The Winter’s Tale
Act Two, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Hermione is with her son Mamillius when Leontes rushes in, having heard of Polixenes’s and Camillo’s escape to Bohemia. Taking this as proof of his former friend’s guilt, Leontes confronts Hermione and accuses her of adultery. Though she vehemently denies it, he has her imprisoned, ignoring the pleas of her defenders. Leontes then announces that he has sent messengers to Apollo’s oracle at Delphos, expecting that it will confirm her guilt. When Hermione gives birth to a daughter in prison, her friend Paulina takes the child to Leontes, hoping to persuade him that the baby is his. It doesn’t work – Leontes is outraged, and orders that both Paulina and the baby be burnt to death. When his lord refuses to obey his orders, he relents and instructs Antigonus to abandon the child in a deserted place outside the kingdom. As news arrives that the messengers are returning from Delphos, Leontes orders Hermione to stand trial.
One point I’d like to make: Unlike in Othello, where the rest of the cast is pretty much taken in by Iago’s brilliant improvisations, Leontes has to fight tooth and nail to assert his belief in Hermione’s guilt. After threatening to dismiss his advisers if they so much as speak in her defense, Leontes answer’s Antigonus’s criticism that he has tried her “only in [his] silent judgment” (2.1.173) by publically humiliating Hermione, who has just given birth to their daughter, under the pretence of testing her in court. As you will read her announce at her trial, she is caught in a seeming Catch-22 situation, attempting to defend herself with herself. “My life,” she explains to Leontes, “stands in the level of your dreams.” (3.2.80); her husband, and his diseased fantasies, have seemingly absolute power.
In fact, as if to prove this, the pregnant Queen, who ‘rounds apace,’ herself therefore a living emblem of fertility and growth descends into the prison and almost immediately gives birth to her child. The imagistic equivalent between womb and prison is confirmed by Paulina, who argues to the King that ‘[t]his child was prisoner to the womb’ and is therefore freed by nature when she is born (2.2.62-64), and also by Hermione, who is said to have addressed the infant as ‘My good prisoner’ and declared ‘I am as innocent as you’ (2.2.31-32). A double point is being made here. On the one hand, a literal prison is no prison at all when it is compared to mental bondage (another commonplace of the period: see the Richard Lovelace poem ‘To Althea, from Prison,’ which begins ‘Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage,’ or the ‘servitude’ of Ferdinand to Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest). On the other hand, we are all prisoners of the mortal condition, the condition of blood in all its senses. The play’s antidote to this imprisonment is embodied in the word ‘grace,’ associated throughout the play with Hermione and asserted by her strongly as she goes off to the prison, directing her ladies not to weep: ‘This action I now go on/Is for my better grace’ (2.1.123-124). Much later in the play a repentant Leontes will recall that ‘she was as tender/As infancy and grace’ (5.3.26-27).
By contrast, Leontes is associated with wrath, jealousy, and punitive justice, and thus, in these early acts, with death rather than life. He (in company with Brutus, Macbeth, Richard III, and others) suffers from the Shakespearian symptom of a diseased conscience, sleeplessness. When Paulina attempts to cure him by reconciling him not directly with the Queen, but instead with the newborn child, she announces as she enters with the child in her arms, ‘I come to bring him sleep.’ In this scene she claims the role of doctor directly: ‘I/Do come with words as medicinal as true,/Honest as either’ (2.3.33, 36-38). And yet in a way she hopes to cure him not with words but with silence:
The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades when speaking fails.
The word ‘infant’ comes from the Latin infans, meaning ‘unable to speak.’ The newborn child is speechless, and Paulina argues that the absence of language here connotes innocence.
But as so often in Shakespeare, this argument fails; as was the case Cordelia (‘Love and be silent’), communication among human beings requires more: silence, subject to interpretation, is insufficiently eloquent to plead the case. This is one reason why silence occupies the two extreme poles of Shakespearean dramaturgy. It characterizes both those who refuse humanity, like Iago, and those who transcend it, like the ‘statue’ of Hermione in this play’s final scene, and all those other characters, in this play and other romances, who are struck dumb by ‘wonder’ or ‘amazement.’ Leontes should be struck this way by the innocent Perdita, who resembles him – as Paulina is quick to point out, reading her legitimacy in her face (‘Although the print be little, the whole matter/And copy of the father: eye, nose, lip’ (2.3.99-100) – but he is not, and he commands that she be killed. Perdita, whose name means ‘the lost one,’ is first ordered to be burnt, and then, in a travesty of ‘mercy,’ the sentence is mitigated; now she is to be exposed to the elements in some deserted place. As he takes up the child, Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, interjects an explicit note of Christian symbolism in a single sentence: ‘I’ll pawn the little blood which I have left/To save the innocent’ (2.3.166-167).
Leontes’s enslavement to his own prison of the mind has brought down disease and sterility upon the landscape, sleeplessness and solipsism upon himself. The winter movement of the play, the weight almost of tragedy, threatens to move beyond the reversible limits of romance.”
“Their [MY NOTE: Polixenes and Camillo] flight is proof on proof to Leontes: ‘How blest am I/In my just censure, in my true opinion’ (II.i.36-7). He then develops at some length a surprisingly coherent image:
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.
So much was common superstition (that spiders were only venomous in food and drink if you saw them) [MY NOTE: Who knew?] For Leontes, the figure fits his case perfectly – you detect the self-pitying self-dramatization in the last line. What is becoming clearer, and more worrying, is that he needs to see the spider, he likes to see the spider, there must be a spider! Hence the following unbelievably gross speeches to his wife. He calls her, in front of the court, ‘adult’ress,’ ‘bed-swerver,’ ‘traitor,’ and announces that Polixenes ‘has made thee swell thus’ (II.i.61). With truly regal dignity and restraint, Hermione makes a memorable response:
When you shall come to clearer knowledge…
Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me thoroughly than to say
You did mistake.
Leontes orders her son to be removed from her, and has her imprisoned. As often happens, subsidiary figures keep their sanity and will see clearly. Antigonus says:
You are abused, and by some putter-on
That will be damned for’t. Would I knew the villain.
Posthumus was ‘abused’ by ‘putter-on’ Iachimo. Here, of course, the ‘villain’ is Leontes abusing Leontes. It takes Shakespeare to show us how a man can be a ‘putter-on’ to himself.
Nobody can reach him, or, as we say, get through to him now. ‘The matter, [that word again]/The loss, the gain, the ord’ring on’t/Is all properly ours,’ he announces (II.i.168-70). This is a true claim, though not in the sense he intends it. He is asserting his royal ‘prerogative’; but, in effect, he is ordering – disordering – ‘the matter,’ disposing of the material and arranging the ‘reality,’ to suit and fit his own determinations. And, like jealous characters before him, he is absolutely certain of his evidence. He refers again to the sexual relationship between Hermione and Polixenes –
Which was as gross as ever touched conjecture,
That lacks sight only, naught for approbation
But only seeing, all other circumstances
Made up to th’ deed
‘Approbation’ is ‘proof,’ ‘and Leontes is sure he has all he needs. He lacks what Othello asked for – ‘ocular proof’; but, as Iago reasonably enough pointed out, it is in the nature of the deed that this kind of proof is effectively unobtainable. Instead, Iago proffers ‘imputation and strong circumstances’ (Othello III.iii.403); these are enough for Othello, and they are enough for Leontes, though he has preferred them to himself. He relies on ‘circumstances’ and ‘conjectures’ (In the Induction to 2 Henry IV 15-16, ‘Rumor is a pipe’/Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures’). That all this is no evidence at all but rather the reverse, hardly needs stressing. But Leontes is King, and he has the power, and thus the ordering of the matter – if he says that it is so, then, to all intents and purposes, it is so. But only for a while. He reveals that he has sent Cleomenes and Dion to the oracle of Apollo (which, like Greene, Shakespeare mistakenly thought was at Delphos) ‘for a great confirmation’ and he is confident that ‘from the oracle/They will bring all’ (II.i.180, 185-6). Indeed they will.
Paulina (Shakespeare’s creation0 now enters the play. Hermione has given birth to a daughter in prison, and Paulina determines to take the baby to the King, confidently breaking through the lords who would prevent her unwanted approach with the promise:
Do come with words as medicinal as true,
Honest as either, to purge him of that humor
That presses him from sleep.
Medicine and purgation the sick King certainly needs, but an unspokenly reproachful woman carrying what he takes to be the illegitimate child of his wife is the last thing he wants. It drives him into a mad fury. While Paulina resolutely points out the baby’s likeness to the King (eye, nose, lip, forehead, chin, cheek – body parts are important in this play), thanking ‘good goodness Nature, which hast made it/So like to him that got it’ (II.iii.102-3), Leontes is frantically ordering his men to ‘take up the bastard,’ burn the bastard, dash the bastard’s brains out – he says the word at least eight times, much as he kept calling Hermione ‘adulteress,’ as if mere reiteration provides some assuaging satisfaction, or perverse profaning pleasure. Of the many subsequent ironies prepared for in this abusive repetition of ‘bastard,’ none extends further than this –
Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel
And call me father?
Only if you are very lucky, very penitent, very blessed by ‘great goddess Nature.’ But, for now Leontes orders that this ‘female bastard’ should be taken to some remote and desert place’ and abandoned (II.iii.174).”
And this, from a book I recently discovered, Shakespeare’s Wordplay, by M. M. Mahood:
“At this late hour, it would be a work of supererogation to defend the last plays of Shakespeare against the charges of dullness and incompetence which were once frequent in criticism. On a superficial level, there is little to distinguish such a play as The Winter’s Tale from the fashionable romances of Beaumont and Fletcher; but as recent writers have demonstrated, Shakespeare’s poetry in these last plays is too intense to be read superficially. Each image, each turn of phrase, each play upon a word’s meanings, compels us to feel that Shakespeare’s total statement adds up to much more than the fairy-tale events of the plot. Yet in the theater the impetus of the action itself leaves us no time to ponder this deeper significance which remains at or very near the unconscious level, and so inseparable from our theatrical excitement and wonder at Leontes’ jealousy, Perdita’s preservation and…
Shakespeare packs meaning into The Winter’s Tale in a way that might be instanced by the opening words of the second scene. Polixenes, the visiting king, is anxious to get home:
Nine Changes of the Watry-Starre hath been
The Shepheards Note, since we haue left our Throne
Without a Burthen.
After the naturalistic prose dialogue with which the play began, this ortund phrase achieves one of those swift changes in the pressure of realism – here from contemporary Court life to the world of the Player King – which is typical of the dramatic climate of these last plays. But the image accomplishes much more than that. The moon’s nine changes imply the themes of pregnancy (helped, perhaps, by ‘Burthen’), of sudden changes of fortune, and of madness, which are all to become explicit in the course of the same scene. The whole image is the first of many taken from country things and the pastoral life, which persist throughout the Sicilian scenes of the play and so help to bridge the ‘great gap’ of time and place over which we pass later to the shepherd kingdom of Bohemia. And the leading theme of these scenes in Bohemia, the summer harmony of heaven and earth, is prepared here by mention of the ‘watery star’ that draws the tides.
For instances of wordplay which, in their economy, match these uses of imagery, we may go back to the opening dialogue between Camillo and Archidamus. Although there are not very many puns in The Winter’s Tale, the few that are used generate a superb energy. This opening dialogue, for instance, seems no more than the explanatory chat between two minor characters which is part of the competent dramatist’s stock-in-trade; but some enquiry into its play of meanings show it to be much more than this. ‘If you shall chance (Camillo),’ Archidamus beings, ‘to visit Bohemia, on the like occasion whereon my seruices are now on-foot, and you shall see (as I haue said) great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia.’ This difference we shall soon discover to be ‘contention’ as well as ‘dissimilarity’; for Bohemia and Sicily stand eponymously for the king’s as well as the kingdoms – as, after a brief exchange of civilities, Camillo’s words indicate:
‘Sicilia cannot shew himself ouer-kind to Bohemia: They were trayn’d together in their Child-hoods; and there rooted betwixt them such a affection, which cannot chuse but braunch now.
Trained, used of fruit trees as well as of the education of children, introduces an image of two plants united in such a way as to propagate new growth, and this anticipates the talk in Act IV of grafting a noble scion upon the wildest stock, which is symbolic both of the union of court and country in Perdita’s upbringing as a Shepherd’s daughter and of the reunion of the two kings through the marriage of Perdita and Florizel. But branch, besides meaning ‘throw out new shoots from the family tree,’ has the sense of ‘divide’; and ‘Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind’ is ambiguous. On the one hand the undertones of the scene prepares us for the fertility legend of a child healing an old man and so bringing prosperity to the land; on the other hand, the secondary meanings of difference and branch, together with Camillo’s ominous insistence upon Mamillius’s ‘promise,’ prepare us for the estrangement of the kings and the death of Mamillius which must intervene before a child, Perdita, ‘Physics the Subject, makes old hearts fresh.’
Some of the most richly ambiguous wordplay in all Shakespeare occurs at the beginning of this estrangement, in Leontes’ violent seizure of jealousy against Polixenes. It is possible, of course, to read long-standing suspicion into all Leontes’ speeches to Polixenes and Hermione, from the first appearance of the three characters. But this impairs the dramatic contrast between the happiness and harmony of the three characters when Polixenes has agreed to stay, and Leontes’ subsequent outburst of passion:
Too hot, too hot:
To mingle friendship farre, is mingling bloods.
I haue Tremor Cordis on me: my heart daunces,
But not for ioy; not ioy. (I.ii.109-12)
Unlike the Age of the Enlightenment, with its demand for logically clear motivation of character, the pre-Locke and the post-Freud epochs share an acceptance of the seemingly incalculable in human behavior. The Elizabethans might have put Leontes’ outburst down to demonic possession; we should call it a libidinous invasion. The effect in either case is the same – a sudden outburst of normally suppressed feelings, which struggle for their release in savage wordplay. Leontes’ puns erupt like steam forcing up a saucepan lid, and by the end of some hundred lines he has fairly boiled over with ‘foul imaginings.’ There are the conscious puns which release his obscene and aggressive tendencies in:
‘We must be neat; not neat, but cleanly, Captaine:
And yet the Steere, the Heyfer, and the Calfe,
Are all call’d Neat,’ (I.ii.124-6)
and in –
‘Let what is deare in Sicily, be cheape:
Next to thy selfe, and my young rouser, he’s
Apparent to my heart, (175-7)
where apparent means ‘seen-through, obvious’ as well as ‘heir-apparent.’ There are unconscious puns on words which remain unspoken: die, for example, in ‘and then to sigh, as ‘twere the Mort o’ th’ Deere’ and perhaps stews in ‘his Pond fish’d by his next Neighbor.’ And there are the innuendoes which Leontes reads into Camillo’s innocent use of such words as business (216) and satisfy (232). At one point this kind of wordplay becomes threefold, in that it reveals Shakespeare’s intentions as well as Leontes’ disturbance of mind:
‘Goe play (Boy) play: thy Mother playes, and I
Play too; but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hisse me to my Graue. (187-9)
Only the first play is used in a single sense We might paraphrase Leontes’ double-entendres thus: ‘Go and amuse yourself; your mother is also pretending to play by acting the kind hostess, but I know that she is a real daughter of the game and up to another sport which makes me act the contemptible role of the deceived husband. So for the moment I’m playing her like a fish (‘I am angling now’) by giving her line.’ This ironic wordplay of Leontes is sustained through disgraced, meaning both ‘ungraceful’ and ‘shameful,’ and issue meaning ‘exit,’ ‘result’ and perhaps also ‘Polixenes’ bastard child that Hermione now carries.’ But play, disgraced and issue have other functions besides that of rendering Leontes’ paroxysm true to life. Shakespeare counters each of Leontes’ puns by further meanings which relate the word to the larger context of the play’s thought and action. The meaning ‘make-believe’ is added in this way to all the senses of play. Leontes is play-acting, in his outburst; it is characteristic of such obsessions as his that the sufferer is deluded yet half knows he is under a delusion – as when we know we are in a nightmare but cannot wake from it. Only the make-believe of Hermione…and the make-believe of Perdita…can restore Leontes to a sane discrimination between illusion and reality…”
And finally, from Harold Goddard:
“The suddenness with which Leontes becomes suspicious of his innocent wife, Hermione, inevitably invites both comparison and contrast with Othello. Othello, a man just married, succumbs to suspicion only under the manipulations of a fiendishly skilful villain who builds up what looks like a convincing case against the Moor’s wife. Leontes, happily married so far as everything appears, with one child already and expecting another, is his own Iago and becomes instantaneously the victim of an insane jealousy for no other reason than the trifle that his friend from boyhood, Polixenes, who has refused to prolong his visit at Leontes’ request, agrees to stay at the solicitation of Leontes’ wife. Within a matter of minutes, we might almost say seconds, he is so beside himself that he is actually questioning the paternity of his own boy and his mind has become a chaos of incoherence and sensuality. Unmotivated, his reaction has been pronounced by critic after critic, and so it is, if by motive we mean a definite rational incitement to action. But there are irrational as well as rational incitements to action, and what we have here is a sudden inundation of the conscious by the unconscious, of which the agreement of Polixenes to prolong his visit is the occasion rather than the cause.
I am a feather for each wind the blows,
Leontes confesses of himself later when he changes his mind and decides to have the child to whom Hermione has given premature birth exposed rather than burned – a line that sums up his emotional instability as well as anything in the play.
A reading of Much Ado About Nothing with full attention to the meaning of the word ‘nothing’ both in the title and in the text is the best possible introduction to the first act of The Winter’s Tale.
Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek?
asks Leontes, attempting to convince Camillo of the guilt of his wife and his friend, and after listing all the physical and psychological intimacies between the two which his ‘weak-hing’d fancy’ (Paulina’s phrase) has conjured up out of nothing, he concludes,
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.
Leontes is exactly right, but not in the sense he intends, for it is precisely out of the vast realm of Nothing – of pure possibility – that he has summed these nothings.
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre,
he cries, pushing absurdity quite beyond bounds in seeming to question his son’s paternity,
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Commicat’st with dreams; — how can this can be? –
With what’s unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow’st nothing.
He could not have diagnosed his own case more correctly: emotion, he declares, brings within the realm of possibility things nonexistent. But, continuing, he hopelessly confuses cause and effect:
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 hardening of my brows.
Since emotion can give reality to ‘nothing,’ he argues, it is very credible that that ‘nothing’ should join on to ‘something’ in the external world (that the idea of a faithless Hermione should fit Hermione herself). And that thought, he confesses, infects his brain. But the truth of course is the other way around: it is the infection of the brain that has fitted the fantasy to the present instance.
Your actions are my dreams,
he says later to Hermione, little dreaming how consummately he has condensed the truth and psychology of his own affliction into five words. Fully as almost everyone else sees through him, it is Leontes himself who without knowing it is the best expositor of his own nature and weakness. But Camillo’s diagnosis is worthy of notice too – and Paulina’s.
…you may as well
Forbid the sea to obey the moon,
says the former, informing Polixenes that Leontes has appointed him to murder him.
As or by oath remove or counsel shake
The fabric of his folly, whose foundation
Is pil’d upon his faith, and will continue
The standing of his body.
Camillo perceives that Leontes is possessed and moved by forces transcending consciousness too tremendous to be amenable to reason, and he wisely brushes aside Polixenes’ request to know how the man’s mad conduct is to be explained in favor of instant escape from impending death. Leontes’ jealousy of Polixenes is like Shylock’s hatred of Antonio (and Shakespeare uses the same two metaphors of wind and waves to convey it). In that case nothing personal, but centuries of mistreatment of the Jews, was the ‘motive.’ In this case nothing personal, but the whole history and inheritance of human jealousy, is the cause. What we are dealing with here is nature in the raw, with the fantasy-making of the unconscious mind and the emotional fury it engenders. Leontes’ mind is like a fiery furnace at such a temperature that everything introduced into it – combustible or not – becomes fuel. That he threatens in turn to have his wife, the child, and Paulina burned is significant repetition and detail that indicate the volcanic depth from which his passion comes. And, appropriately, it is coincidence, not reason – the coincidence of the judgment of Apollo and his son’s death – that convinces him of his mistake.
I have too much believe’d mine own suspicion.
One line and he emerges from his obsession as suddenly as he had succumbed to it. The man is a victim of fantasy, the vehicle of a sort of inverted and infernal, as his wife is of a celestial, faith.
Indeed The Winter’s Tale might have been written to expound the difference between fantasy and imagination, between infatuation and faith. Leontes, in the first half of the play, shows what happens when one reverts to the instinctive fears that send a small child or a primitive man into a panic,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine,
as Paulina (confirming Camillo) well describes them. Hermione, on the contrary, shows what happens not just when one uses his reason (though she does that of course) but also when one surrenders to those finer and loftier instincts that are as much a part of our inheritance as are our lower and grosser ones, however much rarer they are and less potent they appear. If Leontes is a feather to be blown about by every gust, Hermione is a sail to take advantage of even the most adverse wind, without which the rudder of reason would be of no avail. Nothing can undermine her combined modesty and pride, blur her insight and sympathy, or shake her trust that truth will triumph in the end. And except for her husband the faith of others in her is almost equal to her faith in herself. She seems to lift others above their natural level. Unlike the obsequious and fawning courtiers to be found in some of Shakespeare’s other plays, these people stand up for the truth and their Queen in the very face of the King. And even when he subjects her to the degradation of insults and the ignominy of an open trial she preserves the serene dignity and repose which, without being cold, insensibly prepare us for her role as…[MY NOTE: No spoilers!]
The murderous division that comes between Polixenes and Leontes is the more tragic because the two had grown up together:
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal…
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk I’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other. What we chang’d
Was innocence for innocence.
The world of innocence, of frisking lambs, of boys eternal, when all days are alike because all days are perfect, seems gone forever. But no, Shakespeare brings it back, if with a few differences and not for these two, in the fourth act of his play, one of the longest he ever wrote, expressly contrived, one would think, for the sharpest contrast with the three that preceded it. If they were earth, this is heaven, or, more precisely, if they were earth with a few touches of heaven, this is heaven with a few touches of earth: flowers, lambs, songs and ballads, dances, masquerades, shepherds and shepherds’ daughters, princes and princesses, lovable pickpockets, simplicity and happiness under a dozen aspects even including a delectable brand of imbecility. Quite too lovely to be true, or at least to last. What wonder that this is held to be two plays rather than one! How shall this Bohemia ever be reconciled with that Sicilia? It is fortunate that Shakespeare has a fifth act in which to suggest how that miracle may take place. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. If this turns out to be the scheme of the play, it cannot justly be charged with lack of unity. A man asleep often bears little resemblance to the same man awake. Yet they are somehow one.”
What are your thoughts so far?
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning – More on Act II.
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.