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.
Even the supernatural in this play is humanised. Antigonus, on the shore of Bohemia, tells us that the ghost of Hermione has appeared to him, and he quotes her. But his word ‘superstitiously’ ought to be a warning, and this is the oddest ghost in Shakespeare, only there to tell us that it probably doesn’t exist. In Arcadia, where death is ‘Ego’, that death hides, not in ghosts, but in King Leontes. Leontes is tragicomic; tragic in his intensities and his apprehensions, his looking over love into a gulf, he is all the same surrounded by a Court of persons whose straightforward decency forces them to find him as comic as courtesy allows. Their spokeswoman is Paulina (the wife of Antigonus), whose love for the Queen brings Leontes into harsh humiliated farce at every encounter. We feel him from within and judge him from without. By the third act, when he threatens the life of his wife and children, we see him as mere Ego. In a peculiarly haunting exchange, Hermione, on trial for nothing, tells her husband, using the metaphor of the aimed gun: ‘My Life stands in the levell of your Dreames,/Which Ile lay down.’ He answers: ‘Your Actions are my Dreames.’ Leontes has a depth and a nervous power that no one in As You Like It, from brilliant Rosalind to bitter Jaques, or even the wise King, can begin to approach. He has them because he ‘dreams’: love becomes fantasy, even neurosis. Only when this ‘I’ dies in the King will what exists outside himself step down from its pedestal, and live.
I have used the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘neurosis’. The virtue of an ambiguous title like The Winter’s Tale, hovering between truth and metaphor, idiom and mere weather, is that it ought to make us wary: wary enough to recall that people who tell tales, who attend plays, who care for words and play with them, are sophisticated persons. They understand that arts and manners, courtesies and ironies, games and toys may all contain or mediate truths vital to human beings. Our fantasies and even our neuroses may be the truest part of ourselves. In a Court like that of Leontes, a world as public as a theatre, we don’t need to look for motives; we need only read behaviour.
The play begins (as did Cymbeline) with two courtiers talking. But this careful prosy exchange is so exquisite, so utterly mannered, that one of the two, Archidamus, gets stuck and breaks down – an oddity that may make us more sympathetic when his host-King does the same thing. The exchange self-mockingly serves an expository purpose: it divides the action into that intensely social structure, the play of host and guest, makes it clear that at present Sicilia is the host and Bohemia the guest, but also intimates that such formalities can reverse themselves. The necessity for politeness, and its difficulty, are made equally clear. As the conversation goes on, it dissolves the merely social host-guest formulation into something that the social at its highest serves to nourish and protect, as the parent the child. Martin Buber called it the ‘I:Thou relation’. The two kings as children loved each other. Under the frigid social discourse lies the necessity that empowers it, the human innocence of loving. But the second courtier, Camillo, makes it plain how appallingly difficult it is (just as difficult as politeness) for these grown human beings, these kings advanced into their lives, to sustain their old affection: ‘they have seem’d to be together, though absent: shooke hands, as over a Vast; and embrac’d as it were from the ends of opposed Winds.’ It is very hard indeed to maintain love among the ways of the world. Consonantly, there is an interesting undertow that gets into the smiling language of the two courtiers. Their politenesses accidentally turn back like adders and bite. That ‘great difference’ between Bohemia and Sicilia means a quarrel; a ‘Visitation’ is the word, a euphemism, used by Elizabethans for the Plague; ‘our Entertainment shall shame us: we will be justified in our loves’ are sentences that start with social compliment and end by matching the sound, later in the play, of a man shouting and cursing and driving his own child to die of grief and fear and shame.
This light and stylish exposition tells us, with skilled brevity, that for a normal person like – for instance – that ‘honest man’ the child Mamillius, Leontes’s son, to live in the constant presence of such courtesies, and to learn the need for them, is not at all a carefree thing, but a discipline like walking a tightrope, with a fall and a void beneath. To love in the real world is, it seems, to shake ‘hands, as over a Vast’. Such fear as a Mamillius might have is relevant to the play. For if the first scene gives us Arcadia in winter, the second offers a near paradox as striking. This is a story of children who live at a Court.
From Polixenes’s ‘Nine changes of the Watry-Starre’ onwards, the second scene has a tone and style of its own. It is wonderfully, elegantly yet dangerously polite: this is an almost Jamesian high social scene, a world of decidedly cool and worldly adults. And yet, as Polixenes’s ‘Nine changes’ hint, society is its children. There are two children on stage, one playing and one ‘prisoner to the wombe’, not yet ‘freed and enfranchis’d’, but present all the same, and noted in Polixenes’s smiling reference to the nine moon-months, and in Hermione’s own physical calm and gaiety.
Children quite often show exquisite kindness; they are rarely, however, polite. Politeness means the restraint of what we recognise as the darker side of ourselves. In the next scene, Mamillius is the enfant terrible, turning aside the lady’s teasing with the suggestion that her nose is ‘blew’ (another hint of winter). Unborn and born, Perdita is touched by this impoliteness: not the image of her mother that convention insists daughters are, the newborn baby looks obdurately like the father struggling wildly to cast her off. ‘Behold (my Lords),’ Paulina says with a wonderful fond humorous refusal of tact, ‘Although the Print be little, the whole Matter/And Copy of the Father: (Eye, Nose, Lippe,/The trick of’s Frowne).’ Even in arms, one feels, Perdita would be quite well-behaved, and Mamillius is acquiring fine Court manners: yet Shakespeare needs the children for their vulnerability and impoliteness. Hence the complex detail of Leontes’s turning aside, among his obscene and tortuous imaginings about his wife and his friend, to wipe his small son’s nose: ‘Not neat, but cleanly, captain’.
It is the conjunction of this demented politeness with a touching and sturdy childishness that gives the Court scenes their tone. Because of Leontes and his son, Hermione and Polixenes, we know things which we hardly have to call into full consciousness, underlying as they do so much ordinary adult social experience. We know that a system of manners may be both trustworthy and highly charged; that adults use politeness, which children do not possess naturally, because they are less innocent than children; that manners may both conceal and control, in part by mediating a violent competitive aggression that the grown man in society cannot avoid. Thus Shakespeare’s Romance, to which his children are appropriate, by its concern with love as adult experience moves from the first to somewhere not ‘romantic’ and not ‘childish’: into a world met again with all its lethal undertones in Restoration comedy, in the urbane ironies of Swift, or in the savage late Victorian drawing-rooms of Henry James.
The Winter’s Tale turns Romance into tragicomedy. It moves from Mamillius’s dirty nose to his father’s tormented destructive mind. It joins them by understanding that childish ‘Nothings’ may come near the centre of adult experience. When in Cymbeline Arviragus thinks Imogen dead and plays the death-music for her, his brother (stumbling among the ambiguities of the form) rebukes his ‘Triumphs for nothing, and lamenting Toyes’. But, like the glittering trash which in the second part of The Winter’s Tale Autolycus sells, and tells us is trash, toys may tell us the truth. The tragicomedies all involve toys, tricks and games. Pericles begins with an incest riddle; Cymbeline gets going with a wager; The Winter’s Tale starts with a game, a playful politeness. Games recur in the play: Bohemia is characterised by its Whitsun pastorals, and the whole action is fulfilled by the statue scene, where the Queen plays at coming back from the dead.
But games played in Courts may be dangerous (Hamlet dies in a mimic duel; royalties empower what would otherwise be mere gesture). One of Auden’s poems says grimly, ‘They were their situation,’ and this is true, too, of the two friends named here by their countries: ‘Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.’ No, he can’t: because the game is also what Kipling called the ‘Great Game’ – the game is that of power and diplomacy, and its players are kings.
There is almost invariably said to be a Romance-type problem or absurdity in this play. Leontes has no ‘motive’ for his jealousy – the jealousy which ignites him into amazing brutality and beastliness and leaves his Court in ruins, his son dead and his wife apparently so, and his daughter cast out into the wilderness. A play without motive (this is the argument) lacks any deep presentation of the human mind. But ‘motive’ can be an obtuse tool to use on both life and literature: a tool authorised by a rationalism not quite the same as real intelligence. It imposes a crude narrative successiveness of explanation on materials that may demand something quite other. Sicilia ‘is his situation’, and his situation is that of a man who, like a high-wire-walker looking down, senses a ‘Nothing’ in love: who shakes hands, as over a Vast; and embraces as it were from the ends of opposed Winds.
Like Shylock and Malvolio and perhaps Angelo, Leontes is a man who cannot play. He is invested with a form of helpless artlessness which gives his situation its intensity, and which gives to Romance a startling, almost Racinian depth of emotional meaning. He can only live with a rigid seriousness that, because he is royal, has reference to no one but himself – ‘Your Actions are my Dreames.’ Leontes and Polixenes are, with their rather different courtly innocences, unable to hear where their words are taking them:
Leontes: We are tougher (Brother)
Then you can put us to’t . . .
Polixenes: . . . My Affaires
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder,
Were (in your Love) a Whip to me.
Their politeness contest is from the beginning tense with struggle. This is so partly because they are kings, and partly because the two men and the woman (who is herself, we shall find out, an emperor’s daughter) are still held in the traces of intense relationship, traces which are like the ghosts of this unghosted, humane and secular play. Here, in the extreme courtesy of the social rhetoric the three share, we hear obscure echoes of relationships quite other than the polite, the diplomatic, the domestic – extreme relations of one and one, of friend with friend and of lover with lover. Polixenes remembers when the boys exchanged ‘Innocence, for Innocence’, and Leontes recalls with sudden pain the lost love-longing of his courtship of Hermione. Such memories are ‘tough’, are ‘a Whip to me’.
Leontes takes everything, as we say now, ‘seriously’. In his combat with Polixenes he is the weaker, and therefore, perhaps, the more loving of the two, even if his love is ‘Ego’, pure self-love. Hermione and Polixenes, being balanced and easy and generous, being in short socially mature, know precisely how far they can go, or think they know. Courtesy is to them a pastoral, an Arcadia, a place without danger or retribution. Perhaps their guilt, if they are indeed guilty, goes no further than this: they are Arcadians, rich and happy and contented people, even perhaps ‘summer people’, and this is a winter’s tale.
Leontes is not an Arcadian, and not a social man either. Suggestively, his inward intensity – and a distinction from Othello makes itself plain here – is essentially linguistic: it seems so much a mere mad magnificent ceremony (unlike the games he can’t play with others) as to intensify talk of the character’s lack of ‘motivation’. The King comes alive and into power, extraordinarily, in his frenzy, with a swelling black efflorescence of language:
Too hot, too hot:
To mingle friendship farre, is mingling bloods.
I have Tremor Cordis on me: my heart daunces,
But not for joy; not joy.
It is as if, with ‘Too hot’, the play’s temperature has shot up to fever point, as Leontes’s words crackle and kindle and shoot into flame. The combustion is spontaneous: the King’s wonderful, terrible and ridiculous fire of language is self-enclosed and dissociated. In comparison to any of the tragic heroes, what is remarkable here is the compression, the coherence, as of a single mood of savage self-destruction by which Leontes disposes of his world. Othello actually has some effect – he at least strangles Desdemona. Leontes, by contrast and Iago-less, has against him the massive rightness of the natural, embodied in the indomitable Paulina who, with Hermione shielded behind her and the infant Perdita tucked under one arm, all but wins every confrontation with the King: she has to be pushed out because she cannot be answered. Othello’s rage is bad but not unnatural. The wild, almost brilliant devastations of Leontes are unnatural because not true, even to himself. He is, as everyone in the Court obscurely knows, not ‘really’ jealous. He is only, too late, trying to learn to play.
Because Leontes can’t do adult games, he makes his companion Mamillius: ‘Goe play (Boy) play: thy Mother playes, and I/ Play too.’ Mamillius has an important part in the rhetoric Leontes unleashes once he gets underway: demented firework displays of succulent verbiage, both comical and very dangerous:
Thou want’st a rough pash, & the shoots that
To be full, like me: yet they say we are
Almost as like as Egges; Women say so,
(That will say anything).
Such lines say what we need to know about Leontes. With a love that is, because egoistic, impure, he involves himself with Mamillius because he is the only other person allowed to be out of the game. What is clear is that he wants not to protect him but to be him:
Looking on the Lynes
Of my Boyes face, me thoughts I did requoyle
Twentie three yeares . . .
The word ‘requoyle’ here is violent and significant. It is truer to say that Leontes experiences a great human recoil than to speak of unmotivated jealousy. In the usage of Shakespeare’s time, the word recoil carries in itself many meanings: the kick-back of a fired gun, the retreat into itself of a soul seeking God, the flashback of a narrative, the degeneration of a character, a movement of memory, a start of fear, a hesitation, a beginning at the beginning. It’s curious how many of these are immediately relevant to what happens in The Winter’s Tale – and also how many of them have something to do with human existence in time:
Twentie three yeares, and saw my selfe un-breech’d,
In my greene Velvet Coat; my Dagger muzzel’d,
Lest it should bite it’s Master, and so prove
(As Ornaments oft do’s) too dangerous.
The ‘un-breech’d’, the ‘Dagger muzzel’d’, make their sexual connotation obvious. But what goes deep in this is the lack of simplicity, the precise complexity: not simply the sexual dagger, but the ‘Ornament’, the whole burden of expressing sexuality through the infinite complexities of the adult and civilised. The social, the sexual, civilisation, love – they are all, to a Leontes suddenly suffering an extreme but recognisable fatigue, too much, too ‘dangerous’.
Greene’s Pandosto is a jealous tyrant who ends in a despairing suicide: the Romance element of the story depends not on him, but on the return and succession of the second generation. Shakespeare’s ‘Triumph of Time’ is quite other. Time deepens and brings reformation to a self from the beginning capable of it as Greene’s hero was not. Shakespeare justifies the beneficence of his close by showing that a man who has been hideously destructive and unjust is also forgivable. Whether or not Hermione has died, a question left hauntingly open, Leontes clearly has. Or, he has died in the love with which he began the play. In Hermione, Leontes clearly loved what took him back ‘Twentie three yeares’.
The frenzy of Leontes ceases only, and with an extreme suddenness, on the death of his son. The King leans on Mamillius the whole weight of his anxious dependency. Leontes loves him because he is ‘innocent’, and the love is coloured by a sort of envy. In Leontes’s head, Mamillius is the true king of Arcadia. The great irony is that of course Mamillius is not in this sense innocent: like some Jamesian pupil-child, he dies because Leontes manages to shift onto him, through the child’s love for his mother, the burden of care for his own actions, thus making him ‘like me’. When Mamillius dies, Leontes stops trying to play. He stops because he has reached his objective, which is to destroy either his own world or his innocence, which is Mamillius. The world is not so easily destroyed: Mamillius is.
Desperate to prove that his world is really there, Leontes lists evidences of sexual encounter, and ends with a farcical self-mutilating peroration:
Skulking in corners? wishing Clocks more swift?
Houres, Minutes? Noone, Mid-night? and all Eyes
Blind with the Pin and Web, but theirs; theirs only
That would unseene be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the World, and all that’s in’t, is nothing
The covering Skie is nothing, Bohemia
nothing, My Wife is nothing, nor nothing have these Nothings
If this be nothing.
At the beginning of the play, Sicilia is for Leontes still Arcadia, and he holds in it the position of the perfectly happy man living the perfectly happy life. Splendidly befriended (and that friend a king like himself), incomparably wived (and his wife the daughter of an emperor), with a marvellous princeling and a daughter about to arrive: Et in Arcadia Ego. But the life beautiful is maintained, as the courtiers know, ‘as over a Vast’: living it takes incessant acts of will and skill, a tightrope-walker’s sheer high nerve, and a nature born strong and full of belief in itself. But Shakespeare’s Arcadia is life, where winter comes. Leontes wavers for a moment – ‘If this be nothing’, a nothing his reiterations seem to hunger for as much as fear – and he begins to fall. Fearing that his world is ‘nothing’, by a recognisable paradox he starts to destroy it, most of all what he loves most in it. When he knows that in destroying what he cares about most, his fearful innocence, he has killed Mamillius, he is cured: he has no further to fall. But Leontes the King is in himself dead.
All grown-ups know that life will not stop when we die; it is only our royal ego that makes us think it will. After Time leaves the stage, Bohemia is less ‘sixteen years later’ or ‘another generation’, or even ‘another way of loving’. It’s more the other side of the moon, the brightness of what we recognise already by its shadow. ‘I turne my glasse’: the intense and psychological trouble of the first three acts abruptly, yet not altogether unrealistically, recedes behind the appearance of Time himself, speaking directly to the sophisticated consciousness of the observer, that part in us that remembers but can be healed and changed through time.
But even before the entry of Time, Shakespeare achieves as much by the play’s immediate translation in Act III to ‘the desarts of Bohemia’. The poet replaces the source narrative’s slow gradations by a change in metaphor. Insofar as Sicilia reflected the character that its King imposed on it, it was a place both logical and unnatural, like a mathematical theorem. Bohemia is perfectly opposed. Whatever Hermione does appears to Leontes unendurable; whatever Perdita does is, for Florizel, perfection – like a wave of the sea, she should ‘move still, still so’: and both visions are true aspects of human love. Bohemia is a place where natural randomness like the sea-wave seems to be a law. Antigonus lands there in a storm, having on the way experienced a dream of Hermione that, however affecting and dignified, will turn out to be ‘superstitious’, though the courtier imitates his master and can’t prevent himself from extending to it the wrong kind of love:
Dreames, are toyes,
Yet for this once, yea superstitiously,
I will be squared by this.
But there are no squares in Bohemia. There are, however, bears, and the courtier meets a death as surprising as many natural things: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ The bear is immediately succeeded by the Shepherd and Clown, who are illogical, shrewd and kind, and nothing surprises them. Their natural kindness is what Samuel Johnson said all social goodness really is, palliative rather than radical – and in that a striking contrast to the radical, root-and-branch pain of Leontes. They do not interfere with a universe felt to be dangerously capable of looking after itself, but do what they can for the survivors: ‘Ile take it up for pity’; ‘If there be any of him left, Ile bury it.’ The Clown, who is no hero, nonetheless extends a certain sympathy even to the bear: ‘They are never curst but when they are hungry.’
Shepherd and Clown survey, as down a long perspective, the passions of beasts and the sorrows of gentlemen with an equal detachment. That long perspective offers itself as a way of regarding the past events in the Court of Leontes, themselves hovering between the passions of beasts and the sorrows of gentlemen; it even hints that the whole world summoned up by Antigonus’s baroque rhetoric was an old courtier’s dream, a noble dream but one that only spoke ‘superstitiously’, advocating a beastly action, the leaving of a child on a barren shore. ‘They are never curst but when they are hungry’ takes care of Leontes, too, buries him off with the remains of the ‘poore Gentleman’.
Bohemia itself exists in the play only to do precisely this: to bury one Arcadia below another, to put it to sleep. The enormous scene in Act IV is, while its clock stops, a Court that reverses Sicilia; and the lost child Perdita – from the beginning closely re-sembling her father Leontes – is the Queen of it, but always knowing herself ‘prank’d up’, thinking of herself as ‘us’d to feare’. At one glimpse of the ‘nothing’ beneath his kingdom her father has disintegrated into destructive horror. Perdita, raised in the country and expecting little from life, recognises, as her future father-in-law King Polixenes leaves in a rage, that she is ‘Even here undone’; and yet, as she discovers with some interest, that ‘I was not much a-fear’d.’
Looked back on, the Court of Leontes has the extremity and coherence of a nightmare awoken from; and Bohemia tends towards the dawning randomness of the real. It replaces the activity of a single tyrannical will, a brilliant and contorted royal rhetoric, with happy harmonies of ‘three-man-song-men’. The play’s opening caught us in the astonishment of the immediately enacted: there, we are trapped in the burgeoning consciousness of Leontes, even as he is held in his deathly anxiety of love – an anxiety which makes him break up the game of courtesy, questioning it, undermining it, fearing it. Such undermining can’t be done to the Whitsun pastoral, because we see it from Time’s own detached point of vant-age, knowing it, therefore, to be both dependable and nothing – ‘our Feasts/In every Messe, have folly,’ Perdita says, with her characteristic severity. Moreover, we ourselves, like Time, know the ‘before’ and the ‘after’, and that Perdita the lost (whose name means ‘lost girl’, ‘abandoned one’) will be found again, and found royal. This is an old story, a winter’s tale.
The sense that Bohemia is Sicilia seen with new eyes, as it were given a second chance, is focused by one further fact. This is the most ‘dramatic’ of the four Romances, fully exploring one character, the King. Bohemia features three older men, and each asks to be compared with Leontes as a figure of authority. Each places him, settling him further in the past, yet also does something to ennoble him, to make him seem more forgivable. The Shepherd, for instance, a much kinder father after his simple fashion, is the widower of a wife whom he remembers with affection for her supremacy, like Hermione, as a hostess, ‘her face o’ fire/With labour, and the thing she took to quench it’; and he urges on Perdita a similarly delightful, very slightly promiscuous amiability, ‘for it is/A way to make us better Friends, more knowne.’ We see for an instant in the unjealous Shepherd’s memory an image as of some peasant wedding by Breughel: joyous, coarse, kind and anarchic – life’s festivities deprived of individual significance. Then there is Polixenes, also by now apparently wifeless, whose tyranny in this episode makes a comparison with Leontes automatic. Polixenes is in the fortunate position of being able to translate his anxieties into a brief burst of bad temper: brief, in that he retracts his death sentence on the Shepherd and his threatened beating of Perdita within 25 lines of uttering them. This shows how much more sensible a man Polixenes is than Leontes. It also suggests that this attribute might belong to a person so little characterised as to be weak to the point of non-existence.
But the truly dominating male figure in these scenes is Autolycus. The best Leontes (probably) of the last century, John Gielgud, once wrote to Peter Brook that he would love the opportunity to double Leontes with Autolycus; and Autolycus, for all the obvious differences, can be seen as a surrogate Leontes. He alone, of the three seniors, has some spellbinding mastery not defensible in ethical terms; his mocking prose and his incessant songs have a stylised, vigorous rhetoric as strong as that of Leontes when he begins to be the jealous man – he uses the cant of thieving as the King uses the cant of jealous love. Like Leontes he works on others with a restless energy, reveals a cheerfully ferocious cruelty, and finally quietens down and is tamed.
Time’s image of the turned glass is much truer to the play than my own stopped clock. Nothing stops in Time; the long Bohemian scene, beautiful and tender as it is, comes to bore and even weary just a little. It is a relief that the plot turns the ship’s wheel yet again, back to Sicilia. That The Winter’s Tale was once, and for centuries, thought ill-constructed now seems hardly credible. Marked by the charm and negligence of an old tale, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most masterfully formed works, from the first bad game to the last good ritual, from the King’s bad faith to its final echo in the Court’s reviving act of belief, from the death of Leontes to the life of Hermione; and, as the shadow of the dead Mamillius ends the first part so does the promise of the lost Perdita, ‘Welcome hither/As is the spring to the earth,’ come to the second. Deep in Bohemia, Perdita’s flower speech seems entirely natural and yet reverses the natural order (so that the rustic teaches the King something about art and nature); Perdita’s year, the creation of loving memory, will help to bring back Hermione from the dead. If it works on its audience, it so necessitates the end of the play as to leave that incomparable end –
Musicke; awake her: Strike:
‘Tis time: descend
– needing no discussion, unless we underline the word ‘time’. Perdita’s calendar implants in the mind the sense of a constancy absolute but surprising, one that defeats ordinary expectations. It brings assurance that the courtly can be natural, as the natural can be good – as a chisel can ‘cut breath’, and a statue turn into Hermione, wife of Leontes, ‘quick, and in mine arms’.
The Court of Sicilia, or Arcadia, is not destroyed, but redefined; it limits itself, and grows finer. A curious sign of that limitation is that the plot’s great discovery, the meeting of Perdita with her true family, is not acted out but only reported by Court Gentlemen – in a touching comic scene that opens with Autolycus and closes with the Shepherd and Clown, now themselves ‘Gentlemen borne’. The story doesn’t return to quite the same place, or quite the same family.
One of the Gentlemen describes the state of joy in Sicilia by saying that everywhere there is ‘Nothing but bon-fires’. This great Renaissance form of celebration and commemoration was believed by Dr Johnson to derive linguistically from ‘good’ fires. Shakespeare may have liked the sound of that in the word, but he is likely to have known the original meaning, too. Bonfires were bone-fires: either funeral pyres or the midsummer fires for which bones were gathered all the year round. The midsummer fires were leaped over by Tudor lovers, and so may be said to celebrate here the coming-together of husband and wife – and perhaps with it the embrace of mother and daughter, in whom there may be an echo of Ceres and Proserpine, figures of summer. But these bonfires are also bone-fires that burn the bad illusions of Leontes: and so ‘good’ fires in a different sense. They are commemorative more than celebratory; they have what might be called the smell of winter in them, remembering the death of Mamillius, whom nothing brings back.
The benign exaltation of the play’s last scene is deepened by what shadows it, its lost prince (who may exist in the silence of Hermione). The death of Mamillius is remarkable in a romantic comedy set in a Renaissance Court, where dynasty mattered. Neither Pericles nor Prospero is granted a son: and what happens to Leontes, as his son dies in a story that brings back to the repentant man a lost wife and daughter, may suggest some yielding of power to love. This is a theme or subject hardly lacking in Per-icles or Cymbeline and indeed, their extremely interesting difficulties or angularities may derive from the poet’s wrestling with new materials to make them serve a use both original and personal. Much as there is that is unique in these two plays, and much as each has been loved, readers and audiences in general tend simply to see The Winter’s Tale as easier, more successful, even ‘greater’. More lucidly fused and humanised it perhaps is. And the reason may be that Shakespeare solved his problems by an intenser use of natural and seasonal means, not as a myth-maker but as a poet. In his ‘winter’ play he is among contemporaries who celebrate winter almost in a paradoxical encomium of it, from Campion’s song ‘Now winter nights enlarge . . .’ to Milton’s invitation to a friend to come and learn, by the poet’s fireside, ‘What may be won/From the hard season gaining.’
From the beginning of his career Shakespeare had worked to widen and deepen his comic forms. He lets time and death into them, separation and suffering. The Winter’s Tale is in a very individual sense a ‘Triumph of Time’, using Time, as it does, as a maker of forms as well as a breaker (‘Musicke; awake her: Strike:/‘Tis time: descend’). Beyond music, he turns to the harmony of seasons. The play locates the smoke of winter in summer bonfires.