Disease and healing

Images of disease

In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare uses images of disease to suggest that spiritual corruption is like physical corruption, or disease; it needs treatment.

Images of disease are associated with Leontes' jealousy:

  • Camillo enigmatically tells Polixenes (in I.ii) :
‘There is a sickness
Which puts some of us in distemper, but
I cannot name the disease, and it is caught
Of you, that yet are well.'
  • Paulina too sees Leontes' irrational behaviour as like a disease, telling his servants (in Act II, sc iii):
‘I do come with words as medicinal as true,
Honest, as either, to purge him of that humour
That presses him from sleep.'
  • She tells Leontes himself that she is ‘Your physician'.
  • In his disordered state, Leontes does not realise that he himself is the disease which threatens his kingdom; in Act I, sc ii he bitterly comments on sexual immorality, especially of women, as the sickness which corrupts all mankind:
‘Physic for't there's none;
… many thousand's on's
have the disease, and feel't not.'

‘The gods themselves
Humbling their deities to love, have taken
The shapes of beast upon them: Jupiter
Became a bull, and bellow'd; the green Neptune
A ram, and bleated; and the fire-rob'd god,
Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain,
As I seem now.'

Images of healing

However, goodness, kindness and innocence are themselves seen as bringing healing:

  • In Act I, sc i the childhood innocence of Mamillius is said to ‘physic the subject'
  • Polixenes (in Iii.) describes how his own son's ‘childness cures in me / Thoughts that would thick my blood.'
  • In Act IV, sc iv Florizel describes Camillo as ‘The medicine of our house'.

See also - The nature of humanity in The Winter's Tale:

The chain of being The state as a body Reason and passion Disease and healing
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