Wednesday 22 September 2021

King Lear revisited

What can I possibly say about King Lear that hasn’t been said over the past 4 centuries? But I’m going to try anyway, and try to poke at it from different angles, because I first read King Lear several years ago at Universitetet i Oslo and didn’t like it very much at the time, and this is a rereading.

1/ I notice that Edmund uses a similar technique with Gloucester as Iago has used to manipulate Othello: he throws out something to get him intrigued, then pretends that it’s nothing or that he shouldn’t say, to make the listener more and more curious, then offers some fake proof and manipulates him in a subtle way. Contrast them both with Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: Don John is more direct and not so subtle, but he has a collaborator to add to his story, and also offers something that looks like more proof. 

Edmund and Iago are more similar, but unlike Iago, Edmund has his causes. 

“EDMUND Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law

My services are bound. Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit 

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelfth or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? 

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true, 

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base? Base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops

Got ‘tween asleep and awake? […]

Now, gods, stand up for bastards.” 

(Act 1 scene 2)

That is a great soliloquy. He is justifying his anger and his scheme, and he is convincing. I note that Edmund addresses Nature and gods, and later on Lear also addresses Nature and goddess when cursing Goneril.  

“LEAR […] Hear, Nature, hear; dear Goddess, hear: 

Suspend thy purpose of thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful. 

Into her womb convey sterility.

Dry up in her the organs of increase,

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honor her. If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.

Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,

With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,

Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits

To laughter and contempt, that she may feel

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child. Away, away!” 

(Act 1 scene 4)

That’s quite a curse (a bit much, no?). Ungrateful and despicable as Goneril is, I can’t help thinking that this says something about Lear.

I put these 2 passages next to each other because it’s interesting that both Edmund (the betrayer) and Lear (the betrayed) think Nature is on their sides.

The word “nature” (with its derivatives “natural” and “unnatural”) and “nothing” seem to be the 2 central words in King Lear, appearing over and over again throughout the play.

2/ More of Lear’s curses. 

“LEAR You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames

Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,

You fen-sucked fogs, drawn by the pow’rful sun,

To all and blister her pride.

REGAN O the blest gods!

So will you wish on me when the rash mood is on.” 

(Act 2 scene 4)

Later in the same scene, when Goneril is present, he calls her “a disease that’s in my flesh”, “a boil/ A plague-sore, or embossèd carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood”. This is horrific—it’s hard to read these lines and not think there’s a misogynist in Lear. I’m not defending Goneril and Regan—their villainy and cruelty need not be stated—but Lear’s language is graphic and his curses heavily focus on the body, the female body.

I also can’t help wondering, how was Lear as a king, before renouncing his power? How was he as a father? 

3/ See the thunderstorm.  

“KENT […] Things that love night 

Love not such nights as these. The wrathful skies

Gallow the very wanderers of the dark

And make them keep their caves. Since I was man, 

Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, 

Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never

Remember to have heard. Man’s nature cannot carry

Th’ affliction nor the fear.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The scene matches, and exceeds, the intensity of the scene of Faustus in hell. Again Lear addresses Nature, but this time it’s different.  

“LEAR Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow! 

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout 

Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks. 

You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world,

Crack Nature’s molds, all gremains spill at once,

That makes ingrateful man.” 


This is no longer hatred of one person—Lear is raging against the whole world. It is significant (though Tolstoy doesn’t think so) that Shakespeare creates the subplot of Gloucester, Edmund, and Edgar: Lear’s plight is not the plight of a single man. 

Interestingly, I found this on Wikipedia:

“Edmund and Edgar were also the names of the sons of Malcolm III of Scotland who killed Macbeth. Historically Edmund of Scotland had betrayed his immediate family to support his uncle Donald III. Following the death of Malcolm III from being stabbed in the eye, they ordered the killing of Edmund's half brother Duncan II, the rightful heir, to take the Scottish throne. Edgar, Edmund's younger brother, then returned to Scotland and defeated them to become King. Edmund was then sent to an English monastery where he later died. Due to these clear parallels the choice of Edmund and Edgar as names may have been a nod by Shakespeare to the continued story of the Scottish throne following the events of Macbeth.” 

Macbeth is dated after King Lear though. 

4/ One of the (silly) complaints Tolstoy makes about King Lear is that the characters don’t act the way they should (i.e. realistically) and don’t talk in a natural way. I notice that in the scene where Lear, Kent, and the Fool enter the hovel to hide from the storm, the Fool is rather quiet and barely jokes—is that not realistic? 

5/ I think in my first reading of King Lear several years ago, I missed the significance of the idea of necessities.

Lear gives away his authority and power, and makes himself dependent on the kindness of his daughters Goneril and Regan, but still keeps 100 men. Goneril wants to reduce that by half, then causes trouble to make him leave, whereas Regan insists that she wouldn’t accept more than 25 men at her place. They ask him why he would need more than 25 of his own men, when he can be served by Goneril’s or Regan’s servants. 

“LEAR O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous 

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”  

(Act 2 scene 4)

There is a storm outside but the daughters don’t budge, so Lear leaves in a rage (dare I say… Lear storms out?). The cruel Regan orders to have the doors shut.

In the open heath in the storm and tempest, Lear’s idea of necessities is slightly changed. Kent suggests seeking shelter in a hovel. Lear turns to the Fool:  

“LEAR […] Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold? 

I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow? 

The art of our necessities is strange,

That can make vile things precious.” 

(Act 3 scene 2)  

In the hovel, Lear comes across Edgar, who is hiding from Gloucester’s men and disguising himself as mad Tom o’ Bedlam. Edgar is almost naked, having only some cloth to cover himself, and lives in the hovel.

“LEAR Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated. Thou are the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here.

[Tearing off his clothes]”

(Act 3 scene 4)

(You may notice where the title of my graduation film No More Than This came from).

From the question of necessities, Shakespeare leads to the big question: What is it to be human? The betrayal, the loss, the suffering force Lear to see things and ask questions that never bothered him before, when he was king and everything revolved around him. 

Now compare this scene to the scene in the hut in Ran (Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of King Lear): the effect is very different that in Ran, the emperor Hidetora (now stripped off everything) meets a young man whom he himself blinded and whose family he killed. Hidetora is forced to face his own cruelties in the past, and feels guilt and remorse. In Shakespeare’s play, Lear meets Edgar and the encounter changes them both: Lear sees Edgar and asks “Is man no more than this?”; Edgar sees Lear suffering, and thinks “How light and portable my pain seems now”; they feel compassion for each other, and for all of humanity. 

6/ Evil in King Lear is extreme. When Goneril and Regan and others discover that Gloucester is a traitor, wanting to reinstate Lear to the throne:

“REGAN Hang him instantly.

GONERIL Pluck out his eyes.”

(Act 3 scene 7)

Having gouged out his eyes, Regan says:

“REGAN Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell

His way to Dover.” 


It is a horrible scene, I shuddered at that line. Earlier Lear asks:

“LEAR […] Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?” 

(Act 3 scene 6)

But he probably can’t imagine how evil his daughters can be. But where are the gods?   

“GLOUCESTER […] As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods, 

They kill us for their sport.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

It’s no surprise that Goneril and Regan turn against each other.

7/ The scene of Goneril and her husband Albany in Act 4 scene 2 reminds me of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Goneril calls Albany “milk-livered man”, Lady Macbeth refers to Macbeth’s “milk of human kindness”. 

I’ve never thought about how Shakespeare went from King Lear to Macbeth: there are similar themes, King Lear has a cosmic vision whereas in Macbeth, Shakespeare digs deeper into the mind; King Lear presents a vision of apocalypse, a world where all bonds are broken and things turn upside down, where father turns away daughter, brother turns against brother, daughters abandon father, son betrays father, servant turns against master, husband and wife fall out, sisters become jealous of each other, and so on, whereas Macbeth depicts the two main characters losing their soul and suffering the torments of hell on earth.

Lady Macbeth feels great guilt, Goneril and Regan are more evil. 

Now I’m idly wondering if it was the same boy actor in Shakespeare’s company who played both Lady Macbeth and either Goneril or Regan. Must have been.  

8/ In Act 4 scene 6, when the mad Lear appears in the field and starts rambling in front of Edgar and Gloucester, we get an idea of what it was like when he was king and everything revolved around him, and how much of a fall it has been after he gave away all power. It’s no wonder that this is his reaction earlier when Goneril starts treating him differently. 

“LEAR Does any here know me? This is not Lear. 

Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?

Either his notion weakens, or his discernings

Are lethargied—Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so.

Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

(Act 1 scene 4) 

But for me, the ramblings raise 2 questions. Firstly, what happened to Lear’s wife? There’s no mention of her. What was she like? 

Secondly, let’s look at this rant against women: 

“LEAR […] Behold yond simp’ring dame,

Whose face between her forks presages snow,

That minces virtue and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name. 

The fitchew, nor the soilèd horse, goes to ‘t

With a more riotous appetite. 

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above: 

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s.

There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit,

Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an once of civet; good apothecary, sweeten my imagination: there’s money for thee.” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

(fitchew= polecat, and slang for prostitute; soilèd= put to pasture, and hence wanton with feeding; Centaurs= lustful creatures, half man and half horse)

Why this rant against women? The undeniably evil Goneril and Regan are women, but so is good Cordelia. Why does Lear have such obsession, such disgust with the female body? 

I don’t buy the cheap explanation that the misogyny is Shakespeare’s—I have read, so far, 22 Shakespeare plays. So where does it come from? 

9/ This is one of the most moving exchanges in literature. 

“LEAR Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.

If you have poison for me, I will drink it. 

I know you do not love me, for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.

You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA No cause, no cause.” 

(Act 4 scene 7) 

The final scene, the final scene is heart-rending. That moment of Lear with Cordelia’s dead body:

“LEAR And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life?

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life? 

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never…” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

That made me cry. This and Desdemona’s death must be the most unbearable deaths in literature.

I love the play. 

Friday 17 September 2021

Reading Redburn

I’ve been to sea with Herman Melville a few times: on a whaler (Moby Dick), on a man-of-war (White-Jacket), and now on a merchant ship. 

Redburn is one of the two books Melville wrote for money after Mardi and (2 years) before Moby Dick, but it’s not an angry book like White-Jacket. Compared to both Moby Dick and White-Jacket, it is plainer, more straightforward, with more of a plot. 

“It was early on a raw, cold, damp morning toward the end of spring, and the world was before me; stretching away a long muddy road, lined with comfortable houses, whose inmates were taking their sunrise naps, heedless of the wayfarer passing. The cold drops of drizzle trickled down my leather cap, and mingled with a few hot tears on my cheeks.” (Ch.2) 


“Talk not of the bitterness of middle-age and after life; a boy can feel all that, and much more, when upon his young soul the mildew has fallen; and the fruit, which with others is only blasted after ripeness, with him is nipped in the first blossom and bud. And never again can such blights be made good; they strike in too deep, and leave such a scar that the air of Paradise might not erase it. And it is a hard and cruel thing thus in early youth to taste beforehand the pangs which should be reserved for the stout time of manhood, when the gristle has become bone, and we stand up and fight out our lives, as a thing tried before and foreseen; for then we are veterans used to sieges and battles, and not green recruits, recoiling at the first shock of the encounter.” (ibid.)

That of course is not plain prose—we’re talking about Melville—but place it next to Moby Dick and you’ll see what I mean. The first passage however reminds me of “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”. Moby Dick fans may like this: 

“But though I kept thus quiet, and had very little to say, and well knew that my best plan was to get along peaceably with every body, and indeed endure a good deal before showing fight, yet I could not avoid Jackson’s evil eye, nor escape his bitter enmity. And his being my foe, set many of the rest against me; or at least they were afraid to speak out for me before Jackson; so that at last I found myself a sort of Ishmael in the ship, without a single friend or companion; and I began to feel a hatred growing up in me against the whole crew—so much so, that I prayed against it, that it might not master my heart completely, and so make a fiend of me, something like Jackson.” (Ch.12)

“A sort of Ishmael”! As for Jackson, that’s an important character in the novel, I may blog about him later.  

Some of the best passages in Redburn are about the ocean: 

“And truly, though we were at sea, there was much to behold and wonder at; to me, who was on my first voyage. What most amazed me was the sight of the great ocean itself, for we were out of sight of land. All round us, on both sides of the ship, ahead and astern, nothing was to be seen but water—water—water; not a single glimpse of green shore, not the smallest island, or speck of moss any where. Never did I realize till now what the ocean was: how grand and majestic, how solitary, and boundless, and beautiful and blue; for that day it gave no tokens of squalls or hurricanes, such as I had heard my father tell of; nor could I imagine, how any thing that seemed so playful and placid, could be lashed into rage, and troubled into rolling avalanches of foam, and great cascades of waves, such as I saw in the end.

As I looked at it so mild and sunny, I could not help calling to mind my little brother’s face, when he was sleeping an infant in the cradle. It had just such a happy, careless, innocent look; and every happy little wave seemed gamboling about like a thoughtless little kid in a pasture; and seemed to look up in your face as it passed, as if it wanted to be patted and caressed. They seemed all live things with hearts in them, that could feel; and I almost felt grieved, as we sailed in among them, scattering them under our broad bows in sun-flakes, and riding over them like a great elephant among lambs. But what seemed perhaps the most strange to me of all, was a certain wonderful rising and falling of the sea; I do not mean the waves themselves, but a sort of wide heaving and swelling and sinking all over the ocean. It was something I can not very well describe; but I know very well what it was, and how it affected me. It made me almost dizzy to look at it; and yet I could not keep my eyes off it, it seemed so passing strange and wonderful.” (Ch.12)

Wellingborough Redburn is no Ishmael, but in such passages, he does sound like Ishmael, in his sense of wonder and his love of the ocean. This is even better: 

“Yes! yes! give me this glorious ocean life, this salt-sea life, this briny, foamy life, when the sea neighs and snorts, and you breathe the very breath that the great whales respire! Let me roll around the globe, let me rock upon the sea; let me race and pant out my life, with an eternal breeze astern, and an endless sea before!” (Ch.13) 

That passage would fit right in Moby Dick. Ishmael’s voice is one of the reasons I love the book. 

“I must now run back a little, and tell of my first going aloft at middle watch, when the sea was quite calm, and the breeze was mild.

The order was given to loose the main-skysail, which is the fifth and highest sail from deck. It was a very small sail, and from the forecastle looked no bigger than a cambric pocket-handkerchief. But I have heard that some ships carry still smaller sails, above the skysail; called moon-sails, and skyscrapers, and cloud-rakers. But I shall not believe in them till I see them; a skysail seems high enough in all conscience; and the idea of any thing higher than that, seems preposterous. Besides, it looks almost like tempting heaven, to brush the very firmament so, and almost put the eyes of the stars out; when a flaw of wind, too, might very soon take the conceit out of these cloud-defying cloud-rakers.” (Ch.16) 

I love that: “tempting heaven”. 

Now look at this passage about fog: 

“What is this that we sail through? What palpable obscure? What smoke and reek, as if the whole steaming world were revolving on its axis, as a spit?

It is a Newfoundland Fog; and we are yet crossing the Grand Banks, wrapt in a mist, that no London in the Novemberest November ever equaled. The chronometer pronounced it noon; but do you call this midnight or midday? So dense is the fog, that though we have a fair wind, we shorten sail for fear of accidents; and not only that, but here am I, poor Wellingborough, mounted aloft on a sort of belfry, the top of the “Sampson-Post,” a lofty tower of timber, so called; and tolling the ship’s bell, as if for a funeral.

This is intended to proclaim our approach, and warn all strangers from our track.

Dreary sound! toll, toll, toll, through the dismal mist and fog.

[…] A better device than the bell, however, was once pitched upon by an ingenious sea-captain, of whom I have heard. He had a litter of young porkers on board; and while sailing through the fog, he stationed men at both ends of the pen with long poles, wherewith they incessantly stirred up and irritated the porkers, who split the air with their squeals; and no doubt saved the ship, as the geese saved the Capitol.” (Ch.20) 

Redburn is more straightforward and Melville himself didn’t think much of it, but in passages such as these, the book approaches the greatness of Moby Dick

Monday 13 September 2021

G. Wilson Knight on The Tempest

This essay is in The Crown of Life

“Prospero is a composite of many Shakespearian heroes; not in ‘character’ , since there is no one quite like him elsewhere, but rather in his fortunes and the part he plays. As a sovereign wrongfully dethroned he carries the overtones of tragic royalty enjoyed by Richard II. Ejected from his dukedom by a wicked brother […] he is placed, too, like the unfortunate Duke in As You Like It and as Don Pedro might have been placed had don John’s rebellion succeeded in Much Ado About Nothing. Clarence, Orlando and Edgar suffer from similar betrayals.” 

Here Knight writes about ingratitude and the sense of desertion and betrayal that runs through many Shakespeare plays. It seems to be one of Shakespeare’s obsessions. 

“Prospero, like Timon and Bellarius—for Bellarius is another, driven to the mountains by the ingratitude of Cymberline—lives (presumably) in a cave; like Timon, by the sea. 

He is akin, too, to all princes whose depth of understanding accompanies or succeeds political failure: to Hamlet, Brutus, Richard II, Henry VI. […] Prospero is in straight descent from those other impractical governors, Agamemnon in Troilus and Cressida […]; and Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, in Measure for Measure, whose depth of study and psychological insight make execution of justice impossible. All these are in Prospero; while the surrounding action, both serious and comic, condenses the whole of Shakespeare’s political wisdom.” 

I think the character closest to Prospero is Vincentio—both manipulate the plot, like a god.  

“Prospero epitomizes nearly all Shakespeare’s most important tragic persons and experiences, and all of political enlightenment and magic, plot-directing power: he is a blend of Theseus and Oberon. He cannot be expected to do more than typify; there is not time; and, as a person, he is, no doubt, less warm, less richly human, than most of his poetic ancestors. But only if we recognize his inclusiveness, his summing of nearly all Shakespeare’s most eminent persons, shall we understand clearly what he is about. […] Prospero is controlling, not merely a Shakespearian play, but the Shakespearian world. He is thus automatically in the position of Shakespeare himself, and it is accordingly inevitable that he should often speak as with Shakespeare’s voice.” 

That is a bold statement, but Knight isn’t alone in associating Prospero with Shakespeare. After all, lots of critics read Prospero’s “I’ll drown my book” speech as the playwright saying farewell to theatre. 

Next he links Ariel to characters in other Shakespeare plays, and says: 

“… [Ariel] personifies these subtle and overruling powers of the imagination, he becomes automatically a personification of poetry itself. […] He is the poetic medium, whatever the subject handled, his powers ranging over the earthy and the ethereal, tragic and lyric, with equal ease.” 

Is that mad? I think it makes sense. 

“He is Prospero’s instrument in controlling and developing the action. […] He is Prospero’s stage-manager; more, he is the enactor of Prospero’s conception: Prospero is the artist, Ariel the art.”

I’m cutting a lot out and keeping the main points, you have to read the entire essay to see Knight’s arguments. But what about Caliban? you ask. 

“Caliban condenses Shakespeare’s concern, comical or satiric, with the animal aspect of man…” 

This is followed by a rather long passage, full of arguments and comparisons to other characters in Shakespeare, that I’m too lazy to type. Then Knight says:  

“In him is the ugliness of sexual appetite from Lucrece onwards, and also the ugliness vice raises in those who too much detest it, the ugliness of hatred itself and loathing, the ugliness of Leontes. Man, savage, ape, water-beast, dragon, semi-devil—Caliban is all of them; and because he so condenses masses of great poetry, is himself beautiful. He is the physical as opposed to the spiritual; earth and water as opposed to air and fire. That he may, like Ariel, be considered in closest relation to Prospero himself is witness by Prospero’s admission: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ (V.i.275).” 

This is much more interesting than the reading of Ariel and Caliban as the intelligent slave and the not-so-intelligent slave. 

“Prospero uses his tempest-magic to draw his enemies to the island, and there renders them harmless. He wrecks and saves, teaches through disaster, entices and leads by music, getting them utterly under his power, redeeming and finally forgiving. What are the Shakespearian analogies? The poet himself labours to master and assimilate that unassuaged bitterness and sense of rejection so normal a lot to humanity (hence the popularity of Hamlet) by drawing the hostile elements within his own world of artistic creation; and this he does mainly through tragedy and its thunderous music; and by seeing that, in spite of logic, his creation is good. By destroying his protagonists, he renders them deathless; by expressing evil, in others and in himself, he renders it innocent. And throughout this tumult of creative activity, turning every grief to a star, making of his very loathing something ‘rich and strange’, there is a danger: a certain centre of faith or love must be preserved, this centre at least kept free from the taint of that rich, wild, earthy, lustful, violent, cursing, slimy yet glittering thing that is creation itself, or Caliban; that uses cynicism (born of the knowledge of lust) to ruin Desdemona, though not Othello’s love for her; that tries in vain, but only just in vain, to make of Timon an Apemantus. Therefore Prospero keeps Miranda intact, though threatened by Caliban…”

The interpretation of Prospero as Shakespeare is also more attractive because the epilogue is spoken by Prospero. This doesn’t mean that The Tempest has just one meaning—it is a rich play and there are many interpretations, G. Wilson Knight himself also offers a political reading of the play, and mentions the interpretation of Prospero as God and the shipwreck as the tragic destiny of humankind. But this is interesting nevertheless. 

What do you think?

(I’m probably doing the essay injustice, throwing out certain bits like this—you must read all of it yourself). 

Sunday 12 September 2021

G. Wilson Knight on The Winter’s Tale

After The Wheel of Fire, I’ve been reading The Crown of Life, G. Wilson Knight’s book about Shakespeare’s late plays (the 4 romance plays and Henry VIII). As expected, it is excellent.

This is him on Leontes’s evil: 

“His evil is self-born and unmotivated. Commentators have searched in vain for ‘motives’ to explain the soul-states and actions of Hamlet, Iago and Macbeth, without realizing that the poet is concerned not with trivialities, but with evil itself, whose cause remains as dark as theology; given a ‘sufficient’ motive, the thing to be studied vanishes. In Leontes we have a study of evil yet more coherent, realistic and compact; a study of almost demonic possession.”

As written in my blog post about The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare, when borrowing from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, cuts out the beginning and the development and throws us right into the middle of the madness. The lack of motivation makes Leontes a lot more interesting. 

Back to Knight: 

“Leontes dimply recognizes that he is behaving as a tyrant, using position and power to bolster up and enforce on others a disease in himself. […] He is insecure enough to want support, would convince himself of ‘natural goodness’; but failing support, will go his own way. […]

In the full flood of anger, when his lords kneel, imploring him to spare the new-born child, he is indecisive and gives ground, muttering: ‘I am a feather for each wind that blows’ (II.iii.153). We cannot admire him, as we admire Richard III, the later Macbeth, and Milton’s Satan, for a whole-hearted Satanism. Nor can we sympathize, as with Othello. The emotion aroused is rather a stern pity. He himself knows that to be mistaken in such a matter were ‘piteous’ (II.i.181; cp. Also III.ii.235). More, it is almost comic: Antigonus suggests that the public scandal will raise everyone ‘to laughter’ (II.i.197). Indeed, of all Shakespeare’s jealous husbands Leontes is nearest to Ford, existing in almost comic objectivity, though without one atom’s loss of tragic intensity. We have in him a sharp personification of the blend so obvious in the wider design.” 

I have not thought of it that way. Knight writes at length about tyranny and superstition (also in Richard III and Macbeth), about evil, about childhood as a redeeming force, about nature, etc. The entire essay should be read, I’m just picking out some passages I find particularly interesting.    

“No full-length Shakespearean tragedy reaches the intensity of these three acts: they move with a whirling, sickening, speed. Leontes is more complex than Othello as a study of jealousy and more realistically convincing than Macbeth as a study of evil possession. In him are blended the Renaissance, man-born, evil projected through Iago and the medieval supernaturalism of the Weird Sisters. He and his story also include both the personal, family, interest of Othello and the communal, tyrannic, theme of Macbeth, whilst defining their relation; that is, the relation of emotional and sexual unhealthy to tyranny; hence the repeated emphasis here on ‘tyrant’ and the opposing concepts of justice and constitutional law.” 

Do I agree with the first sentence? Perhaps, I’m not sure. But it’s interesting that Knight links The Winter’s Tale to not only Othello (which is obvious) but also Macbeth—he has a point. As a side note, that does (partly) explain why I love The Winter’s Tale, as Macbeth and Othello (together with Measure for Measure) are the Shakespeare plays that obsess me the most. 

In the second section of the essay, G. Wilson Knight writes about the second part of The Winter’s Tale—the pastoral part. Some readers may complain about the change in mode and what they perceive as a lack of unity, but Knight doesn’t. 

“Shakespeare’s genius is labouring to pit his own more positive intuitions, expressed hitherto mainly through happy-ending romance and comedy, against tragedy: they are to work as redeeming forces.” 

He writes about Autolycus, the sheep-shearing scene, and the romance, and says: 

“The sun has not been so honoured before. We have known the moon-silvered encounters of Romeo and Juliet and glimmering tangles of the ‘wood near Athens’; also the cypress shadows of Twelfth Night and chequered glades of Arden; but never before, not even in Antony and Cleopatra—a necessary step, where sun-warmth was, however, felt mainly through description, the action itself searching rather for ‘gaudy’ (III.xi.182) or moonlight nights—never before has the sun been so dramatically awakened, so close to us, as here; and there is a corresponding advance in love poetry, compassing, though with no loss of magic, strong fertility suggestion and a new, daylight assurance.” 

The joy of reading a brilliant critic like G. Wilson Knight is that he helps me notice things to which I didn’t pay much attention. The idea of Perdita’s royal blood is repeated several times and has great significance (“Nothing she does or seems/ But smacks of something greater than herself/ Too noble for this place”).

“But this is not the whole truth. Later, after Polixenes’ outburst, she herself makes a comment more easily appreciated in our age than in Shakespeare’s: 

I was not much afeard; for once or twice 

I was about to speak and tell him plainly,

The self-same sun that shines upon his court 

Hides not his visage from our cottage, but

Looks on alike.


The lovely New Testament transposition (with ‘sun’ for ‘rain’) serves to underline the natural excellence and innate worth of this simple rustic community; and only from some such recognition can we make full of sense of the phrase ‘queen of curds and cream’ (IV.iii.161). We may accordingly re-group our three royalties in terms of (i) Perdita’s actual descent, (ii) her natural excellence and (iii) that more inclusive category from which both descend, or to which both aspire, in the eternity-dimension.” 

That is interesting.

In this section, Knight also writes about Autolycus and I don’t really agree with his view of Autolycus and the “unnecessarily cruel turn”, but that’s largely because I don’t find the early Autolycus particularly likable and sympathetic. My sympathy, from the start, is with the shepherd’s son (the clown) and against Autolycus. I also don’t agree with Knight’s view of Falstaff: he is right that Falstaff is less amusing in Henry IV, Part 2, but to me that isn’t a fault—part of Falstaff is killed when he’s rejected by Hal. It is a great play, it just has different qualities compared to Part 1

The last section of the chapter is about the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, and about the play as a whole. It is brilliant, but I won’t copy any passages here, you should read the entire essay. Shakespeare fans, get The Crown of Life and The Wheel of Fire

Antony and Cleopatra

1/ How could anyone read Shakespeare and not be in awe of the language? 

“ANTONY Let Rome in Tiber melt, and my wide arch

Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space, 

Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike 

Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life

Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair 

And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,

On pain of punishment, the world to weet 

We stand up peerless.” 

(Act 1 scene 1)

Antony and Cleopatra first appear like lovesick teenagers. Some messengers come from Rome, so Cleopatra taunts him and gets the reaction she wants: “Let Rome in Tiber melt”.

Now look at this passage—Cleopatra doesn’t know where Antony is, and sends Charmian to get him: 

“CLEOPATRA See where he is, who’s with him, what he does: 

I did not send you. If you find him sad, 

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

That I am sudden sick. Quick, and return.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

The exchange between Antony and Cleopatra in this scene is magnificent: she is being theatrical, playing the role of a spurned lover and cutting in whenever he’s about to speak, and the character feels so real, so alive, so “modern”. People don’t seem to have changed much. 

It’s a pity that Cleopatra uses the same trick again later, and realises it’s inappropriate when it’s too late. 

“ENOBARBUS […] her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love. We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a show’r of rain as well as Jove.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

I like that the highest praise of Cleopatra—the most famous line about the character—doesn’t come from Antony: 

“ENOBARBUS […] Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety: other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies; for vilest things

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests 

Bless her when she is riggish.” 

(Act 2 scene 2) 


2/ I didn’t expect to find a eunuch in Shakespeare. 

“CLEOPATRA […] ‘tis well for thee 

That, being unseminared, thy freer thoughts 

May not fly forth of Egypt. Hast thou affections? 

MARDIAN Yes, gracious madam. 


MARDIAN Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing 

But what indeed is honest to be done: 

Yet have I fierce affections, and think

What Venus did with Mars.” 

(Act 1 scene 5) 

(Unseminared means unsexed). 

It’s a pity that the dramatic Cleopatra changes the subject and again talks about Antony “Where think’st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?...”, because I want to hear more about Mardian. Shakespeare can get us interested in very small characters, with just a few lines. 


“CLEOPATRA […] O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!...” 


Yep, I’m adding Cleopatra to the list of horny women in Shakespeare.

3/ My favourite scenes are perhaps the ones where Cleopatra are present, or discussed by other characters. 

“CLEOPATRA […] There is gold and here

My bluest veins to kiss, a hand that kings

Have lipped, and trembled kissing.” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

When she’s mad, the language is still fascinating.

“CLEOPATRA […] Horrible villain! Or I’ll spurn thine eyes 

Like balls before me: I’ll unhair thy head, 

Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine,

Smarting in ling’ring pickle.” 


I should steal those lines. 

“CLEOPATRA Some innocents’ scape not the thunderbolt. 

Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures 

Turn all to serpents!” 


Next to her, Octavia is insipid.

Cleopatra doesn’t look so good in battle however. 

“SCARUS […] Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt—

Whom leprosy o’ertake!—i’ th’ midst o’ th’ fight, 

When vantage like a pair of twins appeared, 

Both as the same, or rather ours the elder, 

The breese upon her, like a cow in June, 

Hoists sails, and flies.” 

(Act 3 scene 5) 

HAHAHAHAHA “like a cow in June”. 

Antony doesn’t look much better either: 

“SCARUS She once being loofed, 

The noble ruin of her magic, Antony, 

Claps on his sea wing, and (like a doting mallard) 

Leaving the fight in height, flies after her. 

I never saw an action of such shame; 

Experience, manhood, honor, ne’er before

Did violate so itself.” 


(Breese means gadfly, with pun on breeze; mallard is wild duck).

Antony’s speech of shame in the following scene is moving. 

4/ Enobarbus is perhaps the most clear-sighted character in the play: he knows Lepidus is the weakest of the triumvirate, he sees through Antony’s marriage with Octavia (Caesar’s sister) and predicts that “the band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity” (Act 2 scene 6), he knows that Antony is besotted with Cleopatra and will return to her (more than Antony knows it himself)…

Enobarbus also has some of the best lines in the play. See this moment when Enobarbus watches the drunken Antony, after shamefully running away from battle, want to challenge Caesar to a one-on-one combat: 

“ENOBARBUS [Aside] Yes, like enough: high-battled Caesar will 

Unstate his happiness and be staged to ‘th show

Against a sworder! I see men’s judgments are

A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward 

Do draw the inward quality after them 

To suffer all alike. That he should dream,

Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will 

Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued 

His judgment too.” 

(Act 3 scene 8)

I love that bit, “answer his emptiness”. 

Another great line: 

“ENOBARBUS [Aside] ‘Tis better playing with a lion’s whelp 

Than with an old one dying.” 



“ENOBARBUS Now he’ll outstate the lightning. To be furious 

Is to be frighted out of fear, and in that mood

The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still

A diminution in our captain’s brain

Restores his heart. When valor preys on reason,

It eats the sword it fights with…” 


And so Enobarbus leaves Antony to join Caesar. In Caesar’s camp, he realises his own mistake. 

“ENOBARBUS […] I have done ill,

Of which I do accuse myself so sorely

That I will joy no more.” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

But his soliloquy, his soliloquy after he gets the message from Antony is so deeply moving.

“ENOBARBUS I am alone the villain of the earth, 

And feel I am so most. O, Antony,

Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid

My better service, when my turpitude

Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.

If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean

Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do’t, I feel. 

I fight against thee! No, I will go seek

Some ditch wherein to die: the foul’s best fits

My latter part of life.” 


This must be one of the most moving moments in all of Shakespeare. His later speech before the moon is also great, but this moment somehow touches me more deeply. 

5/ I’ve realised that this is not a very good blog post, as I mostly quote the play and have very little to say, but…

Anyway, I love this speech from Anthony: 

“ANTONY Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,

A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,

A towered citadel, a pendant rock, 

A forkèd mountain, or blue promontory 

With trees upon’t that nod unto the world 

And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs: 

They are black vesper’s pageants.


That which is now a horse, even with a thought 

The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct

As water is in water.” 

(Act 4 scene 14) 

(black vesper’s pageants= evening’s brightly coloured but unreal scenery; pageants: floats of the mystery plays, hence plays, masques, etc.; even… dislimns= as swift as thought the cloud formation (rack) obliterates)

What a magnificent speech. 

He continues: 

“ANTONY My good knave, Eros, now thy captain is

Even such a body: here I am Antony,

Yet cannot hold this visible shape…” 


Tony Tanner says: 

“He is in fact moving towards physical invisibility, because Antony, the name, the individual, the specific and world-famous identity, can no longer ‘hold’ onto his bodily shape. He is moving out, moving through, moving beyond; melting, but also transcending the final barrier—the body itself.” (Introduction) 

And so he takes his armour off, discarding it. 

“… it is almost as though he is taking his body to pieces and throwing it away—‘Bruised pieces, go’ does seem almost to refer to the body as well, for it is that ‘frail case’ which he now wishes to burst free from. The body is the final boundary.” (ibid.) 

6/ Antony is multifaceted: in some scenes, he’s a foolish man and a bad politician who neglects his duties because of a woman; in some other scenes, he’s a brave soldier; in one scene, he acts like an old lion that is dying, naïvely sending Caesar a challenge to a one-on-one combat and whipping his messenger; in another scene, he accepts Enobarbus’s desertion with great nobility and magnanimity; throughout the play he’s presented as human, full of flaws and even ordinary, but in the last 2 acts and especially after his death, he’s achieved a god-like status. 

Frank Kermode mentions the scene where the soldiers hear the ominous music that means Hercules is abandoning Antony (Act 4 scene 3), and says: 

“In twenty-one lines it does much, giving to the fate of Antony a quasi-mythological grandeur which henceforth infuses much of the verse. Enobarbus deserts “O, my fortunes have/ Corrupted honest men!” (IV.v.16-17). But the tones of imperial grandeur persists. Anthony scores an inconclusive victory and greets Cleopatra as if she were more than human, calling her “this great fairy” (IV.viii.12), while she gives him the welcome due to a god: 

Lord of lords! 

O infinite virtue, com’st thou smiling from 

The world’s great snare uncaught? 


The marvel is that in this play bombast, or what ought to be at best nickel silver, is somehow transmuted into fine gold.” (Shakespeare’s Language

And then comes Cleopatra’s speech to Dolabella about Antony. She re-creates him. Or as Tony Tanner puts it:

“Cleopatra’s image of Antony out-imagines the imagination, out-dreams dream.” (Introduction) 

This is a great play, especially the last 2 acts. Let’s hope I have more to say next time I read the play. 

Sunday 5 September 2021

G. Wilson Knight on Hamlet

I’ve been reading and very much enjoying G. Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire

Both of his essays on Hamlet are brilliant and should be read in full, but there are some major points that I find particularly interesting. 

The general thought of death and the pain in Hamlet’s mind are suffused throughout the whole play, but: 

“… the play, as a whole, scarcely gives us that sense of blackness and the abysms of spiritual evil which we find in Macbeth; nor is there the universal gloom of King Lear. Macbeth, the protagonist and heroic victim of evil, rises gigantic from the murk of an evil universe; Lear, the king of suffering, towers over a universe that itself toils in pain.” 

The atmospheres in Macbeth and King Lear, Knight argues, support the mental universe of the hero but it’s not so in Hamlet.  

“Except for the original murder of Hamlet’s father, the Hamlet universe is one of healthy and robust life, good-nature, humour, romantic strength, and welfare: against this background is the figure of Hamlet pale with the consciousness of death. He is the ambassador of death walking amid life.”

We don’t need to see the world through Hamlet’s eyes. Knight also challenges the common idea of Hamlet as a noble hero and Claudius as a cruel villain or hardened criminal: Claudius indeed kills his brother to become king, but he does love Gertrude, feels remorse, and is a good king; Gertrude is a kind, loving woman, torn between her love for Hamlet and her love for Claudius; Hamlet is intelligent and has his noble side, but readers tend to romanticise and sentimentalise him, and ignore his cruel, cynical, and sardonic side.

Claudius “is distinguished by a creative and wise action, a sense of purpose, benevolence, a faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen.” 

“In short he is very human. Now these are the very qualities Hamlet lacks. Hamlet is inhuman. He has seen through humanity. And this inhuman cynicism, however justifiable in this case on the plane of causality and individual responsibility, is a deadly and venomous thing. […] The other persons are firmly drawn, in the round, creatures of flesh and blood. But Hamlet is not of flesh and blood, he is a spirit of penetrating intellect and cynicism and misery, without faith in himself or anyone else, murdering his love of Ophelia, on the brink of insanity, taking delight in cruelty, torturing Claudius, wringing his mother’s heart, a poison in the midst of a healthy bustle of the court.” 

Knight doesn’t deny that Hamlet is intelligent and right about others’ hypocrisy and deceit, but his philosophy is the negation of life, it is death, and Hamlet is understandably seen as a threat. 

I don’t agree with Knight about everything—for example, I despise Polonius, whom he sees as “eminently lovable”, and I think he goes too far in defending Claudius and praising his virtues—but his arguments are compelling and he does have a point about Hamlet’s cruelty and cynicism, and Claudius’s good qualities. 

Here is his interpretation of Hamlet’s delay: 

“Adieu, Adieu, Hamlet, remember me. (I. V. 91) 

Hamlet does not neglect his father’s final behest—he obeys it, not wisely but only too well. Hamlet remembers—not alone his father’s ghost, but all the death of which it is a symbol. What would have been the use of killing Claudius? Would that have saved his mother’s honour, have brought life to his father’s mouldering body, have enabled Hamlet himself, who had so long lived in death, to have found again childish joy in the kisses of Ophelia? Would that have altered the universal scheme? To Hamlet, the universe smells of mortality; and his soul is sick to death.”

That makes sense. 

(This is one of the things I love about Shakespeare: his plays are complex and full of layers of meaning so there can be multiple interpretations that are very different but still coherent and compelling).

Saturday 4 September 2021

The Winter’s Tale [Updated]

1/ Jealousy seems to be one of Shakespeare’s obsessions, but if Claudio and Othello are tricked and manipulated by someone else, Leontes’s jealousy is self-generated and seems to come out of nowhere. I feel thrown into the madness. 

“LEONTES [Aside] Too hot, too hot!

To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods. 

I have tremor cordis on me; my heart dances, 

But not for joy, not joy. This entertainment

May a free face put on, derive a liberty

From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom, 

And well become the agent—‘t may, I grant; 

But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,

As now they are, and making practiced smiles

As in a looking glass; and then to sigh, as ‘twere 

The mort o’ th’ deer—oh, that is entertainment

My bosom likes not, nor my brows. Mamillius, 

Art thou my boy?” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Where does that come from? He asks his son Mamillius again “you wanton calf/ Art thou my calf?”. According to Tony Tanner, in the source Pandosto, Robert Greene writes about the friend’s visit and the closeness between him and the wife so the suspicion is partly explained, if not justified, but Shakespeare cuts all of it out and throws us into the middle of the madness, emphasising the out-of-nowhereness of Leontes’s jealousy and making it an outburst, an eruption. 

Throughout his career, Shakespeare pushes the theme of jealousy further and further: in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio (mistakenly) thinks he sees Hero having sex with a man the night before the wedding; in Othello, Othello doesn’t see any act, any inappropriate behaviour, all he has is Iago’s words and the handkerchief as proof; and now in this late play The Winter’s Tale, there is nothing, no Iago, no Don John, nothing, and Leontes just convinces himself that Hermione cheats on him with his old friend Polixenes and that they plot to kill him, with help from Camillo (Leontes’s lord). 

Look at this conversation between Emilia and Desdemona:

“EMILIA Pray heaven it be

State matters, as you think, and no conception 

Nor no jealous toy concerning you.

DESDEMONA Alas the day! I never gave him cause.

EMILIA But jealous souls will not be answered so;

They are not ever jealous for the cause,

But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster

Begot upon itself, born on itself.” 

(Othello, Act 3 scene 4)

I reckon the idea has entered Leontes’s mind before the scene, but it seems to be confirmed to him when Polixenes agrees to stay longer, at Hermione’s entreaties. Tony Tanner says: 

“His next three speeches, and then his soliloquy after Hermione and Polixenes have left to walk in the garden, are among the most extraordinary Shakespeare ever wrote. I know nothing else in literature which so tellingly dramatizes a mind procuring its own unease. At times seeming to talk to his uncomprehending young son, but really talking semi-coherently to himself in what Tillyard called ‘hot and twisted words’, Leontes is diving into the unfathomable depths of self-generate jealousy, the perverse, male, masochistic relish of imagined sexual betrayal which Shakespeare has keenly eyed in previous plays.” (Introduction) 

Interestingly, I note that in fits of jealousy, both Leontes and Othello use very crude language with animal imagery. 

2/ I don’t quite like the phrase “strong woman” because of its ubiquity today and its associations, but Hermione is a strong woman. Look at her reaction when Leontes, for no reason, accuses her of adultery and sends her to prison: 

“HERMIONE […] Good my lords,

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex

Commonly are; the want of which vain dew 

Perchance shall dry your pities. But I have 

That honourable grief lodged here which burns

Worse than tears drown. Beseech you all, my lords, 

With thoughts so qualified as your charities 

Shall best instruct you, measure me; and so 

The King’s will be performed!” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

She neither cries nor begs, and continues: 

“HERMIONE […] Do not weep, good fools; 

There is no cause; when you shall know your mistress 

Has deserved prison, then abound in tears, 

As I come out; this action I now go on 

Is for my better grace. Adieu, my lord. 

I never wished to see you sorry; now

I trust I shall. My women come, you have leave.” 


Compared to Othello, Leontes is much more irrational, he convinces himself of his wife’s infidelity without a shred of evidence and without anyone feeding him such thoughts—in fact, everyone doubts it and believes Hermione, but he listens to nobody. It is terrifying, and it’s even more terrifying because he has much more power than Othello: Leontes is a king. 

That makes it even more interesting when Paulina (wife of Antigonus, a lord) stands up against Leontes and argues with him. The scene reminds me of Emilia in Othello, but above Othello are the duke and some others, whereas there’s no one above Leontes.  

“LEONTES I’ll ha’ thee burned. 

PAULINA I care not; 

It is an heretic that makes the fire,

Not she which burns in ‘t…” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

This exchange is funny: 

“LEONTES A gross hag! 

And lozel, thou art worthy to be hanged,

That wilt not stay her tongue.

ANTIGONUS Hang all the husbands

That cannot do that feat, you’ll leave yourself

Hardly one subject.” 


To go back to my earlier point about Leontes’s power and tyranny: of course in the play we have the oracle and that solves the case, but I can’t help thinking that Shakespeare is also forcing us to think about what would happen if not for the oracle—Leontes has immense power and listens to nobody, even though everyone is on Hermione’s side and on his side there is nothing.  

3/ Hermione is so dignified at the trial.

“HERMIONE Sir, spare your threats:

The bug which you would fright me with, I seek.

To me can life be no commodity.

[…] Now, my liege,

Tell me, what blessings I have here alive, 

That I should fear to die? Therefore proceed.

But yet hear this—mistake me not: for life,

I prize it not a straw, but for mine honor,

Which I would free—if I shall be condemned

Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else

But what your jealousies awake, I tell you

‘Tis rigor, and not law. Your honors all, 

I do refer me to the oracle:

Apollo be my judge!” 

(Act 3 scene 2)

Hermione is clearly angry, but she’s so proud and dignified and just admirable. She dominates the trial scene whereas Leontes barely speaks, probably exhausted from lack of sleep. 

Interesting, I note that from the time of the accusation to the time of the character’s death, Shakespeare doesn’t give Mamillius a single line. Mamillius is mostly kept off-stage, and the last time we see him, he’s beginning a winter’s tale. 

4/ At the end of Act 3, Antigonus, unaware of the oracle, follows Leontes’s orders and leaves Perdita, the baby of Leontes and Hermione, in a desert place in Bohemia. Antigonus himself is eaten by a bear (yep, that’s him, “exit, pursued by a bear”), but the baby is saved and brought up by a shepherd. 

16 years later, in Act 4, Perdita and Florizel are in love, and he is the son of Polixenes. Having some suspicions, Polixenes, together with Camillo, appears in disguise among the shepherds and shepherdesses to see what his son is up to. Florizel, under the name Doricles, has been courting Perdita and now wants to marry her without the slightest intention of telling his own father. In anger, Polixenes removes his own disguise, and wants to punish them all—he wants to disinherit Florizel, execute the shepherd, and destroy Perdita’s looks. 

Here’s a moving speech from the shepherd: 

“SHEPHERD […] You have undone a man of fourscore three,

That thought to fill his grave in quiet, yea,

To die upon the bed my father died,

To lie close by his honest bones; but now

Some hangman must put on my shroud, and lay me

Where no priest shovels in dust…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

What a speech. 

Whilst Polixenes’s disapproval and anger is understandable, his reaction, or rather eruption, makes me think that he and Leontes are not that different: they are hot-tempered and tyrannical and immature. Camillo is more sensible. 

5/ Hermione and Paulina must be among Shakespeare’s greatest female characters. But if Hermione has a source (Bellaria in Robert Greene’s story), Paulina is Shakespeare’s creation. Tony Tanner says: 

“She is the deliberately tactless and abrasive of accusation and reproach and even ‘vengeance’. […] Paulina effectively stands in for the Queen during her long absence.” (Introduction) 

She is “the uncompromising voice of conscience and the sleepless guardian of memory”, whilst the male lords encourage him to marry again and get an heir. 

Regarding Perdita, Tony Tanner notes and I agree that her most important quality seems to be her beauty—“she has none of the wit and sparkle and intelligence of Beatrice, Viola and Rosalind”. 

Interestingly, if you wonder why Shakespeare switches the two places Sicily and Bohemia (it’s the opposite in the source), Tony Tanner’s guess is that Shakespeare probably wants to reinforce the Perdita-Proserpina comparison. Proserpina’s born and abducted in Sicily. 

6/ The first 3 acts of the play are intense psychological drama, then in the last 2 acts, it changes to pastoral mode. 16 years have passed. To steal from Himadri of Argumentative Old Git, “An irrational wave of terror sweeps through, destroying all in its path, till it subsides as mysteriously as it had appeared” and “It's as if Othello has suddenly become As You Like It”. 

To me, it seems that Shakespeare revisits the main theme of Othello and wants to go beyond the tragic: The Winter’s Tale is almost like Othello with both the jealous man and the accused woman surviving, Othello with repentance, atonement, and reconciliation, Othello with a “happy ending”. The final scene is magnificent—whether you read it in the realistic way or the fairy tale way, it is a vision of resurrection. The joy is subdued however—Hermione addresses her speech to only Perdita, Mamillius is still dead, the 16 years cannot be restored, the suffering and the sorrow cannot be undone, and I don’t think the relationships can be the same as before. 

This is a magnificent play, and you should also read Tony Tanner’s essay, especially for his commentary on Paulina and the final scene. 

Update on 25/1/2022: I sometimes wondered what’s the point of Autolycus. Scott Newstok wrote something I found interesting, in How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education

You know about Robert Greene, who called Shakespeare an upstart crow? 

“… for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” (source

Later in his career, Shakespeare based The Winter’s Tale on Robert Greene’s Pandosto, then added the character of an unrepentant thief. 

As a joke.