Part I. Greek 6. The Winter's Tale
The winter's tale is a romance. It has no historical basis whatever and none of the events it describes ever occurred; nor are any of its characters to be found in history, however glancingly. Nevertheless, its background lies in the pre-Christian Greek world. I therefore include it among the Greek plays.
It seems to have been one of Shakespeare's latest plays, too, having been written as late as 1611. The only later play for which Shakespeare was solely responsible was The Tempest.
.., the King of Sicilia means to pay Bohemia ...
The play opens with two courtiers exchanging graceful compliments. The scene is set in Sicilia (Sicily) and one of the courtiers, Camillo, is native to the place. The other is a vistor from Bohemia.
The occasion is a state visit paid to Sicily by the King of Bohemia, and there may be a return visit in consequence. Camillo says:
I think this coming summer the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation
which he justly owes him.
- Act I, scene i, lines 5-7
There is a queer reversal here. Shakespeare takes the plot from a romance written in 1588 by the English writer Robert Greene, entitled Pandosto. The Triumph of Time. In Greene's original romance the story opens with a visit of the King of Sicily to Bohemia, rather than the reverse. This reversal is carried all through the play, with the King of Sicily in The Winter's Tale playing the role of the King of Bohemia in Pandosto, and vice versa.
Did Shakespeare make a casual slip of the pen to begin with and then carry it through because he was too lazy to take the trouble to correct it? Or did he have some good reason?-I suspect the latter.
The King who is being visited behaves, in the first portion of the play, as an almost psychotically suspicious tyrant. Should this king be the King of Bohemia, as in Greene, or the King of Sicily, as in Shakespeare?
Suppose we look back into history. In 405 b.c., just ten years after the ill-fated Sicilian expedition of Athens (see page I-140), a general, Dionysius, seized control over Syracuse, the largest and strongest city of Sicily. By 383 b.c. he had united almost the entire island under his rule.
Dionysius is best known for the manner in which he kept himself in power for thirty-eight years in an era when rulers were regularly overthrown by palace coups or popular unrest. He did so by unending suspicion and eternal vigilance. For instance, there is a story that he had a bell-shaped chamber opening into the state prison, with the narrow end connecting to his room. In this way, he could secretly listen to conversations in the prison and learn if any conspiracies were brewing. This has been called the "ear of Dionysius."
He arrested people on mere suspicion and his suspicion was most easily aroused. Naturally, he left the memory of himself behind in most unsavory fashion and though he died in peace, he is remembered as a cruel and suspicious tyrant.
If Shakespeare had to choose between Bohemia and Sicily as a place to be ruled by a tyrant, was it not sensible to choose Sicily?
Of course, King Leontes of Sicily, the character in the play, is not to be equated with Dionysius. The Sicilian tyrant of old may simply have made Sicily seem the more appropriate scene for tyranny, but there all resemblance ends and nothing in the play has any relationship to the life of Dionysius.
Nevertheless, because of this tenuous connection between Leontes and Dionysius, and the fact that Dionysius lived a generation after Timon, I am placing this play immediately after Timon of Athens.
As for Bohemia... Later in the play there will be scenes of idyllic pastoral happiness in the kingdom of the visiting monarch. Shall that other kingdom then be Sicily, as in Greene, or Bohemia, as in Shakespeare?
To be sure, in ancient times Sicily was an agricultural province that served as the granary of early Rome. It might therefore be viewed as an idyllic place in contrast to citified and vice-ridden Rome itself. However, Sicily was also noted for its brutal wars between the Greeks and Carthage and, later, the Romans and Carthage. Still later, it was the scene of horrible slave rebellions.
What of Bohemia by contrast? The Bohemia we know is the westernmost part of modern Czechoslovakia and is no more a pastoral idyll than anywhere else. This Bohemia is inhabited by a Slavic people, in Shakespeare's time as well as in our own, and its origin, as a Slavic nation, dates back to perhaps the eighth century, something like a thousand years after the time of Dionysius.
This discrepancy in time did not bother Greene, or Shakespeare either, and would not bother us in reading the play. However, is it necessarily our
the winter's tale 149
present real-life Bohemia that Shakespeare was thinking of? Was there another?
Shortly after 1400, bands of strange people reached central Europe. They were swarthy-skinned nomads, who spoke a language that was not like any in Europe. Some Europeans thought they came from Egypt and they were called "gypsies" in consequence. (They still are called that in the United States, but their real origin may have been India.)
When the gypsies reached Paris in 1427, the French knew only that they had come from central Europe. There were reports that they had come from Bohemia, and so the French called them Bohemians (and still do).
The gypsy life seemed gay and vagabondish and must have been attractive to those bound to heavy labor or dull routine. The term "Bohemian" therefore came to be applied to artists, writers, show people, and others living an unconventional and apparently vagabondish life. Bohemia came to be an imaginary story land of romance.
Well then, if Shakespeare wanted a land of pastoral innocence and delights, should he pick Sicily or Bohemia? -Bohemia, by all means.
... tremor cordis.. .
The courtiers let the audience know that Leontes of Sicily and Polixenes of Bohemia were childhood friends and have close ties of affection. In the next scene, when the two kings come on stage themselves, this is made perfectly clear.
Polixenes has been away from home for nine months and pressing affairs must take him away. Leontes urges him strenuously to remain, and when Polixenes is adamant, the Sicilian host asks his Queen, Hermione, to join her pleas with his. She does, and after joyful badinage, Polixenes gives in.
Then, quite suddenly, without warning at all, a shadow falls over Leontes. He watches his gay Queen and the friend she is cajoling (at Leontes' own request) and he says in an aside:
Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me...
- Act I, scene ii, lines 108-10
An unnatural physical effect, a palpitation of the heart ("tremor cordis") has come over him. A sickness, an abnormality, makes of the genial host, without real cause, a jealous tyrant.
The sickness grows on itself. He wonders if he has been cuckolded (see page I-108) and is at once convinced he is. He seeks supporting opinion and consults his courtier, Camillo, who listens in horror and recognizes the situation as a mental illness:
Good my lord, be cured
Of this diseased opinion, and betimes,
For 'tis most dangerous.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 296-98
... sighted like the basilisk
Camillo's clear wisdom is greeted by Leontes with a howl of rage. The King makes it clear that if Camillo were a loyal subject he would poison Polixenes. Reluctantly, Camillo agrees to accept the direct order, provided the King will then offer no disgrace to his Queen.
By now, however, Polixenes notes that the warm friendship that had surrounded him but a short time ago has vanished and he is aware of an intensifying frigidity. He meets Camillo and questions him but Camillo can only speak evasively, and still in the metaphor of sickness:
I cannot name the disease; and it is caught
Of you, that yet are well.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 387-88
He is referring, of course, to the insane jealousy of which Polixenes is the unwitting and undeserved cause. Polixenes cannot understand and says:
How caught of me? Make me not sighted
like the basilisk. I have looked on
thousands, who have sped the better
By my regard, but killed none so.
- Act I, scene ii, lines 388-91
Another name for the basilisk is the cockatrice, a word that may have originated as a distortion of crocodile. The medieval European had little contact with crocodiles, though he had heard of them in connection with the distant Nile.
The crocodile, like the serpent, is a deadly reptile. It might almost be viewed as a gigantic, thick snake, with stubby legs. To Europeans, unfamiliar with the crocodile except by distant report, the snaky aspects of the creature could easily become dominant.
Once "cockatrice" is formed from "crocodile," the first syllable becomes suggestive, and the fevered imagination develops the thought that the monster originates in a cock's egg and is a creature with a snake's body and a cock's head.
The cockatrice is pictured as the ultimate snake. It kills not by a bite but merely by a look. Not merely its venom, but its very breath is fatal. Because the cockatrice is the most deadly snake and therefore the king of snakes, or because the cockscomb may be pictured as a crown, the cockatrice came to be called "basilisk" (from Greek words meaning "little king").
Camillo cannot resist Polixenes' pleadings for enlightenment. He advises the Bohemian King to flee at once. Since Camillo is now a traitor, saving the man he was ordered to kill, he must fly also. Together, they leave Sicily.
A sad tale's best.. .
Meanwhile, at the court, Mamilius, Leontes' little son, is having a pleasant time with the ladies in waiting. His mother, Hermione, it now turns out, is rather late in pregnancy. (Polixenes, remember, had been at the Sicilian court for nine months.)
The Queen asks her son for a story, and Mamilius says:
A sad tale's best for winter; I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
- Act II, scene i, lines 25-26
There's the reference that gives the play its title. The play is a sad tale of death-but also of rebirth. For winter does not remain winter always, but is followed by the spring.
... sacred Delphos...
The childish tale is interrupted by the arrival of the King and his courtiers. Leontes has learned of Polixenes' flight with Camillo and that is the last straw. He accuses Hermione of adultery and orders her to prison.
Neither her indignant and reasonable claims to innocence nor the shocked testimony of faith in her on the part of his own courtiers will turn Leontes in the slightest. His tyranny is in full course now.
But he will go this far-he will rely on divine assurance. He says:
/ have dispatched in post
To sacred Delphos, to Apollo's temple,
Cleomenes and Dion ...
- Act II, scene i, lines 182-84
This more than anything else proves the play to be placed in ancient Greek times, when the oracle at Delphi (not Delphos) was in greatest repute.
The oracle, a very ancient one, was located on the Greek mainland about six miles north of the center of the Gulf of Corinth and seventy miles northwest of Athens. Its location was originally called Pytho and it contained a shrine to the earth goddess that was served by a priestess known as the Pythia. This priestess could serve as the medium through which the wishes and wisdom of the gods could be made known.
The oracle, along with the rest of Greece, was inundated by the Dorian invasion that followed after the Trojan War. When Greece began to climb out of the darkness in the eighth century b.c., Pytho had a new name, Delphi, and the nature of the shrine had changed. It served Apollo rather than the earth goddess.
Greek myths were devised to explain the change.
Those myths told that when the Titaness Latona (Leto) was about to give birth to children by Jupiter, the jealous Juno made her life miserable in a variety of ways. She sent a dragon or giant snake, named Python, to pursue her, for instance. Eventually Latona bore twin children, Apollo and Diana. Apollo made his way back to Pytho, where the Python made its home, and killed it. Apollo then took over the shrine itself and gave it its new name (though the priestess remained the Pythia).
For centuries Delphi remained the most important and sacred of all the Greek oracles. It was beautified by gifts made to it by all the Greek cities and many foreign rulers. It served as a treasury in which people and cities kept their money for safekeeping, since no one would dare pollute the sacred shrine by theft.
On the other hand, there is also a place called Delos, a tiny island no larger than Manhattan's Central Park, located in the Aegean Sea about a hundred miles southeast of Athens.
It too is involved with the tale of Latona and her unborn children. Juno, who was persecuting Latona in every way possible, had forbidden any port of the earth on which the sun shone to receive her. Tiny Delos, however, was a floating island which Jupiter covered with waves so that the sun did not shine on it. There Apollo and Diana were born. Thereafter, Delos was fixed to the sea floor and never moved again.
As a result, Delos was as sacred to Apollo as Delphi was, and it was easy to confuse the two. Thus, one could imagine the oracle at Delphi to be located on the island of Delos, and speak of the combination as the "island of Delphos." Greene does this in Pandosto and Shakespeare carelessly follows him.
... Dame Partlet. ..
In prison, Hermione is delivered of her child and it turns out to be a beautiful little girl. Paulina, the wife of the courtier Antigonus, is a bold woman with a sharp tongue. Passionately loyal to Hermione and uncaring for the consequences, she offers to take the child to Leontes in the hope that the sight of the babyish innocence might soften him.
With the child, Paulina forces her way into Leontes' presence. He won't look at the child and cries out impatiently to Antigonus:
Give her the bastard,
Thou dotard, thou art woman-tired, unroosted
By thy Dame Partlet here.
- Act II, scene iii, lines 72-74
This refers to an extremely popular medieval cycle of animal stories, in which human failings are placed in animal guise, a device that dates back to Aesop in the Western tradition. The cycle is known as a whole as "Reynard the Fox," for the fox is the rascal hero (much like Br'er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories).
The tales reached their final form about 1100 and grew so popular that some of the names of the animals entered the common language. Even more familiar than "Reynard" for fox is "Bruin" for bear, for instance.
"Dame Partlet" is the hen and Leontes is saying in angry, insulting tones that Paulina is an old biddy who has henpecked her foolish husband into giving up the roost; that is, the dominating position in the house.
Antigonus can scarcely deny it at that. When Leontes tells him he should be hanged for not quieting his wife, Antigonus says, resignedly:
Hang all the husbands
That cannot do that feat, you'll leave yourself
Hardly one subject.
- Act II, scene iii, lines 108-10
"... of high treason..."
Leontes' madness continues in full course. He orders Antigonus to carry off the baby girl to some desert spot and leave it there to die.
The King then gets news that Cleomenes and Dion, the ambassadors to the Delphos, are returning, and he hastens to prepare a formal trial for the Queen. She is brought out of prison to face her indictment. The officer of the court reads it out:
"Hermione, Queen to the worthy Leontes,
King of Sicilia, thou art here accused and arraigned
of high treason, in committing adultery with
Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and conspiring with
Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign lord the
King, thy royal husband. ..
- Act III, scene ii, lines 12-17
There must have seemed a strange familiarity in this scene to Englishmen, for scarcely three quarters of a century before, not one but two English queens had stood accused of a very similar charge. These were two of the six wives of Henry VIII (who had died in 1547, seventeen years before Shakespeare's birth). One was Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, tried for adultery in 1536, and the other was Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, tried for adultery in 1542. Both were convicted and beheaded, the former at the age of twenty-nine and the latter at the age of about twenty-two.
The Emperor of Russia...
Again Hermione defends herself with dignity and sincerity, carrying conviction to all but the insane Leontes. While she waits for the word of the oracle, she says:
The Emperor of Russia was my father.
Oh that he were alive, and here beholding
His daughter's trial!
- Act III, scene ii, lines 117-19
Russia was not, of course, in existence in the time when Sicily was under Greek domination. The Russian people first swam into the light of history in the ninth century when Viking adventurers from Sweden took over the rule of the land and established a loose congeries of principalities under the vague overlordship of Kiev. This "Kievan Russia" was destroyed in 1240 by the Mongol invasion.
A century before Shakespeare's birth, however, Russia was beginning to emerge from the Mongol night. In 1462 Ivan III ("the Great") became Grand Prince of Muscovy. He managed to annex the lands of Novgorod, a northern city, which controlled the sparsely settled lands up to the Arctic Ocean. This first gave Muscovy a broad realm, larger in terms of area than that of any other nation in Europe. With that, Muscovy became Russia.
In 1472 Ivan married the heir to the recently defunct Byzantine Empire and laid claim to the title of Emperor.
His successors, Basil III and Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), continued the policy of expansion. Ivan IV, who reigned from 1533 to 1584 (through Shakespeare's youth, in other words), defeated the remnant of the Mongols and extended the Russian realm to the Caspian Sea.
Not only did Ivan the Terrible's victories put Russia "on the map," but during his reign England gained personal knowledge of the land. In 1553 an English trade mission under Richard Chancellor reached Ivan's court, so that Shakespeare's reference to "The Emperor of Russia" was rather topical.
"Hermione is chaste ..."
Cleomenes and Dion now bring in the sealed message from Delphos. It is opened and read. It states:
"Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless,
Camillo a true sub ject, Leontes a jealous tyrant,
his innocent babe truly begot ten, and the
King shall live without an heir,
if that which is lost be not found"
- Act III, scene ii, lines 130-33
This is clear, straightforward, and dramatic-and lacks all resemblance to the kind of oracles actually handed out by the real Delphi. In fiction, oracles may interpret present and foretell future with faultless vision; in actual fact, they can do nothing of the sort.
The real oracle at Delphi was extremely practiced at giving out ambiguous statements that could be interpreted as correct no matter what the eventuality. The most famous example of this (though by no means the only one) took place in 546 b.c. when Croesus of Lydia, in western Asia Minor, was considering a preventive attack on the growing Persian kingdom to the east of the Halys River, Lydia's boundary.
Croesus consulted the oracle at Delphi, of which he was one of the most munificent patrons. He was told: "When Croesus passes over the river Halys, he will overthrow the strength of an empire."
Croesus attacked at once, and realized too late that the oracle was carefully phrased so as to remain true whether he won or lost. He lost and it was his own realm that was overthrown. It is for reasons such as this that "Delphic" and "oracular" have come to mean "evasive," "ambiguous," "double-meaning."
And still Leontes does not give in. Like Pharaoh in the Bible, his heart hardens with each new thrust and he dismisses the statement of the oracle as falsehood.
But at this very moment a servant rushes in to say that Leontes' young son, Mamilius, ill since his mother was arrested, has died. At the news, Hermione faints and Paulina declares she is dying.
The King is stricken. The death of his son at the instant of his blasphemy against Apollo punishes that blasphemy and demonstrates the truth of the oracle ("the King shall live without an heir") simultaneously.
As suddenly as the disease of jealousy had seized upon him, it leaves him. In one moment, he is sane again, and cries out in heartbreak:
My great profaneness 'gainst thine oracle.
- Act III, scene ii, lines 150-51
He is anxious now to undo all he has done, but he cannot bring Mamilius back to life, he cannot unkill the Queen, he cannot find the child he has ordered exposed. He is doomed to live in endless remorse until "that which is lost" be found.
He can only bow his racked body before the harsh and indignant vituperation of Paulina.
... The deserts of Bohemia
But what of Antigonus and the little baby girl he had been ordered to expose?
In Pandosto the child is given to sailors by the Bohemian King. These take her to the sea and expose her in a boat during a storm. The boat, carrying the child, is carried to the seacoast of Sicily.
But Shakespeare has reversed the kingdoms. It is the Sicilian King, Leontes, who hands out the girl to be exposed. If the reversal is to continue, the ship must land on the seacoast of Bohemia, rather than that of Sicily, and so it does. Act III, scene iii has its scene set on "Bohemia, the seacoast."
The trouble with this is that while Sicily has a seacoast on every side, Bohemia-the real Bohemia-both in our day and in Shakespeare's is an inland realm and has no seacoast. It is, in fact, two hundred miles from the closest seacoast, at Trieste (nowadays part of Italy).
Shakespeare must have known this, of course, but what difference does it make, when Bohemia is not a real land at all, but is the Bohemia of idyll, and may have a seacoast just as well as it may have anything else?
Of course, if we want to be literal, there was a time when the real Bohemia had a seacoast. It was at the height of its power under the reign of Ottokar II ("the Great"), who ruled from 1253 to 1278. In 1269, at a time when the Holy Roman Empire was going through a period of weakness, Ottokar conquered what is now Austria and ruled over an enlarged Bohemia that stretched over much of central Europe, right down to the head of the Adriatic Sea. For four years, then (before the Holy Roman Empire regained these lost lands), and four years only, from 1269 to 1273, Bohemia had a seacoast in the neighborhood of modern Trieste.
The ship carrying Antigonus and the baby reaches land and Antigonus says to the sailors:
Thou art perfect then our ship hath touched upon
The deserts of Bohemia?
- Act III, scene iii, lines 1-2
By "deserts" Antigonus merely means an unoccupied region. If we are not contented with Bohemia as an imaginary kingdom but insist on the real one, we can pretend that Bohemia has its mid-thirteenth-century boundaries and that the ship has landed near Trieste. This is not bad. It would mean that Antigonus traveled from Sicily, through the length of the Adriatic Sea, a distance of some seven hundred miles.
Antigonus has seen Hermione in a dream and she has bidden him name the little girl Perdita ("the lost one"). He puts the baby down together with identifying materials, in case she should happen to be found and brought up. But even as he makes his way back to the ship, he encounters a bear and there follows the most unusual direction in Shakespeare's plays, for it reads "Exit, pursued by a bear."
... things new born
As Antigonus leaves, an old Shepherd and then his son come on the scene. The son is referred to in the cast of characters as "Clown," but in its original meaning of "country bumpkin."
The Clown has seen the ship destroyed by a storm and Antigonus eaten by the bear, but the Shepherd has found Perdita and says to his son:
Now bless thyself; thou met'st with things dying,
I with things new bom.
- Act III, scene iii, lines 112-13
It is the turning point of the play. Until now, the theme of the play has been a kind of dying, as Leontes went insane and drove person after person into flight, exile, or death. But the winter's tale is over and the spring begins, for Perdita the pretty child will not die. She has been found by the Bohemian shepherds and she will live.
... slide o'er sixteen years...
There comes a huge lapse of time between Act III and Act IV. The lapse is necessary and also occurs in Pandosto, which has as its secondary title The Triumph of Time.
This is a particularly radical violation of the "unities." There were three of these, according to the prescription in Aristotle's Poetics. There was the unity of time, since the entire action of a play should take no more than twenty-four hours; of place, since the entire action should be in one place; and action, since every incident in the play should contribute to the plot and there should be no irrelevancies.
These classical unities were taken up by the French dramatists of the seventeenth century, when France was the cultural leader of Europe.
Shakespeare could adhere to the unities if he chose (he did so, almost entirely, in The Comedy of Errors) but he felt no compulsion about it. His plays veered widely from place to place and covered events that took up the course of years. His plays had plots and subplots and occasional total irrelevancies. For this, he was sneered at by the classicists, who considered his plays to be crude, formless, and barbaric, though not without a kind of primitive vigor.
We don't think so at all nowadays. The observance of the unities can go along with great power in the hand of a genius. (No one can fault Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, which observes them rigorously.) On the other hand, in the hand of anyone less than a genius, the unities almost force tedium on a play, as they make it necessary to report action at an earlier time and a different place entirely through reports, so that all the play consists of one character explaining to another (for the benefit of the audience) what has happened or what is happening.
Shakespeare let time and place flash across the stage and by piling scene upon scene with spatial and temporal jumps lent his plays such a whirlwind speed that an audience could not help but be enraptured with action that never stopped and never allowed them to catch their breath.
Yet even Shakespeare must have felt that at this point in The Winter's Tale he might be going a little too far. (He had done much the same in Pericles, see page I-195, which he had written a year or two earlier.) He brings in Time as a kind of chorus, opening the Fourth Act, explaining the lapse of time and apologizing for it too:
Impute it not a crime
To me, or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years...
- Act IV, scene i, lines 4-6
... Florizel I now name to you. ..
Time mentions one specific involved in the passing of years-the existence of a son of Polixenes. He had been casually mentioned early in the play, but he is now named for the first time. Time says:
I mentioned a son o'th'King's, which Florizel
I now name to you...
- Act IV, scene i, lines 22-23
We can suspect, if we have the slightest experience with romances, that Florizel will fall in love with the grown-up Perdita, so that a king's son will woo a girl who is (to all appearances) a shepherd's daughter.
This happens, of course, and "Florizel" became the epitome of the "Prince Charming," the handsome man who comes to sweep the poverty-stricken young girl out of her cottage and into the palace. Heaven only knows how many marriages have been ruined because real life could not fulfill the dreams of romance-fed girls.
To at least one actual woman there was a kind of literal fulfillment. In the early 1780s an actress named Mary Robinson was wooed by a rather dissipated young man, who called her Perdita and himself Florizel in the letters he sent her. He happened to be the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King George III of England. He later became Prince Regent during his father's madness and King George IV in 1820 upon his father's death.
He never married Miss Robinson, of course, and he was a poor excuse for a Florizel anyway, except for his rank, as he became fatter, grosser, and more dissipated with each successive year. He was a most unlovable man and very unpopular with his subjects.
... named me Autolycus...
But we are in mythical Bohemia now, where Polixenes, grown older, is as virtuous as he ever was and still cherishes the good Camillo. Camillo longs to see Sicily again, for the repentant Leontes calls for him. Polixenes will not release him, however, and suggests instead that they find out why Prince Florizel haunts a certain shepherd's cottage.
But Bohemia contains more than virtue. Striding onstage is a peddler, singing happily. He makes his living by being a petty thief and confidence man. He says:
My father named me
Autolycus, who being, as I am, littered under
Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.
- Act IV, scene iii, lines 24-26
Mercury (Hermes) was the god of thieves. It was appropriate, therefore, that there be myths involving a description of the clever thefts carried through by the god.
Thus, almost immediately after he was born, Mercury killed a tortoise, made the first lyre out of it, and used that to sing a lullaby that put his mother, the nymph Maia, to sleep. Freed of her supervision he went out into the world, found a herd of fifty cattle belonging to Apollo, and stole them, placing improvised shoes on their feet to confuse the tracks and forcing them to walk backward to make them seem to have gone in the opposite direction.
The furious Apollo found them at last and saw through Mercury's defense of being an innocent babe. Mercury could only placate him by giving Apollo the lyre.
Mercury, incidentally, was the patron god not only of thieves but of merchants as well, which indicates the rather mixed opinion that the ancients had of merchants-possibly with some justice.
A son of Mercury was Autolycus, who, like his father, was a master thief. He could steal cattle undetectably and helped himself to the herds of Sisyphus. As Sisyphus watched his herds melt away, he found himself suspecting Autolycus without being able to obtain proof. He therefore made markings on the soles of his cattle's hoofs and eventually found Autolycus in possession of cattle on whose hoofs were marked "Stolen from Sisyphus."
Autolycus' daughter married Laertes of Ithaca and their son was none other than Ulysses (see page I-92), who was the epitome of all that was shrewd and clever.
The peddler Autolycus in the play glories in his name and what that signifies and has a chance to demonstrate it at once. The Clown comes along, on his way to buy things for the great sheepshearing festival that is about to take place. Autolycus promptly pretends to have been robbed and beaten by a rogue, and the kindly Clown, helping him, has his pocket picked as a reward.
... but Flora
Back at the shepherd's cottage, Perdita, now a beautiful girl of sixteen, is the mistress of the feast and is dressed accordingly. Prince Florizel, overcome by her beauty, says to her:
These your unusual weeds to each part of you
Do give a life; no shepherdess, but Flora,
Peering in April's front.
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 1-3
Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers and the spring. Her festival was celebrated at the end of April and the beginning of May.
... the green Neptune
But Perdita is very nervous. Florizel stumbled upon her father's house when pursuing an escaped falcon and has fallen in love with her. Now he is attending the feast dressed as a shepherd and calling himself Doricles. Perdita fears his father the King will find him out and be furious. But Florizel says that even the gods stooped to low appearances for love:
Became a bull, and bellowed; the green Neptune
A ram, and bleated; and the fire-robed god,
Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain,
As I seem now.
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 27-31
Jupiter (Zeus) fell in love with Europa, a princess of Phoenicia. To win her, he turned himself into a snow-white bull and joined the Tyrian herd. Europa saw the new bull and was fascinated by it. It proved so gentle, she climbed on its shoulders at last, whereupon it ambled to the sea, plunged in, and swam westward. It arrived at Crete (a tidy swim of 550 miles) and there he eventually had three sons by her.
As for Neptune (Poseidon), called "green" because he was god of the sea, he loved Theophane. To steal her away from her other suitors, he turned her into a ewe and himself into a ram. Their offspring was a golden ram which, after death, yielded the famous Golden Fleece for which Jason adventured.
Apollo (called "fire-robed" and "golden" because he was god of the sun) had once offended Jupiter by killing the Cyclops, who forged the lightning which served as Jupiter's spears. Apollo was condemned to serve a Thessalian king, Admetus, as shepherd for punishment. Admetus treated the temporarily demoted god with every consideration, and in return, Apollo, still in shepherd's disguise, helped Admetus accomplish certain difficult tasks required for the winning of the beautiful Alcestis.
... Dis's wagon
Perdita's fears are well based, for Polixenes and Camillo do indeed come to the sheepshearing festival to spy on Florizel/Doricles' doings. They are greeted warmly by the unsuspecting Perdita in her role as hostess, and appropriate flowers are handed out. Perdita bemoans the lack of spring flowers that she might give the young ladies and says:
For the flow'rs now, that, frighted, thou let'st fall
From Dis's wagon.
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 116-18
Dis (Hades) had abducted Proserpina while she was picking flowers in the fields of central Sicily (see page I-7). She dropped those flowers as she was carried, shrieking, into the underworld.
... Cytherea's breath
Perdita describes some of these flowers, saying, for instance:
... violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath;
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 120-22
Cytherea is an alternate name for Venus (Aphrodite). It comes from the island of Cythera off the southeast tip of the Greek mainland. On that island, as in Paphos (see page I-15), Venus had a well-known temple. Some versions of Venus' birth state that she rose from the sea, and, of course, some place the point of the rising near Paphos and some near Cythera.
... a tawdry-lace ...
The disguised Polixenes and Camillo can't help but be taken by the pretty and sweet Perdita. The shepherds and shepherdesses dance; gaiety expands; and suddenly Autolycus appears at the door as a singing peddler and ballad seller.
The Clown, who is in love with Mopsa, a shepherdess, wants to buy her something, but he has reneged on previous promises and Mopsa says to him impatiently:
Come, you promised me a tawdry-lace,
and a pair of sweet gloves.
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 250-51
The expression "tawdry-lace" has a rather complicated background. It dates back to Anglo-Saxon England, much of which in the seventh century was still pagan. Egfrith, King of Northumbria, had a wife named Etheldreda, who listened with interest to Christian missionaries. She became a nun and established a religious community on land in her father's kingdom of East Anglia, becoming its first abbess in 673.
Etheldreda was eventually sainted and her name day, October 17, was celebrated at the site of the convent with a large fair, which drew crowds of the peasantry. With time, the Anglo-Saxon name of the saint was shortened to Audrey, so that it was the Fair of Saint Audrey that was celebrated.
At these fairs there was a brisk sale of souvenirs (as in modern fairs), and, in particular, cheap jewelry and showy lace could be bought-nothing really valuable, but strong on garish colors and elaborate frills. By further slurring the name of Saint Audrey, one came to speak of "tawdry lace," for instance, in connection with a cheap and showy specimen of that material. As a consequence, "tawdry" has now come to refer to anything of low quality that is cheap and tasteless.
... than Deucalion...
Ballads are talked of and a dance of satyrs is presented. It is all pas-torally delightful, but Polixenes and Camillo, still in disguise, grow less and less happy. They encourage the disguised Florizel (who does not recognize them) to tell his love. He does so, in complete abandon, and is willing to pledge betrothal to Perdita on the spot, and before witnesses, a deed that is equivalent to marriage.
Polixenes asks Florizel if he has a father who might attend the wedding. Florizel admits he has but says flatly that his father must remain ignorant of this. At that, Polixenes, in a passion, strips off his disguise. He threatens the Shepherd with death, and Perdita with mutilation to mar her beauty. He says further that if his son ever as much as thinks of Perdita again-
... we'll bar thee from succession;
Not hold thee of our blood, no not our kin,
Farre [farther] than Deucalion off.
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 433-35
Deucalion was a legendary ruler of southern Thessaly, and might be termed the Greek Noah. Zeus had sent a great flood over the earth to wipe out the human race, but Deucalion (warned by his father, the Titan Prometheus) built an ark in which he and his wife, Pyrrha, rode out the flood, coming to rest on Mount Parnassus after it was over.
They then prayed that mankind might be renewed and were told by a divine voice to turn their heads away and throw the bones of their mother behind them. The two reasoned that Mother Earth was meant. Turning their heads away they threw stones over their shoulder. The stones Deucalion threw became men and those Pyrrha threw women.
In this way the race of men and women could trace their descent to Deucalion and Pyrrha, and all men were related to at least the extent of being common descendants of Deucalion-except that Polixenes was going to deny Florizel even that much if he disobeyed.
... make for Sicilia
Polixenes leaves, but Florizel is not disturbed. He intends to marry Per-dita even if it means losing his kingdom. Camillo, much impressed by Perdita and longing to see his own country, now plans to do for Florizel what sixteen years before he had done for Florizel's father-help him escape and go with him. Florizel has prepared a ship for the escape and Camillo says, earnestly:
... make for Sicilia,
And there present yourself and your fair princess
(For so I see she must be) 'fore Leontes.
- Act IV, scene iv, lines 547-49
To get Florizel as far as the ship, Camillo disguises him in different fashion by making him change clothes with Autolycus, who now comes on the scene glorying in the success of his ballad selling and pocket picking.
The Shepherd and his son, the Clown, having been threatened with death by the King, are meanwhile in a state of abject terror. The Clown urges his father to reveal the fact that Perdita is not really a relative by showing the relics that had been found with her. In this way, the Shepherd and the Clown, proving not to be related to the real criminal in this matter of the enchantment of the prince, might escape punishment.
Autolycus overhears this and (in Florizel's clothes) pretends he is a courtier and easily cons the poor bumpkins into coming with him. He decides to bring them to Florizel on a gamble that this may bring him advancement.
Great Alexander ...
For the last act the scene shifts back to Sicily, where Leontes' life is one long, wretched repentance. His courtiers are urging him to marry again, for the land is without an heir and the perils of civil war loom.
Paulina, however, the wife of old Antigonus, who had been eaten by a bear, is against it. The oracle from "Delphos" had predicted that the King would remain without an heir till "that which is lost" be found. Paulina considers this to mean the long-ago-exposed girl. She says to Leontes:
Care not for issue,
The crown will find an heir. Great Alexander
Left his to th'worthiest: so his successor
Was like to be the best.
- Act V, scene i, lines 46-49
Actually, this was a poor analogy. When Alexander the Great died suddenly in 323 b.c. (about two generations after the time of Dionysius of Syracuse, at which time I have arbitrarily placed the action of this play) at the age of thirty-three, he left behind a termagant mother, a foreign wife, a mentally retarded half brother, a half sister, and an unborn child. Not one could serve as a successor and the natural choice would therefore have rested among the very capable generals who had been trained by Alexander and his father, Philip.
Alexander might have chosen any one of the generals and his dying vote might have fixed that general in the throne and brought about the consolidation of the new and gigantic Macedonian Empire, changing the history of the world. Unfortunately, Alexander (for whatever reason) is supposed to have said, with his last breath, "To the strongest" when asked to whom he left his Empire.
If there had been a strongest, that would have been well, but there wasn't. No one general was strong enough to defeat and dominate all the rest. The result was that for thirty years a civil war raged among the generals. At the end, Alexander's Empire was worn out and fragmented. The fragments continued to war against each other with the result that within three centuries of Alexander's death, the eastern half of his Empire was retaken by native tribes and the western half was taken by Rome.
Surely this is not the fate for Sicily that Paulina was urging on Leontes.
In fact, she has other plans. She urges Leontes to vow never to marry anyone not chosen by herself. Leontes, who can never punish himself sufficiently, agrees.
... from Libya
Florizel is now introduced, arriving in Sicily with Perdita. Leontes greets the young man tearfully and inquires, with wonder, of the beautiful Perdita. Florizel, attempting to mask the truth as deeply as possible, says:
Good my lord,
She came from Libya.
- Act V, scene i, lines 156-57
Libya was the name given by the ancient Greeks to the entire north African coast west of Egypt. The two chief cities of Libya in the time of Dionysius of Syracuse were Cyrene, a Greek city five hundred miles to the southeast of Sicily, and Carthage, a non-Greek city, a hundred miles to the southwest.
... Julio Romano...
Events hasten now. Even while Florizel is embroidering his lie by making Perdita the daughter of a Libyan king, news arrives that Polixenes and Camillo are in Sicily. Polixenes sends a message demanding the arrest of Florizel.
However, the audience need not be alarmed. It is at once revealed that the Shepherd and the Clown are also in Sicily and they can reveal the truth of Perdita's identity.
What happens next is offstage. We would think that there should be a grand reconciliation scene as Perdita is shown to be Leontes' daughter, and there is, but not onstage. We learn of it only through a discussion among three Gentlemen.
This is odd and we might speculate that in the original form of the play the recognition and restoration of Perdita was the climax. Perhaps this ending turned out to be weak-after all, a very similar climax had been used only a year or two before by Shakespeare in Pericles (see page I-199). Pressure might have been applied to Shakespeare to make some alteration in that ending.
As a result, Shakespeare thrust Perdita's recognition offstage and prepared an even more dramatic scene involving Queen Hermione.
Paulina had reported her dead in Act III, and there has been no hint since that the report was wrong. Indeed, at the end of Act III, when An-tigonus is taking the little baby girl off to exposure, he dreams that Hermione's ghost appears to him, and this would make it seem that Shakespeare really did consider her dead.
Shakespeare, in his revision (assuming there was one), did not trouble to go back and put in some indication of Hermione's remaining alive, nor does he expunge the reference to the ghost, which is useful in explaining the name "Perdita."
Instead, he begins at this late date in the fifth act to start preparing the audience. The Third Gentleman mentions, for the first time, a statue:
... the Princess, hearing of her mother's statue,
which is in the keeping of Paulina-a piece many years
in doing and now newly performed
by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano ...
- Act V, scene ii, lines 101-5
Julio Romano was a real Italian artist, known for his painting rather than for his sculpture, who had died in 1546, a little over half a century before The Winter's Tale was written. This is a startling anachronism, of course.
The Second Gentleman adds another vital item in the new build-up. Concerning Paulina, he says:
she hath privately, twice or thrice a day,
ever since the death of Hermione,
visited that removed house.
- Act V, scene ii, lines 113-15
Of course, the statue turns out to be the living Hermione after all. Why she has been kept from the so repentant King for sixteen years and been condemned to a life of solitary imprisonment; why Paulina has undertaken the backbreaking task of feeding and caring for her and keeping the secret; why the King has not had curiosity to see the progress of the statue during all the "many years" in which it was being made-these points are not explained. All this lack of explanation lends substance to the theory that the last half of the fifth act is a new ending, patched on imperfectly.
There is the final reconciliation scene and all ends in happiness. Paulina (who has now learned of her husband's death) marries Camillo, and even the Shepherd and the Clown now find themselves enriched, so that Au-tolycus, swearing to reform, is taken under their protection.
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