Sin and innocence

The innocence of children

In The Winter's Tale, children are seen as essentially innocent and uncorrupted:

  • In Act I, sc ii when Polixenes recalls his childhood with Leontes, he speaks of them as sinless except for original sin – the human guilt inherited from Adam and Eve:
‘What we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence: we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did. Had we pursu'd that life …
 … we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty', the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours.'
  • When Paulina takes the new-born baby from the prison where Hermione is held, she tells the gaoler,
‘The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades, when speaking fails.'

Shakespeare's audience would have caught the association here with the way in which the innocent Jesus stood silently before his accusers prior to his execution Luke 23:8-9, John 19:8-10

  • When she sweeps aside a Lord on her way to confront Leontes with his own child, it is the baby's innocence that she stresses – ‘a gracious innocent soul'
  • Antigonus is prepared to ‘pawn the little blood that (he) has left / To save the innocent.'
  • In court Hermione stresses her baby's guiltlessness, as well as her own: ‘The innocent milk in it most innocent mouth.'

Sin and childlessness

Leontes' sinfulness is both punished and symbolised by the permanent loss of his elder child, Mamillius and the loss for many years of the younger. Once he has prepared for the regeneration of his soul through penitence, then his forgiveness is symbolised by the restoration of not only his wife but also of his child.

See also - Natural and unnatural development in The Winter's Tale:

Birth and growth Children Sin and innocence Parents and children Time
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