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Spiritual Journeys in The Winter’s Tale

Throughout the  semester  we’ve  been  discussing  the  importance  of
spiritual growth to the development of  characters  in  Cervantes’  novellas
and Shakespeare’s plays.  The concept of a spiritual  journey  is  certainly
not unique.  Many authors have employed the idea that characters do need  to
change and grow in order to hold the attention of the audience.  In  stories
like “The Jealous Hidalgo” and “The  Liberal  Lover,”  Cervantes  shows  how
some characters absolutely need to change the way they think and act  before
they can consider themselves worthy of the  women  they  love.   Shakespeare
follows this pattern of spiritual growth and  restoration  in  The  Winter’s
Tale.  This play is somewhat unique in that  nearly  all  of  the  principle
characters have to improve themselves in some way, whether  it  is  learning
humility  or  learning  to  trust  true  vision.   In  The  Winter’s   Tale,
Shakespeare displays the destructive power of jealousy  and  the  incredible
potential for redemption that  all  humans  possess  through  the  spiritual
journeys of his characters.
As the play opens, all seems right with the world.  Leontes is teasing
his friend Polixenes, trying to convince him to extend his visit by  just  a
few more days.  Polixenes, who has  been  away  from  his  throne  for  nine
months, feels that it is time he returned to his own  country  and  attended
to his responsibilities.  When Leontes can’t convince  Polixenes  to  change
his mind, Leontes asks his wife, Hermione, to try persuading  him  as  well.
Hermione is possessed of great wit and intelligence, and she  uses  that  to
her advantage when she invites Polixenes to remain in  Sicily  for  a  while
longer.  She teases Polixenes and says he would “Force me to keep you  as  a
prisoner, not like a guest…How say  you  (I.ii.52-54)?”   Essentially  she
says she’ll have to lock up Polyxenes in order to keep him as a  guest  like
she and her husband want to do.  Leontes sees Hermione and Polixenes  having
this intimate conversation and touching each other’s hands and,  without  so
much as asking the two of them, assumes that they are having an affair.

This inherent  mistrust  for  women  is  nothing  new,  especially  in
Shakespearean times.  Leontes can’t trust  Hermione  because  he  can  never
know for sure that a child  she  carries  is  his.   There  is  always  that
possibility that she may have cheated on him and conceived  the  child  with
another man.  This kind of  mistrust  was  incredibly  apparent  during  the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  It helps to  explain  why  women  were
married off at such a young age and kept under constant supervision.

Hermione and Polixenes have no  idea  that  Leontes  suspects  such  a
thing.  The three of them have been  good  friends  for  many  years,  which
explains why Hermione feels comfortable enough  in  Polixenes’  presence  to
offer him her hand  or  sit  very  close  together.   Leontes,  however,  is
incredibly narcissistic and sees every action in the context of how it  will
reflect on him.  He doesn’t recognize Hermione as an individual person,  but
as an extension of himself.  Because of this, Leontes  feels  as  though  he
has cheated himself when he suspects Hermione of committing adultery.   Once
he makes these accusations, his incredible pride prevents  him  from  seeing
any other possible explanation for Hermione’s and Polixenes’ actions.

To punish his wife and friend, Leontes  has  Hermione  imprisoned  and
instructs Camillo to poison Polixenes.   Camillo  reflects,  rather  wisely,
that very little good ever came to the man who was responsible  for  killing
a king, and instead of poisoning Polixenes as he promised Leontes  he  would
do, Camillo warns Polixenes and  they  escape  to  Bohemia  together.   When
Leontes discovers this, he says, “Camillo was his help in this, his  pandar:
there is a plot against my life, my crown; all’s  true  that  is  mistrusted
(II.i.46-49).”  He sees it only as further proof that Polixenes  was  up  to
no good and that he probably hired Camillo from the  beginning  to  help  in
his seduction of Hermione.  Leontes even begins to  suspect  that  his  son,
Mamillius, may not even  be  his.   He  is  also  convinced  that  the  baby
Hermione is carrying has to be Polixenes’ child.

Hermione delivers her baby while in prison, and has Paulina  show  the
baby to Leontes, hoping that the innocence  of  their  daughter  might  move
Leontes to forget his cruel imaginings.  Rather than regard the baby  as  an
innocent,  Leontes  is  enraged  by  her  presence  and  orders   Antigonus,
Paulina’s husband, to carry the baby off and abandon it  in  the  wilderness
somewhere, but he only makes that choice after some  of  his  advisors  tell
him not to dash out the baby’s brains like  he  originally  planned  to  do.
Not long after this decision is made, the Oracle of Delphi sends  a  message
to Leontes, telling him “Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo  a
true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent  babe  truly  begotten;
and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not  found

When Mamillius discovers that his father has imprisoned his mother for
adultery, the boy – who was already suffering from some kind  of  illness  –
dies of grief.  A servant enters the hall to tell this to Leontes as  he  is
questioning Hermione just after he receives the  message  from  the  Oracle.
Hermione faints and is declared dead on the spot.  Only  then  does  Leontes
question his hasty judgment and more  closely  consider  the  words  of  the
Oracle.  In the space of a few days, Leontes has  attempted  to  murder  his
closest friend, falsely accused his wife of adultery, and caused  the  death
of Antigonus, his own son and  infant  daughter,  and  his  wife.   If  that
doesn’t make him a jealous tyrant, I can’t imagine what else would.

Now that he realizes the awful mistake he has made, Leontes begins his
spiritual journey towards self-improvement and redemption.  The Oracle  made
him see that he was wrong, but it is Paulina who guides  Leontes  and  makes
him face the consequences  of  his  actions.   For  sixteen  years,  Leontes
grieves over his wife and  children  and  commits  himself  to  running  his
country.  His advisor, Cleomenes, actually  tells  Leontes  “you  have  done
enough. And have perform’d a saint-like sorrow: no  fault  could  you  make,
which you have not redeem’d (V.i.1-3).”   He  also  agrees  to  never  marry
unless  Paulina  approves  the  match.   Through  the  years  of  grief  and
remembrance, Leontes learns to see Hermione as an individual rather than  an
extension of himself.  He also learns  humility,  as  seen  in  the  way  he
defers to Paulina’s judgment regarding his personal life.

Paulina, even though she is the guide on  Leonte’s  journey  to  self-
discovery, has her own spiritual growth to deal with.  She has  always  been
a noble and virtuous lady, but  in  The  Winter’s  Tale,  she  is  shown  as
somewhat cold and harsh in her  attitude  towards  other  characters.   When
Hermione dies, Paulina yells at  Leontes,  “Thy  tyranny,  together  working
with thy jealousies…o think what they have done, and then run mad  indeed:
stark mad (III.ii.179-183)!”  After the death of her husband, which  Leontes
is responsible for, she seems to mellow and soften  her  attitude  somewhat.
Though she is still  strict  in  her  morals,  Paulina  learns  to  be  more
compassionate and she also learns to forgive Leontes for his mistakes.

Perhaps the most unusual spiritual journey is that of  Hermione.   For
the sixteen years that she is thought to be dead, she doesn’t do  much.   In
truth, after she faints it is sixteen years before we see her again and  all
she does then is pretend to be a statue.  This might have  something  to  do
with the fact that she was nearly perfect to begin with.  All of  the  lords
and ladies in Leontes’ court implored him to forgive her or forget his  foul
suspicions.  One of his lords even says, “For her, my lord, I dare  my  life
lay down, and will do’t, sir, please you t’accept  it,  that  the  queen  is
spotless I’th’eyes of heaven, and to you – I mean in this which  you  accuse
her (II.i.129-133).”  Hermione is too  virtuous  a  person  to  ever  commit
adultery.  It’s  very  difficult  to  improve  on  someone  like  that,  yet
Hermione does change.

She is described as having more  wrinkles  when  they
first see her posing as the statue, and she has earned the lines  of  wisdom
that now appear on her face.  During her sixteen years in  hiding,  she  has
lived off of the hope that the Oracle’s prophecy  would  come  to  pass  and
Leontes would find their lost  daughter.   She  has  also  come  to  forgive
Leontes, and when he comes to see her statue, she reaches out to  him  first
and embraces him.  I suppose you could say that  Hermione  goes  from  near-
perfection to the real thing, at least on a spiritual level.

Her  suspected  partner-in-crime,  Polixenes,  also  has   a   smaller
spiritual journey.  He wasn’t a bad person to begin with, so his  redemption
doesn’t seem as dramatic or important as that of Leontes, but they do  share
certain similar qualities.  Like Leontes, Polixenes is very  proud  and  has
trouble seeing people as individuals.  He sees his son,  Florizel,  in  much
the same way Leontes saw Hermione – as  a  reflection  of  himself.   Rather
than treat him as an independent person with his own mind,  Polixenes  tries
to control his son.  He is also something of a snob, as you can see when  he
refuses to let Florizel marry Perdita because she isn’t from  a  wealthy  or
noble family.  However, Polixenes does have  true  vision  –  he  sees  that
Perdita has a noble quality about her that is beyond her current  status  as
a shepherd’s daughter.  Through his spiritual trials,  Polixenes  learns  to
use his true vision and he also has to forgive Leontes.

Polixenes’ son, Florizel, is nothing  if  not  the  typical  steadfast
lover.  He pledges himself to  Perdita  and  once  he  makes  that  promise,
nothing will make him go  back  on  it.   He  is  willing  to  give  up  his
inheritance and his station as a prince and member of  the  nobility  to  be
with a shepherd’s daughter.  There  is  an  innocence  about  Florizel  that
reminds Leontes of the days when he and Polixenes were growing up  together.
In many ways, Florizel reminds Leontes of  his  father.   Leontes  makes  a
comment that they look very much alike –  “Your  mother  was  most  true  to
wedlock, prince; for she did print your royal father  off,  conceiving  you.
Were I but twenty-one, you’re father’s image is so  hit  in  you,  his  very
air, that I should call you brother (V.i.123-128).”

But Florizel can’t rely  on  his  father  forever,  and  when  he  and
Polixenes fight over whether  he  can  marry  Perdita,  Florizel  makes  the
decision to leave Bohemia.  Camillo acts as his spiritual guide  and  steers
Florizel toward Sicilia, explaining to the young man that he could expect  a
warm welcome there and so could Perdita.  He tells Florizel to “…make  for
Sicilia,  and  there  present  yourself  and  your   fair   princess…’fore
Leontes…Methinks I see Leontes opening  his  free  arms  and  weeping  his
welcome forth (IV.iv.544-550).”  Even though they escape  his  wrath  for  a
short time, Florizel and Perdita still have to confront  Polixenes  when  he
shows up in Sicilia  as  well.   From  all  of  this,  Florizel  learns  the
importance of remaining steadfast and  he  also  declares  his  independence
from his father.

Camillo is another guiding force in the play.  It is his choice at the
beginning to warn Polixenes rather than poison him as Leontes asked  him  to
do.  Camillo is incredibly honorable and has a vast store of  common  sense,
which is more than can be said for many of the other characters,  especially
at the beginning of the play.  When Leontes asks him  to  poison  Polixenes’
drink, Camillo responds, “I must be the poisoner of good Polixenes,  and  my
ground to do’t is the obedience to a master  (I.ii.352-354).”   Just  a  few
lines later, though, Camillo is considering this proposition  and  comes  to
the conclusion that he wouldn’t kill Polixenes for honor’s  sake,  but  also
because very few people in legend and reality have lived well after  causing
the death of a king.  So rather than kill Polixenes, Camillo warns  him  and
they escape Sicily together.

For sixteen years, Camillo is exiled from  his
home and serves Polixenes in Bohemia though  he  misses  Sicily.   Camillo’s
journey is pretty much entirely physical.  He is already  an  honorable  and
intelligent person at the beginning of the play, although he  does  go  back
on his word to Leontes about killing Polixenes.  He’s also a little  devious
when he plans a way to get Florizel away from his angry  father.   He  sends
the boy and his mistress to Sicily, knowing that Polixenes  would  go  after
his son and probably invite Camillo to join him on the trip.  This  provides
Camillo with a plausible reason to go back to  Sicily,  even  though  he  is
banished from speaking or staying very long once  there  –  particularly  in
the presence of Leontes.

Perdita’s journey is rather strange  for  any  girl,  but  typical  of
pastoral plays  done  during  Shakespeare’s  lifetime.   Her  life  actually
parallel’s that of Cervantes’ “Gypsy Maid.”  Just like Preciosa, Perdita  is
separated from her family as an infant and taken in by people of much  lower
social status.  While Preciosa is raised a gypsy,  Perdita’s  life  takes  a
more pastoral tone as  the  adopted  daughter  of  a  shepherd.   Also  like
Preciosa, Perdita has  an  air  of  nobility  that  can’t  be  mistaken  for
anything else.  Her beauty and personality make it obvious  that  she  isn’t
really the daughter of a shepherd.

However,  she  seems  content  presiding
over the sheep-shearing festivities and she also appears  to  truly  believe
that the shepherd is her father.  She knows that Florizel  shouldn’t  really
marry someone of such low social status.  She tells  Florizel,  “To  me  the
difference forges dread…even now I tremble to think your father,  by  some
accident should pass this way  (IV.iv.17-20).”   And  she  truly  does  have
reason to fear this.  When Polixenes  discovers  that  his  son  intends  to
marry a  shepherd’s  daughter,  he  becomes  absolutely  furious.   When  he
removes his disguise  at  the  sheep-shearing  festival,  he  sentences  the
shepherd  to  death  for  raising  Perdita.   He  also  accuses  Perdita  of
bewitching Florizel and says he will “have thy beauty scratch’d with  briers
and made more homely than thy state (IV.iv.426-427).”

From then on, Perdita and Florizel must prove their  independence  and
they sail away to Sicilia so  that  they  can  be  together.   It  is  their
steadfast love and honor that redeem the  play.   The  older  generation  of
characters all have flaws, either real or imagined, that  have  to  do  with
them being inconsistent in love.  Leontes obviously invents a reason  to  be
jealous and kills his wife and children.  Hermione supposedly had an  affair
with Polixenes.  Camillo  deserted  one  master  for  another.   With  these
adults as his influences while growing up, it’s a wonder that  Florizel  can
be so steadfast and sure in his love for Perdita.

Perhaps it is Perdita herself – the complete innocent who  also  seems
wise beyond her years – who truly redeems her parents’ generation.  She  was
raised in the country and brought up  to  be  practical,  but  she  also  is
unable to hide her inner nobility.  Her influence on Florizel  may  be  what
allows him to remain so steady in their relationship.  It  probably  doesn’t
hurt that she’s beautiful beyond comparison and that he  is  madly  in  love
with her.

Mostly, though,  I  would  say  that  the  characters  had  to  redeem
themselves, especially Leontes.  He goes through sixteen years  of  grieving
and trying to atone for his mistakes, guided by Paulina the whole time.   He
feels incredibly guilty and probably very lonely now that  he  has  no  more
family.  Paulina helps Leontes to recognize his own flaws and, in  the  end,
is the person responsible for reuniting him with  Hermione.   In  the  scene
where the Hermione statue comes to life, Leontes  picks  up  immediately  on
the changes in her appearance – “Hermione was not so much wrinkled,  nothing
so aged as this seems (V.iii.28-29).”  He also picks up on her  posture  and
the way she stands – pointing out that Hermione  often  stood  in  the  same
way.  Had he not changed and remained as self-centered  as  he  was  at  the
beginning of the play, he would not have noticed these  subtle  changes  and
nuances of Hermione’s appearance.

The Winter’s Tale is not entirely unique in theme  –  many  plays  and
stories address the need for people to grow and change in order  to  improve
themselves.  However, Shakespeare has a way of bringing  his  characters  to
life that few other writers possess.  His language and tone  set  the  stage
for this sad tale of jealousy, loss and eventual redemption.  In this  play,
the principle characters are all flawed in some way, just like real  people.
Also like real people (college students especially), they  find  themselves
on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual learning in  order  to  improve
themselves or atone for wrongs they have done.

Shakespeare  displays  this
theme of self-improvement and a guided journey to spiritual  health  through
characters like Leontes and Paulina, Florizel and Camillo.  Each  must  find
his own path to redemption and walk it, but they all have  a  nudge  in  the
right direction.  Leontes, of course, gets the biggest nudge since  he  made
the biggest mistake.  Yet in the end, all of  the  characters  are  redeemed
and I suspect that they do live happily ever after.

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