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  • Title: The Winter's Tale: Critical Reception
  • Author: Hardin Aasand
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-367-0

    Copyright Hardin Aasand. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Hardin Aasand
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    Critical Reception

    Critical History

    1The Early Years

    Seventeenth and eighteenth-century criticism

    Simon Forman's May 1611 account may be considered the first critical reception of the play. Forman treats the play as a cautionary tale against roving peddlers like Autolycus; the transformative restoration of Leontes's family fails to provoke any comment. Taking into account classical principles of play production, Ben Jonson and eighteenth-century neoclassicists after him dismissed The Winter's Tale as rife with "mouldy tales" and plot absurdities. For John Dryden (1672) The Winter's Tale reflected a poetry that lacked "vigor and maturity" and displayed a "lameness" of plot. He dismissed it, along with Love's Labour Lost and Measure for Measure, as "either grounded on impossibilities, or at least, so meanly written, that the Comedy neither caus'd your mirth, nor the serious part your concernment." Alexander Pope chose to deny Shakespeare's hand in the creation of the play in order to dissociate Shakespeare's genius from a "meanly" written play. The sensibility underlying these sentiments can be found in the eighteenth-century productions like Macnamara Morgan's The Sheep-Shearing; Or, Florizel and Perdita, produced in 1754, or David Garrick's Florizel and Perdita, a Dramatic Pastoral in 1756. While Garrick retains in abbreviated form both Leontes and Hermione, including Hermione's truncated resurrection as a statue, both plays excise the problems highlighted by Samuel Johnson, Pope, and Dryden:

    Both Morgan and Garrick solved the eighteenth-century problem of the play's purportedly inchoate form by excising the first half of The Winter's Tale, the Sicilian scenes of Leontes' jealous rapture, Camillo's and Polixenes' flight, Hermione's trial, Paulina's intercession, the casting out of the babe, Antigonus's death on the seacoast of Bohemia, and Time the Chorus narration of the passage of sixteen years. (Hunt, Critical Essays 6)

    The discordant halves of the story, Antigonus's dispatching by a mischievous bear, and the restoration of family through the Pygmalion-like animation of Hermione all elements that captivate a modern audience, are subjugated to the pastoral romance of two lovers from apparently disparate social classes and the denouement that provides for the comic nuptials. Until John Philip Kemble's 1802 production at Drury Lane, which restored the tragic jealousy and brooding ambience that resonates in the play's first three acts, the The Winter's Tale remained a truncated pastoral shell of Shakespeare's original play.

    Nineteenth-century criticism

    Nineteenth-century Romantic critics found their inspiration in productions that restored the tragic dimensions of Leontes and Hermione's story. John Philip Kemble's 1802 production influenced criticism of the early Romantic period. Kemble's 1802 production influenced criticism of the early Romantic period. Moved by both Kemble's portrayal of Leontes and Sarah Siddon's riveting realization of Hermione, William Hazlitt rehabilitated Shakespeare's play as a drama worthy of consideration: "These slips or blemishes [i.e. the choric role of Time, the leaping forward over sixteen years, and the mythical sea-coast of Bohemia] however do not prove it not to be Shakespear's; for he was as likely to fall into them as any body; but do not know any body but himself who could produce the beauties" (qtd. in Hunt, Critical Essays65). Hazlitt singles out the "stuff" of the tragic dimensions contained within the play: the "romantic sweetness, the comic humour" are demonstrably Shakespeare's work, and Leontes's "crabbed and tortuous style" betrays the "thorny" labyrinthine depths of an unreasonable tragedy. Leontes's psychopathology and Hermione's sainted patience persuade Hazlitt that this play is indubitably Shakespeare's work.

    Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's regard for the play derived from Leontes's impassioned conviction of Hermione's infidelity, a trait that for Coleridge is given its tragic force in Othello: "an excitability by the most inadequate causes, and an eagerness to snatch at proofs; secondly, a grossness of conception, and a disposition to degrade the object of the passion by sensual fancies and images; thirdly, a sense of shame of his own feelings exhibited in a solitary moodiness of humor, and yet from the violence of the passion forced to utter itself . . . " (qtd in Hunt, Critical Essays 72). Despite the Romantic attention to Leontes and his incipient jealousy, the play failed to generate more than the passing theatrical criticism prompted by performance.

    Twentieth Century

    New Criticism

    The emergence of structural, mythic, and new critical approaches to literature in the twentieth century provided the play with some of its more memorable and powerful commentary. New Criticism, which treated literature as logical artifacts with poetic and symbolic wholeness, opened up The Winter's Tale to a wide array of critics who found the work unified around either a cluster of symbolic features or verbal structures that were either archetypal (Frye) and primal in scope or more narrowly Christian in intent (Tillyard, Bethell, Wilson Knight, Traversi). E.M.W. Tillyard (1938) made an early examination of Shakespeare's "last plays" as plays of contemplation in which Shakespeare constructed a plot that accentuated the tragic suffering of an evil King (Leontes), the repentance that leads to regeneration (the return of Perdita) and the forgiveness that allows for reunion and restoration (the animated statue of Hermione). Tillyard asserted (60) that the The Winter's Tale provides for distinct planes of reality that represent the everyday world of courtly life, the paranoid delusional world of Leontes, the frozen world of Hermione that occurs offstage, and the heightened pastoral world that promotes regeneration and restoration. Tillyard and Traversi anticipated the archetypal criticism of Northrop Frye, who systematized these "planes" of reality around seasonal myths of winter, spring, fall, and winter. Though the schematics of Tillyard's criticism would never entirely encapsulate the play's dramatic structure Wilson Knight would later supplement him by creating a Christian framework for the play's movement—Tillyard's perceptive treatment of Shakespeare's heightened tragic and pastoral worlds remain far-reaching: Shakespeare created "something that can vaguely be called metaphysical, some sense of the complexity of existence, of the different planes on which human life can be lived" (60).

    5S.L. Bethell's book length study (1947) is indebted to Tillyard's design, though Bethell offered the play a Christian dimension. In Bethell's view, Leontes, Hermione, Mamillius, and Perdita were vehicles for Shakespeare's elaboration of the universal themes of sin, repentance, reconciliation, and reunion. In this, Bethell borrowed Tillyard's dramatic structure for theological ends. Christian elements abound in the play's construction: Leontes's and Polixenes's description of their youthful innocence, Leontes's fall into doubt, Hermione's invocations of grace and innocence, Paulina's surrogate role as Leontes's conscience, Leontes's "saintlike sorrow" and act of penance, and Hermione's resurrection from the "dead." While his study overwhelmed the play's dramatic force with the message of Christian allegory, Bethell's suggestion that The Winter's Talewas a thinly disguised "miracle play" foreshadows the direction taken later by critics intrigued by the enigmatic nature of the play's genre. G. Wilson Knight and Derek Traversi offer similar symbolic readings; for Wilson Knight, the play was a synthesis of a number of influences: Christian, pagan, and naturalism. For Traversi, the symbolism had a musical flow as the play moves structurally from the tragic winter to the pastoral rebirth prompted by Bohemia and completed in Sicilia.

    Northrop Frye returned dramatic structure to critical studies of the play, though, like Traversi, he saw The Winter's Tale as a series of movements that are cyclical and mythic in nature. Following from his Anatomy of Criticism, Frye connects The Winter's Tale's plot structure to the movements from winter to spring, with the promise of summer romance in the marriage of Perdita and Florizel: Leontes's delusional winter of isolation and deprivation gives way to the emergence of spring in Perdita's haven in Bohemia, ending with the marriage of Florizel and Perdita as a comic resolution. Leontes's reunion with Hermione is not quite the typical comic resolution of festivity, however: "It is the world symbolized by nature's power of renewal; it is the world we want; it is the world we hope our gods would want for us if they were worth worshiping" (Natural Perspective 116 ). Thus, for Frye, the romances promote the civil and societal order promised in the comedies with a grim recognition that not all loss can be recompensed or death forestalled.

    Psychoanalytic Criticism

    While mythic criticism grounds The Winter's Tale, indeed, all of Shakespeare's romances, within a cycle of nature that resonates in all literature and unifies it into a vast mythic narrative, later critics lament the reduction of specific works into the "same, omnivorous myth" (Ryan 10) at the expense of the play's subtleties. It is important to note the seminal work of J. I. M. Stewart, whose early treatment of Leontes's jealousy, while hearkening back to Coleridge's Romantic treatment, is an important foreshadowing of later psychologically informed treatments of the play. Stewart's profoundly influential treatment considers that the play's significance "may be like that of an iceberg, most massive below the surface" (Stewart 37). His metaphor reflects the psychological trenchancy of his critical practice; for Stewart, Leontes's jealousy is not a botched theatrical display but an internalized defense of his homosexual passion for Polixenes: "Wanting to be unfaithful to Hermione but consciously unable to entertain the thought, Leontes' ego defends itself by imagining from the details of Hermione's joking hospitality that she means sexually to betray him." Leonte's protection is "I don't love him; she does" (qtd. in Hunt, Critical Essays 16).

    Early Freudian criticism by scholars such as Stephen Reid and Murray Schwartz discuss the oedipal fears Shakespeare dramatizes. For Reid, Leontes can safely respond to his paranoid jealousy only by projecting his affection for Polixenes through the marriage of his daughter to Polixenes's surrogate, Florizel. Schwartz treats Leontes's jealousy as a psychic drama in which Hermione assumes the role of the dominant rival for Polixenes's affections. Her success in "wooing" Polixenes to stay in Sicilia when Leontes has failed to do so is recast as the father's successful courtship of the maternal. C.L. Barber's and Richard P. Wheeler's interpretative strategy recuperates these earlier narratives by arguing that Leontes's friendship with Polixenes must be salvaged and redeemed from a "gross sexuality" through the surrogacy of their children. Only then can he be restored to Hermione and the family be reunited: "The sexual bond of Perdita and Florizel in the new generation makes possible the restoration of Leontes's friendship and the recovery of family bonds purged of sexual degradation" (331-2). Barber and Wheeler identify a progressive movement from the early festive comedies to the tragedies and later romances in terms of how Shakespeare renders older and younger generations. If early festive comedies focus on the assertion of young lovers' rights over paternal prerogative to block love, and later tragedies attend to the dissolution of family bonds, just as they are being asserted, as paramount for a stable society, the romances provide a redemptive restoring of familial balance after death and abandonment.

    Feminist Criticism

    While earlier psychoanalytic critics focused on Leontes's psychic state, the unfathomable origins of his jealousy, and his homoerotic regard for Polixenes, later scholars found the three major female characters worthy of equal regard: Hermione, Perdita, and Paulina. These are "three female roles of the first significance" (Overton 46) who function to restore societal order and the female voice. While most feminist critics characterize Leontes's and also Polixenes's "oppressive misogyny" and "dark incestuous desires" as responsible for the "static, barren, masculine world" that deprives women of voice (Neely 170), reproductive energy, and maternal influence, the concluding restorations and resurrections of feminine voice are characterized differently: some critics (see French and Neely) view the "patriarchal" society created at the end as either a recuperative moment in which marriage makes women "crucial" and "freed and enfranchised" (2.2; TNL 891) members of the unified family, while others (see Adelman; Erickson; Enterline) conclude that the later restoration of these three women is one that limits their voices within a reconstituted masculine estate.

    10Lynn Enterline underscores further how Shakespeare uses his Ovidian source to capture this "contraction of power" revealed by Erickson. Enterline examines how Shakespeare uses the Ovidian context of the Proserpina myth within Pygmalion's desire for his statue to take breath and live. For Enterline, Leontes fails to exorcize his narcissistic control of Hermione and her speech such that, like Pygmalion who shapes and finds his image animated, Hermione is so "narrowly" constricted by Leontes's delusions that there is "nothing Hermione can say to Leontes" (43). The final scene, thus, is devoted to the three women: Paulina who reanimates Hermione, and Perdita and Hermione who share the scene as if Leontes lacks presence. Hermione and Paulina reify Ovid's tales of rape, misogyny, and female revenge for a Leontes who himself becomes more "stone" than Hermione.

    New Historicism

    New Historicism, which found its voice in the 1980s, has as its underlying premise the belief that literature is a social product. Literature provides a nexus or intersection for individuals and power structures within which to negotiate or subvert identity and discursive practices. The law, the royal court, the church, the marketplace, and the home are all implicated in this negotiation. As Joan Hall notes, "[New Historicists] uncover strategies by which texts may subvert the dominant ideology of the age but eventually reinscribe it once any socially transgressive elements are contained" (147). Within this construct, the marginalized voices of the powerless or subjected make evident the means by which power is practiced and enforced.

    Critics such as Leonard Tennenhouse, Stuart Kurland, and William Morse read Shakespeare's romances, including The Winter's Tale, as strictly political plays. For them, the play interrogates the underlying foundation of Jacobean absolutism, calling into question its use of patriarchism to construct a kingship absolute and divinely ordained. The psychological dimensions of this play—an anxious son doomed to deprivation of family and then death, a jealous husband who discards his family, and an abused wife estranged from her son and impending baby—extend beyond the family to the state itself: the loss of familial order portends an "assault on the body politic" (176). This is a conservative criticism: Leontes's failure as father is redeemed by a resurrection of Hermione, the restoration of a family, and a royal genealogy that reauthorizes a royal patriarchy. For David Bergeron (Royal Family), the royal family was truly a "text" that infuses Shakespeare's romances; Bergeron believes not in an allegorical one-to-one correspondence but rather an appropriation by Shakespeare of the mystique that surrounded the Jacobean family. Bergeron draws on the anthropological theories of Clifford Geertz that a mythologized world is concomitantly a political world.

    Michael Bristol's New Historicism reading has a Marxist foundation based on the market economy. For him, The Winter's Tale betrays "spatiotemporal" gaps in time itself between a gift economy of Sicilia and the emergent market economy of Bohemia. Shakespeare manipulates time as it is experienced in both halves of the play: Leontes's jealousy—a "derangement" predicated on a culture of gift-giving and "potlatch"—occurs during the Winter Festival or Christmastide and reflects a "gift economy" in which Leontes's extravagance transforms Hermione into a form of currency to be fulfilled in the market economy of Bohemia: "Polixenes's attempt to thwart this plan is what actually prompts the otherwise incomprehensible outburst of the king. On this view the ensuing sacrifice of family members is the final, violent stage of potlatch undertaken by Leontes as a primitive affirmation of honor" (156). Just as Time, the choric figure, signals verbally the dramatic fissure of time and place, the bear is an androgynous, spatiotemporal marker that marks the boundaries between the deaths encountered in the first half of the play and the promise of life and a new organic economy of strategic calculation in the last half.

    Phebe Jensen's focus is on the religious dimension the play, especially the festivities in Bohemia and the fulcrum established in the closing scene in Hermione's dramatic restoration through Paulina's "art, lawful as eating" (5.3, TLN 3320). Scholars such as Jensen, Julia Lupton, and Huston Diehl have read this transformation of Hermione into a living statue as a mingling of Renaissance aesthetics and Catholic, specifically Marian, iconography. While critics like Diehl view Shakespeare's modification of Catholic ritual—Shakespeare's statue is truly a living, breathing Hermione—as a Protestant revision and repudiaton of Catholic adoration of iconic efficacy, others (Lupton, Jensen, Ruth Vanita) suggest that Shakespeare's own Romanist upbringing informs a scene with Catholic vitality: "In the context of such direct Catholic and Eucharistic overtones, the apparent transformation of marble into flesh seems to confirm both the efficacy of praying to statues and the Catholic doctrine of Real Presence" (Jensen 303). Beyond the statue's reanimation, Shakespeare invests the play with an aura of Catholic sensibility: the festivities of Bohemia (the sheep-shearing and the pastoral dances) reflect the transformative power of theatre and ritual in human existence. Leontes's earlier, tragic iconoclasm gives way to a grace of art and faith to restore community and family. Furthermore, as Vanita suggests, the play also reaffirms the feminine power of Marian ideology through the triad of Hermione, Paulina, and Perdita, whose "triangular kinship" subordinates and nullifies Leontes's earlier tyranny.

    15Beyond New Historicism

    If New Historicism opened up The Winter's Tale to a wealth of cultural significations, the deconstructive turn taken by other critics denies the play a final, singular interpretation. Howard Felperin represents this interpretative strategy for The Winter's Tale. In deconstructive terms, Leontes's suspicion is not simply whim; the absence of "ocular proof" (to use Othello's words) is justifiable in a Sicily in which Apollo's authority is belated, not presented by a deus ex machina, uttered secondarily and thus removed from an empirical correlative. Leontes's "fall from verbal innocence" makes gestures—"paddling palms, pinching fingers" or the more sexual "virginalling" of palms—and Delphic utterances equivocal and slippery ("Tongue-tied" 10; see also Knapp). It is not Hermione's "resurrection" that becomes emblematic of a magical truth; Autolycus's ballads and his duplicitous confirmation of their veracity to the Bohemian rustics are "comic or surrealistic" parodies of Leontes's jealous fantasies (Felperin "Tongue-tied" 15). Ultimately, Felperin sees the play as dramatizing the capriciousness of a language estranged from ocular proof.

    Stanley Cavell follows Felperin in identifying this distrust of language as Leontes's overall problem; but for Cavell, Leontes's specific problem is the sheer existence of a son that he fails to acknowledge as his own. Such an acknowledgement requires Leontes to be an adult and to admit that he has separated and replicated himself into a new form: "Taking the jealousy as derivative of the sense of revenge upon life, upon its issuing, or separating, or replicating, I am taking it as, so to speak, the solution of a problem in computation or economy, one that at a stroke solves a chain of equations, in which sons and brothers are lovers, and lovers are fathers and sons, and wives and mothers become one another" (213). Leontes, thus, must overcome a skepticism that calls into question all of life's certainties.