Love with Time Let in
Most modern editions of The Winter’s Tale explain – and rightly – that its title is an Elizabethan phrase indicating scepticism, the equivalent to our ‘romantic nonsense’. The work is underwriting its own lightness, its randomness. But not without irony; for the title has a further dimension. It is oddly literal: the play begins in winter. (Even Romance times and places are there, somewhere.) At the beginning of the second act, Leontes’s Queen Hermione, heavily pregnant with her second child, the future Perdita, finds herself momentarily fatigued by her small son, Mamillius, puts him aside, then revives, takes him back affectionately, and lets him tell her a story – ‘A sad Tale’s best for Winter,’ he assures her. The two kings, Leontes and his friend Polixenes, give some sense of weariness at the end of Polixenes’s nine-month-long state visit, and communicate what the grown Perdita will phrase as the feeling of ‘the year growing ancient’. Even the bear, who closes this movement of the play by eating the courtier Antigonus, is at the end of a long winter hunger – ‘They are never curst but when they are hungry.’
Shakespeare took his play from a novella by Robert Greene called Pandosto: or, The Triumph of Time. That subtitle may have been one of the things which mainly interested the dramatist in it, the other being the incestuous plot situation that drives its royal hero to his final suicide: when his lost child returns, Greene’s hero does not recognise her, but falls in love with this image of her dead mother. The author of Pericles was clearly absorbed by the symbolic resonances of incest. The incestuous, like the maternally possessive Queen of Cymbeline, may be said from fear and greed and distrust to refuse to allow their love the test of time. Their too family-bound love is inbred, claustrophobic and suffocating. But though Shakespeare was clearly struck by Greene’s quasi-Petrarchan ‘Triumph of Time’, his handling of it is radically unlike Greene’s. Though Pandosto isn’t much like what we should now recognise as a novel, it has the novel form’s far more naturalistic gradualness of movement, and a care for marking out the stages of time passing.
The Winter’s Tale is in a sense the shapeliest of all Shakespeare’s Romances, with a deep clarity of form that satisfies readers and audiences. The simple and very moving story it tells of death and revival of love is reconstructed into bold dramatic masses, these set one on either side of the presence of a Time here made a character. The profound trouble in Leontes’s Sicilian Court and psyche at last wears itself out on the shores of his friend’s Bohemian kingdom; Time interposes, in person announcing the passage of 16 years; a second generation, that of Perdita and her prince, Florizel, act out in a summer kingdom a love happier than that of Leontes, a love that through its lesser and more external troubles brings about the moment of discovery as the young lovers take flight back to the Sicilia of Leontes.
The play’s peculiar power, even its sweetness, derives from the sense of seasonal alternation and the movement from the dark winter bitterness of Sicilia to the calm perpetuity of Perdita’s May or June Bohemian sheep-shearing feast. Understandably, when, fifty or sixty years ago, the Romances began to enjoy a marked rise in appreciation, a mainly Modernistic feeling for myth and symbol found itself most at home with The Winter’s Tale. The comedy became, what it remains now for some readers and theatre productions, a rich and touching seasonal legend. Yet this response to the play simplifies and even distorts: it fails to explain why the great arc of the action brings us round not primarily to the return of the lost child (which is wonderfully celebrated, as detached narrative, in Court prose) but to the revival of Hermione and her coming-home to the King’s embrace.
Myth-making or myth-finding has its own seasonal designs on the play. It leans, that is to say, too heavily on time as a circumstance outside the self. Early in Cymbeline, Posthumus, exiled in Rome, is asked what he will do to help himself, and he answers that he plans nothing but to ‘abide the change of Time,/Quake in the present winters state, and wish/That warmer dayes would come’. The gentleness is right for the ethos of Romance, yet gives some hint of Posthumus’s present weakness, his polite immaturity – for his wishing and waiting bring him immediately into Iachimo’s web. Shakespeare’s tragicomedies are interested in a living with time, in time, that is a mastery not a weakness. One characteristic of The Winter’s Tale’s long Bohemian sheep-shearing scene repays particular notice. The feast is a golden time, but with the stillness less of summer than of a stopped clock (as Leicester’s Kenilworth stopped all its clocks at the time when the Queen left it): and Act IV, Scene iv is indeed a perpetuity, being perhaps the longest in Shakespeare, nearly nine hundred lines in the Folio. When Perdita, at once ‘lowly Maide’, ‘Goddesse’ and ‘Queene’, gives out her flowers, she does so in terms of a high ornate courtesy, which means hierarchy: she begins with the seniors, the disguised Polixenes and Camillo. Giving them flowers appropriate to their years, she starts from winter and moves backwards through autumn to summer and spring: from ‘Rosemary and rue, these keepe/ Seeming and savour all the Winter long’, back through ‘the yeare growing ancient/ . . . Carnations, and streak’d gillyvors’, through the ‘flowres/Of middle summer’, ‘Hot lavender, mints, Savory, Marjorum,/The Mary-gold’ – and only then to the flowers for her love, the tentative pale cornucopia of spring, that begins with the ‘Daffadils,/ That come before the Swallow dares’.
Perdita’s courteous and loving gift-giving reverses rather than abides ‘the change of Time’ (and in this might be compared with love’s power over time in Sonnet 126, and nature’s over love). The care for time in The Winter’s Tale, that is, is not precisely or primarily a matter of ‘seasons’, or of what the undeveloped Imogen, like her husband, defines as the belief that ‘seasons comfort’. Beyond and within time stand love and nature, which are faculties of the human. Perdita’s innate sense of the natural expresses itself in terms of natural courtesy, a respect for age which is not a fear of power; and her spinning backwards of the mere clock or calendar is like the reversal of a ship’s wheel so that its whole direction changes. But her gesture only echoes that with which Time himself enters as Chorus in Act IV, Scene i – ‘I turne my glasse.’ He at once articulates and denies the transition he defines: ‘Let me passe/The same I am, ere ancient’st Order was,/Or what is now receiv’d.’ For a ‘simple’ play this is difficult, particularly given that ‘I am’ is of course the Old Testament name of God – the God of History, yet always the same. To live forwards is not necessarily just to let time pass; it is to understand better the present and the past, an understanding that changes and perhaps ages the self, as poor Hermione, the beautiful statue who has lost her son, her daughter’s childhood, and her husband’s and her own prime, was (Leontes thinks, at last) ‘nothing/So aged as this seems’. To understand the past requires present consciousness and memory. Bohemia is certainly ‘another part of the forest’, another place, another time – but it is also ‘yesterday returned’, yesterday given another chance.
I have been doubting the merely seasonal use here of a summer whose only function is to succeed its winter. If Shakespeare’s winter isn’t there simply to introduce and support his summer, why did he want it for his play – why did he write a ‘Winter’s Tale’? The reason is, I suggest, straightforward, and helps to explain an odd problem almost as old as the play itself. In the source novel, Greene’s Leontes figure, Pandosto, is King of Bohemia, and the friend who arouses bitter jealousy is King of Sicilia. Perhaps the best-known fact about the play among scholarly readers is that Shakespeare, who kept in many ways close to his source, nonetheless exchanged the two locales: Leontes rules Sicilia, and Polixenes Bohemia. Ben Jonson remarked that no one but Shakespeare could have been such a fool as not to know that Bohemia has no sea-coast.
Shakespeare’s geography may have been as poor as Jonson found it. Or his sophisticated humour may have been greater than Jonson could rise to, and he may merely have been endowing his Romance with one of those logical ‘Impossibilia’ so cheerfully thick on the ground in these last plays. Or he may have had reasons deeper, more psychological and more sophisticated still. The poet perhaps needed his Polixenes to reign in Bohemia because he needed his Leontes to reign in Sicilia. And Sicilia was the place for Leontes because for nearly two thousand years it had been honoured as the home of pastoral, of poetry and of love. The Greek Arcadia also shared these characteristics, though in a harsher, rougher form. Shakespeare seems to have distributed all these qualities over both Sicilia and Bohemia; but Sicilia is the alpha and omega of the play, its beginning and end.
Leontes’s kingdom, Sicilia, is Arcadia in its true character, the place of love – bookish, idealised, beautiful and ancient. But it is Arcadia in winter, love with time let in. The good courtiers of As You Like It sing in Arden: ‘Heere shall he see no enemie/But Winter and rough weather,’ an offhand foreshadowing of one of the meanings of that later Arcady by Poussin with a tomb at its centre, the image entitled Et in Arcadia Ego. The Winter’s Tale has its tomb, but goes beyond ‘rough weather’; all the Romances give their magicians power over the sea, or their lovers power to internalise it, and this play is perhaps the most solidly human and richly dramatised of them all. There is hardly such a thing as weather where Time itself speaks as a man.