Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Suffering

By William Shakespeare


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.

How fares our gracious lady?
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.
A boy?
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.

How does the boy?
First Servant
He took good rest to-night;
'Tis hoped his sickness is discharged.
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).

--what will you adventure
To save this brat's life?
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.
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…

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.
How! gone!
Is dead.
Apollo's angry; and the heavens themselves
Do strike at my injustice.
How now there!

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.
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.