The Winter’s Tale
Act Three, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
“’The Winter’s Tale’ tells of grievous divisions between friend and friend (Leontes and Polixenes), king and queen (Leontes and Hermione), father and daughter (Leontes and Perdita); and, after sixteen years, between father and son (Polixenes and Florizel). The ‘wide gap of time’ which goes unchronicled between the third and fourth acts might seem to give us two plays instead of one, but there is only one. It is conceived in contrast, and is dedicated to the task of stating with all the force of which poetry is capable the opposition between age and youth, cruelty and goodness, jealousy and faith. The abstract symbols it employs are winter and spring: winter with its blasts of January and storm perpetual, spring with its virgin branches and its daffodils that come before the swallow dares. But its concrete symbols are of course human beings; Leontes and Perdita divide this great poem between them – the one an obsessed husband and ruthless father, the other a faultless daughter, ignorant of her parentage, who grows up in a cottage, not a court, and who restores to the final plays the maiden image which Imogen had for the moment obscured. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter,’ Mamillius tells Hermione, and a series of happy endings does not make this poem gay. Leontes’ half is never lost in Perdita’s, however much its memory is softened. The play is one but its halves are two, and each of them underlines the other.
Leontes infects the whole of the first three acts with the angry sore of his obsession. There is no more jealous man in literature. Once being jealous Othello could go mad, but the jealousy of Leontes is madness from the start, and it has a curious way of feeing on itself, so that the delusion which inspires it is worse than irresistible; it is nothing less than the condition of its victim’s life, and the expression of it gives him in some perverse way a horrible pleasure. The intensity of his speech is out of all proportion to its cause; there is no cause, nor has Shakespeare bothered to prove that this is so, his interest being confined to the deep, straight line he wants to draw, the instance of evil he needs to begin with. We are not shown that Hermione is innocent of adultery with Leontes’ boyfriend friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia who has been visiting him so many months. We assume that she is, even though the Sicilian court is a brilliantly and frankly sensual place, the heavy richness of whose life and the animal leisureliness of whose pleasures we gather at once from the courtesy of the first scene and from the luxury of the second. Both are baroque, and it cannot be said of the two kings that they who once were ‘pretty landings’ and ‘twinn’d lambs’ have grown into ascetics, or that Hermione, queen to Leontes, longs delicately for compliment.
We assume that Hermione is innocent; and go on to understand why the delusion of Leontes should be so luxuriant, why the poetry in which he embalms it should seem to be that of a man whose appetite for expressing himself is fierce and unnatural, as if it fed riotously on words and heated itself to a fever with wild phrases. His speech is not the clear, cool, perfect speech of Perdita sixteen years later. It is mad with its own riches, and fiery-red with a rash of exaggeration. His first aside, after he has commended Hermione to urge upon their guest a still longer stay and she has done so by placing her hand in that of Polixenes, opens his whole mind to us…(here is the “Too hot, too hot!” speech)
It is a mind in which images of his betrayal work like maggots, swarming and increasing with every moment of his thought. The good Camillo’s denial that Hermione can be false brings on a fury of evidence, all of it perversely imagined; and there is more of it now than there was a few minutes past…(Here is the “Is whispering nothing?” speech.)
The mind of Leontes always rushes. A single epithet or conceit is rarely sufficient to express his nerve-wracked bitter madness; he must find others at once and pile them on, or he must extend the one he has by repetition and hyperbole:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, oe’r head and ears a fork’d one!
Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, — will draw in
More than the common blocks. Not noted, is ‘t,
But of the finer natures? By some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind?
He must develop every idea until it is grotesque, and his brain exhausts itself in a search for terms and analogies; though it soon is itself again, and rages on. He is sometimes so difficult that we cannot follow the twists of his thinking:
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 ‘t is very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something; and thou dost
And that beyond commission.
This is the obscurest passage in Shakespeare, and it is no wonder that Polixenes puts in: ‘What means Sicilia?’ Leontes means in general that the impossible has become all too possible, but the particulars of his meaning are his own. His utterances are half to himself, fitting the creases of his thought rather than the form of any truth; and they exactly, insanely, fit: (Here would be the “Sir Smile, his neighbour” speech and the “I have drunk and seen the spider” speech)…plus
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 of the cause,
She is the adulteress; for the harlot king
Is quite beyond mine arm, out of the blank
And level of my brain, 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.
He is never at a loss for something to say; ideas or pieces of ideas pour into his brain pell-mell, so that he cannot find enough room there to make all of them comfortable. The epithets he lays upon the good Paulina – ‘gross hag,’ ‘a callat of boundless tongue,’ ‘a mankind witch, ‘a most intellgencing bawd’ – seems to torture him as well as slander her; and the fallacies his mind commits are such as only frenzy can account for, as when he answers Hermione’s appeal to his memory of her honorable behavior with this outrageous logic:
I ne’er heard yet
That any of these bolder vices wanted
Less impudence to gainsay what they did
Than to perform it first.
Leontes is an artist of jealousy, an expert in self-hurt, and he so utterly dominates the first half of the play as to keep other speakers, brilliant though they me, secondary to himself. Polixenes, for instance, who shares with his old friend the fashion of intricate speech, is buried under that same friend’s abuse. Paulina, whose tirades are no more wonderful than the eight words she addresses to Leontes when Hermione swoons:
And see what Death is doing.
shines only in her antagonism to a king’s injustice. Even Hermione, who can say
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady she her lord,
who remembers her father and wishes he were alive to behold his daughter’s trial, and who knows how to make up with tenderness and story-telling for the irritation her pregnancy has made her feel in the presence of the boy Mamillius (II.i), is lost in the less admirable figure of Leontes. Leontes is less admirable than anybody, but the disease of his suspicion is one whose progress we watch spellbound. And from the first it declares itself as a disturbance from which the play cannot be expected wholly or at any rate blithely to recover. It is an absolute crime, and he will never be able to expiate it without the help of grace; sixteen years of ‘saint-like sorrow’ will not teach him how to forget a fit of jealousy so extreme, so baseless, as to have needed the oracle of Delphi for its correction. He has done damage that cannot adequately be undone; first of course to Hermione, and though her to Mamillius, but after that to the infant daughter he has refused to recognize as his and sent with the good Antigonus – for the play has its trio of ineffectual saints – to death on the seacoast of Bohemia. That the exposed infant does not die, but is found in a transition scene by two ineffable shepherds along with the fairy gold Antigonus has left for the finder, gives us Perdita, and Perdita will grow up in a shepherd’s cottage to be Leontes’ grace. From now on it is Perdita’s play, and her delicious presence in it will restore ‘spring to the earth.’ And yet even in her presence the past of Leontes will not be forgotten, nor will the world of the play be wholly what it was before he drank the spider. The formula of reconciliation is honored, but the second half of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ still has its gravity, its veins of dark iron across an otherwise untroubled pattern.”
From G. Wilson Knight:
Let us be clear’d
Of being tyrannous, since we so openly
Proceed in justice…
His fear, as before, marks a recognition; the tyranny in his soul he would film over by a show of judicial procedure. Hermione’s defence is characterized by lucidity and reason; her ‘integrity’ (III.ii.27) is in every syllable; she is expostulating as with a nervous invalid. She wields a martyr-like strength:
But thus: 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.
She aims to increase his already obvious discomfort; that is, to appeal to his ‘conscience’ (III.ii.47). She is being condemned by his ‘dreams’ (III.ii.82); we should say ‘fantasies.’ Her language grows more and more coldly convincing:
Sir, spare your threats:
The bug which you would fright me with I seek
To me can life be no commodity;
The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
I do give lost; for I do feel it gone,
But know not how it went. My second joy,
And first-fruits of my body, from his presence,
I am barr’d, like one infectious. My third comfort,
Starr’d most unluckily, is from my breast,
The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,
Hail’d out to murder…
Notice the vivid physical perception and nature-feeling in ‘first-fruits’ and ‘milk’; we shall find such phrases elsewhere. The calm yet condemnatory scorn of Hermione’s manner shows a close equivalence to that of Queen Katharine on trial in Henry VIII (II.iv). Both are daughters of a foreign king suffering in a strange home. Hermione is ‘a great king’s daughter’ (III.ii.40), daughter of ‘the emperor of Russia’ (III.ii.120-4): compare Henry VIII, II.iv.13, 46; III.i.81-2, 142-50. both appeal, with a similarly climactic effect, to the highest known authority, Queen Katharine to the Pope and Hermione to the Oracle:
…but for mine honour
Which I would free, if I shall be condemn’d
Upon surmises, all proof sleeping else
But what your jealousies awake, I tell you
‘Tis rigour and not law. Your honours all,
I do refer me to the oracle:
Apollo be my judge!
The request is granted by one of the lords: in the ritual of both trials the king is half felt as a subject before the majesty of law.
So Cleomenes and Dion swear on a ‘sword of justice’ (III.ii.125) that the ‘holy seal’ (III.ii.130) is intact; and the package is opened. Hermione and Polixenes are cleared and Leontes revealed as ‘a jealous tyrant,’ who must live ‘without an heir if that which is lost be not found’ (III.ii.133-7). Truth is thus vindicated by the voice of supreme judgment accusing Leontes of lawless tyranny; but the devil in him is not easily exorcised. At first he will not submit; asserts blasphemously that ‘there is no truth at all in the oracle’ (III.ii.141); probably seizes the paper and tears it to shreds, insisting that the trial continue, thereby revealing his utter subjection of justice to the egotistic will. But now, following sharply on his impious disregard, comes news of Mamillius’ death. No dramatic incident in Shakespeare falls with so shattering an impact; no reversal is more poignant than when, after a moment’s dazedness, Leontes’ whole soul-direction changes:
Apollo’s angry; and the heavens themselves
Do strike at my injustice.
Great nature, the giver of children, can as easily recall them; that nature is, here, the transcendent Apollo, who both guides and judges. Leontes’ crime, be it noted, is one of ‘injustice.’ Hermione faints and is taken away by Paulina.
Leontes next speaks two revealing phrases: ‘I have,’ he mutters, ‘too much believed by my jealousies’ (III.ii.152, 159). He has allowed himself to be temporarily possessed, dominated, by something in himself which, given power, has ‘transported’ him, that is, changed his nature as by magic (cp. ‘translated’ at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III.i.125). By this inward usurpation the essence of tyranny and injustice has lodged in him, only to be exorcised by the violent impact of his crime’s actual result: Mamillius’ illness was first brought on by Hermione’s disgrace (II.iii.13-17). Now Leontes, having awakened from his delirious dream, speaks with a new simplicity:
My great profanes ‘gainst thine oracle!
I’ll reconcile me to Polixenes,
New woo my queen, recall the good Camillo…
But his punishment is not over. Paulina returns, and with a long speech of considered vehemence says exactly what wants saying, because now only can its import register:
What studies torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? Fires? What flaying? Or what
In leads, or oils? what oil or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy worst?
Suggestion of tyranny here reaches its climax; though Paulina refers to ‘thy tyranny together working with thy jealousies’ (III.ii.180), they are two aspects of one reality, one complex, from which Leontes’ actions have flowed. Paulina, comparing him to a devil (III.ii.193), lists his crimes, with bitter irony suggesting (what is a half-truth) that they are none of them his fault; and concluding with news of Hermione’s death and a demand for vengeance from Heaven. Throughout, she is playing on his conscience, more – she is his conscience.
Hermione, she says, is dead, and the man who could resurrect her must needs be worshipped as a god (III.ii.208):
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. 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 association of winter and penitence, though not itself new (see Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.ii.798-815), assumes here a new precision. Paulina’s voice, so hated before, now matches Leontes’ own thoughts and is accordingly desired:
Go on, go on;
Thou can’st not speak too much: I have deserv’d
All tongues to talk their bitterest.
Rebuked for her forwardness, she answers:
I am sorry for’t:
All faults I make, when I shall come to know them
I do repent.
She is, indeed, repentance incarnate: that is her dramatic office. Now she recognizes that Leontes is ‘touch’d to the noble heart’ (III.ii.222), nobility, in the chivalric tradition, involving Christian virtues; but, in apologizing for reminding him of what he ‘should forget,’ she only further defines her office; and the more she emphasizes and lists the sorrows she will not refer to, the loss of Leontes’ queen and children, as well as her own lord, the more she drives home on him his grief (III.ii.223-33). He, however, prefers ‘truth’ to ‘pity’; would live into, perhaps through, the purgation of remorse; and ends speaking of the ‘chapel’ where his queen and son are to be buried, and where he will attend in sorrow so long as ‘nature’ gives him strength (III.ii.233-43). His last words hold a subdued dignity; his speech is calm and lucid; he is now, as never before, kingly.
No full-length Shakespearian tragedy reaches the intensity of these three acts; they move with a whirling, sickening, speed. Leontes is more complex than Othello as a study of jealousy and more realistically convincing than Macbeth as a study of evil possession. In him are blended the Renaissance, man-born, evil projected through Iago and the medieval supernaturalism of the Weird Sisters. He and his story also include both the personal, family, interest of Othello and the communal, tyrannic, theme of Macbeth, whilst defining their relation; that is, the relation of emotional and sexual unhealthy to tyranny; hence the repeated emphasis here on ‘tyrant’ and the opposing concepts of justice and constitutional law. Macbeth’s crime is an act of lustful possessiveness to be contrasted (as I have shown at length in The Imperial Theme and The Shakespearean Tempest) with the creative kingship of Banquo in association with child-images and nature; while conjugal jealousy is a concentrated exaggeration of domestic ownership and domination, sexually impelled. Clearly each dramatic theme is enriched by mingling with the other, and indeed we find Leontes marking an advance in Shakespeare’s human delineation: the poetic and philosophic overtones of Hamlet, Lear and Timon are compressed into a study as sharply defined as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and as objectively diagnosed as Ford, Malvolio and Parolles. Hence the violent detonation.
The play’s morality interest, though less-surface-patent than that of Pericles, will be clear. But a warning is necessary. Though Shakespeare writes, broadly speaking, from a Christian standpoint, and though Christianized phraseology recurs, yet the poet is rather to be supposed as using Christian concepts than as dominated by them. They are implemental to his purpose; but so too are ‘great Apollo’ and ‘great nature,’ sometimes themselves approaching Biblical feeling (with Apollo as Jehovah), yet diverging also, especially later, into a pantheism of such majesty that orthodox apologists may well be tempted to call it Christian too; but it is scarcely orthodox. The Winter’s Tale remains a creation of the Renaissance, that is, of the questing imagination, firmly planted, no doubt, in medieval tradition, but not directed by it. There is a distinction here of importance.
And now, as an echo to our court-tragedy, our action enters, as it were, the elemental background of all tragedy; the wild and rugged Bohemian coast, with threatening storm. We are behind the scenes, where the organizing powers fabricate our human plot. The skies are ominous, as though Heaven were angry at the work in hand (III.iii.3-5), for Antigonus, exactly obeying Leontes’ command, has brought the child to this ‘remote and desert place,’ where ‘chance my nurse or end it’ (II.iii.175, 182). It is to be thrown on the mercies of nature:
Come on, poor babe:
Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens
To be thy nurses! Wolves and bears, they say,
Casting their savageness aside have done
Like offices of pity.
The ruling powers have, however, themselves taken charge, directing Antigonus to this fierce and rugged spot. ‘Their sacred wills be done’ (III.iii.7), he says. He recounts how Hermione has appeared to him in a dream, ‘in pure white robes, like very sanctity’ – again a forecast of Queen Katharine – so that he regarded her as a ‘spirit’ come from the ‘dead’; and tells how she directed him to leave the child in Bohemia. The dream was so convincing that it seemed more real than ‘slumber’; and he therefore deduces that Hermione ‘hath suffer’d death’ and that, the child being in truth Polixenes,’ it is Apollo’s will it be left in his kingdom (III.iii.15-450. he is wrong about the child, but right about Hermione; or again wrong as to both. His ghostly account, with its suggestion of present deity, is the more powerful for the inhuman grandeur of its setting. So, either ‘for life of death,’ he leaves the baby upon the ‘earth’ of this inhospitable place; buries it, as a seed, to live or die, praying, ‘Blossom, speed thee well’; entrusting it to forces beyond man’s control, while hoping that the treasure he leaves may help to ‘breed’ it (III.iii.4-8). The child is enduring, as it were, a second birth, with the attendant risks, the synchronization of storm and birth recalling Pericles. The spot is, as we have been told, famous for its beast of prey. The storm starts and Antigonus is chased off by a bear.
The incident is as crude as the sudden entry of pirates in Pericles. But as so often there, Shakespeare is molding events from his own past imagery. His recurrent association of tempest with rough beasts, especially bears (as at King Lear, III.iv.9-11), is here actualized: the storm starts, the bear appears, and we have a description of a shipwreck. We must take the bear seriously, as suggesting man’s insecurity in face of untamed nature; indeed, mortality in general.
The scene is a hinge not only for the story but also for the life-views it expresses. We are plunged first into the abysmal smithies below or behind creation, in touch with ghostly presences and superhuman powers; but next, as one dream dissolves into another, we pass form horror to simple, rustic comedy. We met a precisely similar transition in Pericles, where the fishermen fulfilled an office closely resembling that of the Shepherd and Clown here: in both homely rusticity is synchronized and contrasted with storm and shipwreck. There is, however, no satire here in the rustics’ talk, except for the Shepherd’s opening remark on the behavior of men between sixteen and three and twenty, always ‘getting wenches with child, wrong the ancientry, stealing, fighting’ (III.iii.48-62), which recalls Thersites, whilst continuing our present obsession with birth and age; but there is no more of it. More important are the two lost sheep which he expects to find by the sea ‘browsing of ivy’ (III.iii.68): it is somehow very reassuring to find the simple fellow at his homely job after our recent terrors with their appalling sense of human insecurity. Both the Shepherd and his son are thoroughly at home in this weird place; its awe-inspiring quality fades, as memory of nightmare before the heavy step and traffic of dawn. Bears are no terror to them, they know their ways: ‘they are never curst but when they are hungry’ (III.iii.135). The scene wakes into semi-humourous prose, sturdy commonsense, and simple kindliness.
There is the usual mismanagement of words typical of Shakespeare’s clowns, but the humor soon takes a new turn in the son’s exquisite description of the wreck and Antigonus’ death, subtly veiling the horror and removing its sting. Tragedy is confronted by comedy working in close alliance with birth:
Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here, boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things dying, I with things new born.
The baby is found with a casket of gold The Shepherd calls it a ‘changeling’ and attributes his luck to the ‘fairies’ (III.iii.121-2). So the craggy setting is lit by the glow of ‘fairy gold’ (III.iii.127). We have entered a new, and safer, world.”
And finally, from Mahood’s Shakespeare’s Wordplay:
“We can quote the Geneva Bible with no sense of incongruity. The presiding deity of the play may be Apollo, but the Christian scheme of redemption is a leading element, though not by any means the only element, in its pattern of ideas. Grace, with gracious a keyword of the play, is frequently used in its theological sense of ‘the divine influence which operates in men to regenerate and sanctify’ (N.E.D. II.6b). As Everyman, Humanity, Leontes is able to recall a primeval innocence when he was ‘Boy eternal’:
We were as twyn’d Lambs, that did frisk i’ th’ Sun,
And bleat the one at th’other: what we chang’d,
Was Innocence for Innocence: we knew not
The Doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did: Had we pursu’d that life,
And our weake Spirits ne’re been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should haue answer’d Heauen
Boldly, not guilty; the Imposition clear’d,
In the dialogue which follows, the word grace is used three times by Hermione, the implication being that she acts the role of regenerative grace to Leontes now he has exchanged innocence for Experience. But immediately there follows Leontes’ rejection of this grace in his outburst against Hermione. ‘You’le be found, Be you beneath the sky’ is his threat to Hermione and Polixenes; the words are strong dramatic irony, since it is Leontes himself who is sinning in the sight of Heaven, the single Eye of Apollo made actual to us by the sight images of Leontes’ talk with Camillo in the first act – ‘your eye-glasse is thicker then a Cuckolds Horne’ (I.ii.268); ‘a Vision so apparent’ (270); ‘to haue nor Eyes’ (275); ‘and all Eyes Blind with the Pin and Web, but theirs’ (290); ‘Canst with thine eyes at once see good and euill’ (303); ‘Seruants true about me, that bare eyes’ (309); ‘who may’st see Palinely, as Heauen sees Earth, and Earth sees Heauen’ (314). The small but vitally important scene between Cleomenes and Dion, as they return from Delphos at the beginning of Act III, stresses this awesome aspect of the Destroyer Apollo, whose oracle is ‘kin to Ioues Thunder’; and their hope that the issue of their visit will be gracious is not immediately fulfilled. Apollo keeps jealous guard over the fortunes of the gracious Hermione, and her belief that ‘Powres Diuine Behold our humane Actions’ is vindicated when, his oracle defied, Apollo at once smites Leontes with the death of Mamillius: ‘Apollo’s angry, and the Heauens themselues Doe strike at my Injustice.’
Leontes’ change of heart, from a proud defiance of the God to guilt, despair, and finally a sober repentance, is marked by two instances of wordplay. At the beginning of the trial scene he announces that justice shall have ‘due course, Euen to the Guilt, or the Purgation.’ In the legal sense, human justice will proceed to find Hermione guilty or give her the chance ‘of clearing [her] self from the accusation or suspicion of crime and guilt’; in the theological sense, Apollo’s justice will establish Leontes’ guilt and will also purify him from it by the repentance vowed at the end of the scene:
Once a day, Ile visit
The Chappell where they lye, and tears shed there
Shall be my recreation.
Recreation and re-creation: the pun is a promise that Leontes is to become ‘man new made’ at the end of the play, for Apollo offers him grace in the sense of time for amendment (N.E.D, II 7) and also hope for the eventual grace of pardon (N.E.D. II 8). The King takes to himself the words of Hermione:
I must be patient, till the Heauens looke
With an aspect more fauorable,
and her withdrawal symbolizes Everyman’s patient hope in the return of grace. In the major tragedies of Shakespeare, patience had been a stoical virtue, the capacity to endure. Here it is a Christian virtue, the ability to possess one’s soul in patience, which is rewarded when…[MY NOTE: I’ll skip this to avoid giving away the plot].
Meanwhile Perdita has ‘grown in grace’; as with Tuesday’s child, the word has a theological as well as a physical meaning. At the sheep-shearing feast, Leontes’ grace of repentance and Hermione’s grace of patient forgiveness are kept in mind by Perdita’s graceful presentation of flowers to the disguised Polixenes and Camillo:
For you, there’s a Rosemary, and Rue, these keepe
Seeming, and savour all the Winter long:
Grace, and Remembrance be to you both,
And welcome to our Shearing.
The theological language of the play’s first part is revived and intensified when the action returns to Sicily.”
Our next reading: Act Four, The Winter’s Tale
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.