Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Time

By William Shakespeare


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.

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.

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.

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…

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.

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)

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.

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.
O, not by much.
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.