The Winter’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE WINTER’S TALE
Cleomines and Dion, the two lords back from Delphos, discuss their impressions of their trip and the impressive experience. Cleomines says that the event “so surpris’d my sense / That I was nothing” (III.i.10-11). They are sure the sealed message from the oracle will clear up this ado about Hermione.
In this short description we are offered a complete reversal of the conditions of Sicilia and its king: a delicate, sweet climate instead of infection; a fertile island, rather than a sterile land; a ceremonious and solemn sacrifice, symbolically made, rather than the unnatural and perverse sacrifice of the newborn child. Most of all, we hear Cleomenes’ wonder at the voice of the oracle, which was so overwhelming that, in his own phrase, “I was nothing.” Leontes had reduced all the world outside himself to nothing — the sky, Bohemia, his wife. Cleomenes does the opposite, feeling himself rendered insignificant by the voice of the god. Fittingly, Apollo is the god not only of poetry and music … but also of healing. (Garber 837)
The scene ends with the hope, “And gracious be the issue!” (III.i.22).
Leontes insists that putting Hermione, “The daughter of a king” (III.ii.3), on trial will absolve him of tyranny. [Hermione later in the scene mentions that “The Emperor of Russia was my father” (III.ii.119).] Hermione is charged with treason, adultery, and conspiracy (III.ii.14-16). Some Oxfordians think the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, is pertinent in terms of the eloquent defense Hermione makes (Ogburn and Ogburn 754). She points out the double bind of not being believed in the first place, so how can she defend herself effectively? Hermione nevertheless lays out the issues and does declare herself innocent. The dialogue is hyperconscious and roundabout, with Leontes declaring the female infant a bastard again. Hermione welcomes the death penalty she is threatened with, but as for her innocence, she asks that Apollo be her judge, through the oracle. One of the lords calls for the message from the oracle to be read. Cleomenes and Dion are called in with the sealed letter, which when opened states, without the characteristic ambiguity for which oracles were famous,
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. (III.ii.132-136)
It’s almost a comic bluntness. “But Leontes, of course, denies the oracle, denies, in effect, holy writ” (Garber 838). He immediately dismisses this message and commands that the trial proceed.
A servant enters, fearing wrath for delivering a dismaying message, and reports that Mamillius is dead. “Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice,” laments Leontes, suddenly. Hermione faints at the news and Paulina bitterly tells Leontes to watch her die. But he commands that she be cared for and he is stricken with remorse, praying to Apollo for forgiveness. Leontes vows to earn back Hermione’s love and win back Camillo’s trust. “The dramatic problem results from Shakespeare’s lavishing of his art on Leontes’s madness, which is too persuasive to be cured so suddenly” (Bloom 649).
Paulina returns, acting as “an embodiment of Leontes’ conscience, rebuking him in his folly, … consoling him in his contrition” later (Wells 343) — here railing at Leontes and reporting that Hermione has died. Leontes will visit the burial chapel for his wife and son: “Once a day I’ll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation” (III.ii.238-240) — an idea he must have gotten from Much Ado About Nothing.
The play “has not only gods, but a bear, a storm, and a yacht, from the machine. And as for its construction, if it had been expressly written to defy the classic unities, it could hardly have violated them more flagrantly” (Goddard, II 263).
The lord Antigonus, with the infant, lands on the stormy sea-coast of Bohemia, whose nonexistence gave Ben Jonson fits (Anderson 86), though scholars have since noted that Bohemia did have a sea-coast for a few years in the thirteenth century (e.g., Asimov 157). Garber tries to dismiss this in a parenthetical comment: “Ingenious critics have consulted old maps to demonstrate that Bohemia once did have a seacoast, but the phrase ‘the seacoast of Bohemia’ has entered the language as an equivalent of ‘never-never land,’ a place of Utopian possibility” (Garber 829). I have never heard the phrase outside of discussions of this play.
After being warned by a mariner not to venture too far inland, Antigonus speaks of a dream he had of the dead Hermione, commanding him to name the child Perdita (= the lost one): “the babe / Is counted lost for ever” (III.iii.32-33). Antigonus lays the infant down with a scroll. Then a storm begins and a bear chases him off. The arbitrary goofiness is famous: after Antigonus states, “I am gone for ever” (III.iii.58), the stage direction notes, “Exit pursued by a bear.”
In plot terms, the killing off of Antigonus means Leontes now has “no means of finding his daughter” (Wells 344). But if we allow for “ever” to be working as an anagram for Vere, then the loss of the offspring and the devouring may have direct “bearing” on the authorship “issue.” Is the bear a symbol? of the power of irrational violence? Or, as in a later phrase in the play, authority? Or is this just what it has come to signify: completely weird arbitrariness? Some degree of desperation can be detected in the critical commentary. Garber notes that bearbaiting was “a favorite with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I” (Garber 839), and that bears hibernate so that they are symbolic of rebirth (Garber 839).
A Shepherd enters, complaining about youths between the ages of ten and twenty-three in general, and specifically some young men who, hunting in this weather, have frightened off a couple of his sheep. He comes upon the infant, checks out its sex, and adopts it. His son, a Clown figure, enters. He reports witnessing the deaths of the entire crew of a wrecked ship, and then Antigonus having been mauled by the bear: “the bear tore out his shoulder-bone” (III.iii.95). The sea, the crew, the man, the bear, and the weather all roared. This was so recent that “The men are not yet cold under water, nor the bear half din’d on the gentleman” (III.iii.105-106). The Shepherd presents his finding: a changeling (III.iii.118). And in the bundle the two discover “fairy gold” (III.iii.123). They will keep their discovery of the baby and the gold a secret. The son will “go see if the bear be gone from the gentleman and how much he hath eaten” (III.iii.129-130). If there are any remains, they’ll bury them.
A daring interpretation has the Shepherd and his Clown son representing John Shakspere and his son William (Ogburn and Ogburn 748), perhaps a later addition or expansion of the play, which does become structurally odd from this point on. If so, the later portrayal of them as “ambitious for gentility” (Ogburn and Ogburn 993) makes sense. It is tempting then to consider “Perdita” at this point as representing the works of “Shake-speare.” The bear of authority has eaten Antigonus, the author, with his last line: “I am gone for ever” (III.iii.58) with its E.Ver pun (Ogburn and Ogburn 758). This would place the play at about 1586, the time of the annuity and, presumably, a gag order. “We are lucky, boy, and to be so still requires nothing but secrecy” (III.iii.125-126), says the Shepherd (Ogburn and Ogburn 995).