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In a charming domestic scene at the start of act 2 of The Winter’s Tale, Queen Hermione, pregnant with her second child, asks her son, Mamillius, to tell her a story. He says: “Merry or sad shall’t be?” and she replies “As merry as you will.” But Mamillius has other ideas: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins” (act 2, scene 1). While Shakespeare’s play has no goblins or sprites, it does, at least for its first three acts, traffic in sadness: King Leontes’ irrational sexual jealousy, the estrangement of the king from his wife Hermione, the death of his son and the supposed death of his infant daughter and wife. It is an icy and tragic “winter’s tale” indeed. But in this play Shakespeare has things two ways. In a miraculous reversal of expectations, in its last two acts The Winter’s Tale becomes a happier story of regeneration, resurrection and reunion. As a result, the play is both a sad tale and a merry one, a perfect tragicomedy.
The conversation between Mamillius and his mother signals to the audience Shakespeare’s own preoccupation in his late plays with old tales and moldy stories. In these plays he draws on ancient tales and mythic tropes to put in stark relief primal patterns of human experience. The Winter’s Tale’s basic structure recalls the myth of Persephone, a beautiful young girl abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, from a flowering field where she was playing. Allowed to return six months of every year to the earth’s surface, Persephone’s comings and goings explain the cycle of winter and summer, sorrow and joy, that structure both human life and old stories like The Winter’s Tale. The play also evokes Christian narratives. Leontes, overcome by evil, commits great wrongs, but after a long period of penitence, receives the gift of grace: the return of his daughter and the seeming resurrection of his wife. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare writes in the shadow of all these tales to create his own dramatic fiction about humanity’s appalling capacity for destruction and also about the possibilities for regeneration through time, penitence and the helping hand of art.
In making his play, Shakespeare does not hesitate to let the bones of his art show. For example, when he has depicted the full horrors of Leontes’ destructive jealousy and looks toward the time of regeneration, an allegorical figure named Time signals the transition. At the beginning of act 4, alone on stage, Time announces that 16 years have passed and that the action has shifted to Bohemia, where Leontes’ daughter, Perdita, banished and believed dead, has grown to young womanhood. Although the stage directions don’t specify when the play was staged during Shakespeare’s life, Time probably wore wings, signaling how rapidly time passes, and carried an hourglass and a scythe, traditional symbols of his destructive power. Time is not a “realistic” figure; he’s an emblematic one, a device that lets Shakespeare self-consciously point to the ways he is disregarding the classical unities that insist a play’s action must take place in one day and one place. Time says:
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 plan and o’erwhelm custom (act 4, scene 1)
Time could be speaking for the playwright himself who overthrows the theatrical laws of the unities and modern understandings of realism to tell an old tale the way he sees fit. In his late plays Shakespeare often heightens the overt theatricality of his dramas, pointing to the artifice that goes into their construction and making the powers and limitations of art part of the subject matter of these plays. The Winter’s Tale is no exception. In act 4, in the springtime world of Bohemia, there is even a conversation between Polixenes, King of Bohemia and Perdita about the importance and value of art in human life. Perdita is given the skeptic’s part, arguing that art dilutes or perverts nature; Polixenes disagrees, using a gardening metaphor to argue for the value of the gardener’s art whereby he grafts one plant onto another to produce hybrids and new varieties of vegetation. In Polixenes’ view, “This is an art / Which does mend nature—change it rather; but / The art itself is nature” (act 4, scene 4). In other words, human skill and artfulness can create something new, and that very artfulness is part of man’s natural inheritance.
The play’s theatricality is heightened by the number of artist figures within it. There are con artists like the peddler Autolycus who wear disguises as part of elaborately theatrical scams to relieve people of their money, and unwitting artists like Perdita, who, even as she rails against art, dresses up as Queen of the sheep-shearing feast. Perdita thus plays a game of make-believe that ironically reveals the truth of her nature. Rather than a shepherd’s daughter, she is a king’s; and her artful pageant unwittingly acknowledges the underlying reality of her identity. In this case, art is truer than life! Then there are the powerfully positive artist figures of Camillo and Paulina, servants and counselors who try to mend their worlds through artful fictions. When Florizel’s father discovers Perdita and Florizel’s love, he forbids it, causing the counselor Camillo to intervene on the side of the young lovers. Camillo devises an elaborate fiction in which Florizel is to sail to Leontes’ kingdom and present Perdita as a Libyan Princess he has married. Camillo even dresses the young lovers in costumes appropriate for the parts they will play and provides them with lines to say. Factually, his story is a lie. Perdita is not a Libyan Princess, and the two young people are not yet married. But Camillo’s fiction presents an image of the world he would like to see in which young love gets to live out its desires and the innate nobility of two young people can be acknowledged. Eventually, in Sicily, Perdita’s royal birth is revealed, and she and Florizel do get to wed. Camillo’s old tale has presaged a world transformed.
Shakespeare takes the greatest risks, however, with the magnificent statue scene that concludes his play. This is one of the most highly theatrical and metadramatic scenes in Shakespeare’s entire canon. Paulina, a lady in waiting at the court of Leontes and a staunch champion of his wife’s sexual fidelity, orchestrates an encounter in which Leontes and Perdita, Leontes’ lost daughter, view a newly-completed statue of Hermione, the lost wife and mother. The statue depicts not the young Hermione, but a woman wrinkled by time. Bidding all who stand before the statue to “awake [their] faith” (act 5, scene 3), Paulina enjoins the statue to move and then to speak. What happens next is open to multiple understandings as the statue does indeed step down from its pedestal. From one perspective, a miracle akin to the Christian miracle of the risen Christ seems to occur right before the audience’s eyes. From another perspective, the play suggests that the statue has so moved the audience that their faith has willed it into life. This recalls the story of Pygmalion, the goldsmith who dearly loved the statue he created, and because of his passion, Venus granted the statue life. There is also a naturalistic explanation for the statue’s movements: Hermione did not really die 16 years before, but was kept in hiding by Paulina as both women waited for the prophecy to be fulfilled that “the King shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found” (act 3, scene 2). What is lost, of course, is the banished daughter, who returns to Leontes in act 5. As is usual with Shakespeare’s dramatic practice, it is not possible to separate art from nature and, in this case, from miracle. In his highly theatrical climax, Shakespeare suggests in one vivid action that a religious miracle of faith has occurred, that a long-kept secret has been revealed, and that art has led the way in “mending” nature.
Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, complained of plays that “make nature afraid,” by which he seems to have meant plays that eschewed realism and the unities and present fantastic or impossible events. The Winter’s Tale is just such a play. It contains Father Time, a walking statue, improbable coincidences and movement over vast stretches of time and geography. But like the old tales that attract Mamillius and his mother, The Winter’s Tale gives pleasure and brings clarity. Its stark two-part structure intimates both how human beings can destroy their own happiness and also how, sometimes, it can be restored. Like Paulina, Shakespeare is a maker of fictions that tease us with the possibility that art can spur new life, new ways of seeing and so mend the nature that we as humans so easily endanger.
Jean E. Howard (Ph.D., Yale) is the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Author of many books, she has received numerous fellowships and awards including Guggenheim, ACLS, NEH, Folger, Huntington and Newberry Library Fellowships.