The Winter's Tale

By Roger Warren


THE WINTER’S TALE is one of a group of plays (Cymbeline and The Tempest are the others) written close together at the end of Shakespeare’s career, probably in 1610–11, with Pericles (1607–8) as a forerunner. They are often called "romances" because they contain unlikely events and interventions by pagan gods; and "winter’s tale" was proverbial for a story to pass a winter’s night: the play itself draws attention to the way in which its events seem ‘like an old tale’, that is, an old wives’ tale. But neither "romance" nor "old tale" should imply that these late plays are escapist fantasies. Myths and folk-tales embody truths which remain relevant because they focus the deepest instincts, joys and fears, of human beings; and these plays contrast the extremes of human experience, setting betrayal, jealousy, and lust for power against integrity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The language has a corresponding range, from quasi-tragic intensity to lyrical beauty. At the end of his career, Shakespeare was vigorously experimenting with his dramatic technique and renewing it, using the extremes of incident and language to create new imaginative worlds.

The story of The Winter’s Tale derives from Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, a prose narrative by Robert Greene, published some twenty years earlier, in 1588. What attracted Shakespeare to this "old tale"? Surely the topic that it announces uncompromisingly in its opening lines:

Among all the passions wherewith human minds are perplexed, there is none that so galleth with restless despite as that infectious sore of jealousy. … Whoso is pained with this restless torment doubteth all, distrusteth himself, is always frozen with fear and fired with suspicion.

Here is the germ of Shakespeare’s play. Sexual jealousy was an enduring preoccupation for Shakespeare from the slight but virulent case of Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing via Othello to Posthumus in Cymbeline and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. But whereas in the other plays Shakespeare goes to some lengths to "motivate" the jealousy, that of Leontes is wholly self-conceived. In him, Shakespeare dramatizes the essentially irrational nature of jealousy: his fevered imagination distorts what he sees.

The Winter’s Tale begins in a witty, elegant court society. At its centre is a relaxed and intimate family circle: Leontes, his pregnant wife Hermione, his lifelong friend Polixenes, and his young son Mamillius. All seems right with the world; then, suddenly, in the first of the play’s extreme contrasts, Leontes misinterprets the warmth and affection surrounding him as sexual betrayal. His mind is seized by a destructive disease which burns ferociously through the first half of the play: he treats his pregnant wife in particular with a savagery that borders on sadism, what Hermione rightly calls his ‘immodest hatred’. The root of Leontes’ jealousy is simple: he doesn’t trust his wife. By the end of the trial scene, he appears to have destroyed everything that was once precious to him: his wife, his children, his relationship with his best friend. From these depths he, and the play, must rise.

It starts to do so with another extreme contrast. Abandoning Hermione’s baby daughter Perdita in the wilds of Bohemia, Antigonus is killed by a bear; but the baby is rescued by a kindly, humorous Old Shepherd, who summarizes the technique of the play when he tells his son: ‘thou met’st with things dying, I with things new born.’ During the next sixteen years, Perdita grows up in rural surroundings: and her dawning love for Polixenes’ son Florizel is dramatized during the sheep-shearing celebrations in the play’s second half. But Shakespeare does not idealise this rural world. It is preyed upon by the con-man Autolycus, whose name means ‘the wolf himself’. More seriously, Polixenes destroys the rural festivities when he tries to part Florizel and Perdita with a savagery that echoes Leontes’ earlier violence. Time can heal, but it can also recycle.

The sixteen-year gap in the middle of the play is bridged by Time himself. This might seem merely another device of an "old tale"; but in fact that gap of time has specific dramatic functions. Here again, Shakespeare took a hint from his source. The motto on the title-page of Greene’s Pandosto is ‘Temporis filia veritas’ (‘Truth is the daughter of Time’). Greene’s title-page continues: ‘although by the means of sinister fortune truth may be concealed, yet by time, in spite of fortune, it is most manifestly revealed.’ This truth is two-fold: while new life, in the person of Leontes’ daughter, flourishes in Bohemia, there is a corresponding renewal back in Sicilia, where Leontes himself is undergoing a process of repentance and psychological ‘re-creation’. It is easy to destroy; healing takes much longer. His earlier behaviour was so extreme that a correspondingly extreme period of repentance is needed to expiate what he has done.

This process is supervised by Paulina, who embodies several roles: as she herself tells Leontes, she is ‘your loyal servant, your physician, / Your most obedient counsellor’ — priestess and psychiatrist in one. But compassionate though she is, she has directed his ‘re-creation‘ by keeping his wounds open. When they reappear after the sixteen-year gap, she reminds Leontes that he ‘killed’ Hermione. He replies:

She I killed? I did so; but thou strik’st me
Sorely to say I did. It is as bitter
Upon thy tongue as in my thought. Now, good now,
Say so but seldom.

He fully admits what he has done, but asks Paulina not to remind him of it too often. He is learning, that is, the moderation he disastrously lacked earlier in the play; and so he is ready for the reunion with his daughter — magically expressed in the language she herself uses in the rural scenes: "Welcome hither, / As is the spring to the earth!" — and for the revelations of the Statue scene where, Paulina reminds him, ‘It is required / You do awake your faith’ — that trust in his wife that he so signally lacked earlier. But the reunion and reconciliation at the end of The Winter’s Tale are hard-won. The play reminds us of the cost: Leontes’ son Mamillius and Paulina’s husband Antigonus remain dead. Like Greene’s Pandosto, the play may dramatize ‘the Triumph of Time’, but in doing so it does not sentimentalize the toughness of the ‘Truth’ that Time can reveal.


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