Perdita Winters Tale Analysis Essay

Northrop Frye (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Recognition in The Winter's Tale" in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 235-46.

[In the following essay, Frye examines the dramatic contrast found in The Winter's Tale, focusing on the differences between the human artsmusic, poetry, and magicand the power of the gods and nature, as well as the truths these elements reveal.]

In structure The Winter's Tale, like King Lear, falls into two main parts separated by a storm. The fact that they are also separated by sixteen years is less important. The first part ends with the ill-fated Antigonus caught between a bear and a raging sea, echoing a passage in one of Lear's storm speeches. This first part is the "winter's tale" proper, for Mamillius is just about to whisper his tale into his mother's ear when the real winter strikes with the entrance of Leontes and his guards. Various bits of imagery, such as Polixenes' wish to get back to Bohemia for fear of "sneaping winds" blowing at home and Hermione's remark during her trial (reproduced from Pandosto) that the emperor of Russia was her father, are linked to a winter setting. The storm, like the storm in King Lear, is described in such a way as to suggest that a whole order of things is being dissolved in a dark chaos of destruction and devouring monsters, and the action of the first part ends in almost unrelieved gloom. The second part is a tragicomedy where, as in Cymbeline and Measure for Measure, there is frightening rather than actual hurting. Some of the frightening seems cruel and unnecessary, but the principle of 'all's well that ends well' holds in comedy, however great nonsense it may be in life.

The two parts form a diptych of parallel and contrasting actions, one dealing with age, winter, and the jealousy of Leontes, the other with youth, summer, and the love of Florizel. The first part follows Greene's Pandosto closely; for the second part no major source has been identified. A number of symmetrical details, which are commonplaces of Shakespearian design, help to build up the contrast: for instance, the action of each part begins with an attempt to delay a return. The two parts are related in two ways, by sequence and by contrast. The cycle of nature, turning through the winter and summer of the year and through the age and youth of human generations, is at the center of the play's imagery. The opening scene sets the tone by speaking of Mamillius and of the desire of the older people in the country to live until he comes to reign. The next scene, where the action begins, refers to Leontes' own youth in a world of pastoral innocence and its present reflection in Mamillius. The same cycle is also symbolized, as in Pericles, by a mother-daughter relationship, and Perdita echoes Marina when she speaks of Hermione as having "ended when I but began." In the transition to the second part the clown watches the shipwreck and the devouring of Antigonus; the shepherd exhibits the birth tokens of Perdita and remarks, "Thou mettest with things dying, I with things new-born." Leontes, we are told, was to have returned Polixenes' visit "this coming summer," but instead of that sixteen years pass and we find ourselves in Bohemia with spring imagery bursting out of Autolycus's first song, "When daffodils begin to peer." If Leontes is an imaginary cuckold, Autolycus, the thieving harbinger of spring, is something of an imaginative cuckoo. Thence we go on to the sheep-shearing festival, where the imagery extends from early spring to winter evergreens, a vision of nature demonstrating its creative power throughout the entire year, which is perhaps what the dance of the twelve satyrs represents. The symbolic reason for the sixteen-year gap is clearly to have the cycle of the year reinforced by the slower cycle of human generations.

Dramatic contrast in Shakespeare normally includes a superficial resemblance in which one element is a parody of the other. Theseus remarks in A Midsummer Night's Dream that the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact. Theseus, like Yeats, is a smiling public man past his first youth, but not, like Yeats, a poet and a critic. What critical ability there is in that family belongs entirely to Hippolyta, whose sharp comments are a most effective contrast to Theseus's amiable bumble. Hippolyta objects that the story of the lovers has a consistency to it that lunacy would lack, and everywhere in Shakespearian comedy the resemblance of love and lunacy is based on their opposition. Florizel's love for Perdita, which transcends his duty to his father and his social responsibilities as a prince, is a state of mind above reason. He is advised, he says, by his "fancy":

If my reason
Will thereto be obedient, I have reason;
If not, my senses, better pleased with madness,
Do bid it welcome.

Leontes' jealousy is a fantasy below reason, and hence a parody of Florizel's state. Camillo, who represents a kind of middle level in the play, is opposed to both, calling one diseased and the other desperate. Both states of mind collide with reality in the middle, and one is annihilated and the other redeemed, like the two aspects of law in Christianity. As the Gentleman says in reporting the finding of Perdita, "They looked as they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed." When Leontes has returned to his proper state of mind, he echoes Florizel when he says of watching the statue,

No settled senses of the world can match
The pleasure of that madness.

The play ends in a double recognition scene: the first, which is reported only through the conversation of three Gentlemen, is the recognition of Perdita's parentage; the second is the final scene of the awakening of Hermione and the presenting of Perdita to her. The machinery of the former scene is the ordinary cognitio of New Comedy, where the heroine is proved by birth tokens to be respectable enough for the hero to marry her. In many comedies, though never in Shakespeare, such a cognitio is brought about through the ingenuity of a tricky servant. Autolycus has this role in The Winter's Tale, for though "out of service" he still regards Florizel as his master, and he has also the rascality and the complacent soliloquies about his own cleverness that go with the role. He gains possession of the secret of Perdita's birth, but somehow or other the denouement takes place without him, and he remains superfluous to the plot, consoling himself with the reflection that doing so good a deed would be inconsistent with the rest of his character. In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare has combined the two traditions which descended from Menander, pastoral romance and New Comedy, and has consequently come very close to Menandone formulas as we have them in such a play as Epitripontes. But the fact that this conventional recognition scene is only reported indicates that Shakespeare is less interested in it than in the statue scene, which is all his own.

In Measure for Measure and The Tempest the happy ending is brought about through the exertions of the central characters, whose successes are so remarkable that they seem to many critics to have something almost supernatural about them, as though they were the agents of a divine providence. The germ of truth in this conception is that in other comedies of the same general structure, where there is no such character, the corresponding dramatic role is filled by a supernatural being—Diana in Pericles and Jupiter in Cymbeline. The Winter's Tale belongs to the second group, for the return of Perdita proceeds from the invisible providence of Apollo.

In Pericles and Cymbeline there is, in addition to the recognition scene, a dream in which the controlling divinity appears with an announcement of what is to conclude the action. Such a scene forms an emblematic recognition scene, in which we are shown the power that brings about the comic resolution. In The Tempest, where the power is human, Prospero's magic presents three emblematic visions: a wedding masque of gods to Ferdinand, a disappearing banquet to the Court Party, and "trumpery" (4.1.186) to entice Stephano and Trinculo to steal. In The Winter's Tale Apollo does not enter the action, and the emblematic recognition scene is represented by the sheep-shearing festival. This is also on three levels. To Florizel it is a kind of betrothal masque and "a meeting of the petty gods"; to the Court Party, Polixenes and Camillo, it is an illusion which they snatch away; to Autolycus it is an opportunity to sell his "trumpery" (4.4.608) and steal purses.

An emblematic recognition scene of this kind is the distinguishing feature of the four late romances. As a convention, it develops from pastoral romance and the narrative or mythological poem. The sheep-shearing festival resembles the big bravura scenes of singingmatches and the like in Sidney's Arcadia, and The Rape of Lucrece comes to an emblematic focus in the tapestry depicting the fall of Troy, where Lucrece identifies herself with Hecuba and Tarquin with Sinon, and determines that the second Troy will not collapse around a rape like the first one. In the earlier comedies the emblematic recognition scene is usually in the form of burlesque. Thus in Love's Labours Lost the pageant of Worthies elaborates on Don Armado's appeal to the precedents of Solomon, Samson, and Hercules when he falls in love; but his appeal has also burlesqued the main theme of the play. The allegorical garden episode in Richard II represents a similar device, but one rather different in its relation to the total dramatic structure.

In any case the controlling power in the dramatic action of The Winter's Tale is something identified both with the will of the gods, especially Apollo, and with the power of nature. We have to keep this association of nature and pagan gods in mind when we examine the imagery in the play that reminds us of religious, even explicitly Christian, conceptions. At the beginning Leontes' youth is referred to as a time of paradisal innocence; by the end of the scene he has tumbled into a completely illusory knowledge of good and evil. He says:

How blest am I
In my just censure, in my true opinion!
Alack, for lesser knowledge! How accurs'd
In being so blest!

Or, as Ford says in The Merry Wives, "God be praised for my jealousy!" The irony of the scene in which Leontes is scolded by Paulina turns on the fact that Leontes tries to be a source of righteous wrath when he is actually an object of it. Hermione's trial is supposed to be an act of justice and the sword of justice is produced twice to have oaths sworn on it, but Leontes is under the wrath of Apollo and divine justice is his enemy. The opposite of wrath is grace, and Hermione is associated throughout the play with the word grace. During the uneasy and rather cloying friendliness at the beginning of the play Hermione pronounces the word "grace" conspicuously three times, after which the harsh dissonances of Leontes' jealousy begin. She also uses the word when she is ordered off to prison and in the only speech that she makes after Act 3. But such grace is not Christian or theological grace, which is superior to the order of nature, but a secular analogy of Christian grace which is identical with nature—the grace that Spenser celebrates in the sixth book of The Faerie Queene.

In the romances, and in some of the earlier comedies, we have a sense of an irresistible power, whether of divine or human agency, making for a providential resolution. Whenever we have a strong sense of such a power, the human beings on whom it operates seem greatly diminished in size. This is a feature of the romances which often disappoints those who wish that Shakespeare had simply kept on writing tragedies. Because of the heavy emphasis on reconciliation in Cymbeline, the jealousy of Posthumus is not titanic, as the jealousy of Othello is titanic; it expresses only a childish petulance about women in general: "I'll write against them, Despise them, curse them." Similarly Leontes (as he himself points out) falls far short of being a somber demonic tyrant on the scale of Macbeth, and can only alternate between bluster and an uneasy sense of having done wrong:

Away with that audacious lady! Antigonus,
I charg'd thee that she should not come about me.
I knew she would.

This scaling down of the human perspective is in conformity with a dramatic structure that seems closely analogous to such Christian conceptions as wrath and grace. But the only one of the four romances in which I suspect any explicit—which means allegorical—references to Christianity is Cymbeline. Cymbeline was king of Britain at the birth of Christ, and in such scenes as the Jailer's speculations about death and his wistful "I would we were all of one mind, and that mind good," there are hints that some far-reaching change in the human situation is taking place offstage. The play ends on the word "peace" and with Cymbeline's promise to pay tribute to Rome, almost as though, as soon as the story ended, another one were to begin with Augustus Caesar's decree that all the world should be taxed.

No such explicit links are appropriate to The Winter's Tale, though it is true that the story does tell of a mysterious disappearing child born in the winter who has four father-figures assigned to her: a real one, a putative one who later becomes her father-in-law, a fictional one, Smalus of Libya in Florizel's tale, and a shepherd foster-father. This makes up a group of a shepherd and three kings, of whom one is African. The first part of The Winter's Tale is, like Cymbeline, full of the imagery of superstitious sacrifice. Leontes, unable to sleep, wonders if having Hermione burnt alive would not give him rest. Antigonus offers to spay his three daughters if Hermione is guilty, though he would prefer to castrate himself. Mamillius, whom Leontes thinks of as a part of himself, becomes the victim necessary to save Leontes, and the exposing of Perdita is attended by a sacrificial holocaust. Not only is Antigonus devoured by a bear, but the ship and its crew were "Wrecked the same instant of their master's death and in the view of the shepherd; so that all the instruments which aided to expose the child were even then lost when it was found." In contrast, the restoring of Perdita to her mother is an act of sacramental communion, but it is a secular communion, and the "instruments" aiding in it are the human arts. The main characters repair to Paulina's house intending to "sup" there, and are taken into her chapel and presented with what is alleged to be a work of painting and sculpture. Hermione, like Thaisa in Pericles, is brought to life by the playing of music, and references to the art of magic follow. Art, therefore, seems part of the regenerating power of the play, and the imagination of the poet is to be allied with that of the lover as against that of the lunatic.

Apart from the final scene, at least three kinds of art are mentioned in the play. First, there is the art of the gardener who, according to Polixenes' famous speech, may help or change nature by marrying a gentler scion to the wildest stock but can do so only through nature's power, so that "the art itself is nature." This is a sound humanist view: it is the view of Sidney, who contrasts the brazen world of nature with the golden world of art but also speaks of art as a second nature. Sidney's view does not necessitate, but it is consistent with, his ridiculing of plays that show a character as an infant in one act and grown up in the next, and that mingle kings and clowns in the same scene. It is also the view of Ben Jonson who, recognizing a very different conception of nature in Shakespeare's romances, remarked good-humoredly that he was "loth to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, tempests, and such-like drolleries." We note that Polixenes' speech entirely fails to convince Perdita, who merely repeats that she will have nothing to do with bastard flowers:

No more than, were I painted, I would wish
This youth should say 'twere well, and only therefore
Desire to breed by me. . . .

—a remark which oddly anticipates the disappearance of the painted statue of Hermione into the real Hermione. It also, as has often been pointed out, fails to convince Polixenes himself, for a few moments later we find him in a paroxysm of fury at the thought of his own gentle scion marrying the wild stock of a shepherd's daughter. Whatever its merits, Polixenes' view of art hardly seems to describe the kind of art that the play itself manifests.

Secondly, there is the kind of art represented by Julio Romano, said to be the painter and sculptor of Hermione's statue, a mimetic realist who "would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly is he her ape." But it turns out that in fact no statue has been made of Hermione, and the entire reference to Romano seems pointless. We do not need his kind of art when we have the real Hermione, and here again, whatever Romano's merits, neither he nor the kind of realism he represents seems to be very central to the play itself. The literary equivalent of realism is plausibility, the supplying of adequate causation for events. There is little plausibility in The Winter's Tale, and a great deal of what is repeatedly called "wonder." Things are presented to us, not explained. The jealousy of Leontes explodes without warning: an actor may rationalize it in various ways; a careful reader of the text may suspect that the references to his youth have touched off some kind of suppressed guilt; but the essential fact is that the jealousy suddenly appears where it had not been before, like a second subject in a piece of music. "How should this grow?" Polixenes asks of Camillo, but Camillo evades the question. At the end of the play Hermione is first a statue, then a living woman. The explanations given do not satisfy even Leontes, much less us. He says:

But how, is to be question'd; for I saw her,
As I thought, dead, and have in vain said many
A prayer upon her grave.

As often in Shakespeare, further explanations are promised to the characters, but are not given to the audience: Paulina merely says, "it appears she lives."

Thirdly, though one blushes to mention it, there is the crude popular art of the ballads of Autolycus, of which one describes "how a usurer's wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a burden." "Is it true, think you?" asks Mopsa, unconsciously using one of the most frequently echoed words in the play. We notice that Shakespeare seems to be calling our attention to the incredibility of his story and to its ridiculous and outmoded devices when he makes both Paulina and the Gentlemen who report the recognition of Perdita speak of what is happening as "like an old tale." The magic words pronounced by Paulina that draw speech from Hermione are "Our Perdita is found," and Paulina has previously said that the finding of Perdita is "monstrous to our human reason." And when one of the Gentlemen says "Such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it," we begin to suspect that the kind of art manifested by the play itself is in some respects closer to these "trumpery" ballads than to the sophisticated idealism and realism of Polixenes and Romano.

My late and much beloved colleague Professor Harold S. Wilson has called attention to the similarity between Polixenes' speech and a passage in Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589), which in discussing the relation of art and nature uses the analogy of the gardener and the example of the "gillyvor."1 Puttenham also goes on to say that there is another context where art is "only a bare imitator of nature's works, following and counterfeiting her actions and effects, as the Marmoset doth many countenances and gestures of man; of which sort are the arts of painting and carving." We are reminded of Romano, the painter and carver who is the perfect "ape" of nature. The poet, says Puttenham, is to use all types of art in their proper place, but for his greatest moments he will work "even as nature her self working by her own peculiar virtue and proper instinct and not by example or meditation or exercise as all other artificers do." We feel that Puttenham, writing before Shakespeare had got properly started and two centuries earlier than Coleridge, has nonetheless well characterized the peculiar quality of Shakespeare's art.

The fact that Leontes' state of mind is a parody of the imagination of lover and poet links The Winter's Tale with Shakespeare's 'humor' comedies, which turn on the contrast between fantasy and reality. Katharina moves from shrew to obedient wife; Falstaff from the seducer to the gull of the merry wives; the King of Navarre and his followers from contemplative pedants seeking authority from books to helpless lovers performing the tasks imposed on them by their ladies. Similarly when Florizel says that his love for Perdita

cannot fail but by
The violation of my faith; and then
Let nature crush the sides o' th' earth together
And mar the seeds within! . . .

—he is supplying the genuine form of what Camillo describes in parallel cosmological terms:

you may as well
Forbid the sea for to obey the moon,
As or by oath remove or counsel shake
The fabric of his folly, whose foundation
Is piled upon his faith.

Puttenham begins his treatise by comparing the poet, as a creator, to God, "who without any travail to his divine imagination made all the world of nought." Leontes' jealousy is a parody of a creation out of nothing, as the insistent repetition of the word "nothing" in the first act indicates, and as Leontes himself says in his mysterious mumbling half-soliloquy:

Affection, thy intention stabs the centre!
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat'st with dream—how can this be?
With what's unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow' st nothing.

A humor is restored to a normal outlook by being confronted, not directly with reality, but with a reflection of its own illusion, as Katharina is tamed by being shown the reflection of her own shrewishness in Petruchio. Similarly Leontes, in the final scene, is "mocked with art," the realistic illusion of Romano's statue which gradually reveals itself to be the real Hermione.

In the artificial society of the Sicilian court there are Mamillius, the hopeful prince who dies, and the infant Perdita who vanishes. In the rural society of Bohemia there are the shepherdess Perdita who is "Flora Peering in April's front," and Florizel who, as his name suggests, is her masculine counterpart, and the Prince Charming who later reminds Leontes strongly of Mamillius and becomes Leontes' promised heir. Perdita says that she would like to strew Florizel with flowers:

like a bank for love to lie and play on,
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried,
But quick and in mine arms.

The antithesis between the two worlds is marked by Polixenes, who is handed "flowers of winter" and who proceeds to destroy the festival like a winter wind, repeating the senex iratus role of Leontes in the other kingdom. But though he can bully Perdita, he impresses her no more than Leontes had impressed Hermione. Perdita merely says:

I was not much afeard; for once or twice
I was about to speak and tell him plainly
The selfsame sun that shines upon his court
Hides not his visage from our cottage but
Looks on alike.

There is a faint New Testament echo here, but of course to Perdita the god of the sun would be Apollo, who does see to it that Polixenes is out-witted, though only by the fact that Perdita is really a princess. As always in Shakespeare, the structure of society is unchanged by the comic action. What happens in The Winter's Tale is the opposite of the art of the gardener as Polixenes describes it. A society which is artificial in a limited sense at the beginning of the play becomes at the end still artificial, but natural as well. Nature provides the means for the regeneration of artifice. But still it is true that "The art itself is nature," and one wonders why a speech ending with those words should be assigned to Polixenes, the opponent of the festival.

The context of Polixenes' theory is the Renaissance framework in which there are two levels of the order of nature. Art belongs to human nature, and human nature is, properly speaking, the state that man lived in in Eden, or the Golden Age, before his fall into a lower world of physical nature to which he is not adapted. Man attempts to regain his original state through law, virtue, education, and such rational and conscious aids as art. Here nature is a superior order. In poetry this upper level of nature, uncontaminated by the sin and death of the fall, is usually symbolized by the starry spheres, which are now all that is left of it. The starry spheres produce the music of the spheres, and the harmony of music usually represents this upper level of nature in human life.

Most Shakespearian comedy is organized within this framework, and when it is, its imagery takes on the form outlined by G. Wilson Knight in The Shakespearean Tempest (1932). The tempest symbolizes the destructive elements in the order of nature, and music the permanently constructive elements in it. Music in its turn is regularly associated with the starry spheres, of which the one closest to us, the moon, is the normal focus. The control of the tempest by the harmony of the spheres appears in the image of the moon pulling the tides, an image used once or twice in The Winter's Tale. The action of The Merchant of Venice, too, extends from the cosmological harmonies of the fifth act, where the moon sleeps with Endymion, to the tempest that wrecked Antonio's ships. In Pericles, which employs this imagery of harmony and tempest most exhaustively, Pericles is said to be a master of music, Cerimon revives Thaisa by music, Diana announces her appearance to Pericles by music, and the final recognition scene unites the music and tempest symbols, since it takes place in the temple of Diana during the festival of Neptune. Music also accompanies the revival of Hermione in the final scene of The Winter's Tale. All the attention is absorbed in Hermione as she begins to move while music plays; and we are reminded of Autolycus and of his role as a kind of rascally Orpheus at the sheep-shearing festival: "My clown . . . would not stir his pettitoes till he had both tune and words; which so drew the rest of the herd to me that all their other senses stuck in ears. . . . No hearing, no feeling, but my sir's song, and admiring the nothing of it." Here again Autolycus seems to be used to indicate that something is being subordinated in the play, though by no means eliminated.

In another solstitial play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the cosmology is of this more conventional Renaissance kind. In the middle, between the world of chaos symbolized by tempest and the world of starry spheres symbolized by music, comes the cycle of nature, the world of Eros and Adonis, Puck and Pyramus, the lovegod and the dying god. To this middle world the fairies belong, for the fairies are spirits of the four natural elements, and their dissension causes disorder in nature. Above, the cold fruitless moon of Diana, whose nun Hermia would have to be, hangs over the action. While a mermaid is calming the sea by her song and attracting the stars by the power of harmony, Cupid shoots an arrow at the moon and its vestal: it falls in a parabola on a flower and turns it "purple with love's wound." The story of Pyramus is not very coherently told in Peter Quince's play, but in Ovid there is a curious image about the blood spurting out of Pyramus in an arc like water out of a burst pipe and falling on the white mulberry and turning it purple. Here nature as a cycle of birth and death, symbolized by the purple flower, revolves underneath nature as a settled and predictable order or harmony, as it does also in a third solstitial play, Twelfth Night, which begins with an image comparing music to a wind blowing on a bank of violets.

But in The Winter's Tale nature is associated, not with the credible, but with the incredible: nature as an order is subordinated to the nature that yearly confronts us with the impossible miracle of renewed life. In Ben Jonson's animadversions on Shakespeare's unnatural romances it is particularly the functional role of the dance, the "concupiscence of jigs," as he calls it, that he objects to. But it is the dance that most clearly expresses the pulsating energy of nature as it appears in The Winter's Tale, an energy which communicates itself to the dialogue. Such words as "push" and "wild" (meaning rash) are constantly echoed; the play ends with the words "Hastily lead away," and we are told that the repentant Leontes

o'er and o'er divides him
'Twixt his unkindness and his kindness; th' one
He chides to hell and bids the other grow
Faster than thought of time.

Much is said about magic in the final scene, but there is no magician, no Prospero, only the sense of a participation in the redeeming and reviving power of a nature identified with art, grace, and love. Hence the final recognition is appropriately that of a frozen statue turning into a living presence, and the appropriate Chorus is Time, the destructive element which is also the only possible representative of the timeless.


1 '"Nature and Art' in Winter's Tale 4.4.86 ff.," SAB, 18 (1943), 114-20.

Robert W. Uphaus (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The 'Comic' Mode of The Winter's Tale," in Genre, Vol. III, No. 1, March, 1970, pp. 40-54.

[In the essay below, Uphaus discusses the role of language in establishing the integration of tragic and comic perception in The Winter's Tale.]

There are some striking affinities between tragedy and comedy, not the least of which is their mutual concern with perception. Both kinds of plays represent actions whose fulfillment, in diverse ways, is the fulfillment of feeling. (Susanne Langer has said that feeling is the intaglio image of reality, and I see no reason to argue against this point.) Both kinds of plays frequently challenge the meaning and, ultimately, the seriousness of the universe we live in, and for this reason alone the problems of tragedy are as easily accommodated, though less easily solved, in the comic form. Both kinds of plays also work within well-defined conventions and are built on a similar dramatic paradox: their image of reality heightens and intensifies as a tighter control or artifice is exerted on the play's subject.

Yet tragedy and comedy do not share a similar permissiveness, for they do not share a similar awareness of the nature of play. Tragedy, almost of necessity, represses the kind of knowledge that comedy thrives on—the knowledge that human vitality has a way of righting the inevitable wrong. Mistakes, the subject of both dramatic forms, lead to an inevitable degradation in tragedy while in comedy they bring about a fellowship of mutual remembrance. Much of this has to do with a primary structural difference: unlike tragedy, comedy is less dependent on one character's perception, which is usually all-encompassing, than on a multiple revelation of human possibility. This difference in accommodation of perception may be stated in another way: where tragedy deals with the disintegration of a head of a family, or of a head of state, comedy plays, sometimes very seriously, with a threatened disintegration of state which culminates, however, in an integration of feeling or festivity. This integrative element in The Winter's Tale—the subject of my paper—may be largely explained by a discussion of the play's unique mode of perception.

If comedy is the after-hours of tragedy's curfew, it is truant in the sense that it hangs around and plays in spite of the evening's menace. And its chief source of play is language, frequently the language of tragedy. This may be seen by looking at The Winter's Tale, a play strikingly built on the separation of tragedy and comedy, and by gauging the way the interaction of language and theme reveals this play's distinctive mode of perception.1 The integrative element of Shakespearean comedy usually involves the purgation of a kind of language, and such a purgation is always reinforced by the presentation of a representative kind of dramatic event that is itself the reciprocal of the vying sets of language. And yet it is quite a distance from the recollection of identity (a theme common to Shakespeare's early comedies) to the redemption of the "world," which is the path The Winter's Tale travels. Certainly, like many of the early comedies, The Winter's Tale deals with the disjunction between feeling and fact, but the conversions in this play require a distinctive mode of perception, one that goes beyond the external fact (though it is occasioned by it) and moves more tellingly into the realm of inner being. And this mode of perception, established through a pattern of remembrance, is nowhere better evident than in the play's first scene.

In a scene of less than fifty lines the representative forces of Sicilia and Bohemia are openly revealed, and the play's imagery is inconspicuously established. One of the keys to the play and to this scene is "difference," a matter investigated and finally torn asunder by the play's universalizing impulse. Archidamus immediately alludes to the presence of difference—"You shall see, as I have said, great difference betwixt our Bohemia and your Sicilia." The difference is more than just a climatic one, but it is not until a few lines later that the presence of difference is internalized. Difference characterizes the tentativeness of Polixenes' and Leontes' friendship; having grown together in innocence, they have been separated by kingly responsibilities:

Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, have been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together, though absent: shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced as it were from the ends of opposed winds.

(I. i. 26-32)2

It is interesting to observe that one aspect of ceremony (e.g., "royally attorneyed") is meant to overcome separation, yet the ceremony itself is evidence of the separation. Ceremony is used in these diverse ways throughout the play. Part of the play's pattern of remembrance—shaped, to a great extent, by the image of the "vast," together with the multiple functions of ceremony—appears in the last three lines of the play. Everyone, we are told, will "answer to his part / Performed in this wide gap of time since first / We were dissevered." The theatrical terms—"part," "performed"—are, of course, another aspect of ceremony.

Two other motifs related to the "vast" also appear in this scene: the revivifying power of sons and the proper regard of utterance. Of Mamillius, we are told that he is "a gallant child; one that, indeed, physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh." This medicinal power is mentioned still again, first by Polixenes:

He makes a July's day short as December, And with his varying childness, cures in me Thoughts that would thick my blood.

(I. ii. 169-71)

And later, in a new variation, Paulina assumes this function:

.. . I Do come with words as medicinal as true, Honest as either, to purge him of that humor That presses him from sleep.

(II. iii. 35-38)

Shakespeare's use of language as purgation is as old as The Taming of the Shrew, but the range of implication here is considerably more varied. This is almost immediately apparent when we notice the connections between language as remedy and the dependence of such remedy on the truthfulness of expression—"medicinal as true / Honest as either." Shakespeare has evidently suspended the wit-combats of the earlier comedies, a form of excess meant to effect "remedy," and replaced them with a form of plain statement counterpointing the excess of "sick" people. Buttressed by some powerful disease imagery, health becomes less a pose than a real, almost tragic issue. Archidamus gives the linguistic formula for health, and by implication the index to illness, when he says to Camillo, "I speak as my understanding instructs me, and mine honesty puts it to utterance." (In this regard, it is well to recall Edgar's comment at the end of King Lear: "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.") The point is, something other than honesty puts Leontes' language to utterance.

Act I, scene ii dramatizes the divergence of language hinted at in I. i. Each dramatic occasion—Leontes' request of Polixenes to remain, Polixenes' resistance, Leontes' request of Hermione to intervene and her eventual intervention, and finally Leontes' jealousy—is supported by a corresponding rift in language. The exterior "vast" of separation seeps down into Leontes' language, and he becomes estranged by his own perverted suspicion. His initial request begins innocently enough, but the play's early attentiveness to language indicates the possibility of serious conflict:

LEONTES. Tongue-tied, our Queen? Speak you.
HERMIONE. I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You had drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him you are sure
All in Bohemia's well. . . .
LEONTES. Well said, Hermione.
HERMIONE. To tell he longs to see his son were strong;

But let him say so then, and let him go; But let him swear so, and he shall not stay. . .

(I. ii. 27-31, 33-36)

"Tongue," "speak," "tell," "charge," "say," "swear"—these frequent references to language underlie the play's rhythm of events. It would be difficult to call all of this deception comic, for the source of conflict is language in toto, rather than wit alone. Leontes quickly associates language with the highest human events—his own marriage—and therefore as his suspicion grows he subverts all human discourse. To Hermione he says, "thou never spok'st / To better purpose" (with the exception of her marriage vow), only now he associates her purpose with the destruction of that vow. For the moment, then, it is the play's intention to "stab the center."

This sudden reversal of trust in turn brings about a mistrust of the "real." Leontes rejects his wife, his friends, his children—all in the name of "play." Where play in the earlier comedies is linked with the verbal, with dexterity of identity and enhancement of event, play now challenges the universe; it perverts the memory of human goodness and sullies human belief. Play intensifies suspicion where formerly it mediated mistrust:

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 clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play.

(I. ii. 187-90)

The pun on "issue" distorts the revivifying powers of children; their innocence is corrupt because they reflect the memory of events gone sour; memory is brought to focus through suspicion:

Physic for't there's none;

(I. ii. 200)

It will let in and out the enemy,
With bag and baggage. Many thousand on's
Have the disease, and feel't not. How now, boy!

(I. ii. 204-7)

Leontes links birth, once symbolic of innocence, with disease. Act I closes, however, with an effective counterpoint to Leontes' suspicion—the assertion of trust. Camillo implores Polixenes to flee the diseased kingdom, and for evidence he urges truth unverified as the only requirement: "Be not uncertain / . . . I / Have uttered truth; which if you seek to prove / I dare not stand by" (I. ii. 442-45).

Except for the important introduction of Paulina, Act II pretty well mirrors the design of Act I. The issues of language, belief, knowledge, play, disease, are all present, though the use of language seems to receive the thematic nod. Paulina is another in the long line of Ladies of the Tongue, yet her thematic function carries associations far exceeding the possibilities of a Kate or Beatrice. Indeed, as the "vast" widens and the characters are further separated from one another, Paulina becomes the character who perpetuates the play's pattern of remembrance: the re-creation of the past, and ultimately the regeneration of Leontes, is left almost entirely up to her. And, although Paulina dates back to Shakespeare's early use of "practicers," she performs a mediating function rather unlike any other in the earlier comedies: on her the redemption of the "world" and the final sanctity of art depend.

The three scenes of Act II successively trace out the play's pattern of illness and correspondingly they allude to the play's pattern of regeneration through memory. Scene i, centered around Leontes' repudiation of Hermione, abounds with references to the perversion of reason: "In my just censure, in my true opinion! / Alack, for lesser knowledge" (II. i. 37-38); "All's true that is mistrusted" (II. i. 48); "You smell this business with a sense as cold / As is a dead man's nose; but I do see't and feel't" (II. i. 151-52); "What, Lack I credit" (II. i. 157)—and this pattern of suspicion culminates in Leontes' final assertion that

Our prerogative
Calls not your counsels, but our natural goodness
Imparts this. (II. i. 163-65)

which is a perversion of Archidamus' opening statement (I. i. 19-21): "Believe me, I speak as my understanding instructs me, and as mine honesty puts it to utterance."

Scene ii works toward the redemptive power of Paulina's speech, itself established through her continual association with nature (particularly the cycle of Perdita's birth and Hermione's "death"). Paulina's medicinal powers, her power to evoke memory as a remedy to suspicion, lie of course in language—"If I prove honey-mouthed, let my tongue blister" (II. ii. 32); and far more conclusively:

Tell her, Emilia,
I'll use that tongue I have; if wit flow from't
As boldness from my bosom, let't not be doubted
I shall do good. (II. ii. 50-53)

Her ability to mediate the play's "tragic" conflict is unquestioned: "Do not you fear—upon mine honor, I / Will stand betwixt you and danger" (II. ii. 64-65). Act II, scene iii is built around two crucial and mutually interpenetrating speeches. Presenting herself as Leontes' "physician" and his most obedient "counsellor," Paulina attempts to purge Leontes of suspicion, only to experience an explicit dramatization of the "vast":

. . . I
Do come with words as medicinal as true,
Honest as either, to purge him of that humor
That presses him from sleep.
LEONTES. What noise there, ho?
PAULINA. No noise, my lord, but needful conference . . .

(II. iii. 35-39)

There is an evident distinction between "needful conference" and "noise," and it is the space separating the two views that Paulina directs her comments to. She...


Character Analysis

A Cinderella Story

Perdita’s story is the stuff fairy tales are made of. The beautiful daughter of King Leontes and Queen Hermione, Perdita is born in a prison and rejected by her father after her mother is jailed and accused of adultery. In Latin, Perdita means “that which is lost,” which is pretty appropriate given that Perdita is abandoned in the Bohemian “desert.” For the next sixteen years of her life, she’s raised (unaware of her true identity) by an Old Shepherd in the Bohemian countryside, where she meets and falls in love with Prince Florizel. In the play’s dramatic conclusion, Perdita is miraculously reunited with her father and mother and, presumably, lives happily ever after with her dreamy prince. (We weren’t kidding about the fairy tale stuff.)

Perdita’s Symbolic Function

Perdita seems to have an important symbolic function in the play. The first time we hear from her, she’s all grown up and living in the Bohemian countryside. Playing the role of “Queen of the Feast” (hostess of the Bohemian sheep-shearing festival”), Perdita is quite a vision. She’s decked out with flowers and her beauty rivals that of the goddess “Flora” (4.4.1). Her beauty and her love for Florizel are also full of youthful spirit and possibility.

When Perdita returns to Sicily with Florizel, she takes this spirit with her and injects it into the Sicilian court like a breath of fresh air. As we know, Leontes and his court experience some pretty profound suffering after Perdita is lost to them – Leontes tortures himself for his sins against his family and Sicily is left without an heir to the throne for sixteen years. But, when Perdita returns, Sicily is given new life.

Perdita Timeline


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