Camillo the truth-telling servant

Camillo (and see also Paulina ) is one of several faithful servants in Shakespearean drama (for example, The Duke of Kent and the Fool in King Lear, Adam in As You Like It, Cesario (Viola in disguise) in Twelfth Night and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice).

Camillo, like Paulina, is also a truth-teller who serves his king best by not flattering him (like Kent, Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear). (See: Spiritual re-creation.)

Camillo as a significant link

It is always salutary to see where Shakespeare chooses to begin his dramas. The fact that The Winter's Tale begins with Camillo talking to a visiting Bohemian lord proves to be significant:

  • We learn of the friendship between the two kings
  • We hear of the promising young prince Mamillius
  • In Camillo we also meet the man who is to be a link between both kingdoms, and the means of reuniting them.

Camillo as trustworthy and priest-like

When we next meet Camillo (in Act I, sc ii) Leontes reminds him (and us) that Camillo has always been trustworthy. Indeed, Leontes has apparently treated him almost as a father-confessor:

‘I have trusted thee, Camillo,
With all the nearest things to my heart, as well
My chamber-counsels, wherein, priest-like, thou
Hast cleans'd my bosom: I from thee departed
Thy penitent reform'd.'

This, together with Polixenes' later comment that he will ‘respect' Camillo ‘as a father' suggests that Camillo is an older man.

Camillo's unfailing honesty

When Leontes now attacks him as ‘not honest', Camillo displays humility and admits that ‘I may be negligent, foolish and fearful', though he insists that he has never knowingly failed his master, and asks to ‘know my trespass'. Once he understands that Leontes is accusing Hermione of committing adultery, Camillo refuses to accept his master's ideas, and plainly tells Leontes that he is not only mistaken but completely wrong to repeat such an accusation:

'shrew my heart,
You never spoke what did become you less
Than this; which to reiterate were sin
As deep as that, though true.'

He warns Leontes' that this is a ‘diseas'd opinion'.

When Leontes goes on to ask Camillo to kill Polixenes – not only an act of murder, and murder of an anointed king, but an act of gross betrayal as Camillo is acting as Polixenes' cup-bearer – Camillo appears to agree – but only so that he can effect Polixenes' escape. He realises that Leontes is ‘in rebellion with himself' – that is, he has let his passions overrule his reason. (See: The state as a body and Reason and passion.) Camillo appears to the audience as a totally honest man, forced into a situation where he has to disobey his master. His words to Polixenes sum up his honesty:

'Be not uncertain,
For by the honour of my parents, I
Have utter'd truth'.

Camillo in Bohemia

The postponement of personal desire

When we next meet Camillo (in Act IV scene ii) he has been faithfully serving Polixenes in Bohemia for many years. Although he would like to return to Sicilia, and knows that Leontes, who has long been penitent, has sent for him, he agrees to go with Polixenes to follow the absent Prince Florizel.

It is then Camillo who – though he does not know her identity - is responsible for returning Perdita to her father. Camillo suggests a plan for the young couple – that they are to flee to Sicilia, and present themselves at Leontes' court as emissaries from Polixenes.

More on Camillo's plan: There are possibly some inconsistencies in Camillo's plan as Shakespeare relates it: Camillo appears to suggest that Florizel should marry Perdita before they arrive in Sicilia where he will present himself and his ‘fair princess'. However, when they actually arrive (Act V, sc i) Florizel admits that she is not yet his wife.

Character consistency versus plot requirements

In desiring to get Perdita and Florizel back to Sicilia for the reunion, Shakespeare introduces an inconsistent note into Camillo's character: Camillo appears to go behind the back of his master Polixines, but then betrays the young couple to him, in the hope that the king will follow them and then he, Camillo, can also see Sicilia again.

Of course, characters in plays do not have to be any more consistent than real people are, but this particular act by Camillo not only seems treacherous but unnecessary: Camillo could simply disappear with them, without letting Polixenes know where they have gone. However, Shakespeare needs to get all of them to Sicilia if he is to create the reconciliation scene he wants, with all the characters together.

Camillo's part in reunion and harmony.

Camillo's final involvement in the play is to be part of a further symbolic act of reunion and harmony: Leontes suggests that he should marry Paulina,

‘whose worth and honesty is richly noted'.
  • Leontes says that he ‘partly know(s) Camillo's mind' – perhaps we are meant to believe that in one of those confessional moments referred to in Act I, sc ii, Camillo expressed to Leontes his admiration of Paulina.
  • It hardly matters; what we are witnessing is a pairing of two faithful servants – and the fact that some critics believe the words ‘whose worth and honesty is richly noted' refer to Camillo instead of Paulina simply shows us that they are two of a kind.


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