The Winter’s Tale
How we cite our quotes:
There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by the arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour: (1.2.18)
Once Leontes gets it into his mind that Hermione is sleeping with Polixenes and carrying the man’s love child, he insists that, historically, cheating wives are an all-too-common problem. What’s interesting about this passage is Leontes's crude metaphor, which links a woman’s vagina with a private “pond” that can be “fish’d” by any man with a pole.
My wife's a hobby-horse, deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench that puts to
Before her troth-plight: say't and justify't. (1.2.28)
When Leontes crudely calls his wife a “hobby-horse,” he suggests that she’s like an animal that can be mounted and ridden by men. Not only that, but he compares her, in a derogatory way, to a “flax-wench” (a low-class girl who works with flax), which suggests that Leontes believes sexual promiscuity can make a queen as lowly as a commoner. This helps to explain why Leontes feels justified in locking the queen away in prison, which further strips her of dignity.
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. (2.1.3)
When Leontes seizes Mammilius from his mother, he declares that’s he’s glad his son had a wet-nurse because Mammilius is already too much like his mother. Say what!? Leontes (like Shakespeare’s contemporaries) believes that breast milk can transmit a nursing woman’s traits and characteristics to an infant. (We’re not kidding. There are even sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advice books about how to choose the best wet-nurse so your kid doesn’t grow up to be a loser.) Mammilius, whose name is derived from the word “mamma” (meaning “breast” in Latin”), is closely linked with his mother and a woman’s capacity to nurture children in general. (Makes sense, given that young Mammilius spends most of his time with Mama Hermione and her ladies in waiting.) Because he believes Hermione has cheated on him, Leontes can’t stand the idea of Mammilius being close to his mother or similar to Hermione in any way. Check out our “Character Analysis” of Mammilius if you want to think about this some more.