“Exit, pursued by a bear.”

The Winter’s Tale

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


the winter's tale art bearAct Three:  Leontes formally accuses Hermione of adultery and plotting to kill him, but she remains firm in her innocence and declares that Apollo will be her judge.  But when the oracle’s words – which describe Hermione as utterly and totally blameless – are read out, Leontes declares them to be false and orders the trial to continue. But chaos ensues when news arrives of Mamillius’ sudden death: Hermione collapses and is carried away, while Leontes begins to regret his horrible mistake. Paulina arrives and in no uncertain terms denounces Leontes before announcing that the Queen has died. Antigonus, meanwhile, has abandoned the baby (who he named Perdita) in Bohemia, where she is found by the Shepherd and his son, who take her home.


As I mentioned in my first post on Act Two, when Hermione says to Leontes, “My life stands in the level of your dreams,” it seems clear that Leontes, and his fantasies/dreams, seemingly have absolute power.  But his “dreams,” unlike those of Othello, encounter resistance. Despite doubting the paternity of his daughter, who is born while Hermione is imprisoned, the energy of the girl’s arrival (she is, says Emilia, “lusty, and like to live” (2.2.29)) seems to offer promise.  And when good news arrives from the Delphic oracle, which Leontes consulted in the hope of silencing his critics, it seems as if everything will be happily resolved.  “Hermione is chaste,” it proclaims,

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


In language of startling clarity (here Shakespeare copies it almost word for word from his source), the oracle dismisses the King’s crabbed fantasies in an instant. Redemption seemingly beckons.  But Leontes, not hearing what he wanted to hear, cries out that it is “mere falsehood” and will not accept a verdict which differs from his own, and by this time he has already ordered that the newborn child be taken out of the kingdom and left exposed to the elements “where chance may nurse or end it” (2.3.183). Upon that “chance” – and with the oracle’s challenge of dire consequences if “that which is lost be not found” – the rest of The Winter’s Tale hangs.

The next shock is sudden:  it is announced that Mamillius has died.  Hermione collapsed at the news, then it is declared that she, too, is dead. Paulina, her steadfast defender, is terrifyingly outspoken in her grief: “I say she’s dead,” she screams at Leontes, “I’ll swear it.”

     If you can bring

Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye,

Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you

As I would do the dogs. But O thou tyrant,

Do not repent these things, for they are heavier

Than all my woes can stir. Therefore betake thee

To nothing but despair. A thousand knees,

Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,

Upon a barren mountain, and still winter

In storm perpetual, could not move the gods

To look that way thou wert.


The barriers to any kind of resolution seem as impenetrable as any futile penance Leontes could trouble himself with. The play seems trapped in tragedy.

But at the same time, The Winter’s Tale, like Mamillius’ story (or even Pandosto) end sadly. Antigonus has abandoned the child in Bohemia – she is called Perdita, “lost” – where in the middle of a furious storm (of course), she is discovered by a kindly shepherd. Like the fisherman in Pericles who haul our hero from the ocean and cheerfully promise top care for him, the Old Shepherd proves an unstoppably kindly force. “What have we here!” he exclaims:

Mercy on’s, a bairn! A very pretty bairn! A boy or a child, I wonder? A pretty one, a very pretty one. Sure some scape. Though I am not bookish, yet I can read ‘waiting-gentlewoman’ in the scape. This has been some stair-work, some trunk-work, some behind-door-work. They were warmer that got this than the poor thing is here. I’ll take it up for pity…


Assuming the child has been abandoned because it is illegitimate (conceived, he chuckles, on the stairs, perhaps, or in a trunk, behind a door), at a stroke he converts what has been Leontes’ public nightmare into something entirely unexceptional. It doesn’t matter if the baby is a bastard – what matters is that it needs to be looked after. Hearing of the terrible storm at sea, the Shepherd tells his son, “Thou metst with things dying, I with things new-born (3.3.111).


From Tanner:

the winter's tale art bear 2“The short opening scene of Act III is literally a breath of fresh air, reminding us how unpleasantly heated, fetid and claustrophobic the court has become. Out on the open road, Cleomenes and Dion are marveling in retrospect at the atmosphere on the temple-island of the oracle – ‘The climate’s delicate, the air most sweet,/Fertile the isle’ (III.il1-2) – bringing home to us the indelicacy, foulness, and sterility (children dead and thrown out) which have prevailed in the preceding scenes. Dion says:

     I shall report,

For most it caught me, the celestial habits

(Methinks I so should term them) and the reverence

Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice,

How ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly

It was i’ th’ off’ring!

(III.i.3-8 – my bold)

The words in bold remind us of all the positive, civilized qualities and dignities which Leontes has abandoned or destroyed in his own court, where, truly, all the ‘ceremonies of innocence’ have been drowned. Oh for a cup of this island air – one might fairly yearn. But we are instantly plunged back into the inverted, deranged world that Leontes is creating around him. We are in what Leontes calls ‘a court of justice.’ It is, of course, quite monstrously the reverse.

We have, more than once in Shakespeare, seen ruthless characters appropriate the language and procedures of the law, and subvert, pervert, them to serve, and seemingly justify, their own willful and dastardly purposes – Othello and Angelo come to mind, but the phenomenon is widespread. It is, of course, a standard practice of all tyrants; and in trying to clear himself of such a charge, Leontes simply draws attention to its truth and applicability.

     Let us be cleared

Of being tyrannous, since we so openly

Proceed in justice, which shall have due course,

Even to the guilt or the purgation.


Oh no it won’t; or rather, in the end it will, but not through the agency of Leontes.

He continues with his unevidenced accusations, and Hermione’s three long speeches in her own defense are models of dignity, decorum and poise. As she so accurately says:

     if I shall be condemned

Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else

But what your jealousies awake, I tell you

‘Tis rigor, and not law.


Shakespeare often speaks of the ‘rigor’ of the law; Leontes has substituted it for the law. It seems a too moderate word for his behavior. Hermione appeals to a higher court:

     if powers divine

Behold our human actions – as they do –

I doubt not then, but Innocence shall make

False accusation blush, and Tyranny

Tremble at Patience.


The personifications bring in something of the atmosphere of a morality play – appropriately enough, since Leontes has become the embodiment of Tyranny, while Hermione will prove herself the quintessence of Patience – that indispensable virtue in these late plays. Hermione rests her case, as it were:

     Your honors all,

I do refer me to the oracle:

Apollo be my judge!


Leontes gives the order – ‘Break up the seals and read.’ And now Apollo delivers some of his thunder:

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


Leontes tries to dismiss it – a last hopeless madness:

There is no truth i’ the’ oracle,

The sessions shall proceed; this is mere falsehood.


But then things start to happen quickly.

He is told his son has died, and Leontes realizes that the gods are angry:

     Apollo, pardon

My great profanes ‘gainst thine oracle.

I’ll reconcile me to Polixenes,

New woo my queen, recall the good Camillo.


— and everything will be fine again. But rectification, reparation, and restoration are not so easily achieved or arrived at – not by a very long way. Paulina then enters with the news that the Queen is dead, and it is now that Paulina comes into her own and takes on a dominant role. She is the deliberately tactless and abrasive voice of accusation and reproach and even ‘vengeance.’ In modern parlance, she gives Leontes a tongue-lashing; she says all the things that the dead Hermione would be all to justified in saying – indeed, Paulina effectively stands in for the Queen…She calls Leontes a lot of unkingly names in a most uncourtly manner. Think of all the tyrannous, damnable things you have done, she tells him, ‘and then run mad, indeed, stark mad’ (III.ii.181). Leontes cowers before her, concedes the justice of what she says, and agrees to follow the course of penitence and repentance she lays down. Effectively, she becomes the custodian of his conscience.  [MY NOTE:  MAJOR PLOT SPOILER FROM HERE TO THE END OF THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.  Personally, I think knowing it will add to your reading of the play, but if you don’t want to know…skip ahead to my next note telling you it’s ok to continue.]

One of her speeches is prophetic – and not, I feel, without a degree of calculation. She insists that Hermione is dead:

I say she’s dead; I’ll swear it. If word nor oath

Prevail not, go and see; if you can bring

Tincture or luster in her lip, her eye

Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you

As I would do the dogs. But, O thou tyrant

Do not repent these things, for they are heavier

Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee

To nothing but despair.

(III.ii.201-8 – my bold)

Now, not that anybody else knows it, including the audience, but this is simply not true. Hermione is not dead. This is artifice (or lying with a positive purpose); and I sense that Paulina already has her long-term plot in mind, since this speech anticipates the final scene in which ‘heat,’ ‘breath,’ and ‘stir’ will prove to be the crucial, climatic words, and phenomena. But of course, everyone from the King down believes Paulina; and as far as the audience is concerned the action has come to a tragic conclusion. But it’s only the end of Act III. What will Shakespeare do now?


There is, in fact, one more scene to Act III, and it serves as a bridge between the court of Sicilia and rural Bohemia. Set on the famously non-existent sea-coast of Bohemia, it shows Lord Antigonus depositing the dead Queen’s rejected child in a deserted plot, as ordered by the King. Antigonus is convinced that Hermione is dead because he has had a particularly vivid dream. He says to the babe that he is sure he has seen her dead mother’s spirit:

     Thy mother

Appeared to me last night; for ne’er was dream

So like awaking.


There is a greater ‘awaking’-dream yet to come. In this one, Hermione has seemingly returned to instruct Antigonus:

     In pure white robes,

Like very sanctity, she did approach

My cabin where I lay; thrice bowed before me,

And, gasping to begin some speech, her eyes

Became two spouts; the fury spent, anon

Did this break from her: ‘Good Antigonus,

Since fate, against thy better disposition,

Hath made thy person for the thrower-out

Of my poor babe, according to thy oath,

Places remote enough are in Bohemia,

There weep, and leave it crying; and for the babe

Is counted lost forever, Perdita

I prithee call’t…’


In this apparitional form, Hermione appears as something of a goddess (and something of a fury), rather like Diana ordering Pericles in a dream; she has taken on an unearthly, holy authority. Something, some power, seems to be intervening to direct things. (In Pandosto the baby is abandoned in a boat in the sea and arrives at the island of Sicilia by chance.)

Antigonus of course obeys; and here is laying Perdita down in a remote part of Bohemia. Stormy weather threatens; the day darkens ominously – ‘A savage clamor’ (III.iii.55). He exits ‘pursued by a bear.’ Incontestably a comical stage direction looked at flat. But, in context, it is not funny. The bear, itself probably either starving or being hunted and frightened into attack (Callisto), like the storm at sea which wrecks the ship while the bear is tearing Antigonus to pieces, is part of the ‘savage’ side of nature which seems to have been activated and released in relation or response – in some obscure way – to the savage and unnatural acts of Leontes.

Then a shepherd enters – and we are in a different world. It is not just that he speaks in prose, which we have not heard since the gentlemanly chatting of the opening scene – though of course that does have the effect of slackening the tension. The voice is also so down-to-earth, of-the-earth; in touch, as one feels, with what Whitman called the ‘primal sanities of nature.’ The Shepherd talks easily of ‘country matters’ – hunting and herding, stealing and fighting, browsing and wenching (he is notably relaxed about sex). Here, one feels, is a clear-sighted, sober-minded realist. After hearing Leontes raving round his Sicilian court, it makes a change. Finding little Perdita, the Shepherd instinctively takes her up – ‘for pity.’ Similarly, his son Clown (in the original sense of rustic), goes off to bury the remains of Antigonus – ‘That’s a good deed’ says his father approvingly (III.iii.132). Between them, they take care of ‘things new born’ and things dying.’ This is not to idealize or sentimentalize our country cousins. Simply, they are people with sound instincts still in place – perhaps, indeed, partly because they have never had to negotiate the complex power relations, the hierarchical rituals and ceremonial deferences, the bribes and threats, of court. Shepherd and clown remain nameless – they are generic, even telluric, and long may the earth continue to produce them.”


And to continue with Garber:

the winter's tale art  bear 3“Leontes’ 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.

It is particularly striking, therefore, that at this point in the play there occurs one of what I have been calling ‘window scenes’ – scenes that open up, for a brief moment, a new world of insight. The scene I have in mind is the first scene of act 3, and the event is the return of the King’s emissaries from the oracle of Apollo. Here is what these emissaries say when they return to Sicilia:


The climate’s delicate, the air most sweet;

Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing

The common praise it bears.



O, the sacrifice –

How ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly

It was i’th’ off’ring!


     But of all, the burst

And the ear-def’ning voice o’th’ oracle,

Kin to Jove’s thunder, so surprised my sense

That I was nothing.


In this short description we are offered a complete reversal of the conditions of Sicilia and its king: a delicate, sweet climate instead of infection; a fertile island, rather than a sterile land, a ceremonious and solemn sacrifice, symbolically made, rather than the unnatural and perverse sacrifice of the newborn child. Most of all, we hear Cleomenes’ wonder at the voice of the oracle, which was so overwhelming that, in his own phrase, ‘I was nothing.’ Leontes had reduced all the world outside himself to nothing – the sky, Bohemia, his wife. Cleomenes does the opposite, feeling himself rendered insignificant by the voice of the god. Fittingly, Apollo is the god not only of poetry and music – both of which are key elements in the latter part of the play – but also of healing. And the messengers, racing along the road with their sealed prophecy, another romance riddle, close out the scene with a pious wish: ‘Go Fresh horses!/And gracious be the issue.’

Leontes: Break up the seals and read.


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


But Leontes, of course, denied the oracle, denies, in effect, holy writ: ‘There is no truth at all i’th’ oracle./…This is mere falsehood.’ And on the utterance of this blasphemy, word arrives immediately of young Mamillius’s death; Queen Hermione faints and is reported dead herself; and the stricken King gives himself over to a pattern of fruitless ritual, a daily visitation of their single grave. He is apparently condemned to perpetual winter, as Paulina points out starkly: ten thousand years of naked fasting on a barren hillside in winter will not move the gods his way. The tragic winter movement of the play is closed, and the situation seems without hope.

It is at this point that Shakespeare deftly and imaginatively transfers our concerns from Sicilia to Bohemia, allowing the audience to follow along in what is apparently the one unfinished aspect of the tale, the fate of the child Perdita, the King’s daughter. Perdita, as we have seen, is in the custody of Antigonus, the courtier husband of Paulina, and Antigonus is in his own mind bent upon a noble action. Just as his wife’s name designedly invokes the figure of Saint Paul, so Antigonus’ name suggests Antigone, the elder daughter of Oedipus, who, to bury her brother, defied King Creon’s decree, was condemned to death, and killed herself before the repentant Creon could reverse his decree. Antigonus, too, will die. Is there any justice, any literary or human justification for his death? If Mamillius’ death can be regarded as a reminder of the existence of evil and death in the world, an innocent death confirming the accountability of loss, why is a second death dramatically necessary? Isn’t one symbolic sacrifice to mortality enough?

Perhaps it is. But Antigonus is also culpable, in a way that Mamillius is not. In the play, he is most directly compared to Camillo, another of the King’s courtiers. But whereas Camillo refuses to carry out Leontes’ mad command, and flees, Antigonus consents to do so, and is killed. In the action and dramatic logic of The Winter’s Tale, Camillo then ‘replaces’ Antigonus as Paulina’s husband at the close. The character is redeemed, so to speak, by the change. (The two parts may originally have been doubled in performance, and often are cast in this way in modern productions.) This is a good example of the difference between romance characters and tragic ones, where tragedy is irreversible: Antigonus’s death, ‘tragic’ in local terms, is subsumed, dramatically, into a bittersweet ending in which Paulina does recover a husband, and is included in the cluster of celebratory ‘reunions’ at the close.

In addition to his blind obedience to Leontes, Antigonus betrays another flaw: he seems to believe that Hermione may indeed have committed adultery, since as he lays down the child he says, ‘this being indeed the issue/Of King Polixenes.’ For this lack of faith, too, we may perhaps imagine that he is punished. And yet the manner of his punishment is of particular interest, for it is thematically linked – and linked in spectacular fashion – to the basic cyclical structure of the play.

‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ announces what is, arguably, the most famous of all Shakespearean stage directions. This is testament, surely, to the Jacobean love of spectacle, evidenced by the Bear Garden on the banks of the Thames, and the popular pastime of watching bearbaiting (a favorite with Henry VIUI and Elizabeth I). But the bear of The Winter’s Tale is also linked to the landscape and practice of romance. Antigonus had been warned that the coast of Bohemia harbored ‘creatures/Of prey.’ And, more to the point, the bear is an animal if special interest – as contrasted, say, with the exotic elephant or zebra – because bears are associated with a particular natural pattern: they hibernate, passing the winter in a state of torpor, and then reawaken in the spring. Thus they offer a pattern of death and rebirth, even of resurrection: several ancient Greek cults worshiped bear gods, believing that the bear died and was reborn.

The embedded tragedy of Antigonus’ death is mitigated somewhat, in the context of The Winter’s Tale, by the way it is described. For this is another Shakespearean ‘unscene,’ unseen by the audience, reported in this case by an interested – and agitated – spectator:


I would you did but see how it chafes, how it rages, how it takes up the shore. But that’s not to the point. O, the most piteous cry of the poor souls! Sometimes to see’em, and not to see ‘em; now the ship boring the moon with her mainmast, and anon swallowed with yeast and froth, and you’d thrust a cork into a hogshead. And then, for the land-service, to see how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone, and how he cried to me for help, and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman! But to make an end of the ship – to see how the sea flap-dragoned it! But first, how the poor souls roared, and the sea mocked them, and how the poor gentleman roared, and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than the sea or weather.

Old Shepherd:

Name of mercy, when was this, boy?


Now, now. I have not winked since I saw these sights. The men are not yet cold under water, nor the bear half dined on the gentleman. He’s at it now.


The lovely elegance of ‘dined’ here contributes, oddly enough, to our sense of distancing in this remarkable report. It is a report of not one but two tragedies, and yet the atmosphere of Bohemia and the simple and compassionate tone of the Old Shepherd and the Clown conspire to make it seem not immediate tragedy, but far-off romance, shipwreck, and loss.

The bear’s victim cried out for help, and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman. What difference did his name and rank make to the bear? There is no such thing as rank in the Bohemia to which the audience is now introduced, despite the political existence of a king and prince – both of whom will shortly appear in humble disguise. There is no visible court, no corrupted world of ‘civilization’ all that we see of Bohemia is seacoast and shore and nature, the radicals of existence. As the seasons are cyclical, so life and death are cyclical; as Mamillius is a flower who droops and declines, so the infant Perdita is laid down by Antigonus with the words ‘Blossom, speed thee well.’ And as the Clown is compassionate witness to an emblem of loss, so his father, the Old Shepherd, becomes beneficiary to something found, something he compares to the riches that surround it, and identifies as fairy gold: Perdita, the lost child of romance. At this still point in the play, between losing and finding, between tragedy and epiphany, the Old Shepherd speaks lines that offer, in their balance and their tone of calm acceptance, the underlying fable of the play:

Now bless thyself. Thou metst with things dying, I with things new-born.


This is the fable that underlies the winter’s tale we are never allowed to hear, the tale that begins “There was a man –/…Dwelt by a churchyard.’ As Old Shepherd and Clown together prepare to bury the dead, and nurture the living, and all the while turn tragedy into romance by feeling its story, the turn toward spring and rebirth is almost at hand.”


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning — More on Act Three


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