The Winter's Tale Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- The Theatre
- Ideas of nature
- The pastoral tradition
- The seasons
- Natural and unnatural development
- The nature of humanity
- The higher powers
- Spiritual re-creation
- The plays and playing
The whole import of the play is that tragic loss can, at least in part, be made good. This will depend on the actions of the sinner but also on heavenly grace.
Grace and mercy
In the Christian theology which would have been familiar to most of Shakespeare's audience, grace refers to the undeserved mercy of God given to sinners. No human being deserves to enter heaven, because all are guilty of sin, but salvation is possible through grace, which is closely associated with mercy:
- In Act V, sc i Cleomenes tells the penitent Leontes that he has ‘done enough', and should forgive himself
- However Paulina insists that, no matter how much Leontes repents, he must bow to the power of the gods: he must not ‘to the heavens be contrary', nor ‘oppose against their wills'. It is only through grace that he can be saved
- When Hermione is taken away to prison in Act II, sc i, she accepts this as a means of spiritual strengthening through heavenly grace, saying to her ladies:
There is no cause: when you shall know your mistress
Has deserv'd prison, then abound in tears
As I come out: this action I now go on
Is for my better grace.'
- As Polixenes and Camillo arrive at the sheep-shearing, Perdita offers them rue – a bitter herb whose name means ‘repentance'. Perdita says it signifies grace, and indeed another name for rue is ‘herb grace'. It is a symbol of that grace and forgiveness which Polixenes will soon especially require after the violent threats he makes to Perdita and her adoptive family.
Grace and blessing
Grace also has a wider meaning. It can signify:
- The blessing or favour of God
- By extension, it also comes to mean a favour bestowed by a human
- A pleasing human quality.
It is used with both meanings simultaneously in The Winter's Tale:
- For example, Perdita herself is described as ‘grown in grace' by Time in Act IV, sc i, suggesting both physical and spiritual beauty
- When Hermione teases Leontes (in Act I, sc ii) that she has ‘twice said well', and done two good deeds, she asks:
What was my first? It has an elder sister,
Or I mistake you: O would her name were Grace!'
- When Leontes tells Hermione that it was her acceptance of his courtship, she comments,
- In ACT V, SC III, seeing Hermione's ‘statue', Leontes describes his wife as being ‘ as tender / As infancy and grace', where grace suggests both a lovely human quality and also a divine blessing.
Penitence, forgiveness and redemption
The condition of humankind in the Elizabethan worldview
Even though The Winter's Tale seems to take place in a pagan world, clearly the setting also reflects Shakespearean England: the shepherds and their way of life, with a visiting peddler and Whitsun pastorals, are very close to the people of Shakespeare's Warwickshire.
Elizabethan theatre-goers would therefore be very familiar with the concept of penitence. At the church service they compulsorily attended each Sunday, Shakespeare's audience would themselves be called upon to repent by the priest, and reminded that God's forgiveness could not be forthcoming without it. However, if they did repent, God would redeem them from their sins, offering mercy instead of well-deserved punishment.
The need for penitence in The Winter's Tale
The idea of penitence permeates The Winter's Tale:
- It is only after true penitence that Leontes can be forgiven and this takes time (See: Time) – sixteen years
- Even then, he cannot earn forgiveness: it is an undeserved blessing from the gods (See: Spiritual re-creation)
- Paulina reminds him of this (in Act III, sc ii) from the first moment of his grief at the deaths of his wife and son:
Ten thousand knees together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain, and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert.'
By Act IV Leontes is truly penitent; indeed, Camillo (in Act IV, sc ii), now living in Bohemia, refers to him as ‘the penitent king'. But although Cleomenes tells Leontes in Act V, sc i that he has ‘done enough' and should now forgive himself, it is not until confronted with his guilt in the form of Hermione's ‘statute' that he can finally be forgiven, as he acknowledges his guilt in three simple but powerful words: ‘I am ashamed.'
The role of the faithful servant
Leontes is helped towards an understanding of his guilt by faithful servants who do not hesitate to tell him the truth. Camillo refuses to accept Leontes denunciation of Hermione, as does Antigonus. Both encounter the wrath of Leontes, and for Antigonus this results in his death.
The most potent truth-teller is Paulina, who is accused of witchcraft and threatened by Leontes with death by burning. However she perseveres. Indeed, she clearly has a reputation for being outspoken since Leontes turns on his servants (in Act II, sc iii) saying:
For sixteen years Paulina faithfully hides Hermione and will not allow Leontes to forget his guilt, telling him, while his others servants urge him to forgive himself and to re-marry:
… she you kill'd
Would be unparalleld.'
Her words are not comfortable, but ultimately they safeguard Leontes and allow for his redemption as well as for the restoration of his wife.
More on Shakespearean truth-tellers: Shakespeare often shows us various faithful servants who put their masters' good or moral behaviour before their own safety. For example:
- Both the Duke of Kent and Cornwall's servant in King Lear
- Viola / Cesario and also Antonio in Twelfth Night
- Adam in As You Like It
- The man who comes to warn Lady Macduff (and presumably is killed by her murderers) in Macbeth.
Music and harmony
It is noticeable that in The Winter's Tale there is no music in the first half, yet when we reach the pastoral scenes in Bohemia we rapidly encounter music:
- Autolycus enters singing
- He later comes to the sheep-shearing as a peddler, bringing with him ballads that he sings with Mopsa and Dorcas
- The shepherds and shepherdesses have already danced to music
- ‘Come, strike up!' the Clown instructs the musicians
- Polixenes comments upon how well Perdita dances
- Another part of the festival involves the arrival of ‘a dance of twelve satyrs' – a masque-like interval
- When Paulina is about to bring Hermione ‘back to life', she first calls for music, which sets the tone for the momentous occasion.
The audience can therefore associate music and dancing with the happier moments of the play, which is appropriate, as the term ‘harmony' means both pleasant music and a sense of order.
More on Shakespeare's use of music: Shakespeare often uses the idea of music to reflect emotional, spiritual, domestic and political harmony. At times he explicitly connects it to the philosophical concept of ‘the music of the spheres' – a belief derived from ancient classical Greece that the universe consists of a series of vast concentric crystal spheres, each giving out a perfect note of music, reflecting the ordered movement of the planets.
In Act V of The Merchant of Venice Lorenzo tells Jessica, as they lie watching the stars:
‘There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings.'
In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses (in Act I, sc iii) combines images of order with images of harmony, saying that when the planets move in their proper places, all is well, and due order exists in the world; but:
‘Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark! What discord follows!'
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