The Winter’s Tale

Length: 1391 words

It has been said that The Winter’s Tale falls into two distinct halves. What relationships, if any, can you see between the two parts of the play? In your answer you should:

* Make detailed reference to the structure of the play, its language, tone and characterisation.

* Relate the idea expressed in the question to your own judgement of the unity in the play, acknowledging that there may be different interpretations possible.

* Show understanding of the genre of tragicomedy and the structure and tone of Shakespeare’s last plays.

There are two clear parts to The Winter’s Tale, separated by the passage of Time. The settings in the two halves are very different and different characters drive the plot, for example, in the first half, the action takes place in the court whereas in the second half the scenes are pastoral. However, there are many strong links between the two parts. The themes of forgiveness and regeneration through the innocence and youth of the two kings’ children link the misery and wrongs of the first half to the joy at the end, and behaviour is paralleled in the two parts, such as the kings’ irrationality.

The structure of the play plays an important part in the distinction of the two halves as clearly one era ends, sixteen years pass, and the next begins in a new place. Through time’s personification in Act IV, Scene 1, the audience is informed that sixteen years have passed. Already there are links as in his speech, Time says, ‘I that please some, try all; both joy and terror/ Of good and bad; that makes and unfolds error/ Now take upon me, in the name of Time, / To use my wings.’ Here Time foretells the restoration and righting of wrongs of the second half of the play and the healing powers of time are implied.

The tone of the beginning of the second half provides a striking contrast to that of the end of the first half. The first half ends with Antigonus ominously saying that he ‘never saw/ The heavens so dim by day. – A savage clamour’, which precedes the apparent death of Antigonus, pursued by a bear and Perdita left to face the elements. The exit of Antigonus, pursued by a bear, could be interpreted as comic rather than tragic, however whichever interpretation is chosen, it marks the change in tone. The stage direction exit pursued by a bear, with its ambiguity, could be said to embody to concept of a tragic-comedy as it could induce either laughter or sorrow as it draws the tragic part of the play to a close, for the comedy to commence.

By its crudest definition, as was once said, a tragic-comedy is ‘half a tragedy and half a comedy.’ The Winter’s Tale seems to conform to this simple explanation as the first half, with the deaths of Hermione and Mammillius, is tragic, and the second half with the foolery of the Clown and Autolycus, is comic. The Winter’s Tale along with the other three of the last four plays written by Shakespeare, cannot be easily classified into a genre. It has been labelled a ‘tragi-comedy’ because of the happy conclusion following the ruin of family unity and the underlying themes of repentance and forgiveness.

Just before the passage of time, the Shepherd and Clown are introduced when they find Perdita and the contrast of the two halves of the play is summed up by the simple Clown, when he says to his father, ‘-thou met’st with things dying, I with things new born’. Once again, the regeneration of what is to come of foretold. The fact that Perdita survives the elements she is exposed to shows her strength and that, as a helpless child, she is not threatened by natural dangers. In this play, apart from the death of Antigonus and the shipwreck, it is human behaviour that damages and kills, and the young, like Perdita and Florizel who revive and restore.

There is a strong parallel between the behaviour of the two kings in the two halves of the play, with Leontes’ rage and jealousy in the first half and Polixenes’ irrationality and unfairness concerning Florizel’s love for Perdita. Polixenes, having been a target and supposed cause of Leontes fury shows similar a trait to his childhood friend. When he confirms his suspicions that his son is courting the lowly Shepherds daughter, Perdita, he says, ‘If I may ever know thou dost but sigh/ That thou no more shalt see this knack – as never/ I mean thou shalt – we’ll bar thee from succession;/ Not hold thee of our blood, no, not our kin/ Far than Deucalion off.’ He is willing to disown his son and heir for loving Perdita for her virtues, rather than her status. As well as the character of Polixenes offering a parallel to Leontes in his regretful behaviour, his actions help to propel the plot. This is as his objection leads Perdita and Florizel to Leontes, resulting in the revelation that Perdita is Leontes’ ‘lost child’, and the restoration of the kings’ friendship.

The restoration of the second half of the play culminates in the revelation that Hermione is in fact alive, correcting the ultimate sin committed in the first half. Leontes comments on the realistic appearance of the statue and wonders why she looks as though she has aged. Polixenes argues that the statue of Hermione does not seem so aged and Leontes is astounded at the appearance of the statue, saying, ‘Even with such life of majesty’ and ‘There’s magic in thy majesty”. Hermione having waited patiently for sixteen years for time to put right Leontes’ wrongs seems to have been favoured by time as she has been allowed to age gracefully. Realising she was powerless against her husband’s rage she had said, ‘I must be patient till the heavens look / With an aspect more favourable’ and though it took sixteen years her innocence was recognized.

Though unheard of in the pastoral scenes of the play, Hermione’s resurrection at the end of the play links to her death in the first part. Her apparent death was caused by the irrationality of her husband and she is brought back to life, only when he has grieved and repented. He has paid for his mistrust with sixteen years of guilt, he says, ‘Killed!/ She I killed! I did so; but thou strik’st me/ Sorely to say I did.’ The end of the play comprises the reunification of Leontes with Hermione and both with Perdita, with the restoration of the friendship between the two kings. Perdita and Florizel, as two young lovers, break down the barriers between the kings and give hope with their innocence.

The play begins with scenes of peaceful family unity, as does the second half of the play where we see Perdita happy with the Shepherd and Clown, and Florizel in the idyllic pastoral setting of rural Bohemia. Families link the two settings, Sicilia and Bohemia, as Leontes’ daughter lives in Bohemia and it is through her relationship with Florizel that she is reunited with her real parents. Perdita is seen in the play as the only woman who can equal Hermione’s virtues, as ‘there is none worthy,/ Respecting her that’s gone.’ Her beauty and grace appear above her apparently humble breeding not surprisingly knowing, as the audience would, her royal origin. She reminds Leontes of his wife and the play ends when she is reunited with her mother who had ‘preserved [herself]/ To see the issue.’

In The Winter’s Tale, it is true that there are two very distinct halves, the play being split with a passage of sixteen years. The two halves are however inextricably linked though one is tragic and the other comic. Characters are paralleled and the existence of Perdita links the two settings, but it is the theme of forgiveness and restoration that relates the happy end of the play with the tragic end of the first part. Leontes has repented, Hermione is resurrected, the ‘lost child’ is found and the kings’ lifelong friendship is restored. Even Camillo who left Sicilia to escape Leontes’ wrath wishes to return to die peacefully. All is at rest and above all, the wrongs of the first part of the play are righted.

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