Study Guide

The Winter’s Tale Youth and Old Age

By William Shakespeare

Youth and Old Age

CAMILLO
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.
ARCHIDAMUS
Would they else be content to die?
CAMILLO
Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should
desire to live.
ARCHIDAMUS
If the king had no son, they would desire to live
on crutches till he had one. (1.1.5)

Camillo insists that young Mamillius, the kingdom’s pride and joy, has the capacity to restore the health of the Sicilian subjects and makes old people want to live longer. This is kind of an odd thing to say and it’s also ironic given that Mamillius will fall ill and die in the play’s third act. Despite Mamillius’s fate, however, Camillo’s words also seem to anticipate the way in which youth really will have a restorative and healing power in Act 5, when Florizel and Perdita’s blossoming young love will reunite their families at the Sicilian court.

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)

Polixenes describes his childhood friendship with Leontes as a kind of earthly paradise, where the two boys played and “frisk[ed]” like two innocent little “lambs” that knew nothing about the “doctrine of ill-doing” (original sin). If youth is characterized as an Edenic experience that’s marked by innocence, then it seems to follow that old age is like a fall from grace. (Check out “Quotes” for “Friendship” if you want to think about this passage some more.)

Looking on the lines
Of my boy's face, methoughts I did recoil
Twenty-three years, and saw myself unbreech'd,
In my green velvet coat, my dagger muzzled,
Lest it should bite its master, and so prove,
As ornaments oft do, too dangerous: (1.2.15)

Leontes says that looking into his son’s face takes him back to his own boyhood, when he was “unbreech’d” (before he was old enough to wear “breeches” or pants – in Shakespeare’s time, boys wore dresses until they were about seven or eight). In other words, when he looks at Mamillius, he sees himself as a young boy. Here, Leontes also expresses an idea that occurs throughout the play. That is, children are often portrayed as smaller versions or exact “copies” of their parents. Compare this passage to 2.3.12 and 5.1.11 below.

LEONTES
You will! why, happy man be's dole! My brother,
Are you so fond of your young prince as we
Do seem to be of ours?
POLIXENES
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. (1.2.15)

When prompted, Polixenes says that, yes, he and his wife love their son (Florizel) just 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 young and healthy. (We’ve seen a similar idea at 1.1.5, above.) At the same time, Polixenes also implies the kid is a bit of a handful – so much so that he 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.

It is yours;
And, might we lay the old proverb to your charge,
So like you, 'tis the worse. Behold, my lords,
Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father, eye, nose, lip,
The trick of's frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,
The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek,
His smiles, (2.3.12)

Here, Paulina uses a printing press metaphor to describe how Perdita looks like an exact, albeit “little,” “copy” of her father, Leontes. Unfortunately, Leontes refuses to acknowledge this proof of his paternity – he orders Antigonus to ditch the child in the middle of the desert.

Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here,
boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things
dying, I with things newborn. (3.3.6)

Here, the Old Shepherd gets all “Lion King circle of life” on us. He remarks that, at the exact moment he stumbled across the abandoned baby (Perdita), his son witnessed the death of old Antigonus (who was eaten by a bear). This reminds the audience that, even though an old man (Antigonus) has died, the discovery of a newborn baby promises the renewal and continuity of life.

Old sir, I know
She prizes not such trifles as these are:
The gifts she looks from me are pack'd and lock'd
Up in my heart; which I have given already,
But not deliver'd. O, hear me breathe my life
Before this ancient sir, who, it should seem,
Hath sometime loved! (4.4.9)

When Florizel explains his love for Perdita to a disguised Polixenes, he emphasizes the difference in age between himself and the “ancient sir” that doesn’t seem to understand young love. When Polixenes later objects to Florizel’s union with Perdita, he sees it as a matter of social position – it’s not fitting for a prince to marry a “shepherd’s daughter.” Here, however, we can see that Florizel chalks up the old man’s attitude to the generation gap, as he implies that the old guy standing before him just doesn’t get it.

The blessed gods
Purge all infection from our air whilst you
Do climate here! (5.1.7)

On the surface, Leontes's compliment to Florizel seems like an over the top way to express his happiness at the Prince’s arrival in Sicily. Yet, there’s also something poignant in Leontes's declaration that Florizel’s presence in seems to “purge” the kingdom of all “infection.” For the past sixteen years, a heavy cloud has hung over Leontes's kingdom. But the arrival of young Florizel and Perdita promises to heal Leontes's damaged relationships and coincides with the seeming resurrection of Hermione.

Your mother was most true to wedlock, prince;
For she did print your royal father off,
Conceiving you: were I but twenty-one,
Your father's image is so hit in you,
His very air, that I should call you brother,
As I did him, and speak of something wildly
By us perform'd before. (5.1.11)

When Leontes greets Prince Florizel, he remarks that the young prince looks like the “image” of his father. Comparing the body of Florizel’s mother to a printing press machine that “print[ed] […] off” an exact copy of her husband, Leontes implies that the resemblance between father and son is proof that Florizel’s mother was faithful to her husband (“true to wedlock”). We’ve seen this printing metaphor before, haven’t we? At 2.3.12 (above) Paulina tried to show Leontes proof that Baby Perdita was his biological daughter by pointing out that Perdita looked exactly like Leontes.

I thought of her,
Even in these looks I made. (5.1.22)

Sixteen years later, Leontes finally recognizes his daughter. With some sadness, he notes that when he looks at a grown up Perdita, he sees a picture of his wife in his daughter’s face and it transports him to the time when his wife was young and still very much alive. (He doesn’t yet know Hermione is alive.) This suggests that, although parents grow old and eventually die, a part of them always lives on their children.