What Means Sicilia? He Something Seems Unsettled: Sicily, Russia, and Bohemia in The Winter's Tale
"What Means Sicilia? He Something Seems Unsettled": Sicily, Russia, and Bohemia in The Winter's Tale
R. W. Desai, University of Delhi
The opening scenes of The Winter's Tale bring together royalty from three different regions in Europe: Leontes, king of Sicily, which is in the extreme south, in the Mediterranean region; his wife, Hermione, daughter of the Emperor of Russia in the northeast; and Polixenes, king of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, also in the northeast. This joining of geographical regions has its counterpoint in the contemporary joining of the regions of literary and other forms of cultural discourse. New Historicism has challenged the long established assumption, theorized by New Criticism, that "Art" is an autonomous aesthetic region which transcends the society, ideology, and culture that forms its matrix. Denying this, New Historicism insists upon a different methodology, a cultural criticism that refuses to see literature and history as two distinct entities since such differentiation is a product of our own phenomenological cultural conditioning which can be altered if our perspective is shifted. My purpose here is to attempt to shift our perspective on The Winter's Tale to show how Renaissance notions of ethnicity play a crucial part in the play's aesthetic.
In this article I shall survey rapidly various Eurocentrist views on race and ethnic differentiation present during Shakespeare's lifetime, and trace their presence in The Winter 's Tale. These views seem in general to be in consonance with one another, and if they demonstrate how easily stereotypes came to be perpetuated from one period to the next during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this need not surprise us, since in our own experience today such cultural stereotyping continues unabated. In Norway as recently as 1972 when the last referendum on joining the European Union was held, the opposition's catchy slogan was: "Would you want your daughter to marry a Sicilian?"
Hitherto The Winter's Tale has been viewed exclusively for its thematic concerns, no attention being paid to the racial and anthropological features that the play implicitly addresses. For example, though it has of course been remarked that Shakespeare interchanges the countries of origin of Leontes, the jealous husband, and Polixenes, the putative rival—Sicily and Bohemia, respectively, thus radically altering these details as given in Greene's Pandosto—the possible reasons for this intriguing transposition have not been investigated, as far as I am aware. Such an investigation, taking into account the ideological connotations involved, will, I think, bring to light the underlying assumptions of the Elizabethans on matters of race...
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Julio Romano died in 1546. Assuming that Paulina intended her audience to believe that the "statue" was created during the last years of his life, then Hermione, now in her mid-forties, would have been in her late twenties at the time of her banishment, and this would place her date of birth at around the early 1500's so that her father, the Emperor of Russia, a detail she specifically mentions (III.ii.119), would have been Ivan III, known as Ivan the Great (1462-1505). But even more immediate for, and better known to, Shakespeare and his audience would have been the exploits of Ivan IV, also known as Ivan the Terrible (1533-84). An English contemporary, Sir Jerome Horsey, related the sack of Novgorod in vivid terms:
he chargeth it with 30 thowsand Tartors and tenn thowsand gonnors of his guard, withowt any respect ravished all the weomen and maieds, ranzacked, robbed, and spoilled all that wear within it of their jeweils, plate, and treasur, murthered the people yonge and olde, burnt all their howshold stuff, merchandices, and warehowses of wax, flaex, tallow, hieds, salt, wynes, cloth, and silks, sett all one fier, with wax and tallow melted down the kennells in the streats, together with the bloud of 700 thowsande men, weomen and children, slaine and murthered; so that with the bloud that rann into the river, and of all other livinge creaturs and cattell, their dead carcacess did stoppe as it wear the stream of...
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The Elizabethan interest in Russia extended to Russians' physical characteristics, which would likely have figured in stage representations of Muscovites. Anthropologically the Russians, like the Czechs and Slovaks, belong to the Slavic peoples. "The Great Russians are mostly of the characteristic Moujik type with a squarish face and heavy features, reddish-blond hair and orange-brown . . . eyes. These in the main are the Muscovites of history."6
Turning to Leontes, king of Sicilia and the husband of Hermione, we note that he would have belonged to the Mediterranean type, the physical characteristics of which are "wavy or curly black hair, an average stature of about 5 feet 3 inches, slender build, long head and narrow oval face, straight nose rather inclining to be broad; the eyes are very dark."7 Thus Leontes would be a distinct contrast to Hermione in appearance, and this distinction should be made by directors of stage and film productions of The Winter's Tale. What exacerbates Leontes' insecurity and sexual jealousy could well be the physical and cultural affinity that Polixenes has with Hermione. Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is, like Hermione, of Slavic descent. The Czechs and the Slovaks both belong to the western branch of the Slavic peoples. Around the fifth century A.D. both tribes migrated south and settled in what became Czechoslovakia, with the Czechs in Bohemia in the west and the Slovaks in...
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Traditional approaches to The Winter's Tale have regarded Greene's Pandosto as its main source, and no doubt this is true in terms of plot and narrative. But, as I have tried to show, the changes Shakespeare makes are related to culture and politics. That the plays of Shakespeare use their main sources as mere frames within which to incorporate contemporary discourses is now generally accepted. This development in critical practice indicates a welcome and long overdue departure from the too simplistic notion held by many that Ben Jonson was the more widely read and intellectually superior author, while Shakespeare, lacking a university education, used his dramatic instinct to produce plays that were theatrically successful. Fortunately, this kind of patronizing concession to Shakespeare is no longer fashionable. That he must have known the works of Montaigne, Machiavelli, and other well-known Renaissance philosophers is of course well established, but it is equally likely that he knew the work of the French writer Jean Bodin (1530-96), one of the most influential geographers of the time.
Since in this century England entered the nautical age on a wide scale, geography was the science of the future, the equivalent of computer science today. In the preface to his History of Travel Richard Willes commented:
There was a time whan the arte of grammar was so muche esteemed. . . . Than...
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What light, if any, does this dimension of multiculturalism shed on Perdita in terms of her development towards womanhood? Physically, she is the image of her mother, as is remarked by the Third Gentleman (V.ii.36-37) as well as by Leontes, who almost falls in love with her (V.i.226-27). Thus we are in a sense seeing Hermione all over again, except that Perdita's behavior is just the opposite of her mother's. Whereas Hermione, a Russian princess, was free and familiar with her guest Polixenes, Perdita, half-Russian and half-Sicilian, is "retired" when her guests, including Polixenes, arrive and is reprimanded for this by her putative father, the Old Shepherd (IV.iv.62). "Sir, welcome./ It is my father's will I should take on me/ The hostess-ship o' th' day. You're welcome, sir" (IV.iv.70-72). In the restrained conduct of Perdita, "now grown in grace" (IV.i.24), we witness a reenactment of the Polixenes-Hermione relationship, but this time with a new and transformed Hermione as hostess. It is a flashback, so to speak, but with a difference, a marvelous piece of dramatic legerdemain.
One final observation: it must have been evident to Shakespeare's audience that, following the death of Mamillius, the prophecy of the Oracle—"the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found" (III.ii. 134-36)—had been fulfilled with the discovery of Perdita, whose marriage to Florizel would result in heirs both for Sicilia and...
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