Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Friendship

By William Shakespeare


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.”

My brother,
Are you so fond of your young prince as we
Do seem to be of ours?
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).

I say, I come
From your good queen.
Good queen!
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.”

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