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Winters Tale Essay

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Essay Q&A

1. At what point in the play does Leontes become jealous?
Commentators often remark on how quickly Leontes' jealousy erupts, and with such little cause. But it is possible that Leontes conceives his jealous of Polixenes even before the play begins. It may be that he has been jealous of Polixenes for a long time and wants him to stay a week longer so he can catch him and Hermoine in the act before Polixenes has returned safely to Bohemia.
If the actor chooses to interpret the part in this way, he can make Leontes' first words sound ominous. Polixenes has just thanked him profusely, in elaborate language, for his hospitality, but Leontes' response is notably terse: "Stay your thanks a while, / And pay them when you part." Immediately following this, Polixenes says that he has stayed too long and Leontes must be tired of him. Leontes' reply is again brief: "We are tougher, brother, / Than you can put us to't," which means, on the surface, that he can stand any test of that kind that Polixenes can impose on him, but there may be a more sinister meaning as well that suggests almost a veiled warning to Polixenes.
A few lines later, Leontes' words to Hermoine, "Tongue-tied our queen?" (line 29) can sound like an accusation. Hermoine has been standing silent and dutiful, waiting for the outcome of the discussion about whether Polixenes will stay. Leontes chooses to bring her into the discussion in a way that carries a hint that she may be blameworthy or guilty about something. After Polixenes has agreed to Hermoine's request that he stay longer, Leontes says, "At my request he would not," (line 89) which might be taken to express some disquiet on his part.
All these hints and suggestions that all is not well in Leontes' mind precede the eruption of his full-blown jealousy at line 108, with his speech beginning "Too hot, too hot!"
2. Comment on the discussion between Perdita and Polixenes at Act 4, scene 4, lines 76-100.
Polixenes and Perdita engage in a debate about the practice of cross-breeding plants. The conversation begins when Polixenes tells Perdita that she has given him flowers of winter. She replies that her garden does not have the more seasonal flowers, such as carnations and gillyvors, because she does not like them. She points out that some people call these flowers "nature's bastards." On being questioned by Polixenes, she replies disapprovingly that these flowers do not occur naturally but are the result of cross-breeding. In other words, they are created artificially, in contrast to the "great creating nature" that she reverences. Polixenes replies that whatever means humans use to improve nature is also natural, since humans are part of nature. There is therefore no dichotomy between nature and art. Perdita at first pretends to agree with him ("So it is") but then reveals that she has not in fact changed her mind at all ("I'll not put / The dibble in earth to set one slip of them"). Polixenes produces the more sophisticated argument, as one might expect, but Perdita shows she is not intimidated. She sticks to her intuitive beliefs about what is natural and what is not.
3. Write a character sketch of Hermoine.
At the outset of the play, Hermoine shows herself to be gracious and friendly. She declares her love for Leontes quite spontaneously, and she is charming toward Polixenes, as she is required to be, since Polixenes is a guest at the Silesian court. She engages him in a conversational topic that she rightly assumes will be pleasing to him. Hermoine also has a sense of humor, as she shows when she jokes with Leontes (Act 1, scene 2, lines 90-101). In this scene she is altogether beyond reproach.
After Hermoine is accused by Leontes, her first reaction is that he must be joking. After that, she reveals more of her positive qualities. She does not lash out at Leontes or blame him. She simply points out to him that he has made a mistake. She explains the adverse situation she finds herself in by means of astrology; it must be caused by an "ill planet" and she must be patient until the bad influence passes. Hermoine exudes strength and dignity when she is hauled off to prison, even giving courage to her maids, telling them not to weep. There is no spirit of vengeance in her, only a calm, stoical endurance, and a belief that her innocence will be established. At the trial, she shows great faith, stating her belief that the gods will vindicate her.
The attitude of the other characters is also testimony to Hermoine's character. The words of a minor character, a Lord, are typical: "For her, my lord, / I dare lay my life down, and will do't, sir," he says to Leontes (Act 2, scene 1, lines 129-30). No one other than Leontes has a bad word to say about Hermoine, and Paulina is moved to defend her with all the energy she has.
4. What are the Unities and why does Shakespeare violate the unities of time and place?
The unities were principles of dramatic structure adopted by European dramatists during the sixteenth to eighteenth century. The principles were developed from the thought of Aristotle. The first unity was that of action (there should be no subplots); the second unity was that of place: a play should take place in only one location; the third unity was that of time: the action should take place over a period of only one day. Although Shakespeare was never especially concerned with observing the unities, in A Winter's Tale, his departure from two of them is particularly noticeable. He violates the unity of time by having the action extend over a sixteen-year period, and he violates the unity of place by setting the first three acts in Silesia and most of the last two acts in Bohemia. Perhaps the reason that he did this was because he wanted to directly show the effects of actions over a long period of time. He wanted to bring attention to how, over time, nature heals the wounds that humans inflict on themselves. By introducing the character of Time, as the chorus, at the beginning of Act 4, he deliberately draws attention to the passage of time. Another of Shakespeare's late plays, The Tempest, also shows the effects of actions over a long period of time, but in that play Shakespeare observes the unities. The long-ago events of the past that led up to the situation in the present is simply recalled by Prospero in the exposition, and the actual events of the play occur in only one day. Neither method could be called right or wrong, or more or less effective; they are simply different approaches to telling a story.
5. Shakespeare's late plays are often categorized as "romances." Is this an appropriate definition for The Winter's Tale?
A romance, such as Pandosto, the prose work by Robert Greene on which Shakespeare based his play, is often marked by improbable, miraculous, and supernatural events. Many of the events in The Winter's Tale are highly improbable: Leontes' apparently causeless jealousy; the "death" of Hermoine; the survival of Perdita; and all the events sixteen years later that lead to the reconciliations, especially the "resurrection" of Hermoine. A royal child who is abandoned, raised ignorant of its true status, and then rediscovered is the kind of conventional plot element to be expected in a romance. The audience does not hold a romance to the standards of realism. This does not mean, of course, that romance is "unreal" in the deeper sense. The events of The Winter's Tale can scarcely be believed at the literal level, but they may nonetheless become a vehicle for a truth about life to emerge (the need for forgiveness, for example). The audience is asked to suspend disbelief, enjoy the story, and perhaps later to reflect on its deeper meanings.
The Winter's Tale might also be called a tragi-comedy. The first three acts are serious and tragic. There is jealousy every bit as destructive as it is in Othello; there is also death (Mamilius, Antigonus); apparent death (Hermoine), and great suffering and injustice. Leontes also suffers a kind of spiritual death during his long sixteen-year penance. The last two acts are comic; and this leads to the happy ending. In general, however, although tragi-comedy would not be inaccurate as a definition of the play, scholars prefer the term romance, since that term better conveys the play's atmosphere.

Written after Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623) and before The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale is as hard to classify generically as is the fully mature dramatic genius of its author. Partaking of the elements of tragedy, the play yet ends in sheer comedy, just as it mingles elements of realism and romance. William Shakespeare took his usual freedom with his source, Robert Greene’s euphuistic romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588). Time remains the most crucial element in the play’s structure, its clearest break with the pseudo-Aristotelian unities. The effect of time on Hermione, moreover, when the statue is revealed to be wrinkled and aged, heightens the pathos and credibility of the triumphant discovery and recognition scene. To allow that final scene its full effect, Shakespeare wisely has Perdita’s discovery and recognition reported to the audience secondhand in act 5, scene 2. In keeping with the maturity of Shakespeare’s dramatic talent, the poetic style of this play is clear, unrhetorical, sparse in its imagery as well as metaphorically sharp. Verse alternates with prose as court characters alternate with country personages.

Mamillius tells his mother, who asks him for a story, that “a sad tale’s best for winter.” Ironically the little boy’s story is never told; the entrance of Leontes interrupts it, and Hermione’s son, his role as storyteller once defined, strangely disappears. In his place, the play itself takes over, invigorated by Mamillius’s uncanny innocent wisdom, which reflects a Platonic view of childhood. The story that unfolds winds a multitude of themes without losing sight of any of them. It presents two views of honor, a wholesome one represented by Hermione and a demented one represented by Leontes. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the narrative concerns the unholy power of kings who can be mistaken but whose power, however mistaken, is final. However, the finality, here, is spared, the tragic ending avoided. The absolute goodness of Hermione, Paulina, Camillo, the shepherd, and Florizel proves to be enough to overcome the evil of Leontes. Moving from the older generation’s inability to love to the reflowering of love in the younger, the play spins out into a truly comic ending, with the reestablishment of community, royal authority, and general happiness in a triple gamos. The balance of tension between youth and age, guilt and innocence, death and rebirth is decided in favor of life, and the play escapes the clutches of remorseless tragedy in a kind of ultimate mystical vision of human life made ideal through suffering.

Leontes is a most puzzling character. His antifeminism, as expressed in his cynical speech on cuckoldry, seems more fashionable than felt. In his determined jealousy, he resembles Othello, and in his self-inflicted insanity, Lear. In fact, the words of Lear to Cordelia resound in Leontes’ great speech, beginning, “Is whispering nothing?” and concluding, “My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,/ If this be nothing.” It is almost impossible to sympathize with him further when he condemns even his helpless child in the face of Paulina’s gentle pleas; and it is not surprising that he at first even denies the oracle itself. However, his sudden recognition of culpability is no more convincing than his earlier, unmotivated jealousy. It is as if he changes too quickly for belief; perhaps this is the reason for Hermione’s decision to test his penitence with time, until it ripens into sincerity. Certainly his reaction to his wife’s swoon shows only a superficial emotion. Leontes is still self-centered, still regally assured that all can be put right with the proper words. Only after the years have passed in loneliness does he realize it takes more than orderly words to undo the damage wrought by disorderly royal commands. His admission to Paulina that his words killed Hermione paves the way for the happy ending.

Even the minor characters are drawn well and vividly. Camillo is the ideal courtier who chooses virtue over favor. Paulina, like the nurse Anna in Euripides’ Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781), is the staunch helpmate of her mistress, especially in adversity, aided by magical powers that seem to spring from her own determined character. Her philosophy is also that of the classical Greeks: “What’s gone and what’s past help/ Should be past grief.” This play does not have the tragic Greek ending, because Paulina preserves her mistress rather than assisting her to destroy herself. Even the rogue Autolycus is beguiling, with his verbal witticisms, his frank pursuit of self-betterment, and his lusty and delightful songs. His sign is Mercury, the thief of the gods, and he follows his sign like the best rascals in Renaissance tradition: Boccaccio’s Friar Onion, Rabelais’s Panurge, and Shakespeare’s own Falstaff.

In Hermione and Perdita, Shakespeare achieves two of his greatest portraits of women. Hermione’s speech reflects her personality, straightforward, without embroidery, as pure as virtue itself. Her reaction to Leontes’ suspicion and condemnation is brief but telling. “Adieu, my lord,” she says, “I never wish’d to see you sorry; now/ I trust I shall.” She combines the hardness of Portia with the gentleness of Desdemona; in fact, Antigonus’s oath in her defense recalls the character of Othello’s wife. Like Geoffrey Chaucer’s patient Griselda, Hermione loses everything, but she strikes back with the most devastating weapon of all: time. However, in the final scene of the play, it is clear that her punishment of Leontes makes Hermione suffer no less. Perdita personifies, though never in a stereotyped way, gentle innocence: “Nothing she does or seems/ But smacks of something greater than herself/ Too noble for this place.” Indeed, when Polixenes’ wrath, paralleling Leontes’ previous folly, threatens Perdita’s life for a second time, the audience holds its breath because she is too good to be safe. When Shakespeare saves her, the play, sensing the audience’s joy, abruptly ends on its highest note.

In its theme and structure, The Winter’s Tale bears a striking resemblance to Euripides’ Alkstis (438 b.c.e.;Alcestis, 1781). In both plays, the “death” of the queen threatens the stability and happiness of society and, in both, her restoration, which is miraculous and ambiguous, restores order to the world of the court. Shakespeare, however, widens the comic theme by adding the love of the younger generation. The Winter’s Tale defies the forces of death and hatred romantically as well as realistically. The sad tale becomes happy, as winter becomes spring.

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