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


  1. I've been enjoying reading your blog.
    Thanks for suggesting G Wilson Knight's two books on Shakespeare. I see that both can be downloaded from the Internet Archive.

    1. Thank you. And that's great. Knight is very good.


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