The Winter's Tale
Today we start our discussion of the only romance we are covering this semester. What does that mean? Shakespeare himself likely did not call The Winter’s Tale a romance; it is rather a modern editorial designation. How does that definition differ from what we understand of the romance genre today? And why do we feel the need to label this play at all?
You’ll find that there’s not a lot of sex, and much less many passionate feelings of love, in Shakespeare’s romances. Instead, think of something closer to the medieval idea of romance, that is, knights and ladies, magical helpers, wild coincidences, and other miraculous, but usually comfortable, endings that reunite those separated. That’s closer, but not quite exactly, what Shakespeare’s romances are. Instead, we might say that Shakespearean romance is an averted tragedy, a play that begins relatively early with separation and tragic circumstances, but ends relatively happily, though it does not undo the unfolding of time and some individuals/ideals/etc. are lost along the way. We’ve already noted that Shakespeare became increasingly interested in mixing genres later in his career, so that plays like Measure for Measure read as darker and less hopeful than some of his other comedies. Other names than romance have been applied to The Winter’s Tale, including late comedy, tragicomedy, or pastoral tragicomedy. Alongside The Winter’s Tale, other romances by Shakespeare include Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest, all written and performed near the end of his career, though not, as is commonly assumed in Shakespearean myth, his very last plays. And the critical confusion over what to call this play and others written in the “late period” of Shakespeare’s output suggests to me something rather evocative. That is, there is room to debate these generic designations, and to see primarily how romance is an experiment—it is Shakespeare willing to trouble our expectations to such a degree that we are left primarily not with knowledge, but with an emotion, that of wonder.
So let’s be more precise here about what we mean when we discuss the genre of this play. Let’s try to distinguish it from others we have read, and after we have some basic definitions in place, we will then move to thinking about how such definitions are inadequate or problematic for our reading. So what is tragedy? And what is comedy? Finally, what is pastoral? And what would happen if you mixed those together? Just so we are clear, I want to point to several distinguishing features of Shakespeare’s romances in particular, which you should feel free to challenge in your reading of The Winter’s Tale. So, first it’s important to note that Shakespeare did not invent romance as a genre, and that it was really popularized by the playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Fletcher defined tragi-comedy in the preface to his pastoral play The Faithful Shepherdess (1608), as a play that “wants [lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.” Romance, then, brings us close to tragedy, and is serious in tone, but it also aims towards some type of happy-ish ending. Unlike tragedy, romance is concerned with forgiveness, with reconciliation. Romance also freely ignores the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, often featuring large gaps in time and a wide geographical scope. Romance emphasizes cycles of life, of life and death together, and of the image of rebirth.
Shakespeare based his play off of Robert Greene’s romance prose account Pandosto or the Triumph of Time, which was widely popular in the period. Pandosto is an interesting narrative, and I encourage you to read it one afternoon for several reasons. For one, it is an example of Elizabethan prose, something less commonly read in undergraduate surveys than drama and lyric. It is also fascinating to see what Shakespeare retained, amplified, or excised from his version. I won’t go too much into the narrative, in part because that will spoil some of what you will read for Thursday. But I do want us to look at the very opening of Pandosto, which provides a wonderful commentary on the emotion of jealousy in the period:
Among all the passions wherewith human minds are perplexed, there is none that so galleth with restless despite as the infectious sore of jealousy. For all other griefs are either to be appeased with sensible persuasions, to be cured with wholesome counsel, to be relieved in want, or by tract of time to be worn out; jealousy only excepted, which is so sauced with suspicious doubts and pinching mistrust that whoso seeks by friendly counsel to raze out this hellish passion, it forthwith suspecteth that he giveth this advice to cover his own guiltiness. Yea, it is such a heavy enemy to that holy estate of matrimony, sowing between the married couples such deadly seeds of secret hatred as, love being once razed out by spiteful distrust, there oft ensueth bloody revenge, as this ensuing history manifestly proveth.
Clearly Shakespeare found the notion of jealousy intriguing, and dramatic. And the idea that jealousy was infectious, was something that could be shared among bodies, was prevalent in the period. Jealousy, in other words, was considered a disease of the mind, one that could be diagnosed but was much harder to actually cure. Robert Burton, the author of the philosophical and medical tome titled The Anatomy of Melancholy, describes the effects of jealousy in both psychological and physical terms:
OF all passions, as I haue already proued, Loue is most violent, & of all those bitter potions which this Loue-melancholy affords, Iealosie is the greatest, as appeares by those prodigious Symptomes which it hath, and effects that it produceth. For besides that Feare and Sorrowe, which is common to all melancholy, anxiety of mind, restles thoughts palenesse, leanenesse, meagernesse, neglect of businesse and the like, these men are farther yet misaffected, and in an higher straine. 'Tis a more vehement passion, a more furious perturbation, a bitter paine, a fire, madnesse, plague, hell. They are more then ordinarily disquieted, more then ordinary suspitious, Iealosie, saith Viues, begets vnquietnes in the mind night and day: he hunts after euery word he heares, euery whisper, and amplifies it to himselfe, with a most iniust calumny of others, he misinterprets every thing is said or done, most apt to mistake and misconster, he pries in euery corner, followes close, obserues to an haire: Besides all those strange gestures of staring, frowning, grinning, rolling of eyes, menacing, gastly looks, broken pace, interrupt, precipitate, halfe turnes. Hee will sometimes sigh, weepe, sob for anger, sweare and bely, slander any man, curse, threaten, brawle, raue; and sometimes againe flatter and speake faire, aske forgiuenesse, and then againe impatient as hee is, raue, and lay about him like a madde man, accu|sing and suspecting not strangers only, but Brothers and Sisters, Father and Mother, nearest and dearest friends. (681-682)
So as we can see, jealousy was a prominent topic in the period, one that encouraged others to think through larger issues, including one’s relationship with others, one’s inability to participate in one’s social and political roles, etc. Now that I’ve given you two quite long passages on jealousy, what can we say about it in the period? How would historicizing jealousy useful or not useful for our reading of Leontes?
I’m curious, too, because we’ve now read so many Shakespearean plays together, what other plays we’ve read this semester that help you understand what Shakespeare is doing in this play. What other plays should we put in conversation with The Winter’s Tale.
My proposal for us to consider for this play is the uncertain space between psychology and myth, or, put another way, between realism and fantasy. This play is certainly one that delights in fairy-tale like fictions of a preposterous ilk. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also identify the very human passions that characterize figures in the play. Can the two impulses—to read for realistic portraits of the human psyche and to delight in the fantastic—coexist in a single drama? And what are the difficulties for audiences and critics alike in attempting to retain both approaches?
In the interchanges between these two modes, the play also mixes other elements to trouble any sense of categorization we might wish to apply to the play. The play is both pagan (they go to Apollo’s oracle, for example), but also has Christian overtones, as in Paulina’s name, which has the echo of St. Paul the Apostle. We also have juxtapositions or simultaneity of moods, as in the oft-remarked upon stage direction “Exit, pursued by bear.” The bear is at once hilariously ludicrous, but also represents a vengeful nature, one who tears Antigonus apart piecemeal for his role in abandoning Perdita.
So let’s begin with what will be a familiar emotion for us to study by this point in the semester. But before we move to jealousy, let’s think about Leontes’ relationship with Polixenes. They grew up together and possess a deep and lasting bond. Turn with me to Hermione and Polixenes’ conversation about their youth to see how this relationship is figured and how Leontes will use even this very innocent talk as the spur or initial impetus to his jealousy. It’s remarkable that Hermione and Polixenes are so clearly talking about Leontes and his youth, but that Leontes misinterprets these jests and common courtly courtesy for an indication that they are having an affair:
Hermione: Come, I’ll question you
Of my lord’s tricks and yours when you were boys.
You were pretty lordings then?
Polixenes: We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be boy eternal.
Hermione: Was not my lord
The verier wag o’th’ two?
Polixenes: We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly, ‘not guilty,’ the imposition cleared
Hermione: By this we gather
You have tripped since.
Polixenes: O my most sacred lady.
Temptations have since then been born to’s, for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not crossed the eyes
Of my young playfellow. (1.2.60-80).
This is frankly sexual language, but it’s not crude, and it’s not suggestive that Hermione and Polixenes are attracted to each other. It’s unclear if Leontes has stepped away from them and is eavesdropping on their conversation or if he doesn’t hear this exchange at all. What’s important is that it establishes for the audience quite clearly, at least in my reading, Hermione’s innocence. They are engaging in familiar courtly banter, but Polixenes, we’ve already learned, desires to return home, to see his own son.
Hermione’s ability to convince Polixenes to stay, it appears, and her courteous treatment of Leontes’ boyhood friend, are what prompt Leontes’ jealousy. Nonetheless, this strikes us as so sudden, and Leontes’ first lines in identifying his suspicion are more accurately directed at his own emotions than those he believes he spies in his wife and friend:
Leontes: Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me. My heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent—’t may, I grant—
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles
As in a looking-glass; and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’th’ deer—O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows.—Mamillius,
Art thou my boy? (1.2.108-119).
The turn to his own son in this moment is highly poignant. But what do you make of Leontes’ jealousy here? How groundless do you view it? And if so, then is this also a moment of fairy-tale like fantasy? I.e., if his suspicions are preposterous, are his reactions to this emotion? Or is Shakespeare adding in an element of realism to not the fact of Hermione’s cheating, but of Leontes’ response to the idea that his pregnant wife might be carrying the child of his friend? Recall that Polixenes’ first words in the play refer to his visit of nine months, and Hermione is visibly pregnant onstage. So could the performance conditions of the play make this moment at least a bit more plausible? Are we as audiences put in the position of Leontes to some degree?
Leontes will continue in these frantic soliloquys, even while he enjoins his wife to continue to show favor to Polixenes. He turns again and against his own son in these moments, both willing to view Mamillius as his own and yet troubled by what is unknown in Hermione’s pregnant body:
Leontes: I am angling now,
Though you perceive me not how I give line.
Go to, go to!
How she holds up the neb, the bill to him,
And arms her with the boldness of a wife
To her allowing husband. [Exeunt Polixenes and Hermione.]
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a forked one!
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too; but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave. Contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been,
Or many a man there is even at this present,
Now, while I speak this, holds his wife by th’arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in’s absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour. Nay, there’s comfort in’t,
Whiles other men have gates, and those gates opened,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for’t there’s none:
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where ’tis predominant; and ’tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north and south; be it concluded,
No barricad0 for a belly. Know’t,
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage. Many thousand on’s
Have the disease and feel’t not. (1.2.179-206).
What astonishes Leontes is how very common adultery is and how, as king, he too is subject to it. The idea of reputation tortures him as well, and in his interrogation with Camillo he focuses on what Camillo and the other courtiers might know. Like Othello, Leontes desires to understand the underlying causal connections among how he feels, how others think, and the impossible conundrum of understanding what a woman’s desires are and what her body might hide. His “angling” is for further proof that Hermione and Polixenes have feelings for one another, but his ultimate “proof” is Polixenes’ flight from Sicily with Camillo in tow. But ultimately, Leontes suspects based on the fact that he cannot fully control or have knowledge over who his wife is and what she desires, and thus there is “No barricado for a belly.”
By Act II, it seems we are amid a tragedy. Polixenes and Leontes have lost the boyhood bond they shared so intimately. Leontes suspects his wife of adultery, and we are prepared for the violence that will follow. Nonetheless, we are indeed only in Act II by the time Leontes confronts his wife, and the confrontation is all the more painful because she is pregnant and will be subjected to a harsh, very public trial. Before we get there, though, we have even more access to Leontes’ inner turmoil. I’m focusing on these passages in part to show the sheer amount of text focusing on the King’s jealousy, almost as if the play is demanding we diagnose his “tremor cordis” alongside him.
Leontes: How blest am I
In my just censure, in my true opinion!
Alack, for lesser knowledge—how accursed
In being so blest. There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected; but if one present
Th’abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.
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 employed was pre-employed by him.
He has discovered my design, and I
Remain a pinched thing—yea, a very trick
For them to play at will. (2.1.36-52).
While Othello has to gain proof, Leontes believes he already possesses it. And that supposed “knowledge” is what kills him. His image of drinking from a cup with a spider in it is evocative, if only because it does ring as perceptive, or borrows from the popular adage that the ignorant are happier than the wise. Nonetheless, we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is false knowledge, something that Hermione will aver answering the accusation. Let’s look at this longer exchange, focusing on what “proofs” and “emotions” are brought to bear on the relationship between the married couple. Leontes says to Hermione:
Leontes: Give me the boy. I am glad you did not nurse him.
Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you
Have too much blood in him.
Hermione: What is this? Sport?
Leontes: Bear the boy hence: he shall not come about her.
Away with him, and let her sport herself
With that she’s big with, [to Hermione] for ’tis Polixenes
Has made thee swell thus. [Mamillius is taken away.]
Hermione: But I’d say he had not,
And I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying,
Howe’er you lean to th’ nayward.
Leontes: You, my lords,
Look on her, mark her well. Be but about
To say she is a goodly lady, and
The justice of your hearts will thereto add
’Tis pity she’s not honest, honourable.
Praise her but for this her without-door form—
Which on my faith deserves high speech—and straight
The shrug, the hum or ha, these petty brands
That calumny doth use—O, I am out!
That mercy does, for calumny will sear
Virtue itself—these shrugs, these hums and ha’s,
When you have said she’s goodly, come between
Ere you can say she’s honest. But be’t known
From him that has most cause to grieve it should be,
She’s an adulteress!
Hermione: Should a villain say so,
The most replenished villain in the world,
He were as much more villain—you, my lord,
Do but mistake.
Leontes: You have mistook, my lady,
Polixenes for Leontes. O thou thing,
Which I’ll not call a creature of thy place,
Lest barbarism, making me the precedent,
Should a like language use to all degrees,
And mannerly distinguishment leave out
Betwixt the prince and beggar. I have said
She’s an adulteress, I have said with whom.
More, she’s a traitor, and Camillo is
A federary with her, and one that knows
What she should shame to know herself,
But with her most vile principal, that she’s
A bed-swerver, even as bad as those
That vulgars give bold’st titles; ay, and privy
To this their late escape.
Hermione: No, by my life,
Privy to none of this. How will this grieve you
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
You thus have published me? Gentle my lord,
You scarce can right me thoroughly then to say
You did mistake.
Why is Leontes glad that Hermione did not breastfeed Mamillius? Why should that matter? Unfortunately, throughout this exchange, Hermione chooses the wrong words, including “sport,” which also had an erotic meaning in the period. Leontes uses Hermione’s own pregnant body as proof in this scene, even though the child is still unseen. But the very fact of Hermione’s pregnancy signals or awakes something in Leontes. The pregnant body is an inscrutable text, one that Leontes attempts to have others read for illicit desire. But Hermione pushes back against these insults, nearly but not quite calling her husband a “villain” in response to his accusations. Notice here too how Leontes loses control of language throughout the exchange, and his names for Hermione are lewd, unbecoming of the courtly setting; she is a “bed-swerver” and a “creature.”
Unrelated to the central question I’ve posed for today, but I also want to spend some time talking about Paulina, whom I’m obsessed with. We’ve seen her type before in Othello, the shrewd, eventually direct woman who possesses a type of worldly knowledge. I’m talking about Emilia, another confidant who tries to teach her mistress something of the truth about men, while in Paulina’s case she is the self-appointed counselor to Leontes, urging him to see the truth before it is too late. After Hermione has just delivered her baby girl, Paulina takes the child, determining to show the infant to Leontes:
Paulina: These dangerous, unsafe lunes I’th’ king, beshrew them!
He must be told on’t; I’ll take’t upon me.
If I prove honey-mouthed, let my tongue blister
And never to my red-looked anger be
The trumpet any more. Pray you, Emilia,
Commend my best obedience to the queen.
If she dares trust me with her little babe,
I’ll show’t the king, and undertake to be
Her advocate to th’ loudest. We do not know
How he may soften at the sight o’th’ child.
The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades when speaking fails. (2.3.29-41).
With Perdita in her arms, Paulina then boldly enters Leontes’ chambers, even while her husband Antigonus tries to hold her back. It is a compelling scene because Paulina does not refrain from using all her argumentative powers and the proof of the baby’s image to confront Leontes. Paulina is incredibly brave when she challenges Leontes, even claiming that to be burnt would not faze her:
Paulina: I care not.
It is an 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-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny, and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world. (2.3.112-119).
She comes close to, but not quite, accusing the King of tyranny, which was considered an incredible, and dangerous, insult in the period. She will, later, accuse him directly, asking “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?” (3.2.173).
So now let’s turn to the trial scene. We should be familiar with them by now! And recall that Leontes has also sent Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo’s oracle to determine Hermione’s guilt. Thus the King will have explicit divine judgement on his accusation. Before we get to Apollo’s answer, however, we should examine Hermione’s bold rebuttal to her accuser. What I’m getting at here is the power of women in this play to directly confront male authority and belief. Having to counteract the assumptions about their bodies and desires, both Hermione and Paulina are bold in their speeches to Leontes and to others. In this very public forum, Hermione stands up to proclaim her innocence, despite her now weakened physical condition (she is denied the laying-in period following giving birth).
Hermione: Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation, and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say ‘Not guilty.’ Mine integrity
Being counted falsehood shall, as I express it,
Be so received. 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. You, my lord, best know,
Whom least will seem to do so, my past life
Hath been as continent, as chaste, as true
As I am now unhappy; which is more
Than history can pattern, though devised
And played to take spectators. For behold me,
A fellow of the royal bed, which owe
A moiety of the throne; a great king’s daughter,
The mother to a hopeful prince, here standing
To prate and talk for life and honour, ’fore
Who please to come and hear. For life, I prize it
As I weigh grief, which I would spare. For honour,
’Tis a derivative from me to mine,
And only that I stand for. I appeal
To your own conscience, sir, before Polixenes
Came to your court how I was in your grace,
How merited to be so; since he came,
With what encounter so uncurrent I
Have strained t’appear thus. If one jot beyond
The bound of honour, or in act, or will
That way inclining, hardened be the hearts
Of all that hear me, and my nearest of kin
Cry fie upon my grave. (3.2.21-53).
It’s a long speech, but I want us to go through it slowly, and I want to hear what you think about these different pieces in Hermione’s claims. What is her proof? What are her claims? And what is the tone of this passage? What can we gather not only about Hermione but about Leontes in this scene? Finally, to circle back to my thesis, is this a realistic scene or in the land of fantasy?
While this speech is a set-piece, it nonetheless provides insight into Hermione’s character, and she is not, in this moment, an archetype but a rounded character. Nonetheless, the elements of the fantastic intervene in the second half of the trial scene, in which Apollo’s oracle is read. We’ve encountered many prophecies this semester, but curiously this is not a riddle, not really. This is the most straightforward prophetic utterance in all of Shakespeare: “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” (3.2.130-134). Even with this explicit pronouncement from the gods, however, Leontes refuses to believe in its validity. Instead, it is the death of both Mamillius and Hermione that finally turn him back to the right way of thinking. But why is this punishment of disbelief so harsh? What are the emotions evoked when we learn of the two deaths, hearing of one and witnessing the other?
Finally, let’s look at the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare, alongside the elements of the supernatural that occur when Antigonus, the husband to Paulina, leaves the infant, named Perdita (feminine of the Latin “perditus” meaning lost), in Bohemia. It’s another long passage, but one worth our attention for how it establishes the romantic element of the oracle, the lost child and the dead mother. So I’d like for you to get into small groups to discuss this moment, starting in Act 3, Scene 3 at line 17.
Antigonus: Come, poor babe.
I have heard, but not believed, the spirits o’th’ dead
May walk again. If such thing be, thy mother
Appeared to me last night, for ne’er was dream
So like a waking. To me comes a creature,
Sometimes her head on one side, some another;
I never saw a vessel of like sorrow,
So filled and so becoming. 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 thine oath,
Places remote enough are in Bohemia;
There weep, and leave it crying; and for the babe
Is counted lost for ever, Perdita
I prithee call’t. For this ungentle business
Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see
Thy wife Paulina more.’ And so, with shrieks,
She melted into air. Affrighted much,
I did in time collect myself, and thought
This was so and no slumber. Dreams are toys,
Yet for this once, yea superstitiously,
I will be squared by this. I do believe
Hermione hath suffered death, and that
Apollo would—this being indeed the issue
Of King Polixenes—it should be here laid,
Either for life or death, upon the earth
Of its right father. Blossom, speed thee well!
[Lays the baby down in a mantle, with a box and letters]
There lie, and there thy character. There these,
Which may, if Fortune please, both breed thee, pretty,
And still rest thine.
The storm begins. Poor wretch,
That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed
To loss, and what may follow! Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds, and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoined to this. Farewell,
The day frowns more and more. Thou’rt like to have
A lullaby too rough. I never saw
The heavens so dim by day.
[Thunder, and the sounds of dogs barking and hunting horns]
A savage clamour!
Well may I get aboard. This is the chase.
I am gone forever! [Exit, pursued by a bear.] (3.3.14-57).
The moment is justifiably funny, but also quite dark. The play, that is, is juxtaposing these moods in a single speech followed by a dramatic exit/event. This circles back to my initial proposal for reading this play, as willfully intermixing different modes, of the real and the fantastic. The ghost of Hermione and the bear are certainly fantastic, but Antigonus’ reading through his response is less so. So what do we make of this?
That’s all the time we have today. If you read ahead, please don’t spoil it for your classmates, because this play does traffic in the emotion of wonder, for not only the characters, but for audiences as well. So be ready for that! I’m looking forward to hearing your responses to the second half of the play.