The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Polixenes, king of Bohemia, announces his intention to depart from Sicilia after an extended visit there. He is concerned, he says, about the state of his kingdom during his long absence. Leontes, king of Sicilia, courteously entreats his friend to prolong the visit, at least by an additional week, but Polixenes politely declines. Leontes then enlists the persuasive talents of his wife, Hermione, whom he exhorts to join in an attempt to win over Polixenes.

Agreeably, Hermione presses Polixenes to remain at least a little longer, and soon Polixenes gives in. Leontes confesses his surprise that he was unsuccessful whereas Hermione was able to persuade their guest to stay on. He compliments Hermione on having spoken gracefully for a second time—the first was when she assented to Leontes's courtship, saying that she would be his forever.

As the scene continues, Leontes's frame of mind suddenly shifts from courteous hospitality to anguish. Watching Hermione's courteous and friendly interaction with Polixenes, Leontes experiences a wave of jealousy and outrage. In fractured language he distracts himself with a series of remarks to Mamillius, his son. Noticing Leontes's unsettled behavior, Polixenes and Hermione express their concern. Leontes excuses himself, encouraging them to adjourn to the garden. After their exit he bitterly inveighs against women's infidelity, confessing that he fears he has been cuckolded.

Summoning Camillo, Leontes seeks independent confirmation of his suspicions. Camillo's refusal to acquiesce, however, results in mounting tension, until Leontes directly orders his courtier to assassinate Polixenes. Camillo reluctantly agrees but then, after Leontes's departure, declares his anguishing conflict in a brief soliloquy.

Polixenes enters to voice misgivings about the warmth of Leontes's welcome, which he feels is belied by his friend's facial expressions and body language. Camillo then reveals Leontes's murderous orders. As the scene concludes, he tells Polixenes that they both must depart immediately for Bohemia in secret.

Analysis

Unlike Scene 1, this scene is written in blank verse, reflecting the courtly setting and royal characters. The rising iambic rhythm of blank verse is clearly apparent in the first three lines of Polixenes's opening speech:

Nine CHANGEs of the WAT'ry STAR hath BEEN

The SHEPherd's NOTE since WE have LEFT our THRONE

WithOUT a BURden. TIME as LONG aGAIN ...

The scene notably advances the play's plot by revealing the chief conflict—Leontes's irrational jealousy—and by presenting the rising action in swift, successive stages. Leontes's jealousy is reflected in a shift from graceful blank verse to short, choppy exclamations. In his tragedy Othello (written c. 1603), Shakespeare had memorably dramatized a husband's descent into jealousy, as he is misled by a friend, Iago, into believing his wife has betrayed him. The case of Leontes, however, significantly differs from that of Othello. Leontes's feelings appear out of nowhere—his wife is simply being courteous to a guest—and his repeated insistence on her infidelity makes him seem irrational and obstinate. Readers should also note that Leontes's jealousy develops suddenly at a feverish pitch, as opposed to developing gradually in stages—as is the case, for example, in Shakespeare's principal source, Robert Greene's prose romance Pandosto (1588).

The scene opens with Polixenes's reference to the duration of his visit to Sicilia: "Nine changes of the wat'ry star hath been / The shepherd's note since we have left our throne." The passage of nine months is also readily apparent in Hermione's pregnancy—suggesting to Leontes that his wife has committed adultery with Polixenes.

A hint of trouble to come is subtly conveyed by the terseness of Leontes's speeches in the first part of the scene. Whereas Polixenes and Hermione are formal and courteous, Leontes is succinct to the point of abruptness, although not openly impolite. This asymmetry in the dialogue strikingly contrasts with the symmetrical courtesies of Archidamus and Camillo in Act 1, Scene 1. Later in Scene 2, in fact, Polixenes himself supports such a conclusion by commenting on the hints of alienation he has inferred from Leontes's facial expressions and behavior: "This is strange. Methinks / My favor here begins to warp."

Once the tidal wave of jealousy breaks over Leontes, his lines of dialogue add a new dimension to his characterization. Shakespeare employs numerous techniques to reflect the king's fractured psychological state: jagged verse rhythm, extreme diction, ominous puns, fevered repetition, and abrupt digressions are only some of these devices.

These techniques begin to dominate Leontes's lines from early on in the scene ("Too hot, too hot! / To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods"). The emotional tension is greatly enhanced by the staging convention of the aside, in which a character speaks to the audience who realizes that the lines are unheard by other characters on stage.

Leontes's anguished use of language comes to a head in his intense cross-examination of Camillo, the courtier who stressed the close and ever-loyal friendship of the kings in Act 1, Scene 1. In his zeal to extract confirmation for his suspicions, Leontes subjects Camillo to a barrage of interrogation laced with insult:

Ha' not you seen, Camillo—
But that's past doubt; you have, or your eyeglass
Is thicker than a cuckold's horn—or heard—
For to a vision so apparent, rumor
Cannot be mute—or thought—for cogitation
Resides not in that man that does not think—
My wife is slippery?

Camillo valiantly resists, recognizing Leontes's paranoia for what it is: "Good my lord, be cured / Of this diseased opinion, and betimes, / For 'tis most dangerous." But the nobleman's subordinate status is never in doubt. When Leontes orders him, on pain of death, to assassinate Polixenes, Camillo is forced to acquiesce.

After Leontes exits Shakespeare enlarges Camillo's stature by endowing the courtier with a brief soliloquy. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Camillo chooses to opt out of villainy and "forsake the court." Shakespeare thus lays the foundation for this character's crucial role in the second part of the plot, when he serves as councilor to Polixenes and superintends the journey of Florizell and Perdita from Bohemia to Sicilia—the journey that will lead to restoration and reconciliation at the play's end.

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