“It is a scene which if taken prosaically is open to a flood of objections, but if taken poetically is near perfection.”

The Winter’s Tale

Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Harold Bloom:

boswinterstale“The great advocate for the ‘law and process of great nature’ in The Winter’s Tale is the fierce and courageous Paulina, to be widowed when her unfortunate husband Antigonus falls victim to Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear. Antigonus thus becomes one of the two fatalities brought about through Leontes’s madness, the other being the young Prince Mamillius, heir to his father’s throne. Hermione and Perdita, wife and daughter, survive, though the question of Hermione’s supposed death is appropriately left ambiguous by Shakespeare, who refused to clarify whether indeed she had died, and was later resurrected, or whether she was spirited away by Paulina, and maintained for sixteen years. Since Leontes is sanely contrite for that entire time, it would seem rather harsh that he be kept ignorant of his wife’s continues existence and proximity, except that the Delphic Oracle must first be fulfilled. Presumably Shakespeare wished his audience – or a large part of it – to believe in the miracle of Hermione’s resurrection, and yet he gives some hints that he is himself skeptical of this wonder, though he postpones these clues until Act V.

Shakespeare presumably had learned from Pericles that one recognition scene is enough, since the meeting of Pericles and Marina has a strength that dissipates the subsequent reunion with Thaisa. In Cymbeline’s last scene, the plethora of recognitions is heaped pell-mell, but we have seen how often Shakespeare edges over into farce in that strange play. Rather than dim the restoration of Hermione, Shakespeare allows the reunion of Leontes and Perdita to be narrated by three anonymous gentlemen of the court, one of whom intimates that Paulina was watching over more than a statue in the sixteen years since Hermione’s apparent death:

I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house.


Hermione, gazing upon her daughter, speaks a touch more ambiguously, but still in the mode of one who has not known death:

     For thou shalt hear that I,

Knowing by Paulina that the Oracle

Gave hope thou was in being, have preserv’d

Myself to see the issue.


Hermione (or Shakespeare) has forgotten that she has heard the Oracle for herself; her slip indicates considerable consultation between two old friends during sixteen years of visits twice or thrice a day. It is amiably like Shakespeare to want to have both a supernatural resurrection and a skeptical awareness that nature is otherwise engaged. Having it both ways, Shakespeare hints also that we ought to look closely at Hermione’s ordeal throughout Act II and the first two scenes of Act III, a somewhat (critically) neglected sequence, if only because as readers we are so pleased to reach the seacoast of Bohemia, bears and all, since Leontes’s dementia, while never tedious, nevertheless exhausts us. Once Polixenes and his courtier Camillo, on the latter’s sound advice, have fled Sicilia for their lives, Leontes’s murderous madness takes on fresh urgency and a really frightening rhetorical violence:

     How blest am I

In my just censure! in my own opinion!

Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accurs’d

In being so blest!  There may be in the cup

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

And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge

Is not infected); but if one present

Th’ 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.

Camillo was his help in this, his pander:

There is a plot against my life, my crown,

All’s true that is mistrusted: that false villain,

Whom I employ’d, was pre-employ’d by him:

He has discover’d my design, and I

Remain a pinch’d thing; yea, a very trick

For them to play at will.


Since Leontes had commanded Camillo to poison Polixenes, this scary speech is even crazier than it sounds. Even for Shakespeare’s absolute genius at metaphor, the spider in the cup is astonishing; paranoia achieves its masterpiece when Leontes intones, ‘I have drunk, and seen the spider.’ He has imbibed deeply the wine of jealousy, and the ‘spider steep’d’ is the emblem of his own madness. The late William Seward Burroughs, in his best sentence, affirmed that ‘paranoia means having all the facts,’ the credo of another who had seen the spider in the cup.

Leontes is shocked back to sanity by his son’s death and his wife’s apparent demise, in what must be the most incredible transition in The Winter’s Tale, if not in all of Shakespeare. Even Gielgud seemed to me overmatched by Act III, scene ii, where the startled release from paranoia is enacted. The dramatic problem results from Shakespeare’s lavishing his art on Leontes’s madness, which is too persuasive to be cured so suddenly. Yet this is a winter’s tale, a story retold by the hearth, to a haggling of wind and weather. Shakespeare wants us to grant him the storyteller’s absolute authority, and perhaps (like us) he finds Leontes sane considerably less interesting than Leontes berserk. Before we can protest what seems a lapse in dramatization, we are carried off to the outrageous seacoast of Bohemia, where The Winter’s Tale ventures on to its truest greatness, with Perdita, princess of shepherdesses, and Autolycus, prince of thieves.

The Winter’s Tale has an extraordinary amplitude; the wonderful Autolycus, most amiable of all Shakespeare’s rogues, is just as essential to the play as are Leontes and Perdita. The nineteenth-century Irish critic Edward Dowden first applied the term romance to Shakespeare’s final plays, and we are now trapped with it, but The Winter’s Tale is a romantic comedy, if we adopt the perspective of Autolycus. That stance has a long tradition. Homer says that Autolycus was the foremost thief among men, while Ovid makes him the son of Hermes, the mercurial trickster god. Shakespeare’s Autolycus greatly enhances the tradition: he is a minstrel as well as a thief, and the splendid songs in the play are his. But best of all, he has a vital and unique personality, and received Dr. Johnson’s approbation; ‘The character of Autolycus is very naturally conceived, and strongly represented.’ I cannot improve upon that, but always delight in expounding Johnson, and begin by observing that, with Imogen and Caliban, Autolycus is the strongest representation in late Shakespeare. We do not encounter Autolycus until Act IV, Scene iii, where he enters magnificently, singing:

When daffodils begin to peer,

With heigh! the doxy over the dale,

Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year,

For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,

With heigh! the sweet birds, O how they sing!

Doth set my pugging tooth an edge;

For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.


The lark, that tirra-lirra chants,

With heigh! with heigh! the thrush and the jay,

Are summer songs for me and my aunts,

When we lie tumbling in the hay.


The contrast between Leontes and Autolycus is very vivid: Leontes has been the pale or enclosure of winter, while Autolycus proclaims that ‘the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.’ There may be an image of pale, wintry cheeks changing to summery ruddiness, with a subtle transition from pale faces to the white sheets that Autolycus perpetually pilfers. But the contrast is between Leontes’s nasty fantasies of adulterous ‘skulking in corners’ and Autolycus’s tumbling in the hay with his ‘aunts’ (the doxy over the dale) to the joyous summer songs of lark, thrust, and jay. Autolycus, no Bohemian but an English pastoral Villon, follows his song with his boisterous credo, culminating in the whoop of ‘A prize!’ when he spots the rustic Clown, son of the Shepherd who is Perdita’s foster father:

My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen. My father named me Autolycus; who, being as I am, littered under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. With die and drab I purchased the caparison, and my revenue is the silly cheat. Gallows and knock are too powerful on the highway; beating and hanging are terrors to me: for the life to come, I sleep out the thought of it. A prize! a prize!


No highwayman, Autolycus loathes violence, and happily credits ‘die and drab,’ dicing and whores, for his ragged tinker’s costume. His dupes are his income, and this world is good enough for him, as befits a natural man. Pickpocket and confidence man, he is also a ballad singer and ballad-monger, and most charmingly a pedlar of fine knacks for ladies as in this, his best song and one of Shakespeare’s finest:

Lawn as white as driven snow,

Cyprus black as e’er was crow,

Gloves as sweet as damask roses,

Masks for faces and for noses:

Bugle-bracelet, necklace amber,

Perfume for a lady’s chamber:

Golden quoifs and stomachers

For my lads to give their dears:

Pins, and poking-sticks of steel,

What maids lack from head to heel:

Come buy of me, come! come buy! come buy!

Buy lads, or else your lasses cry.

Come buy!


Who in the audience can resist so melodious a pedlar? As a song salesman, Autolycus is at his merriest:


What hast here? ballads?


Pray now, buy some: I love a ballad in print o’
life, for then we are sure they are true.


Here’s one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer’s
wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a
burthen and how she longed to eat adders’ heads and
toads carbonadoed.


Is it true, think you?


Very true, and but a month old.


Bless me from marrying a usurer!


Here’s the midwife’s name to’t, one Mistress
Tale-porter, and five or six honest wives that were
present. Why should I carry lies abroad?


Pray you now, buy it.


Come on, lay it by: and let’s first see moe
ballads; we’ll buy the other things anon.


Here’s another ballad of a fish, that appeared upon
the coast on Wednesday the four-score of April,
forty thousand fathom above water, and sung this
ballad against the hard hearts of maids: it was
thought she was a woman and was turned into a cold
fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that
loved her: the ballad is very pitiful and as true.


Is it true too, think you?


Five justices’ hands at it, and witnesses more than
my pack will hold.

The pack of Autolycus contains Shakespeare at his most exuberant, mocking the absurdities of broadside street ballads.  As parodistic song writer, Autolycus blends into Shakespeare, immensely enjoying his fantasies of usurers’ wives (Shakespeare himself being a usurer) and the metamorphosis of a woman ‘turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her.’ The pleasure of all this is enhanced for an audience that has suffered the jealous, flesh-hating diatribes of Leontes, and thus appreciates all the more Autolycus’s sly benignity. Later, after exchanging garments with Prince Florizel so that Florizel and ‘his clog,’ Perdita, can escape from Polixenes, Autolycus wins us yet more securely by declaring his Villon-like ethos:

The prince himself is about a piece of iniquity (stealing away from his father with his clog at his heels): if I thought it were a piece of honesty to acquaint the king withal, I would not do’t. I hold it the more knavery to conceal it, and therein I am constant to my profession.


As a force for benevolence, Autolycus rivals Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, since he saves Perdita just as Paulina rescues Hermione. The mode of operation is delightfully different, since we rightly prefer the comic to the tragicomic, Autolycus pragmatically solves the secret of Perdita’s birth and brings the Shepherd and the Clown, with their proofs, to Polixenes. We are left a little sad, perhaps, when we last see Autolycus, who is to reenter the service of Prince Florizel with a promise to be honest, but we cheer up when we reflect that Dr. Johnson was accurate, and so Autolycus, being ‘very naturally conceived’ by Shakespeare, necessarily will return to his true nature and will run away again, stealing bedsheets and hawking his outrageous ballads.

A listing of anyone’s favorite scenes from Shakespeare always should include Act IV,Scene iv, of The Winter’s Tale. The scene is amazingly long (840 lines) and contains the most beautiful of all Shakespearean pastoral courtships in its opening sequence, where Perdita and Florizel declare and celebrate their mutual passion. This lover’s ceremony is so extraordinarily beautiful, and so vital to the subtler aspects of The Winter’s Tale, that I will slow down and interpret it rather closely.

We are at a pastoral festival, celebrating the sheep shearing. Perdita, garlanded with flowers, plays the part of Flora, ancient Italian goddess of fertility, and so the Shepherd’s daughter and unknowing Sicilian princess is the hostess of the feast. From the start, Perdita carries about her the suggestion that she is an unfallen Proserpina (Persephone) – daughter of Ceres (Demeter) and Jupiter (Zeus) – whose story Shakespeare knew best from Ovid. Carried off to the underworld by Pluto (Dis), Proserpina is half-rescued by Ceres, who negotiates her daughter’s freedom for spring and summer only. Perdita, as we will see, will not yield to this diminishment, in what we might call her mythological aura. But Shakespeare, rapt by her, renders her as vivid and distinct a personality as Leontes or Autolycus. Even Florizel, under Perdita’s influence, comes alive as his father, Polixenes, never does. Florizel begins Act IV, scene iv, by saluting Perdita with a lover’s enthusiasm for the transfiguration of her costume, rather than its transformation of her great beauty:

     Sir, my gracious lord,

To chide at your extremes, it not becomes me –

O pardon, that I name them! Your high self,

The gracious mark o’ th’ land, you have obscur’d

With a swain’s wearing, and me, poor lowly maid,

Most goddess-like prank’d up: but that our feasts

In every mess have folly and the feeders

Digest it with a custom, I would blush

To see you so attir’d; sworn, I think

To show myself a glass.


Gently balancing her respect for the crown prince of Bohemia, who is hopelessly beyond her in social rank, with her shrewd rustic’s good sense, Perdita demurs at the feast of foods over which nevertheless she must preside. Attending, in disguise, are Polixenes and Camillo. One of the finest and most profound dialogues in all of Shakespeare takes place between Perdita and Polixenes, after she greets them ‘with rosemary and rue’:


A fair one are you–well you fit our ages
With flowers of winter.


Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer’s death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest
flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.


Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?


For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.


Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.


So it is.


Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
And do not call them bastards.


I’ll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;
No more than were I painted I would wish
This youth should say ’twere well and only therefore
Desire to breed by me. Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age. You’re very welcome.

[She gives them flower]


To say with Polixenes that ‘the art itself is nature’ may be only a Renaissance commonplace, but that is not what is original and powerful about this civilized and comic mock debate. Nor is it the irony of Polixenes urging in horticulture what he wishes to deny to his son, to ‘marry/A gentler scion to the wildest stock.’ The dispute is not between nature and art, but between the earlier madness of Leontes and the courageous vitalism of his daughter, who incarnates a heroic naturalism that appears elsewhere in Shakespeare, but not in so vivacious and winning a form. Jealous paranoia has yielded to a triumph of exuberant goodness, as stubborn in its way as the obsession of Leontes. Perdita is very much her father’s daughter, and doubtless Shakespeare means to indicate that her innate royalty breaks through, just as it does with Polydore and Cadwal in Cymbeline,

But her passionate naturalism transcends even her vigorous personality, and appears to speak for something in Shakespeare himself. I think, contrary to many critics, that the playwright is more on her side than on Polixenes’s, for Polixenes is more in the camp of Ben Jonson than of Shakespeare. Jonson, in his remarkable poem prefacing the First Folio, essentially says of Shakespeare that ‘the art itself is nature.’ Nature, Jonson affirmed, was proud of Shakespeare’s designs, yet ‘Art/…must enjoy a part’ of Shakespeare’s eminence. Jonson presages the recent scholarly emphasis on Shakespeare as a self-reviser, yet implicit in his praise of Shakespeare is his more characteristic judgment that his more successful rival ‘wanted art.’ Time has awarded the palm to Shakespeare’s art, over Jonson’s, but the singularity of Shakespeare is clearly the astonishing fusion of art and nature in some two dozen of his thirty-nine plays. Perdita is not interested in an art that mends or changes nature, she cries out instead for an unfallen nature that would be its own art.

     O Proserpina,

For the flowers not that, frighted, thou let’st fall

From Dis’s wagon! Daffodils,

That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty, violets, dim,

But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes

Or Cytherea’s breath, pale primroses

That die unmarried, ere they can behold

Bright Phoebus in his strength (a malady

Most incident to maids); bold oxlips and

The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,

The flower-de-luce being one. O, these I lack,

To make you garlands of; and my sweet friend,

To strew him o’er and o’er!


With my characteristic temerity, I assert that Perdita speaks for Shakespeare in this marvelous passage. Had she been Proserpina, Perdita implies, she would not have experienced the failure in nerve that resulted in our flowers becoming seasonal. A continual spring and harvesttime would still exist together if Proserpina had been of Perdita’s hardy temperament. In the exquisite pathos of this speech, Perdita goes beyond the role of Leontes’s daughter, and prophesies the natural sensibility of John Keats:


That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds or March with beauty.

The nature itself is art, in Perdita, Shakespeare, and Keats, and challenges us as it does Florizel in Perdita’s invitation to her lover. Responding to the prospect of being strewn ‘o’er and ‘o’er’ with flowers of the absent spring, Florizel laughingly protests. ‘What, like a corpse?’ and so provides Perdita’s bold reply:

No, like a bank, for love to lie and play on:

Not like a corpse, or if – not to be buried,

But quick, and in mine arms.


Abashed at her own forwardness, Perdita ruefully all but chides herself: ‘sure this robe of mine/Does change my disposition.’ Florizel, in a remarkable riposte, saves her from embarrassment, and then embarks upon the finest tribute any man in Shakespeare makes to his beloved:

     What you do,

Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,

I’d have you do it ever: when you sing

I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms,

Pray so, and, for the ord’ring your affairs,

To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that, move still, still so,

And own no other function. Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing, in the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.


The ecstasy of this rhapsodic declaration was to prompt Shelley’s Epipsychidion, but even that great chant of eros cannot match the intricate music with which Shakespeare endows Florizel. Yeats, in his Last Poems, particularly in the invocation of Helen or Troy as a young girl in ‘Long-legged Fly,’ approached the sinuous rhythms of this paean to a woman’s grace of movement:

     when you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’th sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that, move still, still so,

And own no other function.

Shakespeare intended the violent shock of our contrasting son and father when Polixenes, later in the scene, addresses Perdita with a brutality that recalls the worst rhetorical violences of crazed Leontes:

    And thou, fresh piece

Of excellent witchcraft, who, of force, must know

The royal fool thou cop’st with, — […]

I’ll have thy beauty scratch’d with briers and made

More homely than thy state. For thee, fond boy,

If I may ever know thou dost but sigh

That thou no more shalt6 see this knack (as never

I mean thou shalt), we’ll bar thee from succession;

Not hold thee of our blood, no, not our kin,

Farre than Deucalion off; mark thou my words!

Follow us to the court. Thou churl, for this time,

Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee

From the dead blow of it. And you, enchantment, —

Worthy enough of a herdsman, yeah, him too,

That makes himself, but of our honour therein,

Unworthy thee. If ever henceforth thou

These rural latches to his entrance open,

Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,

I will devise a death as cruel for thee

As thou art tender to’ it.


After that, it is more than difficult to like the previously colorless Polixenes, just as Leontes never wins our affection. ‘Pastoral romance’ increasingly seems a very odd description of The Winter’s Tale, ‘grotesque comedy’ is much apter. Again, Shakespeare writes no genre; extravagance, a wandering beyond limits, is his truest mode. He will not be confined by any convention or by any intellectual enterprise.

Winter's Tale BearThe return to Sicilia in Act V of The Winter’s Tale culminates in the famous statue scene, where Hermione is reunited with Leontes and Perdita. Where everything is so problematic, Shakespeare is placed to remind us that we are watching (or reading) a representation that is more than willing to be aware that it is only a fiction. Paulina sums matters up by telling the restored family, and with them the audience, ‘Go together,/You precious winners all.’ Nobody loses in The Winter’s Tale, at least at the end; Mamillius is long dead of grief, and Antigonus doubtless was thoroughly digested by one of those bears that abound on the seacoast of Bohemia. Paulina, making reasonably clear that she is not a necromancer, is also careful to distance us from realism:

     That she is living,

Were it but told you, should be hooted at

Like an old tale: but it appears she lives,

Though yet she speak out.


‘If this be magic,’ Leontes says, ‘let it be an art/Lawful as eating.’ Being sixteen years older, Hermione – both as statue and as woman – is somewhat wrinkled, but otherwise much herself. I think we mistake the tone when we find this scene hieratic or portentous, but then why does Shakespeare insist upon a statue at all, let alone one sculpted by Julio Romano? I may be the only critic who finds this scene not one of the glories of The Winter’s Tale but rather its principal puzzle, since Shakespeare is not self-mocking here. A theatrical coup it certainly is: statues coming to life work well upon stage. The wonders of The Winter’s Tale, for me, are elsewhere: with Perdita and Florizel celebrating each other in a natural ecstasy. Shakespeare, at the close, is rather too deliberately the knowing illusionist, and is skeptical of any credo that the art itself is nature.”

From Harold Goddard:

rsc-wt4“As a reward for his extraordinarily successful fourth act, Shakespeare finds himself, when the fifth act opens, with two heroines on his hands. He has fascinated us more or less equally with mother and daughter, and so has prepared for several highly dramatic recognition scenes:  one between the father and his lost daughter, another between the husband his ‘dead’ wife, a third between the mother and her lost daughter, and a fourth between the other King and his prospective daughter-in-law, not to mention the reunion between the two Kings themselves which involved another type of recognition. This was too much of a good thing even for Shakespeare, who had recently tried something of the kind in the last act of Cymbeline and apparently was not in a mood for the same sort of congestion again in a fifth act. So, though it must have hurt him to do it, he sacrifices the daughter to the mother dramatically by narrating instead of presenting the reunion of daughter and father (and incidentally the meeting of the two Kings). The spectator or reader feels a bit deprived, and at the same time a bit impatient while others are being enlightened about what he already knows, but the poet was undoubtedly right in deciding that the highlight of his act should be the scene in which Hermione, posing as her own statue, returns to life and is reunited with her husband and her daughter.

It is a scene which if taken prosaically is open to a flood of objections, but if taken poetically is near perfection. It is effective on several levels. Theatrically it is a masterpiece of suspense. Dramatically it rounds out every character who participates in it. Symbolically it ties together all the play has said or suggested concerning the relation of art and nature, and so, by implication, of the worlds of reality and romance, of Sicilia and Bohemia. And last of all it is a veritable whispering gallery of literary and mythological echoes. In a way it is the story of Pygmalion and Galatea over again; in another it is a reincarnation of the great scene that concludes the Alcestis of Euripides in which his dead wife is restored to Admetus. How much or how little Shakespeare may have known of this scene there is no way of telling. But however that may be, here is a remarkable example of the unity of all imaginative literature wherever or whenever written. A work of art is a world unto itself, but all works of art belong to one world. We are considering Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; yet only those who are acquainted with another work of another poet written two thousand years earlier are in a position to catch all the overtones and undertones of this one. Leontes, as truly as Admetus, had let his wife sacrifice her life to his selfishness. Hermione, as truly as Alcestis, had accepted her fate with unselfishness, nobility, and calm. Paulina, as truly as Heracles, had snatched away death’s prey before it was too late. Paulina, who is an example of good impulsiveness as Leontes is of bad, has been praised at length by many commentators for her honest, her outspokenness, and her bravery, and has time and again been justly likened to Kent in King Lear. But perhaps the highest tribute that can be paid to her heroism is merely to point out that she is the counterpart in Shakespeare’s play of Heracles in Euripides’.

The defeat of death is the main problem of humanity. That defeat may be effected either by the direct imitation of divinity by man (the way or religion) or by the indirect imitation of it through the creation of divine works (the way of art), though practically it must be by a combination of the two, for it is only the religion that speaks artistically that is articulate and only the art that is pervaded by a religious spirit that is redeeming. As Perdita impersonated the goddess Flora, so Hermione imitates an artistic incarnation of herself as a work of sculpture. Sixteen years in which to rehearse the effect of adversity on love have made her a living proof of her daughter’s words in her own moment of adversity:

I think affliction may subdue the check,

But not take in the mind.

From Hamlet on, Shakespeare had been saying, sometimes in poetic and sometimes in religious language, that life must unite with spirit, reason must become the servant of imagination, nature must imitate art.

Alla bell’ arte che, se dal ciel seco

   Ciascun la porta, vince le natura,

as Michelangelo puts it, for it is nature that must be subsumed under art, not, as Polixenes contended, the other way around, though of course if we want to call that art a higher kind of nature there is nothing to prevent our doing so.

Perdita achieved that subsumption unconsciously by making every moment perfect:

    What you do

Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,

I’d have you do it ever; when you sing,

I’d have you buy and sell so, give alms,

Pray so, and for the ord’ring your affairs,

To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’ the sea that you might ever do

Nothing but that; move still, still so,

And own no other function. Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.

These words of Florizel’s might be dismissed as the illusion of a young lover – but for two things. In the first place, everyone else, though all cannot express it as well, seem to feel about Perdita in this respect much as Florizel does, and secondly, there is everything to indicate that Shakespeare considered such ‘illusions’ the highest kind of reality, or at least the promise of it. It’s not a question of youth or age, but of awakened or unawakened imagination, imagination being the illusion nothing can shatter. As Florizel feels intuitively about Perdita, so Leontes, after long suffering, comes to feel about the lifelike statue of his wife – that he would like to keep it, to look on her just as she is, forever. And so would Perdita.

Paulina:  He’ll think anon it lifes.

Leontes:…Make me to think so twenty years together!…

Paulina:  …Shall I draw the curtain?

Leontes:   No, not these twenty years.

Perdita:                         So long could I

Stand by, a looker on.

This thirst for the continuance of life just as it is at the significant instant is at the very heart of art. It is also the natural attitude of childhood. Thus art is an attempt to recover childhood in a form that will not be transient.

Two lads that thought there was no more behind

But such a day to-morrow as to-day

And to be boy eternal.

So early did Shakespeare introduce into his play the theme of the peur aeternus, or what is the same thing, of the eternal moment. There, at the beginning, how casually he slips it in, a few notes played by the flute or a single violin. But we forget it at our peril – the peril of not getting the connection when the full orchestra takes it up, modulated from the key of childhood to the key of art, in the last scene of the last act. Back there, it had to do with art in its embryonic form of play, where it is still indistinguishable from life. Here it has to do with play in its mature form of art, an art again in this case indistinguishable from life – the statue that is a woman – the goal alike of both art and life. Like so many of the characters in this play, what a long detour humanity has to make to arrive as it were at the spot from which it set out – or, more strictly above the spot from which it set out, for the movement from childhood to art is not a circle but a spiral, a passage from a first innocence, through adversity, to the second innocence of universal forgiveness.

With the first three acts and the fifth act put in this light, how perfectly the fourth act, with its humor and romance, fits between them, a sort of scherzo. Autolycus especially! No longer does he appear as just a picaresque figure introduced for the entertainment of the groundlings, but as an embodiment on his own level of the main idea. He is knavery sublimated into play, ‘crime’ de-moralized for purely comic consumption. He passes from one ‘perfect crime’ to another with casual ease. He is like the childlike and elfin half of Falstaff come back to a world freed of all ethical complications – and excess fat. Who would not rather have his pocket picked than not by such a fascinating rascal? When this snapper-up of unconsidered trifles gets to heaven, be certain he will be found picking the pockets of the angels, cheating them with his ribbons, and inducing them to discard their hymns and try out his latest ballad on their golden harps. And they will be the first to forgive him and take his tricks as just celestial fun.

In all these variations on this theme of the eternal moment – comic, tragic, romantic, religious – Shakespeare clasps hands across the centuries with Goethe: ‘Verweile doch! du bist so schon!’ ‘Tarry! Thou art so fair!’ The Faustian test is the only valid test of happiness. The moment is the model of eternity, and only a prolongation of the perfect moment, or, better, by an integration of many perfect moments, can Eternity be attained.

This concentration on the present is the art of something better than forgiving, namely, forgetting. The reconciliations with which the last act is filled are illustrations of this art. It is appropriate that a ply whose crisis involves Apollo and the Delphic Oracle should have its climactic scene take place in a chapel and sound a religious note.

Over and over in the concluding lines of his play Shakespeare strikes off, mostly through Paulina, brief aphoristic imperatives that reiterate its leading idea in mingled religious and artistic language.

     It is requir’d

You do awake your faith.

Music, awake her.

Be stone no more.

Fill your grave up.

Bequeath to death your numbness.

‘And death once dead, there’s no more dying then,’ as the poet himself says.

Euripides permits no word to the revived Alcestis. Shakespeare grants the restored Hermione one speech.

     You gods, look down,

she says,

     And from your sacred vials pour your graces

Upon my daughter’s head!

A natural prayer – answered in advance – yet is sums up in another tongue just what the poet himself has expressed through the ‘statue.’ That which is art from the point of view of humanity is, from the point of view of heaven, grace. But all this need not be dwelt on further here, for Shakespeare himself dwells on it at length in The Tempest.


And that, I think is that for The Winter’s Tale.

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – Sonnet #144 – one of the best of the best.

Our next play:  The Tempest – my introduction will be posted Thursday evening/Friday morning.

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1 Response to “It is a scene which if taken prosaically is open to a flood of objections, but if taken poetically is near perfection.”

  1. 0day scripts says:

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