Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Art and Culture

By William Shakespeare

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.