7 of the happiest moments in Shakespeare: finale

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18.03.2022

Centuries after he laid down his quill, Shakespeare’s words still raise people’s spirits. So, in the run-up to the UN International Day of Happiness on 20 March, we asked an expert panel to name their favourite moments of happiness in Shakespeare. Today we savour the happiest moment of all.

Compiled by Andy McLean

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1. Leontes’ family grant him love, mercy and forgiveness

“Moments of happiness in Shakespeare often come as complete surprises; the most extreme examples being when characters thought to be dead are revealed to be alive,” says American academic Professor Robert Viking O'Brien. While all these moments of ‘resurrection’ are special, O’Brien picks out Hermione’s return at the end of The Winter’s Tale as the most joyful of them all.

“In other plays with seeming resurrections, Shakespeare lets the audience know in advance that supposedly dead characters are alive, creating suspense and dramatic tension that is relieved at the plays' climaxes,” explains O’Brien. “The effect in The Winter's Tale is different. We experience Leontes’ surprise with him. We may be pulled so far into his point of view that we forget that Hermione is having a similar experience, discovering that her daughter is still alive. For the 16 years that Leontes was repenting his crimes, Hermione prayed to see her daughter again. To me, her reunion with Perdita makes this the most deeply moving scene of happiness in Shakespeare.”

Actor Lucy Bell agrees with O’Brien: “All the reunions and reconciliations in Shakespeare’s plays are beautiful but I’m going to nominate the end of The Winter’s Tale when the statue of Hermione ‘comes to life’, Perdita is reunited with her parents and (despite the shame and guilt Leontes feels for his actions and the trauma of the wasted years of separation) the family is miraculously reunited. I cry happy tears whenever I see it.”

  • Robert Viking O’Brien is an emeritus professor of English literature at California State University, Chico. His deep and entertaining reflections about the conclusion of The Winter’s Tale can be read at shakespeareflix.net