The Tragic Comedy of The Winter’s Tale
William Shakespeare’s vast collection of plays can generally be categorized by genre: his plays such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet are considered tragedies, while Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are considered comedies. One of his plays, however, falls short of both categories: The Winter’s Tale, written in the early 1600’s. Though The Winter’s Tale draws on elements of both comedy and tragedy, the play simply cannot be boxed into one genre because of all the different features that come into play throughout the story. The first few acts of the play tend to show off the more tragic elements of a Shakespearean production, while the last few bring about a more comedic mood; so which genre can The Winter’s Tale be considered? Due to the use of both tragic and comedic elements throughout The Winter’s Tale, I would like to contend that it is a tragic comedy as opposed to a comic tragedy because of its ending and the message it leaves.
The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale display elements typical of Shakespearean tragedies, especially regarding King Leontes. When the audience is first introduced to Leontes, he is unsuccessfully attempting to convince his good friend Polixenes to stay in their kingdom for just a few days longer. He enlists the help of his wife Hermione, who succeeds in convincing Polixenes to remain in Sicilia for a week more. Seeing this interaction between his wife and his childhood friend leaves Leontes distressed and immediately suspicious: “to be paddling palms and pinching fingers, As now they are, and making practiced smiles As in a looking glass, and then to sigh… O, that is entertainment My bosom likes not, nor my brows” (1.2.146-150). Leontes’ suspicion leads to an immense amount of jealousy, which leads us to the first element of Shakespearean tragedy in The Winter’s Tale: the fatal flaw. Leontes is distressed by the interaction he witnesses and suspects that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair behind his back, so he orders his courtier Camillo to poison Polixenes. His rage and his jealousy cause Leontes to act rashly, and this irrationality and haste is a common theme of the fatal flaw. Instead of heeding the king’s orders, however, Camillo warns Polixenes of the threat to his life, and they both flee Sicilia. With no one left to blame but his wife, Leontes publicly accuses Hermione of infidelity and indicts that the child she is carrying is illegitimate then throws her in prison for good measure. To confirm his suspicions, he sends for the Oracle of Delphi; in the meantime, Hermione gives birth to a little girl. In the hopes that the sight of the child will calm Leontes, Hermione’s lady-in-waiting Paulina brings the baby to the king, who tells her, “This brat is none of mine. / It is the issue of Polixenes. / Hence with it, and together with the dam / Commit them to the fire” (2.3.119-122). He then orders Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, to abandon the baby somewhere desolate. Once news comes from the Oracle of Hermione and Polixenes’ innocence, the audience learns that Leontes and Hermione’s son Mamillius, who has fallen gravely ill at the accusations against his mother, has died. Subsequently, Hermione also dies. Leontes’ radical jealousy clearly has great effects on his family, damaging it seemingly beyond repair and making him penitent and regretful. If The Winter’s Tale were just a tragedy, the show would probably end here, with all hope for Leontes and his family seemingly lost forever.
At the opening of Act IV, Time appears personified on stage and speaks to the audience, explaining that there has been a sixteen-year jump in the story: Impute it not a crime To me or my swift passage that I slide O’er sixteen years, and leave the growth untried of that wide gap, since it is in my power to o’erthrow law and in one self-born hour To plant and o’erwhelm custom (4.1.4-9). It may seem unusual for a Shakespearean play, and even a little disjointed or out-of-place in the flow of the play, but the appearance of Time on stage marks a shift in the theme and the mood of the show. In Act IV of The Winter’s Tale, the audience begins to see elements of a typical Shakespearean comedy. One of these classic elements is Autolycus’ song at the beginning of Scene 3, drawing on the archetypal use of song and dance in traditional comedies. Autolycus, an engaging and good-humored rogue, plays a trick on the Shepherd’s Son and steals from him; this whole act that Autolycus puts on is also typical of a comedy. It is the very final act of the play, however, that The Winter’s Tale truly sheds the traces of tragedy from the beginning and becomes what is normally recognized as comedy. Over the past sixteen years, Leontes has lived in self-loathing and shame for his actions and their subsequent effects, and Paulina has been encouraging his contrition all these years. The next scene is told secondhand by Autolycus and the lords of Leontes’ court; the audience learns that Perdita, the Shepherd’s daughter, has been recognized as the princess of Sicilia, and Leontes, Polixenes, his son Florizell, Perdita, Camillo and Paulina all go off to see the statue of Hermione residing in Paulina’s home. Upon their arrival, Leontes weeps, and the statue comes to life, revealing Hermione alive once again. Though it is unclear as to whether Hermione was ever dead or just hidden away by Paulina, she returns, and her family is reconciled. This is the classic happy ending so typical of Shakespearean comedies: Leontes, Hermione and their lost daughter Perdita are reconciled. Though Paulina’s husband Antigonus is lost forever, “never to be found again” (5.3.168), she finds a new husband in Camillo. Perdita and Florizell, whose love was once forbidden, is now celebrated; even though Mamillius is never to return, both kingdoms Sicilia and Bohemia have heirs, and their rulers are reconciled as friends once more. This reconciliation of family, friendship and kingdom is a perfect ending for a comedy, in spite of the elements of tragedy previously seen in the earlier acts of The Winter’s Tale.
Because of the dual elements of tragedy and comedy throughout The Winter’s Tale, the play cannot be defined as one, but rather a tragic comedy. Though the beginning of the play displays classic elements of Shakespearean tragedy, it is the ending and the reconciliation of the play that makes it definably more comedic than tragic. The message that the play leaves audiences with proves that, while it is easy to destroy things in life that cannot come back, we can always come out on the other side just fine, and sometimes, it is even better than what we had before. This hope and resolution at the end of The Winter’s Tale makes it decidedly a tragic comedy, with the overarching themes of tragedy playing into the wholly comedic ending.
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