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  • Title: The Winter's Tale: Introduction
  • 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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    15Classical Influence


    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, and wove 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 created echoes of Flora, the goddess of fertility and spring, an allusion also noted by on Robert Greene in 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 present 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).

    Ovid's presence is palpable in Florizel'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 apparent demise, and the mortuary climate that surrounds the court; the last 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 was abducted by Dis, god of the underworld, and cloistered there for six months in death-like clutches, followed by six months of fertile growth with 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).

    Ovid's presence is given more resonance in the statue scene, in which 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 turn an ivory statue into a warm, vital woman, Shakespeare invests Hermione's own resurrection before the rapt Leontes with a profound magic. Paulina's warning to Leontes resonates with Orphic power: "Do not shun her / Until you see her die again, for then / You kill her double" (5.3.104-06, TLN 3313-15).

    Leontes'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 16 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 aging 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 Sicilia has in fact been similarly hardened. Only with the discovery of Perdita does the softening begin to take place" (661).

    Shakespeare's provocative grafting of Ovid's Metamorphoses onto his drama mitigates the melodrama he gleaned from Greene's Pandosto and humanizes the obdurate figures of Leontes and Polixenes. Both stifle love by repudiating, repeatedly, 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.