Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Week 15, The Winter's Tale

Notes on The Winter’s Tale for Fall 2007, E316

Act 1, Scenes 1-2

We start off hearing about how Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia grew up together, and Hermione’s interaction with Polixenes is entirely innocent, just like Desdemona’s dalliance with Michael Cassio in Othello. She is simply behaving generously towards her husband’s dear friend. This idyllic scene at the edge of “forever after” is instantly shattered by Leontes’ abrupt passion or affectio: he sees Hermione holding hands, whispering, and so forth, with his old friend, and is stricken with a bout of insane jealousy. Jealousy stems from a disturbance in one person’s object-relation to another person; this powerful passion almost certainly inhabits, even haunts, intimate relationships. We treat affection like a scarce good, almost in an economic way. Rationing underlies even noble and charitable ideals. We transfix the other as something permanent, stable, unchangeable. There is no need for plot devices or serious actions to induce jealousy; it comes from nowhere. Jealousy becomes a filter for everything Leontes sees once the madness strikes him. Leontes’ jealousy causes him to misread and reinterpret everything Hermione does; he must see everything she does as evidence of her wickedness, and everything everyone else does as corroboration of that wickedness. Camillo is a “traitor” now, Mamillius must be illegitimate, and Hermione’s innocent words and actions are pure deception, etc. Leontes’ perceptual and interpretive apparatus become warped or “diseased” (to use Camillo’s term at line 297). He is his own Iago and shares Othello’s absoluteness and incapacity to deal with uncertainty: “Is whispering nothing?” (284) As Iago says in Othello 3.3, “ Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ. ” Hermione must be either a saint or a whore; there is nothing in between, and any uncertainty about the matter is unwelcome. Perhaps jealousy is always lurking at the heart of any intimate relationship. No matter what Portia tells us about mercy in The Merchant of Venice, the quality of some charitable affections is strained, or strainable and divisible. Cordelia’s understanding of love in King Lear may be brittle-sounding and cold, but it’s probably accurate; in a sense, we do ration love: more for one person may mean less for others. (Shakespeare’s Sonnets certainly explore this darker side of love.)

The merciful thing is that Leontes’ inner corruption seems unable to corrupt others: Camillo stays true to Hermione, and therefore to Leontes. He refuses to poison Polixenes, with whom he agrees regarding the destructive effects of jealousy—it is something to be avoided at all costs, as Polixenes says at the end of the second scene. The cure for the distrustful absolutist Leontes will be, as we shall see later on, to learn to see people once again as they really are, and stop allegorizing them as emblems of sin.

Act 2, Scene 1.

Hermione is shocked to hear Leontes’ disgraceful accusations, but as so often, the good are scarcely capable of defending themselves: they don’t have the same resources available to them as do those who have no tedious scruples about morality. Leontes is set upon publicly and willfully declaring his wife unfaithful, even trying to enlist Apollo’s oracle in his cause. Hermione’s claims of innocence stand no chance against her husband’s energetic performance.

Act 2, Scenes 2-3

Paulina is active and confrontational in dealing with Leontes. The other characters at court aren’t corrupt; they’re just passive. Hermione is unable to deal with Leontes’ madness because she is the bogus “cause” and object of it, so a third party like Paulina is vital. She will keep the clock ticking so that “romance time” can help things work out for the best. There will be time and opportunity and good will enough to avert tragedy. Leontes is determined to widen the circle of delusion: he has already declared Hermione a slut publicly, and now he means to put her on trial. Paulina won’t go along with this unjust scheme because she understands that the tyrant is insane and, like the emperor in the fable, naked. She bluntly tells him so, and his resistance to her truth-telling is rather comical: “Will you not push her out? [To Antigonus.] Give her the bastard” (2.3.74). As usual in comedy and romance, the threatening father is more or less a straw man. There must be at least the potential for a tragic turn. But Shakespeare is careful, I believe, not to push such prospects too hard. In this play, the tyrant can’t even handle one feisty woman. Consider also Duke Frederick in As You Like It, who threatens death and injury all around but ends up looking ridiculous and then changing suddenly in the Forest of Arden. Frederick exiles Rosalind (the daughter of the legitimate ruler he has banished) and even threatens to have her killed. But his threats aren’t very believable, and he seems more of an ill-tempered oaf than a murderer. As a contrast, there’s always King Lear, who in spite of his feebleness ends up partly responsible for ruining the life of his dearest child, Cordelia.

Still, there are some consequences to reckon with: Hermione will be tried and “convicted” (well, almost), and she is soon placed in a seeming state of suspended animation. Leontes will have only an image, a shrine, for years to come. His depraved obliviousness to Apollo’s truth-saying ensures this result. (See 3.2.140-41.) And as Leontes had already resolved, Perdita will be committed to chance and the healing powers of time. Leontes (like Lear and Cymbeline) has thrown away his identity. He can’t snap his fingers and regain his right mind. That he recognizes his error the instant Apollo’s wrath supposedly strikes down his son makes self-recovery and redemption possible. Paulina, in spite of her sometimes harsh words and attitude, will assist Leontes in his long time of penance, replete with frequent visits to the shrine of the woman he has wronged and who, so far as he knows, is lost to him forever.

Act 3, Scenes 1-2.

Apollo’s oracle tells Leontes that he is entirely wrong and that he must recover what he’s thrown away: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camilla a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found” (132-35). He tries to dismiss the oracle’s words, so his ears fail him just as his eyes did. The death of his son Mamillius snaps him out of his state of error as quickly as he fell into it, but he must live with the consequences until he can work his way out of them. Leontes has thrown away his identity along with Hermione and Perdita, who are both a part of him. Romance is partly about the reintegration of the self and then a going-out into the broad world, finally to return to a better version of oneself. Leontes must get Perdita back, but long penance is required. Paulina’s severity (which is calculated and at times almost comic) aims to keep Leontes from moving on and remarrying: he must take the time he needs to recover others and redeem himself.

Act 3, Scene 3.

Antigonus dreams of Hermione, who informs him that his end is near and gives him instructions on where to leave the child and what to name her. Antigonus is now convinced that Hermione is dead. He thereupon suffers the full consequences of his own failure to resist Leontes’ culpable behavior. Act 3 ends on a note of savagery and tempest: “Exit pursued by a bear.” The gold Antigonus has left behind will become “fairy gold” for the shepherd who discovers the “blossom” (46) Perdita, and a new world will open up for this rustic character. As we move into Acts 4-5, we will witness the power of romance temporality to heal rifts, clear up delusions, and make things right.

Act 4, Scene 1.

The Chorus player speaks in the character of “Time” to tell us that he is within his rights to turn the clock forwards some sixteen years, to the time when Perdita is no longer an infant but a beautiful young woman, supposed by all to be the daughter of the shepherd who found her and secretly courted by Polixenes’ son, Prince Florizel. The Choral pronouncement may remind some of Shakespeare’s use of old John Gower, his source for Pericles, Prince of Tyre, who says at the beginning of Act 4, “I carried winged time / Post [on] the lame feet of my rhyme, / Which never could I so convey, / Unless your thoughts went on my way” (Prologue lines 47-50).

Act 4, Scenes 2-4

Autolycus, who enters at 4.3 declaring himself at present “out of service” (14), is a human woozle—he’s a trickster, an opportunist, and a parasite on the generous psychic economy of the play’s rustics, whose festivities he invades with his commercialism and bawdiness in 4.4. But Autolycus also brings in the spring with his songs, flowers, and bright scarves. Perhaps he is also an alter ego for Florizel, who has been courting Perdita in a disguised but honorable fashion.

Autolycus, the play’s resident Lord of Misrule, is unable to corrupt anyone, even if he succeeds in cozening some. Autolycus’ ethos shows in the line, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive” (4.4.673-74). His antics set up yet another confrontation in Act 4, Scene 4 with a not-so-dreadful parent (in this case Polixenes), who has a point to make about the conduct of his son. Florizel’s disguising is done essentially for charitable reasons—he met Perdita by accident, and pursues her generously, but Polixenes resents the fact that he hasn’t been consulted in so important a dynastic matter. In this play, as a professor of mine at UC Irvine points out, the old need to be convinced of the worthiness of the new. This point holds true even though romance quests are about reintegration and renewal through marriage amongst the young. After all (and here Shakespeare departs from Greene’s Pandosto), this play centers on the reunification of Leontes and Hermione, the older generation. Polixenes feels that Florizel has cast off his identity, and the fourth act involves the future of Polixenes’ dynastic concerns.

Also in Act 4, Perdita and Polixenes engage in a “literary criticism” discussion about the emblematic significance of certain flowers (“streaked gillyvors,” or pansies) and ultimately about the respective merits of artifice and nature. I suppose Perdita herself is the “graft” that mends the rustic society surrounding her—she is a work of art rooted in nature’s processes. Polixenes insists that careful gardening is an “art that nature makes.” While Perdita wants only what’s available in her own rustic garden, he sees no problem with improving what nature offers freely. Artifice, that is, may fairly be described as a “natural” aspect of human nature: we are not “poor, bare, fork’d animals” but are always at our best when we are “accommodated man.” Perdita, ever the nature goddess-tending maiden, isn’t convinced, but Polixenes’ argument comes off as wise—or at least if would if he didn’t become enraged upon finding out that his son Florizel would have him mix the aristocratic with the common stock of his kingdom.

Perdita exudes healthy animality; ; she embodies a benevolent form of nature, unlike the bear that devoured Antigonus sixteen years back when he was abandoning Perdita on the harsh seacoast of Bohemia. Her grace is demonstrated by the effect her presence has on Florizel. Her own playful words give just a hint of Ovidian sportfulness around line 116-28, where she invokes Proserpina, but modesty at once makes her take it back. Florizel, however, sees nothing wrong with what Perdita has said, and he tells her at lines 140-41, “When you do dance, I wish you / A wave o’ th’ sea.” Perdita is a graceful, immediate presence, and everything she does is art; in her person, art and nature come together without strife. This harmony contrasts starkly with Leontes’ misprision of nature as something base and demonic. His ideal woman would not, at the play’s outset, be Hermione living (“too hot, too hot,” he had said of her in Act 1, Scene 2) or Perdita in motion. It would be a statue—something cold, chaste, and dead. Later, to see her “come alive” from an assumed state of stone is part of his penance, but also his reward for his long-suffering fidelity after the initial mistake. Perdita is the statue and the living being at the same time: she is artifice in motion, and is what Leontes must accept. That may mean we are flawed, but it’s just the way we are, and we must accept it. Leontes initially could not give Hermione so much credit as a fully human being.

Act 5, Scenes 1-3.

With Perdita at last discovered to be Leontes’ lost daughter, what remains to be achieved is the full recovery of Hermione. She must be recognized as the virtuous woman she was and still is. Paulina’s device is straight out of ancient literary theory: some may recall the famous argument about “the Grapes of Zeuxis” that were painted so realistically as to fool birds. Zeuxis’ opponent on the matter of pictorial realism, Parrhasius, knew that seeing was a matter of convention: we “see” what we look for.

The statue trick Paula carries out is a matter of affective staging: it will demonstrate to him again his error, and yet constitute his greatest reward. Now Leontes, whose crazy jealousy made him “see the object as in itself it really was not” (to adapt a line from Oscar Wilde) and who thereby stereotyped, objectified, even “killed” Hermione in a sense, must be reintroduced to the real woman, now sixteen years older. Hermione is not made of stone, but a living, breathing human being. She is subject to time and may whisper and touch the hand of a dear friend, even for her husband’s sake. Paulina’s deferral of Leontes’ desire for reunion is the last stage of his penance. The plastic arts device is, I believe, typical of Shakespeare’s references to the power of art to transform perception and passion and bring about reconciliation, and it seems particularly appropriate to the romance genre. The “art work” in this case is a living woman who has been liberated and who now frees Leontes from his sorrow. As Prof. Harold Toliver of UC Irvine said in a lecture years ago, the play’s solution lies in “re-establishing the truth of what one sees.” At last (through Paulina’s device) Leontes learns to see and accept Hermione directly: as she is, here and now, with those sixteen years added on. The play’s conclusion amounts to a romance triumph over death no less wonderful for all its trickery and “staginess”; Paulina’s artful and charitable application of Autolycus’ roguish shifts redeems such deception and turns it to account.

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