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Postpartum Exhaustion in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Now

Alicia Andrzejewski //

In William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (ca. 1609-11), Hermione is dragged to court by her husband, King Leontes, a few days postpartum to defend herself against accusations of infidelity. Imprisoned on these charges during the late stages of pregnancy, Hermione gives birth to her daughter, Perdita, in a jail cell. Once in court, Hermione pleads against Leontes’s “immodest hatred” with eloquence and rhetorical skill reminiscent of Shakespeare’s earlier courtroom heroines (3.2.100). While doing so, Hermione laments being denied the “child-bed privilege,”

… which ‘longs

To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried

Here to this place, i’ the open air, before

I have got strength of limit. (3.2.101-104)

The “child-bed privilege” Hermione describes is the early modern practice of “lying-in” for about a month postpartum, concluded by a churching ceremony to symbolize the new mother’s re-entry into the social world. Laura Gowing argues that many early modern women did not observe the rules of this period entirely, which included abstaining from sex, household labor, and going to church, but “the concept of the lying-in month was still a powerful one” (172). Hermione’s reference to her postpartum body emphasizes her precarious physical state and Leontes’s insensitive demand that his wife defend herself in public during a private time of recovery, pull on a “strength” she has not yet recovered in order to accommodate his irrational, jealous fantasies.

The fact that Hermione has not been allowed to rest and recover postpartum is one of many wrongs she endures at the hands of a tyrant, yet it is important enough to warrant four lines of meditation in a powerful monologue, as well as emphasis in recent productions of The Winter’s Tale. Kelly Hunter, for the Royal Shakespeare Company (2011), delivered Hermione’s monologue “wrapped in bloodstained rags” (Farrar n.pag.). The American Shakespeare Center (2012) also costumed Hermione so that she looked “bloodied and bedraggled” (Warren n.pag.). In Theatre for a New Audience’s production (2018), Hermione, performed by Kelley Curran, is brought onstage in a dirty nightgown by two men, struggling to walk, to hold herself upright, eyes wild.

I watched Curran perform Hermione’s monologue when I was ten-months postpartum. Instantly, her gestures transported me back to the sharp sting of trying to walk after giving birth. Watching Curran hobble onstage, hold on to various structures, and breathe heavily while pleading her case reminded me of when—two-weeks postpartum—I put on dress pants and a fresh, super-sized pad between my legs, leaving my husband with our newborn baby to go to a job interview. Still unsure of how I was going to fund the sixth year of my PhD program, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I sat in a department chair’s office, bleeding in a blazer, poised and eloquent. I got the job.

Giving birth requires tremendous physical sacrifice and effort, yet most people find themselves, like Hermione, “hurried” to various places, institutions, before they have fully recovered their “strength of limit.” For many people, postpartum recovery means healing after a major surgery, unable to, as Meaghan O’Connell describes in her memoir And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, “stand up and go to the bathroom without searing pain and the feeling of my guts threatening to come pouring out of my C-section incision” (114-15). For others, like Molly Caro May, postpartum recovery means years of incontinence. In her memoir Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood, May describes how birth rendered her “unable to do anything but care for Eula. Not cook. Not clean. Not even put a respectable outfit on my body . . . [making] literal movement through life difficult” (loc. 692, 1696).

We, postpartum bodies, are exhausted. The University of Chicago’s English Department’s recent call for papers, “Exhaustion: Tired Bodies, Tired Worlds,” argues that exhaustion is an embodied experience “bound to feelings of abandonment, liminality, numbness, fatigue, and precarity.” Like Hermione, people who have just given birth in our era endure institutional violence, working to preserve themselves in whatever ways they can, often depending on the unpaid labor of those who understand how important the right to recover postpartum is. Leontes’s “irrational” cruelty has been mused over by Shakespeare scholars for centuries. Indeed, his treatment of Hermione results in the death of his first-born son, Mamillius, and what he believes to be Hermione’s death, in fact a sixteen-year retreat from which she emerges only to “see the issue”—her daughter, Perdita—who has miraculously survived Leontes’s decree she be put to death (5.3.128). In light of these crimes, it is not surprising that Hermione’s denied lying-in rights have not garnered as much critical attention, but it is also the case that postpartum recovery is obscured from our cultural imagination as a crucial part of pregnancy and motherhood narratives.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently released committee opinion notes that acknowledge the postpartum period is “devoid of formal or infor­mal maternal support.” The mother is an “afterthought” once the child is born, and this lack of care and concern is even more pertinent to working mothers, 45% of whom are back at work within 40 days. As a solution, the new ACOG guidelines recommend that all women should “have contact with a maternal care provider within the first 3 weeks postpartum” and a final postpartum visit that includes “a full assessment of physical, social, and psychological well-being.”

There is a distinction, however, that institutions like the ACOG fail to recognize, between monitoring new mothers and listening to them. Assessment is not accommodation. Throughout these notes, the ACOG recognizes the disparity between the care white women and women of color receive postpartum. But, as Serena Williams’s high-profile case demonstrates, dragging women of color, especially black women, to more doctor’s appointments isn’t going to change the fact that no one hears them when they’re there. As Maya Salam writes in the New York Times article, “For Serena Williams, Childbirth Was a Harrowing Ordeal. She’s Not Alone,” Williams’s “agonizing postnatal experience” included “an episode in which hospital employees did not act on her concern that she was experiencing a pulmonary embolism, a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung by a blood clot.” Williams insisted to her nurse and doctor that she needed care and was ignored. Finally, after many useless tests were performed, the doctor listened to Williams and a CT scan showed several blood clots in her lungs.

Salem goes on to quote Dr. Elizabeth Howell’s research on why black women more commonly suffer from life-threatening complications postpartum, and the answer is not, Howell concludes, access to care, as Williams’s case demonstrates. Dr. Howell charges physicians to think instead about how “bias shapes the ways we hear our patients” (qtd. in Salam). Williams’s case is just one contemporary example of how, like Hermione, pregnant and postpartum people are monitored by professionals and strangers alike who feign concern and interest, but this hyper-visibility is also an erasure. Obscured by the Child, new mothers find themselves invisible in their exhaustion and suffering.

Requiring non-working and working mothers alike to attend extra appointments is not the solution to our cultural crisis in postpartum care. I had a doctor’s visit three-weeks postpartum because my pregnancy was high-risk, and simply getting to this appointment was an astounding feat. Although I could physically walk, my husband was already back to work after a “generous” two-week paternity leave, and my breastfeeding baby was literally attached to my body around the clock. My sister came with me, labor that mirrors Gowing’s challenge to historians such as Adrian Wilson who argue that the social ritual of the lying-in period “could pose a significant, if temporary, threat to male authority” (qtd. in Gowing 173). Gowing argues, alternatively, that “[r]ather than an inversion of marital roles, lying-in involved a redistribution of them amongst other women” (173). My sister and I had to stop twice in the half-mile walk to my obstetrician so I could feed Evelyn, who was not happy, on strangers’ steps. My sister held Evelyn in the waiting room, and I was too distracted by the sounds of shrieking babies—maybe my own—to talk seriously with the nurse inquiring about postpartum depression symptoms.

I know I do not speak only for myself when I say I do not dream of more doctor’s appointments for postpartum people, or even quicker healing. Inspired by Laura Dorwart’s moving account of the future she dreams of for her husband, a quadriplegic, I dream of accommodation—of professionals coming to women’s homes, of postpartum labor being distributed fairly among men and women, of people who have not given birth knowing or caring what postpartum people might need, and of postpartum parents feeling more comfortable asking for what they need. As Dorwart says, “In my dreams, I don’t watch him walk. I watch him stop being hurt.” For Leontes, it takes the perceived death of his wife and daughter, and actual death of his son, to “awake his faith”—to stop hurting and start trusting those he loves— although The Winter’s Tale offers little evidence he has actually changed (5.3.94-5).

Based on my postpartum experience, Hermione’s vehement claim to her childbed rights feels foreign to me, as I imagine it does to most people who have given birth. In The Fifth Trimester, a book about returning to work after giving birth, Lauren Smith Brody argues that the most important question a person can ask themselves postpartum is “What do you need right now?” and then to ask for it (108). Brody argues that if she had even thought to ask herself that question, then perhaps she wouldn’t have “spiraled quite as severely” (108). The answer to our postpartum care crisis, as Brody posits, is not to require even more of women, but for postpartum people to advocate for themselves in the hopes that institutions will listen. As a start, we must hear Hermione when Leontes refuses to, hear the voices of people who are speaking out now, so as to begin taking postpartum exhaustion seriously— “to desire differently, to desire more, to desire better” for people who have just given birth (Muñoz 189).


Brody, Lauren Smith. The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby. New York: Anchor, 2017.

Dorwart, Laura. “What the World Gets Wrong About My Quadriplegic Husband and Me.” Catapult. Dec. 6 2017.

Farrar, Jennifer. “Tyranny drives searing ‘Winter’s Tale.’” The Blade. July 28 2011.

Gowing, Laura. Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Luttfring, Sara D. Bodies, Speech, and Reproductive Knowledge in Early Modern England. New York: Routledge, 2016.

May, Molly C. Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood. Berkeley: Counterpoint P, 2018.

Martin, Nina. “Redesigning Maternal Care: OB-GYNs Are Urged to See New Mothers Sooner And More Often.” NPR. April 23, 2018.

Muñoz, José E. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009.

O’Connell, Meaghan. And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready. Little Brown & Co, 2018.

Salam, Maya. “For Serena Williams, Childbirth Was a Harrowing Ordeal. She’s Not Alone.” New York Times. Jan. 18 2018.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. John Pitcher. London: Bloomsbury P, 2010.

Warren, Jim. “Trust the Bard, for his Magic is True.” Shakespeareance. May 2 2012.

Wilson, Adrian. Ritual and Conflict: The Social Relations of Childbirth in Early Modern England. London: Ashgate, 2014.

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