Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Quotes

  • Jealousy

    CAMILLO
    The heavens continue their loves!
    ARCHIDAMUS
    I think there is not in the world either malice or
    matter to alter it. (1.1.4)

    Shakespeare injects a whole lot of irony into the play when Camillo and Archidamus predict that nothing could ever come between Leontes and Polixenes, who have been best buds since childhood. We know that Leontes's jealousy will break up the friendship (as well as Leontes's family).

    [Aside] Too hot, too hot!
    To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
    I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
    But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
    May a free face put on, derive a liberty
    From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
    And well become the agent; 't may, I grant;
    But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
    As now they are, and making practised smiles,
    As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as 'twere
    The mort o' the deer; O, that is entertainment
    My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,
    Art thou my boy? (1.2.11)

    Out of nowhere, Leontes turns CRAZY jealous at the sight of Polixenes and the pregnant Hermione chatting it up and touching hands. (If you’ve read Romeo and Juliet, you know that hands and fingertips are considered to be erotic appendages, which is why Romeo gets all excited about pressing his palms against Juliet’s.) Although there’s been some suggestion that Leontes and Polixenes are a bit competitive (check out “Friendship” for more on this), we don’t really see this coming, especially given that Hermione is merely entertaining her husband’s childhood friend and Polixenes is being nice to his pal’s wife. Still, Leontes interprets their behavior as that of two secret lovers. When Leontes turns to his young son and says “Mamillius, Art thou my boy?”, we know that Leontes is questioning whether or not he’s the biological father of Mamillius and his unborn child.

    We also notice that the quality of Leontes’s speech is affected by his jealousy. Notice all the pauses (marked by commas) in the middle of his lines? This gives his speech a choppy, erratic affect that mirrors his distraught emotional state. Leontes is so worked up about the imaginary affair between his wife and BFF that his speech breaks up and lacks the kind of fluidity that we’ve come to expect from the formerly eloquent king.

    Why, that's my bawcock. What, hast
    smutch'd thy nose?
    They say it is a copy out of mine. Come, captain,
    We must be neat; not neat, but cleanly, captain:
    And yet the steer, the heifer and the calf
    Are all call'd neat.--Still virginalling
    Upon his palm!--How now, you wanton calf!
    Art thou my calf? (1.2.12)

    Now that Leontes suspects Hermione of sleeping with Polixenes, Leontes’s continues to wonder if Mamillius is in fact his son, despite the fact that Mamillius looks just like a “copy” of his dad. This is a pretty strange moment – as Leontes horses around with Mamillius, he keeps one eye on his wife and friend and speaks in veiled terms about being cuckolded (cheated on). For instance, Leontes puns on the word “neat,” which means “clean” (he tells Mamillius they need to be tidy) and also “cattle with horns” (Leontes’s name for Mamillius is “calf”). This is all tinged with sexual meaning. Horns, as we know, are associated with cuckolds, which is exactly what Leontes believes he is.

    Thou want'st a rough pash and the shoots that I have,
    To be full like me: yet they say we are
    Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
    That will say anything but were they false
    As o'er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false
    As dice are to be wish'd by one that fixes
    No bourn 'twixt his and mine, yet were it true
    To say this boy were like me. Come, sir page,
    Look on me with your welkin eye: sweet villain! (1.2.13)

    We weren’t kidding earlier when we said that Leontes is obsessed with the idea that Mamillius may not be his son. (He also thinks Hermione is carrying Polixenes’s love child, which is why he later has Perdita abandoned in the countryside.) Here, Leontes notes that a lot of women have commented that Mamillius and Leontes look alike but then he insists that most women are also liars. It seems that Leontes’s view of women may play a role in his (unfounded) jealousy. If Leontes believes that most women are dishonest (socially and sexually), then it’s not so surprising that he would think his wife is deceitful as well.

    HERMIONE
    If you would seek us,
    We are yours i' the garden: shall's attend you there?
    LEONTES
    To your own bents dispose you: you'll be found,
    Be you beneath the sky.
    Aside
    I am angling now,
    Though you perceive me not how I give line.
    Go to, go to!
    How she holds up the neb, the bill to him!
    And arms her with the boldness of a wife
    To her allowing husband! (1.2.15)

    Leontes think he’s pretty crafty and suggests that he’s going to catch Hermione and Polixenes in a compromising position. Basically, Leontes refuses Hermione’s invitation to join her and Polixenes in the garden and then uses it as an excuse to build a case (in his mind) against his wife and friend, who are merely being friendly and playful toward each other.

    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
    […]
    Whiles other men have gates and those gates open'd,
    As mine, against their will. Should all despair
    That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
    Would hang themselves. […]
    No barricado for a belly; know't;
    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! (1.2.18)

    Leontes’s jealousy leads him to conclude that “many a man” has been cheated on by his wife, which implies that most women are promiscuous. He also uses a pretty crude metaphor to describe infidelity when he suggests that a woman’s vagina is like a “gate” that can be penetrated by a military enemy (another man). When he insists there’s “no barricade [defense] for a belly,” he’s basically saying there’s no way for a man to guard his wife’s womb/sexuality. All of this has the effect of turning matters of love and sex into a kind of warfare, which speaks to jealousy’s destructive nature.

    CAMILLO
    Business, my lord? I think most understand
    Bohemia stays here longer.
    LEONTES
    Ha?
    CAMILLO
    Stays here longer.
    LEONTES
    Ay, but why?
    CAMILLO
    To satisfy your highness and the entreaties
    Of our most gracious mistress.
    LEONTES
    Satisfy!
    The entreaties of your mistress! satisfy! (1.2.5)

    At Leontes’s prompting, Camillo innocently remarks that everybody knows Polixenes has decided to stay in Sicily because Queen Hermione asked him to. (We should point out that Leontes is the one who asked Hermione convince his friend to stay a while longer in the first place.) When Camillo says Polixenes wanted to “satisfy” Hermione, he means that Polixenes wanted to be polite and make the queen happy by staying in town a little while longer. But Polixenes (deliberately?) misinterprets Camillo – his repetition of the phrase “satisfy!” suggests that Leontes thinks Polixenes has decided to stay in Bohemia in order to sexually gratify Queen Hermione. Poor Camillo has no idea what’s going on and doesn’t realize that he has inadvertently fueled Leontes’s jealousy and suspicion.

    Is whispering nothing?
    Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
    Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
    Of laughing with a sigh?--a note infallible
    Of breaking honesty--horsing foot on foot?
    Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
    Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
    Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
    That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?
    Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
    The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
    My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
    If this be nothing. (1.2.29)

    As Leontes’s jealousy builds, he continues to manufacture “evidence” that Hermione and Polixenes are sleeping together. Leontes’s irrational thinking is a lot like that of Othello, the Shakespeare character who kills his wife when he wrongly suspects she’s having an affair. Both men have no real proof of infidelity but they are absolutely convinced that their women are disloyal. One difference between Othello and Leontes, however, is that Othello’s jealousy is fed by Iago, who convinces him of his wife’s “guilt.” Leontes, as we know, convinces himself that his wife is unfaithful.

    Good my lord, be cured
    Of this diseased opinion, and betimes;
    For 'tis most dangerous. (1.2.11)

    Here, Camillo urges Leontes to get a grip on his jealousy, which is like a terrible “disease.” The metaphor appears later as well, when Camillo insists that jealousy is a “sickness” that infects everyone around it (1.2.22). This turns out to be true because Leontes’s jealousy destroys his family, his friendship with Polixenes, and his kingdom’s political health (since Sicily is without an heir after Mamillius’s death and Perdita’s abandonment).

    Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
    To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
    The purity and whiteness of my sheets,
    Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
    Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (1.2.33)

    Leontes’s insistence that he wouldn’t “sully the purity and whiteness of his sheets [marriage bed]” by wrongly accusing his wife of infidelity seems to echo Shakespeare’s earlier play, Othello. In the play, Othello goes on and on about how his wife, Desdemona, has been “sullied” by her sexual infidelity and decides that it would be “just” to strangle her on their soiled marriage bed (4.1.39). Both Othello and Leontes, as we’ve said earlier, unfairly accuse their wives of cheating.

  • Friendship

    Verily, I speak it in the freedom of my knowledge:
    we cannot with such magnificence--in so rare--I know
    not what to say. We will give you sleepy drinks,
    that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
    may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
    us. (1.1.3)

    Hmm. Archidamus’s uneasy comments, about how Bohemia may not be as good at entertaining as Sicily, seem to suggest a bit of competition between Leontes and Polixenes, don’t you think? This could be the play’s first hint that the long-standing friendship between Polixenes and Leontes is imperfect.

    Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
    They were trained together in their childhoods; and
    there rooted betwixt them then such an affection,
    which cannot choose but branch now. 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. The heavens continue their loves! (1.1.4)

    Although Polixenes and Leontes now communicate via letters, the exchange of gifts, and the occasional visit, when the two men were younger, they were practically inseparable. Here, Camillo uses the language of horticulture to describe the way the two kings were brought up or “trained together in their childhoods,” creating a deep bond and affection that “rooted betwixt them” before Leontes and Polixenes were forced apart, or “branch[ed]” off from each other.

    I think there is not in the world either malice or
    matter to alter it. (1.1.4)

    Archidamus notes that Leontes and Polixenes have such a deep affection for one another, it seems like there’s nothing in the world that could possibly come between them. Shakespeare is being pretty ironic here – in the very next scene, we’ll see that Leontes's unfounded jealousy and “malice” will “alter” the men’s friendship and will also destroy Leontes's family.

    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. (1.2.10)

    Polixenes’s description of his childhood friendship with Leontes is probably the most famous example of imagery in The Winter’s Tale. When they played together as innocent young boys, they were like “twinn’d [identical] 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. (By the way, this is also a simile, which compares one thing directly to another. As in the boys were like lambs.)

    What’s also interesting about this passage is that Polixenes claims they would not even have been “guilty” of original sin if they had remained young and innocent, (Note: The doctrine of “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 book of Genesis.) In other words, Polixenes suggests that he and Leontes would have remained 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). According to this passage, sexual relationships with women, then, mark the end of childhood and are probably the reason why Polixenes and Leontes aren’t as close as they once were.

    [Aside] Too hot, too hot!
    To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
    I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
    But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
    May a free face put on, derive a liberty
    From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
    And well become the agent; 't may, I grant; (2.1.11)

    Uh oh. Looks like somebody’s jealous. As Leontes watches his wife entertain his best friend (which he asked her to do), Leontes suspects the pair of using the guise of friendly banter to flirt it up right in front of Leontes. Leontes is completely wrong, of course, but here we see his first suspicion that his wife is sleeping with his BFF, which you can read more about by going to “Jealousy.”

    LEONTES
    My brother,
    Are you so fond of your young prince as we
    Do seem to be of ours?
    POLIXENES
    If at home, sir,
    He's all my exercise, my mirth, my matter, (2.1.16)

    Now, this is a weird thing for Leontes to say, don’t you think? When he asks Polixenes if he loves his son as much as Leontes and Hermione love young Mamillius, it seems like Leontes is using his love for his boy as a way to compete with his friend.

    O, then my best blood turn To an infected jelly and my name Be yoked with his that did betray the Best! Turn then my freshest reputation to A savour that may strike the dullest nostril Where I arrive, and my approach be shunn'd, Nay, hated too, worse than the great'st infection That e'er was heard or read! (1.2.23)

    When Camillo alerts Polixenes to Leontes's jealousy, Polixenes denies sleeping with his best friend’s wife and suggests that such a betrayal would be tantamount to Judas’s “betray[al]” of Jesus (the “Best”). FYI – Judas is a biblical figure who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He’s the guy who sold out Jesus to the Roman authorities for a bag of money (Matthew 26.14). In other words, betraying a close male friend is just about one of the worst things a guy can do. To emphasize his point, Polixenes uses the language of disease and decay – he says that if he were to betray his BFF, his blood would turn to “infected” jelly and his “freshest reputation” would be turned to a foul odor (“a savour”) worse than the nastiest “infection” that man had ever seen. We see a lot of this “disease” talk elsewhere in the play, where it’s used to describe how Leontes's jealousy “infects” everybody around him (1.2.22).

    PAULINA
    I say, I come
    From your good queen.
    LEONTES
    Good queen!
    PAULINA
    Good queen, my lord,
    Good queen; I say good queen;
    And would by combat make her good, so were I
    A man, the worst about you. (2.3.5)

    Paulina is a loyal friend to Hermione and just about the only person brave enough to stand up to Leontes's tyranny. Here, she insists that if she were a man, she’d engage in knightly combat in order to prove Paulina’s innocence. The interesting thing about Paulina’s role in the play is that, after Leontes's repents (when he learns Mamillius is dead), Paulina becomes a trusted advisor and spiritual guide to Leontes for the next sixteen years. Paulina, then, replaces Polixenes and Camillo as Leontes's trusted confidante.

    I pray thee, good Camillo, be no more importunate:
    'tis a sickness denying thee any thing; a death to
    grant this. (4.2.1)

    Here, Polixenes begs Camillo not to leave because it makes him sick to have to “deny” his friend anything. When Camillo expresses his desire to return to his home in Sicily, we notice a couple of things. First, it seems as though Camillo has replaced Leontes as Polixenes’s best pal and confidante. Second, Camillo and Polixenes have become so close that Polixenes feels as though he might die if he allows Camillo to leave him.

    As thou lovest me, Camillo, wipe not out the rest of
    thy services by leaving me now: the need I have of
    thee thine own goodness hath made; better not to
    have had thee than thus to want thee: thou, having
    made me businesses which none without thee can
    sufficiently manage, must either stay to execute
    them thyself or take away with thee the very
    services thou hast done; which if I have not enough
    considered, as too much I cannot, to be more
    thankful to thee shall be my study, and my profit
    therein the heaping friendships. (4.2.2)

    At the prospect of losing Camillo, Polixenes pleads with his friend as though his life depended on it. When Polixenes muses that he would have been “better” of without having Camillo’s “service” and friendship at all, we can’t help but notice that Polixenes inverts the age old adage, “it’s better to have loved and lost than not have loved at all.”

  • Youth and Old Age

    CAMILLO
    I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
    is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
    subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
    crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
    see him a man.
    ARCHIDAMUS
    Would they else be content to die?
    CAMILLO
    Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
    desire to live.
    ARCHIDAMUS
    If the king had no son, they would desire to live
    on crutches till he had one. (1.1.5)

    Camillo insists that young Mamillius, the kingdom’s pride and joy, has the capacity to restore the health of the Sicilian subjects and makes old people want to live longer. This is kind of an odd thing to say and it’s also ironic given that Mamillius will fall ill and die in the play’s third act. Despite Mamillius’s fate, however, Camillo’s words also seem to anticipate the way in which youth really will have a restorative and healing power in Act 5, when Florizel and Perdita’s blossoming young love will reunite their families at the Sicilian court.

    We were, fair queen,
    Two lads that thought there was no more behind
    But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
    And to be boy eternal.
    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. (1.2.9)

    Polixenes describes his childhood friendship with Leontes as a kind of earthly paradise, where the two boys played and “frisk[ed]” like two innocent little “lambs” that knew nothing about the “doctrine of ill-doing” (original sin). If youth is characterized as an Edenic experience that’s marked by innocence, then it seems to follow that old age is like a fall from grace. (Check out “Quotes” for “Friendship” if you want to think about this passage some more.)

    Looking on the lines
    Of my boy's face, methoughts I did recoil
    Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreech'd,
    In my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled,
    Lest it should bite its master, and so prove,
    As ornaments oft do, too dangerous: (1.2.15)

    Leontes says that looking into his son’s face takes him back to his own boyhood, when he was “unbreech’d” (before he was old enough to wear “breeches” or pants – in Shakespeare’s time, boys wore dresses until they were about seven or eight). In other words, when he looks at Mamillius, he sees himself as a young boy. Here, Leontes also expresses an idea that occurs throughout the play. That is, children are often portrayed as smaller versions or exact “copies” of their parents. Compare this passage to 2.3.12 and 5.1.11 below.

    LEONTES
    You will! why, happy man be's dole! My brother,
    Are you so fond of your young prince as we
    Do seem to be of ours?
    POLIXENES
    If at home, sir,
    He's all my exercise, my mirth, my matter,
    Now my sworn friend and then mine enemy,
    My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all:
    He makes a July's day short as December,
    And with his varying childness cures in me
    Thoughts that would thick my blood. (1.2.15)

    When prompted, Polixenes says that, yes, he and his wife love their son (Florizel) just as Leontes loves Mamillius. What’s interesting to us about this passage is how Polixenes says his boy “cures in [him] thoughts that would thick [his] blood.” Polixenes, of course, means the child makes him happy and keeps bad thoughts at bay. His use of the word “cures” also suggests that the child keeps him young and healthy. (We’ve seen a similar idea at 1.1.5, above.) At the same time, Polixenes also implies the kid is a bit of a handful – so much so that he makes it seem like time is flying by (a summer day seems “short as [a] December” day), which draws our attention to the fact that Polixenes is aging.

    It is yours;
    And, might we lay the old proverb to your charge,
    So like you, 'tis the worse. Behold, my lords,
    Although the print be little, the whole matter
    And copy of the father, eye, nose, lip,
    The trick of's frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,
    The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek,
    His smiles, (2.3.12)

    Here, Paulina uses a printing press metaphor to describe how Perdita looks like an exact, albeit “little,” “copy” of her father, Leontes. Unfortunately, Leontes refuses to acknowledge this proof of his paternity – he orders Antigonus to ditch the child in the middle of the desert.

    Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here,
    boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things
    dying, I with things newborn. (3.3.6)

    Here, the Old Shepherd gets all “Lion King circle of life” on us. He remarks that, at the exact moment he stumbled across the abandoned baby (Perdita), his son witnessed the death of old Antigonus (who was eaten by a bear). This reminds the audience that, even though an old man (Antigonus) has died, the discovery of a newborn baby promises the renewal and continuity of life.

    Old sir, I know
    She prizes not such trifles as these are:
    The gifts she looks from me are pack'd and lock'd
    Up in my heart; which I have given already,
    But not deliver'd. O, hear me breathe my life
    Before this ancient sir, who, it should seem,
    Hath sometime loved! (4.4.9)

    When Florizel explains his love for Perdita to a disguised Polixenes, he emphasizes the difference in age between himself and the “ancient sir” that doesn’t seem to understand young love. When Polixenes later objects to Florizel’s union with Perdita, he sees it as a matter of social position – it’s not fitting for a prince to marry a “shepherd’s daughter.” Here, however, we can see that Florizel chalks up the old man’s attitude to the generation gap, as he implies that the old guy standing before him just doesn’t get it.

    The blessed gods
    Purge all infection from our air whilst you
    Do climate here! (5.1.7)

    On the surface, Leontes's compliment to Florizel seems like an over the top way to express his happiness at the Prince’s arrival in Sicily. Yet, there’s also something poignant in Leontes's declaration that Florizel’s presence in seems to “purge” the kingdom of all “infection.” For the past sixteen years, a heavy cloud has hung over Leontes's kingdom. But the arrival of young Florizel and Perdita promises to heal Leontes's damaged relationships and coincides with the seeming resurrection of Hermione.

    Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince;
    For she did print your royal father off,
    Conceiving you: were I but twenty-one,
    Your father's image is so hit in you,
    His very air, that I should call you brother,
    As I did him, and speak of something wildly
    By us perform'd before. (5.1.11)

    When Leontes greets Prince Florizel, he remarks that the young prince looks like the “image” of his father. Comparing the body of Florizel’s mother to a printing press machine that “print[ed] […] off” an exact copy of her husband, Leontes implies that the resemblance between father and son is proof that Florizel’s mother was faithful to her husband (“true to wedlock”). We’ve seen this printing metaphor before, haven’t we? At 2.3.12 (above) Paulina tried to show Leontes proof that Baby Perdita was his biological daughter by pointing out that Perdita looked exactly like Leontes.

    I thought of her,
    Even in these looks I made. (5.1.22)

    Sixteen years later, Leontes finally recognizes his daughter. With some sadness, he notes that when he looks at a grown up Perdita, he sees a picture of his wife in his daughter’s face and it transports him to the time when his wife was young and still very much alive. (He doesn’t yet know Hermione is alive.) This suggests that, although parents grow old and eventually die, a part of them always lives on their children.

  • Gender

    Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak you. (1.2.5)

    Here, Leontes asks Hermione (who has been silent up to this point in the scene) to weigh in on the conversation about whether or not Polixenes will remain in Sicily. At the same time Leontes invites his wife to speak up, he seems to be also complaining that Hermione hasn’t done enough to help convince Polixenes to extend his visit. We can also detect a note of sarcasm in this line. By pointing out Hermione’s “tongue-tied” silence, Leontes implies that, ordinarily, Hermione (and all other women) speak too much. In the play, we see that the exact opposite is true of Hermione, who speaks with eloquence and grace, especially when she defends herself at her trial in Act 3.

    Thou want'st a rough pash and the shoots that I have,
    To be full like me: yet they say we are
    Almost as like as eggs; women say so,
    That will say anything but were they false
    As o'er-dyed blacks, as wind, as waters, false
    As dice are to be wish'd by one that fixes
    No bourn 'twixt his and mine, yet were it true
    To say this boy were like me. (1.2.13)

    We discuss this passage in “Jealousy” but it’s worth mentioning here also. As Leontes considers whether or not Mamillius looks like him (and whether or not he’s actually Mamillius’s biological father), he reveals a misogynist attitude toward women. According to Leontes, women “will say anything,” meaning, women are all liars. It seems that Leontes's distrust of women can partially explain why he’s so quick to suspect that the lovely and ever-faithful Hermione is cheating on him.

    It’s also important to note that Leontes's obsessive fear that Mamillius (who looks exactly like him) may not be his biological son is a pretty common theme in Renaissance literature, especially Shakespeare’s writing. Because Shakespeare’s world was a patrilineal society (a man’s wealth and titles always passed down to his eldest son), it was important for men to have legitimate heirs. The problem, as Leontes points out throughout the first Act, is that a man has no way of knowing for certain whether or not he’s a child’s biological father. (Something we often forget in an age of DNA testing.) This anxiety about paternity goes a long way to explain the kind of obsessive fears of cuckoldry (being cheated on by one’s wife) we see throughout The Winter’s Tale and Shakespeare’s larger body of work.

    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. (1.2.10)

    When Polixenes describes his childhood friendship with Leontes, he emphasizes their purity and innocence by suggesting that they seemed exempt from the charge of original sin (the religious doctrine that says all human beings are born tainted because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden). In other words, Polixenes implies that he and Leontes were two innocent “lambs” until they grew up and became interested in women and sex. While Hermione finds this whole idea amusing (she laughs and jokingly says “your queen and I are devils”), Polixenes’s suggestion that women are the root of man’s loss of innocence echoes throughout the first three acts of the play, where Leontes unjustly punishes his wife for a sexual crime she hasn’t committed. If you want to think about this some more, check out our discussion of this passage in the context of “Jealousy.”

    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 Mamillius from his mother, he declares that’s he’s glad his son had a wet-nurse because Mamillius 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.) Mamillius, 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 Mamillius 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 Mamillius being close to his mother or similar to Hermione in any way. Check out our “Character Analysis” of Mamillius if you want to think about this some more.

    The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
    I do give lost; for I do feel it gone,
    But know not how it went. My second joy
    And first-fruits of my body, from his presence
    I am barr'd, like one infectious. My third comfort
    Starr'd most unluckily, is from my breast,
    The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,
    Haled out to murder: myself on every post
    Proclaimed a strumpet: with immodest hatred
    The child-bed privilege denied, which 'longs
    To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried
    Here to this place, i' the open air, before
    I have got strength of limit. (3.2.5)

    Hermione points out the injustices she’s suffered as a woman grossly abused by her jealous husband: she’s lost her position as queen, she’s been rejected by her husband, she’s been barred from seeing her first-born child (Mamillius), and her second-born child (Perdita) has been torn from her breast and is probably dead. What’s more, Hermione wasn’t even given the “childbed privilege” (she wasn’t allowed to rest and recuperate in private after giving birth).

    History Snack: The “child-bed" privilege is also called a “lying in” period. It refers to a mother’s right to rest and recuperate in seclusion (only her closest women friends, relatives, and servants were allowed to hang out in her private chamber) after giving birth. This was a huge deal in Shakespeare’s England, especially given the fact that people thought outside air was harmful to mothers who had just delivered babies. The fact that Leontes allows Hermione to deliver her baby in prison and deprives her of her lying-in period speaks to Leontes's brutality.

    A callat
    Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
    And now baits me! (2.3.13)

    Leontes is outraged when Paulina stands up to him and insists that he acknowledge his newborn child (Perdita). In this scene, he calls Paulina a “callat” (a scold and/or a whore) and accuses her of brow-beating her husband (Antigonus). Elsewhere, Leontes calls her a “man-witch” and accuses her of hen-pecking Antigonus (2.3.10). The abuse Leontes heaps on Paulina is in keeping with an all-too-common Renaissance notion about women – those that talk “too much” are monsters that abuse their husbands and invert proper gender relations (wives were supposed to be quiet and obedient to their men). This attitude can also be seen in plays like The Taming of the Shrew, where Katherine Minola is repeatedly accused of being a scold. Compare this passage to 1.2.5 (above), where Leontes makes a similar comment about his wife.

    LEONTES
    A gross hag
    And, lozel, thou art worthy to be hang'd,
    That wilt not stay her tongue.
    ANTIGONUS
    Hang all the husbands
    That cannot do that feat, you'll leave yourself
    Hardly one subject. (2.3.13)

    Oh, look, Leontes is bashing women again. Here, he calls Paulina a “hag” for being loyal to Hermione and for refusing to pipe down when Leontes orders her to be quiet. What’s interesting about this passage is the way Leontes also attacks Antigonus’s masculinity. Because he can’t keep his wife under control, so to speak, Leontes says he should be “hang’d.” Antigonus’s response isn’t much better. He implies that Leontes is going to have to hang all the husbands in kingdom because all the women are so out of control in Sicily. Whatever, guys.

    First Lord
    Say no more:
    Howe'er the business goes, you have made fault
    I' the boldness of your speech.
    PAULINA
    I am sorry for't:
    All faults I make, when I shall come to know them,
    I do repent. Alas! I have show'd too much
    The rashness of a woman: he is touch'd
    To the noble heart. What's gone and what's past help
    Should be past grief: do not receive affliction
    At my petition; I beseech you, rather
    Let me be punish'd, that have minded you
    Of what you should forget. Now, good my liege
    Sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman:
    The love I bore your queen--lo, fool again!--
    I'll speak of her no more, nor of your children;
    I'll not remember you of my own lord,
    Who is lost too: take your patience to you,
    And I'll say nothing. (3.2.5)

    Even after Leontes repents for causing the death of his wife and son, it seems like Paulina goes out of her way to constantly remind Leontes of what he’s done. After a lord chastises her for reminding Leontes that Hermione is dead, Paulina says something like, “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry. Please forgive me for being such a foolish and big-mouthed woman. I didn’t mean to remind you that you basically killed your wife and both your kids.” Is she serious? We don’t think so. We think she’s being sarcastic, especially given that Leontes has made such a big deal about mouthy women throughout the first two acts of the play. What’s more, Paulina’s mock apology seems like another excuse to torture Leontes by reminding him, again, that he’s caused the deaths of his family members. That said, we’ve seen some actresses play this scene straight, so one could make the case that Paulina’s sincerely sorry about being such a “foolish woman.” In other words, while Polixenes and Hermione are engaging in friendly banter, there’s a very dark subtext to be found in their conversation.

  • Art and Culture

    PERDITA
    Sir, the year growing ancient,
    Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth
    Of trembling winter, the fairest Hermione’s statue
    flowers o' the season
    Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
    Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind
    Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not
    To get slips of them.
    POLIXENES
    Wherefore, gentle maiden,
    Do you neglect them?
    PERDITA
    For I have heard it said
    There is an art which in their piedness shares
    With great creating nature.
    POLIXENES
    Say there be;
    Yet nature is made better by no mean
    But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
    Which you say adds to nature, is an art
    That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
    A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
    And make conceive a bark of baser kind
    By bud of nobler race: this is an art
    Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
    The art itself is nature.
    PERDITA
    So it is. (4.4.6)

    Literary scholars often argue that this conversation about the merits of “gillyvors” is actually a debate about art vs. nature. When Perdita points out that she doesn’t have any “gillyvors” (gillyflowers, or carnations) to offer her guests, Polixenes takes issue with her referring to the cross-bred flowers as “nature’s bastards.” Polixenes argues that crossbred flowers are superior to plain old carnations and that the “art” of grafting is completely “natural.” (“Grafting” is a horticultural practice where a plant’s tissue is fused with another plant in order to create a “hybrid.”) Perdita, on the other hand, prefers flowers that are pure and that haven’t been influenced by the “art” of grafting.

    POLIXENES
    Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
    And do not call them bastards.
    PERDITA
    I'll not put
    The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;
    No more than were I painted I would wish
    This youth should say 'twere well and only therefore
    Desire to breed by me. Here's flowers for you;
    Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
    The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
    And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
    Of middle summer, and I think they are given
    To men of middle age. You're very welcome. (4.4.4)

    In the previous passage, we saw how, for Polixenes, grafting is a “natural” process while Perdita sees cross-breeding flowers to create a hybrid as “artifice.” In this passage, the debate turns into something quite personal for Perdita. She says she’d no sooner plant a cross-bred gillyflower in her garden than she would “paint” her face with make-up in order to attract a potential husband (Florizel, whose name associates him with the flowers of spring) to “breed” with. By this point in the conversation, grafting seems to have become a metaphor for family relationships. What’s interesting about this is that, here, Polixenes says that grafting or cross-breeding flowers will ultimately produce a “nobler” breed, but when he later learns that his son wants to “graft” himself to (marry) a lowly shepherd’s daughter, he objects. We can take the implied metaphor further by also pointing out that Perdita doesn’t realize she’s been “grafted” to the Old Shepherd’s family (she was adopted).

    Your high self,
    The gracious mark o' the land, you have obscured
    With a swain's wearing, and me, poor lowly maid,
    Most goddess-like prank'd up: but that our feasts
    In every mess have folly and the feeders
    Digest it with a custom, I should blush
    To see you so attired, sworn, I think,
    To show myself a glass.
    […]
    Even now I tremble
    To think your father, by some accident,
    Should pass this way as you did: O, the Fates!
    How would he look, to see his work so noble
    Vilely bound up? What would he say? Or how
    Should I, in these my borrow'd flaunts, behold
    The sternness of his presence? (4.4.1-2)

    Perdita is pretty self-conscious about being dressed up in an artificial “Queen of the Feast” costume (when she thinks she’s nothing more than a lowly shepherd’s daughter) and she says as much in the play. While Perdita thinks it’s wrong for her to dress up as something that she’s not, the audience understands that her festival costume actually speaks to her true nature or identity (the princess and future Queen of Sicily).

    No: the princess hearing of her mother's statue,
    which is in the keeping of Paulina,--a piece many
    years in doing and now newly performed by that rare
    Italian master, Giulio Romano, who, had he himself
    eternity and could put breath into his work, would
    beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her
    ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that
    they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of
    answer: thither with all greediness of affection
    are they gone, and there they intend to sup. (5.2.6)

    The Third Gentleman says that Giulio Romano (an Italian artist who lived between 1499 and 1546) is responsible for creating the lifelike statue of Hermione. He pays the artist the highest compliment when he insists that Romano can “beguile nature” with his realistic art work.

    PAULINA
    As she lived peerless,
    So her dead likeness, I do well believe,
    Excels whatever yet you look'd upon
    Or hand of man hath done; therefore I keep it
    Lonely, apart. But here it is: prepare
    To see the life as lively mock'd as ever
    Still sleep mock'd death: behold, and say 'tis well.
    PAULINA draws a curtain, and discovers HERMIONE standing like a statue
    I like your silence, it the more shows off
    Your wonder: but yet speak; first, you, my liege,
    Comes it not something near? (5.3.2)

    Hermione’s “statue” is so lifelike that when Paulina orchestrates a dramatic unveiling and draws back the curtain, her “audience” sits in stunned “silence.” The statue, as promised, is a “dead likeness” of Hermione.

    LEONTES
    O, she's warm!
    If this be magic, let it be an art
    Lawful as eating.
    POLIXENES
    She embraces him.
    CAMILLO
    She hangs about his neck:
    If she pertain to life let her speak too.
    POLIXENES
    Ay, and make't manifest where she has lived,
    Or how stolen from the dead. (5.3.13)

    Paulina presents the statue as a work of “art” but it turns out to be the natural body of Hermione, who is very much alive and seems to have risen “from the dead” by “magic.”

    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 clamour
    Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play. (1.2.18)

    Leontes says that while he plays and horses around with his young son, Hermione “plays” around on him, Leontes, with another man. By this point in the play, Leontes has convinced himself that that Hermione is cheating on him and he decides to pretend not to know about the alleged affair, for the time being. What’s interesting is that Leontes's repetitious pun on the word “play” draws attention to the way he sees himself as a kind of actor who plays a “disgraced” role before an audience that boos and “hiss[es]” at him while his wife behaves in a deceitful manner. This reminds the audience that Leontes is actually a character, being played by a real actor on Shakespeare’s stage.

    I see the play so lies
    That I must bear a part. (4.4.22)

    Here, Perdita gives in to Camillo’s plan to disguise Perdita and Florizel so the young couple can escape to Sicily. When Perdita says she must play her “part” in Camillo’s little scheme, she draws out attention to how Camillo is also playing the role of a stage director.

    CAMILLO
    Why, be so still; here's nobody will steal that from
    thee: yet for the outside of thy poverty we must
    make an exchange; therefore discase thee instantly,
    --thou must think there's a necessity in't,--and
    change garments with this gentleman: though the
    pennyworth on his side be the worst, yet hold thee,
    there's some boot. (4.4.24)

    In the last passage, we pointed out how Camillo seems to resemble a theater director when he orchestrates Florizel and Perdita’s escape from Bohemia. Here, he continues to “direct” as he orders Autolycus to exchange clothes with the prince. This isn’t Autolycus’s first costume change – we’ve already seen him disguised as a robbery victim and a peddler. A few lines from now, we’ll watch him deceive the Old Shepherd and the Clown by pretending to be a nobleman.

    such a deal of wonder is
    broken out within this hour that ballad-makers
    cannot be able to express it.
    Here comes the Lady Paulina's steward: he can
    deliver you more. How goes it now, sir? this news
    which is called true is so like an old tale, that
    the verity of it is in strong suspicion: has the king
    found his heir? (5.2.1)

    The Second Gentleman’s description of the fantastical unfolding of events that led up to Perdita’s reunion with her father draws our attention to the implausibility of Shakespeare’s story. There’s so much “wonder” in it that even “ballad-makers” (writers who composed ballads out of news stories) would have a hard time conveying the details of how Leontes's “found his heir.” The whole thing sounds more like an “old” winter’s tale, which is a great story but one that doesn’t have much credit. Here, it seems that Shakespeare is acknowledging the implausibility of his own play/work of art.

  • Time

    CAMILLO
    I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it
    is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the
    subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on
    crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to
    see him a man. (1.1.5)

    Here, Camillo brags that the young prince is so special that he “makes old hearts fresh.” Not only does Mamillius have the power to make it seem as though time has been reversed (meaning, he makes old people feel young again), but he also instills in the old and frail a desire to extend their time on earth in order to see him grow up into a “man.” Young Mamillius tends to have this effect on everyone.

    POLIXENES
    Nine changes of the watery star hath been
    The shepherd's note since we have left our throne
    Without a burthen: time as long again
    Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
    And yet we should, for perpetuity,
    Go hence in debt: and therefore, like a cipher,
    Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
    With one 'We thank you' many thousands more
    That go before it. (1.2.1)

    OK, Polixenes has apparently been in Sicily for nine months, which is a long time for him to be away from his family and his kingdom. More importantly, nine months is the exact amount of time it takes for a baby to gestate, so it seems like Shakespeare is alerting us to the possibility that the pregnant Hermione could, technically speaking, be carrying Polixenes’s baby. (She’s not.) While there’s no evidence of infidelity, we know that the timing of Polixenes’s visit probably plays into Leontes fears that his wife and BFF have been fooling around.

    We were, fair queen,
    Two lads that thought there was no more behind
    But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
    And to be boy eternal.
    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. (1.2.9)

    As Polixenes describes his childhood friendship with Leontes, he suggests that they seemed to live in a world where time stood still and boyhood seemed “eternal.” As an adult, however, Leontes will become acutely aware of time’s progression – he’ll suffer for sixteen long years before being reunited with his family.

    Looking on the lines
    Of my boy's face, methoughts I did recoil
    Twenty-three years. (1.2.15)

    Just after Leontes begins to suspect that his wife is cheating on him, he says that looking into his young boy’s face takes him back in time “twenty-three years” to his own childhood. We know from Polixeness’ description of Leontes's childhood that it was a time of pre-sexual innocence (see 1.2.9 above). It’s no wonder then that Leontes would seek refuge in the memory of his innocent childhood after convincing himself that his wife has been sexually promiscuous. Here, we can imagine Leontes staring into the face of his child (Mamillius) and remembering his own childhood as a warm, safe place where everything was okay and he didn’t suspect his wife of infidelity. It seems that, for Leontes, childhood is a time of innocence and adulthood is a time of inevitable sexual corruption.

    POLIXENES
    If at home, sir,
    He's all my exercise, my mirth, my matter,
    Now my sworn friend and then mine enemy,
    My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all:
    He makes a July's day short as December,
    And with his varying childness cures in me
    Thoughts that would thick my blood. (1.2.17)

    When prompted, Polixenes says that, yes, he and his wife love their son (Florizel) just as much as Leontes loves Mamillius. What’s interesting to us about this passage is how Polixenes says his boy “cures in [him] thoughts that would thick [his] blood.” Polixenes, of course, means the child makes him happy and keeps bad thoughts at bay. His use of the word “cures” also suggests that the child keeps him healthy and young. (We’ve seen a similar idea at 1.1.5, above, haven’t we?) At the same time, however, Polixenes also implies that his kid is also a bit of a handful – so much so that the boy makes it seem like time is flying by (a summer day seems “short as [a] December” day), which draws our attention to the fact that Polixenes is aging.

    Time
    I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
    Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
    Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
    To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
    To me or my swift passage, that I slide
    O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
    Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
    To o'erthrow law and in one self-born hour
    To plant and o'erwhelm custom. (4.1.1)

    When “Time,” a winged figure with an hourglass appears on stage at the beginning of Act 4, he announces that time has fast-forwarded “sixteen years” into the future. In this way, Time is acting the part of a Chorus (kind of like a narrator).

    What’s interesting about this passage is that Time asks the audience not to be critical of this dramatic technique (“impute it not a crime” that the play has skipped ahead sixteen years). Flash forwards were a big no-no on the English stage in Shakespeare’s day because they disregarded the “classical unities” (of time, place, and action), a set of literary rules that said all plays should have the following features: 1) the action should take place within a 24 hour time span; 2) the action should take place in one geographical place/setting; 3) the play should have one main plot and no sub-plots. The Winter’s Tale pretty clearly breaks all of these rules (as did many other Shakespeare plays). Check out more of Time’s big speech below…

    Time
    Your patience this allowing,
    I turn my glass and give my scene such growing
    As you had slept between: Leontes leaving,
    The effects of his fond jealousies so grieving
    That he shuts up himself, imagine me,
    Gentle spectators, that I now may be
    In fair Bohemia, and remember well,
    I mentioned a son o' the king's, which Florizel
    I now name to you; and with speed so pace
    To speak of Perdita, now grown in grace
    Equal with wondering: what of her ensues
    I list not prophecy; but let Time's news
    Be known when 'tis brought forth.
    A shepherd's daughter,
    And what to her adheres, which follows after,
    Is the argument of Time. Of this allow,
    If ever you have spent time worse ere now;
    If never, yet that Time himself doth say
    He wishes earnestly you never may. (4.1.1)

    There’s a lot going on in this passage (more than we can possibly cover here), but here’s something we think is pretty important. Addressing the audience, Time goes out of his way to remind us that we are “spectators” watching (or reading) the progression of the “play,” an activity that basically allows us to pass the time (so to speak) in a pleasant way. Time also alerts us to the fact that, while we’re engaged with Shakespeare’s drama, time outside the theater marches on.

    CLEOMENES
    Sir, you have done enough, and have perform'd
    A saint-like sorrow: no fault could you make,
    Which you have not redeem'd; indeed, paid down
    More penitence than done trespass: at the last,
    Do as the heavens have done, forget your evil;
    With them forgive yourself.
    LEONTES
    Whilst I remember
    Her and her virtues, I cannot forget
    My blemishes in them, and so still think of
    The wrong I did myself; which was so much,
    That heirless it hath made my kingdom and
    Destroy'd the sweet'st companion that e'er man
    Bred his hopes out of. (5.1.1)

    We know that sixteen long years have passed since Leontes lost his family. Here, it becomes clear that, for the long-suffering King of Sicily, time seems to have stood still. The memory of his wife and his own “blemishes” prohibit the king from moving forward. Leontes's grief and guilt keeps him frozen in time.

    Beseech you, sir,
    Remember since you owed no more to time
    Than I do now: with thought of such affections,
    Step forth mine advocate; at your request
    My father will grant precious things as trifles. (5.1.7)

    Here, Florizel pleads with Leontes to be an advocate for his relationship with Perdita. What’s interesting is that Florizel asks the king to remember the “time” when he was young and in love, which suggests that the passage of time has the effect of hardening us – as we age, we lose touch with the things that are most important, like love.

    LEONTES
    Her natural posture!
    Chide me, dear stone, that I may say indeed
    Thou art Hermione; or rather, thou art she
    In thy not chiding, for she was as tender
    As infancy and grace. But yet, Paulina,
    Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
    So aged as this seems.
    POLIXENES
    O, not by much.
    PAULINA
    So much the more our carver's excellence;
    Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her
    As she lived now. (5.3.3)

    When Leontes's observes that Hermione’s “statue” looks much older than his dead wife, we’re reminded that sixteen long years have passed since Leontes last saw her, the proof of which is etched on Hermione’s now “wrinkled” skin. Even though Leontes is reunited with his wife (who turns out to be very much alive in the next lines), the play never lets us forget that some things (like Hermione’s youthful appearance and even the dead child, Mamillius) can never be recovered. Time marches forward and can never be reversed.

  • Suffering

    Too hot, too hot!
    To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
    I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
    But not for joy; not joy. (1.2.11)

    As Leontes watches his faithful wife banter with his best friend, he suspects Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes. Because Leontes's sudden and unfounded jealousy leads to his tyrannous behavior, we could argue that Leontes's jealousy is responsible for all of the suffering that occurs in the play.

    How will this grieve you,
    When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
    You thus have publish'd me! Gentle my lord,
    You scarce can right me thoroughly then to say
    You did mistake. (2.1.11)

    After Leontes accuses his wife of infidelity, Hermione predicts the grief that Leontes will suffer when he eventually realizes his mistake. By then, she suggests, it will be too late to make things right with his wife.

    PAULINA
    How fares our gracious lady?
    EMILIA
    As well as one so great and so forlorn
    May hold together: on her frights and griefs,
    Which never tender lady hath born greater,
    She is something before her time deliver'd.
    PAULINA
    A boy?
    EMILIA
    A daughter, and a goodly babe,
    Lusty and like to live: the queen receives
    Much comfort in't; says 'My poor prisoner,
    I am innocent as you.' (2.2.5)

    Emilia reveals that Hermione has given birth, prematurely, while in jail. Although Hermione suffers in prison, she is tender toward her newborn and finds “comfort” in her daughter.

    LEONTES
    How does the boy?
    First Servant
    He took good rest to-night;
    'Tis hoped his sickness is discharged.
    LEONTES
    To see his nobleness!
    Conceiving the dishonour of his mother,
    He straight declined, droop'd, took it deeply,
    Fasten'd and fix'd the shame on't in himself,
    Threw off his spirit, his appetite, his sleep,
    And downright languish'd. Leave me solely: go,
    See how he fares. (2.3.2)

    Did Leontes just say what we think he said? After learning that Mamillius has fallen ill, Leontes blames the condition on the “dishonour” Hermione has supposedly brought her family. But the truth is that Mamillius has fallen ill because he’s been taken away from his beloved mother, who has been unfairly accused of adultery and treason.

    Do come with words as medicinal as true,
    Honest as either, to purge him of that humour
    That presses him from sleep. (2.3.5)

    When Paulina visits Leontes, who hasn’t been sleeping well at night, she says that she’s come with “medicinal” words. That is, she’s come to talk some sense into Leontes before it’s too late. Paulina hopes that, by showing Leontes the truth (that Hermione is faithful and Perdita is his daughter), Leontes will be cured, so to speak, of his suffering. Paulina sees herself as a kind of “physician” to the soul and she says as much a few lines later (2.3.5).

    LEONTES
    --what will you adventure
    To save this brat's life?
    ANTIGONUS
    Any thing, my lord,
    That my ability may undergo
    And nobleness impose: at least thus much:
    I'll pawn the little blood which I have left
    To save the innocent: any thing possible.
    LEONTES
    It shall be possible. Swear by this sword
    Thou wilt perform my bidding. (2.3.7)

    Clearly tormented, Antigonus doesn’t want to ditch baby Perdita in the wilderness and says he’s willing to risk his life to avoid hurting the child. Leontes, however, bullies him into doing it anyway by threatening his life. As we know, Antigonus will lose his life while performing the deed (he’s eaten by a bear), which causes Paulina to suffer the loss of a beloved husband.

    My second joy
    And first-fruits of my body, from his presence
    I am barr'd, like one infectious. My third comfort
    Starr'd most unluckily, is from my breast,
    The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,
    Haled out to murder: myself on every post
    Proclaimed a strumpet: with immodest hatred
    The child-bed privilege denied, which 'longs
    To women of all fashion; lastly, hurried
    Here to this place, i' the open air, before
    I have got strength of limit. Now, my liege,
    Tell me what blessings I have here alive,
    That I should fear to die? (3.2.5)

    A defiant and eloquent Hermione explains why death wouldn’t be the worst punishment Leontes could hand out. Not only has Mamillius (the “firs-fruits of [her] body”) been stripped away from her, but her newborn infant has also been torn from her “breast” while breastfeeding. Not only that, but Hermione was denied the “child-bed privilege,” a period of time in which new mothers are supposed to be given total privacy and bed rest. (This was a huge deal in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.) In other words, Hermione has experienced a living hell and there’s nothing Leontes could do to make her suffer more. Or so she thinks. Keep reading…

    Servant
    O sir, I shall be hated to report it!
    The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear
    Of the queen's speed, is gone.
    LEONTES
    How! gone!
    Servant
    Is dead.
    LEONTES
    Apollo's angry; and the heavens themselves
    Do strike at my injustice.
    HERMIONE swoons
    How now there!

    PAULINA
    This news is mortal to the queen: look down
    And see what death is doing. (3.2.1)

    Remember when we said Hermione thought things couldn’t possibly get worse for her? Here, a servant enters the courtroom with news that Mamillius has died (ostensibly from grief over the way Leontes is treating his mother). Soon after, we’re told that Hermione has died of a broken heart (3.2.3) and Leontes spends the next sixteen years of his life repenting for the suffering he’s caused.

    Let me be punish'd, that have minded you
    Of what you should forget. Now, good my liege
    Sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman:
    The love I bore your queen--lo, fool again!--
    I'll speak of her no more, nor of your children;
    I'll not remember you of my own lord,
    Who is lost too: take your patience to you,
    And I'll say nothing. (3.2.5)

    Even after Leontes repents for causing the death of his wife and son, it seems like Paulina goes out of her way to constantly remind Leontes of what he’s done. After a lord chastises her for reminding Leontes that Hermione is dead, Paulina says something like “Oh gosh! I’m so sorry. Please forgive me for being such a foolish and big-mouthed woman. I didn’t mean to remind you that you basically killed your wife and both your kids.” Is she serious? We don’t think so. Paulina’s mock apology seems like another excuse to torture Leontes by reminding him, again, that he’s caused the deaths of his family members and her own husband.

    Sir, you have done enough, and have perform'd
    A saint-like sorrow: no fault could you make,
    Which you have not redeem'd; indeed, paid down
    More penitence than done trespass: at the last,
    Do as the heavens have done, forget your evil;
    With them forgive yourself.
    LEONTES
    Whilst I remember
    Her and her virtues, I cannot forget
    My blemishes in them, and so still think of
    The wrong I did myself; which was so much,
    That heirless it hath made my kingdom and
    Destroy'd the sweet'st companion that e'er man
    Bred his hopes out of. (5.1.1)

    Some of Leontes's advisors urge the king to forgive himself for his sins. It’s been sixteen years and, according to Cleomenes, it’s time to move on—for Leontes's sake and also the sake of the kingdom. With Mamillius dead and Perdita lost, the kingdom is without an heir, so all of Sicily is suffering.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    Welcome hither,
    As is the spring to the earth.
    […]
    The blessed gods
    Purge all infection from our air whilst you
    Do climate here! (5.3.13-15)

    Leontes, whose been suffering in Sicily for sixteen long years, suggests that Florizel’s presence is like the arrival of spring after a long, cold, harsh winter. What’s more, Florizel’s arrival in Sicily seems to have a healing effect on the king and his ailing court, which has yet to recover from the deaths of Hermione and Mamillius and the loss of baby Perdita.

    Sir, you have done enough, and have perform'd
    A saint-like sorrow: no fault could you make,
    Which you have not redeem'd; indeed, paid down
    More penitence than done trespass: at the last,
    Do as the heavens have done, forget your evil;
    With them forgive yourself. (5.1.1)

    Cleomenes suggests that Leontes has suffered long enough for his sins and urges the king to forgive himself. So, what do you think? Has Leontes “paid down more penitence than [he’s] done trespass”? Why or why not?

    I lost a couple, that 'twixt heaven and earth
    Might thus have stood begetting wonder as
    You, gracious couple, do: and then I lost--
    All mine own folly--the society,
    Amity too, of your brave father, whom,
    Though bearing misery, I desire my life
    Once more to look on him. (5.1.12)

    Leontes admits that it’s his fault he lost his beloved family and dear friend. Yet, despite his “misery,” he also holds out hope that he’ll one day see Florizel’s “brave father” again.

    They seemed almost, with
    staring on one another, to tear the cases of their
    eyes; there was speech in their dumbness, language
    in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard
    of a world ransomed, or one destroyed: a notable
    passion of wonder appeared in them; but the wisest
    beholder, that knew no more but seeing, could not
    say if the importance were joy or sorrow; but in the
    extremity of the one, it must needs be. (5.2.2)

    Leontes's emotional reunion with Camillo is marked by great “sorrow” and great “joy.” While the King is elated to see his old friend and advisor, the encounter between the old friends reminds us of how much has been “destroyed” and lost.

    FIRST GENTLEMAN
    Nothing but bonfires: the oracle is fulfilled; the
    king's daughter is found: such a deal of wonder is
    broken out within this hour that ballad-makers
    cannot be able to express it. (5.2.1)

    The revelation of Perdita’s true identity and her reunion with her father is a “wonder[ous]” moment, according to the First Gentleman. So wondrous, in fact, that we wonder why we learn about the reunion second hand. Why doesn’t Shakespeare stage this joyous moment for his audience to witness first hand?

    There was casting up of eyes,
    holding up of hands, with countenances of such
    distraction that they were to be known by garment,
    not by favour. Our king, being ready to leap out of
    himself for joy of his found daughter, as if that
    joy were now become a loss, cries 'O, thy mother,
    thy mother!' then asks Bohemia forgiveness; then
    embraces his son-in-law; then again worries he his
    daughter with clipping her; now he thanks the old
    shepherd, which stands by like a weather-bitten
    conduit of many kings' reigns. I never heard of such
    another encounter, which lames report to follow it
    and undoes description to do it. (5.2.2)

    Seriously. If the reunion of Perdita and Leontes is such a joyous occasion, why do we have to hear about from the Gentleman? Why doesn’t Shakespeare stage this moment directly? Is he afraid too much celebration would be overkill? (After all, we’ve got the big statue scene coming up.) Or, is it more effective to hear about the reunion from other witnesses?

    But O, the noble
    combat that 'twixt joy and sorrow was fought in
    Paulina! She had one eye declined for the loss of
    her husband, another elevated that the oracle was
    fulfilled: she lifted the princess from the earth,
    and so locks her in embracing, as if she would pin
    her to her heart that she might no more be in danger
    of losing. (5.2.4)

    Perdita’s arrival in Sicily is a bitter sweet moment for Paulina. On the one hand, she’s elated to see her friend Hermione’s long lost daughter. On the other hand, Perdita’s recovery reminds her that her own husband, Antigonus, remains lost.

    LEONTES
    O, she's warm!
    If this be magic, let it be an art
    Lawful as eating.
    POLIXENES
    She embraces him.
    CAMILLO
    She hangs about his neck:
    If she pertain to life let her speak too. (5.3.13)

    When Hermione is reunited with Leontes, it seems that she has already forgiven him for his sins against her. She “embraces him” and “hangs about his neck” as though he’s not the man responsible for sixteen years of suffering. What’s up with that?

    You gods, look down
    And from your sacred vials pour your graces
    Upon my daughter's head! Tell me, mine own.
    Where hast thou been preserved? where lived? how found
    Thy father's court? for thou shalt hear that I,
    Knowing by Paulina that the oracle
    Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved
    Myself to see the issue. (5.3.1)

    Is Hermione’s “resurrection” the result of Perdita’s arrival in Sicily?

    O, peace, Paulina!
    Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
    As I by thine a wife: this is a match,
    And made between's by vows. (5.3.14)

    In the play’s final scene, sixteen long years of suffering at the Sicilian court give way to the joyous and miraculous reunion of Leontes's family, the seeming resurrection of Hermione, the renewal of Leontes's friendship with Polixenes, and the union of Florizel and Perdita, which takes care of the whole Sicily-is-without-an-heir problem. Here, even Paulina gets engaged to Camillo in a moment that renews domestic and social order.