The Winter's Tale | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Leontes enters, reflecting on his continual anguish. Although Polixenes is immune to reprisals, he speculates grimly that Hermione's execution by burning may restore his rest. A servant informs the king that Mamillius is ill but may be improving.

Paulina enters with Hermione's infant daughter. Despite official efforts to bar Paulina's way, she insists on seeing Leontes personally. Irritated, Leontes accuses Antigonus of not being able to control his wife; Antigonus comments that many men are guilty of the same fault. Unfazed, Paulina addresses Leontes, telling him that she comes from his "good queen" for this visit in order to commend the newborn infant for the king's blessing. Leontes is outraged and commands Paulina to be expelled. Paulina calls him mad and perseveres in her effort to purge and reform the king's tyranny. Leontes grows increasingly enraged, ordering that both Hermione and the "bastard" child be burned alive. He even threatens Paulina with death by burning.

At length Paulina withdraws, and Antigonus pleads with Leontes to spare the baby's life, offering his own as payment. Leontes pretends to comply, then orders Antigonus, on pain of death, to ensure that the baby girl is abandoned and exposed to the elements to die—giving her a slim chance at life. Antigonus is compelled to acquiesce and sorrowfully prays for a better fate for the infant. At the end of the scene, a servant reports to Leontes that his envoys, Cleomenes and Dion, have just landed in Sicilia, having returned from their mission to consult Apollo's oracle at Delphos.

Analysis

This scene dramatizes the full-scale conflict between Paulina and Leontes with blazing force. Leontes's irrational jealousy and vindictive behavior, which thus far has met with acquiescence, avoidance, or submissive protest, meets its match in Paulina's righteous anger. It is worth noting that it is she who is protecting his family and his royal legacy even as he works to destroy them.

The misogyny underlying Leontes's jealousy is progressively revealed in his repeated reproaches to Antigonus as a husband who cannot "rule" his wife. He obsessively repeats the word bastard, a motif that must make a powerful impression in performance, with the infant clearly visible on stage. (The baby remains unnamed until Act 3, Scene 3; at that point she will be christened "Perdita," the lost one, by Antigonus.)

Alongside his repeated condemnations of his own daughter as a "bastard," Leontes doles out numerous threats to the baby, to Hermione, and to Antigonus and Paulina. Violence has become his habitual mode of thought and expression. The more he protests that he is not tyrannical, the less credible he appears.

New Historicism is a branch of modern Shakespearean literary criticism in which interpretation of the plays focuses on contemporaneous events and trends. New Historical critics of The Winter's Tale have discerned a Shakespearean subtext that calls James I's absolute monarchy in England into question. According to this reading of the play, Leontes's authoritarian rule reflects the claims of the Stuart monarchy to divine right and total control in early 17th-century England. The critics add that the play's twofold lens of rule in Bohemia and Sicilia may reflect the twofold political reality of the times: division between England and Scotland.

Leontes's order to Antigonus to expose the baby girl to the elements parallels his command to Camillo in Act 1, Scene 2 to murder Polixenes. Both Camillo and Antigonus are confronted with a fearsome dilemma, and their responses show opposite ways of dealing with a difficult prince: avoidance versus directness. Camillo disingenuously promises obedience but flees to Bohemia; Antigonus is honest and straightforward, pleading for his king to spare the child, but he loyally follows Leontes's commands. Interestingly, Camillo takes Antigonus's place as Paulina's husband after Antigonus's death.

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