With The Winter’s Tale now onstage at Folger Theatre, we asked this year’s cohort of Folger Institute Research Fellows to pick a moment from the play and explain something that most people might not know. Below, we’ve shared a response from Philip Goldfarb Styrt, whose virtual fellowship focuses on “Imperial Concerns: Early Modern Drama and the Flaws of Empire.”
…I do in justice charge thee,
On thy soul’s peril and thy body’s torture,
That thou commend it strangely to some place
Where chance may nurse or end it. Take it up.
I swear to do this, though a present death
Had been more merciful.
This moment directly sets up what may be the most memorable one in the whole play, Antigonus’s third act exit pursued by a bear, but I argue that both this and the bear scene are frequently misunderstood. The bear is frequently played and referenced for laughs. When it is taken seriously, the bear is often transformed into something mystical. To a modern audience, the moment seems to demand this, because it seems ridiculous to have a character randomly murdered by wildlife. But Antigonus’s death is not random or funny, and it works best when the bear is a bear.
The reason why is in this moment, when Antigonus confronts the angry king Leontes, who insists wrongly that his newborn daughter Perdita is a bastard and demands that Antigonus burn the baby. Antigonus refuses, and so Leontes changes his order: instead of commanding her death, he commands her to be abandoned.
This may not seem much better to us–or to Antigonus. Yet he has no choice. This would have been particularly clear to a Renaissance English audience, because this very difference was a key element in contemporary arguments about whether a king had to be obeyed. Under this logic, commands to do something that would damn you to hell–like murdering anyone, much less a baby–could be resisted or ignored, but commands that did not directly damn you could not. Thus the most that Antigonus could do was what he did: agree, with a prayer that “wolves and bears” would spare the child (2.3.228).
And a bear does spare her, though it kills him. Antigonus’s wish to preserve the child comes true, and it justifies his decision here to accept this command: he has given her a new chance at life, even at the cost of his own.
Slippery thoughts in "The Winter's Tale"
“Leontes puts a new spin on an idea familiar to those living in Shakespeare’s time: that one could fish for people,” writes Douglas Clark.
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