“A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins.”

The Winter’s Tale

Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


G. Wilson Knight had a special feeling for Shakespeare’s late plays, and his writings helped to bring added attention to them.  This, from his The Crown of Life:

‘But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die; and that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: but God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

‘All flesh is not the same flesh; but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead.

I Corinthians, XV, 35.

winters-tale-1903-361x541“In The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare handles a similar narrative to that of Pericles with the infusion of a closer and more realistic human concern and a tightening of dramatic conflict. Pericles experiences a sense of evil followed by unmerited suffering; Leontes sins and endures a purgatory of guilt. Here the sackcloth and ashes of Pericles’ martyrdom are given a profounder relevance.

The Winter’s Tale has had a poor showing in commentary, having seldom been regarded as more than an inconsequential romance with fine bits of poetry; while even those who, during recent years, have regarded it as a serious reading of human affairs have avoided, or slurred over, as though un-at-home with its nature, the crucial and revealing event to which the whole action moves [MY NOTE:  SPOILER ALERT!!!!!]: the resurrection of Hermione.

The play is in three main sections. The first is tragic; the second pastoral; the third must for the present be left undefined. There is a strong suggestion throughout of season-myth, with a balance of summer against winter. Evil passions, storms, and shipwreck are contrasted with young love and humor. Maturity and death are set against birth and resurrection.

The action opens with a short prose dialogue between Camillo and Archidamus in which the simplicities of Bohemia are contrasted with the luxuries of Sicilia. The contrast is not later developed, and more important are the following remarks on maturity and youth. Leontes and Polixenes ‘were trained together in their childhoods,’ though since separated by ‘mature’ responsibilities (I.i.24-35). The picture is completed by thought of the boy Mamillius:

Camillo:  It is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh; they that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man.

Archidamus:  Would they else be content to die?


Youth is conceived as a power; as a renewer of life and antagonist to death. Thus early is the central theme of The Winter’s Tale set before us.

Polixenes also has a son whom he ‘longs to see’ (I.ii.34), but Hermione presses his stay, asking about his and her own lord’s youth together and of their ‘tricks’ as ‘pretty lordings.’  He answers:


     We were, fair queen,

Two lads that thought there was no more behind

But such a day to-morrow as to-day,

And to be boy eternal.


Was not my lord the verier wag o’ the two?


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; we knew not

The doctrine of ill-doing, no nor dream’d

That any did. Had we pursued that life,

And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d

With stronger blood, we should have answer’d


Boldly, ‘not guilty’; the imposition clear’d

Hereditary ours.


The ‘eternal’ consciousness of childhood is distinguished from the sin-born time-consciousness of man. Polixenes’ second speech defines a golden-age existence free from that ‘hereditary’ taint of fallen humanity which appears with the ‘stronger blood,’ or passions of maturity. Leontes, called from his reverie, excuses himself in similar terms; for he has been half-meditating and half-talking to Mamillius, calling him a ‘calf’ and saying how he needs ‘a rough pash and the shoots that I have’ to be like his father (I.ii.128-9):


     …Looking on the lines

Of my boy’s face, methoughts I did recoil

Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreech’d,

In my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled,

Lest it should bite its master, and so prove,

As ornaments oft do, too dangerous:

How like, methought, I then was to this kernel,

This squash, this gentlemen. Mine honest friend,

Will you take eggs for money?


     No, my lord, I’ll fight.


‘Calf,’ ‘kernel,’ ‘squash,’ ‘eggs’ (also ‘eggs’ earlier at I.ii.131); impressions of young life – remember the frisking lambs of Polixenes’ speech – on various natural planes cluster. Polixenes, questions as to his own ‘young prince’ (I.ii.164), answers:


     If at home, sir,

He’s all my exercise, my mirth, my matter,

Now my sworn friend and then mine enemy;

My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all:

He makes a July day short as December,

And with his varying childness cures in me

Thoughts that would thick my blood.

Leontes:     So stands this squire

Offic’d with me.

All humanity is compacted in the loved person, after the manner of Helena’s ‘Not my virginity yet…’ in All’s Well that Ends Well (I.i.181). Childhood is shown as a redeeming force, subduing horrors. Mamillius is, at the play’s start, dramatically central. Defined mainly by what is said to, or about, him, and especially by Leontes’ by-play (‘What, hast smutch’d thy nose?’ at I.ii.122), ‘my young rover’ (I.ii.176) focalizes the poetry of boyhood and fills the stage.

This poetry is, however, countered by Leontes’ rising jealousy conceived as evil in contrast to the golden age of childhood. Leontes lives in the world of mature passion with attendant knowledge of evil, and consequent suspicion. More, his suspicion is an ugly thing, itself an evil; it is, practically, sin. The central emphasis in Shakespeare on conjugal trust and fidelity is patent: the deepest issues of good and evil are through it expressed. From Provencal lyric, through Petrarch, to Dante, romantic love is haloed with semi-divine meaning. At the Renaissance there is a further development: the romantic idea descends from fancy to actuality; it becomes practical, and therefore moral, in the ethic of marriage. Now the dramatic implications of this change have received insufficient notice. Spenser’s doctrine of marriage-love is less important than Lyly’s dramatization of it: in Lyly the happy ending love-drama, or love-ritual, not only releases drama from ecclesiastical domination but sets it firmly on a new course, which it follows still, thereby witnessing the unexhausted meaning, social and religious, of this persistent theme. In Shakespeare love-integrity is all but the supreme good, in both comedy and tragedy, the pattern being especially clear in Othello, with Desdemona as divinity and Iago as devil. Now, whatever our private social tenets, we must, in reading The Winter’s Tale, be prepared to accept the Shakespearian as a preliminary to understanding. Great poetry seldom leaps direct at universal ideas for their own sake; its ideas are housed in flesh and blood; and there is a logic of incarnated thought, a blood-contact and descent from body to body, that does not necessarily correspond point by point to any conceptual chain. So, though Shakespeare writes here as a poet of the Renaissance as it specifically shaped himself in England with a plot-interest confined to suspicion of conjugal infidelity, the radiations set going concern the very essence of evil; sexual jealousy is shown as a concentration of possessiveness and inferiority developing into malice with Leontes’ suspicion aptly enough called ‘sin’ (I.ii.283) and the whole argument considered a matter of ‘good and evil’ (I.ii.303). But opposite the hero stands his own child, whose very being is a wisdom and an assurance:

Mamillius:  I am like you, they say.

Leontes:  Why, that’s some comfort.

The boy has broken into one of his father’s interjectory paroxysms. The remark, and Leontes’ reaction, are simple enough; but the dramatic context is already so loaded with meaning that the simplicity reverberates beyond itself. The Winter’s Tale is more than a ‘morality’ play; and yet, with no loss of sharp human particularization, Mamillius stands before Leontes as Truth confronting Error.

Leontes is shown as a man inwardly tormented. His misery expresses itself in short, stabbing sentences of great force:

    Too hot, too hot I

To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.

I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances:

But not for joy; not joy…

His words jet from a similar nervous disorganization to that less vividly expressed in Macbeth’s

Why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image does unfix my hair,

And makes my seated heart knock at my ribs

Against the use of nature?

(Macbeth, I.iii.134)

Leontes’ early soliloquies contrast with his, and others’, conversation when a more reasonable intercourse is demanded; he can mask his feelings. But, left to himself, his anguish comes out in hisses, jets of poison, carried over by sibiliants and thoughts of stagnant water:

     Gone already!

Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!

Go play, boy, play; thy mother plays, and I

Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue

Will hiss me to my gave: contempt and clamor

Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been

Or I am much deceiv’d, cuckolds ere now;

And many a man there is even at this present,

Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,

That little thinks she has been sluic’d in’s absence,

And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor, by

Sir Smile, his neighbor…

The word ‘hiss’ occurs as a threat, drawing close. Hermione is ‘slippery’ (I.ii.273). How poignantly the slime of this reptilian horror coiling round Leontes is countered by the little boy’s presence, leading to the ugly dexterity of the wit on ‘play.’

The spasmodic jerks of his language reflect Leontes’ unease; he is, as it were, being sick; ejecting a poison, which yet grows stronger; something he has failed to digest, assimilate. Images of nausea pour out. His marriage is ‘spotted,’ like a toad (cp. ‘most toad-spotted traitor’ at King Lear, V.iii.140; and Othello’s ‘I had rather be a toad…’ and ‘cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in’ at Othello, III.iii.270 and IV.ii.60); and this defilement is to him ‘goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps’ (I.ii.328-9). Our most virulent speech of disgust involves the much-loathed spider:

     There may be in the cup

A spider stepp’d, and one may drink, depart,

And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge

Is not infected; but if one present

The 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.


The studied build-up of the preceding lines injects a maximum of force into the final, icy reserve. Indeed, Leontes’ most vitriolic spasms get themselves out with a certain under-emphasis, not unlike Swift’s general expression of nausea through meiosis; as though the extreme of satiric bitterness were always loath to risk suicide in the katharsis of luxuriant expression. Leontes’ paroxysms never enjoy Othello’s even swell and surge of fully developed emotion:

     Come, sir page,

Look on me with your welkin eye: sweet villain !

Most dear’st! my collop! Can thy dam? – may’st be? –

Affection! thy intention stabs the centre:

Thou dost make possible things not so held,

Communicast’st with dreams; — how can this be? –

With what’s unreal thou coactive art,

And fellow’st nothing: then, ‘tis very credent

Thou may’st 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.


From the boy and his ‘welkin eye’ – a phrase enlisting all great nature’s serenity and light – Leontes is being swiftly projected into instability; the universal ‘centre’ is gone, stabbed by this supposed ‘affection’ (i.e. growing love) of Hermione and Polixenes. The result is nightmare. The impossible has happened: worse, it is even now happening; the known creation has had dallyings with the ‘unreal’ the ‘nothing,’ and thence given birth (as in Macbeth) to an only-too-real action of hideous obscenity in the visible order. We are close to Macbeth’s ‘horrible imaginings’ of his own as yet ‘fantastical’ crime, with ‘function smother’d in surmise’ until ‘nothing is but what is not’ (Macbeth I.iii.137-42). In both plays we have evil impinging as essential ‘nothing,’ unreality, a delirium, which yet most violently acts on the real. Leontes’ whirling sequences rises to the powerful and revealing ‘infection of my brains’ – thereby half-admitting his own now poisoned thinking – and then drops into an understress, almost euphemism, in ‘hardening of my brows.’ And yet that last reserve again reflects a state the very opposite of repose: that of a man tense, nerving himself to believe, to endure – more, to be – the hideous, horned thing. We are nearer Macbeth than Othello.

This spasmodic, interjectory, explosive style, however, whirls itself once into a single rhythmic movement of towering excellence, developing the ‘nothing’ of our last quotation into a truly shattering reality. ‘Is whispering nothing?’ asks Leontes of Camillo, and continues with a list of love’s advances, jerked out in rapid fire, and concluding:

   …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.

Nature’s ‘centre’ and ‘welkin’ (sky) in the boy’s eye (ep. ‘the eye of Heaven’ for the sun in Sonnet XVIII) were first (in our former speech) contrasted with ‘nothing’; here the nihilistic horror itself assumed validity equal to that of the ‘world’ and ‘covering sky’: this contrast or identity (as Leontes claims) is, as we shall see, basic. Great nature is here our final term of reference, to which even evil must appeal, somewhat as Hamlet, from the depths of his melancholia, admits the firmamental splendor.

The victory of evil in Leontes’ soul, its rise in philosophical status, is thus here matched, though only for an instant, by a corresponding mastery of rhythm, rather as in Macbeth’s later speeches. One must beware of regarding tormented rhythms as a poetical goal. Possibly we over-rate Shakespeare’s rough-handling of language to correspond to the twists and jerks of psychic experience, not unlike the helter-skelter impressionism brought to a self-conscious art by the justly praised and influential Hopkins. One can often approve a poet’s disrespect to the tyrannies of rhythm and syntax; but there are dangers. Though Shakespeare indeed uses such a crammed, often cramped, manner elsewhere, the style is certainly most effective when expressing nightmare or disintegration: disrupted rhythms suit Brutus’ and Macbeth’s soliloquies before their half-intended murders (Julius Caesar, II.i.10-34); Macbeth, I.vii.1-12). Shakespeare later allows himself more and more freedom in a manner which is perilously near to mannerism; and where no especial disorder, psychic or – as in a messenger-speech (as at Cymbeline, V.iii.14-51) – physical is concerned, the result can irritate. With Leontes, however, the purpose has been patent; the disrupted style not merely fits, it explores and exposes, the anguish depicted.

That anguish is hell. Leontes half knows, too, that it is sin. He goes to Camillo, if not for absolution, at least for confirmation and collaboration:

     I have trusted thee, Camillo,

With all the nearest things to my heart, as well

My chamber-councils, wherein, priest-like, thou

Hast clean’d my bosom: I from thee departed

Thy penitent reform’d. B ut we have been

Deceiv’d in thy integrity, deceiv’d

In that which seems so.


He wants Camillo to corroborate his own discovery. He is nervous, tentative; something intimate is, as the confessional phraseology hints, involved. But he is not asking advice; the least hint of disagreement rouses his fury. Indeed, he now positively wants his suspicions, which have become the dearest part of him, confirmed:


     Good my lord, be cur’d

Of this diseas’d opinion, and betimes;

For ‘tis most dangerous.

Leontes:  Say it be, ‘tis true.

Camillo:  No, no, my lord.


It is; you like, you lie;

I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee;

Pronounce thee a gross lout, a mindless slave…


The phrase ‘diseas’d opinion’ is exact: Leontes seems to admit disease, whilst insisting on his suspicions’s truth. Opposition raises a kind of self-defensive fury, rising to bombast and that type of vulgar abuse so often symptomatic of a semi-conscious guilt.

winters-tale-1943-361x541His evil is self-born and unmotivated. Commentators have searched in vain for ‘motives’ to explain the soul-states and actions of Hamlet, Iago and Macbeth, without realizing that the poet is not concerned with trivialities, but with evil itself, whose cause remains as dark as theology; given a ‘sufficient’ motive, the thing to be studies vanishes. In Leontes we have a study of evil yet more coherent, realistic and compact; a study of almost demonic possession. He reacts violently to criticism: when Antigonus and others presume to argue, he shouts ‘Hold your peaces!’ (II.i.138); and when he hears that Paulina is outside, Paulina who is to function throughout as his accuser, almost as his conscience, he starts ‘like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons’ (Hamlet, I.i.148) as though recognizing his natural enemy:


Away with that audacious lady! Antigonus,

I charg’d thee that she should not come about me.

I knew she would.


Leontes dimly recognizes that he is behaving as a tyrant, using position and power to bolster up and enforce on others a disease in himself. He is accordingly at pains to show himself as relying on his lords’ advice on condition that they do not oppose him:

     Why, what need we

Commune with you of this, but rather follow

Our forceful instigation! Our prerogative

Calls not your counsels, but our natural goodness

Imparts this…


He is insecure enough to want support, would convince himself of ‘natural goodness’; but, failing support, will go his own way. However, he has sent to the Oracle of Apollo for ‘greater confirmation,’ realizing the danger of rashness and wishing to ‘give rest to the minds of others.’ (II.i.179-92). Tyrant though he be, he can still think constitutionally. Though absolutely certain, he is yet not quite certain that his certainty can maintain itself: paradoxes abound. He is on a rack of indecision:

Nor night, nor day, no rest; it is but weakness

To bear the matter thus; mere weakness. If

The cause were not in being, — part o’ the cause,

She the adulteress; for the harlot king

Is quite beyond mine arm, plot-proof; but she

I can hook to me: say, that she were gone,

Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest

Might come to me again.


In the full flood of anger, when his lords kneel, imploring him to spare the new-born child, he is indecisive and gives ground, muttering; ‘I am a feather for each wind that blows’) II.iii.153). We cannot admire him, as we admire Richard III, the later Macbeth, and Milton’s Satan, for a whole-hearted Satanism. Nor can we sympathize, as with Othello. The emotion aroused is rather a stern pity. He himself knows that to be mistaken in such a matter were ‘piteous’ (II.i.181; cp. Also III.ii.235). More, it is almost comic: Antigonus suggests that the public scandal will raise everyone ‘to laughter.’ (II.i.197). Indeed, of all Shakespeare’s jealous husbands Leontes is nearest to Ford, existing in almost comic objectivity, though without one atom’s loss of tragic intensity. We have in him a sharp personification of the blend so obvious in the wider design.

Tyranny and superstition are mutually related. Tyranny is the forceful domination of a person in the semi-evil, semi0neurotic, state of contemporary humanity. Were the tyrant purely integrated, his absolute control might be a good; hence the will in all royalist states to see the king as a superman of goodness and wisdom, and the theological equation of Christ = King. The tyrant, however, makes power serve personal error, opening the way for a number of illegitimate powers; at the extreme, superstitious belief regarding the manipulation of natural forces, and finally for beings of an infra-natural kind. In Shakespeare’s two full-length studies of tyranny in Richard III and Macbeth the emphasis on ill-omened creatures, witchcraft, and ghosts is thoroughly integral.

Now Leontes has, without knowing it, entered this domain; and, by a transition well known to psychologists, tends to deny vehemently the name of tyrant, whilst seeing in his opposite, Paulina, the exact evil really lodged in himself. She brings from the prison, where his wife lies, Leontes’ new-born child-daughter, challenging him with utter fearlessness, reiterating the (to him – since he half fears its truth) maddening phrase ‘good queen’ (II.iii.58) and finally stinging him to madness by actual presentation of the child. The opposition of childhood and evil, already made vivid by Mamillius, here reaches its maximum dramatic intensity and rouses in Leontes a devil that speaks directly in terms of black magic. Leontes now sees Paulina as a witch and as she presents the baby shouts: ‘ Out! A mankind witch!’ (II.iii.67). He is, as Paulina coolly observes, ‘mad’ (II.iii.71). His storming gets more violent and excessively ugly:


Will you not push her out? Give her the bastard.

Thou dotard! thou art woman-tired, unroosted,

By thy dame Partlet here. Take up the bastard;

Take’t up, I say; give’t to thy crone


winters-tale-1969-judi-541x361Notice the unchivalrous, ugly, scorn, the horror almost of woman as woman, in ‘Partlet’ and ‘crone’, the latter suggesting witchcraft; and also the continuation of our political emphasis in ‘traitors,’ to be repeated again by ‘a nest of traitors’ (II.iii.81), in subtly suggesting, as does ‘Partlet’ too, a growing identity, in Leontes’ diseased mind, of creative nature with treachery. Against his words is Paulina’s more religious threat to Antigonus that his hands will be for ever ‘unvenerable’ (II.iii.89) driving home once more the all-important contrast of Leontes’ crime with the stabilities of nature. After her exquisite description of nature’s handiwork in the child’s likeness to its father, Leontes’ reply is: ‘A gross hag!’ (II.iii.107). The more perfect the good presented, the more black it rises before him; like Milton’s Satan, only without knowing it (as Macbeth knows it at the end and by so doing all but redeems himself), Leontes has said, ‘Evil, be thou my good.’ His values are all transposed and Paulina deserves a witch’s death:


I’ll ha’ thee burn’d.


    I care not;

It is a 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


Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,

Yea, scandalous to the world.


     On your allegiance,

Out of the chamber with her! Were I a tyrant,

Where were her life? she durst not call me so

If she did know me one? Away with her!


Paula’s phraseology (‘heretic’) is again orthodox and Christian. Leontes’ ‘on your allegiance’ echoes Lear’s scene with Kent (King Lear, I.i.122-82), where the psychology of tyranny was, though less subtly developed, very similar. Notice Paulina’s reiterated emphasis on tyranny, and Leontes’ violent reaction. He fears the thought, half-recognizes its truth; though, with some justice, defending himself to himself, adducing rational evidence; trying to crush the summoning conscience whose outward projection is, throughout the play, Paulina. He has, however, sunk deep into paganism, witnessed by his intention to have the child ‘consum’d with fire’ (II.iii.133). His emphatic desire to burn suggests a complex of semi-pagan fear of paganism which led to the tyrannic burning of supposed heretics and witches. There is in both a submission to fear and a desire to leave no trace of the dreaded thing: hence Leontes’ earlier thought that if Hermione were ‘given to the fire’ his peace of mind might return (II.iii.8); and his recent threat to Paulina. Paulina, in opposition, represents the pure Christian conscience, together with common sense. Aligned with her are (i) the new-born baby and (ii) all those natural and human sanctities it symbolizes.

Nature rules our play. Despite the court-setting, nature-suggestion has been, from the start, vivid, introduced by Polixenes’ opening lines:

Nine changes of the watery star have been

The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne…


The following dialogue is sprinkled with natural imagery in close association with youth – in the description of the two kings as ‘twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun’ (I.ii.67), the ‘unfledg’d days’ of boyhood (I.ii.78), Leontes’ use of steer, heifer, kernel and squash. A general pastoralism rings in the ‘mort o’ the deer’ at I.ii.119. Leontes sees his wife’s supposed love-making as a bird’s holding up of her ‘bill’ (I.ii.183); and there are his more obvious animal-images of nausea already noted. Seasons, to be so important in the general design, are suggested by ‘sneaping winds’ at I.ii.13 and twice actually mentioned: Polixenes’ son ‘makes a July’s day short as December’ (I.ii.169), and we have Mamillius’ contribution to the play’s wintery opening in his unfinished story. ‘A sad tale,’ he says, is ‘best for winter’ and continues:

Mamillius:  There was a man –

Hermione:  Nay – come, sit down; then on.

Mamillius:  Dwelt by a churchyard. I will tell it softly;

Yond crickets shall not hear it.


The ‘sad tale’ reflects the oncoming disaster; the boy’s words characterize his father, dwelling close (as is hinted by a revealing image at II.i.150) to death; the broken story is itself a little tragedy. But here all tragedies are firmly held within Nature’s vastness. Hermione’s thought of how Polixenes may ‘unsphere the stars with oaths’ (I.ii.48) repeats the manner of Antony and Cleopatra: compare, too, Camillo’s ‘among the infinite doings of the world’ (I.ii.253) with the Soothsayer’s ‘in nature’s infinite book of secrecy a little I can read’ at Antony and Cleopatra, I.ii.11. Nature, here, however, whilst remaining vast, is normally less philosophically, more concretely, present. Three times already (I.ii.137-9); I.ii.293-4; II.iii.90) we have round creation’s firmamental and earthly steadfastness contrasted with the hideous instabilities of evil; and throughout Leontes’ fall that solid ‘world’ and its’ covering sky’ (I.ii.293-4; cp. Also his ‘You’ll be found, be you beneath the sky’ at I.ii.179) are our touchstones of reality.

The close association of nature and human childhood has Christian affinities, and Christian tonings occur naturally among our positives. We have seen that Paulina employs them. When Polixenes calls Hermione ‘my sacred lay’ (I.ii.76), whilst admitting his own lapse, since childhood, into ‘temptations,’ the adjective goes (as later at II.iii.84 and V.i.172) beyond formal courtesy. More direct is:

     O, then my best blood turn

To an infected jelly, and my name

Be yok’d with his that did betray the Best!


— though the immediate comparison (as at Richard II, IV, i. 170, 240; and Timon of Athens, I.ii.48-51) still serves as a human purpose. But here is something quite new and characteristic, indeed, the most characteristic possible, of The Winter’s Tale. When the Gaoler doubts whether he should release the newborn baby from the prison without a warrant, Paulina answers:

     You need not fear it, sir:

The child was prisoner to the womb, and is

By law and process of great nature thence

Freed and enfranchis’d…


‘Freed’: how the word contrasts with the stifling atmosphere of Leontes’ own enslavement to evil and imprisoning of Hermione. It is precisely this freedom of ‘great nature,’ unpossessive, ever-new, creative, against which Leontes’ tyranny has offended; and his offence is therefore also one against the natural order whose very laws are those of creation and freedom; and therefore, too, of miracle.

‘Great nature’ is our over-ruling deity – hence the broad phraseology of ‘your mother rounds space’ (II.i.16) – responsible for the miraculous perpetuation and recreation of worn and sinful man. Mamillius’ likeness to Leontes is, as we have seen, emphatic; as when, looking on his son, the father remembers his own boyhood (I.ii.154-61), or sees the boy’s smutched nose as ‘a copy out of mine’ (I.ii.123); while Mamillius himself remarks: ‘I am like you, they say’ (I.ii.208). The emphasis reaches a climax in Paulina’s presentation to the horrified Leontes of his new-born baby. We have had something similar in Mamillius’ play with the ladies and his talk of eyebrows (II.i.7-15), but here is a great passage:

     Behold, my lords,

Although the print be little, the whole matter

And copy of the father; eye, nose, lip,

The trick of’s frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,

The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek, his smiles,

The very mould and frame of hand, nail, finger:

And thou, good goddess Nature, which hast made it

So like to him that got it, if thou hast

The ordering of the mind too, ‘mongst all colours

No yellow in’t; lest she suspect, as he does,

Her children not her husband’s.


Notice the pretty irony of ‘the trick of his frown’: Leontes’ ugly wrath at this instant is reflected in the baby’s puckered brow. Notice, too, the slight but important reservation as to whether Nature also orders the mind, less an assertion of difference than symptom of the will to drive natural supremity to the limit, in spite of traditional distinctions which are nevertheless remembered. Observe the exact and objective description of human lineaments, with a maximum of love’s intimacy, yet so purified of any clouding, or glamorous, passion or sentimentality that we are nearer to Blake’s ‘minute particulars’ than to the physical descriptions in Venus and Adonis; and yet the physical is even more intensely, though quietly, preserved; the speech is, of course, maternal rather than erotic. The identification, through love, is so complete that objectivity supervenes with a purity and realism the precise antithesis to the object objectivity of Leontes’ hideous command to carry hence ‘this female bastard’ (II.iii.174), where the one adjective ‘female’ houses a whole philosophy of cynical materialism. Paulina’s speech lives the play’s doctrine on the sanctity of human creation and the miraculous doings of ‘nature’: it is thus deeply Christina. Such is the antagonist to Leontes’ sin and the tragedy it draws swiftly down; a thing already of such power that Hermione’s final resurrection shall be no madness. It is easy to see why Leontes’ possessing devil is so violently roused: it recognizes its antagonist in the baby. The dark powers in Macbeth are similarly opposed by a crowned and tree-bearing child. So our dramatic conflict of delirious evil against the stabilities of nature works through conversations about boyhood and the stage presence of the attractive Mamillius, to this final opposition, with Paulina as directing agent. Mamillius’ presence was always the more eloquent for his few speeches; and the apparently helpless newborn baby (in Wordsworthian phrase ‘deaf and silent,’ yet reading ‘the eternal deep’ and ‘haunted for ever by the eternal mind,’ in the Immortality Ode) is necessarily even more potent.

Though often Christian in impact, the natural majesty explored is also in part Hellenic, relating directly to our controlling god ‘great Apollo’ (II.iii.199), the sun-god, and his oracle at Delphos. Leontes sends ‘to sacred Delphos, to Apollo’s temple’ to solicit, in Christian phrase, the god’s ‘spiritual counsel’ (II.i.182, 185) Cleomenes and Dion return awestruck, deeply impressed by the island’s (it is so considered) ‘delicate’ climate, the ‘sweet’ air and general fertility (III.i.1-3; cp The Tempest, II.i.43-9, 55); and even more by the temple, the ‘celestial habits’ and ‘reference’ of the ‘grave’ priests and the ‘sacrifice’ so ‘ceremonious, solemn and unearthly’; while the actual voice of ‘burst’ of the oracle was a terrifying judgment, ‘kin to Jove’s thunder’ (III.i.3-11; cp. The thunderous appearances of Jupiter in Cymbeline, V.iv.93, and of Ariel in The Tempest, III.iii.53). They pray that ‘great Apollo’ and the package sealed by ‘Apollo’s great divine’ may quickly turn all ‘to the best’ and disclose something ‘rare’ (III.i.14-21); the word ‘rare,’ used already at III.i.13, being frequent on such occasions throughout this and other of the Final Plays (as in ‘rarest sounds’ at Pericles, V.i.233). Apollo is both a nature-deity and transcendent; though a god of sun-fire (as is clear later), his revelatory voice makes the hearer ‘nothing’ (III.i.l11), the word already used to define Leontes’ ghastly experience. Apollo is as mysterious and as awful as Wordsworth’s gigantic mountain-presences; he is both the Greek Apollo and the Hebraic Jehovah. In him the play’s poetry is personified.”


Our next reading: Act Three of The Winter’s Tale

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s