia. Misticismo ed esoterismo all’origine della chimica moderna, Firenze University Press, Firenze.

Cradock E. 1995, A Treatise Touching the Philosopher’s Stone, in Schuler R.M. (ed.), Alchemical Poetry 1575-1700. From Previously Unpublished Manuscripts, Garland, New York, pp. 11-31.

Debus A.G. 1965, The English Paracelsians, Franklin Watts, New York.

Debus A.G. 1978, Man and Nature in the Renaissance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dee, A. 1997, Fasciculus Chemicus, edited by L. Abraham, Garland, New York/London.

Dee J. 1842, The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue of his Library of Manuscripts, from the original manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and Trinity College Library, Cambridge, edited by J. Orchard Halliwell, Camden Society, John Bower Nichols and Son, London.

Delsigne J. 2014, Hermetic Miracles in The Winter’s Tale, in Hopkins L. and Ostovich H. (eds.), Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 91-108.

Diehl H. 2008, “Does not the stone rebuke me?”: the Pauline Rebuke and Paulina’s Lawful Magic in The Winter’s Tale, in Yachnin P.E. and Badir P. (eds.), Shakespeare and the Cultures of Performance, Ashgate, Aldershot, pp. 69-82.

Dillon J. 2013, Scenic Memory, in Gordon A. and Rist T. (eds.), The Arts of Remembrance in Early Modern England. Memorial Cultures of the Post Reformation, Routledge, London/New York, pp. 195-210.

Eglinus R. 1667, Zoroaster’s Cave, in Id., An Easie Introduction to the Philosophers Magical Gold, Printed for Matthew Smelt, London, pp. 57-91.

Eliade M. 1956, Forgerons et alchimistes, Flammarion, Paris.

Eliade M. 1978, Le mythe de l’alchimie, translated by Ilena Tacou, in Cahiers de l’Herne, 33, pp. 157-67.

Engel W.E. 2013, The Winter’s Tale: Kinetic emblems and memory images in The Winter’s Tale, in Power A.J. and Loughnane R. (eds.), Late Shakespeare, 1608-1613, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 71-87.

Espagnet J. de 1999, The Summary of Physicks Restored (Enchyridion Physicae Restitutae), edited by T. Willard, Garland, New York/London.

Evenden D. 2000, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Fabricius J. 1976, Alchemy. The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art, Rosenkilde and Bagger, Copenhagen.

Fissell M.E. 2008, Introduction: Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe, in “Bulletin of the History of Medicine” 28, pp. 1-17.

Floyd-Wilson M. 2013, Occult Knowledge, Science, and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Frey N. 1965, A Natural Perspective: the Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, Columbia University Press, New York/London.

Frye N. 1986, Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, edited by R. Sandler, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Frye N. 2011, Shakespeare’s Romances: The Winter’s Tale, in Bloom H. (ed.), William Shakespeare: Romances. New Edition, Infobase Publishing, New York, pp. 3-16.

Freytag G. 1990, Technique of the Drama. An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art, translated by E.J. McEwan, Scott, Foresman and Co.

Gabriele M. (ed.) 1986, Alchimia. La tradizione in occidente secondo le fonti manoscritte e a stampa, Electa, Milano.

Gabriele M. (ed.) 1988, Le Precieux Don de Dieu (Ms. N. 3 de la Collection Verginelli-Rota, Bibliothèque de l’Accademia dei Lincei, Rome), Bailly, Paris.

Gabriele M. 1997, Alchimia a Iconologia, Forum, Udine.

Gabriele M. 2015, La porta magica di Roma: simbolo dell’alchimia occidentale, Olschki, Firenze.

Garber M. 2004, Shakespeare After All, Anchor Books, New York.

Gesner C. 1552, Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri de remediis secretis, Tigvri per Andream Gesnerum.

Greenblatt S. 2001, Hamlet in Purgatory, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Grimal P. 1951, Dictionnaire de la mythologie grecque et romaine, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.

Gurr A. 2009, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hall J. 1657, Select Observations on English Bodies or Cures both Empericall and Historicall, performed upon very eminent Persons in desperate Diseases. First written in Latine by Mr. John Hall, Printed for John Sherley, at the Golden Pelican, in Little-Britain, London.

Harkness D.E. 2002, “Strange” Ideas and “English” Knowledge. Natural Science Exchange in Elizabethan London, in Smith P.H. and Findlen P. (eds.) Merchants and Marvels. Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, Routledge, London/New York, pp. 137-160.

Harkness D.E. 2008, A View from the Streets: Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London, in “Bulletin of the History of Medicine” 82, pp. 52-85.

Harley D. 1990, Historians as Demonologists: The Myth of the Midwife-witch, in “The Society for the Social History of Medicine”, pp. 1-26.

Healy M. 2011, Shakespeare, Alchemy, and the Creative Imagination. The Sonnets and a Lover’s Complaint, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hunter L. and Hutton S. (eds.) 1997, Women, Science and Medicine 1500-1700. Mothers and Sisters of the Royal Society, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, Stroud.

Iyengar S. 2011, Shakespeare’s Medical Language: A Dictionary, Arden Shakespeare Dictionary Series, Bloomsbury, London.

Jonson B. 1983, The Alchemist, edited by Brown D., E. Benn, London.

Jonson B. 1997, Four Comedies: Volpone, or the Fox; Epicoene, or the Silent Woman; The Alchemist; Bartholomew Fair, edited by Ostovich H., Longman, London/New York.

Jonson B. 2012, The Alchemist, edited by Holland P. and Sherman W., in Bevington et al. (eds.), The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 555-710.

Kelly E. 1893, The Alchemical Writings, James Elliott and Co., London.

Leigh L. 2014, Shakespeare and the Embodied Heroine: Staging Female Characters in the Late Plays and Early Adaptations, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Linden S.J. 1996, Darke Hierogliphicks. Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.

Linden S.J. 1998, The Ripley Scrolls and The Compound of Alchymy, in Adams A.J. and Linden S.J. (eds.), Emblems and Alchemy 3, Glasgow Emblem Studies, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, pp. 73-94.

Linden S.J. (ed.) 2003, The Alchemy Reader. From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Linden S.J. 2007, Mystical Metal of Gold. Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture, AMS Press, New York.

Maier M. 1969, Atalanta fugiens. Sources of an Alchemical Books of Emblems, edited by H.M.E. de Jong, E. J. Brill, Leiden.

Marland H. (ed.) 1993, The Art of Midwifery: Early Modern Midwives in Europe, Routledge, London.

Morienus 1974, A Testament of Alchemy being the Revelations of Morienus […] of the Divine Secrets of the Magisterium and Accomplishment of the Alchemical Art, translated by Lee Stavenhagen, Published for The Brandeis University Press by The University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Moseley C. 2009, The Literary and Dramatic Contexts of the Last Plays, in Alexander C.M.S. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Last Plays, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 47-69.

Murray W.A., 1966, Why was Duncan’s Blood Golden?, in Muir K. (ed.), Shakespeare’s Survey. An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study & Production, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, vol. 19, pp. 34-44.

Nicholl C. 1980, The Chemical Theatre, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Paracelsus 1894, The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings, transl. by Waite A.E., James Elliott, London, 2 vols.

Parkinson J. 1629, Paradisi in Sole. Paradisus Terrestris, Printed by Humphrey Lownes and Robert Young, London.

Pereira M. 2001, Arcana sapienza. L’alchimia dalle origini a Jung, Carocci, Roma.

Pereira M. (ed.) 2006, Alchimia. I testi della tradizione occidentale, Arnoldo Mondadori, Milano.

Pettigrew T.H.J. 2007, Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage, University of Delaware Press, Newark.

Philalethes E. 1650, Magia Adamica: Or, The Antiquitie of Magic, in Id., The Man-Mouse Taken in a Trap, and tortur’d to death for gnawing the Margins of Eugenius Philalethes, London.

Pilgrim R. 1983, You Precious Winners All. A Study of The Winter’s Tale, Becket Publications, Oxford.

Principe L.M. 1998, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Alchemical Quest, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Principe L.M. (ed.) 2007, Chymists and Chymistry: Studies in the History of Alchemy and Early Modern Chemistry, International Conference on the History of Alchemy and Chymistry, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, 19-23 July 2006, Science History Publications, Sagamore Beach, Mass.

Puttenham G. 1970, The Arte of English Poesie, edited by G.D. Willcock G.D. and A. Walker, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ray M.K. 2015, Daughters of Alchemy. Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Richmond V.B. 2015, Shakespeare, Catholicism, and Romance, Bloomsbury, London/New York.

Ripley G. 1591, The Compound of Alchymy or the Ancient Hidden Art of Archemie, Thomas Orwin, London.

Roberts G. 1999, “An Art as Lawful as Eating”? Magic in The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, in Richards J. and Knowles J. (eds.), Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 126-142.

Romero Allué M. 2016, What you do still betters what is done. Arte, mito e natura in The Winter’s Tale, in Id., Immagini della mente. Scrittura e percezione visiva nella letteratura inglese del Rinascimento, Libreria Editrice Cafoscarina, Venezia, pp. 46-95.

Rosenfield K.G. 2002, Nursing Nothing: Witchcraft and Female Sexuality in The Winter’s Tale, in “Mosaic” 35, pp. 95-112.

Shakespeare W. 1984, The Winter’s Tale, edited by J.H.P. Pafford, Methuen, London/New York.

Shakespeare W. 2008, The Complete Sonnets and Poems, edited by C. Burrow, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Shakespeare W. 2010, The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works, edited by S. Wells et al., Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Shakespeare W. 2010, The Winter’s Tale, edited by J. Pitcher, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, London.

Sheppard H.J. 1986, European Alchemy in the Context of a Universal Definition, in Christoph Meinel (ed.), Die Alchimie in der europäischen Kultur, Wolfenbütteler Forschungen, vol. 32, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1986, pp. 13-17.

Shumaker W. 1972, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Simonds P.M. 1997-1998, “My charms crack not”: The Alchemical Structure of “The Tempest”, in “Comparative Drama” 31 [4], pp. 538-570.

Simonds P.M. 1998, ‘Love is a spirit all compact of fire’: Alchemical Coniunctio in Venus and Adonis, in Adams A. and Linden J.S. (eds.), Emblems and Alchemy, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, pp. 134-156.

Smith S. 2017, Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse, 1603-1625, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Starkey G. 1654, The Marrow of Alchemy, Printed by A.M. for Edw. Brewster, London.

Sutherland, A. 2007, Mapping Regeneration in The Winter’s Tale, in Cummins G. and Burchell D. (eds.), Science and Rhetoric in Early Modern England, Ashgate, Aldershot, pp. 37-51.

Tatspaugh P. 2009, The Winter’s Tale: Shifts in Staging and Status, in Alexander C.M.S. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Last Plays, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 113-134.

Tayler E.W. 1995, Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in Hunt M. (ed.), The Winter’s Tale. Critical Essays, Garland Publishing, New York, pp. 119-138.

Taylor F.S. 1946, George Ripley’s Song, in “Ambix” 2, pp. 177-81.

Taylor F.S. 1949, The Alchemists. Founders of Modern Chemistry, Henry Schuman, New York.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online

http://www.oed.com (24.05.2018)

Thurneysser L. 1570, Quinta essentia, Johann Ossenbrügge für den Autor, Münster.

Tillyard E.M.W. 1972, The Elizabethan World Picture, Penguin Books in Association with Chatto and Windus, Harmondsworth.

Trismosin S. 1920, Splendor solis, Including 22 Allegorical Pictures Reproduced from the Original Paintings in the Unique Manuscript on Vellum, dated 1582, in the British Museum, Kegan Paul, Trench, Rubner & Co., London.

Tymme T. 1605, The Practise of Chymicall, and Hermeticall Physicke, for the Preseruation of Health. Written in Latin by Iosephus Quersitanus, Doctor of Phisicke. And Translated into English, by Thomas Tymme, Printed by Thomas Creede, London.

Waite A.E. (transl.) 1893, The Hermetic Museum. Restored and Enlarged, J. Elliot and Co., London. [Musaeum Hermeticum, Reformatum et Amplificatum, Hermannum à Sande, Francofurti, 1678].

Warlick M.E. 1998, The Domestic Alchemist: Women as Housewives in Alchemical Emblems, in Adams A.J. and Linden S.J. (eds.), Emblems and Alchemy, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, pp. 25-47.

Yates F.A. 1975, Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Young D. 1972, The Heart’s Forest. A Study of Shakespeare’s Pastoral Plays, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Zamparo, M. 2016a, “Great Apollo, turn all to the best!”. An Alchemical Journey Through Conspiracy, Prophecy, and Holiness in The Winter’s Tale, in Morini M. and Iannaccaro G. (eds.), Prophecy and Conspiracy in Early Modern England, Selected Papers from the “Shakespeare and his Contemporaries” Graduate Conference, The British Institute of Florence, Florence, 22 April 2016, The British Institute of Florence, pp. 51-63.

Zamparo, M. 2016b, “If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating”. An Alchemical Reading of the Living Statue in The Winter’s Tale, in “Costellazioni” [1], pp. 173-204.

Zamparo, M. 2017, “An art That Nature makes”. The Alchemical Conception of Art and Nature in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, in “Le Simplegadi” 15 [17], pp. 347-360.

Full Text: pdf


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribuzione - Non commerciale - Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia License.