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Twinned Lambs

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Polixenes’s description of his childhood friendship with Leontes is probably the most famous example of imagery in The Winter’s Tale. According to Polixenes, when they played together as innocent young boys, they were like “twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,” which is a very sweet way to describe the innocence and joy of a carefree childhood friendship between two boys. It also implies that Polixenes and Leontes were so close that they were practically identical (“twinn’d”). By the way, this is also a simile, which compares one thing directly to another. As in, the boys were like lambs.

So, you’re probably thinking, “Aww, what a sweet way for Polixenes to talk about his best childhood bud.” Well, we might want to rethink this because Polixenes’s lovely description of the nearly identical boys gives way to something darker:

We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did.
Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly 'not guilty;' the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours.

What’s interesting is that Polixenes claims that he and Leontes would not even have been “guilty” of original sin if they had remained young and innocent. Note: The doctrine of “ill doing” (a.k.a. “original sin”) is the idea that all human beings are born tainted because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, according to the Bible’s book of Genesis. In other words, Polixenes suggests that he and Leontes would have remained totally innocent if they hadn’t grown up to become interested in sex (“stronger blood” means “sexual passion”) and girls (like Hermione and Polixenes’s wife). This implies that sexual relationships with women mark the end of childhood and are probably the reason why Polixenes and Leontes aren’t as close as they once were.

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