Essay: Winter's Tale by Shakespeare

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¶ … Winter's Tale: Both a Cautionary and Reassuring

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare is both a cautionary tale of the havoc that distrust and pride can wage upon the happiness and unity of one's life, future and family, and yet a cavalier tale which encourages the most capricious of actions -- asserting that no what, everything will all turn out just fine in the end. This is one over the overarching themes of the play: the play exists with a great deal of ambivalence and dichotomy, where characters and events seem to bounce from opposing extremes and where things are often not what they seem.

The inciting incidence of the play is when Leontes, King of Sicilia arrives at the belief that his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, a man who is also his best friend. This is sudden act of suspicion presents two of the overarching themes of the play: the first is the degradation and deterioration of trust. The second is the notion that appearances are not an accurate presentation of reality. Leontes has no proof and no reason to believe that his wife is doing this; he simply has his suspicions and his suspicions imply that all is not what it appears to be. Leontes commands his friend and confidante Camillo to poison Polixenes; however Camillo, unable to deal with the moral drama of such actions, assists Polixenes in receiving safe passage back to his land. However, Leontes eventually gets wind of this escape and concludes that Polixenes, Camillo and his wife, Hermione have all been plotting against him. Thus, just as the play opens up with all relations in harmony, the events of the play jump to the other extreme: Leontes throws his wife in jail, even though she's pregnant. Hermione gives birth in jail and Paulina (a noblewoman) brings the baby to the king to see, hoping it will soften his heart and essentially bring him back to reality. However, Leontes orders Antigonus to abandon the child in the middle of nowhere, which he does. Even, Hermione comes to him in a dream, tells him the child should be named Perdita and that Antigonus will be punished for his role in abandoning the child. Antigonus is then killed by a bear.

Hermione is also forced to stand for trial, but it ultimately declared innocent. Word is given that Prince Mamillus has died -- this brings the king back enough to his senses to repent; Hermione dies of a broken heart and Perdita is eventually found by Shepherd who vows to raise the little girl as his own. The play then jumps sixteen years into the future and one sees that Camillo has stayed in Bohemia with Polixenes and together they go incognito to spy on Polixenes' son, Prince Florizell who has reportedly been visiting a shepherd's daughter (Perdita) in secret. Perdita and Florizell are truly in love and Florizell makes the mistake of declaring his love for Perdita in front of his father (who was in disguise). Enraged, Polixenes disowns Florizell and runs off; Camillo helps them by arranging for the two young people to be taken in at the court of Leontes, where eventually the real identity of Perdita is revealed. They all travel to an artist's house where a beautiful statue of Hermione has been crafted -- which then comes to life, with the help of Paulina. This is perhaps the most tremendous representation that all is not what it seems in the play. The play ends with the royal families, now reunited, agreeing to go off and catch up about all that has occurred in the last 16 years:

Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely

Each one demand an answer to his part

Perform'd in this wide gap of time since first

We were dissever'd: hastily lead away.

(V.III. 3470-3473)

The overarching theme of the play the Winter's Tale is the notion that things are not what they seem: this causes people to act in extremes thus causing an extreme vacillation of events and plot points that the characters have to deal with. As stated earlier, Hermione's character is the greatest and most overt representation of how appearances are indeed deceptive. In the beginning of the ply it takes very little for Leontes to conclude (incorrectly that she's having an affair). He asks his friend Polixenes to stay; however, Polixenes does not agree to stay until Hermione asks him. This is enough for the king to fret:

Too hot, too hot!

To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.

I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances; 185

But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment

May a free face put on, derive a liberty

From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,

And well become the agent;'t may, I grant;

But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers, 190

As now they are, and making practised smiles,

As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as 'twere

The mort o' the deer; O, that is entertainment

My bosom likes not, nor my brows! Mamillius,

Art thou my boy?


At this point, the reader still doesn't know what is true and what is false; this sensation of uncertainty becomes particularly true when Leontes questions if Mamillius, the prince, is actually his son? This question pushes the reader into a greater sense of uncertainty, another overwhelming theme of the play, and one which is constantly toyed with in a constant dynamic of push and pull. The sense of uncertainty is even further aggravated when Leontes throws Hermione into prison, even when she's pregnant with his child. The reader knows that Leontes must be extremely convinced of Hermione's guilt to risk the sanctity of his unborn child; at the same time, the reader knows that Hermione denies vehemently all that she is accused of. The reader has to exist in this state of limbo indefinitely -- until the oracle clears Hermione of guilt. However, Hermione remains one of the play's fundamental symbols that all is not what it appears to be.

When Hermione learns of that Prince Mamillius has been killed she swoons. Paulina appears to speak the truth, in saying: "This news is mortal to the queen: look down. And see what death is doing" (III.ii.1377-1379). However, the reader is thrust, yet again into a further state of limbo, when the reader processes Leontes' reply, who asserts that it is not death. Leontes urges:

Take her hence:

Her heart is but o'ercharged; she will recover:

I have too much believed mine own suspicion:

Beseech you, tenderly apply to her

Some remedies for life.


The sense of ambiguity continues to become exacerbated because on the one hand the reader has been told that Hermione is dead; yet on the other hand the King seems to think she can be revived. Thus until the very end of the play when the "statue" of Hermione is brought back to life, it's still perpetually unclear as to what exactly has happened to her.

Hermione is not the only character who functions to symbolize that things are not what they seem. Perdita, her daughter, is yet another symbol of this theme. She is at once royalty, but discarded royalty. She lives as a Shepherd's daughter, but is really a princess. She is both deserving and undeserving of Prince Florizell's attention.

In fact, even King Leontes acts a manifestation of the overwhelming theme of the play. His temper, distrust and rage appear to be set on a hairpin trigger; yet the reader sees how quickly he forgives his wife and repents. In many ways, Leontes is a symbol of the extreme events of the play.

Camillo is a character who also acts as a living manifestation of the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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