Time in the Winter’s Tale
In The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, the characters’ pasts show their once youthful, optimistic personalities and how they changed throughout time. The existing friendship between King Leontes and King Polixenes is strong and bonded at the beginning, but is tested by the events that unfold throughout the play. As the play continues, Father Time is introduced to illustrate a loss of innocence as time progresses and the characters age. An acceptance of time emerges towards the end of the play as the characters embrace the unknown future and the challenges that follow. The inevitable progression of time is shown by the individuals’ desires for their youth and the past but is harshly contrasted by their loss of innocence guiding them to realistic adulthood which presents a revelation: living in the present is something that humanity has always had a difficult time doing.
The friendship between King Leontes and King Polixenes began during their youth; a time when life was more simple and straightforward. It continued to remain strong through a close alliance between their two kingdoms, “Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities / made separation of their society, their encounters, / though not personal, hath been royally / attorney with interchange of gifts, letters” (1.2.26-29). Despite how the two stayed in contact by exchanging gifts, the idealism of youth and its relationships can only be maintained for so long as challenges are met with time.
Insecurities begin to develop with time which is what occurs when Leontes grows jealous of Polixenes. Leontes accuses his wife, Hermione, of sleeping with Polixenes based on little to no evidence, which shows how irrational he was being. With this accusation, Polixenes flees from Sicilia and the friendship that once seemed to be unbreakable, shatters in an instant, from jealousy. As Weinstein concludes, “those qualities of idealism and youth needed to reinvigorate Leontes’ deadened capacity for innocence and joy…” (Philip). This is seen through how their youthful friendship is destroyed by the harsh realities of what time does during the transition to adulthood. The two friends failed to find a middle ground, which they could have discovered by living in the present moment. King Leontes is caught up living in a false past that makes him define King Polixenes inaccurately.
As the play continues, Father Time is introduced to explain the sixteen-year jump into the future. In this monologue, it exclaims how the development of events must be examined to accurately set the scene for the future, “O’er sixteen years, and leave the growth untried” (4.1.6). During this, it shows how time ages the relationship between Leontes and Polixenes and also explains how Leontes’s daughter Perdita matures into a young woman.
Perdita has been living in Bohemia unaware that Leontes is her father and building a relationship with Polixenes’s son, Florizell. The youthfulness of Perdita and her readiness to wed to Florizell contrasts Leontes and his marriage to the deceased Hermione. As Colie states, “Leontes’ early telling of time points to the importance of “moment” in consequential lives…” (Colie) which is seen when Leontes is still unaware that Perdita is his daughter and is infatuated with the young couple’s love. During this time, moral development begins for Leontes as he sees the innocence that youth possesses and begins to reflect on his past of destruction. This reveals to him the ramifications of his actions and provides him a chance to reckon with them. He once lived up to practical moral values in his youth though changed them to benefit himself and justified his actions through this. This can be drawn out to examine humanity as a whole to how people change their moral values based upon self-interested values.
Toward the end of the play, renewal among the characters is shown in greater detail. Weinstein examines that, “enough of the play’s problems are resolved to convey the essential theme of symbolic regeneration” (Philip) which is shown particularly when the statue of Hermione comes to life; which gives everyone hope for new beginnings, despite the progression of time creating endings and problems. Hope for the future emerges as Leontes is optimistic about the future and fates of those around him, “For him, I partly know his mind-to find thee / An honorable husband” (5.3.178-179). Leontes encourages his friend Paulina to marry again and in good grace. Although oftentimes getting too caught up in the future can cause one to be preoccupied with what is happening in the present, Leontes appears to be embracing both.
Throughout the play, time is constantly being misunderstood, but as Colie states, “…but the end of the drama presents time’s triumph within an impeccably comic decorum” (Colie). The way Shakespeare ends the play shows acceptance of time among the characters, especially Leontes. The loss of innocence over time, represented by Leontes begs a resolution of still discovering happiness. Although the past can never be forgotten or rewritten, the characters have an understanding that challenges can be overcome and lessons can be learned. The inevitable progression of time is shown by the individuals’ desires for their youth and the past but is harshly contrasted by their loss of innocence guiding them to realistic adulthood which presents a revelation: living in the present is something that humanity has always had a difficult time doing. Humanity as a whole has always had a hard time coming to terms with how time operates. It is constantly in motion, creating a past, present, and future. One spends so much time living in the past, or worrying about the future, but never in the Now, which is the only one to truly exist. The characters in the play are initially troubled by how to live their lives and find themselves caught up in challenges and events that occur. Though things begin to be resolved as the demand for “A balance between ideal youth and realistic adulthood must be struck, one that welds the past and the present” (Philip). The characters discover that as they accept their loss of innocence, they can begin to be optimistic about what the future holds. The acceptance of time is a concept that is tough to grasp, though in the end is how the characters discover their happiness. This can be applied to humanity as one must have trust in time to better cope with life’s unsteadiness.
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