The Winter's Tale Essay - The Winter's Tale (Vol. 45)

William Shakespeare

The Winter's Tale (Vol. 45)


The Winter's Tale

In 1672, John Dryden considered The Winter's Tale, along with Measure for Measure and Love's Labour's Lost, to be "grounded on impossibilities, or at least, so meanly written, that the Comedy neither caus'd your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment." Such an opinion typifies the history of ambivalence toward The Winter's Tale. Since its first performance critics have been perplexed by the play's disparate elements. Among other things, The Winter's Tale offends against classical standards of dramatic unity and genre, mixing tragedy and comedy and leaving a sixteen-year lapse in the action. Additionally, it presents the audience with an incredible plot, which includes the sudden restoration of Hermione after her long absence, and the survival of Perdita and her eventual union with the son of her father's former best friend. It also engages in historical and geographical confusion, giving landlocked Bohemia a coastline and bringing together an ancient Greek oracle with the Emperor of Russia, among others.

Although The Winter's Tale has generally confounded its audience, recently a number, of critics have tried to discover meaning in the play's disorder, particularly by analyzing Shakespeare's use of dreams. Scholars such as Marjorie B. Garber (1974) and Julie Burton (1988) provide the groundwork for such a discussion by examining Shakespeare's source materials, including the literature of ancient Greece and Rome (particularly Ovid) and traditional English folklore. Insight into the operations of dream work in the play has provided critics new avenues of interpretation. For example, while those working against a Christian background have found little reason for Leontes' outbursts, recent explorations, particularly by Garber, have contended that Leontes subconsciously substitutes his dreaming for reality in an effort to vent his latent propensity for sexual jealousy. Kay Stockholder (1987) claims that Leontes isolates himself through his dreaming in order to idealize his surroundings and rescue himself from his destructive passions. She cites Leontes' redemption and his incredible reunion with Hermione to be a dream-like resolution. For Ruth Nevo (1987), the play's dreaming instructs Leontes and the audience that regret is not enough to regenerate the past unless it is infused with a transcendence of this isolation. The return of Hermione is brought about paradoxically by both overcoming the self-involvement of dreaming and accepting the possibility of dream-like metamorphoses: "It is required / You do awake your faith" (The Winter's Tale, Act 5, Scene 3).

Reinforcing the centrality of dreaming to the play's narrative is Shakespeare's use of time. According to critics such as Stanton B. Garner, Jr. (1989), dramatic tensions arise from the nostalgic recollections of the past coming into conflict with an imaginary network of present events. In this interpretation, Leontes' jealousy is jarring primarily because of its coming into conflict with the idyllic picture of his childhood friendship with Polixenes. Leontes' reunion with Hermione marks the overcoming of loss by the overcoming of time. According to Garner, "the harsh line between past and present blurs, shading the memorial presence of the statue into the living presence of Hermione." For Nevo, the severance of the play by a sixteen-year gap in time provides a structure of duplications in which events of the first part are repeated in the second part, when jealousy and fear of usurpation are reenacted—with Polixenes for Leontes, Florizel for Polixenes, and Perdita for Hermione. Humanity's tragic folly is iterated in the later events of the play, marking a shift in emphasis in Shakespeare's late romances. As David Bevington (1988) notes, although the return to an idyllic countryside is reminiscent of Shakespeare's comedies, in The Winter's Tale "the restoration is at once more urgently needed and more miraculous than in the 'festive' world of early comedy." So, while the structure and characterization of The Winter's Tale have historically troubled its audience, recent critical approaches have appealed to Shakespeare's use of dreams and manipulation of time in an effort to understand the actions of Leontes, to analyze the dramatic tensions, and to relate the play's tragic and comic elements.


David Bevington (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Winter's Tale, in William Shakespeare: The Late Romances, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, written and edited by David Bevington, Bantam Books, 1988, pp. 335-39.

[In this essay, Bevington relates The Winter's Tale to Shakespeare's late romances in an effort to highlight its tragic elements, particularly Leontes' jealousy.]

The Winter's Tale (c. 1610-1611), with its almost symmetrical division into two halves of bleak tragedy and comic romance, illustrates perhaps more clearly than any other Shakespearean play the genre of tragicomedy. To be sure, all the late romances feature journeys of separation, apparent deaths, and tearful reconciliations. Marina and Thaisa in Pericles, Imogen in Cymbeline, and Ferdinand in The Tempest, all supposed irrecoverably lost, are brought back to life by apparently miraculous devices. Of the four late romances, however, The Winter's Tale uses the most formal structure to evoke the antithesis of tragedy and romance. It is sharply divided into contrasting halves by a gap of sixteen years. The tragic first half takes place almost entirely in Sicilia, whereas the action of the second half is limited for the most part to Bohemia. At the court of Sicilia we see tyrannical jealousy producing a spiritual climate of "winter / In storm perpetual"; in Bohemia we witness a pastoral landscape and a sheepshearing evoking "the sweet o' the year," "When daffodils begin to peer" (3.2.212-213; 4.3.1-3). Paradoxically, the contrast between the two halves is intensified by parallels between the two: both begin with Camillo onstage and proceed to scenes of confrontation and jealousy in which, ironically, the innocent cause of jealousy in the first half, Polixenes, becomes the jealous tyrant of the second half. This mirroring reminds us of the cyclical nature of time and the hope it brings of renewal as we move from tragedy to romantic comedy.

Although this motif of a renewing journey from jaded court to idealized countryside reminds us of As You Like It and other early comedies, we sense in the late romances and especially in The Winter's Tale a new preoccupation with humanity's tragic folly. The vision of human depravity is world-weary and pessimistic, as though infected by the gloomy spirit of the great tragedies. And because humanity is so bent on destroying itself, the restoration is at once more urgently needed and more miraculous than in the "festive" world of early comedy. Renewal is mythically associated with the seasonal cycle from winter to summer.

King Leontes's tragedy seems at first irreversible and terrifying, like that of Shakespeare's greatest tragic protagonists. He suffers from irrational jealousy, as does Othello, and attempts to destroy the person on whom all his happiness depends. Unlike Othello, however, Leontes needs no diabolical tempter such as Iago to poison his mind against Queen Hermione. Leontes is undone by his own fantasies. No differences in race or age can explain Leontes's fears of estrangement from Hermione. She is not imprudent in her conduct, like her counterpart in Robert Greene's Pandosto (1588), the prose romance from which Shakespeare drew his narrative. Although Hermione is graciously fond of Leontes's dear friend Polixenes and urges him to stay longer in Sicilia, she does so only with a hospitable warmth demanded by the occasion and encouraged by her husband. In every way, then, Shakespeare strips away from Leontes the motive and the occasion for plausible doubting of his wife. All observers in the Sicilian court are incredulous and shocked at the King's accusations. Even so, Leontes is neither an unsympathetic nor an unbelievable character. Like Othello, Leontes cherishes his wife and perceives with a horrifying intensity what a fearful cost he must pay for his suspicions. Not only his marriage, but his lifelong friendship with Polixenes, his sense of pride in his children, and his enjoyment of his subjects' warm regard, all must be sacrificed to a single overwhelming compulsion.

Whatever may be the psychological cause of this obsession, it manifests itself as a revulsion against all sexual behavior. Like mad Lear, Leontes imagines lechery to be the unavoidable fact of the cosmos and of the human condition, the lowest common denominator to which all persons (including Hermione) must stoop. He is persuaded that "It is a bawdy planet," in which cuckolded man has "his pond fished by his next neighbor, by / Sir Smile, his neighbor" (1.2.195-201). Leontes's tortured soliloquies are laden with sexual images, of unattended "gates" letting in and out the enemy "With bag and baggage," and of a "dagger" that must be "muzzled / Lest it should bite its master" (11. 197, 206, 156-157). As in King Lear, order is inverted to disorder, sanity to madness, legitimacy to illegitimacy. Sexual misconduct is emblematic of a universal malaise: "Why, then the world and all that's in 't is nothing, / The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing, / My wife is nothing" (11. 292-294). Other characters too see the trial of Hermione as a testing of humanity's worth: if Hermione proves false, Antigonus promises, he will treat his own wife as a stable horse and will "geld" his three daughters (2.1.148). Prevailing images are of spiders, venom, infection, sterility, and the "dungy earth" (1. 158).

Cosmic order is never really challenged, however. Leontes's fantasies of universal disorder are chimerical. His wife is in fact chaste, Polixenes true, and the King's courtiers loyal. Camillo refuses to carry out Leontes's order to murder Polixenes, not only because he knows murder to be wrong but because history offers not one example of a man "that had struck anointed kings / And flourished after" (1.2.357-358). The cosmos of this play is one in which crimes are invariably and swiftly punished. The Delphic oracle vindicates Hermione and gives Leontes stern warning. When Leontes persists in his madness, his son Mamillius's death follows as an immediate consequence. As Leontes at once perceives, "Apollo's angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice" (3.2.146-147). Leontes paradoxically welcomes the lengthy contrition he must undergo, for it confirms a pattern in the universe of just cause and effect. Although as tragic protagonist he has discovered the truth about Hermione moments too late, and so must pay richly for his error, Leontes has at least recovered faith in Hermione's transcendent goodness. His nightmare now over, he accepts and embraces suffering as a necessary atonement.

The transition to romance is therefore anticipated to an extent by the play's first half, even though the tone of the last two acts is strikingly different. The old Shepherd signals a momentous change when he speaks to his son of a cataclysmic storm and a ravenous bear set in opposition to the miraculous discovery of a child: "Now bless thyself. Thou mett'st with things dying, I with things newborn" (3.3.110-111). Time comes onstage as Chorus, like Gower in Pericles, to remind us of the conscious artifice of the dramatist. He can "o'erthrow law" and carry us over sixteen years as if we had merely dreamed out the interim (4.1). Shakespeare flaunts the improbability of his story by giving Bohemia a seacoast (much to the distress of Ben Jonson), and by employing animals onstage in a fanciful way ("Exit, pursued by a bear"; 3.3.57 s.d.). The narrative uses many typical devices of romance: a babe abandoned to the elements, a princess brought up by shepherds, a prince disguised as a swain, a sea voyage, and a recognition scene. Love is threatened not by the internal psychic obstacle of jealousy, but by the external obstacles of parental opposition and a seeming disparity of social rank between the lovers. Comedy easily finds solutions for such difficulties by the unraveling of illusion. This comic world also properly includes clownish shepherds, coy shepherdesses, and Autolycus, the roguish peddler, whose songs help set the mood of jollity and whose machinations contribute in an unforeseen manner to the working out of the love plot. Autolycus is in many ways the presiding genius of the play's second half, as dominant a character as Leontes in the first half and one whose delightful function is to do good "against my will" (5.2.125). In this paradox of knavery converted surprisingly to benign ends, we see how the comic providence of Shakespeare's tragicomic world makes use of the most implausible and outrageous happenings in pursuit of its own inscrutable design.

The conventional romantic ending is infused, however, with a sadness and a mystery that take the play well beyond what is usual in comedy. Mamillius and Antigonus are really dead, and that irredeemable fact is not forgotten in the play's final happy moments. Conversely, in Shakespeare's most notable departure from his source, Greene's Pandosto, Hermione is brought back to life. All observers regard this event, and the rediscovery of Perdita, as grossly implausible, "so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion" (5.2.29-30). The play's very title, The Winter's Tale, reinforces this sense of naive improbability. Why does Shakespeare stress this riddling paradox of an unbelievable reality, and why does he deliberately mislead his audience into believing that Hermione has in fact died (3.3.15-45), using a kind of theatrical trickery found in no other Shakespearean play? The answer may well be that, in Paulina's words, we must awake our faith, accepting a narrative of death and return to life that cannot ultimately be comprehended by reason. On the rational level we are told that Hermione has been kept in hiding for sixteen years, in order to bring Leontes's contrition to fulfillment. Such an explanation seems psychologically incomprehensible, however, for it casts both Hermione and her keeper Paulina in the role of sadistic punishers of the King. Instead we are drawn toward an emblematic interpretation, bearing in mind that it is more an evocative hint than a complete truth. Throughout the play, Hermione has been repeatedly associated with "Grace" and with the goddess Proserpina, whose return from the underworld, after "Three crabbèd months had soured themselves to death" (1.2.102), signals the coming of spring. Perdita, also associated with Proserpina (4.4.116), is welcomed by her father "As is the spring to th' earth" (5.1.152). The emphasis on the bond of father and daughter (rather than father and son), so characteristic of Shakespeare's late plays and especially his romances, goes importantly beyond the patriarchalism of Shakespeare's earlier plays in its exploration of family relationships. Paulina has a similarly emblematic role, that of Conscience, patiently guiding the King to a divinely appointed renewal of his joy. Paulina speaks of herself as an artist figure, like Prospero in The Tempest, performing wonders of illusion, though she rejects the assistance of wicked powers. These emblematic hints do not rob the story of its human drama, but they do lend a transcendent significance to Leontes's bittersweet story of sinful error, affliction, and an unexpected second happiness.

T. G. Bishop (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "The Winter's Tale; or, Filling Up the Graves," in Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 125-75.

[In the following essay, Bishop provides an overview of The Winter's Tale, focusing on the characterization, the sources of Leontes' paranoia, and the mythological and narrative patterns that structure the play.]

O what venerable creatures did the agèd seem! Immortal Cherubims! And the young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally.

Thomas Traherne

Gib Deine Hand, Du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund und komme nicht zu strafen.
Sei guten Muts, ich bin nicht wild.
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

Der Tod und das Mädchen

Dum stupet et medio gaudet fallique veretur,
rursus amans rursusque manu sua vota retractat;
corpus erat: saliunt temptatae pollice venae.


Shakespeare seems to have been the first English dramatist to give his plays "poetic" titles, by which I mean not high-flown ones, but ones that stand in a complex figurative relation to the plays they name. Earlier dramatists offered proverbial titles such as Enough is as Good as a Feast or Like Will to Like, but this is not quite the same thing. The practice begins as early as The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labours Lost and reaches a kind of climax with Twelfth Night or What You Will Given this attentiveness to the resonance of title, we ought especially to pay attention when one of the plays makes a point of citing its title during the action. It does not happen very often, but when it does it orients us strongly on where the playwright himself sees the network of complex interrelations having one of its primary interpretive nodes. This is especially true of his comedies, for which there is a less neutrally designating set of title conventions than for, say, The Life of Henry the Fift or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (though that "o f teases). At one point in the middle of his career, Shakespeare seems deliberately to have set out to mock or wrong-foot this very kind of attention with apparent throwaway titles like As You Like It and Much Ado about Nothing. All's Well that Ends Well looks like the same sort of gesture, except that the phrase then appears twice in increasingly rocky straits on the very lips of the heroine (IV.iv.35, V.i.25) and makes us pay attention.

In both The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, as if in this they were a pair, this underlining gesture is not merely a secret citation for our ears alone, but a reference to an act or occasion of story-telling itself, with an even higher degree of self-consciousness. Of Prospero we might expect such a metadramatic gambit, since he is at once magician and theatre-manager. He speaks his line to Ariel, almost to himself, looking back on his masterplot as its final suite of gestures is about to unfold:

PROSPERO Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not: my spirits obey, and Time
Goes upright with his carriage: how's the day?
ARIEL On the sixth hour, at which time, my Lord,
You said our work should cease.
PROSPERO I did say so,
When first I rais'd "The Tempest."


This punctuation is tendentious, of course, but I think it matches what audiences hear, and the line points them to an enhanced awareness of the closing movement of the whole play.1

In The Winter's Tale, on the other hand, the title-allu-sion has little of this deliberate affirmative to it. A small boy makes it, without even quite "getting it right," so that we may even work a bit harder to notice. Why would such a gesture of self-consciousness be given to a minor character in a scene that looks like an introduction or prologue to the main event of the act?2 Or is Mamillius closer to the center of the play than he appears? What sorts of things do we learn about him in his two short scenes that might justify the dignity of having him allude to the play's title in this canny way? We know, or we may already feel, that he is to be sacrificed. Insofar as his name associates him with his mother, we may wonder whether he can escape his father's blind wrath against her.3 And though Leontes apparently decides that the child is after all his, solicitude for his son's welfare does not include actually bringing him with him in subsequent scenes: he is as effectively banished from the King's company as his mother is, more so in fact. Whether he cries on being haled from her we do not know, but we are reasonably sure he grieves terribly later on. Even Leontes proclaims this much, though he glosses it as shame at his mother's behavior—or on her behalf.

But what do we see that might help us understand why his small story bears the weight of the whole play? By his own criteria, his is a "winter's tale"—brief and clouded, haunted by haunted figures. His two appearances revolve first around his father, then his mother. "Revolve" as there is a prominent element of oscillation in the boy's movement in each case: he moves away (is pushed away in fact) and returns. This pattern of separation and recovery in relation to both parents is important for defining him as a dramatic figure. The stakes, it will appear, are high both for him and the play in understanding the tentative alternations between identification, detachment, and resistance that these stage movements come to map.4

It is in the scene with his mother, more set off from its surroundings than that with his father, that the play marks him for its own. Stanley Cavell has drawn attention to Leontes' discovery of the boy whispering to his mother, and read it as another scene of suspicion to add to his burgeoning fear and rage at the insidious knowledges of him he sees proliferating around him.5 For Cavell the moment focuses Leontes' secret wish—secret perhaps even from himself—to make away with Mamillius, and through and with him all generation. But the odd thing about Cavell's attention to this scene is that it seems in some ways to repeat Leontes' own gesture by banishing Mamillius himself from real consideration. For we see more of the scene than Leontes, and we know that Mamillius is not whispering a secret about him—or at least, not the secret he most fears and desires. What then is he doing with his "sad tale . . . of sprites and goblins"? Cavell speaks of the moment between mother and son as "a result of mutually seductive gestures," which is acute, but there are many kinds of seduction. What are the elements of this one that it should issue in this story?


The scene begins with Hermione pushing Mamillius—his mother's boy—away, in exasperation at something he has been doing, as if she were afraid he is about to exhaust her patience: "Take the boy to you; he so troubles me, / 'Tis past enduring." She speaks over his head, into an adult world that converts her command into a gamesome and seductive entreaty: "Come, my gracious lord, / Shall I be your playfellow?" But Mamillius knows enough to know what is going on, if not enough to respond with urbanity: "No, I'll none of you. . . . You'll kiss me hard and speak to me as if / I were a baby still." If he has been irritating his mother, perhaps the rub has been mutual: he is trying to grow away from a defenseless dependency he considers past. Making his own play for power, he tries to set his antagonist against her companion ("I love you better"), who is indulgent ("And why so, my lord?"). And now Mamillius has a chance to strut his discriminating knowledge of female beauty. Contrary to Polixenes' claims in the previous scene for the lambkin innocence of boyhood, this boy has a keen eye for sexual attractiveness and an interest in seeing how he can exploit what he sees. He even claims to have his lore from his own observation ("I learn'd it out of women's faces"), and he knows and perhaps resents it when his precocity is made fun of ("Nay, that's a mock"). The playfulnesses of this exchange are clear enough, yet they are not the same for boy and women, and the delicate psychological observation of the small scene rests in these differences. Though he relaxes into their indulgent teasing, even uses it to shine in, Mamillius has more to lose, and he finds in the end that their power to hurt is more real than he had hoped when they put before him the image of his strutted independence unpleasantly taken at its word, and begin to speak, again almost over his head, of "women's matters":

[1.] LADY Hark ye,
The Queen your mother rounds apace; we shall
Present our services to a fine new prince
One of these days, and then you'ld wanton with us,
If we would have you.
2. LADY She is spread of late
Into a goodly bulk. Good time encounter her!


Hermione interrupts the pair at this point with a rebuke, as though she knows the conversation is heading into deeper waters. She readmits the boy to her, offering reassurance of her continued presence and love, as though this were also a pledge for the future: "Come, sir, now / I am for you again."6 The expedient she hits on for letting him show his authority over her is that of story-telling, a move that allows mother and son to collaborate in a mutual dependence where he is active and controlling but still needs her consent and scope for his showcase. The two negotiate and Mamillius plays once more at refusal and aggression, a gambit Hermione is willing, even eager, to accommodate:

HERMIONE Pray you sit by us,
And tell's a tale.
MAMILLIUS Merry or sad, shall't be?
HERMIONE As merry as you will.
MAMILLIUS A sad tale's best for winter. I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
HERMIONE Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down, come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites; you're pow'rful at it.
MAMILLIUS There was a man—
HERMIONE Nay, come sit down; then on.
MAMILLIUS Dwelt by a churchyard. I will tell it softly,
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
HERMIONE Come on then.
And giv't me in mine ear.

Enter Leontes, Antigonus, Lords


This is deft stuff. We watch Mamillius and his mother together shaping the stakes and prospect of his frightening her. No doubt she will exclaim with fear at suitable intervals, giving him the delicious pleasure of mastering at once her and his aggressive impulse against her, since he will know of course that she is not "really" frightened. The "winter's tale" proves a narrative device to stage and explore the psychic strain of their coming separation, alike feared and desired by both. It maps and cycles anxiety into story, just as the spatial movement away from and towards Hermione maps more complex separations ahead of the threat of his displacement—a threat contained in his own maturation, but also threateningly hastened by her insistent "goodly bulk." The story about ghosts itself ghosts much that cannot be directly faced. These are indeed "mutually seductive gestures," but they are carefully hedged by a definite agression also acknowledged sidelong by both.

What must Mamillius make then of his father's terrible irruption into this scene? It is sometimes asserted that Leontes in some sense "is" the man who "dwelt by a churchyard." For Mamillius, however, the "winter's tale" does not so much continue as spin wildly out of his control and into some weirdly hyper-literal realm, as though he had all along been casting a spell without knowing it. There could hardly be a worse nightmare than the sudden appearance of this dark phantasm of accusation in the person of his father. At some level, this is profoundly not what Mamillius had in mind, yet it may seem to him as if his own desires have somehow called forth this vengeful demon in the shape of his father: just how much of Leontes' appalling musings may we think of the boy garnering in the previous scene? As long as there is a medium for managing and so dispelling such forebodings, Mamillius can play secure. But now he must watch his own deeper half-promptings realized in the father who both demands and banishes him, at once fulfillment and retribution for his daring against his mother:

LEONTES Give me the boy. I am glad you did not nurse him.
Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you
Have too much blood in him.
HERMIONE What is this? Sport?
LEONTES Bear the boy hence, he shall not come about her.
Away with him! and let her sport herself
With that she's big with, for 'tis Polixenes
Has made thee swell thus.


To Mamillius, this exchange must be both horrifying and deeply inscrutable. To hear that he "bears some signs of this Leontes comes too close to what he has been imagining himself: recall his earlier claim to his father "I am like you, they say"—but would he want to be like this father? To be forced from his mother's side in this manner, leaving her to "sport" with the new child, is also too much like the way the scene began ("and then you'ld wanton with us, / If we would have you") and carries a darker undercurrent mixing childish and adult sexuality in Leontes' bitter reference to Hermione's "sport." Have his entwined desire for and rejection of independence begotten such a monstrosity as this between them? What relations obtain between the boy's desire against his mother and his desire for her? Is his mother now to suffer for what he has thought and felt, and at the hands of this dark cartoon of himself grown-up?7

Such considerations cast a terrible light on what we hear of the boy's decline through the rest of the play. It is important that Leontes' claim on him does not extend to more than enquiring after him, as far as we know. Mamillius is sequestered from both his parents, and Leontes' cry "Away with him" is only the first of many such cries to follow, cries that seek apparently to banish the whole world and leave him in the company only of his own fantasies ("Away with her, to prison"; "Away with that audacious lady"; "My child? Away with't"). Cavell's suggestion that Leontes' rage is against Mamillius as well as Hermione, in spite of his apparent solicitude, seems only too accurate, and although this may be because of the "too much blood in him" of which he speaks, it seems also to speak of a more pervasive aggression, one we find turning even on himself—sleepless, restive, and thought-fretted as he becomes.

Mamillius, then, awakes from a world whose nightmares he controls to one where they are alive, where they strut and glower and spit accusations. His response to what he has done is to sicken, neurotically as we may suppose from Leontes' description, though we need not accept Leontes' specific diagnosis:

LEONTES How does the boy?
SERVANT He took good rest tonight;
'Tis hop'd his sickness is discharg'd.
LEONTES To see his nobleness,
Conceiving the dishonour of his mother!
He straight declin'd, droop'd, took it deeply,
Fasten'd and fix'd the shame on't in himself,
Threw off his spirit, his appetite, his sleep,
And downright languish'd.


Cavell on these lines is worth quoting directly: "this sounds more like something Leontes himself has done, and so suggests an identification Leontes has projected between himself and his son. The lines at the same time project an identification with his wife, to the extent to which one permits 'conceiving' in that occurrence to carry on the play's ideas of pregnancy."8 But may this not also be something Mamillius has done? If Leontes' interpretation of Mamillius' condition is suspect, his description of it need not be. Though "the boy," as he calls his son, has perhaps not "conceived" Hermione's dishonor (and both their notions of "conception" must be important here), he may regard her slander and punishment as in some way his doing, in which case his "fixing" of "the shame on't in himself would be an attempt to undo what his momentary aggression has so rashly and magically done. This would be acute child psychology certainly, and would explain and complete a strange circle of identifications among the members of this apparently doomed family. Mamillius is trapped between identifications with father and mother. Too like his father in his violence and sleepless languishing, he is now willing himself to take his mother's place in conceiving and drooping. It is indeed a noble gesture, but not quite of the kind Leontes imagines. By it Mamillius attempts to take his mother's part as the object of his father's sexual violence, and to perform this part partly to deny his part in his father (and his father's part in him). Bastardizing himself is, in a sense, the price of redeeming his mother. In effect, he will kill himself for being like his father by becoming like his mother, taking her place to pay for both his own and his father's violence.9 "With mere conceit and fear / Of the Queen's speed" he races his mother to a death he now identifies as the outcome (and perhaps the engine) of male desire. In this heroic resolution he is all too successful.

There is a sense of Mamillius as having "seen the spider" through these brief glimpses, but the spider in this case is a sexual intimation for which he has inadequate preparation and no expressive recourse save this of his fatal sickening. The question of his mimetic "conception" of his mother's dishonor is shadowed, and perhaps interpreted, by the fact of his own "conception" by her at an earlier time through an act of "sport" not unlike aggression.10 Paulina's language in describing the etiology of the Prince's decline touches directly on this point, since it sees Leontes' current slanderous rage to "sully the purity and whiteness of my sheets" (his own phrase at I.ii.326-7) as intimately but obscurely connected to the Prince's secret "conception" of the act that created him:

PAULINA Nor is't directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young Prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish'd his gracious dam.


Paulina here clearly indicates she regards the boy's death as induced by a "high" revenge enacted on himself for having a "heart" base enough to "conceive" of his mother's staining by his "gross" father. Some part of a divided Mamillius has made itself a party to that imagined or real act of pollution, while another part has determined to wipe it out as far as he can—by wiping out at once both the cause (his heart) and the effect (himself). Leontes, more ruthless or more selfish, has meanwhile chosen to attack what he calls, with his typical obscure clarity, "the cause . . . part o' the cause" (II.iii.3). But children often confuse cause and effect like this. D. W. Winnicott has spoken of the imaginative paradox of the "transitional object" in a way that deeply illuminates Mamillius' predicament:

it can be said that it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: 'Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?' The important point is that no decision on this point is expected. The question is not to be formulated.11

For Mamillius the imaginative object has spun horribly out of his control, and fused itself with dark images of "conception" that point fearfully to him. The threat to his mother precipitates the need to formulate and decide the question of "conception" as a matter of urgency through suggesting that some magical potency in his own tentative aggressions has re-created the world as a nightmare. Has he produced his father's accusation or not? If he has, he must punish himself; if he has not, he must protect his mother. Further underlying this traumatic complex of ambivalences lies a terrible but obscure intimation of sexual generation—the very act that produced him, that he has somehow now repeated—as intimately involved with violence, staining, and mortality. Rather than consent to his inevitable part in that nest of spiders, Mamillius revenges himself on mortality by depriving it of its prize in him.


These conjectures on the relation between the Prince and his parents may seem somewhat overdeveloped, but they follow strictly what we see or are told, and they have the advantage that they do not rely on Leontes' surely confused sense of "the cause" to explain what happens to the boy. The obscurity of the connections Mamillius makes is registered by the play both lexically and dramatically, in their withdrawal deep within the texture of his lines, and of his character itself from the action. Where Leontes "stages" his suspicions, for Mamillius the process of violent desire goes on "behind the scenes." The play shows us a complex triangle of identifications in which both males deeply, and perhaps similarly, mistake the nature of their relations with Hermione and with each other. We need therefore now to look at the play's own dreadful "primal scene" of Leontes' suspicions, a scene in which Mamillius is also an intrusive—and, I believe—catalytic, presence.

It has been argued recently that Leontes' resentment and paranoia spring from his suspicion of female generativity in general, and his dependence on Hermione's in particular. His violence has been linked thence to the general history of patriarchy and its simultaneous use and devaluation of childbirth as "the woman's part." There is much truth in this view, yet it also seems to me insufficiently precise to account for just what happens in this case, where, for all the mystery of their genesis, there is a clear and precise notation of "events." One serious problem to be faced by the diagnosis of misogynist suspicion of women as the root cause though it is certainly the route Leontes' rhetoric takes once mobilized is that it is touched off not by femaleness in general (as it is in, say, Iago) or even with birth per se, but specifically with the birth of a second child. If it was merely a matter of suspicion of female sexuality in general, one would have expected it to have broken out with Hermione's first pregnancy, her first evidence of "openness" to male penetration, or even earlier, as it apparently does with Othello, around the initial moment of marital consummation.12

But this is not what happens. Instead the crisis precipitates only when mediated through the presence not only of Polixenes but of Mamillius, the latter a genuinely new element in the familial equation. It is worth recalling that the boy is first mentioned in the opening scene, in what seems otherwise a rather awkward transition, immediately after Archidamus has said of the two kings' love: "I think there is not in the world either malice or matter to alter it."13 And though Leontes comes upon or is seized by his suspicion unprompted by any explicit thought of his boy, its efflorescence is curiously interleaved with another scene in which the child moves towards and away from his parent, alternately embraced and dismissed by him.

Yet if the actual genesis of Leontes' suspicions unfolds independent of Mamillius (though the boy is on stage and presumably doing something, perhaps playing, while his elders talk), the question of the sort of sexual consciousness boyhood has is very much in the air. It is discussed at some length between Polixenes and Hermione (does Hermione have her son in mind? are he and Leontes playing together?), and its nature is explored in images of a pastoral mutuality elsewhere reserved in Shakespeare for girlhood.14 What Polixenes recalls, or fantasizes, with especial plangency is a lack of any sense either of development and change or of sin, specifically of sexual sinnings associated with the appearance of women on the scene as occasions or, more strongly, instigators of (male) desire. The highlighting enjambment at "chang'd" is very relevant here, as though when we revise its meaning from "altered" to "exchanged" we, with Polixenes, avoid a thought of mutability:

HERMIONE Come, I'll question you
Of my lord's tricks and yours when you were boys.
You were pretty lordings then?
POLIXENES We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be boy eternal.
HERMIONE Was not my lord
The verier wag o' th' two?
POLIXENES We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun,
And bleat the one at th'other. What we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did.



If we suppose for the sake of argument that Polixenes and Hermione are here watching Leontes and Mamillius at play, the scene before them becomes doubled by an imagined scene which peculiarly charges it with a nostalgic pathos springing from the necessity of whatever was "chang'd" in adult development. A heretofore perfect economy between equals then suffered an imbalance, coincident both with the perception of time as mortality and with "the doctrine of ill-doing." Polixenes seems here peculiarly to repeat a moment in the past where, like Mamillius in a later scene, he had to decide whether the "stronger blood" of sexual excitement that bears within it the intuitions of both mortality and punishment has come to him from within or without. Hermione points out the implication despite Polixenes' delicate attempt to turn it aside by framing her as "most sacred":

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.
HERMIONE By this we gather
You have tripp'd since.
POLIXENES O my most sacred lady,
Temptations have since then been born to's: for
In those unfledg'd days was my wife a girl;
Your precious self had then not cross'd the eyes
Of my young playfellow.
HERMIONE Grace to boot!
Of this make no conclusion, lest you say
Your queen and I are devils.


Polixenes' way of putting it—of temptation's having been "born to's"—both points to the particular issue at stake and neatly sidesteps the need to decide precisely where the origins were of this "conception" for him and Leontes.16 His description of Hermione "crossing the eyes" of "my young playfellow"—which sounds rather like Leontes on Mamillius—likewise conceals inside a more neutral phrase a (remembered?) resentment or taunt or sense of damage at her hands. After seeing Hermione, Leontes' vision became faulty, even as his desire fledged.

The later scene between Hermione and Mamillius, from this point of view, explicitly responds to Polixenes' vision of male childhood as insulated innocence, and with it we can be precise about the latter's sentimentality. Sexual knowledge is continually in development, mediated and modulated through play and fantasy and in constant contact with other emotions such as anger and fear. It is not a catastrophic creation from some female "nothing." But the question that needs answering here is: does Leontes too think this is what happened to him? There is some evidence that he does, at some level—though this thought itself may, as we shall see, screen a deeper self-knowledge he wishes not to call to account.17

If we continue to imagine Leontes as coming into the scene from playing with Mamillius (hence as himself in contact with boyhood, even as Polixenes describes it), we can see at once the relevance of what Polixenes says about "eye-crossing" to what Leontes now finds before him. Indeed Leontes' testing and accusing of the world from here on frequently appeal to the arrant and visible truth of his fantasies to any "head-piece extraordinary." Though the "lower messes" are still "purblind" (as once both he and all were "Blind with the pin and web"), now he has "eyes / To see" all that's "beneath the sky" (I.ii.310, 180). His fierce accusation that Camillo is one who "Canst with thine eyes at once see good and evil" (I.ii.303) sounds not unlike resentment at having had his own eyes "cross'd" by his wife. And when he later confronts Hermione, he has the half-indulgent rage of an enlightened demystifier before his former illusion, redeeming himself by helping others on to the cure:

You, my lords,
Look on her, mark her well; be but about
To say she is a goodly lady, and
The justice of your hearts will thereto add
'Tis pity she's not honest—honourable.
Praise her but for this her without-door form
(Which on my faith deserves high speech) and straight
The shrug, the hum or ha (these petty brands
That calumny doth use—O I am out—
That mercy does, for calumny will sear
Virtue itself), these shrugs, these hums and ha's,
When you have said she's goodly, come between
Ere you can say she's honest: but be't known
(From him that has most cause to grieve it should be)
She's an adultress.

(II.i.64 78)

There is a remarkable anticipation here of the eventual image of Hermione's fate at Leontes' hands. With a brutal connoisseurish swagger, Leontes gives his men a tour of his wife as though she were some object of aesthetic pleasure and moral inspection he had unveiled for them, to delight and to instruct. The "aesthetic" distance he thus achieves measures the extent to which he must defend himself from the possibility of responding to her as a human presence. She is as it were an exemplary picture, a monitory emblem labelled "feminine fraud." Only a fool would take her for the real thing. The play here imagines Leontes' aesthetics as a defense against his psychology, against a deeper commitment or a more carnal knowledge. And as usual, wrapped up in his fulminations, Leontes lets a truth slip "out" which he must either ignore or repudiate. Here the neatly chiastic form of the passage—his calumny coming between him and his wife—telegraphs the "insideness" of this truth to Leontes, around which he buttresses the more extravagantly his theatrical, aestheticizing gestures. Now at last, with a colder vision, Leontes thinks he can recognize the truth of Polixenes' charge that Hermione "cross'd his eyes."

Polixenes' low but distinct note of suspicion against Hermione is also picked up and amplified into the theatrical in Leontes' own recollection of his courtship as a time when "Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death, / Ere I could make thee open thy white hand, / And clap thyself my love" (I.ii.102-4). Sexual longing and the intimation of mortality, a sense of being closed out, a sense Leontes has of forcing Hermione, and also a strange and alienating theatrical dependency—as if he were on a stage awaiting Hermione's applause—all intertwine here. (The last sense prefigures Hermione's scene with Mamillius, where she provides an audience for his performance.) As Leontes watches Hermione now give that same hand to Polixenes, much that was allayed by her speaking then is stirred up again.

If Leontes' experience of childhood and the springing of desire has been as Polixenes describes it, then the relevance of Mamillius to the scene as a potential double of a young Leontes is immediately clear. Leontes himself admits this much, and we need not assume he is fabricating; indeed, his sense that he is so hides the deeper truth of a man who keeps his variant self-knowledges precariously concealed from one another:

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 ornament oft does) too dangerous.
How like (methought) I then was to this kernel,
This squash, this gentleman. Mine honest friend,
Will you take eggs for money?
MAMILLIUS No, my lord, I'll fight.
LEONTES You will? Why, happy man be's dole!


Leontes' identification with his son is quite explicit here, even if the instant of recognition makes him (uncomfortably) "recoil." The figure of "myself unbreech'd" (incidentally revealing Leontes to be younger than we often think: under thirty—Hamlet's age), "unbreech'd"—either "not yet breech'd" or "with breeches removed"—and with his power to hurt in restraint or underdeveloped, is both a regression and an inversion of the adult, revealing by contraries how Leontes now thinks of himself.18 Particularly worth considering is the dagger: it seems, like a dog, to have a life of its own. In its adult form it is presumably unmuzzled and ready to bite, and its clearly phallic resonance suggests again that sexual maturity and damage go together, though an adult ought to be in control of both. But against whom is it now turned? The fear of the child's dagger biting "its master" might suggest that sexual maturity and desire threaten as much a self-wounding as an aggression directed against others, say against women. Deeper yet, the two potential woundings may be understood as one. Does the perception of desire as a wounding of others or of the self come first? The vision of rape or the vision of castration: can one say which is prior, or do they emerge simultaneously and without hope of disentanglement? Antigonus, a genial chauvinist, later takes his potency and patrimony alike to depend on Hermione's faith. If she is, as Don John would put it, "any man's Hero," then all bloodlines are as good as scrambled, and men might as well castrate themselves ("I had rather glib myself) and find some other means of grasping at the future than generation ("I'll geld 'em all; fourteen they shall not see / To bring false generations"). But Antigonus, with all his huffing and puffing, does not really see what's at stake for Leontes here. What kind of mastery does Leontes imagine himself to have achieved over his own violence, and what relation does that imagined violence have to the reproductive potency that both dagger and son shadow?19

Desire and violence are thus very intimately linked. When Hermione "cross'd the eyes" of Leontes, the harmlessness of his muzzled dagger was converted into danger, and it at once bit or breached its master. The "mutually seductive gestures" of the scene between Hermione and Mamillius also gloss the remembered scene of courtship.20 Leontes' desire to wound Hermione, which she provokes and which is (a response to) his sexual desire, wounds him also by its inhuman aggression, so much against the tenor of a would-be idealization ("O my most sacred lady"). Desire's intimation of mortality and its revelation of himself as an aggressive and stained and staining figure are all alike laid at her door. His resentment and fear of his own violence is (inadequately) cloaked in the intuition of her crime—of her having (yet again) "cross'd his eyes." In response to Winnicott's "question not to be asked" Leontes wishes to reply that his "conception" has come from outside, from her. It was and is all her fault. Hence his central assertion throughout the following scenes, the one intuition that he must uphold, is: "It was not I who impregnated her." The rest follows from that. ("Yet it was someone like me—who better than my brother? Yes, it must have been he: look at him now—disgusting.") It is an implicit rejection of the universe of generation and mortality as one to which Leontes is necessarily bound through his desire.21 Leontes thinks to stand away from the world of generation and regard it as an object of contemplation, of lessons, even perhaps of beauty, but as fundamentally remote from him. Hence his intense frustration in Act II at his inability to find the "peace" which ought to come with his sequestration.

Such considerations can help us find our way through one of the most deeply obscure passages in Shakespeare, during the course of which Leontes tries to unfold to himself (or fold up in himself) his sense of what is happening to him:

Can thy dam?—may't be?—
Affection! Thy intention stabs the centre!
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communi cat'st with dreams (how can this be?),
With what's unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent
Thou may'st conjoin with something, and thou dost
(And that beyond commission) and I find it
(And that to the infection of my brains,
And hardening of my brows).


The dark stuttering that gives way to a hectic rhythm here suggests a deep disturbance that moves many ways at once. Leontes seems to be talking at once about perception, imagination, and sexual desire, uncertain where to locate or how to feel any of them: each bleeds over into the next. "Affection!" is a cry that refuses to settle even into clear rhetoric: is it noun? verb? apostrophe? diagnosis? accusation? Is it her emotion or his? Whose center does it stab, even supposing it is the referent of the following pronoun? It is at least the cry of itself as it wounds Leontes, as through Leontes it wounds Hermione with its/his unmuzzled dagger. "Thy intention" is equally difficult: as though an emotion could have one—and if it can, there is a sense of Leontes as possessed by some force with its own inscrutable, perhaps malevolent, designs. Is this perhaps a "tenting in" that stabs at some wound in the—heart? genitals? Some such quasi-etymology seems implied. But which way are affection and intention moving: towards or away from Leontes? "Affection" is somehow transformed into "infection," combated as an invader.

Any commentary on these lines threatens to reproduce their own turbulent movement, as the critic's imagination becomes "co-active" and joins in the act of reading Leontes' sense of being pushed around by obscure implicating forces. The same applies to the spectator, for whom the actor's expression and movement may both clarify and complicate.22 What the lines uncover or create or "fellow"—in a manner at once poetic and sexual—is an indeterminate and alarming hermeneutic plasticity which mimes a vertigo within or surrounding Leontes, where ambivalent cross-currents of attraction and repulsion coincide. All we can really count on is Leontes' sense that he has come across (but does he "find" or create it?) something that causes "infection" and "hardening"—terms that suggest at once groin and head, in a play that inquires how these two sites of knowledge are related. The very non-specificity of Leontes' first suspicious remark becomes important here: "Too hot, too hot! / To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods" (I.ii. 108-9). Though the coldness of his irony bespeaks adult control and self-observation, this is rather vague as the opening gambit of a specific jealousy. It sounds more like a horror at sexuality in general as contamination or overheating than at adultery in particular: the horror and disgust a child might express at discovering the truth (which so often seems like a bad joke) about its sexual origins. Just who is it that is (or was) "too hot"? And when? He and Hermione have just recalled their courtship and the "clapping" that concluded it. Only slowly does the particular accusation Leontes wants emerge, and it might as easily be a displacement resisting his own implication in acts of "mingling bloods," either as producer or as product. The play undertakes a curious "layering" of occasions from its beginning, insistently citing the kings' boyhood, their courtships, their progeny, and introducing an immediate image of the latter in Mamillius. The associative plasticity of Shakespeare's rhetoric at such moments invites us to see how many of these "stages" are caught up and addressed through the ongoing work of Leontes' fantasy.

Leontes' attitude to Mamillius throughout this "primal scene" of suspicion oscillates, not surprisingly, between identification and rejection: he hugs him ("Sweet villain! / Most dear'st! my collop!") and he spurns him ("Go play, boy, play."). His search of his son's face for signs of himself works not only in the obvious way to test and confirm paternity, but more deeply to evoke self-recognition ("yet were it true / To say this boy were like me")—and he finds himself there, not only in the nose which "they say . . . is a copy out of mine," but also in the "smutch" on the nose: the boy is sullied, as he has been (but when?), sinking both suddenly and gradually "Inch thick, knee-deep, o'er head and ears." He treats his son with a kind of indulgent contempt, as if embarrassed at his own affection: the boy is a "kernel," a "squash," but also "mine honest friend" who will show how his manly spirit is being "higher rear'd" by offering to "fight," perhaps to fight him.23 Yet he is no sooner alone with him than he sends him away in disdain, as though the thought of any relationship were greatly to his distaste. Marking this ambivalence is his use of the word "honest" ("Go play, Mamillius, thou'rt an honest man," I.ii.211), which has the ring at once of Iago on Cassio and, more oddly, of Othello on Iago. That Leontes is his own Iago is a commonplace, but it comes as more of a shock to hear him making his son one too.

Leontes' search for connection to his son thus gives him both less and more than he desires: less in that it does not seem satisfactorily to still the doubts and intimations that prompted it in the first place, more in that it revives in him thoughts and modes of thought long thought overcome or put aside—thoughts that reemerge from the strange amalgam of childhood, friendship, rivalry, and courtship that the scene anneals. This "complex" of thought and feeling is further glossed—from a developmental perspective—by the subsequent scene between Mamillius and his mother, where a broadly similar moment of tension is about to be allayed or managed by the introduction of "a winter's tale"—a tale not only for winter but also of winter, that winter of the heart in which aggression defeats, or worse unmasks, love.


The centrality of Mamillius to the unfolding of The Winter's Tale will now be clear. But the connection of his childish "play" to Shakespeare's own has still not been fully explored. Play is what we see him doing, and what most explicitly links him to his parents in Leontes' savagely punning formulation: "Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I / Play too" (I.ii. 187-8). Childish recreation, female sexuality, and male self-consciousness are yoked together in this triad, and allude in turn to the Shakespearean stage that represents them all. Before we reach the metadramatic proper, however, and the relation of Leontes' theatre of cruelty to Shakespeare's, we need first to face the question of Mamillius' play as child's play. Again, it is the emergence of Mamillius' play-story as the name also for Shakespeare's play-story (augmented into the winter's tale) that we are looking to explain.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare's play is interested from the outset in the question of "development," that is, as an aspect of time, and that the task of "development"—as we now speak of "childhood development"—is especially focused in Mamillius. Shakespeare seems as aware as any modern psychologist of the implications of "play" in this sense. Leontes also knows, though he uses the knowledge dismissively, that what children characteristically do, and must do as part of the business of becoming adults, is "play." But the concern with time and what it requires also goes deeper. It is the opening subject of the play. In the first scene, Archidamus and Camillo trace both the occasion of their speech and its urgent sense of economic and social indebtednesses to an earlier time when the recent difficult and attornied negotiations now perhaps becoming a burden—were part of a simpler structure. The large register of ebonomic language in the play noted by Cavell—all the talk of debt, payment, gift, redress, revenge, just desert, and so forth—emerges from a need to confront and reconcile differences that emerge developmentally as gaps, branches, partings, and "vasts."24 What one party owes to another—that is, the difference between them and what to do about it (and among others what to do or say about sexual difference)—is an almost ubiquitous concern. Difference is the topic of the opening remark of the play, and its implications as debt are disputed in a courtly manner between Archidamus and Camillo throughout the first scene:

ARCHIDAMUS If you shall chance, Camillo, to
visit Bohemia on the like occasion whereon
my services are now on foot, you shall see
(as I have said) great difference betwixt our
Bohemia and your Sicilia.
CAMILLO I think, this coming summer, the King
of Sicilia means to pay Bohemia the
visitation which he justly owes him.
ARCHIDAMUS Wherein our entertainment shall
shame us: we will be justified in our loves; for indeed—
CAMILLO Beseech you—
ARCHIDAMUS Verily, I speak it in the freedom
of my knowledge: we cannot with such
magnifìcance—in so rare—I know not what
to say—We will give you sleepy drinks, that
your senses (unintelligent of our
insufficience) may, though they cannot
praise us, as little accuse us.
CAMILLO You pay a great deal too dear for
what's given freely.


Archidamus' sense of "difference" between their two countries here concerns less their societies or landscapes than their resources for discharging the great debt of hospitality. Insofar as the kings take their names from their countries, this also suggests a network of obligation between the friends (one also expressed by Polixenes at the opening of the next scene). Camillo's denial of the obligation does not relieve Archidamus of his sense of an individious and unbridgeable "difference" which will only be overcome by some subterfuge—whether "sleepy drinks" or "cross'd eyes." Camillo in reply begins himself to chafe, and denies the need to feel any burden of "insufficience" by explaining the essential unity of the two kings from childhood friendship, a unity which has maintained its perfectly equilibrated economy of love almost by miracle. Within such a relationship there cannot be any question of a difference that can "count," of any "too much." Yet the strain of this mutual unity appears in a sense of the gigantic effort now expended to sustain it:

CAMILLO Sicilia cannot show himself overkind to Bohemia. They were trained together in their childhoods; and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection, which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters (though not personal) have been royally attorney'd with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seem'd to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embrac'd, as it were, from the ends of oppos'd winds. The heavens continue their loves!


Camillo's concluding prayer almost suggests that something more than human will be required to maintain this stance. An immense quantity of material and social energy is being expended to "fill up" (as Polixenes will say) and hence in some sense to deny what is to all others a very palpable sundering. The flaw, as Camillo expresses it, lies in the inevitable changes of "development," of young trees "trained" together (are there two or one?), their roots intermixed but growing only to "branch." This suggests that development itself—the organic processes of life—necessitates the unraveling of primary unities into difference and separation, and that this unraveling can be traumatic, and hence generate resistance. Like Hegel's bud that contains in dialectic both the stem and the flower, time here is the engine of an unfolding that both flourishes and severs—two senses in which "affection" may "branch." Leontes and Polixenes strain ever more energetically to preserve a superseded version of their relation. And perhaps the strain is beginning to tell. It is precisely at this point that Archidamus first refers to Mamillius.

If the language of debt, gap, gulf, vast—and also "part"—emerges from this concern with ineluctable development and the management of its transforming consequences, the young Prince's task in relation to his parents—his play that is an attempt to cope with change within himself and his family—once more becomes a central focus of the tale. Change, ambivalence, the presence of contrary states of being or feeling in developmental dialectic with one another: how are these to be accommodated, processed, and represented by and to the ongoing self that mediates them? Mamillius' "sad tale . . . for winter" is, we saw, an attempt to do just this, and the play takes it appropriately as a model for its own processes of adjustment and symbolization. If we understand the child's play of the ghost story to be a way of responding to his developing ambivalences at once about his parents and about his feelings towards them, Shakespeare's play will also be understood as a tale told to mediate a complex ambivalence, to respond to a developmental pressure by acting on it symbolically through the control and disposition of the energies of narrative. But what ambivalence and pressure are at issue?

The answer is surely that they are, at least in part, Leontes' sexual paranoia and hysteria, and this returns us to the relation between Mamillius as "player" and Leontes' remark that "thy mother plays and I / Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave" (I.i.187-9). If we understand Leontes not only to be speaking of "a part" that he "plays" here in some diabolical theatre (to that implication we will return), but also to be engaged in "play" like that of Mamillius in thus rubbing the quat of his desire into a wound of delusive jealousy, what do we imply that he is doing? Precisely that his jealousy is a narrative structure with its own logic and progress under his control which covers, manages, and substitutes for something else. Leontes almost admits this very connection between his imaginings and those of child's play in a moment of outraged self-justification:

No; if I mistake
In those foundations which I build upon,
The centre is not big enough to bear
A schoolboy's top. Away with her to prison!


The "centre" here seems moreover to refer back obscurely to that earlier "centre" stabbed by affection at the heart of his dark feeling. Both Leontes' jealousy and Shakespeare's play provide an "intermediate area"—and they provide it in response to the same fundamental fact or fantasy: male terror at the nature and implications of sexual desire.

Leontes' behavior invites us to see him as an hysteric terrified of his own capacity and wish to inflict the aggressive pain of his sexuality on the female. So terrified in fact that, "deciding" such an inhuman (as he sees it) impulse can hardly come from himself, he "prefers" to arrange it or act it out as a fantastic scenario of her guilt and his justice.25 Leontes gives himself a sleepy drink to avoid knowledge of his own "insufficience"—hence the link between his spider-poisoned cup and Archidamus' joke.26 This allows him the vicarious and secret pleasure of acting on his aggression even while denying it, in fact while outwardly justifying it as Hermione's fault even against his own more secret "knowledge" of the untruth of this charge. Hence Leontes' extraordinary and quite uncanny tendency all through these early acts to speak directly about his situation and yet not hear himself. Over and over again, in breathtaking acts of "unsight," he shouts out the truth: "Your actions are my dreams. / You had a bastard by Polixenes, / And I but dream'd it" (III.ii.82-4).27

His bitter but exquisite announcement that "I play too" is therefore in part an acknowledgment of the constructing and manipulating aspect of his suspicion, of its aspects at once active and passive, exactly corresponding to his deep doubts about his sexuality—whether it is more properly "his" or something that "comes upon" him from outside, from Hermione. This split in the origin of his desire for "play" expl

(The entire section is 34426 words.)


Barbara A. Mowat (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Rogues, Shepherds, and the Counterfeit Distressed: Texts and Infracontexts of The Winter's Tale 4.3," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XXII, 1994, pp. 58-76.

[In the essay that follows, originally presented at the Shakespeare Association of America in 1991, Mowat explores act four, scene three of The Winter's Tale—where Autolycus is introducedas a dramatic moment in which the surface context and its "infracontexts" create a number of tensions that establish Autolycus as a rogue character.]

As I look at a particular...

(The entire section is 8543 words.)


Ruth Nevo (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Delusions and Dreams: The Winter's Tale," in Shakespeare's Other Language, Methuen, 1987, pp. 95-129.

[In the following essay, Nevo contends that, while the traditional dramatic unities are flouted in The Winter's Tale, fantasy shapes the drama's two interrelated plots around a pair of dreams, "where one represents a terror inelecutably realized and the other a restitutive wish-fulfillment."]

Death, as we all know, is not something to be looked at in the face.

(J.-B. Pontalis)

In The Winter's Tale the once...

(The entire section is 18817 words.)


Marjorie B. Garber (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Truth of Your Own Seeming: Romance and the Uses of Dream," in Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 163-86.

[In the following excerpt, Garber examines the importance of time in The Winter's Tale, especially with regard to dreams and the metamorphoses concomitant with seasonal changes.]

The Winter's Tale, . . . centers much of its attention on problems of timelessness and time. Metamorphosis is everywhere in its plot and imagery. The large structural units of the play are the four seasons of the year: winter in the opening "jealousy"...

(The entire section is 16321 words.)