A Play of Its Time: Christianity and Paganism in the Winter’s Tale

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer

Introduction

The Winter’s Tale is both pagan and christian in nature. “The manners are supposed to be Pagan, but what religious doctrines appear Tridentine rather than Olympian,” (Bowden, 288-289). It uses Christian themes and parallels to some Biblical stories. The Winter’s Tale is a story about the product of jealousy, which is something we are warned about, and the power of redemption, which is something we are shown throughout the Bible. The character Perdita mirrors Moses from the Bible. The Winter’s Tale also draws from pagan stories. It nods to Pygmalion and Galatea, and to Alcestis. The Winter’s Tale pulls some of its pagan stories and ideas from Pandosto, which Shakespeare copied to make this play.

Christianity

Shakespeare was greatly influenced by Christianity because of the time he grew up in. He developed a skill of using the time and its unique characteristics to his advantage, such as the stronghold of the Church of England. At this time, according to Pettegree, England was greatly Protestant. This was because the Protestants were still flooding in because by the time Shakespeare was born it had only been six years after Mary I death and only a year since the end of the counter reformation. This means Shakespeare would have grown up in the aftermath of one of the biggest religious upheavals in England. Shakespeare would have been raised around the church and he therefore would have had a good grasp on its teachings and stories, as well as some of the leftovers from the Catholics. “…The poet usually is in a sense, the product of his age, and speaks with its voice…” (Bowden, 4).

Shakespeare starts his Christian references at the beginning of the play and carries them all the way through to the end. Polixenes makes references to his and Leontes’ almost Edenic childhood. They were innocent and innocence was all they knew, Polixenes explicitly says “what we changed was innocence for innocence; we knew not the doctrine of ill-doing,” (The Winter’s Tale 1.2.68-70). He also states, on line 77, that they were like lambs which is taken right out of the Bible. The Bible makes many references to us being like lambs that are part of God’s herd.

The Winter’s Tale focuses on the product of jealousy in an almost Biblical manner. Leontes is blinded by his jealousy to the point where he starts seeing thing as more than they are, it’s like he’s overcome by madness. “…The blindness of the master is not merely confined to the misunderstanding of visual or verbal cues, for it extends to a form of spiritual blindness, where true virtue, as symbolized in the persons of…Hermione, is cast away,” (J). Leontes not only blows Hermione and Polixenes’ actions and words out of proportion, but he turn blind to what is true. He relies upon what his heart is telling him, what he’s feeling, as opposed to the truth. This is something that is warned against in the Bible, it tells us that we should not turn away from truth because the heart can be misleading, and that’s exactly what happened in The Winter’s Tale.

The of the biggest, and possibly the most important theme in The Winter’s Tale is the power of redemption, which mirrors one of the themes from one of the greatest stories ever told, the story of the cross. The greatest redemption is shown by Hermione, Polixenes, and Perdita when they forgive Leontes. Hermione was able to forgive her husband after he tried to have her put to death for something that she didn’t do. She not only redeemed him, but also showed true love and forgiveness. Polixenes redeemed his friendship with Leontes once he was able to prove that he was truly sorry. Perdita not only redeemed her father, but was also redeemed herself when her parentage was found out. Shakespeare also uses hope and its ability to sustain in The Winter’s Tale. Hope seeing her daughter again is what keeps Hermione going for her sixteen years in hiding. Pauline has hope that one day everything can be set right as it should be that allows her to hide Hermione for those sixteen years. Perdita and Florizel have hope that their love can last. This is a representation of the hope we should have in Christ. A hope that allows us to get out of bed each morning because we know that we will be with God one day and He will set everything right as it should be.

The Winter’s Tale is Christian mainly for it’s themes, but it does contain some parallels to Biblical stories. This play almost mirrors the story of Moses. Both were wanted dead, by kings of their land, when they were babies. Perdita and Moses were put into bodies of water which would eventually save them, and were saved by someone of the opposite class. The only flip is Pedita was born royal and raised poor, and Moses was born poor and raised royal. The way they were raised helped them grow into the person that would free their nations.

Paganity

Being that Shakespeare was a product of his age as well as a genius wordsmith and storyteller he used the revamp of classical Pagan culture that was going on around him. The Winter’s Tale is just a better version of Pandosto which had Pagan themes that were carried over. In the play Hermione says, “I do refer me to the oracle: Apollo be my judge!” (The Winter’s Tale 3.2.113-114). By doing this she wishes for Apollo, a Pagan god, to be her judge and she throws herself on the mercy of his oracle. Also, when Perdita first sees the statue of her mother, in act 5 scene 3, she kneels in front of her on lines 43 and 44. This could symbolise someone kneeling in front of Mother Mary. At the same time Perdita asks for the statues blessing which is most definitely Pagan. So though at first it seems Catholic it becomes clear that it’s actually Pagan.

During Hermione’s reveal it seems at first that she is brought back by magic or witchcraft. Leontes even says, “if this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating,” (The Winter’s Tale 5.3.110-111). This part of the play is also taken from Ovid’s classic Pagan story Pygmalion and Galatea. In Pygmalion and Galatea, Galatea creates a statue that is so beautiful that he falls in love with it so the goddess Aphrodite brings the statue, Pygmalion, to life. This completely mirrors Hermione’s return or reveal. Hermione herself is taken from the story Alcestis, a princess in Greek mythology. They are both loving wives of kings and sacrifice their lives for them, and eventually come back. In the stories, both kings they to abstain from remarrying.

One of the most Pagan things about The Winter’s Tale is it’s names. Shakespeare didn’t just chosen names that sounded good he put thought into them, and that is something that you can definitely see. Hermione is taken from the daughter of the mythic Helen of Troy. Leontes is taken from Leonidas I, King of Sparta. Polixenes is taken from two mythical people. First, is Polyxemus who is the son of Medea. Second, is Poly-xenus who was the son of Agasthemnes. Perdita means “that which is lost,” (Showerman) which was taken from Pandosto. Even Autolycus, a rogue in The Winter’s Tale, is pulled from a classical Pagan character. Autolycus was “the son of Hermes and Chione, a famous thief who could make himself invisible, taught wrestling to Hercules, sailed with the Argonauts, and was grand-father to Odysseus who wore his magic helmet in the Trojan war,” (Showerman). These are some of Shakespeare’s most obvious name chooses with classic Pagan relations.

Conclusion

The Winter’s Tale is the product of both Shakespeare’s classical upbringing and the influence of the power of the church of his time making it both Pagan and Christian. This is because Shakespeare wanted to write something that could appease a crowd filled with different people from all classes and backgrounds. It’s also a product off his genius, which stems from his ability to right for many different people at once. His play is “philosophy, astronomy, arts, politics, history, together with pagan myths and mediaeval legends, all serve to illustrate his theme and are brought into unity and order by the theology of the Church,” (Bowden, 4). The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful combination of truth and imagination. He draws his story from both Christian subjects and Pagan sources. Shakespeare was a man writing for and from his culturally unique time allowing him to create a play such as The Winter’s Tale with beautifully divers sources, subjects, and themes.

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