Polixenes as a parallel with Leontes

Early in the play Polixenes becomes the victim of tyranny; later he becomes tyrannical himself. Having escaped Leontes' threats against his life with the help of Camillo (in Act I, sc ii), we see him uttering threats of torture and death in IV. iv. Both Leontes and Polixenes have to learn not to misuse the power which their position as king gives them.

Polixenes as Leontes' friend

The long-standing friendship between Polixenes and Leontes is stressed in the opening scenes of the play. Camillo tells Archidamus that:

‘Sicilia [Leontes] cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia [Polixenes].

They were trained together in their childhoods and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now.'

Polixenes himself reinforces this idea a little later, when he comments that they

‘were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun'.

In adult life, they have much in common: each is a king, and each has a son whom he dearly loves.

Polixenes in Bohemia – parallels with Act I

Once he has escaped from Sicilia in Act I, sc ii, we do not meet Polixenes again until Act IV, sc ii, immediately following the appearance of Time to tell us that sixteen years have passed:

  • Just as in the first scenes of the play, there is a discussion about going home: in Act I, sc ii Leontes and Hermione were trying to persuade Polixenes to stay. Now it is Polixenes who tries to persuade Camillo
  • Polixenes himself sees a different parallel; Prince Florizel's absences from the court remind Polixenes of Leontes' loss of his son:
‘Kings are no less unhappy, their issue not being gracious, than they are in losing them when they have approved their virtues.'
  • But there is yet another parallel which Polixenes does not appear to notice: just as Leontes has grown suspicious of betrayal, so now we learn that Polixenes has spies watching his son:
‘I have eyes under my service which look upon his removedness; from whom I have this intelligence, that he is seldom from the house of a most homely shepherd.'
  • In going himself with Camillo to spy on his son, Polixenes also decides to go in disguise – ‘not appearing what we are'.
  • Although when he meets Perdita he admires her, Polixenes' reaction to her betrothal to his son shows us a tyrannical and violent side of his nature that reminds us of Leontes' jealous rages:
‘Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft …
I'll have they beauty scratch'd with briers …
If ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open …
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to't.'

Polixenes' part in the last scene

After his threats to Florizel, Perdita and the shepherds in Act IV, sc iv, we do not see Polixenes again until after the revelations have been made about Perdita's true identity. Shakespeare does not show us whether or not Polixenes regrets his actions, concentrating instead on Leontes' redemption and on Hermione's ‘resurrection'.

We do, however, briefly see a different Polixenes, who tries to relieve Leontes' remorse by taking the blame upon himself – although we as audience, and indeed Leontes himself, know that Polixenes is blameless as far as Leontes' jealousy is concerned. Seeing Leontes' grief in front of Hermione's ‘statue' and in the face of Perdita's sadness, Polixenes tells him:

‘Dear my brother,
Let him that was the cause of this have power
To take off so much grief from you as he
Will piece up in himself.'

His calling Leontes ‘brother' reminds us of their friendship at the start of the play, and helps to achieve the sense of regeneration and renewal which permeates this last scene.

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