Leontes’ Jealousy in the Winter’s Tale

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

The opening act of The Winter’s Tale is atypical among Shakespeare’s late romances. Cymbeline, The Tempest, Pericles, King Lear, and Othello all open by unfolding the plays’ major, and most dramatic, crises. The Winter’s Tale, however, offers the audience a casual discussion between two courtiers, suggesting total harmony between the kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia and their kings Leontes and Polixenes. Thus, the friendship was cut short when they were married to their respective wives, the suggestion is purely humorous; the men’s friendship remains genuine. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Leontes begs his friend to stay longer. Upon Polixenes’ refusal, he asks his wife to speak; Hermione, his kind and nine months pregnant queen, declares Polixenes must stay. Polixenes relents and says that he will remain their guest a short while longer, while Leontes congratulates his wife on speaking so well. The scene, like the first, seems peaceful. Yet it gives the roots of jealousy that lead to the play’s central conflict and climax.

As Hermione clasps the hands of Polixenes, Leontes’ jealousy makes its first appearance. Leontes exclaims, “Too hot, too hot!” (1.2.109)–the obvious outburst of insecurity. Although Polixenes implies that the boys’ childhood was “clear even of original sin” (Frye 165), an innocence that seems to have been maintained in adulthood, Leontes convinces himself that his wife is having an affair with Polixenes. He thinks the child she is carrying is not his, but the consequence of her “affair”. Leontes’ suspicions are unjustified; we can only attribute them to sexual jealousy (Cox 139). Yet their lack of justification does not imply Leontes’ refusal to act.

Rather, Leontes acts with all the free will and power of the king that he is. When he summons the Oracle of Delphi to the matter, she tells him his wife has been loyal; rather than accept her words, Leontes asserts that she is wrong. In doing so, he disregards a power much larger than his own–that of the fates. In this context, the initial discord is a product of male interaction, rather than of female intrusion (Erickson 820). Later, in Act III Scene ii, the Oracle refers to Leontes as a “jealous tyrant”.

Leontes then enlists his courtier Camillo to murder Polixenes, but is thwarted by this attempt. Camillo, although shocked at Leontes’ accusations against his wife, reluctantly agrees with him. He offers to poison Polixenes. Yet when his conscience wins, Camillo cannot act on his plan and flees.

Next, Leontes wonders if murdering Hermione will end his troubles. Entirely unstable, he convinces himself that killing Hermione will allow him to sleep. Later, he speaks of doing the same to his infant daughter, Perdita. Leontes is consumed with paranoia that everyone around him is laughing at his expense; they are, but not for the reasons he suspects.

In his madness, Leontes envisions a world in which each man preys on his neighbour’s wife and sleeps with her. Unsurprisingly, the dynamic of his youthful friendship with Polixenes changes. It is superseded by competition for status through women (Kahn 125). Carefree childhood is contrasted with the malady of adulthood.

Beyond the weighty occurrences of the first act, the act’s imagery also is important. The play begins with an ominous atmosphere, like that preceding a thunderstorm. The storm erupts, along with Leontes’ fury. Hermione’s innocent, polite communication with Polixenes render Leontes insecure and angry; he does not recognize that Hermione’s attention is split between her husband and their cordial guest only out of obligation and courtesy. Slowly, Leontes’ illusion and his unsupported suspicions distort and suffocate reality.

In giving the opening scenes of the play a serene atmosphere, Shakespeare permits the circular structure that Act V completes, returning his audience to a paradise recovered through the intervening work of time, the onerous regret of Leontes, and the remarkable orchestrations of Paulina, Polixenes wife, in “bringing back” Hermione. Yet this creates difficulty when we attempt to capture just how the crisis develops in the first place. The most obvious and the most essential question in the interpretation of the play is, from where does Leontes jealousy stem?

Indeed, Leontes, who initially shows no signs of the deep disturbance of mind he comes to reveal, has no seditious Iago to tempt him to his misdeeds. The rash emergence of evil prohibits the possibility of any recoil of psychosomatic causes, as its abrupt presence takes the reader by surprise.

Despite Hermione’s faithfulness to Leontes, he forsakes her and sentences her to prison, with Polixenes as accomplice. His jealousy has reached its apex. A good deal of critical debate has centered on this aspect of his character, asking whether it is sufficiently motivated or simply one among the numerous givens the play invites the reader to accept, a necessary condition of plot or predictable feature of character depiction. William Lawrence suggests that it is an “unjust condemnation of an innocent woman by a man not himself evil, but temporarily deceived” (Lawrence 198). In a sense, this same description could be applied also to the characters of Othello and Lear. Roger L. Cox agrees in that Leontes is “acting as suddenly as King Lear and as irrationally as Othello” (Cox 124).

It is interesting to note here that in 1611, the same year of the first recorded performance of The Winter’s Tale, King James of England invented a new aristocratic rank: the baronetcy. This meant that any man or woman, provided they were wealthy enough, could buy the title of baron or baroness. The sale of baronetcies exemplifies how, during that time, marriage and wealth enabled a higher social rank, despite not being born into a noble family.

Shakespeare particularly dealt with societal issues of his time. The Winter’s Tale was written between the years of King James’ reign of 1603-1625, hence its Jacobean influence. Two major trends of thought that developed in England during this time were that of cynicism and realism, two qualities evident in this play, and especially in King Leontes. This brief discourse in social trends during the early seventeenth century explains the qualities of The Winter’s Tale in terms of how they differ from previous Shakespearean romances or tragedies.

Stratfordians insist that Shakespeare derived his plot from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, with slight variations. Pandosto of Bohemia becomes Leontes of Sicily, Egistus of Sicily is Polixenes of Bohemia, and Bellaria becomes Hermione. While both Pandosto and Bellaria die in Greene’s version, Shakespeare places Leontes and Hermione in states that figure death-madness and exile, but in actuality are not lethal (McGuire 153). Likewise, Pandosto’s protagonist dies out of grief upon his discovery that the woman he loves is the daughter he abandoned at the time of her infancy. The Winter’s Tale, in contrast, leads not to Leontes’ suicide, but a renewed involvement with his previously abandoned daughter later in the play.

The Winter’s Tale is a demonstration of how adamant Shakespeare was in avoiding writing another tragedy (McGuire 153). This play seems to get the conventional tragic ending out of the way first, with its ending concluding in a relatively joyous state. Leontes’ jealousy would eventually cause pain, death and pointless sacrifice in The Winter’s Tale, but is corrected and rectified in the last scenes. Unlike the other Shakespearean Last Plays, the royal court of Leontes maintains normalcy. The State is not affected, and the Kingdom of Sicilia exempt from any negative consequence. As Lawrence states, “Darkness lies in the soul of the tortured king, his emotions are indeed not normal, but there is nothing miasmatic about the atmosphere of his court” (Lawrence 176).

Even before a woman enters, the play highlights an inherent problem in male institutions (Erickson 819). Leontes’ initial frustration is with Polixenes and not Hermione. The irony here is that while Leontes’ turns to his wife for resolution, he later condemns her for it. Some speculation over the last three centuries over the core of The Winter’s Tale implies that there was an underlying homosexual relationship between that of Leontes and Polixenes. This probability is feasible, but will not be discussed further here. However, it is worth mentioning that perhaps Leontes’ jealousy of Hermione’s imagined love for Polixenes causes him to realize his own.

Act I is the most pivotal act in the entire play. It is here that Leontes’ descent into spiteful chaos begins. For example, he explains his realization of the affair, detailing the “Paddling palms, and pinching fingers” (1.2.115), as he watches them converse. Leontes addresses his young son Mamilius, and assures himself that Mamilius is certainly his own son. He reminds himself that Mamilius resembles him, yet still makes derogatory remarks about women, particularly that they “will say any thing”(1.2.131). Preceding sending Mamilius off to play, he speaks with Camillo about his plan mentioned above. Camillo warns Polixenes, and both men agree to leave the court. Suspicion and jealousy grow stronger with each moment.

As with many Shakespearean plays, the opening of The Winter’s Tale can be interpreted several different ways. It is suggestible that Leontes’ jealousy does not appear until after Hermione convinces Polixenes to extend his stay in Sicilia. However, there are a number of clues that suggest otherwise. Polixenes’ opening speech reveals that he has been in Sicilia for “Nine changes of the watery star”(1.2.1), which noticeably corresponds with the length of Hermione’s pregnancy. Similarly, the introductory stages of the play indicate that any cheerful speeches belong to Hermione and Polixenes, and not Leontes. Leontes’ dialogue is rather short and blatant in comparison. Leontes is also perhaps experiencing a yearning for the past as a “boy eternal”, and allots to those around him qualities of this past. In this instance, Polixenes response to Hermione would elicit feelings of child-like displacement and lowliness within Leontes. In the earliest scenes, it is suggestible that Leontes isolates himself through his illusions as a defence mechanism to romanticize his surroundings and rescue himself from his destructive fixations. He is perhaps not ready to “grow up”. His overbearing jealousy may have existed even then, and only been accelerated by his accusations of infidelity.

The play’s first scenes, therefore, have only one intention: to show that Leontes’ rejection of Hermione has no basis outside of Leontes’ own psyche (Cox 139). He lacks any concrete proof that his wife has carried on an affair with his friend. Indeed, it is only Hermione’s husband who regards her as shameful. Everyone else in the play-including the Oracle-comes to her defence and asserts her intrinsic worth and purity (Cox 138). Thus, the Winter’s Tale’s first act lays the groundwork and sets the tone for the unfolding story. It is a composite of “Sunny romance and of the gloomiest realism” (Lawrence 226), that all is not always as it seems, and that the mind can sometimes be guilty of creating the most abhorrent scenarios, as demonstrated in Leontes and the opening Act of The Winter’s Tale.

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