The Winter’s Tale
Act One, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Leontes, King of Sicily
Hermione, Leonte’s wife
Mamillius, their son
Perdita, their daughter
Camillo, Antigonus, Cleomenes and Dion, lord at Leonte’s court.
Paulina, Antigonus’s wife
Emilia, Hermione’s attendant
Polixenes, King of Bohemia
Florizel (initially disguised as the countryman Doricles), Polixenes’s son
Archidamus, a Bohemian lord
Autolycus, a con artist
Old Shepherd, Perdita’s foster father
Clown, the Shepherd’s son
Mopsa and Dorcas, shepherdesses
The figure of Time, acting as a chorus.
Act One: King Polixenes is staying at the court of his close childhood friend, Leontes, but after nine months away he has decided to return home to Bohemia. When Polixenes reluctantly refuses all entreaties to stay another week, Leontes asks his wife to intercede – but then interprets her success as evidence of an adulterous relationship between the two. Certain that he is right, Leontes orders Camillo to poison Polixenes, but instead Camillo tips him off and both of them leave, in secret, for Bohemia.
The title of The Winter’s Tale seems to announce a return to the kind of casual phrases that predominated during Shakespeare’s middle comedies. Along with Twelfth Night; or, What You Will and As You Like It, it has a kind of take-it-or-leave-it quality – that can be seen as a kind of built-in defense against audiences reading everything too seriously. But the ‘tale’ of the play’s title is of more than symbolic importance: it appears within the action itself. Early in Act One, the heavily pregnant Queen Hermione and her attendants are idly amusing themselves at Leontes’s court when Hermione has an idea. “Pray you sit by us,” she calls to her son Mamillius, “and tell’s a tale”:
Mamillius: Merry or sad shall’t be?
Herminone: As merry as you will.
A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
Hermione: Let’s have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down, come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites.
Though she calls for a childish ghost story to while away the time, there is, in fact, more than enough to “fright” Hermione – and the audience – right here. Her husband, Leontes, is in the process of persuading himself that his wife has been unfaithful, and his instinct has hardened into deadly conviction. Leontes has, in effect, invented his own “sprites and goblins”: his jealousy is terrifyingly groundless. But though, like Mamillius’s story, it is nothing but a “winter’s tale” – a fairy story – its consequences, as we shall see, will be brutally real. As she sits down to listen to her son’s tale, Hermione has not a clue of the danger she, or her unborn child, are in.
The story of a king who becomes convinced that his wife has slept with his best friend, and is about to give birth to an illegitimate child, was an old one, and Shakespeare encountered it – if not at his mother’s knee – but in a hugely successful collection of tales by Robert Greene, the playwright’s long-dead theatrical rival. (Remember him? Remember his pamphlet describing the “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide supposes he is well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factorum [Jack of all trades, is, in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country.” Remember him?) In Greene’s version, Pandosto, the king of that name is happily married to Bellaria (Hermione in the play) when his good friend Egistus (Polixenes) arrives to stay. After they have spent hour after hour in each other’s company, enjoying what Greene called their “secret uniting of affections,” Pandosto begins to suspect that, well, all is not as it should be. Wrestling with his conscience, he eventually concludes that they have been unfaithful with each other, and is driven to seek his revenge.
But in Shakespeare’s play, there is nothing whatsoever to back up Leontes’s jealousy, so sudden and brutal in its onset that, when he demands that she hand over their son just a few lines later, Hermione at first thinks he is joking:
Give me the boy. I am glad you did not nurse him.
Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you
Have too much blood in him.
What is this? Sport?
Leontes: (to a Lord)
Bear the boy hence. He shall not come about her.
Away with him, and let her sport herself
With that she’s big with, (to Hermione) for ‘tis Polixenes
Has made the swell thus.
Barely a scene after he first announced his suspicions, Leontes has become utterly possessed by the belief that he has been cuckolded – a change so abrupt that actors often struggle to present it convincingly – it is almost as if Shakespeare felt, having written about jealousy so often before, that he felt at liberty to present it here in a kind of brutal shorthand. Hermione’s pregnancy, coming to term nine months after Polixenes’s arrival in Sicily, instead of being a celebration of married love, instead becomes evidence of adultery, and it becomes clear in the humiliating trial scene to which he subjects her later in the play, the king has not the tiniest shred of proof.
As countless critics have proposed, Leontes’s jealousy is, fairly obviously it seems to me, rooted in hated (and fear) of women (of the repressed homosexual variety), seemingly brought on by reminiscing about his childhood friendship with Polixenes, a time before the females that would separate those “two twinned lambs” were even dreamt of. “Temptation have since then been born to’s,” Polixenes laughingly tells Hermione when they are all together, ‘for/In those unfledged days was my wife a girl.”
Your precious self had then not crossed the eyes
Of my young playfellow.
Polixenes’s tone is playful, but – as Hermione immediately picks up – this description of an Edenic boyhood existence, free from “tempting” females, casts the two queens as “devils,” a pair of corrupting Eves to their husband’s sinless Adams. But at the same time Shakespeare, characteristically, shades things even more subtly. Hermione’s position in this scene is complex: she clearly feels close to Polixenes, and in her fervent attempts to make him stay (prompted, of course, by Leontes) she does us all the resources she can. The words exchanged by them stray momentarily into what should be off-limits: “Force me to keep you as a prisoner,’ she teasingly offers Polixenes, sounding for an instant less like a hostess and more like a mistress (1.2.53). And we also find out that things have not always gone smoothly between Hermione and Leontes; it took him “three crabbed months,” he claims, to convince her to love him (1.2.104), and the image of his wife speaking so warmly with his best friend – so warmly that Polixenes relents and agrees to stay in Sicily, though Leontes himself could not make him – clearly begins to eat away at the King’s mind.
Leontes, as with Shakespeare’s other jealous males, is unable to shake off the idea that sexuality itself is a kind of loss of innocence. Though one might wish for blissful ignorance, Leontes muses (“Many thousand on’s/Have the disease and feel’t not” (1.2.207-8), that sin only lies dormant, waiting to poison its victim. “How blest am I in my just censure, in my true opinion!” he congratulates himself, appallingly, hearing about Polixenes’s terrified flight from Sicily:
Alack, for lesser knowledge – how accursed
In being so blessed! There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
Th’abhorred 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.
Knowledge itself, Leontes reflects, is the danger: it is the real “venom.” The irony here, of course, is that the King thinks that he is looking the truth squarely in the face, swallowing the horrible reality; but the “spider” he sees, like Macbeth’s ethereal dagger, proceeds entirely from his own brain.
In one of the most famously difficult of his speeches in the play, jealousy has a kind of clotting effect on Leontes’s tongue. Calling his small son to him, he stutters, ‘Affection, thy intention stabs the centre”:
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat’st with dreams – how can this be? –
With what’s unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow’st nothing. Then ‘tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost –
And that beyond commission; and I find it –
And that to the infection of my brains
And hard’ning of my brows.
Leontes is almost impossible to understand here, as broken thoughts race through his mind, and not just for the young man he addresses – Shakespeare’s first audiences, too, would have stumbled trying to unscramble his words. If “affection” means sexual passion, he seems to be communicating the idea that if sex can “co-join” (or “breed,” since breeding is on his mind) with “dreams,” then it will certainly do with realities. He could also mean that his own jealousy is eating away at his sense of what is real, or that his state of mind (“affection”) is wildly out of control. But the central thought to take away is that “nothing” is as dangerous as “something” – and so Hermione is guilty whether she has done anything or not, because Leontes suspects as much (his brows “harden” in the expectation that cuckold’s horns will shoot out of his head, a fear that also afflicts Othello). Over all this, the unmistakable impression is of a man simply spewing diseased thoughts from a mind which is struggling to work out how realities can be made to fit fantasies.”
“The Winter’s Tale was first performed in 1611, and was then replayed, at the request of King James, in 1612 and again in 1613. Those years were eventful ones for the Stuart royal family. In 1612 the King’s eldest son, Prince Henry, died. As Prince of Wales, Henry had been enormously popular, and he had become, in effect, the King’s rival in the hearts of the people as well as his heir. In the following year James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was married to Fredrick, the Elector Palatine; performances of both The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest were arranged as part of the wedding celebration. Frederick accepted the crown of Bohemia in 1619, and Elizabeth became Queen of Bohemia, but shortly thereafter Frederick lost not only Bohemia but also his hereditary status, and Elizabeth, known to history as the Winter Queen, followed her husband into exile.
We may note that both of these events – the death of the King’s son; the marriage of the daughter, who became Queen of Bohemia – took place after the writing of Shakespeare’s play, and neither can have had any effect whatsoever upon the plot. The play’s chief source was Robert Greene’s prose romance Pandosto, published in 1588, a text that Shakespeare followed closely in almost all details of his plot. I mention them here only because a post-facto knowledge of these historical details does imbue the play with an uncanny topicality.
The play’s author had also lost a son, and had married off a daughter. Hamnet Shakespeare died at age eleven in 1596. Susanna married Dr. John Hall in 1607. Yet there is no specific reason to read the play as in any way ‘autobiographical,’ except in the sense that all artistic work is part of the autobiography of its creator. The resonances of The Winter’s Tale – a very great play – are poetic and mythic, political and ethical, not narrowly historical or personal. If the shadow of the absolute monarch lies behind the quick anger of Leontes and his imperious dismissal of the truth of the Delphic oracle, it is present as a trace, not a reference. But the cumulative effect of The Winter’s Tale is echoic, a kind of rhythmic mise en abyme, a hall of mirrors in which stories are told and retold, in which they bisect and intersect. It begins in conversation, and it ends in transformation.
Like a number of other Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale begins with a brief conversation that seems to take place half offstage and half on, so that the audience is invited to feel itself a privileged spectator, in effect eavesdropping on a private conversation before the public spectacle is put on show. This is a clever dramaturgical device, drawing us into the action and allowing us to consider the immediately succeeding episode, in this case the second half of the first scene, with a more careful and critical eye. The opening stage conversation takes place between two apparently secondary characters: Camillo, a Sicilian, and Archidamus, a Bohemian. The Bohemian court has been in Sicilia for nine months – such extended state visits were not unusual in the period – and Archidamus speaks of the return visit that is apparently planned for ‘this coming summer.’ The seasonal and cyclical framework of the play is already visible here.
When they come, says Archidamus, they will see a ‘great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia,’ and indeed this difference will establish itself from the outset. For, from the point of view of the audience, Sicilia appears to be all court and Bohemia all country. Sicilia is inhabited by lords and ladies, kings, queens, princes, and courtiers, while the citizens of Bohemia, when we meet them, will be shepherds and shepherdesses, clowns, and other rustics. Even King Polixenes will appear in disguise as a shepherd to spy upon his populace, and the ‘royalty’ of Bohemia will be seen in the mock reign of Perdita, the apparently humble mistress of the sheepshearing feast, dressed like Flora, the goddess of flowers. The disclosure of Perdita’s true identity and royal birth, a delightful convention of the romantic tradition, will also emphasize the degree to which Bohemia is the dream self or fantasy other of Sicilia, just as, in earlier Shakespeare plays, the Forest of Arden is the middle place of the repressive Duke’s court in As You Like It, or Cyprus the wild underside of the supposedly civilized world of Othello’s Venice.
Sicilia appears to be a court removed from the countryside, while Bohemia, famously, and in defiance of ordinary geography, is given a ‘seacoast.’ (Ingenious critics have consulted old maps to demonstrate that Bohemia once did have a seacoast, but the phrase ‘the seacoast of Bohemia’ has entered the language as an equivalent of ‘never-never-land,’ a place of Utopian possibility.) Sicilia is a place of formality and rank – Bohemia – as we encounter it – a place where there are no ‘gentleman born.’ Archidamus is uneasy about how the urbane courtier Camillo will respond to his less-imposing homeland, and proposes, jokingly, ‘We will give you sleepy drinks,’ to befuddle your mind, tranquilize your imagination, and soften your judgment. With Shakespeare’s consistently shrewd management of dramatic irony, these notional ‘sleepy drinks,’ here dreamily benign, will shortly reappear, not in Bohemia but in Sicilia, in Leontes’s bitter image in act 2, scene 1, of the ‘knowledge’ of infidelity as a cup poisoned by a spider.
Camillo’s courtly response to his guest comes in a speech of necessary exposition, explaining the long relationship of the two kings. Its language is slightly oblique, but it offers the audience not only an explanation but also an implicit warning:
Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia. They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now. Since there more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters – though not personal – hath been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands as over a vast; and embraced as it were from the end of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves.
The elegant negativity of the opening (‘cannot show himself over-kind’) foreshadows a reversal, as does the pious wish of the close (‘The heavens continue their loves’), which seems, in a Shakespearean universe, as much a dare as a hope (compare, for example, Othello’s equally fateful ‘If it were now to die/’Twere now to be most happy’). Translated from the obfuscating language of diplomacy, as politic then as now, this speech reports that the two kings were once childhood friends, but that their respective royal obligations have separated them, so that they have been in touch only through intermediaries: ‘they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands as over a vast; and embraced as it were from the end of opposed winds.’ ‘Seemed,’ ‘as it were,’ ‘absent,’ ‘over a vast,’ ‘the ends of opposed winds.’ These are ominous signs cloaked in optimistic language, and Camillo’s compliments presage a ‘branching’ between the two kings that is as much a split as a flourishing, or growth, and that culminates, as we will shortly see, in the image of the cuckold’s horns branching from King Leontes’s head. A further and even more ominous note of dramatic foreshadowing is offered in the courtiers’ offhand references to Leontes’s son, the young prince Mamillius, described as a ‘gentleman of the greatest promise’ who ‘makes old hearts fresh.’ As Archidamus remarks wryly, ‘If the King had no son,’ the two kings would ‘desire to live on crutches till he had one’ (1.1.39-40). This apparent throwaway line, a condition contrary to fact – ‘If the King had no son’ – will shortly, and tragically, become true. As the audience enters the court of Leontes, King of Sicilia, it enters forewarned, if it has been listening closely. Tragedy –or tragicomedy – lies ahead.
The ‘winter’s tale’ of this play’s title is both literal and proverbial. The phrase means something like ‘fairy tale,’ or a diverting entertainment, largely for the amusement of women, children, and the old. A mid-sixteenth-century author wrote of ‘old wives fables and winter tales’ (John Olde, Walther’s Antichrist, translation 1556) as if they were versions of the same, and Lady Macbeth belittles her husband’s lack of resolution by observing scornfully that ‘these flaws and starts,/…would well become/A woman’s story at a winter fire’ (3.4.62-64). The teller of the winter’s tale within The Winter’s Tale is the boy Mamillius, the ill-fated young Prince. His mother, Hermione, urges him to tell a merry tale, but he replied, with the pertness we have come to associate with Shakespearean children, ‘A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins’ (2.1.27-28). Most of the tale is whispered into his mother’s ear, but it begins, significantly, ‘There was a man –/Dwelt by a churchyard.’ So, we may say, all men – and women – do, living their lives in the neighborhood of death. And if stories and sad tales distance the imminence of death, if fiction removes the constant and direct fear of mortality, still we might remember that it is Mamillius, the teller of the winter’s tale, who is the first to die. ‘If the king had no son’ – the hypothetical prophecy comes unexpectedly true, and the world of Sicilia is not prepared to comprehend it.
But where does Sicilia go wrong? What clues are we given in the opening court scene (1.2) that man dwells by a churchyard, and that thus the tale will be, in part, a sad one? Most of our clues come, I think, from the dangerous ignorance of the kings themselves. Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, has been a visitor in Sicilia for nine months (‘[n]ine changes of the wat’ry star’), and all this time he has left his throne ‘[w]ithout a burden’ (1.2.1, 3). Even lacking the explicit evidence of King Lear, in which a monarch declared his hope to ‘[u]unburdened crawl toward death’ by relinquishing his office, we know by know that no king in Shakespeare can do this of his own volition. It is his role, as King and man, to bear the burden of rank and responsibility. When Polixenes suddenly decides it is time to return home, and Leontes presses the Queen, Hermione, to urge him to stay, she elicits from him an account of the two kings in childhood that is far more circumstantial than Camillo’s, and that speaks directly to the impossible idea of leaving one’s throne without a burden. Here is Polixenes on the subject of the king’s youth (note that in any ‘realistic’ play he would presumably have imparted this information long before; its iteration here is for the audience in the theater, not the audience on the stage):
We were, fair Queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
As to be boy eternal.
To be ‘boy eternal’: never to age, always to be a child. This is an Eden world he projects, a world out of time, and Time, as we will see, is an important component of this play, so important that he appears later on as a speaking character. Polixenes continues:
We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk i’th’ sun,
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly, ‘Not guilty,’ the imposition cleared
In his view, the unfallen innocence of the boys, until it was changed by the onset of ‘stronger blood,’ qualified them to disclaim original sin, the hereditary imposition of the guilt of all mankind. ‘By this,’ says Hermione softly, ‘we gather/You have tripped since.’ ‘Tripped’ is a muted, child’s word for a fall, but a fall nonetheless. And on what does Polixenes base his fall? Why, on women. On sex and desire, the ‘stronger blood’ of sexual maturity and adulthood:
O my most sacred lady,
Temptations have since then been born to’s; for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl.
Your precious self had not yet crossed the eyes
Of my young playfellow.
Temptations, innocence, lambs, and ‘boy eternal’ – the associations here are simultaneously seasonal and Christian. And in both contexts Polixenes seems to question the very nature of mortal man, who lives by the churchyard.
It will be left, in this romance as in others of Shakespeare’s late period, for the second generation to prove all too literally what these two kings fail to understand. For the instantaneous jealousy of Leontes seems to associate him, too, with this eagerness to blame women and adulthood for all their problems, and to wish instead to be ‘boy eternal.’ We have seen in other plays, like Coriolanus, that to be always a ‘boy’ is to resist facing the world. In the second generation of The Winter’s Tale the two sons, Mamillius and Florizel, are twinned just like their fathers; in the fifth act Paulina, Antigonus’s wife, encountering Florizel for the first time exclaims:
Had our prince,
Jewel of children, seen this hour, he had paired
Well with this lord. There was not full a month
Between their births.
But Mamillius, ‘[j]ewel of children,’ of course does not live to see this hour. His name, ‘Mamillius’ (which may derive from another romance tale of Robert Greene, Mamillia), suggests that the mother’s breast, and thus infancy and dependency, though this royal child, like others of his period, was apparently given into the care of a wet nurse, since his father declares angrily to Hermione, ‘I am glad you did not nurse him.’ In an appropriately natural phrase we are told that after the accusation of Hermione, Mamillius ‘straight declined, ‘[he] dropped,’ while his ‘twin,’ Florizel, whose names suggest flowering and harvest, lives to confront his father, reject his status as a dependent child, and choose a wife.
The two poles of action and development, twinned but also opposed, are focused in this play (as in so many of Shakespeare’s) through a set of double-edged words, words that function as swing terms, or serious puns, key words for dramatic action. ‘Blood’ is one such term, denoting violence, strong emotion, and death, on the one hand, and lineage, kinship, and family on the other – just as in Camillo’s opening speech to ‘branch’ was both to split apart and to grow. Other polar words chart this same crucial opposition, which begins in the first scenes and continues throughout the play: ‘dear,’ which means both ‘costly’ and ‘beloved’; ‘issue,’ which means both ‘result,’ or causal outcome and ‘progeny,’ or children; and most reflexively in terms of the dramatic form itself, the word ‘play,’ which comes in rapid succession to stand for (1) innocent child’s play, (2) tempting, seductive sexual play, and (3) acting and impersonation – disguised, deceptive play. Thus Leontes, rent by sudden and unreasoning sexual jealousy, says to his son, Mamillius:
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too; but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave…
Here are two kinds of issue, and three kinds of play, as well as a sibilant (‘issue…hiss me’) that seems almost to ally the jealous Leontes with a serpent. (‘S’ is a most easy and gentle letter,’ wrote Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, ‘and softly hisseth against the teeth.’) It is interesting to note that the entities most usually described as ‘hissing,’ in the early modern period as also today, are devils, serpents, and audiences.
Certainly readers and spectators are quick to note the extreme rapidity with which Leontes falls into his jealousy – a fall so rapid that it seems sharply stylized, at the same time that its emotional intensity is very real. To generations of Shakespeare-watchers the jealous Leontes has called to mind the jealous Othello, equally convinced of his wife’s infidelity on little evidence except his own propensity for self-comparison and self-doubt.
Iago’s ‘Trifles light as air/Are to the jealous confirmation strong/As proofs of holy writ’ become, in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes’s certainty that the oracle at Delphos will provide ‘a greater confirmation’ of Hermione’s guilt. Nor is Othello the only Shakespearean model here. When Leontes speaks of the supposed adulterers ‘paddling palms and pinching fingers’ (1.2.117) he sounds very like Hamlet, pleading with his mother not to let the ‘bloat King,’ Claudius, ‘[p]inch wanton’ on her cheek or ‘paddl[e]’ in her neck ‘with his damned fingers’ (Hamlet, 3.4.166-169). Similarly, Leontes’s impassioned speech on ‘nothing’ (1.2.286-298) sounds like King Lear’s. As in a pencil sketch by an old master – just a few stroke but what suggestive strokes – the character of Leontes emerges from these ghosts and echoes of earlier Shakespearean tragic sufferers, Othello and Hamlet and Lear. Leontes’ language in the first act reflects his relationship to tragedy. It is turgid, highly compressed, metaphorical, full of exclamations and self-interruptions, and, in consequence, sometimes hard to follow: ‘Too hot, too hot: /To mingle friendship farre is mingling bloods’ (1.2.110-111), and ‘Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a forked one! (187), and this sour fable:
[M]any a man there is, even at this present,
Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by th’arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour…
It is Leontes who coins the vivid image of the spider in the cup, an image that, again, may call to mind other poisoned cups, like the one in Hamlet, which in dramatic context become associated with the idea of a poisoned female sexuality:
There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected; but if one present
Th’abhorred ingredient to his eyes, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.
“I have drunk, and seen the spider.’ But of course it is Leontes who has in effect invented the spider, and dropped it in the cup. Here again there is an instructive comparison with Othello, at the moment when he feels the public humiliation of his supposed cuckoldry:
I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known…
Leontes feels that his knowledge has been ‘infected,’ and infection almost immediately becomes a dominant metaphor for his entire course, spreading as always from the king to his subjects. From a scene of apparent health and order, then, we pass rapidly to infection and disease. ‘There is a sickness/Which puts some of us in distemper,’ says Camillo to Polixenes, ‘but/I cannot name th’ disease’ (1.2.384-386). ‘A sickness caught of me, and yet I well?’ Polixenes asks (398), and when he learns of the King’s suspicion, he cries:
O, then my best blood turn
To an infected jelly…
my approach be shunned,
Nay hated, too, worse than the great’st infection
That e’er was heard of read.
Natural words like ‘grow,’ ordinarily associated with health, are now used instead to describe sickness. Leontes’s wintry imagination even recalls the months of his courtship with Hermione as ‘[t]here crabbed months’ that ‘had soured themselves to death’ (1.2.104). Once again in a Shakespearean kingdom we are to have a wasteland, a sick king bereft of wife and children, and the play’s initial counselor figure, Camillo (who follows in the pattern of doctors like Cerimon in Pericles and Cornelius in Cymbeline), will flee the country, leaving the art of healing to a wonder-worker of a different order, Paulina.
Of all Leontes’ tortured exclamations, though, perhaps the most startling is the outburst in which he claims evidence of Hermione’s transgression:
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.
The manifest irony here is that all these things are nothing. They have no significance, and represent only Leontes’s own projection (‘[s]kulking,’ ‘[w]ishing’). But just as Leontes ‘saw’ a spider in the cup because he put it there, poisoning his own imagination, so he makes something of these rhetorically conjured nothings. In a way he borrows a technique from Polixenes, who had spoken of himself as a zero. Polixenes’ word for ‘zero’ is ‘cipher’; the context here is a phrase of compliment for the warm hospitality he has – heretofore – received in Sicilia, and his figure of speech imagines that a numeral followed by a zero (10; 100; 10,000) makes something of nothing:
And therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands more.
Leontes, like the master of binary fictions that he is, multiplies his one conviction of Hermione’s infidelity by a thousand nothings, a thousand pieces of ‘evidence’ that are evidence of nothing at all. In doing so, moreover, he does something else as well: he creates a universe that is entirely solipsistic. He denies the reality of the world, the reality of the stage (‘The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,/…If this be nothing’). He thus creates a mental world of total egoism, total self-involvement, in which there is ‘nothing’ left but Leontes himself: no external objects, no systems of value or communication are permitted to stand. The King withdraws into a mental prison of his own ‘diseased opinion,’ next to which the physical prison he sends his wife, Hermione, is an oasis of light and health.”
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, more on Act One