Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Compassion and Forgiveness

By William Shakespeare

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.

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.

O, she's warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.
She embraces him.
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.