Shakespeare’s Legacy: Hermione the Queen and Schoolgirl
Summary: My essay analyses the similarities between Hermione Granger and Queen Hermione from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. There are some uncanny resemblances both in the plot surrounding the characters and in the qualities they possess, which I discuss. I also try to determine the extent to which Rowling intended these similarities to arise.
All quotations are taken from the UK editions of the Harry Potter books, and the RSC’s Complete Works of Shakespeare, 2007.
The female characters created in the Early Modern period have often been condemned for being too weak. It has been argued that it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that stronger female characters emerged: largely due to the increase in female writers. However, biographer Amanda Foreman has asserted that women ‘were much more active than literature at the time would have us believe’ (The Duchess, p.404), a statement perhaps partially inspired by various female characters created by the man who has been considered the earliest feminist, William Shakespeare. He is responsible for a wide variety of strong female characters who continue to influence audiences today, and perhaps the one who still holds such power is Queen Hermione from A Winter’s Tale. It is common knowledge that J.K. Rowling was inspired by Queen Hermione to use her name for her own character Hermione Granger, but on deeper analysis, the parallels between the two characters are not limited to the name. Strong female characters are common in both Shakespeare’s and Rowling’s work, but whilst there are many characters who share names, the most striking similarities lie between the two Hermiones, leaving one wondering whether Rowling planned this as soon as she chose the name.
Hermione Granger is renowned for her intelligence. Countless times throughout the series people have brought up the fact that she is the brightest witch of her age, and her uncanny ability of scoring, for example, one hundred and twelve percent in her Charms exam proves how exceptional her mind seems to be. However, this intelligence is not, perhaps, entirely her own. One could say that she ‘inherited’ it from her predecessor, Queen Hermione.
Shakespeare does not broadcast the Queen’s intelligence as an obviously defining feature, but he does use certain techniques to subtly suggest the superiority of her mind over those of Leontes and Polixenes, her husband, and his friend. Her delicate language is a stark contrast to her husband Leontes’s jealous ravings. When she is on trial for treason, she pleads innocence, hoping that ‘innocence shall make / false accusation blush and tyranny / tremble at patience’ (3:2:27-9). She suggests that the truth will reveal the trial for what is ridiculous and that her husband’s tyrannous turn will be uprooted. This directly contrasts with Leontes’s crude lines which teem with jealous mutterings and sexual innuendoes. It is Shakespeare’s way of showing the audience that this is an educated woman: someone who knows exactly what is happening and who uses her wit to try to manipulate the situation to her advantage. Hermione Granger has very similar qualities. She is often the one who galvanizes Harry and Ron into action, letting the strength of her convictions and persuasive powers get them to do the right thing, like setting up Dumbledore’s Army. Queen Hermione’s success in persuading Polixenes to stay in Sicilia reflects this, and the parallels of a very intelligent female being able to control her two male friends is a strong indicator of the likeness of the two characters.
One thing both Hermiones are adamant to uphold is the truth. The famous line which says that people must ‘make a choice between what is right, and what is easy’ (Goblet of Fire, p.628), seems to hold true for Queen Hermione as well as Hermione Granger. Consistently throughout the Harry Potter series, Hermione makes sure she stays true to herself and does what is right. Her decision to leave Hogwarts and help Harry at the end of Half-Blood Prince must have needed a phenomenal amount of courage: Hermione abides by the rules and values her education more than almost anything else, so by going on the run with ‘Undesirable Number 1’ and foregoing the completion of her education, she does what is right and remains true to her strong sense of justice and unfailing loyalty. Similarly, during her trial, Queen Hermione steadfastly sticks to what she knows to be true: that she is innocent of both treason and adultery. This refusal to obey the orders of her husband, to admit to what he believes to be the truth, in no way pacifies him, making him more convinced of her duplicity: much like the way Ron can’t accept that there is nothing between Hermione and Harry when he storms out in Deathly Hallows. Not that Ron and Leontes have any particular resemblance. Ron’s jealousy may well be present in the later books, but it is grossly distorted by the Horcrux, and never leads him to act as atrociously as Leontes. Nevertheless, it is worth recognizing that the love interests of both Hermiones have problems with their jealousy.
The jealousy of Ron and Leontes seems to be something unfathomable to the Hermiones. Of course, they know what jealousy is, but apparently, they can’t understand the grounds on which Ron or Leontes have to be jealous. Queen Hermione cries, ‘you speak a language that I understand not’ (3:2:80), suggesting that jealousy has changed her husband, alienating him, and thus dividing him from her. Perhaps this is why she finds it so difficult to comprehend his accusations because he has become unrecognizable. Meanwhile, Hermione Granger has to put up with Ron’s jealousy over Krum and Harry, and also deal with her own, which is directed towards Lavender. However, although one might expect her to be an expert in decoding Ron’s actions, she often seems at a loss with how to cope with his erratic mood swings and almost paranoid jealousy. In Deathly Hallows, in the heartbreaking scene in which Harry and Ron fight, Ron asks her, ‘are you staying, or what?’ (p.254). To Ron, this evidently means ‘do you choose him, or me’, but Hermione fails to realise this in time to stop him leaving. She answers, ‘yes, yes, I’m staying. Ron, we said we’d go with Harry’. It isn’t until Ron says, ‘I get it. You choose him’ that the realisation of the full extent of his jealousy dawns on her; but by then it’s too late. The inability of both women to understand the reasons behind the jealousy of Ron and Leontes helps to prove how innocent they are, never having considered (at least, not seriously) romantic relationships with Harry or Polixenes.
These qualities the two Hermiones share don’t prove that Rowling based her character on Shakespeare’s, however they do imply that a certain amount of influence, considerably more than simply the name, came from the original Hermione, whether Rowling was aware of it or not. Their intelligence (arguably unparalleled by any other character in the text), their fierce upholding of the truth, and their complete innocence compared with their lovers’ jealousy are all qualities that mark them as significantly similar characters. Of course, one could contest that these traits can be seen elsewhere. Desdemona was falsely accused of adultery in Othello, Jane Eyre used her intellect to influence Rochester, and Fanny Price was never persuaded to act against her judgment in Mansfield Park. However, there is one thing that irrevocably cements the two Hermiones together in my mind. At the end of A Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione appears in front of the Court in the form of a statue. They comment on how close to life she is and that ‘thou art Hermione’ (5:3:29). The stichomythia employed in the scene gradually builds up the idea of magic at work (‘if this be magic, let it be an art’ 5:3:133), until finally she comes to life again and is reunited with her family. This brings me to a certain event in Chamber of Secrets. Does not Hermione get petrified, her body frozen into a life-like statue? And does she not get brought back to life, by magic, in the final chapter, to be reunited with her friends? We can’t know whether this was intentional or not, but it seems to me that Rowling may have retained a sense of Queen Hermione within her own Hermione, tying them together and extending the line of strong female characters; but above all, honouring Shakespeare’s mighty legacy.