A worked example of textual analysis

An example of a possible answer to the question:

‘What does this extract contribute to our understanding of Leontes at this point in the play?

is given below this annotated extract, bringing together the ideas put forward in the annotations.

Textual analysis

The Winter's Tale Act II scene iii.

Paulina has insisted on bringing the new-born baby princess to Leontes, hoping that the child's innocence, and her resemblance to her father, will move him. In this speech, Leontes reveals his tyranny and cruelty.

Thou(1), traitor(2), hast set on(3) thy wife(4) to this(5).(6)
My child?(7) away with't(8)! Even thou(1), that hast(9)
A heart(9) so tender o'er it, take(10) it(8) hence(9)
And see(10) it(8) instantly(11) consum'd(12) with fire;
Even thou(1) and none but thou(1)(13). Take(10) it up straight(14):
Within this hour(14) bring(10) me word 'tis done(15),
And by good testimony(15), or I'll seize(16) thy(1) life,
With what thou(1) else call'st thine(1)(17). If thou(1) refuse
And wilt encounter with my wrath(18), say(10) so;
The bastard(19) brains(20) with these my proper(21) hands
Shall I dash out(22). Go(23), take(10) it to the fire;
For thou set'st on thy wife(24).
  1. Leontes addresses his counsellor not with the formal ‘you' which politeness would have dictated (See: Thee, thou and you) but with ‘thou', underlining Antigonus' inferior status.
  2. To call Antigonus a traitor is not merely a wild accusation that he has committed a crime of the utmost seriousness, but is also (as Shakespeare's audience would have appreciated) a threat that Antigonus could be condemned to the most terrible death: being hanged, drawn and quartered. This is another sign of Leontes' tyranny.
  3. ‘Set on' implies that Antigonus has been part of a conspiracy, and that it is really he who is behind the appearance of Paulina with the baby. Leontes repeats this groundless accusation at the end of the speech, trying to justify his threats. (The fact that Leontes has earlier said he ‘knew' Paulina would accost him shows the irrationality of this accusation against Antigonus; Paulina clearly has a reputation as an outspoken lady without being ‘set on'.)
  4. ‘Thy wife' – in his attack on Antigonus, Leontes does not grant Paulina a role in her own right. He refers to her merely as Antigonus' responsibility.
  5. The speech is mostly monosyllabic for the first two lines, suggesting that Leontes is using a clipped style of speaking, almost spitting out his accusations.
  6. The virtually monosyllabic line is end-stopped, and has just the ten syllables of a regular blank verse line. (See: Blank verse, prose and rhyme.) This underlines the curtness of this declarative sentence: it is a statement of fact as far as Leontes is concerned, allowing no dispute.
  7. What seems at first a question – ‘My child? – is in fact a sneer. Leontes is ridiculing the idea.
  8. ‘It' – Leontes refers to the baby girl throughout this speech as ‘it', which to modern ears sounds dismissive (although cild ‘child' is a neuter noun in Old and Middle English and the historically correct pronoun, still in common use in Shakesp's time, is ‘it'):
    • Paulina does also refer to the baby as ‘it' from time to time in the scene, but only after she has also called her ‘a daughter'. She also calls the baby ‘the princess' and ‘your babe'
    • Leontes refers to the child throughout the speech as ‘it'; he will not accept her as an innocent human being - contrast the Old Shepherd whose first reference to the child is as a ‘barne' (bairn, or baby).
  9. Hast a heart so tender..hence' – the alliteration on the soft ‘h' consonant reinforces Leontes' scorn at Antigonus' ‘tender' feelings.
  10. Take it hence' – the imperative form of the verb begins a run of commands from Leontes which show him asserting his absolute power.
  11. The longer word ‘instantly', after a run of monosyllables, makes it stand out, reinforcing the immediacy of the command.
  12. ‘Consum'd with fire' – the image of the fire eating up the baby makes it even more horrific than the more usual term ‘burnt to death'.
  13. ‘Thou and none but thou' – Leontes gives Antigonus the terrible task of personally burning the baby. Again, the two almost entirely monosyllabic lines stress the sharpness of Leontes' speech.
  14. ‘Straight' ... ‘Within this hour' – as with ‘instantly', Leontes' desire to have the child killed immediately is stressed.
  15. ‘Bring me word' ... ‘good testimony': Leontes' irrational suspicions have already condemned his wife, and caused Camillo to flee. Now he no longer trusts anyone. (The same paranoia can be seen in Polixenes when he remarks to Camillo that ‘I have eyes under my service.'

    More on spying in Elizabethan England: Although it must have been well-known in Jacobean England that the government habitually used spies, this is seen several times in Shakespeare as a sign of corrupt power: Macbeth comments that,

    ‘There's not a none of them but in his house
    I keep a servant fee'd'

    a sign of his paranoia and tyranny.

  17. ‘Seize thy life' – the strong, dynamic verb ‘seize' suggests the way in which Leontes could instantly have Antigonus put to death.
  18. ‘With what thou else call'st thine' – We know from Antigonus' earlier comments to Leontes - and hence we also know that Leontes is aware – that Antigonus has three daughters as well as a wife. Leontes' threat indicates that all Antigonus' family may be put to death.
    (This is the kind of tyranny seen in Macbeth's slaughter of all Macduff's family as revenge for his defection. It is an echo of Macbeth [which was written some years earlier than The Winter's Tale] which is picked up again in his later threat to ‘dash out' the child's brains: Lady Macbeth said she could have ‘dash'd the brains out' of her baby.)
  19. ‘Encounter with my wrath' – an ‘encounter' suggests a clash, a head-to-head struggle. Leontes is warning Antigonus that he will not win: Leontes has complete power.
  20. ‘The bastard' – the harsh term by which Leontes disowns his child puts her, for the Shakespearean audience at least, beyond any acceptable position in society.
    (It is interesting and ironic that in Act IV, sc iv Perdita herself refuses to grow gillyvors, which she calls 'nature's bastards'.)
  21. Bastard brains' – the harsh plosive alliteration suggests the contempt with which Leontes spits out these words.
  22. ‘My proper hands' – meaning ‘My own hands'. But Shakespeare elsewhere uses ‘proper' with its other meaning of ‘fine', ‘just as it should be' – hence Shakespeare creates an ironic pun in Leontes' use of this adjective.
  23. ‘Dash out' – these two short, hard monosyllables reflect the violence of the act.
  24. ‘Go' – the speech, which has included many commands, culminates in this one.
  25. Leontes tries to justify his terrible commands by repeating his earlier (false) assertion that Antigonus has deliberately sent Paulina to accost him with the child.

What does this extract contribute to our understanding of Leontes at this point in the play?

Leontes, overwhelmed by his wild jealousy, has descended into a state of violence and irrationality. He no longer trusts the counsellors who have served him faithfully for years. Although he still speaks in blank verse, his language reflects his disordered state and the tyranny with which he now rules. The coarseness of Leonte's language and his imperviousness to evidence suggest he has lost his reason. Shakespeare depicts him as no longer the monarch who was generous, just and hospitable, but as a violent despot.

This is evident from the start of the speech, when he turns on Antigonus. Not only does he use ‘thou' rather than the formal ‘you' which might have been expected, but he instantly, and with no justification, calls his faithful counsellor a ‘traitor' – with the implication of the terrible punishment to follow. Later he repeats and extends his threat: if Antigonus will not obey him, not only Antigonus but all his family will die.

In complete contrast to Act V, sc i, where we see Leontes' counsellors Cleomenes and Dion – and Paulina – offering advice which the penitent Leontes listens to and weighs up, here he simply asserts his power. His speech is full of sharp commands: ‘Take it ... see it ... bring me word ... go'.

Leontes' paranoia is shown in his lack of trust; Antigonus must bring ‘good testimony' that the child is dead. Leontes' contempt for the ‘tender' feelings he sees in Antigonus is indicated by the breathy alliteration of ‘hast a heart so tender'. The king is in a fever to have the baby killed: he stresses three times that this must be done immediately: ‘instantly', ‘straight', and ‘Within this hour'. His refusal to accept the child is underlined by his calling the baby ‘it' throughout, and by declaring her a ‘bastard'; his sneering question, ‘My child?' suggests the impossibility of such a relationship.

Leontes' lack of control is evinced by the violence of both his words and his intended deeds. The majority of his words are monosyllabic, and there are several dynamic verbs suggesting powerful and sudden movement, such as ‘seize' and ‘dash'. He not only orders the child to be ‘consum'd with fire', but is apparently prepared to ‘dash out' the baby's brains with his own hands – the pun on the adjective ‘proper' being a bitterly ironic comment on how far from ‘proper' this act would be. The harsh plosive alliteration on ‘Bastard brains', followed by a string of harsh monosyllables in the final two lines of the speech, convey the violent power of his commands.

However, there is one phrase which may suggest that, beneath it all, Leontes is dimly aware of how he must appear; he needs to justify his actions, and at the end of the speech he feels it necessary to repeat his earlier accusation of the disloyalty for which Antigonus is being punished: ‘For thou set'st on thy wife'.

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