Winter came early to Minnesota in 2014. November was as cold as January and February usually are. I found my thoughts drifting to Shakespeare’s romance, with its theme of human failure and wrongdoing balanced with that of redemptive promise, just as the death of nature in winter is offset by the return of the sun to our northern hemisphere at the time of the solstice.
The play reminds us that we are in mythic territory with its title. This is a “tale,” an old-fashioned story of wondrous events, not a realistic narrative. By the time of Act V, bystanders characterize the events that have unfolded as “so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” and yet it is all “true.” And when, like Pygmalion’s statue, Hermione returns to life, we are reminded how art and love can foil nature and death and preserve truth.
The Winter’s Tale is not for the literal-minded or the hard-hearted. It requires appreciation for the truth of imagination and for the power of human love.
Paradoxically, however, at the beginning of the play it is the dark side of imagination and love that rears its ugly head. King Leontes’ love for Hermione is polluted by jealousy as, on the flimsiest of evidence, his imagination feeds his fear that she has been unfaithful to him with his best friend, King Polixenes. The words “affection” and “infection” recur to suggest how the heart’s affection can be contaminated. He plots to have his friend murdered and, interpreting Polixenes’ escape as an admission of guilt, he accuses his pregnant wife of carrying his friend’s child. When the child is born Leontes orders that she be taken away and abandoned to die.
An oracle brings news that Hermione is innocent, but Leontes is so sick with infection that he refuses to believe it and condemns her to prison. The contagion spreads as their son, Mamillius (who seems to foreshadow his own death when he states, “A sad tale’s best for winter.”), dies of a disease brought on by the false accusations against his mother, and then Hermione’s death from grief is reported. These tragic losses finally bring Leontes to his senses and he vows to spend the rest of his life in penance.
Meanwhile, the child, Perdita (meaning “lost”) is abandoned on the coast of Polixenes’ country. The servant wants to save her, but a storm wrecks his ship; then he is chased and killed by a bear. Having arrived at the nadir of tragedy, like the darkest night of the year, we reach a turning point, just as we do at the winter solstice. Fortune shines and Perdita is rescued by a shepherd, who takes her home to raise as his own.
Sixteen years later Polixenes’ son has fallen in love with Perdita and, in a spring pastoral scene, the two are about to be betrothed. The plot nearly turns tragic again, as Polixenes, watching in disguise with the servant who had helped him escape Leontes’ murder plot, suddenly reveals himself, threatens Perdita and her adopted father and orders his son, Florizel, never to see her again. Once more the servant Camillo intervenes, helping Florizel and Perdita, along with her adopted father and brother, to escape. They arrive in Leontes’ country, where they are welcomed by the King, who is still in mourning. Polixenes and Camillo arrive soon after, true identities are revealed, forgiveness is asked for and received, father and daughter are reunited, and friends are reconciled.
In the final scene of redemption, Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo go to the home of Hermione’s servant, Paulina, to view a statue of Hermione. Leontes is upset to see it, but then the statue comes to life; Hermione steps down; husband, wife, and daughter are reunited in forgiveness and love; Perdita and Florizel are finally betrothed; and everyone celebrates the miraculous happy ending.
There are hints in the text that Paulina has kept Hermione in hiding all this time, but some prefer to read it as the supernatural event of an “old tale,” just as ancient people found something supernatural in the return of the sun at the winter solstice.
In either case, some have read the play as a Christian allegory of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, whereas others have viewed it in more universal mythic terms of death and rebirth. And in fact, the text makes more pagan than Christian references.
It is well to note, though, that the death of Mamillius remains unredeemed. Miracles, salvation, and rebith, it seems, have their limits; nature and human nature retain their imperfection; death and human wrongdoing endure.
Another theme of the play is that of nature vs. art. While nature, including human nature, is “fallen,” human art has the power of redemption. Most obviously, Hermione appears at the end of the play as a “statue” inside a chapel that is also an art gallery. Even if we don’t read this literally, it is Paulina’s artfulness that has kept Hermione in hiding until the appropriate time, and it is her report of Hermione’s death that serves as the final blow that brings Leontes to a sense of his guilt and to his self-imposed penance, itself a form of human art.
The forgoing traditional reading of the play is to be expected from an “old tale,” but contemporary literary theory would look for its historical or political significance. It can be found in the way that structural social power is wielded, and the way it is reinforced by the text.
Leontes’ human folly is, perhaps, no worse than the average man, but, because he is king, it has much worse consequences: the death of his son, the abandonment and near death of his daughter, and what amounts to a kind of exile of his wife (assuming a non-supernatural reading). Similarly, because Polixenes is king and head of his household, he can threaten a shepherd’s family and overrule his son’s marriage choice.
Perhaps also because Leontes, as king, can wreck more havoc than the average man, he must suffer more punishment and undergo a longer penance. However, in the end the social structure seems to be redeemed along with the personal lives of the characters. Leontes has paid a price, but he is still king and structurally capable of wrecking more havoc, though one hopes he has grown in maturity and wisdom. Likewise, while Florizel finally receives the blessing of his father in his choice of a shepherd’s daughter as his wife, it turns out that “daughter” is a king’s daughter after all. The social structure remains intact.
One way in which the play undermines aristocratic superiority is found in the characters of the servants, Camillo and Paulina, both of who surpass their masters in wisdom and integrity. Perhaps there is more ambiguity regarding social class than is immediately apparent.
While modern readers may reject the reinforcement of aristocratic social arrangement that does exist in the play, one hopes our own imaginative artfulness and human sympathy can enable us to transcend history and politics long enough to appreciate the universal message of both human weakness and human capacity for redemption.