What Means Sicilia? He Something Seems Unsettled: Sicily, Russia, and Bohemia in The Winter's Tale - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 and ethnicity. (In any attempt to reconstruct attitudes to cultural issues, whether in the past or the present, some over-simplification and generalization are unavoidable. Having said this, it should not be necessary to punctuate every assumption here made with the warning that it is speculative.)

I shall argue that the superiority claimed by the northern Europeans over their southern counterparts is a significant element in the muiticulturalism that The...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 the river Volca, beinge cast therin. Noe historie maketh mencion of so horrable a massacre.3

For Shakespeare's audience watching the play, Hermione's father, "the Emperor of Russia," could quite easily have meant a telescoped image of the two Ivans. Queen Elizabeth had in fact established such close trade and cultural links with...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 Slovakia in the east.

But the affinity between Polixenes and Hermione is more than merely anthropological; it is cultural as well. Hermione's easy familiarity with Polixenes, so galling to Leontes and so grievously misunderstood by him, springs not from a perversity of nature but from his misinterpretation of the social mores and customs of northern Europe to which they belong. That in the company of Polixenes Hermione is revealing a facet of her personality totally unknown to Leontes is implied in his aggrieved recollection of her restraint when she was wooed by him:

Why, that was when
Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death,
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand,
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
"I am yours for ever."


And it may not be too far-fetched to suggest that Leontes' "thy white hand" is ironic, the adjective having resonances suggestive of racial difference. Shakespeare had already explored this subject in Othello, a play whose striking correspondences with The Winter's Tale have been noted in Shakespearean criticism. A dark complexion, often associated with the south, carried connotations of cultural and social inferiority, as may be seen, we recall, in Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing, a play also often regarded as a precursor of Othello and The Winter's Tale, and whose setting is Messina, one of the chief cities of Sicily. Beatrice wryly attributes her failure to find a husband to her complexion: "Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sun-burnt. I may sit in a corner and cry 'Heigh-ho for a husband!'" (II.i.318-20).

The sexual freedom enjoyed by women of the north was something totally denied to the women of the south. The striking opening sentence of Maria Pia di Bella's essay "Name, Blood and Miracles: The Claims to Renown in Traditional Sicily" states this well: "As is well known, honor looms large in the daily life of Mediterranean peoples. . . . The elements that constitute the honor of the group and the criteria by which it is granted seem to be . . . the chastity of its women; . . . the courage of its men on the battlefield and, whenever their point of honor is at stake, in the home community; their ability to...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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