The Winter’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE WINTER’S TALE
Hermione, exasperated by her son Mamillius, leaves him temporarily with her ladies-in-waiting, who exchange wit with him. He likes Lady #2 better, “Not for because / Your brows are blacker, yet black brows they say / Become some women best” (II.i.7-9). [Thus we have a “dark lady” as a lady to the Queen. Anne Vavasour?] The women also allude to Hermione’s pregnancy.
When Hermione returns, she requests that Mamillius tell a story, and he asserts that “A sad tale’s is best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins” (II.i.25-26). He begins to whisper his story to her: “There was a man … Dwelt by a churchyard” (II.i.29-30). [See Twelfth Night III.i.1-7.] “Leontes and his son are alike in the capacity to summon out of nothing things that both are and are not there” (Goddard, II 262). That’s all of the tale we hear as this interchange fades out when Leontes and his lords enter. The boy’s story, like the story of his life, will be cut short. Or perhaps in a way the rest of the play should be called Mamillius’ Dream, because it hath no Mamillius. Yet this is the key moment for critics to justify the title of the play: “The phrase meant something like ‘fairy tale,’ or a diverting entertainment, largely for the amusement of women, children, and the old” (Garber 830). [Perhaps the play was meant to appeal to Elizabeth in all three capacities.]
Leontes has heard about Polixenes and Camillo fleeing and interprets this as confirmation of his suspicions:
How blest am I
In my just censure! in my true 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.
“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” (Bloom 648). Because Leontes himself is responsible for this supposed knowledge of the spider, one of my students called him an “information bulemic.” Additionally, the paranoid Leontes detects a plot on his life, one probably already hatched long ago.
“All’s true that is mistrusted” (II.i.48), says Leontes, taking in the wrong way the subtitle of Henry VIII (Ogburn and Ogburn 748). Leontes removes Mamillius from Hermione and tells her she can interact with her bastard instead. She denies the fetus is Polixenes’ but is generally collected about all this. Leontes publicly accuses her of being an “adult’ress” (II.i.88), a “bed-swerver” (II.i.93), and a traitor (II.i.89) — that she knew about Polixenes and Camillo’s plots — and orders her imprisonment. Hermione assures Leontes he will regret these accusations: “How will this grieve you, / When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that / You thus have publish’d me!” (II.i.96-98). She speaks of her grief at these circumstances but remains stately: “There’s some ill planet reigns; / I must be patient” (II.i.105-106). When Hermione leaves, the lords, especially Antigonus, protest and insist on the queen’s innocence. Leontes dismisses their counsel from this point on. Instead he has sent two lords “to sacred Delphos, to Apollo’s temple” (II.i.183) to consult the oracle.
Textual notes frequently accuse Shakespeare of confusing the famous oracle of Delphi on the Greek mainland with the island of Delos, Apollo’s supposed birthplace. But as usual, Shakespeare is better informed than his critics, as R.L. Miller notes, citing Terence Spencer [“Shakespeare’s Isle of Delphos.” Modern Language Review (April 1952)]:
In the early seventeenth century, the island famous in antiquity as Delos, the sacred birthplace of Apollo, was commonly known as Delphos…. The Oracle of Delphi was certainly more famous than the Oracle of Delos…. But it seems to have been forgotten that, in literature, one of the most famous descriptions of an Apolline oracle was Delian, not Delphic [Virgil’s Aeneid III.73-101]…. He [Shakespeare] is writing in accordance with the state of knowledge in his own time. (Spencer, qtd. in Clark 770)
And Clark notes that Sir Walter Raleigh served a relevant function for Queen Elizabeth during his rise in court: “she took him for a kind of oracle,” reported one courtier (qtd. in Clark 755; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 750).
Paulina, wife to the lord Antigonus and “an example of good impulsiveness as Leontes is of bad” (Goddard, II 273), tries to visit Hermione: “Good lady, / No court in Europe is too good for thee, / What dost thou then in prison?” (II.ii.2-4). But the jailer will let her see only Emilia, one of the queen’s ladies, who reports, “She is, something before her time, deliver’d” (II.ii.23): a daughter has been born prematurely. Paulina proposes that she present the infant to Leontes to change his attitude: “We do not know / How he may soften at the sight o’ th’ child” (II.ii.37-38). She convinces the jailer that this is an appropriate endeavor.
In December 1577, the Duchess of Suffolk, the mother of Peregrine Bertie, tried to present the baby Elizabeth to her estranged father, Edward de Vere (Anderson 129). Like Paulina, Lady Suffolk seems to have had a “high-handed manner” (Ogburn and Ogburn 756; cf. 139).
A paranoid Leontes babbles insanely about treacheries. Like Brutus, Macbeth, Richard III and others, he suffers from insomnia now (Garber 836). But perhaps burning his wife to death will help:
say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moi’ty of my rest
Might come to me again. (II.iii.7-9)
A servant brings news that Mamillius has stabilized. He has taken ill, Leontes says because of shame about his mother’s dishonor. “The illness that afflicts Mamillius bears a symbolic relationship to his father’s growing mental sickness” (Wells 343). When the servant leaves, Leontes tells himself to direct his vengeance towards Hermione.
Paulina arrives with the infant, and despite a servant’s warning that Leontes hasn’t slept, she says she brings comfort. Leontes particularly did not want to see Paulina, and he berates Antigonus for not controlling his wife. Paulina declares herself to Leontes:
I beseech you hear me, who professes
Myself your loyal servant, your physician,
Your most obedient counsellor; yet that dares
Less appear so, in comforting your evils,
Than such as most seem yours….
This is a position in which de Vere must have often found himself as servant to the Queen.
Paulina persists in proclaiming the queen honorable and sets down the infant, sending Leontes into fits: they’re all traitors, and the bastard infant and Hermione should be burned! At one point he refers to Paulina as “Dame Partlet” (II.iii.76). The footnote explanation, as with the identical allusion in Henry IV, Part One (III.iii.52), claims this is a “traditional name for a hen.” But Jeez Febreze, this is no Stratford barnyard “traditional name”; it comes from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale — it’s poetic tradition.
Paulina lists the traits that suggest the baby is Leontes’:
Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father …
. . .
And thou, good goddess Nature, which hast made it
So like to him that got it, if thou hast
The ordering of the mind too, ‘mongst all colors
No yellow in ‘t, lest she suspect, as he does,
Her children not her husband’s!
Leontes says Antigonus should be hanged for not controlling his wife. Antigonus says all men in the nation would have to be executed if that were sufficient cause. Leontes wants Paulina burned, but she says such tyranny “will ignoble make you, / Yea, scandalous to the world” (II.iii.120-121).
Paulina leaves. But convinced Antigonus bears responsibility for Paulina, Leontes commands him to burn the infant or his entire family will be killed and Leontes himself will bash out the brains of the baby. After the lords’ appeals, Leontes allows instead for Antigonus to have the infant exposed far from Sicilia, “Where chance may nurse or end it” (II.iii.183). Antigonus takes the infant and says,
Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens
To be thy nurses! Wolves and bears, they say,
Casting their savageness aside, have done
Like offices of pity.
A letter from Ralph Lane, Governor of the new colony in Virginia, to Walsingham, summarizing the experiences and hopes of the first colonists, ends: “God will command even the ravens to feed us” (qtd. in Clark 756). Thus Clark supports the reading that “Perdita was in reality the infant Colony organized under the direction of Sir Walter Ralegh, carried to the New World by Sir Richard Grenville, and left to face the perils of the unknown under the leadership of Governor Ralph Lane” (756).
Leontes asserts, “I’ll not rear / Another’s issue” (II.iii.192-193). The return of the lords sent to the oracle, gone now for twenty-three days (II.iii.198), is announced. All must assemble for Hermione’s public trial.