The Winters Tale
My Impressions of the Winter’s Tale Play
Everything starts off all good in the hood. Leontes and his wife both are out in the courtyards just entertaining I believe some family friends kids. The husbands are laughing and making jokes at each other while sword fighting in a courtyard. Then the conflict comes about which is, jealousy. Leontes thinks that one of his friends is sleeping with his wife. Then the climax happens, Leontes tells someone to make the little kid disappear somewhere never to be seen again and then tries Hermione for committing adultery. Meanwhile, Leontes’s youngest child, Mamillius, was found dead and the audience is told that Hermione has fallen to death of a broken heart. After a lot more drama Leontes reconnects with his family and he feels bad that Paulina doesn’t have a spouse. So, there’s only one thing left to do is to announce that Paulina and Camillo should get married. Things end up just perfectly dandy.
The first few acts of The Winter’s Tale have a focus on the principle of jealousy and its destructive effects. In the play, Leontes’s sudden internal fear that his pregnant wife is sleeping with his best friend dreads at him till he can’t stand it anymore. Leontes’s deep jealousy could be compared to the average high school relationship. Both men deceitfully suspect their wives of disloyalty and their violent responses destroy their families and upset the diplomatic balance. Leontes convinces himself of his wife’s “affair” all by himself; there’s no imaginary figure whispering in his ear and tempting him along. More importantly, Leontes’s abuse of his family is not entirely permanent. After repenting and suffering for sixteen long years, Leontes is reunited with his wife and supposedly gone forever daughter, which puts a redemptive spirit to The Winter’s Tale.
The language was the worst part of the play for me. I was having the hardest time following what they were saying. That being said I can completely understand how marvelous it is. It plays a very large role considering the fact that it is a tragedy. It used very poetic variations to add to the complexity of the play. One thing I did notice within the diction was the concrete terms they were using. There wasn’t going to be anything mis worded.
I was very impressed with the costumes of the play. You could clearly tell that it was made during Shakespeare’s time period. There were very drastic differences in the high class to middle class, low class, all down to the roles they played in life. I was a little disappointed in the scene settings, you could never actually tell where they were.
The New Scene in the Winter’s Tale
Recently, what appears to be a new quarto of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has been discovered. The new scene appears to fit in the timeline of the play after Act 3, Scene 2. It describes an interaction between Hermione and Paulina after the death of Mamilius the banishment of baby Perdita. In the scene, the two women decide that, until Leontes realizes the error of his ways and searches for baby Perdita, Hermione will pretend to be dead.
The Common Beliefs of That Time in the Scene
Despite the differences in Shakespeare’s usual style and the style of this new quarto, the scene was definitely written by Shakespeare. There is a heavy influence of the customs of the time in the scene; for example, the scene explores the relationships between a husband and wife and a king and his subjects during the early modern period in Europe. In the scene, though Paulina is determined to teach Leontes a lesson, Hermione reminds her of the fact that Leontes is both her husband and her king. Even if his actions are wrong, he holds all the authority in the household, because in the early modern period, “All the occupants of the household, including the mistress, were subservient to the head” (Gottlieb, 42).
The scene also brings up the belief of the time that all women were dishonest. In Act 2, Leontes, becomes jealous of his wife and Polixenes, and publicly pronounces that “[Hermione]’s an adult’ress” (2.2.97). Despite there being no evidence that the two were having an affair, Leontes is quick to conclude that his wife is unfaithful to him, because women were considered to be “sexually promiscuous” (Shmoop Editorial Team). With the new scene, Shakespeare seems to be mocking this belief, showing Paulina’s anger and Hermione’s willingness to pretend to be dead to prove to Leontes that women are not the “devils” (1.2.103-104) that men see them as capable of being.
The Meaning of the Scene
The addition of this scene alters the play by confirming the view that Hermione did not die in prison and that she was simply in hiding for the 16 years the play skipped over. This is a very important addition to the play because it adds weight to Paulina’s actions towards Leontes in the latter half of the play. Whenever Leontes is in danger of forgetting his wife or his actions towards her, Paulina is quick to remind him, often using “blunt words” (Dolan, XXXVII). She is also very insistent that Leontes not marry anyone “but by [her] free leave” (5.1.86). Without Hermione being alive, her actions could have been seen as those of someone intent on keeping the king on his toes after his many mistakes; however, now that we know Hermione isn’t dead, we know that Paulina wants to keep the king from marrying anyone else while the queen is still alive.
The introduction of this scene also challenges the belief during the early modern period that women were unable to oppose their husbands’ wishes. In the new scene, Paulina, who is seen as an assertive, masculine women (Dolan, XXXVI) influences Hermione to take action against her husband. While Hermione was initially nervous about Paulina’s plan, she ultimately decides to go along with it and keeps her survival a secret from her husband for 16 years.
With the discovery of this new scene, a literary mystery in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has been solved: Hermione did not actually die after the loss of her son. She hid from the king for 16 years, and reappeared once her daughter returned to Sicilia. This scene connects with and challenges aspects of the early modern period’s culture, especially themes of husband-wife relations and women’s expectations.
Time in the Winter’s Tale
In The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, the characters’ pasts show their once youthful, optimistic personalities and how they changed throughout time. The existing friendship between King Leontes and King Polixenes is strong and bonded at the beginning, but is tested by the events that unfold throughout the play. As the play continues, Father Time is introduced to illustrate a loss of innocence as time progresses and the characters age. An acceptance of time emerges towards the end of the play as the characters embrace the unknown future and the challenges that follow. The inevitable progression of time is shown by the individuals’ desires for their youth and the past but is harshly contrasted by their loss of innocence guiding them to realistic adulthood which presents a revelation: living in the present is something that humanity has always had a difficult time doing.
The friendship between King Leontes and King Polixenes began during their youth; a time when life was more simple and straightforward. It continued to remain strong through a close alliance between their two kingdoms, “Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities / made separation of their society, their encounters, / though not personal, hath been royally / attorney with interchange of gifts, letters” (1.2.26-29). Despite how the two stayed in contact by exchanging gifts, the idealism of youth and its relationships can only be maintained for so long as challenges are met with time.
Insecurities begin to develop with time which is what occurs when Leontes grows jealous of Polixenes. Leontes accuses his wife, Hermione, of sleeping with Polixenes based on little to no evidence, which shows how irrational he was being. With this accusation, Polixenes flees from Sicilia and the friendship that once seemed to be unbreakable, shatters in an instant, from jealousy. As Weinstein concludes, “those qualities of idealism and youth needed to reinvigorate Leontes’ deadened capacity for innocence and joy…” (Philip). This is seen through how their youthful friendship is destroyed by the harsh realities of what time does during the transition to adulthood. The two friends failed to find a middle ground, which they could have discovered by living in the present moment. King Leontes is caught up living in a false past that makes him define King Polixenes inaccurately.
As the play continues, Father Time is introduced to explain the sixteen-year jump into the future. In this monologue, it exclaims how the development of events must be examined to accurately set the scene for the future, “O’er sixteen years, and leave the growth untried” (4.1.6). During this, it shows how time ages the relationship between Leontes and Polixenes and also explains how Leontes’s daughter Perdita matures into a young woman.
Perdita has been living in Bohemia unaware that Leontes is her father and building a relationship with Polixenes’s son, Florizell. The youthfulness of Perdita and her readiness to wed to Florizell contrasts Leontes and his marriage to the deceased Hermione. As Colie states, “Leontes’ early telling of time points to the importance of “moment” in consequential lives…” (Colie) which is seen when Leontes is still unaware that Perdita is his daughter and is infatuated with the young couple’s love. During this time, moral development begins for Leontes as he sees the innocence that youth possesses and begins to reflect on his past of destruction. This reveals to him the ramifications of his actions and provides him a chance to reckon with them. He once lived up to practical moral values in his youth though changed them to benefit himself and justified his actions through this. This can be drawn out to examine humanity as a whole to how people change their moral values based upon self-interested values.
Toward the end of the play, renewal among the characters is shown in greater detail. Weinstein examines that, “enough of the play’s problems are resolved to convey the essential theme of symbolic regeneration” (Philip) which is shown particularly when the statue of Hermione comes to life; which gives everyone hope for new beginnings, despite the progression of time creating endings and problems. Hope for the future emerges as Leontes is optimistic about the future and fates of those around him, “For him, I partly know his mind-to find thee / An honorable husband” (5.3.178-179). Leontes encourages his friend Paulina to marry again and in good grace. Although oftentimes getting too caught up in the future can cause one to be preoccupied with what is happening in the present, Leontes appears to be embracing both.
Throughout the play, time is constantly being misunderstood, but as Colie states, “…but the end of the drama presents time’s triumph within an impeccably comic decorum” (Colie). The way Shakespeare ends the play shows acceptance of time among the characters, especially Leontes. The loss of innocence over time, represented by Leontes begs a resolution of still discovering happiness. Although the past can never be forgotten or rewritten, the characters have an understanding that challenges can be overcome and lessons can be learned. The inevitable progression of time is shown by the individuals’ desires for their youth and the past but is harshly contrasted by their loss of innocence guiding them to realistic adulthood which presents a revelation: living in the present is something that humanity has always had a difficult time doing. Humanity as a whole has always had a hard time coming to terms with how time operates. It is constantly in motion, creating a past, present, and future. One spends so much time living in the past, or worrying about the future, but never in the Now, which is the only one to truly exist. The characters in the play are initially troubled by how to live their lives and find themselves caught up in challenges and events that occur. Though things begin to be resolved as the demand for “A balance between ideal youth and realistic adulthood must be struck, one that welds the past and the present” (Philip). The characters discover that as they accept their loss of innocence, they can begin to be optimistic about what the future holds. The acceptance of time is a concept that is tough to grasp, though in the end is how the characters discover their happiness. This can be applied to humanity as one must have trust in time to better cope with life’s unsteadiness.
A Play of Its Time: Christianity and Paganism in the Winter’s Tale
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.
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.
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.
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.
Misogyny in the Winter’s Tale
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, is an early example of tragicomedy. The play consists of three acts of tragedy, followed by two acts of comedy. In the play, King Leontes of Sicilia, accuses his wife, Queen Hermione, of carrying out an affair with his closest friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. Even though King Leontes seems certain that Hermione was unfaithful to him, Shakespeare never gives the reader any cause to suspect the claim to be true, in fact all of the other supporting characters, rally behind Queen Hermione, Paulina most of all. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione serves as prime example of the subordinate role women were forced into in the world of The Winter’s Tale. Although Queen Hermione had an upstanding reputation it did not matter once a man, King Leontes, found her to have committed an offence.
King Leontes’ misogynistic notions about women is prevalent at the start of the play. In Act 1, scene 2, when Leontes is trying to convince Polixenes to stay, Leontes remarks to Hermione “Tongue-tied, our queen? / Speak you.” In the beginning of this scene Leontes is asking Hermione to convince Polixenes to extend his visit, this comes off as very sarcastic, as if to imply that Hermione and other women usually speak too much without prompt. Also, the statement could actually be seen are more of a demand than a question, since it doesn’t give Hermione a chance to refrain from speaking. And when she does speak and manages to convince Polixenes to stay, King Leontes is filled with unfounded jealousy. He goes as far as to question the parentage of his son, Mamilius: Thou want’st a rough pash and the shoots that I have, To be full like me: yet they say we are Almost as like as eggs; women say so, That will say anything but were they false As o’er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false As dice are to be wish’d by one that fixes No bourn ‘twixt his and mine, yet were it true To say this boy were like me. (I.ii.163-171)
This quote further demonstrates Leontes misogynistic view towards women. In his mind, Leontes, believes that all women are untrustworthy and “say anything” to fit into their agenda, which Leontes probably believes to be tricking their unsuspecting husbands. When Leontes becomes convinced that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair, he complains that an unfaithful wife has been the qualm of many men: There have been, Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now; And many a man there is, even at this present, Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm, That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by Sir Smile, his neighbour: (I.ii. 239-244)
Leontes makes a metaphor comparing women to ponds that could be “fish’d” by any other man, unbeknownst to the owner of the pond. In this metaphor, Leontes makes it clear that he sees women, wives in this case, as being the property of their husbands. He sees women as inanimate objects that need to be guarded by even those a man would consider friends. In this case Sir Smile probably refers to Polixenes since Leontes believes that his friendship is just a facade because he is having an affair with Leontes’ wife. Later when complaining to Camillo, Leontes says “My wife’s a hobby-horse, deserves a name / As rank as any flax-wench that puts to / Before her troth-plight: say’t and justify’t.” (I.ii 338-340) In this statement Leontes compares Hermione to an animal, because he now sees her as a creature unable to control her basest impulses. He also compares her to a “flax-wench,” that is to say that she is not deserving of her title and that she is no better than a common low-class working girl. Camillo pleads for Leontes to stop slandering Hermione, “I would not be a / stander-by to hear / My sovereign mistress clouded so, without/ My present vengeance taken.” Maybe because he sees her as being so lowing ranking it makes it easier for Leontes to imprison Hermione.
In Act 3 scene 2, Queen Hermione, is brought to trial, after being imprisoned and having given birth to her daughter in jail, for allegedly being unfaithful to the King Leontes and trying to conspire with Camillo to have Leontes killed. Hermione has several long monologues throughout this scene. She carries herself with grace and sophistication through the whole ordeal and speaks quite eloquently on her own behalf. Right of the bat Queen Hermione is aware that whatever she has to say will seldom make a difference in King Leontes deciding if she guilty or not: Since what I am to say must be but that Which contradicts my accusation and The testimony on my part no other But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me To say ‘not guilty. mine integrity Being counted falsehood, shall, as I express it, Be so received. (III.ii. 22-26) In this quote Queen Hermione is saying that whatever she says will be in her defense, but that if her only defense is coming from her, and she is believed to a lying adulteress, than there is really no point in her trying to defend herself. This shows how powerless an accusation from a man in power, her husband, the king, makes Hermione and leaves her with very little options. Nevertheless, Queen Hermione continues in her defense and comments about how ludicrous it is for her to even be in this position.
…For behold me A fellow of the royal bed, which owe A moiety of the throne a great king’s daughter, The mother to a hopeful prince, here standing To prate and talk for life and honour ‘fore Who please to come and hear. (III.ii. 37-42) Hermione cannot believe that even though she slept at the King Leontes’ side for many years she is still being treated like a common criminal. She also brings up her status as the daughter of a king and the mother to the future king. She is incredulous to the fact that she has to defend her life and her honor to whoever cares to listen. Hermione maintains her honor throughout the scene and refuses to give in to Leontes’ constant jabs. Although it might have been easier on her to lie and pretend to be remorseful, Hermione decides to stand up for herself, “More than mistress of / Which comes to me in name of fault, I must not / At all acknowledge.” Hermione admits that she is not perfect but her pride is too strong to acknowledge faults that are not hers. Leontes is furious that he cannot get Hermione to confess and retorts, “As you were past all shame,— / Those of your fact are so—so past all truth…” By that he means that like all unfaithful women without shame, she is also without any truth. After this misogynistic comment, he threatens her with unimaginable punishment. Hermione address her husband’s threats. She uses a metaphor in reference to them, “The bug with which you would fright me with I seek.” The use of the word bug in place of threats or death seems like an interesting choice. It paints an image of a child chasing another child around with an insect of some sort. Because at this point in the play her situation seems hopeless, this feeling of hopelessness leads to a cynical and biting tone within the rest of the speech. Hermione does not fear death anymore because at this point she believes it would be a break or release from her situation. She has been lost the favor of her husband and is being kept away from his first-born child, Mamillius, “like on infectious.” Hermione feels like she has been cast away, isolated, like a quarantined leper. And much like a leper, Hermione feels like she has been demoted in society and somehow marked as being impure. She further confronts Leontes, and sarcastically asks him what he thinks she has to live for. She knows that Leontes had made his mind up about her and that life hold little prospect for her after losing favor with the King. She knows that her husband’s prejudice toward her and all women won’t let him see the truth and implore the god Apollo to judge her. As they are waiting for the oracle to appear, Hermione makes that comment that she wishes her father, the Emperor of Russia, was alive to see his daughter being treated like this. This is very interesting, because it shows that Hermione recognizes that the world she is living in is male-dominated and that in order to get out of the predicament she currently finds herself in, she needs the support or sponsorship of a man in a position of power. When the oracle finally enters and proclaims Hermione’s innocence, King Leontes refuses to believe it. The death of Mamillius is soon announced after that and Hermione dies of grief.
In the Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare, Queen Hermione is falsely accused of adultery, by her husband, King Leontes. Even after being shown with proof of his wife’s innocence, King Leontes misogynistic believes impede him from accepting his wife’s innocence. After being put in jail, losing her children, and being forced to defend her honor, King Leontes’ misogyny ultimately causes the death of Hermione in the third act.
Winter’s Tale by Ros King and William Shakespeare. Character Analysis (leontes)
Character Analysis of Leontes
Throughout A Winter’s Tale Leontes goes from a calm, loving husband into a jealous tyrant by the end. He eventually realizes his mistakes and is grateful when what he did wrong was fixed. “Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent, / As I by thine a wife: this is a match, / And made between’s by vows.(V.iii)” But the way he acted in the first couple acts of the play seemed to completely destroy the things most important to him; his family and his closest friends.
Because Leontes is jealous he le ads himself to believe that Hermione has committed adultery. Leontes begins to go mad because of this and makes an impulsive decision to have his wife and their child she just had to be killed. “Your actions are my dreams; / You had a bastard by Polixenes, / And I but dream’d it. (III.i)” The onset of his anger is very fast, going from calm to accusing very quickly. His anger and jealousy cause him to manufacture affection between his wife and Polixenes in his mind. He translates all their small polite gestures to each other as more proof of their affair to each other.
Leontes frequently stereotypes all women in general as being unfaithful and promiscuous by nature. It explains his distrust of his wife and why he so easily assumes Hermione has cheated on him with his best friend. He frequently describes women as being easily influenced to cheat on the person they are in a relationship with. “No barricado for a belly; know’t; / It will let in and out the enemy / With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s / Have the disease, and feel’t not. How now, boy! (I.ii)” Since he considers all women to be dishonest and not worth trusting, therefore his wife must be too, by hi s logic.
At the end of the play Leontes realizes that despite his mistake, especially with his son Mamillius, who was not brought back at the end of the play along with his wife and daughter. He still got Hermione and Perdita. He is able to forgive himself and be forgiven by the people around him. His character has changed significantly throughout the play. From calm to deranged and finally to accepting, yet regretful by the end of th e play.
Overall Leontes is a complicated character. He changes frequently throughout the play and makes decisions too quickly sometimes and is too jealous and mistrustful of his wife. Only out of luck were his wife and daughter not killed because of his rash decisions. He realizes, even though he was responsible for his son’s death, in the end he still got Hermione and Perdita back.
Transgenerational Redemption in The Winter’s Tale
Shakespearean romances are characterized by conclusions in which all conflicts are happily resolved. It is easy to see these resolutions as humorous but unlikely contrivances which the author invents to neatly tie together loose ends. There is sometimes, though, a deeper structure of conflict and resolution than may at first be obvious; such is the case in The Winter’s Tale. The central conflict in The Winter’s Tale is the violation of Nature on the part of the patriarch of the old generation, Leontes. Nature in The Winter’s Tale is best understood as the ordered character of the universe. This is expressed in a three-tiered, hierarchically ordered structure with the divine at the apex, the monarch next, and the common man at the base. Nature is essentially static in a vertical direction, that is, an individual cannot rightly move from a lower level to a higher or vice-versa. Nonetheless, Nature does require a horizontal mobility demonstrated through the continuance of time. A violation of either vertical stability or horizontal perpetuation affronts Nature and will be punished. While Leontes’ first violation is vertical in nature, it is his horizontal violation which is the greater problem.
Leontes, consumed by pride, dismisses the voice of the oracle when it challenges his conception of truth. He indignantly declares, “There is no truth at all i’th’ oracle. This is mere falsehood” (III.ii.138). This declaration marks a vertical infraction against Nature. Leontes, as monarch, ignores the voice of heaven and Apollo strikes down his son in response. This loss of a son and heir is Leontes’ more important transgression, the violation of the horizontal continuity of nature. The monarch, the second level of ordered nature, cannot continue forward in time. This is the essence of Leontes’ tragedy.
Redemption from this tragedy can only occur through the stabilization of the natural order. The vertical transgression against the divine requires only recognition of the transgression for it to be overcome. In The Winter’s Tale this recognition comes directly after the death of Mammilius. Leontes says, “Apollo, pardon my great profaneness gainst thine oracle” (III.ii.152). With these words and his proposed visitation to the graves of his family, Leontes has done what he can to personally reconcile himself with the god. He has not, however, been redeemed from his second, more profound, transgression, his lack of children. This infraction is not personal; it can only be overcome by reinitiating the halted horizontal movement. In other words, it can only be accomplished through another person, an heir to Leontes’ throne. Only a second, new generation can resolve this problem, redeem Leontes, and set the natural order aright.
There is much evidence for such a transgenerational redemption in The Winter’s Tale. The structure of the play demonstrates this clearly. The play is organized into two distinct sections based upon scene and theme. Sicilia, the locale for the first three acts, is a land dominated by court life, the self-constructed realm of man as demonstrated by the consistent location of each scene (‘The Palace of Leontes’). The emphasis here is decidedly on man and his action; the external world is summarily ignored. This is the home of the old generation and is appropriately the land of the manmade tragedy. Bohemia, the scene in act four, on the other hand, is a land of resplendent abundance and fertility, populated by shepherds and other rustic folk. The court is shown only once. Moreover, Bohemia is associated with the new generation sixteen years have passed when the play first shifts to Bohemia. Tragedy is the legacy of the sterile land of the old generation, Sicilia, whereas the next generation is bred in Bohemia. The move to Bohemia places the emphasis on the new and leads ineluctably to the play’s happy conclusion.
Further evidence of the importance of the second generation is found in the prominence of the children of the two estranged rulers in the final resolution of the play. It is not until Perdita returns to Sicilia that the play can successfully end. The two lovers flee to Sicilia, the site of the original transgression, from an inhospitable Bohemia where their relationship is “opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King” (IV.iv.37). The fifth and final act takes place in the same, stained land as Leontes’ initial sin. The new generation reunites with the old in order to stabilize the twisted axes of the natural order.
The decisive acts of the second generation are not, however, made independently. The servants of the old generation, Antigonus and Camillo, serve as intermediaries between the old and the new. Antigonus, charged by Leontes to abandon the infant Perdita, leaves a scroll indicating her royal heritage along with a chest of jewels, clearly intending for the child to be rescued. As he says, “There these, which may, if fortune please, both breed thee, pretty, and still rest thine” (III.iii.47-49). Antigonus refuses the extreme imperatives of his enraged sovereign and thereby ensures the survival of the next generation without which there could be no redemption. Camillo also plays a vital role in facilitating the old generation’s redemption by the new. Early in the play Camillo recognizes the absurdity of Leontes’ action and flees to Bohemia with Polixenes rather than remain subject to the irrational mandates of his king. In addition to this, it is Camillo who convinces Florizel and Perdita to flee Bohemia when Polixenes denies their betrothal. Antigonus ensures the life of the second generation while Camillo reunites it with its predecessor.
Besides the evidence offered by the larger plot, the words of the characters also demonstrate the second generation’s role in reinstating the natural order. At the beginning of Act 5, Leontes, Clomenes, Dion, and Paulina speak to each other about the monarch’s condition sixteen years after his original transgression. Cleomenes begins the act by saying, “Sir, you have done enough – No fault could you make which you have not redeemed” (V.i.2-3). Leontes, however, still suffers. He replies to Cleomenes, “I cannot forget my blemishes – and so still think of the wrongs I did myself” (V.i.8). His penance has absolved him from his vertical infraction against the god, but this is obviously not enough. Dion later refers to the “dangers, by his highness’ fail of issue, [that] may drop upon his kingdom” (V.i.27-28). Paulina characterizes the situation best in referring to the “tenor of the oracle.” She says, “King Leontes will not have an heir till his lost child be found” (V.i.37-40). This preoccupation with Leontes’ lack of issue provides the response to Clomenes’ original concern. Leontes has done enough for his personal redemption, but the situation cannot be fully righted until the future of the monarchy, it horizontal perpetuation, is assured through an heir.
In the next scene three gentlemen discuss the reunion of Leontes with Polixenes and his daughter. The second gentleman declares that “the oracle is fulfilled. The king’s daughter is found” (V.ii.21). The monarchy has been saved and the natural order is thus restored. Leontes’ response to this discovery indicates a clear change of mood. According to the third gentleman, “our king [was] ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter” (V.ii.44). The dramatic shift in Leontes’ character testifies to the profundity of this event in redeeming both the king and Nature.
The above demonstrates that the tragic first generation is redeemed by a second generation, stabilizing the natural order which their parents contravened. A close examination of the natural model of the play and the transgenerational redemption yields interesting and important observations as to the philosophical underpinnings of Shakespeare’s drama. The kind of regeneration/renewal schema invoked by the play is largely naturalistic and deterministic. The new generation does not actively seek to reconcile the problems of their father’s generation. This is underscored by the fact that the children do not know their true identity and, hence, do not understand the problems of the old generation which they must address. They fulfill their objective function, renewing the natural order, simply by satisfying their subjective, personal egos; by turning to their individual concerns, love in this case, the new generation unwittingly acts to ameliorate the tragedies and conflicts of the past.
What is at stake in this play is not so much a reconciliation of man by man Leontes’ redemption from the vertical transgression but a reconciliation of Nature by Nature itself with man as an agent of natural will. Man ignores Nature, contradicts the directionality of its model, and then Nature asserts itself by ensuring that the next generation will rectify the mistakes of their predecessors. What I am here proposing is that Shakespeare injects a distinctively religious world view into his drama. Nature, the divinely ordained order of the cosmos, remains supreme over the individual agency of man. Providential will is independent and above man’s will. Disrupt the natural order, and Nature will utilize people, usually those with some relation to the offender, in correcting itself. This is the world view implicit in The Winter’s Tale.
Structure and Absurdity in The Winter’s Tale
It is easy to accuse Shakespeare of absurdity and shapelessness in The Winter’s Tale, because, as a play, it shifts between genres (tragedy and comedy) and certain events are beyond reality. However, The Winter’s Tale is a work of art, and a well-crafted one, with a strong, convincing narrative which develops logically from Leontes’ irrational jealousy and rage to his impulsively imprisoning and banishing his wife and daughter to finally being reunited with them, having undergone a psychological or spiritual change whereby he calmly and patiently rediscovers his love for Hermione and rejoins his daughter after sixteen years.
In terms of form and shape, the play is structured into two very distinct halves. The settings of Sicilia and Bohemia, and the contrasts between them, divide the play generically: tragedy and comedy. While Sicilia represents Leontes’ ‘infected’ mind, Bohemia is a place of comic relief and happiness. In the festival, Perdita is reminded by Florizel to ‘apprehend nothing but jollity’: this typifies the overall sentiment of Bohemia, which is in stark contrast to Sicilia, where there is nothing to celebrate and there exists a general feeling of negativity and accusation. Leontes calls his wife an ‘adulteress’ and ‘a traitor’ and generally exhibits a comportment most undignified, for example when he petulantly accuses Camillo ‘you lie, you lie!’ and then tells him ‘I hate thee’, again demonstrating an extremely indecorous manner for a king of such high status. This structure, therefore, shows Shakespeare’s experimentation with genre and form, which he achieves through a shaped and developed narrative.
Perhaps one of the most absurd stage directions in the play is Antigonus’ final exit, ‘pursued by a bear’. This sudden killing-off of a character might be argued as lazy or illogical on Shakespeare’s part, and it certainly seems absurd and unusual. However, this striking moment signposts a dramatic shift in mood and genre. In terms of form and structure, this is a pivotal point in the play, marking an end to a period of darkness, jealousy and accusation, and the fresh beginning of a much more positive, warmer stage in the play. The ‘bear’ is emblematic, employed by Shakespeare as a symbol of fear, alluding to the ‘sprites and goblins’ of the tale Mamillius tells in Act Two Scene One, where he suggests ‘a sad play’s best for winter’. ‘Bear’ also nods towards Hermione’s act of ‘bear[ing]’ a child: a child that causes anger for Leontes and sixteen years of suffering for Hermione. Therefore, Antigonus’ death, which leads-off this symbolic bear, represents the end of this fear, jealousy and negativity. Shakespeare cleverly manipulates his structure here: the Shepherd enters immediately afterwards, bringing comic relief and a tone of jollity and fun, which have been absent thus far. He discusses openly (presumably with the audience) the sexual misconduct, or ‘some scape’, which resulted in this ‘pretty bairn’ being here before him.
Another seemingly absurd moment in the play is the final scene, in which Hermione’s ‘statue’ is revealed by Paulina and Leontes rediscovers his love for her. Nonetheless, Leontes’ confusion regarding the statue’s ‘wrinkled’ appearance serves as a reminder of Hermione’s sheer patience. She has waited in silence for sixteen years for this moment of reconciliation and has, of course, aged in the process. This is an important theme in the play, hence Paulina’s apostrophising it in this final scene: ‘O patience!’ Shakespeare invests his three principle female character with this quality of patience, which contrasts with Leontes’ impulsiveness, as perhaps first illustrated through his disjointed and exclamatory utterance, ‘too hot, too hot’. The statue motif is, of course, a symbol of art itself, the boundaries of which Shakespeare is exploring in The Winter’s Tale. Leontes is ‘mocked by art’ and is described by Paulina as ‘transported’ by it: Shakespeare suggests an almost magical quality to art here, which is developed by Paulina’s fear of Leontes’ accusing her of being ‘assisted by wicked powers’ and then justifying her ‘spell’ as ‘lawful’. Looking at this in the wider context of the artifice of the play itself, references to ‘an old tale’ and ‘draw the curtain’ in this final moment draw attention to the fact that this is an artistic construction. Art is absurd; it is not reality. Therefore, under what obligation is Shakespeare to reflect reality in what is a highly self-conscious work of art?
Another main example of apparent absurdity in the play is coincidence: critics might argue that it is totally unrealistic how the Shepherd simply happens to be looking for his two lost sheep immediately after Antigonus’ death, and so just happens to discover Perdita. Equally, the flight of Florizel’s falcon across the Shepherd’s farm is an unlikely coincidence, allowing Florizel and Perdita to meet. Firstly, dealing with the Shepherd’s discovery of Perdita, his shocked response ‘what have we here?’ is almost comical in terms of timing and coincidence, as the baby has been on her own there for no longer than approximately five or six seconds, before being discovered and protected again. Secondly, considering the first meeting between Florizel and Perdita, Florizel claims to ‘bless the time’ his ‘good falcon’ flew over the Shepherd’s land. The verb ‘bless’ is suggestive of divine intervention, or providence. The final example of providence is Autolycus’ bumping into the Clown: when he ironically claims to expect a place in God’s ‘book of virtue’ after directing the Clown, the irony does, in fact, ring true, in the sense that Autolycus is employed as an instrument of fortune. He is selfishly motivated but, out of this selfishness, something good happens: in the words of the Shepherd, ‘he was provided to do us good’. Therefore, all of these absurdities and coincidences do, in fact, work together to create a unified plot. It must be remembered that The Winter’s Tale begins a tragedy but ends a comedy, so a positive ending is to be expected; this gradual unfolding of providence leads to the final reunion at the end of the play, which demonstrates a careful and conscious plot development on Shakespeare’s part.
All well-structured plays reveal a gradual journey (be it a literal or a figurative one) of individual characters. The Winter’s Tale is no exception: Leontes has changed over the sixteen years of guilt and imposed ‘patience’ upon him. In the final scene of the play, the entire register and semantic field of his speeches to Paulina about Hermione’s statue directly contrast with his aggressive, ‘diseased’ characterisation in the play’s beginning. For example, he describes Hermione’s statue as displaying ‘infancy and grace’: this is interesting, as here he recognises the positive connotations of purity and innocence of ‘infancy’ and childhood, which he fails to see at the beginning of the play when he calls Perdita a ‘bastard’ and a ‘brat’. Leontes has, ultimately, undergone a journey of character and has changed as a result of his self-inflicted experience. This is a very grounded, realistic message from Shakespeare about everyday domestic and family life: jealously and impulsiveness, as well as mistrusting those who are close to us, can be overwhelmingly destructive.
Leon. No foot shall stir.
Paul. Music, awake her; strike! [Music]
Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come!
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away:
Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:
–The Winter’s Tale (V.iii.98-103)
Unlike most of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, The Winter’s Tale moves from tragedy to comedy. The disastrous consequences of Leontes’ jealousy and tyranny are resolved by the passing of time. Only after sixteen years can the two royal families come together again. Time also plays a significant role in the reading of the chosen passage. The passage is full of commas, colons, semi-colons, and periods, which force the lines to be slowed and pausing. The frequent punctuations draw the reader’s attention to time and its effects on the words being spoken by the characters. The scansion of the passage illustrates Shakespeare’s mastery of time as he manipulates the rhythm of the lines using varying foots and meters. Time seems to be the crucial element in not only the scansion of this passage, but in the development of the play as a whole.
Line ninety-eight begins with a half-line consisting of only two feet, “No foot shall stir.” The brevity of the line and the slowness of the opening spondee help to create the tension before Paulina attempts to summon the statue of Hermione. Leontes wants everyone to stand still while Paulina tries to give life to the statue. He says, “No foot shall stir” (98). Meanwhile, the metrical feet in line ninety-eight do “stir” as the pentameter is broken up into two half-lines. This contradiction of what Leontes wants and how the feet in the lines are set up conveys the lack of Leontes’ total authority. In many instances of the play, Leontes’ requests are not heeded to, despite his position as king. When Leontes wants Camillo to poison Hermione, Camillo does not do as he says. Instead, he runs off with Polixenes, buying precious time for everyone. Camillo and Polixenes evade death, and Hermione is given enough time to stage a death so that she can avoid being killed also. Camillo’s noble defiance gives everyone valuable time; the key factor which allows people to take shelter from Leontes’ tyranny.
The second half-line of line ninety-eight consists of a trochee and two iambs: “Music, awake her; strike!” Since the only varying foot of the latter half-line is the trochee, “music,” Shakespeare seems to be emphasizing the significance of music. In a sense, music is a representation of time because it is defined by its time signatures, which designate much of its rhythmical patterns. Music is also the magical element that accompanies the transformation of the still Hermione into the living Hermione, which makes it an agent of change. In other words, Shakespeare conveys that music, or time, has the power to change. Paulina calls for the music to “awake her” (98), and it does. Time is the essential element that frees Hermione from the bondage of her hiding.
In line ninety-nine, Paulina is summoning Hermione from the statue. She indicates that it is time for Hermione to reveal herself. The line begins with the two iambs, “”Tis time; descend;”. Because the iamb is the most basic and common Shakespearean foot, the two iambs that begin the line seem to indicate appropriateness. The appropriate time for Hermione’s re-emergence has finally come.
In the next two spondaic feet, Paulina utters, “be stone no more;” (99). The two rigid spondees seem to not only reflect the stiffness of the statue, but also the inflexibility of time. No one has the power to undo what has happened and bring back the years lost during her hiding. Sixteen years must pass by in order for Hermione to be united with her family.
The spondee at the beginning of line one hundred, “Strike all,” provides a powerful shift in Paulina’s beckoning of Hermione. Incidentally, the word “strike” is also a term associated with clocks, which were common by the 1500s (Gomez). When speaking in terms of time according to clocks, “strike” is a commonly used term that marks the passing of an hour, or the beginning of one. Paulina first uses the word “strike” in line ninety-eight to mark the beginning of the music, which as mentioned before, is a symbol of time. It seems that Shakespeare uses the word “strike” in reference to time, more specifically, to the marking of time passed. In line one hundred, Paulina urges Hermione to show that she is alive, and in a way, it seems that she really wants Hermione to reveal to everyone what Time can do. Although Hermione has aged, Time keeps her safe and living for many years. Time also allows Perdita to grow and return to Hermione and in the end, it is responsible for bringing the entire family back together.
In the entire last scene of the play, Leontes’ is overcome by feelings of genuine grief after seeing the statue of Hermione. He comments on the statue’s realistic appearance, then wonders why the statue appears wrinkled and aged. Polixenes argues that the statue of Hermione does not seem so aged. Leontes then mentions the majestic appearance of the statue by saying, “Even with such life of majesty” (V. iii. 35) and “There’s magic in thy majesty” (V. iii. 39). Because Hermione understands the power of time and is able to endure those years in hiding, Time seems to favor her and allows her to age gracefully. Paulina responds by saying, “So much the more our carver’s excellence, / Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her / as she liv’d now” (V. iii. 30-1). In reality, there is no actual stone carver, but only Time, which has been gracious to Hermione’s appearance over the years.
Understanding the effects of time and having a good sense of it seems to be essential to the play. Hermione is perhaps the most perceptive of Time. When Leontes begins to make fierce accusations about her infidelity, she says, “I must be patient till the heavens look / With an aspect more favourable” (II. I. 106-7). She realizes that she is powerless against Leontes’ jealous rage and resorts to the powers of Time to work against Leontes’ tyranny. Although she has to wait many years, she is successful in making Leontes realize his mistakes and avoids imprisonment and even death.
Camillo is also quite perceptive of Time. When he is told by Leontes to poison Polixenes, Camillo informs Polixenes and finds the right time for the two of them to escape safely to Bohemia. Also, after some years in Bohemia, Camillo notices that he has not seen Prince Florizel for three days (IV. ii. 30). His keen perception of time leads both him and Polixenes to realize the increasing absence of Florizel, which results in their discovery of the love between Florizel and Perdita. This discovery enables Camillo to help the young couple by sending them to Bohemia, which is the beginning of the play’s reunion.
Unlike Hermione and Camillo, Leontes has a poor sense of time. At the beginning of the play, when Polixenes decides to go back and tend to his royal duties in Bohemia, Leontes urges him to stay another week. At the request of Leontes, Hermione successfully persuades him into staying, even though it has been nine months since he left his duties. Polixenes’ extended stay, which Leontes wants, ends in disaster. As a result, Leontes’ family is broken up and he loses a dear a friend.
When Cleomenes and Dion return astonishingly quickly with the oracle, Leontes takes it as a sign that the oracle will support his suspicions of Hermione and Polixenes. However, Leontes interprets the briefness of their trip inaccurately. When the oracle is read, it proves Hermione and Polixenes’ innocence. Leontes’ dull understanding of time leaves him blind to the truth.
The image of the oracle appears to be yet another symbol of time. The oracle that Leontes requests, reveals the truth and predicts the future. Although Leontes promises to abide by the oracle, which is in a way, a symbol of time because it is able to jump ahead in time and foresee what is to come, he refuses to follow it after finding that it disproves his doubts about his wife and Polixenes. His stubbornness towards the oracle, and towards the fate of Time, ends in the tragedy that lasts for sixteen long years.
Even Paulina, who appears to have a good sense of time because of her role in Hermione’s lengthy hiding, lacks good timing when she approaches Leontes with his newborn. In an attempt to appease Leontes’ fury, Paulina brings the baby to him, despite being warned that the king is lacking sleep and should not be approached. Paulina insists that the truth shall release him from his misunderstandings, while in fact, only time is able to do so. When Paulina brings the baby to Leontes in his agitated state, he flies into a rage and eventually orders Antigonus to abandon the baby in a far off place.
Although Antigonus is noble enough to offer his own life for the baby’s, he has a poor grasp of time, which kills him. When he finally reaches the deserts of Bohemia, the mariner foresees a storm and Antigonus promises to return quickly. Instead of hurrying like he promises, Antigonus begins telling the baby about his dream of the ghostly figure of Hermione. Antigonus fails to hurry and takes too much time. Consequently, he is brutally attacked and killed by a bear. Antigonus’ delay not only kills him, but the entire crew of his ship. The storm develops rapidly while he is away and shipwrecks all on board. Antigonus’ underestimation of Time, ends in tragedy.
In Act IV, Shakespeare uses a Chorus symbolizing Time to indicate the passing of sixteen years. In this scene, Time speaks of its powers and abilities. Time begins by saying, “I that please some, try all” (1). Indeed, no one is impervious to Time; it affects everyone in the play. Even though Time makes it possible for Hermione to reunite with her family at the end, she loses sixteen years of her life in hiding. Time also tries Leontes. At the beginning of the play, he almost has no understanding of Time, yet, with the help of Paulina, Leontes successfully endures the long years by mourning for his wife and not remarrying. Leontes’ willingness to wait in mourning enables him to pass Time’s trial, which he is rewarded for at the end of the play.
Time proceeds to illustrate its omnipotence by saying it does not adhere to the rules of law or custom, that it can completely overturn what is to be expected. Time says, “since it is in my power / To o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour / To plant and o’erwhelm custom” (7-9). In addition to being omnipotent, Time also claims to be omnipresent. “The same I am, ere ancient’st order was, / Or what is now receiv’d” (10-12). It is clear that Shakespeare makes Time the most powerful force in the play.
Time clearly plays the largest role in the story. It is by no accident that Shakespeare titles the play The Winter’s Tale, since winter is a time of the year. Furthermore, winter is the coldest and bleakest season of the year. Subsequently, the play begins in tragedy, and it seems as though there is no hope for Leontes to regain what he has destroyed. Only Time is able to convert this tragedy into comedy; the sixteen years that pass brings back nearly all that is destroyed by Leontes. Time is able to miraculously heal the wounds of the two royal families, but it cannot undo their mistakes. Unfortunately, the lost time cannot be regained. Through The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare conveys the significance of time and the importance of one’s understanding of time. If used wisely like Hermione and Camillo, time can spare one’s life and shelter an individual from imminent danger. When time is misused or misjudged, as seen in Leontes’ hasty accusations and also in Antigonus’ tardiness in returning to the ship, Time can lead to utter destruction.
Gomez, Michelle. “A History of Clocks.” Online posting. 4 Mar. 2001. <http://library.scar.utoronto.ca/ClassicsC42/Gomes/wat.html>
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. J.H.P. Pafford. London: Routledge, 1994.
The Circle of Life: Art vs. Nature in Achieving Natural Order in the Winter’s Tale
The debate between Perdita and Polixenes about the merits of beautiful, but unnaturally crossbred flowers condenses Shakespeare’s discussion on man-made art and God-made nature (represented by physical, ecological Nature as well as the characters’ human nature). Their arguments dispute the efficacy of art as re-expression, renewal and creation of truth. The clashing ideas that art is futile because it is an imperfect imitation of nature, and that art is sublime because it improves on nature’s flaws using godlike creative abilities dominate The Winter’s Tale. However, the play’s joyful culmination suggests that art and nature are equally valuable because together, they achieve ‘natural order’, regeneration, and ultimately, balance.Polixenes claims that art is man’s imaginative power, the ability to “mend Nature” and perfect it (4.4.96). Through art, men can “conceive” better things than nature by “marry[ing] a gentler scion to the wildest stock”, thus challenging God’s exclusive ability to create (4.4.92-4). As a playwright, Shakespeare is like a god who can manipulate seasons, personalities and fate in the fictional universe he created. He can idealize life and flout nature to mold time, place and emotion; to hasten his story, he makes Time malleable, and commands 16 years to disappear. The structure of his ‘staged world’ stresses higher truths in a way that ‘chaotic’ Nature could never do. For example, Antigonus’ brutal death is both a judgment on his failure to challenge Leontes’ lunacy, and a remark on Nature’s erratic, violent whims.The characters’ creations have a more immediate artistic purpose than Shakespeare’s sweeping ambitions of enlightening audiences about reality. For example, the ballads and dances at the festival mainly exist to artificially enrich the pleasures of Nature and cheer the guests’ natures by making them “red with mirth” (4.4.53-4). Even Perdita testifies that her costume “does change [her] disposition” (4.4.134). In fact, her disguise gives art another purpose beyond revealing truth and making merriment. Art can cover-up and mask imperfect nature through impersonation; by creating new identities, the masqueraders usurp their natural, flawed images as well as God’s right to create them. Highborn Polixenes, Florizel and Camillo discard the duties of their natural heritage by hiding as crude farmers. Meanwhile, Perdita is disguised as a shepherdess disguised as the goddess Flora. This skill of costuming and changing oneself is a godlike, Protean, Mercurial facility and is used by Jupiter, Neptune and Apollo, who “have taken the shapes of beasts upon them.” Through the divine ability to ‘shape-shift’, the characters’ ‘improved’ identities can pass as natural.However, all costumes eventually come off. These deceptive capabilities also obscure nature’s truth and highlight art’s impermanence. Perdita insists that art’s ability to teach, entertain and disguise only fulfills shallow, fleeting goals. She contemptuously calls the superficially beautiful, hybridized flowers “Nature’s bastards” (4.4.83), as if knowing that, even without special rearing, her own inherently royal, pure nature makes her “too noble for this place” (4.4.158). She declares that exclusively God-formed, timely flowers are accepted in her naturally “rustic garden” (4.4.83). Ultimately, art at its best is just “life as lively mock’d”, a stagnant, temporary imitation of interminably living Nature, who, like an elitist snob, is dedicated to the purity and endurance of her progeny (5.3.19). Women can only temporarily hide their true faces “were [they] painted” (4.4.101). Men create statues, immortal in stone, but are still inferior because they don’t have “eternity” and can’t “put breath into [their] work” (5.2.98) Art is a futile attempt to claim divine creative powers, because even the sculptor of the most exact likeness cannot replicate the passions of life, the tailor of the most convincing costume cannot trim the birthright of the person who wears it, and the playwright of the most realistic play cannot reproduce all of the intricacies, patterns, and balances of human interaction.Art is often irresponsibly or unnaturally applied; men abuse it because it is not eternal, nor always created with the best intents. Atolycus pursues art for selfish reasons, bartering idealism in art and character to those who “pay well for ’em” (4.4.314). His art is debased “trompery” (4.4.598); compared to the romantic concept of statues melting into women, his songs pervert virgins who are “turned into cold fish” (4.4.279). He mocks meaningful artistic creation; performing behind costumes of courtiers and minstrels, he sings hollow, artless ballads while using his actor’s versatility to pick-pocket and lie to his audience. “Though [he] is not naturally honest”, art gives him the means and stage to actually act out his dishonesty (4.4.712).Art’s artificiality can also exploit men’s senses and cloud their judgment. Leontes’ irrationality stems from insecurities bred by his man-made confinement. He lives in a cold, structured court, never sees Nature’s greenery, and can only reminisce about freedom, innocence and “frisk[ing] i’ th’ sun” (1.2.66). Accordingly, he is reliant on familiar, self-made things to soothe his distrust. Leontes reassures himself by studying his own creation: his son. He mentally reproduces Mamillius as a “copy out of [his image]”, a perfect artistic imitation artificially born out of his mind, as unnatural as Polixenes’ flawed, independent son is not (1.2.122). With the hubris of gods who also created kingdoms, laws, and children from their heads, despite his very human prejudices, he regularly evokes truth as with the omnipotence of Nature. Like a rash playwright, he creates a disordered reality where Hermione is indisputably guilty and only he can conjure “the truth of this to appear”, like “the great Apollo” (3.2.200-1). Ironically, even as his irreverent God-playing delusions destroy his genuine wife and natural heir, he mocks his rational lords, claiming that their “ignorant credulity will not/ Come up to the truth” (2.1.192). Art and unnatural ambitions cannot best the strength of Nature’s entrenched patterns, because art is accessible by any unworthy or unprepared person, and is vulnerable to disorder and falsity.Even as he debates the supremacy of art or nature, Shakespeare’s point is that both are entwined because “art itself is Nature” (4.4.97). Their worth is not in how they individually create things, but rather, in how they ally to balance Nature’s cycles of regeneration. WT ends with the restoration of natural lineage to man-made Sicilia, an equilibrium of art and nature.First, Shakespeare establishes the significance of life’s natural cycles: birth, death, regeneration, and seasons. He invokes his muse, the “good goddess Nature”, who symbolizes women’s part in the circle of life, as well as divine influence on it (2.3.104). Women’s biological cycles mirror Nature’s orderly rotations. Breaking from Sicilia’s turmoil, where Leontes gave unnatural birth to copies, children died prematurely and infants were torn from their mothers, the shift overseas celebrates the return of Mother Nature’s regular ability to create. Infused with agricultural terms, the feminine circle of “virgin branches/ maidenheads growing” (4.4.115-6), a lover’s “desire to breed” and his “seed” blossoms in Bohemia (4.4.103). By identifying Nature as a fertile female, Shakespeare unites ecological regeneration with female reproductive roles. Humans can produce Nature, and vice versa, creating new life in the pattern of the old, like art.Nature as a goddess gives humans access to a divine realm. In a play where men strain and suffer to achieve god-like stature through art, it is ironic that gods are actually so near to earth. “The lids of Juno’s eyes”, “Cythera’s breath” and Phoebus all figure prominently in descriptions of Nature’s cycle, in the birth of “violets, dim” and the death of primroses (4.4.121-5). The company of majestic divinities in such an earthly process lends to it a sense of mystery and magic that demands veneration. However, these gods’ human qualities also emphasize man’s part in the regenerative procedure. Dis’s lust and Prosperina’s fright, which created the seasons, are relatable emotions. The presence of deities during the process towards natural order suggests that it is divine, yet also open to human participation and contribution.Natural order in a human world is best achieved through a balance of human and divine creation. Accordingly, Nature in Shakespeare is marked by dualities, such as birth and death, the simultaneously awesome and mundane presence of gods, and the comparison of Prosperina and Perdita, whose mothers waited in a deathlike state once they were ‘lost’. However, the inability of life cycles to stabilize without equilibrium can also be traced through the scenery changes. The tale starts in Sicilia, where men hold authority over the highly stylized, man-made realm. The inhospitable palace with its sharp angles, prisons, and ‘courtroom’ is Nature’s extreme opposite. It is claustrophobic, jealous, “mistook” and stale (2.1.81); ideal for the “sad tales best for winter” (2.1.25). Here, Leontes’ despair and sterility stresses the failure of man’s artificial world. Nature begins to swing back into its natural course in Bohemia, where winter fades as the “winds of March” “peer in April’s front” (4.4.120, 3). Bohemia is eternal, happy spring; it is “like a bank, for love to lie and play on”, “not like a corse” as Sicilia was (4.4.130-1). The pastoral abundance and fertility is resplendent; Nature’s cycle has moved beyond Leontes’ barren childlessness and started a new generational cycle. Yet, there is tension in the virility of this Paradise; everyone is hiding something and destinies have not been fulfilled, because Polixenes prevents the new generation from taking their rightful ruling positions. To complete the circle, the two heirs bridge Sicilia’s artificiality and Bohemia’s chaotic overgrowth. The resultant equilibrium, the “noble combat ‘twixt joy and sorrow” (5.2.72-3), the love blooming from cold walls, and the “wonder… that ballad-makers cannot be able to express”, illustrates that God-given lineage and man-made realm have finally merged to attain what is naturally right (5.2.23-5).Having resolved the inequity in the plot, Shakespeare has also reconciled many of the contradictions in the creation of the play itself. Although he is indeed an artist who copies life down, the art created by his imagination is actually born of Nature, who “hast the ordering of the mind too” (2.3.106). Furthermore, the symmetry of human nature and God-created Nature in the Winter’s Tale, as well as its tragicomedic hybrid of “doleful matter merrily set down” promotes natural order and balance in Shakespeare’s world as well as in his fiction (4.4.188-189). Perhaps the triumphant stability at play’s end will inspire Autolycuses and Leonteses alike to “amend [their] life” and become “as honest a true fellow as any” (5.2.154-7).