The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare: Allusions and Symbols in the Play Term Paper
The works by William Shakespeare present “a material” for argument and debates since they were created. Literature critiques still find new themes and subjects for analysis in each play or sonnet by this outstanding author. The works by William Shakespeare are rich in content, themes, literary devices and figurative expressions. The Winter’s Tale is one of the Shakespeare’s late plays which provides a rich ground for the literary analysis and excellent example of various stylistic devices, such as metaphors, symbols, allegory and allusions.
In this paper, we are going to focus on the two basic literary devices used by the author which contribute to the in-depth understanding of the themes and motives of the play. They are symbols, such as twinned lambs, bear, Hermione’s statue and Pertida’s flowers; and allusions to the pagan rituals, English Church, ancient Greece gods and his own works (Othello).
The most characteristic about the Shakespeare’s devices in the play is that they are used extensively trough the play and serve strong means to express a deeper context of the work and almost all of them are related to nature.
According to John Henry and Pyle Pafford, “The Winter’s Play revolves around the life-death-life pattern of nature and of human existence” (Shakespeare, Henry and Pafford 13). Moreover, the play is symbolic in terms of the religious elements, both Christian and pagan, as there are allusions to such notions as sin and forgiveness, as well as broad references to ancient Greece seasonal rituals. In addition, William Shakespeare refers to the philosophical themes of death and rebirth.
The actions by Leontes when he became the main reason of death of his relatives (wife, son and later daughter) find response through the nature and natural phenomena which represent a revitalize power in the text of the play. Moreover, though the play, the author makes of the natural phenomenon to provide characteristics of the main characters. For example, when Florizell meets Perdita for the first time, he compares her to Flora:
“These your unusual weeds to each part of you
Do give a life: no shepherdess, but Flora
Peering in April’s front. This your sheep-shearing
Is as a meeting of the petty gods,
And you the queen on’t.” (Shakespeare 99: IV, I, 1 – 5).
William Shakespeare make use of broad natural symbols, such as storm, bear and twinned lambs, as well as Hermione’s statue and Pertida’s flowers:
“The Winter’s Tale deals with the theme of the strife between art and nature and express allegorically a vital philosophy of creation and growth. The play is symbolic of growth based on classical myths of the seasons or that they are allegorical expositions of Christianity” (Shakespeare, Henry and Pafford 13).
The bear and storm are the symbols of the human evil nature. Antigonus is followed by a bear, and it is a symbol of revenge for the terrible thing he committed to Perdita:
“…And then for the
land-service, to see how the bear tore out his
shoulder-bone; how he cried to me for help and said
his name was Antigonus, a nobleman” (Shakespeare 81: III, III, 99 – 103).
Other critics provide the idea that the bear is a symbol of the “fertility rites myths”. According to the pagan traditions, a man had to be sacrificed to the bear to ensure the coming of the spring. The author refers to bear for many times. Thus, the image of the animal can be considered not only as a symbol of revenge, but as an allusion to the ancient rituals. Another symbol of the human bad nature and evil behavior of Leontes and Antigonus is a storm. The usage of these symbols helps produce a strong effect on the reader.
Twinned lambs are another symbol that has a very important meaning in the play. Moreover, twinned lams are a strong imagery as well. We meet them in the description of the childhood friendship between Polixenes and Leontes. Polixenes says that boys played like “twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,” (Shakespeare 13: I, II, 83).
In this case, the labs are used as symbols of the innocent children and devoted friendship. Moreover, in these lines, we can see allusions to the Christian religion and beliefs. Polixenes says that in that time, the children did not have any relation to an “original sin”. If two boys did not grow, they might have remained innocent. The prove of this statement can be found in the lines that follow:
“We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did.
Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ the imposition clear’d
Hereditary ours” (Shakespeare 13: I, II, 2 – 10).
Finally, the statue of Hermione is one of the most powerful symbols in the play. The woman was considered to be dead for 16 years, but when Paulina invites people to see the statue, everybody is stunned because the statue looks very “alive”:Paulina says that she is able to make the statue become a real person:
“I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend
And take you by the hand; but then you’ll think–
Which I protest against–I am assisted
By wicked powers” (Shakespeare 174: V, III, 110 – 113)
The most dramatic episode is when the statue steps forward and embraces Leontes. Again, this episode is a symbol of fate and karma: everybody should pay for his/her actions. Furthermore, it is another allusion to the ancient Greece gods and Christ of course who to rose from the dead.
In general, there are many allusions in the text. As it has already been mentioned, one of the widely used allusions to the nature is seen through the text. The nature of Bohemia and the change of seasons symbolize the nature’s cycle. It is an allusion to the eternal themes of death and rebirth, beginning and the end, karma and great power of nature to give to life. The first two Acts of the play is the allusion to death and the Acts four and five symbolize the renewal.
But allusions to nature and religious beliefs are not the only ones we can observe in the text. Exploring the themes of justice, betrayal and jealousy, William Shakespeare alludes to his earlier play Othello.
The two men face the similar problems and decide them in their own ways, “the jealous can never be strictly right. See how utterly unlike Othello is to Leontes in The Winter’s Tale” (Coleridge 177). Thus, we can come to a conclusion that the theme of the jealousy was one of the central in the play and the author provided evidence that this feeling can lead to terrible consequences that can destroy lives and souls of many people.
As we can see, every stylistic device used by William Shakespeare in the play is of a great importance. The author paid a great attention to symbols and allusions. The use of these stylistic devices helped express the themes and ideas of the other.
In addition, they provide the readers with better understanding of the main ideas put in the play. In goes without saying that some of the devices complicated the sense of the meaning of some events. But they are inseparable parts of the Shakespeare’s writing and strong means of that contribute to the deep context of all his works:
“Alongside opinions that the plays by Shakespeare are mainly experiments in dramatic art are those which regard them as having profound philosophical significance which is largely expressed though imagery and symbolism in word and structure; and to many the plays are myths or allegories” (Shakespeare, Henry and Pafford 41).
In addition, they are still in the focus of attention of many critics who analyze works by William Shakespeare and find more and more “material” for discussions.
In conclusion, it should be mentioned that each work by William Shakespeare is a masterpiece and rich in stylistic devices that are characteristic for the author. Shakespeare makes use of them to provide better understanding of his ideas and create unique and complex characters that bother minds of people for many centuries.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Writings on Shakespeare: A Selection of the Essays, Notes, and Lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the Poems and Plays of Shakespeare. Capricorn Books, 1959.
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2007
Shakespeare, William, John Henry and Pyle Pafford. The Winter’s Tale. London: Cengage Learning EMEA, 1963.
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