The first three acts of The Winter’s Tale are a study of jealousy and its destructive effects. In the play, Leontes’s sudden and unfounded fear that his pregnant wife is sleeping with his best friend eats away at him like a disease. Leontes’s wild jealousy is often compared to that of Othello. Both men unfairly suspect their wives of infidelity and their violent responses destroy their families and upset the political balance. The differences, however, are significant. Unlike Othello, Leontes convinces himself of his wife’s “affair” all by himself – there’s no Iago figure whispering in his ear and goading him along. (If anything, Leontes is his own Iago.) More importantly, Leontes’s abuse of his family is not entirely permanent, unlike Othello’s. After repenting and suffering for sixteen long years, Leontes is reunited with his wife and long-lost daughter, which puts a redemptive spin on The Winter’s Tale, whereas Othello is just plain tragic.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare portrays Leontes’s jealousy as an infectious “disease” in order to highlight the destructive nature of jealousy.
Leontes sudden onset of jealousy is the result of the king’s belief that most women are promiscuous liars and that a man can never really know if he’s the biological father of his children (there being no such thing as DNA testing in the play and all).
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (Two Gentleman of Verona and The Merchant of Venice, especially) and The Sonnets, The Winter’s Tale examines the nature of male friendship. Bromance was a pretty big deal in the Renaissance and was valued above marriage and other male-female relationships. In the play, the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes is portrayed as an ideal bond that developed during the innocence of childhood and was interrupted by their adolescent interest in women and sex. As adults, Leontes’s friendship with Polixenes is characterized by rivalry and Leontes’s jealous fears that his wife has come between them. There are examples of female friendship in the play (most notably, Paulina’s fierce loyalty to Hermione), but bromance is given much more attention.
The friendship between Leontes and Polixenes is competitive from the very beginning of the play – this rivalry culminates in Leontes’s jealousy, which places Hermione at the center of his competitiveness with his best friend.
Paulina is the only character in the play loyal enough (to Hermione) and brave enough to stand up to Leontes’s tyranny.
The Winter’s Tale dramatizes a divide between the younger generation and their parents. The older generation (Leontes and Polixenes) is responsible for the loss of innocence, the disunion of families and friends, and immense suffering and heartache. When the younger generation (Perdita and Florizel) comes of age, their youthful love has the effect of restoring families and reigniting hope for the future. Yet, not all of the “sins of the fathers” can be redeemed by the younger generation. The permanent deaths of young Mamillius and old Antigonus remind us that some things are lost forever and cannot be resurrected. Because children are portrayed as “copies” or replicas of their parents, Shakespeare also leaves us with a sense that the younger generation could grow up to repeat their parents’ mistakes.
Although the younger generation does redeem some of the sins of the older generation, not everything is restored – Mamillius’s very permanent death reminds us of what remains lost at the end of the play.
Children are portrayed as exact “copies” of their parents in the play, which suggests that, although the older generation advances toward inevitable death, parents can live on eternally through the their children.
Leontes’s hateful ideas about women dominate the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale. After he convinces himself that his pregnant wife is having an affair and carrying another man’s child, Leontes reveals a crude and misogynistic attitude that seems to have been lurking beneath the surface all along. In the jealous king’s mind, all women are sexually promiscuous and dishonest (an attitude that’s all too common in Renaissance literature). Leontes also gives voice to the notion that women who are not silent and obedient to their husbands are monsters who invert socially accepted gender hierarchies. Leontes eventually repents but his nasty attitude leaves a big mark on the play.
Leontes believes that all women are inherently promiscuous and deceptive, but overall, the play proves this to be untrue.
Leontes gives voice to a common Renaissance attitude toward women – that is, any woman who is not silent and obedient is a monstrous hag who deserves to be punished.
The Winter’s Tale participates in the ages old art vs. nature controversy. At the heart of the debate is the following question: Is artfulness (the creation of paintings, sculptures, plays, songs, etc. to represent the natural world) a good thing? Or does artfulness distort nature? Shakespeare also extends the debate to consider artifice in general, which has some pretty major implications in a play that takes a very self-conscious look at its status as a work of art.
Although Perdita is uncomfortable with the artificiality of dressing up as the “Queen of the Feast,” the audience understands that Perdita’s festival costume actually speaks to her true nature or identity, which is that of a Sicilian princess and not a lowly shepherd’s daughter.
Throughout The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare draws our attention to the fact that we are audience to a play that uses artfulness to portray nature.
The Winter’s Tale is obsessed with time. The play goes out of its way to draw our attention to 1) time’s passage, 2) the way time can often appear to stand still, and 3) how some events can trigger memories that seem to transport us back in time. The only Shakespeare play to span across sixteen years, The Winter’s Tale defies the classical unities (of time, place, and action), an old set of literary rules that said the action in all plays should take place within a 24-hour time span.
Leontes's grief over his destruction of his family prevents him being able to move forward with his life – although sixteen years pass before he’s finally reunited with his family, Leontes's lives as though he’s frozen in time.
In The Winter’s Tale, looking into the faces of children can transport parents back in time to the days of their own youth.
In the play, Leontes’s jealousy gives way to tyrannous behavior that causes immense pain suffering. Mamillius falls ill and dies when his mother is imprisoned and tried for adultery, Hermione is said to have died of a broken heart, and Leontes tortures himself for sixteen long years. In fact, the entire kingdom is made miserable by Leontes’s behavior, which has left Sicily without an heir. This kind of anguish is inherent in Shakespearean tragedy, but because the play is a blend of tragedy and comedy, the suffering in the play ultimately gives way to redemption, which we discuss in “Compassion and Forgiveness.”
Leontes's family isn’t the only group that suffers in the play – because Mamillius is dead and Perdita is lost, the entire kingdom worries about what will become of them, as Sicily is without an heir to the throne.
Paulina’s behavior in the second half of the play is passive aggressive. Although she pretends to want to help King Leontes, she goes out of her way to ensure that he suffers.
While the first three acts of The Winter’s Tale are marked by the pain and suffering caused by Leontes’s jealousy, the latter half of the play is all about compassion, forgiveness, and redemption. Perdita’s true identity is restored, the princess is reunited with her father and mother (who is seemingly “resurrected” from the dead), and Paulina gets engaged to Camillo. The play’s joyous ending not only restores domestic and political order, but it offers an optimistic view of humanity.
In The Winter’s Tale, suffering and tyranny give way to compassion and forgiveness – Shakespeare’s redemptive ending offers hope for the future and an optimistic view of humanity.
Hermione’s love for her daughter is responsible for her “miraculous” resurrection in the play’s final act.