In the first scene of act II of The Winter's Tale, Leontes says:

                                    You (my Lords)
Looke on her, marke her well: be but about
To say she is a goodly Lady, and
The iustice of your hearts will thereto adde
'Tis pitty shee's not honest: Honorable;
Prayse her but for this her without-dore-Forme,
(Which on my faith deserues high speech) and straight
The Shrug, the Hum, or Ha, (these Petty-brands
That Calumnie doth vse; Oh, I am out,
That Mercy do's, for Calumnie will seare
Vertue it selfe) these Shrugs, these Hum's, and Ha's,
When you haue said shee's goodly, come betweene,
Ere you can say shee's honest: But be't knowne
(From him that ha's most cause to grieue it should be)
Shee's an Adultresse.

I tried to decode Leontes in his speech but to no avail.

  1. Does he address the lords, as in Honorable ladies and gentlemen, with the word honorable in 'Tis pitty shee's not honest: Honorable;

  2. Whose calumny does Leontes speak of? He is the one that accuses so why does he mention Petty-brands of what methinks is Hermione's calumny (other than humbly negating his accusations, his wife does not accuse Leontes of anything)?

  3. What does mercy do? What might be meant by searing in That Mercy do's, for Calumnie will seare / Vertue it selfe?

1 Answer 1

  1. Leontes is saying that Hermione is not honorable, because (he believes) she has committed adultery: "she's not honest [, nor] honorable." He is not addressing his audience using "honorable" as a vocative.
  2. He tells the assembly to praise her outward form, and then (instead of going on to praise her inward character), to shrug, or make noncommittal sounds like "hum" or "ha." He initially says that this is the way to calumniate someone, by using hints or indirection to call someone's honor in question: "She is very beautiful ... hm!" He then corrects himself. "Oh, I am out" means "I'm wrong." Leontes says that his assertion is mistaken, for two reasons. First, calumny will not necessarily use indirection. Calumny can use direct accusation, searing, i.e., burning, scarring, and/or disfiguring, even virtue. That is, calumny can be falsely be explicit in attacking even the virtuous: "She is very beautiful, but a loose woman." Second, (he believes) Hermione is really adulterous, so accusing her is not calumny.
  3. As part of correcting his mistake about how calumny operates, Leontes says that mercy, not calumny, uses indirection when the accusation is true. In order to be kind, someone wishing not to impugn somebody else's character explicitly might shrug, make noncommittal sounds, etc. According to Leontes, that is a way to be merciful, as the accusation is not directly made.

The irony here of course is that Leontes is calumniating Hermione and doing so quite explicitly. Leontes makes up Hermione's adultery out of whole cloth, and even correctly characterizes his own accusations as being both merciless and calumniating. Yet he is too blinded by his jealousy to consider his own words and actions, and to see the applicability of what he is saying to his own mischaracterization of Hermione.

  • Does whole cloth really need a wiki link to explain it? I thought it was a common enough idiom.
    – verbose
    May 14, 2023 at 1:21
  • In what sense is sear used here? You're right, whole cloth may be too common to deserve a link. There're a lot of Shakespeare's fans who use English not as their everyday, dominant language. Hence the link.
    – John Smith
    May 14, 2023 at 1:44
  • @JohnSmith edited further, including adding a few words to explain sear.
    – verbose
    May 14, 2023 at 1:52

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