What is nature?

The whole question of ‘What do we mean by nature?' is one which appears to fascinate Shakespeare. Several plays seem to focus on the topic.

More on nature in King Lear: In King Lear for example, Shakespeare presents us with several possibilities:

  • Edgar is a ‘natural' son because he is kind
  • Edmund is a ‘natural' son in the sense, current in Shakespearean times, of ‘illegitimate'
  • The Fool is called a ‘natural' – a word which meant ‘idiot' in Shakespearean language (though the Fool in King Lear has innate wisdom).

In The Winter's Tale the topic is not at first so obvious, but if the text is read with care it is evident that the idea of nature occurs over and over again (See: Ideas of nature).

The natural world in Bohemia

The natural world is most obvious in Bohemia, whose court life is never seen. The king comes to the countryside (IV. iv.):

  • Where everyone is involved in the farming life
  • Where Perdita presents her guests with flowers
  • Where that great natural force, the sea, is nearby.

Early references to the natural world

However, right from the beginning of the play we encounter images of nature and natural life:

  • Polixenes and Leontes grew up together, when
‘there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now.'
  • Sheep and shepherds are mentioned long before we reach Bohemia, reminding us of the beneficent power of nature
    • Polixenes' first words are that
      ‘Nine changes of the watery star ‘hath been
      The shepherd's note'

    • Later he tells Hermione that he and Leontes were
      ‘as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun.'

Nature associated with virtue

The association of nature with innocence and goodness becomes more significant later in The Winter's Tale:

  • Paulina (in Act II, sc ii) insists to the gaoler that Hermione's child ‘is / By law and process of great nature' freed from the womb
  • She then goes on to speak vehemently to Leontes (Act II, sc iii) of ‘good goddess nature' which has made the baby so like her father in external features.

Destructive nature

Nature is not always beneficent. It is a powerful force, and can be destructive, for example:

  • The bear that tears Antigonus apart
  • The storm that wrecks his ship
  • The potentially destructive power of human nature as seen in the effects of Leontes' jealousy.
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