William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale (Signet Classics)The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Winter’s Tale, originally grouped with the comedies and then with the late romances, is two Shakespeare plays in one, encompassing almost everything our poet could do: three acts of tense tragic drama rife with characteristically Shakespearean dark depth psychology that literally flowers into a pastoral comedy of young love and miraculous reunions, Othello shading into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It also appears to come late enough in the oeuvre, generally seen as preceding The Tempest, that it feels summative, valedictory, the poet’s near-final statement on his art, his complex benediction on what Act 4’s somewhat anachronistic chorus calls “th’ argument of Time.”

As I’ve discussed before in these electronic pages—most extensively in my essay on Macbeth—Shakespeare may have been a maximalist in his use of language, but he innovated in the portrayal of character by subtraction. Dramatic motive in Shakespeare is productively unclear, endlessly open to interpretation. The almost tragic hero of this drama, King Leontes of Sicily, exemplifies this subtle art. When the play opens, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, is just concluding a nine months’ royal visit, the term evocative of natural cycles. Also raising the theme of nature that will resonate through the entire text, Polixenes waxes nostalgic over their shared youth, not only natural but even prelapsarian:

We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we chang’d
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursu’d 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.

Leontes and his queen, Hermione, playfully entreat Polixenes to stay, Hermione’s polite and gentle flirtations with the Bohemian king not only allowed but encouraged by her husband. Shakespeare’s source, Robert Greene’s rather plodding romance Pandosto: or, The Triumph of Time (1588), gives its Leontes grounds for suspect the Hermione character. Greene frankly states that her ministrations toward her husband’s friend are excessive, recurrent, secret, and even obsessive (read Hermione for Bellaria, Polixenes for Egistus, and Leontes for Pandosto in what follows, since Shakespeare has changed all the names):

Bellaria (who in her time was the flower of curtesie), willing to shew how vnfainedly shee loued her husband by his friends intertainement, vsed him likewise so familiarly, that her countenance bewrayed how her mind was affected towards him: oftentimes comming her selfe into his bed chamber, to see that nothing shuld be amisse to mislike him. This honest familiaritie increased daily more and more betwixt them: for Bellaria noting in Egistus a Princely and bountifull minde adorned with sundry and excellent qualities, and Egistus finding in her a vertuous and curteous disposition, there grew such a secret vniting of their affections, that the one could not well be without the company of th’other: in so much that when Pandosto was busied with such vrgent affairs, that hee could not bee present with his friend Egistus, Bellaria would walke with him into the garden, where they two in priuat and pleasant deuises would passe away the time to both their contents. This custome still continuing betwixt them, a certaine melancholy passion entring the minde of Pandosto, drave him into sundry and doubtfull thoughts.

Shakespeare compresses his portrayal of this triangular relation into one scene and has Leontes fall inexplicably under the sway of a murderous jealousy, convinced not only that the pregnant Hermione has slept with Polixenes but also that she carries his child. As readers and audience members, we are left to scrutinize his maddened asides and monologues for clues to the etiology of his torment, reminded in the process that psychoanalysis was a Shakespearean science.

In these lines for example, erotic jealousy seems aligned with political paranoia, an apophenic search for the hidden meaning of phenomena that serves, even as it paradoxically produces rage and anxiety, to center and shore up one’s sense of a stable self in a stable world:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible
Of breaking honesty?—horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

Adding to the dramatic ambiguity: we have not seen on stage the actions Leontes claims to have witnessed—but even if we did, we would not be sure they constituted what the similarly afflicted Othello calls “ocular proof” of adultery. On the other hand, this vivid speech, more in keeping with the play’s themes, hints at Leontes’s culpable mistrust of nature, an “unnatural” obsession with contamination that will consume his natural relations of wife and child:

There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected; but if one present
Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.

In the event, Leontes has the pregnant Hermione imprisoned and orders a noble named Camillo to poison Polixenes. Informed both by conscience and prudence—he neither wants to kill a king nor imagines he’ll profit by doing so—Camillo instead warns Polixenese of Leontes’s homicidal anger and they flee together to Bohemia. Meanwhile, Hermione’s friend Paulina, in role combining the Kent of Lear and the Emilia of Othello, fearlessly voices her indignation to the king in words that evoke the coming democratic revolutions that would convulse the western world in the decades and centuries after Shakespeare’s death, especially when Leontes threatens to have her burned for her insubordination:

It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in ’t. I’ll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hing’d fancy, something savours
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.

Hermione delivers a girl in prison; Leontes in his continued rage has his newborn daughter banished in the arms of Paulina’s husband, Antigonus. Leontes resolves to try Hermione publicly; seeking divine proofs, he dispatches messengers to Apollo’s oracle at Delphos—not Shakespeare’s mistake for Delphi but Greene’s accurate recollection of an Apollonian shrine named in the Aeneid—and awaits the god’s verdict before punishing his wife. The messengers return with Apollo’s judgment:

“Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.”

Leontes initially defies this dictate, but a messenger reports that his and Hermione’s son Mamillius—who’d earlier provided the drama’s folklorish title by telling his mother, “A sad tale’s best for winter”—has died from the strain of the domestic strife. Hermione herself swoons, is carried offstage, and Paulina reports that she has died. Leontes repents and vows to visit his wife and child’s tomb every day for the rest of his life.

The three-act tragedy almost finished, we cut—and why hasn’t this play ever been triumphantly filmed?—to the coast of Bohemia. (Do consider the critical controversy over this locale.) Antigonus arrives with the baby. He reports that the dead Hermione has visited him in a dream; she told him to name the child Perdita (in reference to her being lost) and to leave her in Bohemia. Since he cannot know she has died, the meaning and function of this dream is difficult to interpret, unless we simply agree with Antigonus’s dismissal, “Dreams are but toys,” expressed before he nonetheless obeys the vision—a state of mingled belief and unbelief appropriate to the enchantments of romance as a genre.

Before the pastoral of the fourth act begins, nature shows itself savage and pitiless, not exclusively a “green world” of utopian revelry and redemption. A storm rears up and sinks the Sicilian ship awaiting Antigonus. At the same time, Antigonus himself falls victim to Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The lost child, bundled with identifying tokens and gold, proves the windfall of a shepherd, and with this, the third act ends.

Enter Time, a chorus, who wings us over 16 years in Shakespeare’s most audacious violation of classical form, albeit faithful to his novelistic source. The time is not winter but late summer. At a sheep-shearing festival, Polixenes’s son Florizel will be betrothed to Perdita, a lowborn shepherd girl beneath his station. Polixenes and Camillo attend the festival in disguise to investigate and forestall the marriage, even as mischief centered on the pickpocket Autolycus—named for a mythological thief, son of Hermes and maternal grandfather of Odysseus—provides comic relief. At the festival, the disguised Polixenes and Perdita, dressed as “Flora / Peering in April’s front,” have perhaps the most important conversation in Shakespeare:

PERDITA. Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer’s death nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o’ th’ season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.

POLIXENES. Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

PERDITA. For I have heard it said
There is an art which, in their piedness, shares
With great creating nature.

POLIXENES. Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean. So, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

PERDITA. So it is.

This is doubly ironic in context. For one thing, if Polixenes—a king disguised as a commoner—applied this horticultural theory to human affairs, he wouldn’t mind his son marrying a shepherd maid, herself attired as a queen. On the other hand, the play obviates the implied democratic sentiment since in a double dramatic irony we not only know that Polixenes is in disguise but also that Perdita is a king’s daughter, not a “base” shepherdess. (This dialogue, by the way, has no precedent in Greene’s romance.)

More interesting to me, however, is the way Polixenes’s speech resolves the problem of nature and art that bedevils Shakespeare throughout his work—fittingly, since nature and Apollo, god of music and measure and therefore god of art, are the two deities who preside over this pagan play. In the dialectical insight of “the art itself is nature,” human ingenuity and artifice stand revealed as nature’s own instruments of self-conscious self-transcendence. In effect, there is no such thing as artifice since every human act counts as an act of nature. Contemporary mystics say, “We are the universe experiencing itself,” but Shakespeare takes this further (and vindicates his own imaginative art) by contending that we are the universe improving itself. It’s dangerous to read a dramatist’s views into a character’s speech—especially a minor character who doesn’t otherwise seem to be an authorial mouthpiece—but in this case I will take the liberty with our otherwise chameleon poet.

Shakespeare follows Greene’s Pandosto in resolving the plot: through various complex hijinks and antics, he gets all the characters—including the shepherd, a clown, and Autolycus—back to Sicily, reveals Perdita’s true parentage, legitimates the young lovers’ betrothal, and reunites father and daughter. Whereupon Greene, “to close vp the Comedie with a Tragicall stratageme,” has the Leontes character kill himself out of remorse, not least for having fallen in love with his daughter before he knew who she was (a possibility at which Shakespeare only hints by having Leontes observe Perdita’s resemblance to her mother).

In lieu of this pointlessly grim conclusion, Shakespeare provides his most miraculous denouement. Paulina, who has insisted the king not marry again, invites Leontes, Polixenes, Perdita, and Florizel to her house for the unveiling of a sculpture of Hermione. There, they marvel at the lifelikeness of the statue; the sculptor, strangely named as Julio Romano (a real-life Renaissance painter), has even portrayed Hermione as she would be had she lived, aged and wrinkled, though still beautiful. Paulina then claims she can go the sculptor’s verisimilitude one better and cause the statue to move and speak. “It is required / You do awake your faith,” she admonishes a hesitant Leontes. Suddenly the statue descends from its pedestal and proves to be Hermione, alive and in the flesh. “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating,” Leontes exclaims, again resolving the artificial and the natural. Paulina, who has just learned of her husband’s death by bear and who has presumably also lost the exclusive company of her sheltered mistress, dismisses the two happy royal families with the somewhat bitter, “Go together, / You precious winners all,” until Leontes caps the happy ending by marrying her off to the returned Camillo.

Shakespeare never shies from psychological ambiguity, however. The play strongly hints in several places that magic has not caused Hermione’s resurrection—that in fact Paulina has preserved and hidden Hermione for 16 years and only decides to reveal her upon Perdita’s return. But how could Paulina, who has lost contact with Antigonus, know that Perdita was even still alive? And why would Hermione consent to remaining hidden in this way, surely a fate little better than a prison sentence? Perhaps only magic can resolve the plot after all.

Still, Paulina, not Julio Romano, is the play’s artist: the dramatist of its final act. (She doesn’t appear in Greene either.) We are left to speculate on her mixed motives, on what reserves of bitterness and revenge, alongside loyalty and good will, inspired her theatrical coup. The art itself may be nature, but nature, the play has already warned, is as nauseating as a spider, as deadly as a bear, as doom-laden as a storm at sea. Nature is pastoral but also tragedy, the light and the darkness together, and so art should be as well. It is fitting, then, that we find Shakespeare’s best defense of art itself in his most extravagantly capacious and various work, his and his wedded nature’s legitimate heir, his pied cultivar, lost and found: a total vision of life.