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2012 Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture

Sarah Beckwith
What Mamillius Knew:
Ceremonies of Initiation in The Winter’s Tale


Shakespeare’s late great play, The Winter’s Tale, provides us with one of the most fascinating portraits of childhood in the entire theatrical tradition: Prince Mamillius.

The young son of Hermione and King Leontes, Mamillius gives the play its title as he jests with his mother and her court just before the play’s tragic turn: “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins.” Caught in the force field of his parents’ desire, he haunts the play even after his death.

Focused on Mamillius, this lecture deals with questions of initiation, inheritance, learning at the hands of a skeptic, innocence and doubt.
Sarah Beckwith, Professor of English at Duke University, works on late medieval religious writing, medieval and early modern drama, and ordinary language philosophy. Her most recent book is Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (2011). She is currently working on a book about Shakespearean tragedy and philosophy’s love affair with the genre of tragedy.

This lecture was delivered in the Folger's Elizabethan Theatre on Monday, April 16, 2012.


The annual Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture is sponsored by the Folger Institute.


Each year, a scholar delivers a lecture on Shakespeare as part of the Folger's celebration of the Bard's Birthday. This tradition dates back to the library's founding in 1932 when Joseph Quincy Adams spoke on "Shakespeare and American Culture."


Sarah Beckwith
Birthday Lecture

Read the transcript

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