The Winter's Tale (Vol. 36)
The Winter's Tale
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Winter's Tale, see SC, Volumes 7 and 15.
Twentieth-century criticism of The Winter's Tale has varied widely in emphasis, reflecting the broad scope of topics suggested in the play. Since Victorian times, commentators have struggled to define the genre of the play because of the unique two-part structure. While some modern critics, such as Northrop Frye, have praised Shakespeare for achieving unity and balance in the two parts, controversy still surrounds the general design of the play. For example, Charles Hieatt has contended that a two-part view of the play represents only a portion of a larger, more complicated scheme; he focuses instead on the influence of humans over their own destiny, a principle which unifies the individual segments. Joseph Lenz has divided the play into three sections, "each associated with a specific genre and each reflecting one means by which closure can be attained." Howard Felperin has praised the "imaginative environment" constructed by Shakespeare out of the conventions of older dramatic traditions, which, he maintains, can support the lifelike characters of The Winter's Tale.
The relationship of Perdita and Leontes is often explored in modern criticism. Many commentators, including Patricia Southard Gourlay, have viewed Perdita's return to the Sicilian court as the key to Leontes's new life. Similarly, Bruce Young has commented that Perdita is consistently "associated with divine regenerative power and is even described as a life-giving goddess." Scholars have also focused on her role in Leontes's redemption; Robert Watson has asserted that "only Perdita's return can rouse into life the latent nature in Leontes's and Hermione's artificial poses."
Another topic of particular interest to critics is the genesis of Leontes's jealousy, which has resulted in two primary positions: that Leontes is not jealous until Hermione convinces Polixenes to stay, a position held by Rene Girard; and that Leontes's jealousy is simmering from the onset of the play, then finally erupts. Several critics, such as Martha Ronk, have also compared Leontes to another jealous Shakespearean character, Othello. Ronk argues that the sixteen-year gap in time "offers Leontes an experience denied Othello . . . . [He] is allowed time to settle and be still." Lawrence Wright has discussed yet another approach to this topic: the distinction between "the inception of Leontes's jealousy and the start of the tragi-comic disruption."
Northrop Frye (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Recognition in The Winter's Tale" in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 235-46.
[In the following essay, Frye examines the dramatic contrast found in The Winter's Tale, focusing on the differences between the human arts—music, poetry, and magic—and the power of the gods and nature, as well as the truths these elements reveal.]
In structure The Winter's Tale, like King Lear, falls into two main parts separated by a storm. The fact that they are also separated by sixteen years is less important. The first part ends with the ill-fated Antigonus caught between a bear and a raging sea, echoing a passage in one of Lear's storm speeches. This first part is the "winter's tale" proper, for Mamillius is just about to whisper his tale into his mother's ear when the real winter strikes with the entrance of Leontes and his guards. Various bits of imagery, such as Polixenes' wish to get back to Bohemia for fear of "sneaping winds" blowing at home and Hermione's remark during her trial (reproduced from Pandosto) that the emperor of Russia was her father, are linked to a winter setting. The storm, like the storm in King Lear, is described in such a way as to suggest that a whole order of things is being dissolved in a...
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Leontes And Perdita
Patricia Southard Gourlay (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Oh My Most Sacred Lady': Female Metaphor in The Winter's Tale," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 5, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 375-95.
[Here, Gourlay traces Shakespeare's use of female metaphors in the play to explore elements of Leontes' own nature, and asserts that he opposes dark masculinity with the qualities of love, art, and nature represented by the three principal women.]
Early in The Winter's Tale, while all is still compliment and courtesy, Polixenes describes the innocent idyll he and Leontes shared as boys. He says to Hermione:
O my most sacred lady,
Temptations have since then been born t'us, for
In those unfledged days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not crossed the eyes
Of my young playfellow.1 (I. ii.77—81)
When Polixenes makes his little joke, no one, least of all the gracious Hermione, takes exception to his comic aspersion on women, accompanied as it is by the honorific address, "sacred lady." Polixenes rightly takes for granted that his audience shares his own assumptions about the perfection of his childish friendship and recognizes in it the metaphor of a prelapsarian Eden. Only indirectly does he suggest that woman is the cause of...
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René Girard (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: "Jealousy in The Winter's Tale," in Alphonse Juilland: D'Une Passion L'Autre, edited by Brigitte Gazelles and René Girard, Anma Libri, 1987, pp. 39-62.
[In the following essay, Girard interprets the jealousy of Leontes in terms of "mimetic desire, " suggesting that the motive for Leontes ' jealous behavior is based on his belief that he influenced Hermione to love Polixenes in a sort of imitation of his fondness for his friend.]
The most monstrous jealousy in Shakespeare is not that of Othello but of Leontes, the hero of The Winter's Tale. With no villain at his side to poison his mind, the king of Sicilia comes close to destroying his entire family. His victims are completely innocent and selflessly devoted to him. This Othello without an Iago is Shakespeare's last representation of jealousy, his most uncompromising and, in my opinion, his greatest. But posterity has judged otherwise. Othello rather than Leontes has always been the great symbol of jealousy in the theater of Shakespeare.
The traditional critics appreciate the sinister quality that emanates from Leontes after he becomes jealous. They find him excellent as a madly suspicious tyrant, but unconvincing as a portrayal of jealousy. They do not understand why he becomes jealous; they find him "insufficiently motivated."
One line in...
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Alastair Fowler (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Leontes' Contrition and the Repair of Nature," in Essays and Studies, Vol. 31, 1978, pp. 36-64.
[In the following essay, Fowler discusses the allegorical relations in The Winter's Tale, maintaining that the pastoral scenes symbolically reveal Leontes ' transition from sin to repentance.]
The Winter's Tale and Measure for Measure fall each into distinct sections written in different fictive modes. In Measure for Measure, the early, potentially tragic scenes of naturalism have been contrasted with the subsequent allegorical black comedy, which is supposed to show a 'falling off'. In The Winter's Tale, the contrast between the first three acts (again largely naturalistic) and the pastoral-comical continuation is too sharp, and the writing too good, to seem anything but intentional. Still, the marvels and unconvincing deaths have been regretted. And Rosalie Colie, doing what she could for a 'conspicuously ill-made' play,1 has presented it as an extreme generic experiment: an essay in genera mixta that has perhaps not quite come off. Its tragic and comic portions are 'not articulated' but merely juxtaposed; so that genre is 'forced' (pp. 267-8), with contrary generic tendencies allowed to confront one another. The Winter's Tale becomes in fine a play about the problems of...
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Barber, Charles. "The Winter's Tale and Jacobean Society." In Shakespeare In A Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle, pp. 233-52. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964.
Compares themes of the play to problems in seventeenth-century English society, especially in the contrast between court life and country life.
Bellette, A. F. "Truth and Utterance in The Winter's Tale" Shakespeare Survey 3 (1978): 65-75.
Examines the capacity of words to accurately represent truth, how words are used in relationships, and Leontes's failure to understand others or himself.
Bergeron, David M. "Hermione's Trial in The Winter's Tale." Essays in Theater 3, No. 1 (November 1984): 3-12.
Focuses on Hermione's courageous defense of herself in her trial, and how it contrasts with Leontes's irrational passion.
Blisset, William. "This Wide Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale." English Literary Renaissance 1 (Winter 1971): 52-70.
Discusses the symmetry of the play's two halves in terms of dramatic irony.
Cohen, Derek. "Patriarchy and Jealousy in Othello and The Winter's Tale." Modern Language Quarterly 48, No. 3 (September 1987): 207-23.
Describes the perceived role of female fidelity in maintaining social order, and compares the motives for and growth of jealousy in Othello and...
(The entire section is 833 words.)