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).
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