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The Winter's Tale | Symbols

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A Spider in a Drink

In Act 2, Scene 1 Leontes uses an implied extended metaphor to capture memorably the baneful effects of jealousy. This image involves a man who drinks from a cup containing a hidden spider. If the drinker remains oblivious of the "abhorred ingredient," he remains uninfected. If, on the other hand, he glimpses the spider he is repelled and physically nauseated. "I have drunk, and seen the spider," reflects Leontes. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello Shakespeare has Iago refer to jealousy as "the green ey'd monster."

Storm

Antigonus's abandonment of Perdita in Act 3, Scene 3 is accompanied by a violent storm—often a symbol in Shakespeare for anarchy or chaos (as in King Lear and The Tempest). "I never saw / The heavens so dim by day," says Antigonus. Immediately afterward he is chased off the stage to his death by a savage bear. The Clown soon reports that the Sicilian mariners who had brought Antigonus and Perdita to the coast of Bohemia have been drowned in the storm.

One editor comments that the thunder here, just before the exit of Antigonus, may recall "Jove's thunder" mentioned by Cleomenes in Act 3, Scene 1, in the content of Apollo's oracle at Delphos. The storm might thus be associated with Apollo's displeasure.

Perdita

Perdita's name, bestowed by Antigonus just before his abandonment of the infant in Act 3, Scene 3, means "she who was lost." She thus symbolizes the life-giving innocence and potential that Leontes expelled when he condemned her to exposure and death. Miraculously, though, she is found and nurtured by the Bohemian Shepherd and his family. Her return to Sicilia, her recognition as a princess, and her betrothal to Florizell are some of the chief events of Acts 4 and 5.

The symbolic significance of Perdita's name is foreshadowed in Act 3, Scene 2, where the oracle at Delphos is reported to warn that Leontes will remain without an heir "if that which is lost be not found."

Statue

The statue of Hermione that wondrously comes to life in Act 5, Scene 3 is one of the outstanding symbols in the play. Standing for the fusion of art and life (or nature), the statue also suggests rebirth, the reawakening of faith, forgiveness, and the marvelous gift of love.

The statue of Hermione is a variation on a well-known tale in Ovid's collection of ancient myths, The Metamorphoses: the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. In the story the sculptor Pygmalion creates a statue of such beauty that he falls in love with his creation. The goddess Aphrodite miraculously brings the statue to life. Numerous references show that Shakespeare was familiar with Arthur Golding's English translation of Ovid, printed in 1567.

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