Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Hardin Aasand
Not Peer Reviewed

The Winter's Tale: Introduction


25Classical Influence

Ovid

Ovid was an important storehouse of mythic influences for Shakespeare throughout his career. He drew on Ovid's Metamorphoses for his earliest narrative poems and sonnets. He interwove Ovidian allusions into plays as diverse as Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest. The Winter's Tale afforded Shakespeare the opportunity to incorporate a number of Ovidian myths to amplify the play's narrative structure. In Perdita, Shakespeare found echoes of Flora, the goddess of fertility and spring, an allusion not lost on Robert Greene and Pandosto: "Every day she went forth with her sheepe to the field, keeping them with such care and diligence, as all men thought she was very painfull, defending her face from the heat of the sunne with no other vaile, but with a garland made of bowes and flowers: which attire became her so gallantly, as she seemed to be the Goddesse Flora her selfe for beautie" (D1v). Shakespeare's dramatic adaptation of the Flora myth is also discerned in subtle hints such as allusive names, as Jonathan Bate suggests: ". . . is the goddess really Flora? We also know that Time has taken it upon himself to name Bohemia's son Florizel, so for the latter to call Perdita Flora is to stake a claim for her by grafting his own name to her" (Bate 229).

26Ovid's presence is palpable in Florizell's unwittingly ironic allusions to Apollo's penchant for transforming himself to achieve sexual congress (4.4.24ff, TLN 1825 ). The greater tapestry of Ovidian influence, however, is found in Shakespeare's overarching dramatic structure. The cyclical return of Proserpina governs the two-part—diptych—structure of the play: the first three acts take place in a Sicily made tragically wintry by Mamillius's death, Hermione's assumed demise, and the mortuary climate that surrounds the court; the second two acts introduced by Time are initially relocated to the pastoral climes of Bohemia, where life is restored—despite Antigonus's violent end—and obstinacy replaced by youthful vigor. Shakespeare's choice of Proserpina's myth is especially poignant for this play. Daughter of Ceres, Proserpina is abducted by Dis, plunged into the Underworld and cloistered for six months in Dis's death-like clutches for every six months of fertile growth before her annual restoration to her mother. As Jonathan Bate proposes, The Winter's Tale can aptly be named for this dormancy of hope: "Waiting for Proserpina" (Bate, 220).

27Ovid's presence is given more resonance in the statue scene; Shakespeare unobtrusively interweaves two separate myths to capture the profound reach of this final reunion of husband and wife. By alluding to the myths of Orpheus's descent to regain his Eurydice and the power of Pygmalion's imagination to make an ivory statue a warm, vital woman, Shakespeare invests Hermione's own resurrection before the rapt Leontes with a profound magic. Paulina's caveat to Leontes resonates with Orphic power: "Do not shun her/Until you see her die again, for than/You kill her double" (5.3.104-06, TLN 3313-15).

28Leontes's faith in Paulina's vision recasts Pygmalion's miracle as a metaphorical restoration: Hermione's cloistered statuary is exchanged for a domestic life she had forsaken sixteen years before. Leontes's language betrays its Ovidian traces: ". . . methinks/There is an air comes from her. . .What fine chisel/Could ever yet cut breath?" (5.5.76-8, TLN 3278-80). Though Giuliano Romano is credited with carving this figure, the sculpture is Hermione's own aged visage that beholds her daughter and penitent husband, a charitable gesture that Leontes little deserves but one which is provided for by Paulina's intercession. Shakespeare found in these Ovidian transformations the power of faith to restore life from stone and to transform living beings into ossified figures entranced by magic. The implications of the moment are given special weight by Leonard Barkan: "Hermione's life as a sixteen-year statue is her own winter's tale, but the whole world of Scilia has in fact been similarly hardened. Only with the discovery of Perdita does the softening begin to take place."

29Shakespeare's provocative grafting of Ovid's Metamorphoses within his drama mitigates the melodrama he gleaned in Greene's Pandosto and humanizes the obdurate figures of Leontes and Polixenes. Both stifle love by respectively repudiating Hermione's potent love and the emerging youthful love of Perdita and Florizel, and both are metamorphosed into passionate, responsive figures who promote love over suspicion, trust over mistrust, and faith over the lunacy of prejudice.

30Plutarch

Shakespeare's decision to rename the characters resituates the play chronologically to make the oracle of Apollo at Delphos relevant (see Snyder 80-1). From Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Shakespeare drew upon names to highlight the classical dimension and minimize the pastoral elements. The city of Leontinum in Plutarch's Lives of Cleomenes may have provided Shakespeare with Leontes's name, though a more attractive analogue is Cymbeline's Posthumuous Leonatus, who, like Leontes, accuses his wife of infidelity, desires her death but is reunited with her following his own repentance. These ingredients may have influenced Shakespeare in naming Leontes. Hermione's name can perhaps be traced to a myriad of analogues: perhaps to the male protagonist in the 1581-2 The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune or to the Greek messenger god, Hermes (Mercury), an etymogical genealogy which aligns her with Autolycus, who is "littered under Mercury" and whom some productions double with Hermione.

31Other characters are renamed for symbolic effect: Perdita, "one who is lost"; Antigonus, who, like Sophocles's Antigone, attempts to remain true to kinship in the face of tyranny. Paulina is the feminine counterpart for her scriptural namesake, St. Paul, whose faithfulness is embodied in Paulina's allegience to Hermione in restoring her to Perdita and Leontes. Shakespeare may have drawn on Greek for Polixenes ("polyxenus," hospitable and much visited) and Latin for Camillo ("attendant"). Florizell's name is perhaps derived from the Spanish romance, Amadis de Grecia; it is Don Florisel who doffs his royal identity to woo a shepherdess, who similarly is of royal birth.