Different Forms, Meanings, and Roles of ‘Faith’ in The Winter’s Tale
In The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare, the concept of ‘faith’, both in a religious and social sense, plays a pivotal role in the interactions between major figures in the play, and which underpins and re-affirms the consistent theme of betrayal, and what constitutes either within the overarching framework of the narrative. Faith, as a communal and collaborative phenomenon, can encompass a belief in oneself, or in others, human or divine; or, faith can be interpreted to mean loyalty or trust. Specifically, concentrating one’s faith in a single object, whether it’s in divine providence or on an individual level, is portrayed in the story as a fruitless effort, leading to the pain, suffering, and misery of the faithful as a result. Consequently, the faithful are stuck between a rock and a hard place; either they heed the object of their faith and still wind up in a difficult position, or they deafen themselves to their words and find themselves worse off still. A larger question arises on whether faith, or the breaking thereof, is inherently good or bad; and to what extent does ‘just punishment’ for betrayal of one’s faith stray from being a corrective measure to a purely vengeful one? On account of all this, faith plays a very distinct part in weaving the drama of the plot together.
On the receiving end of having been lost faith in, there are far-reaching implications seen in the story that result in the character undergoing immense hardship and the inevitable quietus that follows soon after. An example of this is Hermione, whom is subjected to intense scrutiny and punitive measures by her own husband, Leontes’, and which consequently leads to her untimely death. After accusing her of infidelity and further equating it with treason, Leontes then succumbs to his paranoid delusions and perhaps in a rash decision, throws Hermione in a jail cell: “I have said she’s an adulteress, I have said with whom. More she’s a traitor, and Camillo is a federary with her…” (2.1.87-90) Here, Leontes essentially calls his wife a whore, and his trusted cupbearer, Camillo, an accomplice. Despite Hermione’s efforts in asserting that she did not have an extramarital affair, Leontes’ hardheadedness led him to stick to his fantasy up until his queen’s death from the shock of losing her son, the heir to the throne. He then comes to his senses, realizes everything he’s done was for naught, and falls to his knees in sorrow and regret for all he’s done, but his apology comes too little too late as the damage has been done. Here, Leontes’ false assumption in thinking that Hermione broke faith with him sets in motion a series of events that lead to the death of Hermione, and the heartbreaking grief of Leontes when he snaps out of his delusion. Having no cause to break faith with his wife, and because of this, he goes to the lengths that he does to corroborate his beliefs.
When Hermione asserts her innocence, she cites the gods as bearing witness to her faithfulness with the hope they might look on her with pity: “There’s some ill planet reigns. I must be patient till the heavens look with an aspect more favourable.” (2.1.105-106), Hermione’s under the assumption that all this is transpiring due to a misalignment of the planets, hinting at her belief in astrology, and in the influence of the gods within the mortal world. Leontes, in attempt to prove his fantasy, accepts the challenge and calls for the Oracle to be consulted on the matter. However, in an unexpected turn of events, the Oracle delivers an unusually simple statement vindicating all those who’ve been wronged in the story, yet Leontes calls ‘fake news’ on the matter and remains steadfast in his fantasy, up until news of his son’s death reaches his ears and Hermione dies from the shock of it: “(Leontes) There is no truth at all i’th’ oracle. The sessions shall proceed – this is mere falsehood… (Servant) O sir, I shall be hated to report it. The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear of the queen’s speed, is gone.” (3.2. 137-138, 140-142) Traditionally, the Oracle is seen as the interpretive mouthpiece of the gods, and so by completely disregarding her and her message from the divine, Leontes is seen as committing a heresy and breaks faith with the divine, which is but one in a chain of events that inevitably tear his household apart. All hope is lost for him to regain his sanity before things continue to spiral out of control, and so Leontes sees the error of his ways just when everything falls apart.
Meanwhile, there’s Camillo; nobleman and former servant to Leontes whom fled Sicilia after disobeying the king’s orders to poison his rival, Polixenes, and garnered safe passage with the latter back to Bohemia, far from the wrath of Leontes at such a betrayal: “(Camillo) I am appointed him to murder… (Polixenes) Come, Camillo, I will respect thee as a father if thou bear’st my life off. Hence! Let us avoid.” (1.2.406, 456-468) Camillo makes the difficult decision to break faith with Leontes, understanding that doing so would mean he could never return home without facing up to his treason. But he does so with the knowledge that saving Polixenes from a terrible fate is the morally right thing to do, and that committing murder on behalf of the king, without so much as a shred of evidence that any wrongdoing took place, is not something he’s willing to participate in no matter who makes the request. Succinctly, Camillo breaks faith with Leontes out of a sense of moral duty, with murder a cardinal sin and all. But also, it could’ve been politically-motivated; Camillo is very much aware that Leontes is delusional and that poisoning the king of another land could lead to war between the two states of Sicilia and Bohemia. Arguably, Camillo did the right thing in not carrying out the murder and preventing a potential conflict with mass casualties on both sides. However, he is forced to flee from his home in disgrace, unable to return for what seems like ages to come.
He later faithfully serves Leontes, up until he reaches a crossroads and has to choose between his continued exile in Bohemia, far from his family and friends, but in the good graces of Polixenes; and returning home to Sicilia, against the wishes of Polixenes: “(Polixenes) As thou lov’st me, Camillo, wipe not out the rest of thy services by leaving me now. The need I have of thee thine own goodness hath made.” (4.2.10-12) Polixenes begs Camillo to stay on as his attendant, as he needs him now more than ever, but Camillo’s heart lies with his country and family, and so he must weigh the cons of each hard choice. So, to avoid the awkward confrontation of bidding farewell after a long time served, Camillo puts an escape plan into place. He convinces Florizel and Perdita, son of Polixenes and daughter of Leontes respectively, to make haste to Sicilia so while Leontes would be preoccupied with that, Camillo would no longer be under Polixenes’ watchful eye and could make his own run for it. Once more does Camillo break faith, but instead of doing so because of some sort of moral imperative, this time it’s more out of his own self-interest and his prerogative of returning to his homeland. Throughout the narrative as Camillo becomes the go-to-guy for both Leontes and Polixenes, and ultimately breaking faith with both in the process, he becomes more selfish and less eager to please both kings as he’s been desperate to do at every chance he gets. Every time around, he also resorts to betraying the trust and confidence of Leontes and Polixenes in order to break away from their impossible choices and decides what course of action will maximize his own happiness, not that of the others.
Thus, the larger question on whether or not faith, or the breaking of it, are two options that are inherently good or bad. Breaking faith with the wrong person or an object of one’s worship could lead to disastrous results, as was the case with Leontes when he pursued his dangerous delusion of his wife’s infidelity and which had cost him his son, wife, and nearly his sanity. However, should Camillo breaking faith with those that have little regard for his life and treat him as if you were a pawn to be toyed with and tossed around deserve punishment? Does he owe either Leontes or Polixenes an apology or restitution for simply looking out for himself after having been put in difficult positions by both parties? Faith becomes somewhat complicated as having a strong trust in somebody or something might lead to the same disillusionment Hermione experienced when she suffered and died at the fault of her husband, or Camillo’s mistreatment during his servitude. Faith alone might seem to be motivational and/or inspirational concept, but when applied in the context of faith in others or in oneself, then it becomes much more centered on the dichotomy of loyalty and betrayal, which down the road can only lead to tragedy.
Irrefutably, the concept of faith and its absence have proven integral to the story and the interactions between major figures in the story. Faith is shown in the narrative as a force to be reckoned with, either raising up those who need it the most, or wreaking havoc on the lives of those that lose it. Hermione and Camillo, the faithful and faithless, both have different points-of-view on what faith means to them, how they managed to get on with or without it, and how it had changed their lives for better or worse.
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