Leontes, the king of Sicilia, has kept Polixines, the king of Bohemia and his best friend, as a guest for the better part of nine months.
When Polixines tells Leontes that he must leave to return to his kingdom Leontes asks his very pregnant wife Hermione to convince Polixines to stay a bit longer. Hermione succeeds at convincing Polixines when Leontes's request went unheeded.
Leontes decides that the fact that Hermione convinced Polixines to stay is proof that his wife has been carrying on an affair with his best friend. Leontes's irrational jealousy causes him to try and assassinate his best friend and imprison his wife. Hermione bears their daughter while imprisoned but Leontes refuses to acknowledge paternity. Leontes orders his servant to take the child to the shore and let it be at the mercy of fate.
Despite everyone in the kingdom telling Leontes that he is wrong about his wife he refuses to hear reason. When the oracle of Apollo tells Leontes that he is wrong about his wife having an affair he still refuses to listen. As a result of ignoring the words of the Oracle, Leontes's son dies and Hermione also apparently dies.
Leontes finally comes to his senses and realizes what a terrible thing he has done. Leontes repents his jealousy and the ensuing destruction he has caused.
But Leontes is redeemed at the end when, sixteen years later, he reconnects with his long lost daughter, who was adopted by a shepherd. Leontes also reconnects with his wife Hermione, who had not died. At the end Leontes is reunited with wife and daughter. Perdita, the princess, marries the son of Polixines, reuniting old friendships and restoring relationships between the two kingdoms and uniting their households.
The Winter's Tale begins with the story of the jealousy of Leontes over the supposed cuckoldry he suspects between his wife and his best friend.
Leontes is asking his wife to convince his friend to stay at least another week. When his wife succeeds at convincing Polixines almost immediately Leontes jumps to the conclusion that his wife must be having an affair with Polixines.
The belief is so sudden it feels completely fake at first. But as always Shakespeare is forcing us to think things through.
Hermione, Leontes's wife, is nine months pregnant. Polixines has been the guest of Leontes for the past nine months also. We don't see what happened before the play of course but it makes sense that we are simply seeing the accumulation of various pressures that culminate in this final act.
Leontes, as King of Sicilia, likely has nobody in his life that he can consider a friend. Kings have "allies" and "servants" and "advisors" but they do not have friends. But Polixines has been Leontes's friend since childhood - before royal duties became a part of their lives.
King's have to think about people in terms of strategy and assets. So while Polixines is his friend from childhood they have moved past childhood and their relationship has to change somewhat. Leontes has to view everyone as an ally or an enemy. And allies are temporary - so really Kings have to view everyone as either enemies or future potential enemies.
Polixines, being a King in his own right, is Leontes's royal equal. Hermione is the only other equal, being the daughter of the Emperor of Russia. But from a friendship perspective, Polixines is the only person that Leontes can seek to emulate in any way. To some extent it seems likely that in his own warped way Leontes wants Polixines to want his wife.
It sounds really warped on the surface but it makes total sense. How do you know if you've made a "good match" as a young person? You know by the extent to which other people you admire find them attractive. I can't say whether women think this way but the competitive nature of men does make it so we want to know that our male friends want what we have while at the same time respecting the boundaries of not trying to take what belongs to us.
So Leontes wants Polixines to want Hermione - because if Polixines doesn't want Hermione at some level that would tell Leontes that Hermione wasn't good enough for him. This desire for approval of his mate choice from his best friend, coupled with the vying pressure between viewing Polixines as a friend but also as a political ally and possible potential enemy was enough to create a building pressure that the audience didn't see building in the nine months that Polixines was visiting but that culminated in the immediate belief that Hermione must be sleeping with Polixines. The mounting and building subconscious pressure led Leontes to the irrational conclusion that the child Hermione was carrying those nine months must not be his.
Parentage and Succession
This is a pivotal question in any royal family. Until the advent of DNA testing there was no way of being "100% certain" of paternity.
For every man that meant having a little voice in the back of our heads asking "am I raising someone else's kid?" That is a bad enough worry for some men but for a King that is a question that puts the entire kingdom in jeopardy. Questions about the legitimacy of the heir can spark wars and other opportunists who can use this issue as a chance at seizing power.
Essentially the idea seems to be - if you can't control your family then you don't deserve to control your kingdom. This is a constant thought that must run through the mind of any king or any powerful man.
None of this excuses Leontes's monstrous behavior but I think it does add some context to explaining why Leontes's suspicions drive him completely away from reality.
Childhood friendships - love and jealousy
One of the benefits of attempting to read all of Shakespeare's plays in relatively quick succession is that I am able to make ties between plays better than I have been able to in the past. I am not halfway done with the plays so I imagine that when I'm done with this challenge I will be able to make deeper and more valuable connections.
But after reading this play I immediately thought about Two Noble Kinsmen and the connection between the Winters Tale and Two Noble Kinsmen and Midsummer Night's Dream.
Two Noble Kinsmen is the story of cousins and childhood friends. A Midsummer Night's dream is the story of Helena and Hermione, two childhood friends who were raised together. The Winters Tale is the story of Polixenes and Leontes, two childhood friends, the kings of Bohemia and Sicilia, respectively, who were raised together and spent the last nine months living together.
The recurring theme of jealousy and the closest of friendships is clearly something that Shakespeare wants us to explore and understand.
The heart of jealousy is love and coveting.
Envy and Jealousy seem to be synonymous in our collective understanding but they are not exactly the same. Envy is the feeling of desiring something that someone else has. Jealousy can more accurately be described as "possessive suspicion".
I might envy someone's fortune meaning I wish that I had the same amount of money or goods as someone else. But I do not have any pretensions that I am the possessor of said fortune. However if I were to become a jealous husband that means I am angry and feel that my wife is cheating on me. In other words, I am angry because I believe that someone is attempting to take something that I believe belongs to me.
We cannot really become jealous of people that we are not close with - we can envy some else's fortune but that is a much lower level of negative emotion than jealousy.
Helena is jealous of Hermia. There is a double layer of jealousy at play - she is jealous of her closest friend and she is jealous that her friend has somehow gotten the love of Demetrius. Helena blames Hermia for losing the love of Demetrius. The target of the jealous might be Demetrius but What Helena really wants is the love of Hermia.
Meanwhile Arcite and Palamon, closest friends and kinsmen, become bitter enemies to the death in the pursuit of Emilia. The target of the jealousy is Emilia but the object of possession is Arcite.
I haven't re-read it yet but I recall that Iago manages to turn Othello against his wife as Othello suspects the unfaithfulness of his wife Desdemona. This jealousy leads Othello to kill his wife.
I think Shakespeare is telling us in no uncertain terms that jealousy is ultimately one of the most self destructive impulses and is that this possessive love is the root of colossal self destruction.
Both envy and jealousy are awful emotions but jealousy is far and away a worse condition. Jealousy led Medea to kill her children - jealousy over her husband Jason leaving her for another woman. The anger that jealousy can generate is so terrible and overpowering it can destroy an individual and can justify in the persons mind the worst acts a human being can conceive of committing.
When Leontes finally realizes just how awfully wrong he was about everything he does truly and deeply regret his monstrous actions. He repents his behavior and for sixteen years lives a sheltered life of quiet repentance.
Leontes is redeemed at the end of this play when his wife comes back to him after seeing his repentance. Leontes is reunited with the daughter that he abandoned and his daughter marries the son of Polixines, uniting the houses and giving Leontes part of what he wanted all this time - his friend.
Why didn't Leontes die?
In most of the well known tragedies it is common for the protagonist to die after coming to the realization of how badly he messed things up. But in this case Leontes not only doesn't die but he gets a measure of a happy ending. Why? Why did Shakespeare go off the rails? Not only didn't Leontes get his just desserts but he got most of what he wanted?
I think Shakespeare is trying to say that it is possible to earn redemption even after monstrous behavior. That Leontes could be redeemed is important.
Accountability - why Leontes is different than other protagonists
All the other plays I mentioned have some "villain" that can be blamed for the jealousy. Helena can blame Hermia for stealing Demetrius. Arcite can blame Palamon for causing this fight. Othello can blame Iago for putting the seed of jealousy into his brain.
But Leontes has no proximal cause of his jealousy. The jealousy appears completely out of nowhere. There is no suspicion or dramatic tension that brings about this jealousy. There doesn't appear to be any logical impetus for this jealousy.
Fundamentally - I suspect that The Winter's Tale is telling us that jealousy is a product of the individual. Helena would have been jealous of Hermia regardless of the circumstances. Arcite would have fallen in love with any woman that Palamon fell in love with. Othello would likely have eventually become jealous of Desdemona. Iago was just a convenient catalyst that sped the inevitable process that would have led to Othello killing his wife. All of these destructive acts were inevitable and were fundamentally not about the target of the jealousy.
But Leontes has absolutely nobody that he can blame for his destruction. But perhaps that is why he is able to be redeemed at the end of this play. Leontes is able to see that this is all on his shoulders and because of that ownership he is able to have a kind of happy ending.
I think this might be what makes the play so difficult for me as a reader and as a viewer. I don't want to see Leontes have anything close to a happy ending. Leontes's actions led to his son dying. How can anyone be redeemed after that?! After King Lear came to realize how royally he screwed up he at least had the courtesy of dying!
The power of Grace
Grace, from the Christian tradition, is the gift of God. It is unearned favor and redemption of sinners. You could define it as "God's favor to the unworthy".
That Leontes receives grace at the end of this play tells me that this is one of the most directly religious plays that I have read of Shakespeare's. Leontes's did regret his horrible actions but that alone doesn't redeem him. Grace cannot be earned it is a gift from God.
That is probably why I struggle with Leontes's redemption. I am not capable of bestowing grace upon Leontes or anyone. I, like all humans, am vindictive and want to see vengeance, or at least some kind of comeuppance on people who do terrible things. That is a human trait and one that Shakespeare has indulged in most of his plays. But in the Winter's Tale Shakespeare has decided to give us the tale of a man redeemed by God.
The manner in which Hermione returns, in a manner that is reminiscent of a kind of resurrection, at the end of the story confirms for me that Shakespeare is giving us a tale of redemption.
We've all done things that we wish we could undo. All adults have harmed people we love and care for. Regretting is important but at some point we need to let go of our guilt for what we have done. Letting go isn't the best choice of words because you don't let go of the wish that you had done differently, but you let go of the person that you were and embrace the new person that you are as a result of what you have done. Leontes is not the same man - he is a better man.
This play has been called one of the "problem plays". It doesn't fall into a neat category of "tragedy" or "comedy". The first half of the play is a tragedy and the second half of the play is a bit of a comedy. I think that is appropriate - redemption is a bit of both. We aren't meant to love the redemption. But we should be in awe of it. I am in awe of what I have read and seen.
This is the best of the Shakespeare plays that I have read so far. I might not love it the way I love Midsummer Nights Dream but I think it might be one of his most important plays.
Great performance of the winters tale free on YouTube - superbly performed and well worth watching. The actor who plays Leontes is absolutely wonderful - you can see the tension in his body from the first moment of the play and how it builds in him. It is wonderful to see how his body transforms - in the 5th act, before he reconnects with his family he seems to be at peace with the terrible things he has done in his life. This is well worth watching on YouTube for free.
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