Commentary

With The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare achieved his first great success in a new genre, the Romances. After flawed endeavors in Pericles and Cymbeline, the playwright found a way to integrate the various elements of romance literature—the exotic and magical mingled with stereotypical characters and situations—with his own strengths as a realistic playwright. The Winter's Tale combines the grim psychopathology of Shakespearean Tragedy with the visionary optimism of his earlier Comedy. It is a play with its own distinctive moral tone, balancing the divine and the human. 

The most obvious way in which this conjunction is effected is structural; the play falls neatly into two halves, with the hinge at 3.3, the first scene set in Bohemia. The first half is a tragedy centered on the madness of King Leontes, whose jealousy resembles Othello’s and appears to have the same result, the death of his wife. The second half, however, is a traditional romantic comedy of young love triumphant and old love restored, complete with a Prologue—the address by Time in 4.1—and a conventional happy ending in multiple marriages. The two halves of the play present a striking opposition between the sins of the powerful and elderly and the natural goodness of youth, but the two halves also offer another, more significant contrast. The tragic first half depends for its resolution on a supernatural phenomenon, the message from the oracle, while the second relies chiefly on the fine qualities of its young lovers to carry things through to the happy conclusion. While humanity is ultimately dependent on providence—a theme that pervades the romances—here divine intervention serves chiefly to enable human virtue to exercise itself and triumph over vice. 

Although Leontes' madness is cured only by Apollo, Camillo, Paulina, Hermione, and Antigonus all oppose it, and the forthright dignity of Hermione is never sullied by the abuse she undergoes. Moreover, the human opposition is much more prominent than the brief intercession of the god. Similarly, the healing process that follows remains in the characters' hands; it is accomplished through Paulina's delaying tactics, the Shepherd's kindness, Camillo's craftiness, and Florizel and Perdita's exemplary courage and devotion. In Act 4 love, charm, and humor—abetted by luck and the plotting of the wily Camillo—triumph over the injustice of Polixenes (who here re-creates in a milder key the tyranny of Leontes). The human component in the triumph of good—almost entirely absent in Pericles and but fitfully brought to bear in Cymbeline—is here given an importance that permits us to identify much more fully with the process. 

Providence, however, is by no means ignored. The play is studded with overt references to the gods.  Hermione's embattled confidence that 'powers divine / Behold our human actions' (3.2.28-29) is particularly striking, but it is supported by many other instances. Leontes vows daily chapel visits in 3.2.238-243, Florizel cites the love stories of the gods in 4.4.25-31, and Perdita refers to the Proserpina myth and mythological Hower lore in 4.4.116-127. Paulina's mystifications as she reveals the survival of Hermione create an atmosphere of spirituality and magic in an entirely secular scene. Although theophany, or the actual appearance of a god, is avoided—in contrast to the two earlier romances (see Diana, Jupiter)—the descriptions of the 'ceremonious, solemn and unearthly' rituals of Apollo (3.1.7) and 'the ear deafening voice o' th' Oracle, / Kin to Jove's thunder' of religious experience is evoked, and we are forcefully reminded of humanity's impotence before the divine. 

Moreover, although the play's world is pre-Christian, some distinctly Christian ideas are alluded to, notably grace and redemption through suffering. Perdita and Hermione are associated with the words 'grace' and 'gracious' (e.g., in 1.2.233, 2.3.29, 4.1.24, and 4.4.8), as is the oracle itself (in 3.1.22). As the play ends, Hermione invokes a consummate blessing: 'You gods, look down, / And from your sacred vials pour your graces' (5.3.121-122). Leontes' story is a virtual parable of sin redeemed. He blasphemes his saintly wife and the divine oracle, and he is punished by the death of his son and (he believes) his wife. After Leontes spends years in 'saint-like sorrow' (5.1.2), Paulina (whose name is suggestive of Christianity's great preacher) effects the seemingly miraculous re- turn of Hermione, which takes place in a 'chapel' (5.3. 86). Not for nothing does Paulina assert, 'It is re- quir'd / You do awake your faith' (5.3.94-95). Of course, Hermione's apparent resurrection has obvious Christian overtones, and it becomes the central focus of the play's final scene, taking precedence over the more traditional conclusion of a comedy in marriage rites (though these are referred to).   

Accompanying these expressly religious motifs is an implicitly sacred theme, a subtle emphasis on the cycles of nature. At the broadest level, the play is about the basic pattern of life and growth. Polixenes remembers when he and Leontes 'as twinn'd lambs did frisk i' th' sun / And bleat the one at th' other' (1.2.67-68).  Later, when their dire adult drama of hatred and death is replaced by the pastoral comedy of the shepherds' festival, a cycle has been completed. The festival itself, celebrating the annual wool harvest, is an ancient marking of the passage of the seasons. (Such rustic festivals were still common in pre-industrial England, and Shakespeare could be sure that his audience would be familiar with them and at least aware of the pre-Christian religious sentiment behind them.) Perdita's enumeration of the different seasonal flowers is another potent evocation of nature's cycles. Most compelling of all is her re-enactment of the passage from winter to spring—the original resurrection when she wishes she had spring flowers for Florizel, 'to strew him o'er and o'er!' He exclaims, "What, like a corpse?' and she replies, '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' (4.4.129-132). Such references point to our primitive awareness of nature as the source of religious awe. However, the cycle of the seasons is a natural, not a supernatural phenomenon, and its celebration is a human one. In line with this the play's religious allusions and motifs are never permitted to overshadow the central theme, the power of human virtue. The role of the oracle is critical, but it is the main characters who complete the task and achieve happiness through their virtue. It is not Paulina's magic but her foresight that leads to the 'revival' of Hermione; human intervention, not divine, produces the outcome. That Paulina's scheme seems singularly harebrained to the rational observer is irrelevant; romances are supposed to be illogical. It is only important that a happy ending of reconciliation and love has been reached, without the need for a dew exmachina. Given a single assist from Apollo's oracle, the essential good in humanity defeats life's potential for disorder and unhappiness. Leontes hopes Paulina's magic will prove as 'lawful as eating' (5.3.111) and because it is not magic after all, let alone black magic—it does. The moral drive of ordinary people is what powers The Winter's Tale

Though Leontes certainly lacks such drive, he is nonetheless the central figure in the play's scheme. His sin sparks the action, and his consciousness of sin is necessary to its conclusion. That the king comes to recognize his susceptibility to error reflects Shakespeare's abiding concern for the responsibilities of rulers. Like such differing characters as Richard II, Henry IV, Cymbeline, and Prospero, Leontes learns about himself through the exercise of power. Especially in the romances, the lesson is that the most valuable human capacity is the capacity for mercy, for, more than justice, mercy acknowledges human equality before the divine. Like the medieval Morality Play centered on God's mercy to humankind, Shakespeare's late works insist that the relationship between a secular ruler and subject must follow the same pattern. 

Leontes moves from sin to remorse and finally finds forgiveness in the pastoral world of love represented by Perdita and Florizel. The most important moral lesson of the play is the power of love. Love is elaborately glorified and briefly threatened in 4.4—the longest scene in Shakespeare—where the pleasures of country life, a traditional romantic motif, are associated with the deep affection shared by Florizel and Perdita. As we have seen, connections are drawn to the divine, and Perdita is strongly linked to ancient emblems of fertility. The lovers acknowledge their sexuality, but recognise the spiritual side as more important. Perdita notes that love can take a 'false way' (4.4.151), and Florizel insists that his desire does not 'Burn hotter than my faith' (4.4.35). In the crisis of Polixenes' wrath against Perdita, Florizel declares that if his faithful love fails, 'let nature crush the sides o' th' earth together, / And mar the seeds within!' (4.4.480-481). The tragedy of the first half of the play results from jealousy, a gross distortion of sexual affection; the love of the second half contrasts in its purity. 

The world of the lovers is a blessed one, as the play's transition from Sicilia to Bohemia makes clear, even before the powerful charm of 4.4 is exercised. In a passage that several commentators have pointed to as the pivotal moment of the play, the Shepherd, having just found Perdita and heard from the Clown of the death of Antigonus, says to his son, 'Now bless thyself: thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born' (3.3.112-113). The old world of Leontes' despotic madness is passing away, and a new dispensation has begun. The Shepherd appreciatively declares, ' 'Tis a lucky day, boy, and we'll do good deeds on 't' (3.3.135-136). The contrast with Leontes' despairing plea, 'Come, and lead me / To these sorrows' (3.2. 242-243)—spoken just moments before—could hardly be greater. A new world has been introduced, and the shepherds' festival is to be at its centre. 

Autolycus, his victim the Clown, and the shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas, all contribute to a delightful slice of English rustic life, viewed idealistically but not entirely unrealistically. Like the Forest of Arden and the Gloucestershire of Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare's Bohemia evokes nostalgia for the solid virtues of country life, and the sense of community of that world is part of the moral regeneration of the second half. 

It is interesting to note the care Shakespeare took to emphasize the importance of the human element in his play by altering the story that he found in his source, Pandosto. In the fashion typical of 16th-century romances, Pandosto is full of events and schemes that are not just improbable but absolutely impossible; credibility is not an issue, any more than in a fairy tale.  Shakespeare, however, changed such features enough to create a plausible tale (if only just barely to our modem sceptical minds), a tale shot through with the fabric of real life. For example, we are prepared for Mamillius' death with reports of his illness, whereas in Pandosto the son of the unjustly accused queen simply drops dead of dismay. In the book the infant is abandoned in an open boat at sea; her survival—let alone her arrival in the homeland of the Polixenes figure—is entirely a whim of fate. Similarly, when the aggrieved lovers—the equivalents of Perdita and Florizel—flee the king, they simply wander about, ending up in the woman's homeland purely by chance. In Shakespeare, chance is eliminated in favor of human plans; it is Antigonus who brings the infant to Bohemia and Camillo who directs the couple to Sicilia. Another telling difference is in the fate of the Leontes figure. In Pandosto an angry Apollo strikes him dead, but, as we have seen, Shakespeare keeps the god at a distance and permits Leontes to survive to regret his deed. 

The triumph of good in The Winter's Tale is accomplished only with grave difficulty, and the world of the play is shrouded with losses. The 'things dying' encountered by the Clown in 3.3 are human beings, the Mariner and Antigonus, both faultless except for their association with Leontes' sin. Their deaths seem gratuituous, but as agents of the king's wrath they embody the evils of the play's first half, and those evils must be done 'away with. Even more shocking is the death of the utterly innocent Mamillius—surely the greatest cost of Leontes' madness. Shakespeare here insists on the seriousness of sin. Other serious consequences include Paulina's widowhood and Camillo's exile (both presumably eased by their marriage at the conclusion) and the irretrievable loss of 16 potentially happy years for Leontes and Hermione. For all its joy, the final scene does not restore the unsullied world of the play's opening. The observation of wrinkles on the Hermione statue acknowledges that. The possibility of happiness is limited by evil and its consequences. 

Shakespeare's picture of a moral world in The Winter's Tale is not, of course, a dry dissertation on faith and good works but rather an entertainment. The very title insists on the play's intention to entertain. Although the article the suggests a tale as harsh as the season, in Shakespeare's day the title also conjured up the festive Christmas season, for the connection of tale-telling to celebration was much stronger then than now. Both connotations are supported when the title is alluded to in the play: Mamillius announces 'A sad tale's best for winter' (2.1.25), but he does so in play with his loving mother, and the telling of his tale is plainly fun. The play as a whole also fulfils both interpretations of its title: the cold and dark of winter dominate the tragedy of the first half, and the warmth and light of holiday festivities suffuse the comedy that follows. 

Referring to the play's title in the dialogue is one of several ways in which Shakespeare insists on the artificiality of his romance. Allusions to the artfulness of the story are scattered throughout the play: Hermione, for example, compares her plight to a drama, 'devis'd / And play'd to take spectators' (3.2.36-37); dressed for the festival, Perdita muses, 'Methinks I play as I have seen them do / In Whitsun pastorals' (4.4.133-134); and the Third Gentleman speaks of news that 'is so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion' (5.2.27-29). The naivete of Mopsa, who declares, 'I love a ballad in print . . . for then we are sure they are true' (4.4.261-262), is a playful jab at the willing self-deception of romantic literature's audience. Moreover, there are several highly theatrical episodes set within the play: Hermione's trial, Time's prologue, the shepherds' festival, and Paulina's dramatic unveiling of the supposed statue, at which Leontes declares, rightly, 'We are mock'd with art' (5.3.68). The very structure of the play reinforces the point, as tragedy changes abruptly to comedy. In stressing the obvious, that The Winter's Tale is an artifact and not real life, Shakespeare adds another layer to the basic theme of the play. The very play that points out the need for goodness in human endeavors is itself a human endeavor. Art joins with virtue in challenging the threat to happiness presented by social and psychological disarray. Art, and The Winter's Tale in particular, orders human affairs so that we can see how they resist destruction, even the natural decay that comes with time.

 

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